Musings About Demons
An exploration of an area of the spiritual life that has been neglected by the Church at large for many years.
Demons have featured prominently in the spiritual life of humankind both in the past and in the present. Indeed, within the Christian Church, narratives of the activities of demons in the lives of the faithful abound in both the Old and the New Testaments. Thus, the questions arise: ‘what are demons?’, Where do they come from and what do they do?
We know that the word ‘demon’ is rendered from the Greek word daimon, which has several meanings in ancient Greek. The word could denote the ‘spirit’ controlling one’s fate – one’s ‘genius’ for instance. Plato uses the word ‘daimonion’ in this sense to describe the ‘genius’ of Socrates – but it could also signify one of the lesser divinities outside of the pantheon of Olympian gods. From the time of Homer, the word generally referred to a minor divinity, whilst Hesiod, describes daimones as being souls of those who lived in the Golden Age, and who now invisibly watch over human affairs (Erga 122-124). In similar fashion, the Latin form, daemon, or daemonium, borrowed from the Greek, refers to the numerous ‘lesser’ divine beings who were understood to reside between the gods and mortals and who were understood to be frequently dangerous and unpredictable. Thus, from a very early time daemons were understood to be dualistic in nature - they could be either good or evil.
Isidore of Seville, suggests the term demon is derived from the word dahmonaj, which he says means: “skilled in the knowledge of things.” However, through the latter part of the age of antiquity this concept gradually changed, arguably through the spread of Zoroastrian thought which proposed two equal and opposing forces of Light and Dark, of Good and Evil. As a result of this doctrine the ambiguous Graeco-Roman ‘daemons’ found themselves irreversibly placed on the side of Evil.
Consequently, many Christian writers, apart from a few informed scholars such as Isidore, adopted the term in the negative sense of signifying an ‘evil spirit’, with all the adverse connotations that derive therefrom. Thus, from the early years of our common era the terms ‘evil spirit’ and ‘demon’ became synonymous. It is one of the merits of Edward Langton’s work that he dispels this confusion and sheds much needed light on the whole question of demons, demonic possession, and related matters. He begins his survey in his book The Doctrine of Demons1 by discussing the teachings of various authorities who, from the fifth century onward, have presented Church doctrine about demons.
Gregory the Great, who informs us that demons were angels who following Satan, the chief of angels, rebelled against God and as a result were cast out of heaven to wander in the dark realms between heaven and earth. John of Damascus states that the Devil, (described elsewhere as “Satan,” “Behemoth,” “Leviathan,” and “the Dragon,”), is an angelic power who was created a good spirit, made for good ends, and not wicked by nature, but in the operation of his own free will he lost the original integrity of his nature, and rebelled against God. He was the first to depart from good and become evil, and convinced numerous other angels to follow him. These rebellious angels, together with their subsequent off-spring, are what we call demons today.
It should be noted that demons, when all is said and done, are in Christian terms, essentially ‘fallen angels’ retaining many of the powers and capabilities they had before their ‘fall’. St Bernard taught that because of their ‘fall’ the numbers of the dwellers in heaven were significantly diminished, and that their places are to be taken by the redeemed souls of humanity – implying that for this reason a real animosity exists between demons and humanity. He adds that there is a wide range of opinion concerning this view.
This view is not simply a philosophical device to maintain a consistent religious theory. It is important to understand that the alternative would be either a dualism in which two opposing systems of Good & Evil, embodied in God and the Devil, forever waged war in and for the soul of humanity; or that there is no over-riding providence shaping creation, merely moments of random chance, as the ‘evolutionist’ maintains, which implies that Good has no significant merit over evil. These are not mere imaginary issues discussed by armchair mystics, but very real and tactile events and situations that have serious repercussions. Indeed, many of the great Church Leaders of the past have wrestled with this problem, and continue to do so.
To the monks of the Middle-Ages, whose retirement from the world afforded an opportunity of concentrating their attention upon the spiritual realities of life, demons were very real and ever-present beings. Medieval literature is full of stories exemplifying the monk’s consciousness of the omnipresence of demons, and the variety of their operations against the monks who were endeavouring to escape from demonic control, and therefore were especially the object of the demonic malevolence. The literature of the time informs us that the attacks made upon the monks were incessant and insidious, especially when engaging in spiritual disciplines. Demons were believed to swarm around the monasteries and haunt the sacred precincts. Within the cloisters the Superiors were the special objects of attack. This baneful affliction spread through the medieval world to engage not only with the monks, but with the entire population. This especially concerns demonic possession in the form of Witchcraft, which rose to a peak during the late Middle-Ages.
The traditional attitude of the Church which was typically one of opposition to every species of pagan magic and witchcraft; an antagonism, inherited in all probability from the Law of Moses (Torah), is best summed up in the words: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” (Exodus 22:18). This injunction was held by the Jewish priests and Rabbis and later by the Church hierarchy and secular rulers, as a sufficient warrant for witch-persecution. This attitude was not unusual in the Classical World; indeed, in many places sorcery and witchcraft were never acceptable in the pre-Christian Graeco-Roman world where Witchcraft was generally heavily proscribed. Ancient Rome, almost from the beginning of its existence introduced laws against the exponents of sorcery and witchcraft, who were often seen as a threat to society. Indeed, the earliest code of Roman Law; the Twelve Tablets, introduced in the mid-fifth century BC, forbade people from engaging in sorcery, witchcraft, and other such practices, as they were understood to be harmful to others. The punishment for these crimes, which include manipulation, enchantment, necromancy, poisoning, and murder was severe, even by Roman standards.
How brutal the late medieval Church treated those accused of witchcraft is now a matter of history. Various reports and accounts show how most ‘confessed’ witches were ordinary folk who only confessed to their absurd crimes under the tender mercies of their interrogators. Doubtless, a small minority, were witches in the definitive sense – engaging in the depraved side of human nature – but by far the majority who suffered the rack and stake were innocent. Whichever way you look at it, at no period in the history of the Church has there been a darker reign of evil than that which exhausted itself in an orgy of pointless brutality and bloodshed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
It could be said that in a perverse way such sustained and systematic cruelty demonstrated the presence of latent evil within human society, especially within the Church, and in discussing diabolic possession, we are reminded that far from being a manifestation of medieval neurosis or hysteria—which was doubtless common enough—it had been a part of social and thus religious life since biblical times, and that Jesus and His disciples, recognised diabolic possession, and initiated methods and protocols to eradicate it. Indeed, as the Christianity grew it evolved a special order of exorcists to deal with occurrences of demonic oppression and possession.
Since the Enlightenment, the belief in the existence of evil spirits, indeed of any spirits, has progressively declined. The concept of ‘evil’ has increasingly been dismissed as archaic and irrational by the ‘modern’ secular world. Many people no longer accept ‘evil’ in the moral sense, preferring instead to look at it as a psychological manifestation of a biological dysfunction. In short, the nature and dynamics of evil has to all intents and purposes become a specialised branch of clinical psychology, and indeed, in many instances rightly so. Yet, curiously, as the concept of evil has fallen out of favour, acts of evil have become increasingly common-place within society. The front-runner by far is the love of money – arguably, our society is designed to serve the acquisition of it. It seems that we are racing headlong into an abyss of greed and ignorance, and we are destroying the planet and each other because of it. Nothing seems to be sacred, not even Life itself. Abortion is seen as an inalienable right, slavery is as commonplace now as it was two centuries ago, the abuse of animal-life in factory-farming is unbelievable. We are destroying wholesale, diverse life-forms, not for food but to satisfy our lust for money; indeed, we create immense weapons of war to destroy others, so we can steal their resources with complete disregard or respect for their lives or their culture. There are many more examples that could be cited but enough is enough.
So, it is probably right to point out that as career-minded academics and intelligentsia have suppressed the belief in evil, evil events have grown exponentially. The media have also fulfilled their role in a spectacular manner, forming the expectations, behaviours, biology, and psychology of the people of the world to support the need for money – shaping their ambitions to support the instinctive nature and nothing else. However, even though the biological factors influencing behaviour are very important there is far more to this subject than biochemical influences upon human psychology. Indeed, recognition, and acceptance of the spiritual dimension of human existence is fundamental to a balanced understanding of this subject and without it we are properly doomed. We should realise that evil no longer wears a medieval hat but often walks around in a suit or white coat!
In more recent times some anthropologists, following the principles of Enlightenment philosophy, have tended to associate humanity’s obsessive fixation on spirits and their invariably unwelcome intrusion into human life, with animistic beliefs. Indeed, such exponents of the animistic theory suggest that primitive humanity could do no other than explain things based on personal experience. Thus, as the body was actuated by a self-conscious spirit, so it was accepted that the bodies of all other creatures were also actuated by a self-conscious spirit. As there was no clear line of separation between the human, animal, and vegetable kingdoms, it was further believed that not only other creatures but also places and things, such as mountains, trees, watercourses, etc., were similarly haunted by spirits and that sickness and diseases of all kinds were explained as being caused through the action of malevolent spirits.
Yet, despite the best efforts of the secular sciences to the contrary, the existence of the world of spirits persists within the hearts and minds of humankind; even though the world of spirits is a potentially dangerous place. It connects with our world in unpredictable ways and often to the disadvantage and misfortune of humankind. It takes a brave and experienced soul to navigate its currents. Thus, before the advent of the Enlightenment in the late seventeenth century, people who were afflicted by such spirits sought assistance from specialist individuals who were known to be conversant with the spiritual world, be they ancient magi, priests, monastics, contemplatives, shamans, mediums, or their like.
Such people, rather than doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists, functioned, with various degrees of success, as intermediaries, interceding with, or exorcising spirits on behalf of the community and its members. On the other hand, many under psychiatric care today, who are treated with pharmaceutical products or counselled by members of the psychology profession, fare no better. The acceptance of Angelic or Demonic forces at work in our world is now seen as a matter of personal conviction. \inevitably then, those who only accept the evidence of their senses and logical thought will have extreme difficulty accepting the realities of the psychic or the spiritual, for they are locked into a world where such things cannot exist. Given psychic problems they will look to the medical profession for guidance and under certain circumstances they may find it – many do not! Alternatively, those who do recognise the spiritual realm and accept the existence and activity of Angelic and Demonic forces are faced with problems of a different nature.
For the spiritually inclined, the complexity of the problem lies in the area of self-knowledge. It is said, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he…” (Proverbs 23: 7). From the perspective of this Newsletter, this proverb points to a truism that illustrates the heart of the matter. What we think determines what we do. Whether we think of ourselves as being a mortal creature or an immortal spiritual being, we are all subject to the forces that rule this world. By which, I do not necessarily mean spiritual forces, although they obviously play their part. In this instance what I am referring to are the natural forces that in obedience to divine law govern this world. At least ninety-five per cent, if not more, of our physical, emotional, and mental experience is defined by the chemistry of our body and the environment we live in; biology determines almost everything we do.
Contrary to the evidence, most of us believe that we have the freedom to do whatever we choose, but that is a fallacy; just about everything we do in this world is conditioned and influenced by our environment. Yes, we do make choices, but they are conditioned choices. We are conditioned from the very beginning of our lives by our families, by our environment, by local and international politics, by climate, by social etiquette, by our need to secure a career and raise a family, to establish our place in the community, and so on. This conditioning of this environment, which is the eternal focal point of the ‘Media’, is continually reinforced moment by moment, nano-second by nano-second, indeed, what and when we eat and drink is determined by our conditioning. And that is not all, the clothing we wear and our bearing and position in society are equally conditioned. Indeed, in general terms even the time for us to choose a mate and to generate children is determined.
So what happens when the balloon is stretched, as it were, when the boundaries of our world are crossed, accidentally or on purpose? For example, in material terms, swimming out into the ocean is fraught with dangers, as is exploring an active volcano, but in psychic and spiritual terms, crossing non-material boundaries is equally dangerous. This may be done through drugs, through alcohol abuse, through the conditioning of a mind to accept unnatural behaviours as normal, through the pollution of our water, air, and food; through sickness and disease, war, famine, drought and pestilence – indeed, the list is almost endless.
Normal human activity takes place within the three dimensions that define space-time, in which the five senses that inform the mind predominate. Our mind operates within parameters that conform to the archetypal characteristics of Man derived from the Logos and as such they define humankind. Thus, within the parameters of space-time and the archetypal characteristics of mind, the world of human experiences is set. Fundamentally, the supernatural realm, be it of angels or of demons, is not normally a part of human experience, it is peripheral to our natural habitat; although it has been demonstrated throughout history that they occasionally overlap.
Although we often speak of the realm of angels and demons in terms of the ‘supernatural world’, there are many other words that describe these same realms, for example, the Astral World, Elemental World and Spiritual World and the Invisible. Such terms inevitably pre-define our experience and understanding of these worlds. Generally speaking, the Angels reside in their realm, the demons in theirs and humanity within its own. Historically speaking, the angelic realm is said to exist above us and the demonic below us. Thus, we are set in the middle of two invisible realms – and so it may be. However, the question arises; how do these worlds interact?
It is taught that the angels seek to assist humankind, whereas the demons seek to hinder and undermine human development. Another view proposes that as humankind gravitates to virtue it moves towards the angelic and when it gravitates to vice it moves towards the demonic, thus, placing the responsibility for human development squarely upon the shoulders of humanity and not upon angels or demons.
In the West, people tend to accept freewill as a given, even though freewill has been an ongoing matter of debate for centuries, and doubtless, will continue to be hotly disputed for the foreseeable future. Yet, outside of the study of theology and philosophy, any advertising or marketing agency will tell you that it has long been recognised that humans are deeply influenced (conditioned) by both the environment and their instinctive nature. Thus, whether we gravitate to the angelic or to the demonic is not only a matter of Will but a matter of conditioning.
Virtue is a term that describes the ‘ideal’ of humankind; an ideal to which we naturally aspire if we adhere to the divine pattern or type we must unfold. but when we gravitate to vice, we move away from unfolding the divine pattern, and move towards establishing ourselves as rulers of the elemental kingdom – a place of ‘no fixed abode’ and all that such implies. From a point of observation, it certainly seems to be true that as we gravitate towards vice, events that we often associate with the demonic seem to take place, and when we gravitate towards virtue events typically associated with the angelic take place. Arguably, the further we move away from the divine imperative the further we move away from the light and into the shadows where many creatures alien to humankind reside – ultimately to encounter embodiments of evil.
Many of the great religions teach their followers that the human soul is created in God’s image, an image that is the ideal humanity is seeking to express. It is the divine potential that lies within human nature, and the evolutionary imperative ‘to be’ or ‘to become’ is the mechanism by which the unfolding of that divine potential will reach its fullest expression. Accordingly, the soul is designed to gravitate to the angelic and the spiritual, but conditioning can, and often does, defile the soul especially when it encourages it towards self-gratification and vice (see the ‘Media’).
Arguably, as we mature our choices will be governed increasingly by the Divine imperative as opposed to appetite and instinct. The critical factor in this process being our conscience, which is the guide that leads the soul out of the confusion of this world towards the realm of Light. To the immature and impulsive soul, conscience is a veritable harpy seeking to correct aberrant behaviours within the soul’s nature, but as the soul evolves, modifying its behaviour, conscience transforms into an angel of light, a trusted friend and confidant. The reality is that we are creatures of light who, when the time comes, will shed this body of flesh and all that goes with it, including our instincts, appetites habits, senses, indeed, the complete habitus that we have developed throughout our life in this world.
The wise begin changing their habitus whilst living in the body. It takes time, perseverance, prayer and meditation before we are able to transform our former nature into that of our exemplar, the Lord Jesus Christ – which is to follow a life of virtue rather than vice, to live a life of empathy rather than selfishness and greed, to live a simple life rather than chasing the dreams of our own minds, this, according to many of the great mystics is the Path of spiritual evolution.
First issued as Supernatural in 1934.