Who are Demons?

In the previous posts of the present series, the Devil and a group of fallen angels were discussed.  The former was cast down into Sheol, or Hades, to devour and rule over the dead.  The latter were confined in chains in the Abyss for their crimes until the end of the world.  In another previous post, the angelic beings to whom the nations were assigned at the tower of Babel, who later became corrupt and sought the worship of the nations they were to govern were described.  These beings did not fall as the others and remain in the heavenly places according to St. Paul (Eph 6:12), though they are judged at the resurrection of Christ (Ps 82) and their reign is undone as the Gospel proceeds to all of the nations.  All authority in heaven and on earth is now given to Christ following his victory and so all of the nations are called to become his disciples (Matt 28:18-20).  St. Gregory the Dialogist says that this is why the angels of God, his divine council, are said to stand on his right and his left.  Those on the right are the elect angels (1 Tim 5:21) and those on the left are the wicked angelic beings who will receive their full judgment on the last day by Christ through the saints (1 Cor 6:3).

None of these wicked angelic figures, with the possible exception of the Devil (see next week’s post), are described as roaming the earth.  Further, as was common ancient belief, confirmed by St. Paul (1 Cor 15:40-41), angelic beings have bodies, albeit bodies of an entirely different sort than the earthly, terrestrial bodies of humans.  In early Jewish thinking, anything created has, or at least had, a body.  At a few points in the Old Testament, however, we are confronted by ‘unclean spirits’ which are bodiless and come to dwell in the bodies of others.  Likewise, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles are replete with references to ‘demons’ who take possession of the bodies of humans, animals, and idols.  Despite the major part which demonic possession and exorcism plays in the ministry of Christ and his apostles, the origin of these demons and the phenomenon of possession are never in the NT narrated or described.  The phenomena is merely presumed by the New Testament writers as something about which readers would have common knowledge.  What, then, was the understanding of these demons in the Greco-Roman pagan and the Jewish worlds of the 1st century AD?

The word from which ‘demon’ is transliterated into English, ‘daimonion’ was used flexibly in Classical Greek sources.  It generally referred to divine beings of a lower tier or more recently the object of worship.  The word is therefore frequently used of figures whom we would refer to as Greek and Roman gods, including occasionally Zeus.  The word was also used to refer to the spirits of deceased ancestors, particularly notable ancestors such as heroes and kings.  The connective tissue of these usages comes on two sides.  First, both these divinities and ancestral spirits were objects of worship in the Greek and Roman worlds.  This crossover can also be observed in Canaanite religion, for example in the witch of Endor’s identification of the spirit of Samuel as a ‘god’ (1 Sam 28:13).  Second, within certain classical authors was still retained the knowledge that the spirits now worshipped as gods had once been ancient figures of renown.  Zeus, for example, is still occasionally identified with an ancient king on the island of Crete, Asterion the father of Minos.  Though it has obviously become a pejorative term for a specifically evil spirit in modern usage, in ancient usage, outside of Jewish and Christian sources, it carries no such association.

Plato describes the origin of demons in the Cratylus, “It is principally because demons are wise and knowing, I think, that Hesiod says they are named ‘demons.’  In our older Attic dialect, we actually find the word ‘daemones.’  So, Hesiod and many other poets speak well when they say that when a great man dies, he has a great destiny and a great honor and becomes a ‘demon,’ which is a name given to him because it accords with wisdom.  And I myself assert, indeed, that every great man, whether alive or dead, is demonic, and is correctly called a ‘demon'” (397c-398c).

Because these spirits were (at least currently) without bodies, in order to interact with them, they needed to be provided with bodies.  This took place in two primary ways.  The first was through the crafting of images which the spirit could possess in order to receive worship and offerings.  It is for this reason that an image of a god or goddess was the centerpiece of Greek and Roman temples.  The spirit was believed to inhabit the image as a new body.  For this reason, it is common in Jewish literature in the Greek language from this period to refer to the idol itself as ‘daimonion’.  The second mode of interaction with these spirits was through their possession of a human body.  In the Greek and Roman worlds, the most prominent form of this was the institution of oracles, human priests or priestesses who would be possessed by a ‘daimonion’ which would speak wisdom through them.  The most prominent of these was the famed oracle of Delphi, where the Pythia was believed to be possessed by Apollo.  This was seen as a positive and beneficial phenomenon in the Roman world despite the counter-understanding by Jewish and Christian communities (cf. Acts 16:16-24).

Another mode of demonic possession understood in the Greco-Roman world was more subtle.  It was believed that great men, rulers and those of great accomplishment in various cultural fields, were possessed by these divine spirits who inspired and animated them.  The Roman term for one of these beings was a ‘genius’ and it is ultimately from this that our modern usage of that term is derived.  So, when early Christians were commanded to participate in worship of the Roman emperor, it was actually to the genius of the emperor that they were commanded to offer incense or sacrifice.  Likely the most famous ancient figure who actively claimed to be demon possessed as part of his defense of himself, however, is Socrates.  In Plato’s Republic, Socrates states, “Finally, my own case is hardly worth mentioning, my demonic sign, because it has happened to no one before me, or to only a very few” (496c).  In the Apology, he describes his experience further:  “I have a divine or spiritual sign which Meletus has ridiculed in his deposition.  This began when I was a child.  It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but it never encourages me to do anything” (31d).

This phenomenon was also known within the ancient Jewish world, but was interpreted very differently.  Ancient Judaism understood the great heroes and kings of the surrounding pagan nations as being not heroes but giants, tyrants, thugs, and bullies.  They understood the proposed mixture of human and divine parentage of these heroes as being their origin in demonic fornication for which the offending spirits were punished and the progeny eradicated by God.  It was therefore natural for their religious outlook to similarly interpret the phenomena of demons, that they were the disembodied spirits of dead giants.  This understanding is reflected in a variety of Second Temple Jewish sources, such as 1 Enoch 15:8-9.  1 Enoch and many of the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to these spirits as being of illegitimate birth referring back to their origin.  This is in harmony with the identification of these beings as ‘unclean spirits.’  The Torah distinguishes clearly between evil and unclean as separate categories, and so to call something unclean is not to indicate that it is evil per se, though these spirits are also called ‘evil spirits’ in other places.  Uncleanness is commonly associated with being of a mixed origin, and the Torah contains countless examples, from sewing a garment from two different kinds of cloth to sewing multiple types of seed in the same field (Lev 19:19; 22:9-11).

This understanding created a certain logical difficulty, however, in that the spirits of the slain giants were seen to have been punished along with their parents.  The spirits of the Rephaim, the giant line which included Og of Bashan, for example, are inhabitants of Sheol according to the scriptures (Is 14:9; 26:14; Ps 88:10; Prov 2:18; 9:18; 21:16; Job 26:5-6).  How then are there still these demonic spirits present in the world?  The Book of Jubilees is a Jewish text which enjoyed immense popularity in the 1st century AD and retells the stories of Genesis including many Jewish traditions surrounding the text.  It answers this question through the figure of Mastema, a leader among the giants, who at the time of their impending destruction bargained with God to allow himself and one tenth of the demonic spirits to remain in the world in order to test humanity and afflict those in whom wickedness is found (Jub 10:8).  God consents to allow this because he intends to use the evil spirits, who had been a part of the corruption of humanity, to bring human persons to repentance.  This is how the evil spirit who came ‘from God’ to afflict Saul is understood (1 Sam 16:14-16, 23; 18:10; 19:9).  This understanding of demonic activity also lies behind St. Paul’s references to handing someone over to Satan through excommunication for the purpose of bringing repentance (1 Cor 5:5; 1 Tim 1:20).

The bargain struck by Mastema with God, however, has an expiration date when, at the last judgment, these spirits will be punished for eternity in the Abyss.  This idea underlies many of the confrontations that take place in the Gospels between Christ and various demonic entities.  In Mark 1:23-26, the demon’s recognition of who Jesus Christ is leads to the immediate question as to whether Christ has come to destroy the demons (i.e. they associate the arrival of Christ with the time of the end).  In his confrontation with the Gerasene demoniac, St. Matthew records the demons asking if Christ has come to torment them ‘before the time’ (Matt 8:29).  St. Mark records that the demons pleaded with Christ not to send them out of the land (Mark 5:10).  St. Luke makes clear that the alternative to them continuing to dwell in the land is confinement in the abyss (Luke 8:31).  The Abyss was seen to be in the depths of the sea, and though they are cast into the swine, this is where they meet their end (Matt 8:32; Mark 5:13; Luke 8:33).  Because the activity of these demonic spirits was seen as being strictly limited by God himself, the fact that Christ is able to command and punish them is prominent in the Gospels precisely as evidence of his identity as Yahweh, the God of Israel.

12 comments:

    1. Same here – I need to make time to read through Fr. Stephen’s work. The concept of God’s counsel is also helping me navigate what seemed to be the difficult aspects of Christianity.

    1. I believe Asmodeus has more to do with another prototypical demonic activity: the prevention of procreation. He’s working to stop Sarah from being able to start a family. The commandment is given to humanity in Genesis to fill the earth and subdue it. In Exodus 1, Pharaoh becomes a demonic figure in attempting to stop the fruitfulness of the Israelites through murder. Asmodeus, by the way, was worshipped as a god by the Syrians (2 Kgs/4 Kgdms 17:30) and was a minor deity in early Persian religion.

  1. Dear father

    Would it be correct to say then, that the source of demonic activity in our lives are the “friends” of Mastema plus Mastema and/or the devil himself? Or should we look elsewhere?

    I personally immensely enjoy the description of demonic interacton with us humans in CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters and find it quite accurate in many instances.

    1. Yes, this is the category of evil spirits, in the ancient understanding, that has regular interaction with human beings to tempt, test, and afflict them. These are the beings that the Fathers are generally discussing when they talk about practical spiritual warfare. They are sometimes referred to as ‘earthly spirits’ in Jewish literature, in contrast to evil powers in the heavenly places or those in the underworld/Hades/Abyss.

  2. Father Stephen,

    I’ve been enjoying reading and learning from your blog posts for a few weeks now. They are so insightful and are really well written. Thank you so much for making time to share your knowledge and wisodm.

    I’m wondering if you have a blog about sin: what it is, what it isn’t, where it comes from. I know you touch on that subject a bit in your blog about Genesis and the Fall, but I’m wondering if you can share a more focused response on the subject. I’ve been looking for a commentary, to no avail, on the verses that James mentions regarding a sin that leads to death and a sin that doesn’t lead to death. I’d appreciate even a quick response about that passage if you wouldn’t mind.

  3. So very helpful, Father Stephen. Thank you.
    I am glad Robert asked the question about the source of demonic activity in our lives. That was one of my major questions regarding spiritual warfare.
    So, if I understand correctly…we are given examples of how demonic entities present themselves throughout time. For the ancient Romans, in the so called good and evil daimons; for the Jews of Second Temple Judaism and the early Christians, the evil spirits of the dead ‘giants’. As well, you give us the biblical account as written in the OT. We continue to identify them ‘demons’, as our Fathers describe because, as they have always done, they draw away worship due to the one true God onto themselves. And we acknowledge that God allows for, even sends forth, these evil spirits as a means to our repentance. Yes?
    I must say, in light of the fact that He does allow this, His mercy and grace must be truly boundless, because even ‘in Christ’ this is a difficult battle. If I didn’t believe He is truly good, and continually gives us His strength even in the midst of our seemingly endless failures…and if I didn’t know His love (a love which is beyond the love of man) I would have given up the battle a long time ago.

    Where I had to pause, and I’m not sure I could give an adequate answer, is where in the divine council both evil and good angels are present. Are the evil ones there because as God’s created beings they are part of God’s providence, including moving toward the ultimate end of this age?

    Thank you again, Father. Such a blessing…

  4. Father these articles are incredible and eye opening. As one who has recently come to Orthodoxy from Protestantism I am very interested in where I can read up in great detail on this subject. I have been reading this series and I only see how ignorant I am. Your sources would be greatly appreciated!

    1. The best starting point for these particular topic is the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, sometimes abbreviated DDD. The articles in it are well written and it will point you to primary texts and other material for further and deeper reading.

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