Friday, January 29, 2010

Whence Cometh the Demons?

I am doing some intensive research lately on a topic that I have, off and on, continued to study and puzzle over for many years. I have known the answer in my head, perhaps intuitively, to the question “whence cometh the demons”, which is a fancy way of asking the question about the origins of what we in the occult refer to as demonic spirits.

The history of demonic spirits is quite fascinating, particularly since there doesn’t seem to be one actual source. Modern western definitions of these spirits are derived from Christian demonology, a specialized branch of theology. Demons are defined as malevolent spirits and represent a united faction opposed to God and his angels. However, this was not always the case, since the dualistic nature of demons vs. angels appears to have its roots in Zoroastrianism. Since Christianity is a synthesis of the Hellenistic and Semitic cultures of the Greco-Roman and Jewish religions, then our search should naturally begin there. Whatever theological perspectives the medieval church promoted about demons won’t shed much light on their origins and antecedents. Also, the earliest Christian magical grimoires, such as Liber Juratus and the Ars Notoria, not to mention the Heptameron, appear to omit any mention of demons. We have to examine Jewish contemporaneous occult and magical sources in order to find the earliest magical use of demons. So one might think that Christian occultism borrowed the concept of a hierarchy of demons, one which the magician could use to conjure, constrain and make use of their associated powers.

Some have speculated that the lists and characteristics of goetic demons and infernal spirits would have their origin with the Greeks. Prior to Plato, Greeks referred to spirits that were intermediaries to the gods and mankind as “daimones.” These spirits were generally considered to be positive, being minor deities or the ghosts of heros or founders, the collective guardians and protectors of humanity. Some scholars believe that prior to Homer, deities and daimones were interchangeable, others disagree. Walter Burkert, in his book “Greek Religion” is one of the scholars who disagrees, proposing that the word daimon represents an occult or unknown force that drives humanity when no known source for that ambition or inspiration is apparent.

For the ancient Greeks, a belief in demons may have preceded the belief and worship of the gods, much like the Roman belief in individual genius or the numen of unknown spiritual presences. Socrates was reputed to have a daemon that acted as his guide, and in one of his symposiums (Plato’s Symposium), love was revealed by one of the attendees, the priestess Diotima, to be a great daimon instead of a god. In addition, one particular daimon had a place of importance in the rites of Dionysus, and that was“Agathos Daimon” or the Good Daimon, who was depicted in art as a chthonic serpent. Members of the cult would give an offering or libation to this daimon before commencing with ceremonial wine drinking.  All of these points would seem to indicate that early Greeks did not ascribe the moral values of good or evil to daimons. (See “Greek Religion” by Walter Burkert, pp. 179 - 181)

Followers of Pythagorus declared that they could see daimons, who would normally be invisible to everyone else, they also claimed to be able to communicate with them. It would not be too fantastic to consider that they might also be able to conjure and direct daimons, along with their other repertoire of various shamanic and magical practices. Since dead heros and founders were accorded the status of being daimons, then it would also make sense that necromancers and sorcerers would possibly illicitly traffic with them. Perhaps that is why the necromantic summoning of spirits, known as “goetic magic” eventually became associated with the magical evocation of demons.

It wasn’t until the philosopher Plato and his student, Xenocrates, that daimons began to be perceived as having a malefic character. By the third century BCE, the Greeks believed in beneficent spirits that they called “Eudaimons” and malefic spirits that were called “Kakodaimons.”  These beneficent daimons were even considered to be a kind of guardian angel, assigned by lots at birth for every man and woman, to act as their guide and guardian. The term eudaimonia, which meant possessing a eudaimon, became synonymous with feelings of bliss and happiness, the state that one would associate with being warded and aided by a spiritual companion. However, in the myth of Pandora, the evils that were unleashed upon mankind were never considered daimons or even kakodaimons, they were called illness (nousoi) and death-bringing spirits (keres). The tragedian Aeschylus poetically refers to the daimon as a fiend that quenches its thirst for murder and destruction, but only at the behest of the gods and never independently. The spirits of departed great men were still thought of as the manifestation of their daimon, such as that associated with Alexander the Great, but incrementally, the daimon was progressively associated with the manifestations of human misfortune, thus obtaining a decidedly negative characteristic.

By the time of the Neoplatonists during Roman imperial times, daimons had become earth bound spirits tormented by their lusts and passions, unlike the remote and pristine gods. Neoplatonic philosophy began with an elevated ideal of the daimon, but this changed over time. It was completely reinterpreted by the early church theologians, who perceived all pagan gods and spirits as being of the category of malefic demons. Philosophers had been distinguishing between noble daimons and trouble making ones, but Christianity lumped them together into one category, as malefic spirits. The only exception was the eudaimon, which was incorporated and redefined as an angelic guardian spirit. However, lists of the names of daemons from Greek sources were not built up or established in early Christian times, as this would have a different and later source.

The Hebrew Torah was translated into the Greek Septuagint in Alexandria during antiquity, and that translation had an impact on later Christian theologians, since the terms “Malakh Adonai” or messenger of the lord, became translated as “angelos” and the idols, nature spirits and alien gods of other people as “daimones.” However, the Torah specifically mentions only the names of two specific demons, just as it only mentioned the names of three specific angels and referred obliquely to the messenger of the lord as some kind of angel.

There were two classes of demons mentioned in the Torah, known as the “se’irim” and “shedim”, “hairy” nature spirits and storm spirits, respectively, both of which may have been given offerings and oblations by the ancient Hebrews to aid in their appeasement. Azazel, who is mentioned in Leviticus (ch. 16, v. 10), is probably of the class of ser’irim and may be their chief, and Lilith, obliquely mentioned in Isaiah (ch. 34, v. 14) is an example of a female demon. Most notably were the “Beni Elohim”, the Sons of God, in chapter 6 of Genesis, who came to earth to mate with human women, and who produced off-spring who were called “men of renown” (literally, men of names). The passages are a bit confusing, but these same angels or their off-spring could have been called the Nephilim, which means either fallen ones or giants.

Jewish folklore, on the other hand, was replete with the names and characteristics of many demons, some of these were discussed and written down during Talmudic times. However, most scholars seem to agree that the complex demonology that Jewish folklore seemed to possess in such abundance supposedly began to appear in Jewish culture during the Babylonian captivity, perhaps influenced by contact with both the Chaldeans and later, the Persians. Prior to the Babylonian captivity, Jewish belief about demons was simple and not developed, certainly not to the point that it later became. The Zoroastrians of Persia introduced the concept of dualism to Jewish thought, but it was not until much later that some Jews began to believe in a unified power of evil (as Satan), which stood against the power and authority of their God. This change was probably due more to Christian influences and was considered uncanonical by Jewish rabbinical authorities.

There seems to be a host of demons referenced in various Jewish writings, and they had specific habitats and characteristics. These spirits could be found in obscure places, such as inhabiting wastelands, ruins, cemeteries, privies, middens or even desolate places unfrequented by humanity. Demons usually shunned daylight and wandered around the fringes of communities at night. They were believed to be the sources of pestilence, disease and natural disasters, yet all these calamities were allowed or directly caused by the wrath and anger of the Hebrew God. Demons would seize their victims and enter into them, possessing their bodies, either by force or cunning. Exorcism was the only cure, performed through incantations, exhortations and the use of herbs and alternative animal victims. Solomon was reputed to have received from God the wisdom, authority and power to control and exorcize demons, and many attributed their knowledge of such practices ultimately to him.  

The Chaldeans and Persians had intricately developed systems of either chthonic deities (Anunnaki) or demonic allies of Ahriman. Like the Chaldeans, the Jews had three classes of demons, having expropriated them from that source as well as other sources. It would seem that the idea of a world of light and darkness, populated by a battling hierarchy of angels and demons was drawn from Persian beliefs, since like Judaism, they would not have given credence to any kind of chthonic deity as the Chaldeans apparently did. Demons were allowed to perform the will of God, but did not engage in any strife against that Deity, since all supernatural powers had an exclusive source in their one god. I quote a source from the online Jewish Encyclopedia:

“It was the primitive demonology of Babylonia which peopled the world of the Jews with beings of a semi-celestial and semi-infernal nature. Only afterward did the division of the world between Ahriman and Ormuzd in the Mazdean system give rise to the Jewish division of life between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of evil. Rabbinical demonology has, like the Chaldean, three classes of, demons, though they are scarcely separable one from another. There were the "shedim," the "mazzi im" (harmers), and the "ru in" or "ru otra'ot" (evil spirits). Besides these there were "lilin" (night spirits), " elane" (shade, or evening, spirits), " iharire" (midday spirits), and " afrire" (morning spirits), as well as the "demons that bring famine" and "such as cause storm and earthquake"

However, these specific names and qualities of demons do not seem to be related to the later medieval lists that we find in the early Jewish grimoires. Yet it is likely that by late antiquity Judaism began to propose a kind of hierarchy by electing a king and queen of demons, thereby laying its foundation. Candidates for these positions varied somewhat, with Asmodai or Samael being more frequently sited. The name Satan was used to describe demons, but did not at first become a generalized name for the king of demons. The queen of demons was, of course, Lilith, but another name used was Na’amah, sister of Tubal Cain, who was reputed to be the wife of Samael and mother of Asmodai. Other names were likely a distortion of Caanite gods, such as Beelzebub (Lord of the Flies) whose name was actually Baal Zebul (Lord of Heaven), and Ashtoreth being analogous to the Goddesses Asherah, Anath or Ishtar/Innana. The fact that monotheism was probably imposed on the Hebrew nation in the 7th century BCE, which was much later than what the Bible instructed, allowed for a lot of obvious polytheistic remnants to be either redefined (such as Elohim, for “gods”) or denigrated as demonic. Still, the Jewish tradition carried many examples of what must have been a very loosely defined pagan polytheism despite the vigorous efforts of the revisionists and reformers.

The effects of the loss of the Temple, the diaspora, and the establishment of the Qabbalah upon Jewish thought and belief were quite profound. The Talmudic period forced a high degree of ordering and structuring of religious thought and practice, since the new center of worship was now the local synagogue and the yeshiva instead of the Temple of Jerusalem. This intensive structuring gave birth to a new formalism that lent itself to the derivation of the Qabbalah and methodologies of ceremonial magick. The first glimmerings of this new formulation was to be found in the book Sepher Yetzirah, and in the proto-grimoire Testament of Solomon (4th century CE). It is probably at this time that the demonic hierarchy began to be assembled, most notably for the purpose of performing exorcisms and medical cures, and only later to actually command demons into performing wonders. Josephus mentions actual witnessed occurrences of these wonder working sorcerers and wrote about them in his books.

Several hundred years later and another Jewish proto-grimoire surfaces, this time called the Sword of Moses (10th century CE). One can see that demonic and angel names are being developed for the purpose of working ceremonial magick. We have passed beyond the hypothetical world of the Testament of Solomon, with the story of the demons being coerced into building the Temple of Jerusalem and the establishment of a kind of medical anti-demonic magic, to one that is more an operational book on ceremonial magic. The trail of books disappears for few centuries and then the Sepher ha-Ratziel and the Book of Abramelin appear on the scene, supposedly only a hundred years apart. It is apparent looking at one of these books that demonic magic is still part of the tradition of Jewish ceremonial magic, and in fact it has been developed further, so that it’s starting to look like what was later incorporated into the classical grimoires of the Goetia, Goetia-Theurgia of the Lemegeton and the Grimoirum Verum.

The book Sepher ha-Ratziel (14th century) is a grimoire consisting of angel magic (malachim), Qabbalistic diagrams and words of power, and an extensive list of angels - there is no list of demons. In the Book of Abramelin (15th century), there is a list of demons crafted into the hierarchy of four kings, eight dukes and their associated servitors. Other than the top two tiers, the rest of the demonic spirit names are unique - they are not at all the same as the demons of the later Goetia. Yet one of the four King names and four of the eight Dukes are found in the list of goetic demons. So it would seem that the Jewish grimoire tradition was developing a demonic hierarchy.

Interestingly enough, there is a French manuscript also from the 15th century, called “Le Livre des Espiritz” that has a list of 47 demonic spirit names, 31 of which are possible matches with the later list of 72 goetic demons. (This is according to the book “Goetia of Dr. Rudd”, pp. 32 - 38, and I think that it is very significant.) By the beginning of the 16th century, we have, in the works of Trithemius (i.e., the “Liber Malorum Spiritum” and the “Steganographia”) a fully developed list of goetic demons and their seals, whose possible source material may have inspired the later Grimoirum Verum and the Lemegeton. Both Agrippa, and his student, Johann Weyer, were steeped in this material, and Weyer used it to produce his work, “Pseudomonarchia Daemonum.”

There is some dispute as to the exact sequence of events, whether the Goetia of the Lemegeton is earlier than the Grimoirum Verum. My opinion is that they are probably contemporaneous to each other, since neither can claim an exact date of production nor even identify the original authors. Suffice it to say that the list of goetic demons appears to have evolved over the 15th century to its final form. Also of note, the infernal hierarchy associated with the Grimoirum Verum is different than that established in the Book of Abramelin, representing an apparent divergence of traditional material indicating possible different sources. All of these various lists and methodologies represent differences in a legitimate occult perspective, although how these materials were actually used and by whom is still something of a mystery.

When examining the various names of the so-called infernal spirits of the hierarchy of demons, their servitors, or the goetic demons, one can see a mixture of Hebrew, Greek and Latin, but any other languages, such as Arabic, Akkadian or Parsi seem to be completely lacking. This should at least inform us that the source of these names comes from the European Jewish diaspora, with complex linkages and appropriations occurring in Christian occult and intellectual circles. The source of magical demonology and its hierarchy is therefore Jewish and Christian in origin, even though some of the concepts and terminology used comes from the Greco Roman period.

My final consideration is how should one approach these spiritual entities in order to incorporate them into magical workings? It is my opinion that there are three possible methods of approach, and only two that I find agreeable with my own particular philosophy.

The first approach is basically the same one that the sorcerers of the Renaissance would have used, which is Christian Diabolism. The magician could approach the use of demons either using the angels and the authority of God to coerce and dominate them, or he could instead act as a diabolic agency, worshiping the Christian version of Satan. This approach has been recently made quite popular by a book written by Lisiewski.

There are two other approaches, and both use a form of neopaganism as their base. One could act in a neutral manner and invoke both demons and angels, seeing them as an integral but opposite type of spiritual intelligence - yet both tied to the same unified aspect of the Godhead. That Godhead would be given Qabbalistic qualities, but not specifically defined or given a name, thus avoiding spiritual dualism. Neopagan gods and goddesses would exist, as would the spirits of the ancestors, angels and demons.

One could also redefine and develop a magickal religion whose principal deities are chthonic and based in the underworld. In such a redefinition, the demons would become part of a religious spiritual hierarchy that would represent the mysteries and darkness inherent in all transformational processes. The demons would be completely redefined so that they would function as they did in early antiquity, as intermediaries between the gods and humanity, neither good nor evil.

The first approach accepts the old grimoires and uses them as they presently exist, the second expropriates what is needed and useful in the old grimoires and uses it in an existing magical system, and the third completely reclaims and rewrites the old grimoires, to fashion a completely new system of magic.

I have decided to follow the second path, and since I am not a Christian I find the first path to be unacceptable. However, the most compelling approach is the third path, which involves what is called and practiced by neopagans espousing a chthonic spirituality, demonolatry. Perhaps someday those who follow the third path will produce a total reclamation of the old grimoires. I look forward to that event and reading over their material.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. What if demons are representative of the "dark" side of human nature representing the destructive vs. constructive energy. If each individual is in a constant state of balancing "existing" vs. "not existing" on the physical plane then demons by nature are the knowledge that we don't exist. In other words, they represent mankind's fear that he truly does not really exist. Kind of like finding out you are in the Matrix. Looking at it from a different perspective, accepting the demons, lessening the fear allows us to understand and accept that we don't exist here but in the energy realm. Once the fear is removed we can move into various other states of mental existence which potentially gives us the ability to manipulate the fears of others in order to control them (not advocating that). It also enables us to leave behind our fears and handle each situation that is handed to us differently. The danger is that there are truly destructive energies that are always seeking the uneducated and looking to pull one over on us.
    Or maybe not - H M (aka Living Wizardry)
    Interesting book = The Key to the Kalevala

  2. Greetings Frater! The Verum, in my reading of it, does not fall into any of the categories you propose above. There is no coercion by means of angels or torturing the spirits with God names. There is also no worshipping of the Devil or Satan and in fact the pure moral and spiritual disposition of the operator is integral to the system. As the grimoire says "they will come according to the character and temperament of the one who invokes them". Moreover, it places a great emphasis on pleasing the spirits, saying they will come and do as the magician ask without any trouble "provided they are content on their part".

    There is no need to paganise the system in order to have it function in a spirit friendly manner, because it is designed like that already. Nor do I believe the spirits need to be regressed to some earlier pre-christian form, unless ones religious proclivities are against the christian framework of the grimoire itself. The binary you present between "satan-worship" and "angel domination and coercion" as the only way to approach the grimoires classically is absent from the Verum. It's distinctly non-dualistic in that sense.

  3. @Balthazar - Unfortunately, whenever one attempts to establish classes, there are always exceptions. However, I believe that the Grimoirum Verum proposes a path that is historically Christian Diabolism, since making a blood pact with a demon has to be seen in the context of the late 16th century as being highly dubious at best, outright Satanism at its worst. I know that you don't agree with my opinion, but you do seem to use your positive spiritual contacts as a mechanism for balancing yourself. Whether we consider that as acting in a neutral manner or "being respectful" is probably, in my opinion, just semantics.

    There are also those in the Christian theological community who would classify your religious practices as a pagan based synthesis of Christianity, so you would fit in the second category, just like me.

    Regards -

    Fr. Barrabbas