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As the name sufficiently indicates, demonology is the science or doctrine concerning demons. Both in its form and in its meaning it has an obvious analogy with theology, which is the science or doctrine about God. And with reference to the many false and dangerous forms of this demonic science we may fitly adapt the well-known words of Albertus Magnus on the subject of theology and say of demonology, A daemonibus docetur, de daemonibus docet, et ad daemones ducit ("It is taught by the demons, it teaches about the demons, and it leads to the demons"). For very much of the literature that comes under this head of demonology is tainted with errors that may well owe their origin to the father of falsehood, and much of it again, especially those portions which have a practical purpose (what may be called the ascetical and mystical demonology) is designed to lead men to give themselves to the service of Satan.

There is, of course, a true doctrine about demons or evil spirits, namely, that portion of Catholic theology which treats of the creation and fall of the rebel angels, and of the various ways in which these fallen spirits are permitted to tempt and afflict the children of men. But for the most part these questions will be dealt with elsewhere in this work. Here, on the contrary, our chief concern is with the various ethnic, Jewish, and heretical systems of demonology. These systems are so many that it will be out of the question to deal with them all or to set forth their doctrines with completeness. And indeed a full treatment of these strange doctrines of demons might well seem somewhat out of place in these pages. It will be enough to give some indication of the main features of a few of the more important systems in various lands and in distant ages. This may enable the reader to appreciate the important part played by these ideas in the course of human history and their influence on the religion and morals and social life of the people. At the same time some attempt may be made to distinguish the scattered elements of truth which may still be found in this vast fabric of falsehood — truths of natural religion, recorded experience of actual facts, even perhaps remnants of revealed teaching that come from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures or from primitive tradition. This point has some importance at the present day, when the real or apparent agreement between heathen legend and Christian theology is so often made a ground of objection against the truth of revealed religion.

Perhaps the first fact that strikes one who approaches the study of this subject is the astonishing universality and antiquity of demonology, of some belief in the existence of demons or evil spirits, and of a consequent recourse to incantations or other magical practices. There are some things which flourished in the past and have long since disappeared from the face of the earth; and there are others whose recorded origin may be traced in comparatively modern times, and it is no surprise to find that they are still flourishing. There are beliefs and practices, again, which seem to be confined to certain lands and races of men, or to some particular stage of social culture. But there is something which belongs at once to the old world and the new, and is found flourishing among the most widely different races, and seems to be equally congenial to the wild habits of savages and the refinements of classical or modern culture. Its antiquity may be seen not only from the evidence of ancient monuments, but from the fact that a yet more remote past is still present with us in the races which remain, as one may say, in the primitive and prehistoric condition. And even amid these rude races, apparently innocent of all that savours of science and culture, we may find a belief in evil spirits, and some attempts to propitiate them and avert their wrath, or maybe to secure their favour and assistance. This belief in spirits, both good and evil, is commonly associated with one or other of two widespread and primitive forms of religious worship — and accordingly some modern folklorists and mythologists are led to ascribe its origin either to the personification of the forces of nature — in which many have found a "key to all the mythologies" — or else to Animism, or a belief in the powerful activity of the souls of the dead, who were therefore invoked and worshipped. On this last theory all spirits were at first conceived of as being the souls of dead men, and from this aboriginal Animism there were gradually developed the various elaborate systems of mythology, demonology, and angelology. But here it is well to distinguish between the facts themselves and the theory devised for their interpretation. It is a fact that these rude forms of worship are found among primitive peoples. But the manner in which they began and the motives of the first prehistoric worshippers are and must remain matters of conjecture. In the same way, with regard to the later phases, it is a fact that these primitive beliefs and practices have some features in common with later and more elaborate ethnic systems — e.g. the Iranian demonology of the Avesta — and these again have many points which find some counterpart in the pages of Scripture and Catholic theology; but it by no means follows from these facts that these facile theories are right as to the nature of the connection between these various ethnic and Christian systems. And a further consideration of the subject may serve to show that it may be explained in another and more satisfactory manner.

Assyrian and Akkadian demonology

Some idea of the antiquity of demonology and magical practices might be gathered from notices in the Bible or in classic literature, to say nothing of the argument that might be drawn from the universality of these beliefs and practices. But still more striking evidence has been brought to light by the decipherment of the cuneiform hieroglyphics which has opened a way to the study of the rich literature of Babylon and Assyria. In consequence of their bearing on the problems of Biblical history, attention has been attracted to the evidence of the monuments in regard to such matters as the cosmology, the tradition of the Deluge, or the relations of Assyria and Babylon with the people of Israel. And possibly less interest has been taken in the religious beliefs and practices of the Assyrians themselves. In this question of demonology, however, some of the Assyrian monuments may be said to have a special importance. From certain cuneiform texts which are more especially described as "religious", it appears that besides the public and official cult of the "twelve great gods" and their subordinate divinities, the Assyrians had a more sacred and secret religion, a religion of mystery and magic and sorcery. These "religious" texts, moreover, together with a mass of talismanic inscriptions on cylinders and amulets, prove the presence of an exceedingly rich demonology. Below the greater and lesser gods there was a vast host of spirits, some of them good and beneficent and some of them evil and hurtful. And these spirits were described and classified with an exactness which leads some to liken the arrangement to that of the choirs and orders of our own angelic hierarchy. The antiquity and importance of this secret religion, with its magic and incantations of the good spirits or evil demons, may be gathered from the fact that by order of King Assurbanipal his scribes made several copies of a great magical work according to an exemplar which had been preserved from a remote antiquity in the priestly school of Erech in Chaldea. This work consisted of three books, the first of which is entirely consecrated to incantations, conjurations, and imprecations against the evil spirits. These cuneiform books, it must be remembered, are really written on clay tablets. And each of the tablets of these first books which has come down to us ends with the title, "Tablet No. - of the Evil Spirits". The ideogram which is here rendered as kullulu — "accursed" or "evil" — might also be read as limuttu — "baneful". Besides being known by the generic name of udukku — "spirit" — a demon is called more distinctly ecimmu, or maskimmu. One special class of these spirits was the sedu, or divine bull, which is represented in the well-known figure of a man-headed bull so common on the Assyrian monuments. This name, it may be remarked, is probably the source of the Hebrew for demon. The Assyrian sedu, it is true, was more commonly a beneficent or tutelary spirit. But this is hardly an obstacle to the derivation, for the good spirits of one nation were often regarded as evil by men of rival races.

Iranian demonology

In many ways one of the most remarkable demonologies is that presented in the Avesta, the sacred book of the Mazdean religion of Zoroaster. In this ancient religion, which unlike that of the Assyrians, still exists in the Parsee community, the war between light and darkness, good and evil comes into greater prominence. Over against the good God, Ahura Mazda, with his hierarchy of holy spirits, there is arrayed the dark kingdom of demons, or daevas, under Anro Mainyus (Ahriman), the cruel Evil Spirit, the Demon of Demons (Daevanam Daeva), who is ever warring against Ahura Mazda and his faithful servants such as Zoroaster. It may be remarked that the name of Daeva is an instance of that change from a good to a bad sense which is seen in the case of the Greek word daimon. For the original meaning of the word is "shining one", and it comes from a primitive Aryan root div, which is likewise the source of the Greek Zeus and the Latin deus. But while these words, like the Sanskrit deva, retain the good meaning, daeva has come to mean "an evil spirit". There is at least a coincidence, if no deeper significance, in the fact that, while the word in its original sense was synonymous with Lucifer, it has now come to mean much the same as devil. There is also a curious coincidence in the similarity in sound between daeva, the modern Persian dev, and the word devil. Looking at the likeness both in sound and in significance, one would be tempted to say that they must have a common origin, but for the fact that we know with certainty that the word devil comes from diabolus (diabolos — diaballein) and can have no connection with the Persian or Sanskrit root.

Although there are marked differences between the demons of the Avesta and the devil in Scripture and Christian theology (for Christian doctrine is free from the dualism of the Mazdean system), the essential struggle between good and evil is still the same in both cases. And the pictures of the holiness and fidelity of Zoroaster when he is assailed by the temptations and persecutions of Anro Mainyus and his demons may well recall the trials of saints under the assaults of Satan or suggest some faint analogy with the great scene of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. Fortunately for English readers, a portion of the Vendidad (Fargard xix), which contains the temptation of Zoroaster, has been admirably rendered in a doctrinal paraphrase in Dr. Casartelli's "Leaves from my Eastern Garden". The important part played by the demons in the Mazdean system may be seen from the title of the Vendidad, which is the largest and most complete part of the Avesta, so much so that when the sacred book is written or printed without the commentaries it is generally known as Vendidad Sade which means something that is "given against the demons" — vidaevodata, i.e. contra daimones datus or antidaemoniacus.

Jewish demonology

When we turn from the Avesta to the Sacred Books of the Jews, that is to say to the canonical Scripture, we are struck by the absence of an elaborate demonology such as that of the Persians and Assyrians. There is much, indeed, about the angels of the Lord, the hosts of heaven, the seraphim and cherubim, and other spirits who stand before the throne or minister to men. But the mention of the evil spirits is comparatively slight. Not that their existence is ignored, for we have the temptation by the serpent, in which Jews as well as Christians recognize the work of the Evil Spirit. In Job, again, Satan appears as the tempter and the accuser of the just man; in Kings it is he who incites David to murder the prophet; in Zacharias he is seen in his office of accuser. An evil spirit comes upon the false prophets. Saul is afflicted or apparently possessed, by an evil spirit. The activity of the demon in magic arts is indicated in the works wrought by the magicians of Pharaoh, and in the Levitical laws against wizards or witches. The scapegoat is sent into the wilderness to Azazael, who is supposed by some to be a demon (see DAY OF ATONEMENT), and to this may be added a remarkable passage in Isaias which seems to countenance the common belief that demons dwell in waste places: "And demons and monsters shall meet, and the hairy ones shall cry out one to another, there hath the lamia lain down, and found rest for herself" (Isaiah 34:14). It is true that the Hebrew here rendered by "demons" may merely mean wild animals. But on the other hand, the Hebrew which is rendered very literally as "hairy ones" is translated "demons" by Targum and Peshitta, and is supposed to mean a goat shaped deity analogous to the Greek Pan. And "lamia" represents the original Lilith, a spirit of the night who in Hebrew legend is the demon wife of Adam.

A further development of the demonology of the Old Testament is seen in the Book of Tobias, which though not included in the Jewish Canon was written in Hebrew or Chaldean, and a version in the latter language has been recovered among some rabbinical writings. Here we have the demon Asmodeus who plays the part assigned to demons in many ethnic demonologies and folk-legends. He has been identified by some good authorities with the Aeshmo Daeva of the Avesta; but Whitehouse doubts this identification and prefers the alternative Hebrew etymology. In any case Asmodeus became a prominent figure in later Hebrew demonology, and some strange tales told about him in the Talmud are quite in the vein of "The Arabian Nights". The rabbinical demonology of the Talmud and Midrashim is very far from the reticence and sobriety of the canonical writings in regard to this subject. Some modern critics ascribe this rich growth of demonology among the Jews to the effects of the Captivity, and regard it as the result of Babylonian or Persian influence. But though in its abundance and elaboration it may bear some formal resemblance to these external systems, there seems no reason to regard it as simply a case of appropriation from the doctrines of strangers. For when we come to compare them more closely, we may well feel that the Jewish demonology has a distinctive character of its own, and should rather be regarded as an outgrowth from beliefs and ideas which were present in the mind of the chosen people before they came into contact with Persians and Babylonians. It is certainly significant that, instead of borrowing from the abundant legends and doctrines ready to their hand in the alien systems, the rabbinical demonologists sought their starting point in some text of their own scriptures and drew forth all they wanted by means of their subtle and ingenious methods of exegesis. Thus the aforesaid text of Isaias furnished, under the name of Lilith, a mysterious female night spirit who apparently lived in desolate places, and forthwith they made her the demon wife of Adam and the mother of demons. But whence, it may be asked, had these exponents of the sacred text any warrant for saying that our first father contracted a mixed marriage with a being of another race and begot children other than human? They simply took the text of Genesis, v: "And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, and begot a son to his own image and likeness". This explicit statement they said, plainly implies that previous to that time he had begotten sons who were not to his own image and likeness; for this he must needs have found some help meet of another race than his own, to wit a demon wife, to become the mother of demons. This notice of a union between mankind and beings of a different order had long been a familiar feature in pagan mythology and demonology, and, as will presently appear, some early Christian commentators discovered some countenance for it in Genesis, vi, 2, which tells how the sons of God "took to themselves wives of the daughters of men". One characteristic of Jewish demonology was the amazing multitude of the demons. According to all accounts every man has thousands of them at his side. The air is full of them, and, since they were the causes of various diseases, it was well that men should keep some guard on their mouths lest, swallowing a demon, they might be afflicted with some deadly disease. This may recall the common tendency to personify epidemic diseases and speak of "the cholera fiend", "the influenza fiend", etc. And it may be remarked that the old superstition of these Jewish demonologists presents a curiously close analogy to the theory of modern medical science. For we now know that the air is full of microbes and germs of disease, and that by inhaling any of these living organisms we receive the disease into our systems.

Demonology of the early Christian writers

Whatever may be said of this theory of the Rabbis, that the air is full of demons, and that men are in danger of receiving them into their systems it may certainly be said that in the days of the early Christians the air was dangerously full of demonologies, and that men were in peculiar peril of adopting erroneous doctrines on this matter. It must be remembered, on the one hand, that many of the Gospel miracles, and particularly the casting out of devils, must in any case have given the faithful a vivid sense of the existence and power of the evil spirits. At the same time, as we have seen, Scripture itself did not furnish any full and clear information in regard to the origin and the nature of these powerful enemies; on the other hand, it may be observed that the first Christian converts and the first Christian teachers were for the most part either Jews or Greeks, and many of them were living in the midst of those who professed some or other of the old Oriental religions. Thus, while they naturally wished to know something about these matters, they had but little definite knowledge of the truth, and on the other hand their ears were daily filled with false and misleading information. In these circumstances it is scarcely surprising to find that some of the earliest ecclesiastical writers, as St. Justin, Origen, and Tertullian, are not very happy in their treatment of this topic. There was, moreover, one fruitful source of error which is rather apt to be forgotten. Now that common consent of Catholic commentators has furnished a better interpretation of Genesis, vi, 2, and conciliar definitions and theological arguments have established the fact that the angels are purely spiritual beings, it may seem strange that some early Christian teachers should have supposed that the phrase, sons of God, could possibly mean the angels or that these pure spirits could have taken unto themselves wives of the daughters of men. But it must be borne in mind that the old commentators, who read the Septuagint or some derivative version, did not put this interpretation on the passage; the word itself was in the text before them, that is to say, the old Greek Bible expressly said that "the Angels of God took wives of the daughters of men". This unfortunate reading was certainly enough to give a wrong direction to much of the demonology of early Christian writers and those who went astray in other matters also naturally adopted peculiar ideas on this subject. In some ways one of the most remarkable examples of this mistaken demonology is that to be found in the pseudo-Clementine Homilies (Hom. viii, ix). The writer gives a very full account of the mysterious episode of Genesis, vi, 2, which, in common with so many others, he takes to be the origin of the demons who were in his view, the offspring of the supposed union of the angels of God and the daughters of men. But on one point, at any rate, he improves the story and does something to lighten our initial difficulty. The first objection to the legend was, that the angels as pure spirits, were plainly incapable of feeling sensual passions; and it was possibly a keen sense of this difficulty that led some who had adopted the story to deny the spirituality of the angelic nature. But the moralist evades it in a more ingenious manner. According to his account, the angels were not overpowered with the passion of sensual love while they were as yet in their purely spiritual state; but when they looked down and witnessed the wickedness and ingratitude of men whose sins were defiling the fair creation of God, they asked of their Creator that they might be endowed with bodies like those of men, so that coming down to earth, they might set things right and lead a righteous life in the visible creation. Their wish was granted, they were clothed in bodies and came down to dwell on earth. But now they found that with their raiment of mortal flesh they had acquired also the weakness and passions which had wrought such havoc in men, and they too, like the sons of men, became enamoured of the beauty of women and, forgetting the noble purpose of their descent to earth, gave themselves up to the gratification of their lust, and so rushed headlong to their ruin. The offspring of their union with the daughters of men were the giants — the mighty men of superhuman build and superhuman powers, as became the sons of incarnate angels, yet at the same time mortal, like their mortal mothers. And when these giants perished in the Flood their disembodied souls wandered through the world as the race of demons.

Medieval and modern demonology

Throughout the Christian Middle Ages the external systems of demonology among the uncultured races or in the ancient civilizations of the East continued their course, and may still be found flourishing in the home of their origin or in other lands. Within the Catholic fold there was less scope for the worse form of the old errors. The early heresies had been cast out, and theological speculation had been directed in the true way by the decision of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (545), which condemned certain Origenist errors on the subject of demons. But while the theologians of the great scholastic period were setting forth and elucidating the Catholic doctrine concerning angels and devils there was withal a darker side in the popular superstitions, and in the men who at all times continued to practise the black arts of magic, and witchcraft, and dealing with the devil. In the troubled period of the Renaissance and the Reformation there appears to have been a fresh outbreak of old superstitions and evil practices, and for a time both Catholic and Protestant countries were disturbed by the strange beliefs and the strange doings of real or supposed professors of the black arts and by the credulous and cruel persecutors who sought to suppress them. In the new age of the Revolution and the spread of practical ideas and exact methods of science it was at first thought by many that these medieval superstitions would speedily pass away. When men, materialized by the growth of wealth and the comforts of civilization, and enlightened by science and new philosophies, could scarce find faith to believe in the pure truths of revealed religion, there could be little room for any belief in the doctrines of demons. The whole thing was now rudely rejected as a dream and a delusion. Learned men marvelled at the credulity of their fathers, with their faith in ghosts, and demons, and black magic, but felt it impossible to take any serious interest in the subject in their age of enlightenment. Yet in fact there was still stranger delusion in the naive faith of the early Rationalists, who fondly fancied that they had found the key to all knowledge and that there were no things in heaven or earth beyond the reach of their science and philosophy. And much of the history of the last hundred years forms a curious comment on these proud pretentions. For far from disappearing from the face of the earth, much of the old occultism has been revived with a new vigour, and has taken new form in modern Spiritism At the same time, philosophers, historians, and men of science have been led to make a serious study of the story of demonology and occultism in past ages or in other lands, in order to understand its true significance.


With all their variations and contradictions, the multitudinous systems of demonology yet have much in common. In some cases this may be accounted for by the fact that one has freely borrowed from another. Thus, the demonology of early Christian writers would naturally owe much both to the systems of Jewish and Greek demonology, and these in their turn can hardly have been free from other foreign influences. And since not only heretical opinions, but orthodox teaching on this subject has at any rate some elements in common with the ethnic systems — from the Animism of the simple savage to the elaborate demonology of the Chaldeans and Iranians — the mythologist or folklorist bids us come to the conclusion that all are from the same source, and that the Biblical and Catholic doctrine on evil spirits must be no more than a development from Animism and a more refined form of ethnic demonology. But it may be well to observe that at best this solution is but a plausible hypothesis and that the facts of the case may be explained just as well by another hypothesis which some philosophic writers do not seem to have considered, to wit: the hypothesis that the teaching of revealed religion on this topic is true after all. Can it be said that if this were so there would be no trace of belief in demons among races outside the Christian fold or in religious systems older than the Bible? If, as our theology teaches, the fallen angels really exist and are permitted to try and tempt the sons of men, should we not expect to find some belief in their existence and some traces of their evil influence in every land and in every age of human history? Should we not expect to find that here as elsewhere the elements of truth would be overlaid with error, and that they should take different shapes in each nation and each succeeding age, according to the measure of knowledge, and culture, and new ideas current in the minds of men? This hypothesis, to say no more, will fit well all the facts — for instance, the universality of the belief in evil spirits and any evidence adducible for actual influence on men, whether in the records of demonic possession and magic in the past or in the phenomena of modern Spiritism. And we can scarcely say the same of the other hypothesis.

About this page

APA citation. Kent, W. (1908). Demonology. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Kent, William. "Demonology." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Tomas Hancil.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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