Posts Tagged Judaism

Demons in Judaism

19 October 2010

Specifically, we’ll look at demons in what has become mainstream Judaism. That means the funky, Zoroastrianism-influenced Enoch material will have to wait. It’s somewhat relevant, but much of it was subsumed into early Christianity and rejected by Rabbinic Judaism, so we’ll get to the general gist of it when we look at early Christian demonology.

There is a generic word for “demon” in Hebrew: shed (pl. shedim). The term covers a lot of ground. The Hebrew Bible, and later Talmud and then kabbalistic texts such as the Zohar also uses different terms to refer to specific kinds of demons. Generally speaking, Jewish demons included satyr-like creatures, evil spirits, the children of Lilith and the like. Eventually we’ll see beings more like what will become normative in Medieval and Renaissance occultism, though the differences, even if subtle, are significant. We wont see fallen angle-type demons outside of the Enoch material.

For simplicity, we’ll divide our demons into the following categories:

1. Nasty nature spirits
2. The Children of Lilith
3. “Demons”

The nasty nature spirits are typically described a satyrs, varying in power and prestige. Perhaps the most famous of these, which will eventually become as close to a fallen angel as we find in Judaism, is Azazel. During the Temple Period an “Azazel sacrifice” used to be made. Originally this referred to a mountainous region where a scape goat-like sacrifice offering was made. The region was eventually connected to a local demon, or possible pagan deity. We’ll then see in various texts the idea that the sacrifice was made to appease the demon.

A lot of us are at least vaguely familiar with Lilith, or with the popular stories that one will find about her in the internet; most of which lack a basic foundation in research . . . but that’s another post. Lilith is not in the Bible. She appears in Talmud and various commentaries on the Bible and eventually in Jewish mystical material. The short version is that Lilith was Adam’s first wife. Nastiness ensued (depending on which web site you read, you’ll get a different version of this) and Lilith leaves Eden. Out in the real world she goes demonic, cohabits with bodiless spirits and produces her own demonic offspring. They’re known for suffocating babies in their sleep. Historically, it seems likely that Lilith was originally not an individual demon but a class of spirits, appearing in ancient Akkadian mythology.

The generic demon is an interesting category. On the one hand we find beings like Samael, who is the accuser, tempter, angel of death, the Evil Inclination and a host of other nasties. However Samael cannot act without permission from God, so there is no notion of rebellion here. Ashmedai (aka Asmodeus) was the king of demons, and a child of Lilith, but apparently not of the really nasty variety. It’s said that Ashmedai studies Torah and keeps the commandments. This is part of what makes this kind of demon so difficult. Many Jewish demons are not necessarily evil, just unpleasant. A whole class of them are actually human souls that weren’t given bodies before the beginning of the seventh day of creation. They became jealous of their embodied cousins (i.e. us) and so started being mean to us. That being said, they are also frequently described as being good Jews, going to synagogue and being in charge of punishing people who violate commandments or abuse prayer books. Eventually, though influenced by Greek and Christian thought, we’ll see the idea that each demon has an angelic counterpart that can make the demon obey a magician. Similar ideas are found in Medieval and Renaissance occultism and may have been influenced by Neoplatonism (as much of Medieval and Renaissance occultism have been as well).

What are Demons, Anyway? Etymology.

5 August 2010

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.