What is Demonology?

Demonology in Greece and Rome

To the ancient Greeks daimones (demons) were superhuman beings, intermediate between men and gods, inhabiting an intermediate region between heaven and earth . The poet Hesiod held that men of the mythical Golden Age were turned into daimones after death, acting as guardians to later men, and thus benevolent beings. Later, daimones were thought to be morally imperfect, having bodies and being mortal. Satyrs, curetes (korybantes), centaurs, sileni, and the like were classed as daimones. In classical times there was also a concept of a personal daimon- Socrates, for example, spoke of his daimon. Roman tradition similarly recognized various classes of minor spirits, such as genii, lares, penates, and nurnina, in contrast with the major gods. Later, classical Roman religion incorporated and adapted many of these Greek traditions and philosophical conceptions.

During the Hellenistic period, following the campaigns of Alexander the Great, contacts between the Mediterranean area and Mesopotamia, Persia, and India laid the groundwork for an elaborate belief in demons and a remarkable popularity of demonology. It provided the basis for the complex beliefs about demons in the Judaism of the pre-Christian period and in early Christianity.

To the Christians, all demons were evil, interpreted as extensions of the devil. Thus the basis was laid for a medieval belief in witchcraft, devil worship, and demoniac possession.

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Demonology in World Religions

A small number of references to demons (shedim) occurs in the Old Testament (as in Deuteronomy 32:17). The Hebrew shedim derives from the Babylonian shedu, referring to a spirit represented as a winged bull and conceived as both good and evil. For the Hebrews the service of the Babylonian demons is associated with human sacrifice and temple prostitution. Demoniac possession by "unclean spirits" and exorcism of them appear several times in the New Testament. These beliefs seem to have been derived from the Chaldeans and Zoroasttians. However, the rabbis did not hold these spirits to be entirely evil, but as subject to God and acting as His agents of punishment.

Unclean spirits, such as the jinn and afreet of Islam, may also be spirits of unclean places. Belief in these beings seems to be a remnant of pre-Islamic Arabian traditions, but it is given recognition in the Koran and is now found in all parts of the world to which Islam has spread. Jinn are now often identified with earlier pagan gods.

It is noteworthy that where the world religions have spread, the previous gods of the people are reduced to the status of demons. In the case of Islam, this incorporation of native deities has taken place from West Africa to Central Asia and Indonesia. The same may be said of Hinduism in India and neighboring areas, and of Buddhism in Tibet, Burma, and Southeast Asia.

The Balinese, for example, believe in various classes of spirits, ranging from the great Hindu gods to minor spirits, including evil demons. In their myths and dramatic representations the demons play a prominent part and have distinctive features. Among Balinese puppets, for example, the demons have red eyes, large noses, and fangs.

In Tibet demons are represented by masks with which elaborate performances are enacted periodically. Much of this tradition predates Tibetan Buddhism.

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