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Demonology: A Study of What Is Not

Article

Stanley Stepanic

Volume 38.1, January/February 2014

Demonology is one of the most misused terms in English, particularly by those relating the phrase to the occult. But what is it?


The terms demonology and demonologist are two of the most misused terms in the world of pseudoscience, and sometimes even within evangelical belief systems centered around modern interpretations of exorcism. A cursory search online reveals several “demonologists” and their work. Some appear in sensationalist photos displaying various wares as though taking on a pseudo-witch hunter role against “the Devil” and “demons,” though they rarely explicitly define what they mean when using these terms. Occasionally, such types appear on television series like Ghost Hunters dictating their practice of “demonology,” yet they have no formal training or education, at least none that is stated. Unfortunately, this is part of the problem. In a society more and more frequently forgetting the mystery and rituals of the old world for modern technology and science, terms like demonology are more easily manipulated than one such as chemistry. It is not so simple to say “I am a chemist” without an actual background. It would, in fact, be ridiculous. Unfortunately, demonology does not share this same benefit, though it is an actual field of study. Why it has come to such misuse and what it really is are the main issues behind this article, which I’ll use as a springboard into further writings about the connections of “demons” to real-world phenomena and how myth has been used to explain the unknown.

old art showing demon dancing

The term demon is today almost totally devoid of its original Greek meaning, which in itself is not so simple, suggesting at times a sort of inner presence that must be controlled by reason, destiny, or even divine power (Zijderveld 2008). As a further complication the term δαων (daimon) occurs in Greek literature as both a noun and a verb (Gall 1999) and was later shifted to a position among things considered “evil” by Christianity as the religion struggled to gain ground over paganism. Christianity thus relegated various creatures and old gods to the position of “demons,” while contradictorily accepting certain practices as part of the faith, such as the practice of visiting and venerating spaces of the dead (Viola and Barna 2012). This, like the movement of the celebration of Easter and some of its components over a previously pagan holiday (Leonhard 2006), was a natural progression to eliminate attachments to old religions and practices, which were so ancient and familiar to our forefathers that their elimination was nearly impossible in certain cases (Spalding 1880). With any new religion that achieved dominance, the replacement of “the old” was something practiced for centuries, and the process was not unique to Christianity. For the West, a “demon” became a thing of evil, attached to the “Devil,” which functions largely as a conglomeration of various old gods and mythical beings and leads to a discussion of demonology.

“Demonology” first came into usage in the English language in roughly the mid-1500s, though it may have originated in conjunction with developments in what is known as the “witch craze.” The witch craze stemmed from a variety of factors, including political upheaval through the end of feudalism, religious conflicts against various heresies, and social collapse through disease, urbanization, and the breakdown of the family from effects of the Black Death (Kieckhefer 1976). Some of this frustrated energy of the Europeans was directed toward the symbolic entity of the “witch.” This led to the grand delusion of the existence of witchcraft and the subsequent mania that caused the torture and death of hundreds of thousands of people, mainly women (Ben-Yehuda 1980), starting in the late 1400s with the publication of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches, Hexenhammer in German), which came almost 100 years after Pope John XXII’s proclamation against witches in 1326 (Ben-Yehuda 1980).

art showing a demon talking to peopleTaken from Malleus Maleficarum.

Accusations of witchcraft were often established through “proof” of pacts with the Devil and maleficia, or any such events that caused an individual or their property harm but had no immediate explanation. Something as simple as pink eye, for example, was interpreted as a sign that a witch was at work in the community, as was a cow unable to provide milk or a sudden hailstorm. Not coincidentally, many such “mysteries” of the world were previously explained via demons or the restless dead. The term demonology, specifically, was originally in reference to powers through demons (minions of the Devil) (Thorndike 1925) but was eventually closely linked to witches. Most writings from roughly 1580 until the late 1600s, including various treatises, anecdotes, trial reports, and personal experiences of the so-called “demonologists,” became attached to the idea of witches and pacts with the Devil. In 1597, for example, King James VI of Scotland published his Daemonologie, in which he refers to “the fearful abounding at this time in this country, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or Enchanters” (translated into modern English by the author).

Such attachments of the witch to the Devil (and thus demonology to the witch) were rampant, as the witch craze reached epic proportions and was used by the Inquisition as a tool for combating various heresies and gaining more control for the Church (Russell 1984). The prestige of the demonologists through this tactic assured the popularity of their writings and the spread of belief in witchcraft itself, an entirely contrived concept. It is beyond my scope here to detail the entire history of the witch craze. It is enough to say that demonology at this time very rarely had anything to do with demons unless it related to the Devil, something that in itself was never very clearly defined. Demonology was specifically a field of the “study” of witches, perhaps to be rendered for our purposes as “witchology,” as Rossell Hope Robbins once suggested, and the focus of actual demonologists in the 1500s and following was primarily on pacts with the Devil and the women under his power (Russell 2007). Women were generally the focus of the witch craze because of an assumed belief that they were more prone to having “bestial appetites” and, as some witch hunters believed, easily fell under the Devil’s sway because “there is nothing which makes a woman more subject and loyal to a man than he should abuse her body” (Weber 1992). This is another matter I will not comment on further. I wholly remove myself from this antiquated thinking.

art depicting beezlebubBeezlebub, taken from Colin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal.

Aside from the atrocities committed against their fellow men and women, at least some of these individuals, these “demonologists,” actually believed in what they were discussing. Though their “proof” was certainly embellished, they still subscribed to the theory that witches were real beings and pacts with the Devil and various workings of his powers were a thing of reality. Later writers would take these ideas and even create systems of demons in massive detail, all functioning under the Devil. These demons had various workings in the world, typically with contrived, fanciful names (see, for example, Craig Cabell’s Witchfinder General) or those taken from old gods.

Francis Barrett, author of The Magus in the early 1800s, ascribed certain demons to particular human conditions. Beelzebub was the demon that caused belief in false gods, which in itself is ironic since by at least some accounts it was, in fact, an ancient god (Studničková 2009)

art depicting domovoiBoris Zabirozhnik’s whimsical depiction of a domovoi.

So these ideas were quite real to many people at one time. This is because, in its earlier roots, demonology meant simply a system of demons, a hierarchy, delineating the various evil spirits of the world and how they interacted with human beings through the powers of the Devil.

Christianity had a fairly developed system of demonology at one time, in fact. This system slowly degraded into a vague conception of “demon” or “the Devil” with no separation into different types, though believers may sometimes use the term figuratively and not ascribe literal interpretation (Livingston et al. 2006). But this is much different than in the past, when demons could be used to define nearly anything at odds with popular belief. Proof of earlier systems of Christian demons can be found in such works as Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, which provides various descriptions and whimsical depictions of demons based on popular knowledge and anecdotes, most fulfilling a variety of roles in describing the origins of “sinful” thoughts and behavior. Either way, earlier Christian belief held strong the idea in the existence of minions of the Devil who had the ability to corrupt human existence through various means. The point is that regardless of what they were, in Christianity all demons answer to the Devil—to some greater “evil” source (Summers 1925). This is not unique to the religion; every culture in the world from the most advanced to the most primitive has some conception of “demon,” usually functioning within the framework of a general evil force. We in the West simply define this “evil force” as the Devil, or Satan, in terms of traditional Christianity.

Demons, generally speaking, fit into the basic mythological view of a particular people and their worldview and should be defined as any sort of malevolent being that seeks to harm or irritate, whether it be a human being, their crops, cattle, or even household items. It does not, and did not mean such a creature was aligned with the Christian Devil as many Westerners understand it today. The Slavs, for example, had a very elaborate system of demonology that still persists in certain forms, with creatures like the rusalka that lived near rivers and were dangerous to men around spring, to house sprites known as domovoi that were extensions of earlier practices in ancestor worship (Vlasova 1994).

Thus the “demon” is not a Christian invention; it is an invention of humankind and a universal phenomenon, typically the result of misunderstandings of bodily phenomena, especially diseases.

art depicting familiars and witchesTaken from Matthew Hopkins’s The Discovery of Witches; Hopkins himself is depicted in the woodcut with various familiars and their witches.

Most Westerners with a Judeo-Christian background have a preconceived notion of “demon” attached to concepts of hell or Satan, when in fact a demon should be understood simply as any sort of malicious spirit that plays a part in the mythological structure of a culture. This has gone from specific ideas to a general sense of “demon” or simply “the Devil” for much of the Christian west. Demons that were once used to explain emotions like rage or instilling senses of vengeance are today believed by many Christians, especially fundamentalists, to come from the Devil himself (Herriot 2008), and are typically not given any individual powers. Demons for modern Westerners are quite similar to our conception of “angel,” which went from a more detailed system of various tiers of celestial beings to a simple, universal (albeit vague) concept of a benevolent being connected to God who helps the human race (Muehlberger 2013). Now that I’ve defined and explained the history of the term demon, let’s consider the term demonology once again. Specifically, what is the cause for modern misusages of the term?

Early on, the term was connected to hysteria concerning witches and was thus perceived as the study of real things as they pertained to witchcraft. That is not the case today; there is no witch craze, and very few people would admit that they actually believe in witches (aside from pagans who believe in Wicca, for example). Demonology, as a term, has a dual nature, with two separate meanings.

First, demonology can be defined as an actual belief system, one of faith of a particular people, which is outside the realm of science and a matter for religion. The Etoro, of New Guinea, for example, have a belief in different malevolent spirits and thus a system of demons that explains how these beings work within the framework of the rest of the world and other realms beyond human experience. This is demonology’s first definition: a system of mythological categorization of malevolent beings within a greater mythological system particular to a group. Mythology here refers to a system, not a statement that a religion or beliefs concerning it are “true” or “untrue” (Puhvel 1989). The succubus, for example, was originally part of the system of beliefs in ancient Sumeria, a female demon that would have sex with men during sleep (Rosen 2008). Today this could be interpreted as an explanation for nocturnal emissions or sleep states such as sleep paralysis. Any group can have a system of demonology, one that explains what type of evil, malevolent beings exist, perhaps also how and why they interact with the world, often to explain things unknown. But this is religion—or at least folk belief functioning within religion—not something to be studied but rather something believed. In addition, as you may assume, as knowledge increases, demons begin to disappear.

In the second definition of the term, demonology is, as a field, the study of demons as myth. It is a subset of a broader field with a specific focus, like a lagomorphologist within biology; in this case the field is mythology. Mythology is commonly divided into two main areas: upper mythology, concerning the gods, the heavens, benevolent beings, etc., and lower mythology, concerned with the underworld, evil gods, the restless dead, ancestor spirits, demons, and similar figures (Willis 1993). This separation into two main branches is simply due to the fact that human beings have always thought in dichotomies, so naturally we categorized our world into concepts of “good” and “evil”; the same delineation may be used in a study of such things stemming from our myths (Eccles 1991). Demonology is just a subset of lower mythology, simply the study of the myth of demons.

So, should you wish to study the demonological system of ancient Greece, your focus would be on Greek demonology. It does not mean you actually believe in these demons (or any for that matter), it means you study the demons of this particular culture in the specific context of their mythological function, which in most cases was used to explain natural phenomena not understood at one time. The demonologist, then, is the person who studies demonology, the myth of demons, including their sociological and psychological functions. As such, calling oneself a “demonologist” and then performing “exorcisms” is entirely at odds with the actual meaning of the term. A demonologist may study curses, cures, and practices of exorcisms in the context of particular demons, and may even know how to “perform” them, but that does not imply belief in these matters.

Most demonologists have studied under others in an educational setting that typically revolves around folklore or anthropology, sometimes sociology. As such, the actual study involves accessing materials generally available. Many rare books, such as Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, are easily accessible, but without proper training or education, how can one understand what one reads? Demonology requires knowledge in history, archaeology, theology, mythology, sociology, medicine, and psychology. Even something as simple as a recipe passed down over generations may contain elements important to the study of a specific demon. Garlic and the vampire, for example, were tied together long ago, and the herb plays a large role in Eastern European cuisine even to this day, largely because of that connection.

Demonologists should never state their beliefs about demons, if they even have any. This is a matter of faith and religion, which is outside the study of demons as myth. Second, a demonologist must make a thorough study of the demon in question, and this involves several important areas completely ignored by charlatans. In essence, to understand a single type of demon, a demonologist must research the background of the idea. This will always involve a study of the history of a culture, geographical roots, linguistic variations, historical writings, anecdotal evidence of “true” experiences of the creature, folklore, literature, natural phenomena related to the demon in question, and a variety of other topics—almost anything imaginable, including sociology and disease theory. The latter field is in fact the root of many demon myths due to simple misunderstanding of natural bodily processes.

Demonology is never a system to “cure” those who believe in the existence of such creatures, which in itself is a serious disregard for knowledge and an abuse of human emotions. Demonology is a real field of study, frequently misused by those who do not know the true meaning of the term. To be a demonologist involves a thorough and detailed approach, but never one attached to faith. Demonology is a study of the myth of demons, nothing more. Those who engage in using the term demonology in the sense of religion are practicing an entirely different field of study outside the scope of the mythology of demons.


References

Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. 1980. The European witch craze of the 14th to 17th centuries: A sociologist’s perspective. American Journal of Sociology: 4.

Eccles, John C. 1991. Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self, Routledge, pgs. 194-216.

Gall, Robert S. 1999. Kami and Daimōn. A Cross-Cultural Reflection on What Is Divine. Philosophy East and West: 6.

Herriot, Peter.2008. Religious Fundamentalism, Routledge, pg. 173.

Kiekhefer, Richard. 1976. Witchcraft: European Witch Trials, Routledge, pg. 95.

Leonhard, Clemens. 2006. The Jewish Pesach and the Origins of Christian Easter, De Gruyter, pg. 305.

Livingston, James C., Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, and Sarah Coakley. 2006. Modern Christian thought: The Twentieth Century. Vol. 2, pg. 400, Fortress Pr.

Muehlberger, Ellen. 2013. Angels in Late Ancient Christianity, Oxford University Press.

Puhvel, Jaan. 1989. Comparative Mythology, Johns Hopkins University Press, pg. 2.

Rosen, Brenda. 2008. Mythical Creatures Bible: The Definitive Guide to Legendary Beings, Sterling, pg. 196.

Russell, Jeffery Burton. 1984. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, Cornell University Press, pg. 200.

Russell, Jeffery Burton 2007. A History of Witchcraft, Thames & Hudson, pg. 55.

Spalding, Thomas Alfred. 1880. Elizabethan Demonology, Dodo Press Edition, pg. 21.

Studničková, Milada. 2009. A Lifelike Fly in Margins of Manuscripts: a Symbol as Trompe l’Oeil. IKON 2.1: 253-262.

Summers, Montagne. 1925. The History of Witchcraft and Demonology, Dover Publications, pg. 55.

Thorndike, Lynn. 1925. Some Medieval Concep­tions of Magic, “The Monist”, pg. 110 Vol. 25 No. 1.

Viola, Frank, and Barna, George. 2012. Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices, Tyndale Momentum, pg. 16.

Vlasova, Marina, 1994. The New ABC of Russian Folk Belief, North-West, pgs. 298–312. (Published in Russian.)

Weber, Alison. 1992. Culture and Control in Counter-Reformation Spain, “Saint Theresa: Demonlogist”, Uni­versity of Minnesota Press, pg. 172.

Willis, Roy G. 1993. World Mythology: The Illustrated Guide, Oxford University Press, pg. 302.

Zijderveld, Anton C. 2008. A Theory of Urbanity: The Economic and Civic Culture of Cities, Transaction Publishers, pg. 9.

Stanley Stepanic

Stanley Stepanic's photo

Stanley Stepanic received his PhD in the fall of 2012 in Slavic Studies. His professional areas of interest include general demonology, Slavic demonology, folklore, and the Russian language. His personal interests include weightlifting, video game collecting, retro gaming, music, and vintage science-fiction paperback collecting. He lives with his wife in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he teaches a popular course on vampires at the University of Virginia.