In this lesson, we will discuss what demons are and what the study of demonology includes.
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When we think about demons, we think of malicious supernatural beings that act with free will to cause harm, suffering, disease and death to humans. They may do so by tempting the person through vice (drugs, sex, greed, envy) or by entering the person’s body and possessing them to cause physical or mental illness.
Often, we assume these evil spirits are associated with or under the command of the devil. In our modern world, many don’t believe in a literal concept of demons, but use the term as a useful metaphor to explain why we sometimes give into temptation or act in poor judgment or feel depressed.
In older cultures, people believed demons would possess people and cause disease, blindness, epilepsy, and mental illness. We have science and modern medicine to explain much of this. We don’t call an exorcist or recite a magical incantation to rid ourselves of fever or toothache like the ancients might have. Yet we still recognize that large parts of our life are outside our control.
Bad stuff happens. It might be a cancer diagnosis. A sudden death of a loved one. A lost job. A catastrophic natural disaster. Maybe we gave into vice. Or made a poor decision without thinking things through. Or maybe it was just bad luck. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person.
We want to believe the system is fair. The good are rewarded while the bad are punished. That if we play by the rules, we will be fine. Yet we can’t shake that nagging anxiety lurking in our unconsciousness that sometimes bad things happen to good people. And if things were to go wrong, we could be one step away from ruin.
How people think about evil changes as cultures change. Yet most cultures have some type of personification of evil: whether that is real or imagined. It might be the Devil and his demonic army. In our modern culture, for instance, it might be the supernatural evil terrorizing unsuspecting victims in horror genres or the serial killer stalking his next target in true crime genres or the arch villain trying to destroy the world in super hero genres.
The term “demonology” is a catchall term for the study of how cultures try to explain malicious forces that actively seem to try to do them harm – and try to protect themselves from those influences. Let’s look at some components of what demonology studies:
- Personification of evil / Satanology – We think of the personification of evil as the Devil or Satan but it has numerous names. You might call this might call this Satanology. But the Devil or an opponent of God plays a big role in the type of Judaism – apocalyptic Judaism – that evolved around 200 BCE that influenced the early Christian movement, the development of art, culture and literature in the middle ages, the witch trials of the 14th through 17th centuries, and even modern times with satanic panic of the 80s and 90s where large numbers of Americans thought their children were being abused by day care centers.
- Folklore and magic – Virtually every culture has stories of unexplained events, haunted houses, vengeful spirits, spooky places, ghosts and other legends about demons and monsters. Many have developed local beliefs on how to protect against or rid oneself of these entities. We call the incantations, amulets, and rituals used to protect against these nefarious entities magic.
- Cultural studies – Without an adversary or opponent, a story lacks tension and drama. The Devil, demons and monsters have played that role in many of our modern stories. Dante described the nine circles of hell in his epic poem, the Inferno. Milton vividly re-imagined the fall of Lucifer and the rebel angels in his Paradise Lost epic poem. The popular myths of the Faust Legend including Goethe’s Faust describe how a man can make a pact with the Devil for worldly gains in exchange for his soul. All three are works of fiction, yet arguably have influenced modern ideas of hell and the Devil more than the Bible.
- Theological rhetorical analysis – Satanic and demonic terminology is embedded within all Christian theologies. Rhetoric is the language someone uses to persuade people to believe them over others. When we analyze a theological argument, we look at what claims someone is making, what evidence they are using to back up their claims, and how effective their overall argument is.
From the first century when Jesus and his earliest followers lived, we find stark rhetoric that casts different people as working for Satan. For some who wish to differentiate their teachings from others, you find Satanic language against those within the Christian community.
For instance, you find this in 2 Corinthians where Paul calls other missionaries who teach messages he opposes “super-apostles”, “false apostles” and “Satan’s ministers”. You also find Satanic rhetoric used against other groups, hence Revelation 13 speaks of the Roman empire and its emperor Nero in terms of beasts who Satan has given power.
This type of rhetoric is incredibly powerful and has been used to wage holy wars, condemn alleged witches to death, cast out scientific thinkers from the Church, and perpetuate fear of strangers or “others” who hold differing beliefs from Christian communities.
- Medieval Demonology and Witchcraft – The birth of a formal study of demonology dates to the 13th and 14th centuries. During the witch persecutions, a number of books on witchcraft and demonology were published including Dominican inquisitor Henry Institoris’ Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) in 1486, Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft in 1584, King James VI of Scotland’s Daemonologie in 1597.
The theological Satanic rhetoric became heightened when Martin Luther published his Ninety-five Theses in 1517 and initiated the Protestant Reformation. So now, you had various Christian insider groups – Catholics against Protestants – referring to those whom they disagreed with as Satanic. And you had Christians persecuting those outsiders they believed practiced witchcraft, who were also labeled as Satanic.
- Occultism & Western Esoteric Traditions – This is the academic term for the study of the differing groups of esoteric traditions that developed alongside the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. They involve a rediscovery of ancient and medieval sources, focus on natural magic and hermetic philosophy (generally from Greek, Egyptian and Oriental sources), and a sense of spiritualism. These views were at odds with the Western Christian mainstream and thus considered demonic, so they tended to flourish in underground movements.
Here, you find the Occult Philosophies of Cornelius Agrippa, the angelic magic of John Dee and the Solomonic traditions of the Golden Dawn. The tradition was named Solomonic because it was believed that King Solomon was able to command demons to help him build the First Temple in Jerusalem – among many others.
So the term “demonology” means different things depending on time period and culture but the underlying issues tend to be the same: people want to protect themselves from evil, or rid themselves from it, or in the case of magic, perhaps gain some control over it. As such, demonology is an interdisciplinary study of the history and culture these various groups of people.
Discussion Question (Optional)
What are your personal beliefs about demons? What areas of demonology are you most interested in studying?