Home » Writing » Guide to Classical Demonology, What are Demons, Anyway? Etymology. » What are Demons, Anyway? Etymology.

What are Demons, Anyway? Etymology.

So, you want demons in your story. Of course you do, who wouldn’t? Demons are bad ass. But demons aren’t just really big monsters. Yes, I know you’re the author so demons are whatever you damn well want them to be, but you do have an audience, and the word demon means something in particular to them. So, to get your demons seeming like demons, let’s try to figure them out.

Unfortunately, though “demon” might mean something in particular to reader X, to reader Y it might mean something else. The word is used a lot, to mean a wide variety of semi-related things. To look at this we’ll set the way back machine to ancient Greece and look at from where the English word “demon” comes. The word in question here is daimon.

In ancient Greek a daimon was a non-physical being, typically beneath the gods but above humans in the hierarchy of creation. A daimon can be either good or evil, specific or generic. For instance the Neoplatonists, in the 3rd century CE, talked about an individual’s guiding daimon. According to this you have your very own daimon (several, actually), who is trying to lead you towards the gods and the development of the soul to possibly god-like proportions. There are also daimons of fire that will try to trick and kill you. Different kinds of daimons, but all still daimons.

With the spread of Christianity, where daimons, such as the unclean sprits in the Gospels (though the term pneuma akatharton is also used, in Mark this becomes exchangeable with daimonion), daimons more or less become bad things for most people. This will be combined with the war in heaven from Revelations and the popular idea of demon as fallen angel is formed. Sure the contemporary Neoplatonists were still going on with a more traditional use of the term, but times change. The English word “demon” comes from the Latinized form of daimon, daemon. And so the evil demon is born. At least in English.

But this only tells us where the word comes from. Unfortunately it doesn’t tell us how it’s being used now. For instance when I think demon I rarely think “fallen angel.” Part of the difficulty is that English is not a particularly good language for dealing with such things. So while we have our demons, Judaism has lots of different demons, each with their own category, all of which we commonly translates as “demon.” That’s convenient, but not very helpful.

The language lesson is over, next we’ll look at demons in Judaism and then Christianity.

Guide to Classical Demonology, What are Demons, Anyway? Etymology. , , , , , ,