Demonology - Encyclopedia

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DEMONOLOGY (DaL j ow, demon, genius, spirit), the branch of the science of religions which relates to superhuman beings which are not gods. It deals both with benevolent beings which have no circle of worshippers or so limited a circle as to be below the rank of gods, and with malevolent beings of all kinds. It may be noted that the original sense of "demon" was a benevolent being; but in English the name now connotes malevolence; in German it has a neutral sense, e.g. Kornddmonen. Demons, when they are regarded as spirits, may belong to either of the classes of spirits recognized by primitive animism; that is to say, they may be human, or non-human, separable souls, or discarnate spirits which have never inhabited a body; a sharp distinction is often drawn between these two classes, notably by the Melanesians, the West Africans and others; the Arab jinn, for example, are not reducible to modified human souls; at the same time these classes are frequently conceived as producing identical results, e.g. diseases.

Under the head of demons are classified only such spirits as are believed to enter into relations with the human race; the term therefore includes (I) human souls regarded as genii or familiars, (2) such as receive a cult (for which see Ancestor Worship), and (3) ghosts or other malevolent revenants; excluded are souls conceived as inhabiting another world. But just as gods are not necessarily spiritual, demons may also be regarded as corporeal; vampires for example are sometimes described as human heads with appended entrails, which issue from the tomb to attack the living during the night watches. The so-called Spectre Huntsman of the Malay Peninsula is said to be a man who scours the firmament with his dogs, vainly seeking for what he could not find on earth - a buck mouse-deer pregnant with male offspring; but he seems to be a living man; there is no statement that he ever died, nor yet that he is a spirit. The incubus and succubus of the middle ages are sometimes regarded as spiritual beings; but they were held to give very real proof of their bodily existence. It should, however, be remembered that primitive peoples do not distinguish clearly between material and immaterial beings.

Prevalence of Demons. - According to a conception of the world frequently found among peoples of the lower cultures, all the affairs of life are supposed to be under the control of spirits, each ruling a certain element or even object, and themselves in subjection to a greater spirit. Thus, the Eskimo are said to believe in spirits of the sea, earth and sky, the winds, the clouds and everything in nature. Every cove of the seashore, every point, every island and prominent rock has its guardian spirit. All are of the malignant type, to be propitiated only by acceptable offerings from persons who desire to visit the locality where it is supposed to reside. A rise in culture often results in an increase in the number of spiritual beings with whom man surrounds himself. Thus, the Koreans go far beyond the Eskimo and number their demons by thousands of billions; they fill the chimney, the shed, the living-room, the kitchen, they are on every shelf and jar; in thousands they waylay the traveller as he leaves his home, beside him, behind him, dancing in front of him, whirring over his head, crying out upon him from air, earth and water.

Especially complicated was the ancient Babylonian demonology; all the petty annoyances of life - a sudden fall, a headache, a quarrel - were set down to the agency of fiends; all the stronger emotions - love, hate, jealousy and so on - were regarded as the work of demons; in fact so numerous were they, that there were special fiends for various parts of the human body - one for the head, another for the neck, and so on. Similarly in Egypt at the present day the jinn are believed to swarm so thickly that it is necessary to ask their permission before pouring water on the ground, lest one should accidentally be soused and vent his anger on the offending human being. But these beliefs are far from being confined to the uncivilized; Greek philosophers like Porphyry, no less than the fathers of the Church, held that the world was pervaded with spirits; side by side with the belief in witchcraft, we can trace through the middle ages the survival of primitive animistic views; and in our own day even these beliefs subsist in unsuspected vigour among the peasantry of the more uneducated European countries. In fact the ready acceptance of spiritualism testifies to the force with which the primitive animistic way of looking at things appealed to the white races in the middle of the last century.

Character of Spiritual World

The ascription of malevolence to the world of spirits is by no means universal. In West Africa the Mpongwe believe in local spirits, just as do the Eskimo; but they are regarded as inoffensive in the main; true, the passerby must make some trifling offering as he nears their place of abode; but it is only occasionally that mischievous acts, such as the throwing down of a tree on a passer-by, are, in the view of the natives, perpetuated by the Ombuiri. So too, many of the spirits especially concerned with the operations of nature are conceived as neutral or even benevolent; the European peasant fears the corn-spirit only when he irritates him by trenching on his domain and taking his property by cutting the corn; similarly, there is no reason why the more insignificant personages of the pantheon should be conceived as malevolent, and we find that the Petara of the Dyaks are far from indiscriminating and malignant, though disease and death are laid at their door.


Besides the distinctions of human and nonhuman, hostile and friendly, the demons in which the lower races believe are classified by them according to function, each class with a distinctive name, with extraordinary minuteness, the list in the case of the Malays running to several score. They have, for example, a demon of the waterfall, a demon of wild-beast tracks, a demon which interferes with snares for wild-fowl, a baboon demon, which takes possession of dancers and causes them to perform wonderful feats of climbing, &c. But it is impossible to do more than deal with a few types, which will illustrate the main features of the demonology of savage, barbarous and semicivilized peoples.

(a) Natural causes, either of death or of disease, are hardly, if at all, recognized by the uncivilized; everything is attributed to spirits or magical influence of some sort. The spirits which cause disease may be human or non-human and their influence is shown in more than one way; they may enter the body of the victim (see Possession), and either dominate his mind as well as his body, inflict specific diseases, or cause pains of various sorts. Thus the Mintra of the Malay Peninsula have a demon corresponding to every kind of disease known to them; the Tasmanian ascribed a gnawing pain to the presence within him of the soul of a dead man, whom he had unwittingly summoned by mentioning his name and who was `devouring his liver; the Samoan held that the violation of a food tabu would result in the animal being formed within the body of the offender and cause his death. The demon theory of disease is still attested by some of our medical terms; epilepsy (Gr. i rLXriiks, seizure) points to the belief that the patient is possessed. As a logical consequence of this view of disease the mode of treatment among peoples in the lower stages of culture is mainly magical; they endeavour to propitiate the evil spirits by sacrifice, to expel them by spells, &c. (see Exorcism), to drive them away by blowing, &c.; conversely we find the Khonds attempt to keep away smallpox by placing thorns and brushwood in the paths leading to places decimated by that disease, in the hope of making the disease demon retrace his steps. This theory of disease disappeared sooner than did the belief in possession; the energumens (EVEp-yoiwEvoc) of the early Christian church, who were under the care of a special clerical order of exorcists, testify to a belief in possession; but the demon theory of disease receives no recognition; the energumens find their analogues in the converts of missionaries in China, Africa and elsewhere. Another way in which a demon is held to cause disease is by introducing itself into the patient's body and sucking his blood; the Malays believe that a woman who dies in childbirth becomes a langsuir and sucks the blood of children; victims of the lycanthrope are sometimes said to be done to death in the same way; and it is commonly believed in Africa that the wizard has the power of killing people in this way, probably with the aid of a familiar.

(b) One of the primary meanings of csai,ucav is that of genius or familiar, tutelary spirit; according to Hesiod the men of the golden race became after death guardians or watchers over mortals. The idea is found among the Romans also; they attributed to every man a genius who accompanied him through life. A Norse belief found in Iceland is that the fylgia, a genius in animal form, attends human beings; and these animal guardians may sometimes be seen fighting; in the same way the Siberian shamans send their animal familiars to do battle instead of deciding their quarrels in person. The animal guardian reappears in the nagual of Central America (see article Totemism), the yunbeai of some Australian tribes, the manitou of the Red Indian and the bush soul of some West African tribes; among the latter the link between animal and human being is said to be established by the ceremony of the blood bond. Corresponding to the animal guardian of the ordinary man, we have the familiar of the witch or wizard. All the world over it is held that such people can assume the form of animals; sometimes the power of the shaman is held to depend on his being able to summon his familiar; among the Ostiaks the shaman's coat was covered with representations of birds and beasts; two bear's claws were on his hands; his wand was covered with mouse-skin; when he wished to divine he beat his drum till a black bird appeared and perched on his hut; then the shaman swooned, the bird vanished, and the divination could begin. Similarly the Greenland angekok is said to summon his torngak (which may be an ancestral ghost or an animal) by drumming; he is heard by the bystanders to carry on a conversation and obtain advice as to how to treat diseases, the prospects of good weather and other matters of importance. The familiar, who is sometimes replaced by the devil, commonly figured in witchcraft trials; and a statute of James I. enacted that all persons invoking an evil spirit or consulting, covenanting with, entertaining, employing, feeding or rewarding any evil spirit should be guilty of felony and suffer death. In modern spiritualism the familiar is represented by the "guide," corresponding to which we have the theosophical "guru." (c) The familiar is sometimes an ancestral spirit, and here we touch the fringe of the cult of the dead (see also Ancestor Worship). Especially among the lower races the dead are regarded as hostile; the Australian avoids the grave even of a kinsman and elaborate ceremonies of mourning are found amongst most primitive peoples, whose object seems to be to rid the living of the danger they run by association with the ghost of the dead. Among the Zulu the spirits of the dead are held to be friendly or hostile, just as they were in life; on the Congo a man after death joins the good or bad spirits according as his life has been good or bad. Especially feared among many peoples are the souls of those who have committed suicide or died a violent death; the woman who dies in childbed is held to become a demon of the most dangerous kind; even the unburied, as restless, dissatisfied spirits, are more feared than ordinary ghosts. Naturally spirits of these latter kinds are more valuable as familiars than ordinary dead men's souls. We find many recipes for securing their aid. In the Malay Peninsula the blood of a murdered man must be put in a bottle and prayers said over; after seven days of this worship a sound is heard and the operator puts his finger into the bottle for the polong, as the demon is called, to suck; it will fly through the air in the shape of an exceedingly diminutive female figure, and is always preceded by its pet, the pelesit, in the shape of a grasshopper. In Europe a similar demon is said to be obtainable from a cock's egg. In South Africa and India, on the other hand, the magician digs up a dead body, especially of a child, to secure a familiar. The evocation of spirits, especially in the form of necromancy, is an important branch of the demonology of many peoples; and the peculiarities of trance mediumship, which seem sufficiently established by modern research, go far to explain the vogue of this art. It seems to have been common among the Jews, and the case of the witch of Endor is narrated in a way to suggest something beyond fraud; in the book of magic which bears the name of Dr Faustus may be found many of the formulae for raising demons; in England may be mentioned especially Dr Dee as one of the most famous of those who claimed before the days of modern spiritualism to have intercourse with the unseen world and to summon demons at his will. Sometimes the spirits were summoned to appear as did the phantoms of the Greek heroes to Odysseus; sometimes they were called to enter a crystal (see Crystal-Gazing); sometimes they are merely asked to declare the future or communicate by moving external objects without taking a visible form; thus among the Karens at the close of the burial ceremonies the ghost of the dead man, which is said to hover round till the rites are completed, is believed to make a ring swing round and snap the string from which it hangs.

(d) The vampire is a particular form of demon which calls for some notice. In the Malay Peninsula, parts of Polynesia, &c., it is conceived as a head with attached entrails, which issues, it may be from the grave, to suck the blood of living human beings. According to the Malays a penanggalan (vampire) is a living witch, and can be killed if she can be caught; she is especially feared in houses where a birth has taken place and it is the custom to hang up a bunch of thistle in order to catch her; she is said to keep vinegar at home to aid her in re-entering her own body. In Europe the Slavonic area is the principal seat of vampire beliefs, and here too we find, as a natural development, that means of preventing the dead from injuring the living have been evolved by the popular mind. The corpse of the vampire, which may often be recognized by its unnaturally ruddy and fresh appearance, should be staked down in the grave or its head should be cut off; it is interesting to note that the cutting off of heads of the dead was a neolithic burial rite.

(e) The vampire is frequently blended in popular idea with the Poltergeist or knocking spirit, and also with the werwolf (see Lycanthropy).

(f) As might be expected, dream demons are very common; in fact the word "nightmare" (A.S. moer, spirit, elf) preserves for us a record of this form of belief, which is found right down to the lowest planes of culture. The Australian, when he suffers from an oppression in his sleep, says that Koin is trying to throttle him; the Caribs say that Maboya beats them in their sleep; and the belief persists to this day in some parts of Europe; horses too are said to be subject to the persecutions of demons, which ride them at night. Another class of nocturnal demons are the incubi and succubi, who are said to consort with human beings in their sleep; in the Antilles these were the ghosts of the dead; in New Zealand likewise ancestral deities formed liaisons with females; in the Samoan Islands the inferior gods were regarded as the fathers of children otherwise unaccounted for; the Hindus have rites prescribed by which a companion nymph may be secured. The question of the real existence of incubi and succubi, whom the Romans identified with the fauns, was gravely discussed by the fathers of the church; and in 1484 Innocent III. set forth the doctrine of lecherous demons as an indisputable fact; and in the history of the Inquisition and of trials for witchcraft may be found the confessions of many who bore witness to their reality. In the Anatomy of Melancholy Burton assures us that they were never more numerous than in A.D. 1600.

(g) Corresponding to the personal tutelary spirit (supra, b) we have the genii of buildings and places. The Romans celebrated the birthday of a town and of its genius, just as they celebrated that of a man; and a snake was a frequent form for this kind of demon; when we compare with this the South African belief that the snakes which are in the neighbourhood of the kraal are the incarnations of the ancestors of the residents, it seems probable that some similar idea lay at the bottom of the Roman belief; to this day in European folklore the house snake or toad, which lives in the cellar, is regarded as the "life index" or other self of the father of the house; the death of one involves the death of the other, according to popular belief. The assignment of genii to buildings and gates is connected with an important class of sacrifices; in order to provide a tutelary spirit, or to appease chthonic deities, it was often the custom to sacrifice a human being or an animal at the foundation of a building; sometimes we find a similar guardian provided for the frontier of a country or of a tribe. The house spirit is, however, not necessarily connected with this idea. In Russia the domovoi (house spirit) is an important personage in folk-belief; he may object to certain kinds of animals, or to certain colours in cattle; and must, generally speaking, be propitiated and cared for. Corresponding to him we have the drudging goblin of English folklore.

(h) It has been shown above how the animistic creed postulates the existence of all kinds of local spirits, which are sometimes tied to their habitats, sometimes free to wander. Especially prominent in Europe, classical, medieval and modern, and in East Asia, is the spirit of the lake, river, spring, or well, often conceived as human, but also in the form of a bull or horse; the term Old Nick may refer to the water-horse Nok. Less specialized in their functions are many of the figures of modern folklore, some of whom have perhaps replaced some ancient goddess, e.g. Frau Holda; others, like the Welsh Pwck, the Lancashire boggarts or the more widely found Jack-o'-Lantern (Will o' the Wisp), are sprites who do no jmore harm than leading the wanderer astray. The banshee is perhaps connected with ancestral or house spirits; the Wild Huntsman, the Gabriel hounds, the Seven Whistlers, &c., are traceable to some actual phenomenon; but the great mass of British goblindom cannot now be traced back to savage or barbarous analogues. Among other local sprites may be mentioned the kobolds or spirits of the mines. The fairies (see Fairy), located in the fairy knolls by the inhabitants of the Shetlands, may also be put under this head.

(i) The subject of plant souls is referred to in connexion with animism; but certain aspects of this phase of belief demand more detailed treatment. Outside the European area vegetation spirits of all kinds seem to be conceived, as a rule, as anthropomorphic; in classical Europe, and parts of the Slavonic area at the present day, the tree spirit was believed to have the form of a goat, or to have goats' feet.

Of special importance in Europe is the conception of the so-called "corn spirit"; W. Mannhardt collected a mass of information proving that the life of the corn is supposed to exist apart from the corn itself and to take the form, sometimes of an animal, sometimes of a man or woman, sometimes of a child. There is, however, no proof that the belief is animistic in the proper sense. The animal which popular belief identified with the corn demon is sometimes killed in the spring in order to mingle its blood or bones with the seed; at harvest-time it is supposed to sit in the last corn and the animals driven out from it are sometimes killed; at others the reaper who cuts the last ear is said to have killed the "wolf" or the "dog," and sometimes receives the name of "wolf" or "dog" and retains it till the next harvest. The corn spirit is also said to be hiding in the barn till the corn is threshed, or it may be said to reappear at midwinter, when the farmer begins to think of his new year of labour and harvest. Side by side with the conception of the corn spirit as an animal is the anthropomorphic view of it; and this element must have predominated in the evolution of the cereal deities like Demeter; at the same time traces of the association of gods and goddesses of corn with animal embodiments of the corn spirit are found.

(j) In many parts of the world, and especially in Africa, is found the conception termed the "otiose creator"; that is to say, the belief in a great deity, who is the author of all that exists but is too remote from the world and too high above terrestrial things to concern himself with the details of the universe. As a natural result of this belief we find the view that the operations of nature are conducted by a multitude of more or less obedient subordinate deities; thus, in Portuguese West Africa the Kimbunda believe in Suku-Vakange, but hold that he has committed the government of the universe to innumerable kilulu good and bad; the latter kind are held to be far more numerous, but Suku-Vakange is said to keep them in order by occasionally smiting them with his thunderbolts; were it not for this, man's lot would be insupportable.

Sometimes the gods of an older religion degenerate into the demons of the belief which supersedes it. A conspicuous example of this is found in the attitude of the Hebrew prophets to the gods of the nations, whose power they recognize without admitting their claim to reverence and sacrifice. The same tendency is seen in many early missionary works and is far from being without influence even at the present day. In the folklore of European countries goblindom is peopled by gods and nature-spirits of an earlier heathendom. We may also compare the Persian devs with the Indian devas. Expulsion of Demons. - In connexion with demonology mention must be made of the custom of expelling ghosts, spirits or evils generally. Primitive peoples from the Australians upwards celebrate, usually at fixed intervals, a driving out of hurtful influences. Sometimes, as among the Australians, it is merely the ghosts of those who have died in the year which are thus driven out; from this custom must be distinguished another, which consists in dismissing the souls of the dead at the close of the year and sending them on their journey to the other world; this latter custom seems to have an entirely different origin and to be due to love and not fear of the dead. In other cases it is believed that evil spirits generally or even non-personal evils such as sins are believed to be expelled. In these customs originated perhaps the scapegoat, some forms of sacrifice and other cathartic ceremonies.

Bibliography. - Tylor, Primitive Culture; Frazer, Golden Bough; Skeat, Malay Magic; Bastian, Der Mensch in der Geschichte; Callaway, Religion of the Amazulu; Hild, Etude sur les demons; Welcker, Griechische GOtterlehre, i. 731; Trans. Am. Phil. Soc. xxvi. 79; Calmet, Dissertation sur les esprits; Maury, La Magie; L. W. King, Babylonian Magic; Lenormant, La Magie chez les Chaldeens; R. C. Thompson, Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia; Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie; Roskoff, Geschichte des Teufels; Sibly, Illustration of the Occult Sciences; Scott, Demonology; Pitcairn, Scottish Criminal Trials; Jewish Quarterly Rev. viii. 576, &c.; Horst, Zauberbibliothek; Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. " Demonology." See also bibliography to Possession, Animism and other articles.

(N. W. T.)

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