New Worlds: Demons

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Demons: they’re bad, right?

Maybe. Depending on who you ask. And when. Because like “faerie,” “demon” is a word used to cover a huge swath of creatures — and in some cases you could make an argument for lumping both of those groups in together, while in other cases demons are minor gods, and in still others they cross over to buddy up with angels. I’m not merely talking about the Abrahamic notion of demons as angels who fell; I mean that the Greek concept of a daimon could mean a person’s guardian spirit, just as we speak of guardian angels today. But when you get to the Septuagint, the translators used ángelos to mean the mal’ak or messengers of God, and daimoníos to mean evil spirits and foreign (and therefore false) gods.

With a nature that complex and even contradictory, it can be difficult to discuss “demons” as a category. But it’s possible to tease out some recognizable functions, even if they aren’t consistent across all occasions where the term gets applied.

Because this is following on the heels of the angel discussion, let’s start with the notion of demons as celestial creatures fallen from grace. In a monotheistic religion, everything has to stem from God; there can’t be any truly outside forces. But why would God make something evil? (This question is known as theodicy, and it’s something we’ll delve into more when we loop back around to religion someday.) Demons and the devil, aka Satan, Lucifer, etc., therefore get slotted in as rebels against the divine will of God. But depending on which theologian you ask, even their rebellion is part of the ineffable Plan.

In modern fiction you tend to get two representations of that kind of demon. One depicts them as beautiful, reflecting both their angelic origins (because we often map “beauty” to “goodness”) and their role as tempters, luring people into sin. Succubi and incubi in particular fit this category, personifying the specific sin of lust. The other approach makes them hideous: horned, tailed, scaly, buzzing with flies, oozing pus from boils and sores. This latter reflects more than just the idea that ugly = evil, though; it also reflects the association of demons with disease.

This particular association is still with us today. Mental illness is another topic for a later essay, but many people who suffer from conditions like depression characterize it as a malevolent creature that haunts or possesses them, and knowing that germs cause physical illness doesn’t stop us from sometimes personifying the process — even to the point of visual depiction, with hideous germ-monsters stalking the unwary victim. For ancient peoples with no scientific understanding of how such things spread, the idea that invisible terrifying spirits were responsible was at the very least an apt expression of their fear.

The association of demons with disease brings me around to something that annoys me about the Dungeons & Dragons approach to religion. D&D settings posit evil gods as well as good ones, and then say people worship those evil gods — in the sense of “yay, evil is awesome; let’s spread it everywhere we can.” But historically, that’s not how it goes. People make offerings to spirits of disease and other unpleasant things not because they’re really hoping they’ll develop infected boils, but because they’re really hoping they won’t. Worship of demons is an act of propitiation, turning aside the wrath that might otherwise strike.

Which doesn’t mean people never make offerings in the spirit of “yay evil!” After all, you have goetia (the conjuration of demons) and similar practices in other parts of the world. It’s just that doing so is usually a situational act, carried out with the intention of cursing someone else with misfortune — while still avoiding it yourself. We’ve already talked about curses back in Year One, so I won’t go into detail about it here, but such acts are usually illegal, heretical, or both.

Even when they aren’t actively malevolent, demons often personify danger. Many ancient Egyptian depictions give them the features of wild animals like crocodiles or hippopotami, and they can be linked with destructive weather. There’s also a strong association of demons with the underworld. There they can be guardians as much as threats: the underworld is a dangerous place, and the job of demons may be to keep it under control, preventing the dead from escaping and the living from trespassing where they should not be. But when they skew more evil in their own right, they are the thing that escapes.

Or at least their influence does. Even outside the Abrahamic conception of demons as fallen angels responsible for temptation and sin, many cultures conceptualize evil spirits as being responsible not only for harmful natural phenomena, but for the misdeeds of human beings. Whether it’s the seven deadly sins or others that didn’t make Pope Gregory’s famous list (such as deceit), demons may be the source of such impulses. But most societies would agree that just because demons cause humans to want to do evil things doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. The decision to give into those impulses is ours.

The exception is in cases of possession. Which — say it with me! — is another thing we’ll come back to in a future discussion, because it can be a positive state as well as a negative one, depending on context and what entity is doing the possessing. As movies like The Exorcist have taught us, though, demons can sometimes take over the bodies of human beings, compelling them to vile acts. Even the innocent and the righteous are not always proof against this peril, though generally speaking being a good person makes you safer than being wicked does. A variety of magical charms might protect you from demonic influences, but once they creep in, you need an exorcism to remove them.

As for where this appears in the world . . . I’m not sure there’s any culture without some concept of evil and/or dangerous spirits that need to be propitiated or warded against. And when we speak of those creatures in English, we generally translate them as “demons.” But of course that, like all such translations, can obscure the specifics. Rakshasas in Hinduism, asuras in both Hinduism and Buddhism, oni and akuma in Japan — sometimes you can gloss those as “demons,” but sometimes it should be “ogres” instead, and then you get rakshasa like Ghatotkacha, who fought on the side of the heroes in the Mahabharata. In the end, the term “demon” is not a simple one, and the manifestation of such a concept in a given culture may have all manner of nuances that term doesn’t cover.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Demons — 5 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Demons - Swan Tower

  2. Other religions angel equivalents that get incorporated in dominant religions sometimes become angels, and sometimes become demons, depending upon the wants of the believers of their newer religions.

  3. In actual folklore, succubi and incubi were not attractive. As late as the 19th century, doctors referred to sleep paralysis — a horrible phenomena involving not only waking up and being unable to move, but such sensations as a crushing weight, and someone malevolent glaring at you — as incubus.

  4. Then there’s Maxwell’s Daemon (or Demon, his handwriting was atrocious and spelling somewhat… inconsistent). And Unix daemons, which are merely independent callable processes that continue to run independently after being invoked and released. And, stretching back a little farther, the “spirits” and “sprites” released during various alchemical purification, which were labelled “demonic” by the religious authorities (both Christian and Islamic).

    Maxwell’s Daemon is my favorite, because nobody has ever found a way to evade the consequences. Not even economists.

  5. Come to think it of it, Greek philosophers often dismissed the Olympians and those related gods as daemons unworthy of philosophical discussion.