The spirits that bridge the gap between the gods and the mortal world have been present for thousands of years in the beliefs of many, even very distant peoples. Not all demons were evil. However, those that appear in the Old and New Testaments have only one purpose: to fight against the order established by the Most High!
The ancient Greek word “daimon” means supernatural power, but also “giver,” “divider.” And that was also the function of the creatures who, in primitive forms of religion, crowded the space of fears and dangers that stretched around the virtually defenseless against the forces of nature man.
The good and, unfortunately, the more common evil spirits usually took on an unusual half-human, half-animal form and demanded reverence and offerings. In return they offered their services as helpers in the hardships of everyday life or at least were tamed enough not to harm mortals. Liaisons between the world of humans and demons were various types of shamans and sorcerers who knew their habits and weaknesses.
Old as the world
Traces of belief in demons are found all over the world. In Babylonia they were the good lamassu and the evil utukku. The former resembled animal-human hybrids and performed various useful functions. The latter made life as difficult as possible for the Babylonians: they brought chaos and confusion and frightened people and animals. They could also cause madness and even human death.
In ancient Greek myth, demons took the form of such monsters as Medusa, the Erynie, Scylla and Charybdis, and the three-headed dog Cerberus, which guarded the gates of Hell. In faraway Japan, popular culture created a whole host of demonic creatures. The yokai were monsters that frightened people, the obake surprised them by changing their appearance, and the onryo, as ghosts, returned to earth to seek revenge on the living after death.
Also the old Slavs were not left behind in this respect. In their world there was a place for benevolent gnomes and poor creatures, but also for dangerous ghouls, mermaids, mammoths, and lanterns (read more in the article “Polish Devils”).
Coalition of the dethroned
With the passage of time and the formation of polytheistic belief systems, some of these spirits (both the protective ones and those showing a more sinister face) were promoted to the function of gods and idols. The religions of ancient Egypt, Persia, Babylonia and Greece became overflowing with rulers of this and that world who looked more and more like humans, with their faults, habits and traits of character.
However, between them and the earthly realm survived whole hosts of winged griffins, sphinxes, night ghouls or other monsters that remained in their old “demonic” skin. The hierarchy seemed clear and orderly. Until the one and only God, Yahweh, entered the arena of events. Monotheism did not tolerate the existence of any other divine claimants to the function of the Most High. Therefore, all other objects of worship were somehow automatically relegated to the category of “unclean forces,” “evil spirits,” or just. demons.
The Old Testament thus included Baal, the old Semitic god of thunder and rain, whose cult spread from Canaan to Syria, Egypt, and finally Rome. In the Book of Psalms we read of the chosen people: “But they mingled with the heathen and learned their doings; they began to worship their idols, which became a trap for them. And they sacrificed their sons and their daughters to evil spirits. And they shed innocent blood: the blood of their sons and their daughters, which they sacrificed to the statues of Canaan.
There is no doubt that what was meant here was Moloch, who demanded blood sacrifices of children, and Baal (from his name the word “idol” originated in Polish, which once meant a statue of a pagan deity, and with time also an innocent snow figure). Both of these once powerful gods were degraded by the Jews following Moses to the role of “evil spirits. In this way, against the forces of good gathered around Yahweh – and there appeared here, after all, also whole hordes of supernatural entities that, according to the dualistic concept of the universe, can be considered “good demons,” or angels – stood “evil demons,” or the former rulers of this world, assisted by monsters from folk legends.
Leviticus mentions the desert spirit Azazel, Isaiah recalls the memory of Lilith, the nightwalker who was supposedly Adam’s first wife, and Tobias writes of Asmodeus, who possessed his wife Sarah. The ancient demons empowered the forces of darkness who separated themselves from God as a consequence of a conspiracy whose effects we still feel today.
On a team of fallen angels
We do not know exactly how it came to the rebellion and fall of the group of angels, at the head of which stood Lucifer (later called by the Jews Beelzebub, Satan, and in the Apocalypse of St. John – the Antichrist). But we know all too well the consequences of this rebellion: behold, the greatest of Yahweh’s angels turned against him and, with a band of winged followers, refused to follow his orders. The rebels left heaven and joined forces with an army of evil spirits, the remnants of decaying religions. And so the “dark side of power,” which now consisted of fallen angels, demons, and the bogeymen of fables and legends, took the form of the devil, combining the characteristics of all these creatures.
“From the beginning he was a murderer and in truth he did not persevere, for the truth is not in him. When he speaks a lie, from himself he speaks, for he is a liar and the father of lies,” – St. John writes about the devil. By the time of Jesus, the terms demon, evil spirit, and Satan had already been largely equated: these words came to refer simply to representatives of the forces of evil that fight against God and lead people into temptation. But the enemy also had to be known up close and by name!
Demon, I call upon you!
Asmodeus, Ariel, Belfegor or Belial are only a few of the more widely known fallen angels. Alongside them, in New Testament times and in the Middle Ages, the names of demons also began to appear more and more frequently. For although they were sometimes an anonymous bunch (like the famous Legion, whom Jesus chased out of the body of the possessed man and drove into a herd of pigs), the human need to precisely identify the enemy they were dealing with prevailed.
This is how a new caste of shamans, called goetas, was created, or rather came back to life. Their name was derived from the Greek word “goeteia”, meaning “moaning”, “howling”, which was clearly associated with unclean powers. These magicians knew secret ways of summoning evil spirits and of imposing their will on them. If necessary, they were also able to chase away demons, thus fulfilling the role later assumed by Christian exorcists. According to the account of the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, the goyim drew their knowledge from the secret writings left by King Solomon himself, and a large part of their skills were adopted by Kabbalah experts.
The primary work on the subject was the Art of Goetia, the First Book of Lemegeton (often called the Lesser Key of Solomon). This massive book, the oldest surviving copies of which date to the end of the 16th century, undoubtedly refers to old legends and apocrypha. It meticulously classifies the demons of hell, describing not only their appearance and attributes, but also their rank in the kingdom of the underworld and their power over evil spirits.