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The Angel and the Prehistory of the Ancient Demon

The Angel and the Prehistory of the Ancient Demon
© Photograph by Joachim Neumann

‘‘Demon’’ is technically a neutral word that refers to any spirit, whether good or evil, that is neither divine nor mortal but inhabits the intermediate realm between gods and humans. Thus, even angels belong to the general class of beings known as demons. But in common usage, owing to habits established between roughly 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E., ‘‘demon’’ has come to refer solely to the evil members of the category.

Three of the most important currents of thought that went into forming the iconic Demon were, first, the beliefs and ideas about spirits that saturated the Middle East from the earliest antiquity; second, the angels and evil spirits of ancient Judaism; and third, the Greek idea of daimones.

As described by E. V. Walter in his essay ‘‘Demons and Disenchantment,’’ the Greek word deisidaimonia refers to ‘‘a certain dimension of sacromagical, numinous experience’’ that formed an authentic religious tradition in the ancient world. In addition to playing an important part in ancient Greece, this sacred experience of demon dread ‘‘constituted the central element of the religious experience of the most ancient civilisation we know from historical records: the Sumerian-Babylonian-Assyrian people. It also appeared in ancient Egypt, which was cheerful, optimistic, and much less demon-ridden than the Mesopotamian civilisation’’ (Walter 19, 20). It is in the demonologies of the Mesopotamians and Egyptians that the oldest ancestors of the Demon can be observed in nascent form.

The early inhabitants of these regions believed their daily lives were saturated with evil spirits. If one had a headache, it was because of a demon. If one broke a pot or got into a quarrel with a neighbour, it was likewise because of a demon.

For the Mesopotamians, even such an intimate experience as dreaming was under the control of these beings. Both peoples often depicted their demons as animal-human hybrids when they depicted them at all, as in the case of Pazuzu, demon of the southwest wing and bringer of famine and plague, who was portrayed as a vaguely man-shaped figure with a monstrous head, the wings of an eagle, the tail of a scorpion, and the talons or claws of an eagle or lion.

Then there were the mysterious djinn, fearsome desert spirits that were able to shape-shift into different forms. And of course, both the Mesopotamians and Egyptians possessed their respective ‘‘official’’ theologies, such as the one centred around the famous Babylonian creation epic known as Enuma Elish, or the Egyptian priestly religion that posited the demonic Set as opposed to his noble brother, the supreme god Osiris.

The greatest spur toward the incorporation of all these ancient Middle Eastern demons into later Jewish and Christian cosmologies was the rise of new religious movements, such as Zoroastrianism in Persia and the religious reforms of Akhenaton in Egypt that reframed the old beliefs and subjected the various indigenous spirits to new interpretations, thus providing a template for later Hellenistic Jewish and Christian demonologies and angelologies.

Unlike its later forms, Judaism up until the two or three centuries preceding the Common Era lacked the idea of ‘‘fallen angels’’ who waged war against the one God. In fact, it lacked any native demonology at all. Beliefs about various spirits were absorbed from neighbouring peoples, and then an influx of Chaldean (i.e., Persian-Babylonian) religious influences in the sixth century B.C.E. gave rise to the famous Jewish division between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan.

The upshot of it all is that the ancient Jewish, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian (primarily Chaldean) beliefs about demons provided a basic content and structure for the formation of the Demon. It remained for the Greek notion of the daimon to provide the overarching concept and vocabulary that would synthesise these various elements into a coherent, unified portrait. Even though most modern peoples have heard of the Greek Olympian deities, most are not familiar with the Greek concept of daimones.

This is ironic and unfortunate in light of the fact that, according to scholar Reginald Barrow, the worship of daimons may have formed a kind of underground mainstream in Greek religion: “Because the daemons have left few memorials of themselves in architecture and literature, their importance tends to be overlooked […]. They are omnipresent and all-powerful, they are embedded deep in the religious memories of the peoples, for they go back to days long before the days of Greek philosophy and religion. The cults of the Greek states, recognised and officially sanctioned, were only one-tenth of the iceberg; the rest, the submerged nine-tenths, were the daemons.” (Quoted in Diamond 67)

The daimons were initially been neither good nor evil, or rather were potentially both. In Homer’s time (around the eighth century B.C.E.) people commonly believed they brought both positive and negative things. Several centuries later the Hellenistic Greeks developed the more particular categories of eudaimones (good daimons) and kakodaimones (evil daimons).

Socrates famously experienced audible communications from a personal daimonion, and this illustrates an important point: The Greeks understood their daimons to have not only objective but also subjective existence. They regarded the daimons as inner influences upon human thoughts and emotions, and even as controllers of individual character and destiny. They were a mysterious force that felt like an autonomous influence in a person’s mind or soul.

The twentieth-century existential psychologist Rollo May, who resurrected the concept of the daimon and the daimonic for use in modern depth psychotherapy, gave definitive statement to this idea of strange internal influence in Love and Will: ‘‘The daimonic is any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person. Sex and eros, anger and rage, and the craving for power are examples.

The daimonic can be either creative or destructive and is normally both’’ (123). In the most dramatic cases, the internal power might take control completely, resulting in ‘‘daimon possession.’’ But on a more positive note, a myth created by Plato explained that each person chose his or her daimon, and there his or her fate, before birth.

When first Alexander and then the Romans succeeded in exporting all things Greek to the farthest corners of their respective empires, the resulting Hellenistic cultural matrix was rife with daimons in the Greek mold. According to Dodds, by ‘‘the second century after Christ it was the expression of a truism. Virtually everyone, pagan, Jewish, Christian or Gnostic, believed in the existence of these beings and in their function as mediators, whether he called them daemons or angels or aions or simply ‘spirits’ ’’ (Pagan and Christian 37–38).

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