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History into the Realm of the Demonology.


Demonology is, as its name suggests, the study of demons: which prompts thequestion, what a demon is. The word itself derives from the Greek daimon,meaning simply a supernatural spirit or power of an inferior sort, i.e.,not a god. Thus eudaimonia, having a good daimon, which is translated as"happiness" or "fulfillment" or even "a flourishing life" (the last is therendering of the estimable Martha Nussbaum). When Socrates, in the Apology,claimed to be advised by a daimon, he meant (it seems) more or less what wenow call "the voice of conscience" (or would call it, if we were stillold-fashioned enough to believe in a conscience). In Latin, the word becamedæmon. The general rule, as Latin degenerated through the Middle Ages, wasthat the dipthongs "æ" and "oe" (which isn't in the standard web characterset) became "e"; this gave us edifice from æedificum, celestial fromcoelestis, and demon from dæmon. None of which actually says what the wordcame to mean.

In a basic sense, the meaning remained unchanged: an inferior sort ofsupernatural being. But such a statement carried one set of implicationsfor the pagans, and another, very different one for Christians. (I don'tknow how the other sorts of monotheists in the classical world --- Jews,Zoroastrians, Manicheans, the sundry Gnostic sects, etc., used the word, oreven how it is employed in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OldTestament.) In the Christian tradition, there was only one category ofsupernatural beings inferior to God, namely the angels, who were dividedbetween those who joined in Lucifer's rebellion (a third of the heavenlyhost, according to the Book of Revelation) and were condemned to Hell, andthose who remained loyal to their Creator and stayed in Heaven. (A charmingIrish tradition explained the fairies as the angels who opted forneutrality, but this is not orthodox at all.) The existence of the pagangods was not, for the most part, denied by the Fathers of Church (forinstance, Augustine): they were real alright, and really did work miraclesfor their followers, they just happened to be fallen angels who liedthrough their teeth (or whatever it is immaterial beings lied through).This applied all the way down the line, from the Olympian Gods to the mostminor fountain nymph, so the dæmones of the pagans were really fallenangels. Thus "demon" came to mean "fallen angel, inhabitant of Hell."Demonology, then, took the form of saying what these fiends were like, andwhat they were up to.

In a sense, this took a respectable form in the writings of theScholastics. Demons being a species of the genus of angels, anything whichwas true of angels was, of course, also true of demons. Any interestedreader may pursue this thread in the writings of, for instance, ThomasAquinas; nothing like his discussion of the problem of resurrectingcannibals who eat only human flesh, and whose parents did likewise, butstill interesting. It is the unrespectable side of demonology which is morepiquant.

This took the form of people writing about the details and particularitiesof Hell and its inhabitants. Some of this writing professed to be ofservice to good Christians; a much larger volume of it was frankly forpractitioners of ritual magic who wished to make use of the supernaturalpowers of demons. It is in these sources that we read of the elaboratehierarchy of Hell, with its Dukes and Counts and Grand Dukes and Presidentsand Chancellors, in fact, all the accoutrements of the terrestrial feudalorder. All of these beings were given names, descriptions, habits andhabitations. Those aspiring to traffic with the powers of Hell were advisedon which demon was best suited to which operation they had in mind --- thisone for seeing the future, that one for getting the object of your lust tohave sex with you, a third for finding hidden treasure.

Now, in the earlier parts of the Middle Ages, the Church's attitude towardssuch demonologists and the traditions of ritual magic they were a part ofwas actually half-way reasonable. While not denying the existence of demonsor the rest of of the mythology (it was, after all, in Augustine), it didtend to look very skeptically on anyone who actually claimed supernaturalpowers or to deal with demons. (Such people were of course still sinners,since it was the intent to perform these acts, thereby infringing on theperogatives of God, which mattered.) This began to change as the MiddleAges gave way to the Renaissance, and especially as inquisitors and otherauthorities already familiar with traditions of ritual magic (which, sinceit demanded literacy and even Latin, was very much an aristocratic sort ofunorthodoxy) began to have to deal with the supernatural practices ofpeasants in remote, backward areas --- the usual sort ofhexing-your-neighbors-goat affair which can be found in almost any peasantsociety, persisting, for instance, at least through the 1950s in the Ozarkmountains in the USA. For fairly obscure reasons, Churchmen began toactually believe the claims to magical powers; which, within the orthodoxChristian scheme, could only be explained by recourse to demons.

Thus was inaugurated the great European witch-craze, which was a shamefuland criminal enough episode, even if it did not kill nine million peopleand was not the suppression of a pagan religion. (I've gone over thatelsewhere in these notebooks.) So, too, was born the golden era ofdemonology, when witch-hunters and aspiring witch-hunters of all sortsdiscoursed upon the nature of the true enemy at great length, and themedieval grimoires were elaborated into vast treatises, some of them ratherrefined products of Renaissance Latinity. (James I of England wrote aDaemonologie, in Forme of a Dialogue, published in 1603, for instance.) Itlasted more or less until the beginning of the eighteenth century; Galileoand Descartes were contemporaneous, even prior to, such works of eruditionas Richard Gilpin's Dæmonologia sacra, or, A Treatise of Satan'stemptations (London: Richard Randal and Peter Maplasden, 1677). Gradually,as the educated came to be, if not more rational, then at any rate ashamedof public avowals of superstition, demonology as a learned discipline diedout, save perhaps among the most backward of theologians.

This happy state of affairs has continued, more or less, to the presentday. True, with the revival of interest in magic inaugurated by theRomantic period, from time to time some unusually benighted occultist willpen a tome on demons --- I myself, browsing through the stacks of theBerkeley library, have seen examples from the 19th century which, to myeye, were fully the equal of anything which flowed from the pens of James Ior Cotton Mather. But modern occultism tends to be fairly diffuse andintellectually squishy, and, most important, to reject Christianity; ithas, therefore, no reason to couch itself in terms of demons and fallenangels. (Of course some of its representatives do so, playing a moreextreme form of the game known to members of the Society for CreativeAnarchonism as "shock the mundies.") Today, therefore, demonology is mainlypursued by those who share a credulous belief in the supernatural with anacceptance of the Christian tradition, i.e., by the most benighted of theProtestant sects. This Republic is already over-supplied with these people,and they have been gathering numbers and strength for decades. We do notyet see courses in demonology at Christian colleges, much less revivals oflaws against witch-craft, but one may always hope...

One of the most curious thing about demonology is the following. It is fullof facts, incredibly detailed ones, with no basis whatsoever. (There are noangels; a fortiori there are no fallen ones, and thus no facts about them.)Where, then, did all those names, portraits, descriptions, chains ofcommand, specialties and so forth come from? Well, much of it was simplyeach writer borrowing from his predecessors, and historians are very goodat uncovering such things. Some of it was simply re-interpreting variousbeliefs of the pagans, heathens and peasants within an inherited schema.But most of it was just made up. For someone interested in pathologicalintellectual disciplines, understanding how people --- copy-writers, poets,scientists, politicians, role-playing gamers, demonologists --- make thingsup is pretty important. Equally important is understanding what happensafter they've made things up, how such inventions spread, or fail to, amongthe members of the relevant community, to be incorporated into furtherimaginings or condemned to the dust-heap, or even to get their authorscondemned. One could probably do very useful work by examining the laterprocess among the European demonologists of the last thousand years or so;their imaginations are, fortunately, no longer accessible for study.

This is as good a place as any to reflect upon the story of the rebellionof the angels, at least as a literary theme. The first person, so far as Ican determine, to make it such was Milton, in a work which even Voltairewas forced to admire. But the story, as Milton tells it, is inconsistent.Lucifer and his fellow angels were, after all, angels, "intellectualbeings" (II, 147); for such creatures, or indeed anything sharper than abag of hammers, to rebel against a power they knew to be omnipotent simplymakes no sense. Either Lucifer and his angels were dumb as rocks; or God isnot omnipotent; or, as Mitchell Porter points out to me, the rebel angelswere simply acting out of defiance and spite, knowing their cause to behopeless, which is not the way Milton tells it, but has a certainplausibility to modern ears. (The Zoroastrian solution, which of coursepredates the Christian tradition by many centuries, was to make theopposing powers of good and evil, Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman, equally powerfuland equally eternal. While admirably symmetric and logical, there have beenstrangely few takers for this notion.) For the most part, those laterwriters who have taken up the theme have been more or less hostile toChristianity, and accordingly have opted to portray God as less thanomnipotent, and the rebellion as a less-than-totally-irrational gamblewhich failed. (Of course, the other problem with Paradise Lost is that, inthe words of a later and lesser poet,

Malt does more than Milton can To justify God's ways to Man,the whole problem of theodicy being insoluble within the bounds ofChristianity, or indeed any religion which believes in a God omnipotent,omniscient and omnibenevolent.) This would also be the appropriate place to discuss various mutations ofthe monotheist belief in devils --- like the Bohemian sect who came toregard Lucifer as the true savior, or the origins of Satan in the OldTestament as a kind of prosecuting attorney at the court of Yahweh (seeJob) --- but I'm tired and I've got real work to do.

Recommended: Dante Aligheri, Inferno (I'm particularly fond of the translation byDorothy Sayers) Steven Brust, To Reign in Hell Norman Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons Anatole France, The Revolt of the Angels John Milton, Paradise Lost Gilbert Murray, "Satanism and World Order," in Humanist Essays Wayne Shumaker, The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study inIntellectual Patterns To read: Stuart Clark, Thinking With Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early ModernEurope Michel de Certeau, The Possession at Loudun [Blurb] Bill Ellis Lucifer Ascending: The Occult in Folklore and Popular Culture Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media Henry Ansgar Kelly, Satan: A Biography [blurb] Armando Maggi In the Company of Demons: Unnatural Beings, Love, and Identity in theItalian Renaissance [Blurb] Satan's Rhetoric: A Study of Renaissance Demonology [Blurb] Jeffrey Burton Russell, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity toPrimitive Christianity .

Information collected by Tammy Wood.

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