If you’ve ever watched a famous horror movie about possession like The Exorcist, you’ve probably become at least a little intrigued by the notion of a whole science around unsavory, dark beings whose maleficent presence threatens mankind—or at least makes annoying noises at night.
Demonology, or the study of demons (with a name like that, what else would it be) has been around for thousands of years and exists around the globe—from ancient China to Victorian England. Yes, it even exists today, even if mostly in a scholarly, anthropological sense that is decidedly less exciting than dashing off into a dark and scary forest with a vial of holy water.
A demon could inhabit a corporeal body, such as a blood-sucking vampire, or a seductive succubus. Alternatively, they could be ethereal spirits like genies or animating forces (both good and bad) that inhabit the natural world. Ancient texts in almost every religion have discussed demons, their habits, habitats, origins, and proposed ways for fighting or controlling them.
Let’s take a brief trip around the world and learn about this fascinating metaphysical science.
Demons in the Ancient World
Demons populated the Near East and came in a variety of forms. In Babylonia, a group of seven evil gods were known as shedu—and they looked like winged bulls. In Jewish eschatology, the Talmud discusses the presence of mischievous or maleficent spirits who are disembodied souls created from spilled seed—while also proscribing methods for driving them away (such as calling out their lack of a shadow). In Arabia, djinn traveled the desert sands, supernatural beings inclined to either good or bad, who later became the popular genies of The Arabian Nights.
Celtic peoples spread around continental Europe believed in a whole host of terrifying creatures, many of which likely inspired the characters that populate the horror genre (such as Dracula). Banshees (wailing ghosts), Kelpies (demons that attempted to lure people into the water) and even headless horsemen ran rampant around the bronze-age imagination of Europe. King of the demons was the cyclopic Baylor, whose one-eyed stare was one of death.
The rational Greeks were not immune to belief in supernatural creatures like Gryphons, Sphinxes, Satyrs, and Minotaurs (all of which were either people-animal hybrids, or animal hybrids exclusively). Though these creatures were not demons, the Greeks did have the Furies (Erinyes in Greek, Dirae in Latin), who punished the matricidal Orestes by pursuing him endlessly and destroying his sanity.
Demons in Asia
Chinese culture and religion is a panoply of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism (and even parts of Hinduism). These various traditions and outlooks have blended and migrated, as have their demons. In Buddhist cosmology, demons torment sinners in a multi-layered hell. They may also provide temptation to mortals or attempt to derail their journey to enlightenment. Some demons were even once practitioners of Buddhism, who failed to develop true wisdom and compassion because of misguided practices.
In Hinduism, sinners might be cast into a spiritual exile of wandering the earth without a bodily form until they are reborn. Ancient Sanskrit texts discuss beings like the Rakshasa, a terrifying, fanged creature that can smell human flesh—which it loves to eat. Did we mention it likes to drink human blood out of a skull goblet? In epic stories like the Ramayana, an army of monkeys battles the demon-king Ravana and his forces of darkness.
Japanese folklore is full of terrifying demon-like creatures whose appearance is a far cry from your average pocket monster. Yuki-onna (Snow Woman) floats around during wintertime and looks for unsuspecting victims whose essence she can suck out. Oni are hulking figures with horns and clubs who appear in popular tales like The Peach Boy. A kappa is a water-demon that looks like a turtle—only with a water-filled bowl in its head. If you bow, he will return the formality, and the water will spill out, freezing the kappa and rendering it harmless.
Demons in the Western World… Medieval and Modern
The advent and spread of Christianity fueled the study of demonology through its emphasis on salvation and the opposing forces of hell. Demons were agents of the Devil (Lucifer) who was himself a fallen angel cast out of heaven, as depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Demons might tempt religious hermits living secluded lives of prayer and contemplation. They might proffer help and guidance to witches and wizards. One of the key texts indicating a belief in demons or diabolical beings is found right in the New Testament, which describes a scene of an exorcism—the forced removal of a demon or maleficent spirit inhabiting and controlling a human body (see Mark 1:23–26; 9:14–29; Luke 11:14–26). This theme of exorcism was repeated throughout the history of the church, and even depicted in popular culture (such as movies like the aforementioned The Exorcist).
With the proliferation of humanism and the Renaissance, the focus of arts, sciences, and even literature moved away from eschatological battles that pitted supernatural forces of good and evil against each other—and shifted instead to the human form and condition. The Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution only fortfited the move away from belief in demons, though they retained a continued presence (if not reduced to comical standards) in many folk and fairy tales.
But in reaction to the Industrial Revolution came the Romantic Movement, with an emphasis on emotion and the supernatural. The Gothic Genre was a spinoff resulting in a new obsession with the dark and macabre, and books like Frankenstein and Dracula.
Over the years, the horror genre would find expression in writers like Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, and H.P. Lovecraft, whose were not averse to depicting a world of dark emissaries and malevolent spirits—and authors like Stephen King have continued their trend.
However, for the most part, demonology is no longer a discipline with practical manifestations. And yet, in many undeveloped parts of the world, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, the Amazonian Rainforest, and the mountainous regions of Central Asia, belief in an invisible world of spirits lives on—and so doe the study of how to deal with, avoid, confront, or control the demonic forces of darkness.