A friend recently asked me what seemed like an innocuous question: what is the origin of demons. I typed out an answer on the basis of my outdated reading on the subject only to realize that this is a very complex question indeed. While teaching my Ancient Near Eastern religions class over the past three years I regularly told students that there is no regular word for “demon” in Akkadian, the language of ancient Mesopotamia. Mesopotamian religion was the dominant system of belief in sheer size of area and antiquity in the Ancient Near East. There are characters recognized as demons: Pazuzu of The Exorcist fame among them. Their origin, however, is murky. In Mesopotamia demons are generally a mix of human and animal components supposed in some way to be responsible for misfortune. They are not evil, but they carry out the punishments decreed by the gods. In the first millennium BCE demons were understood to inhabit the Underworld, paving the way for Hell, once Zoroastrianism contributed the necessary duality for the region.
The Hebrew Bible contains no uncontested word for “demon” either. The words generally translated that way do not indicate evil spirits in the sense that the Christian Scriptures seem to depict them. In the Hebrew Bible they appear to be associated with the worship of “false gods” and the inhabitants of deserts and wastelands. In neither the Mesopotamian nor Israelite concepts do demons appear to “possess” people. By the time of Christianity, with its Zoroastrian-fueled dualism, we have an anti-God (the devil) and his anti-angelic minions (demons). One purpose here seems to have been to clear the monotheistic God of charges of originating evil. If there is only one God where does evil come from? Better to posit a devil than take that one where logic leads.
Back in the days when I was still in school, demons were regularly cast as the explanation for various mental illnesses and epilepsy. In a society that had trouble understanding the sudden onset of an epileptic fit or a sane individual growing insane, such misfortunes could appear supernatural. In a supernatural realm where evil is mediated by the devil, demons naturally volunteer for their old role as purveyors of divine punishment. Eventually the mythology of a revolt in the world of the gods emerged, probably based on the dualistic outlook of Zoroastrianism, and we soon have verses referring to the king of “Babylon” being reinterpreted as literal episodes on a spiritual plane. Once Jesus utilized this language to describe the suffering souls of his day, it became heresy to think of demons in any other way than as physically, or at least spiritually, real. In the modern day they are still with us as “spiritual entities that have never been human” according to Ghost Hunters. They do, however, resemble people in significant ways more than they resemble their mythic forebears. Where do they come from? The dark recesses of the human psyche. Their mythic origins, however, remain obscure.
In a tale that would have Edgar Allan Poe turning in his grave, a news article from Zimbabwe narrates the darker side of resurrection. In a July 26 story entitled “Schoolgirl ‘rises from the dead’” News Day online reports that a sixth form girl, after falling into a coma (the article says she had “fallen into a comma”-embarrassing enough under any circumstances) was pronounced dead and taken to the morgue. Her coughing, possibly from the cold, caught the attention of an attendant and she was rescued. Her schoolmates feared her until school authorities “assured them it (the mishap) was normal.” Even more disturbing is the sentence, “Cases of people gaining consciousness in the morgue after being certified dead are quite common and in most cases doctors would have erred.” The story serves a grim reminder of how in many parts of the world what is taken for granted in developed nations is still a desideratum.
The fate of the dead is a major preoccupation of religion. Certainly among the most famous African outlooks on the subject, the Egyptians possessed a highly refined view of the life beyond. Having just covered Egyptian funerary beliefs in Ancient Near Eastern Religions class, the connection between this chilling story and an ancient optimism among the Egyptians is worth noting. Initially life after death was limited to the king in ancient Egypt. Over the centuries, a kind of democratization of the afterlife took hold and the chance for renewed life was open to us regular sorts as well. In a snapshot of how religions work, this transformation holds the keys for further religious developments. The benefits trickle down from the elite to the peasant. Those who awake in the morgue may count themselves lucky since Osiris demands their presence only at a later date.
When Anubis comes knocking, don't answer.
Modern ideas of resurrection are great motivators for religious belief. The fact that Paleolithic burials sometimes include grave goods demonstrates that some kind of afterlife hope predates civilization itself. It is one of the formative elements of religion. In a world where death may not be the worst possible fate, however, such an afterlife may eventually lose its drawing power. For Egyptian peasants, the afterlife was pretty much a continuation of peasant life. I suspect that those who wake up in a morgue have a new perspective on life after death that most of us, thankfully, never have to face.
Preparing course notes on Ancient Near Eastern religions often sheds light on the religions we practice today. Religious beliefs are organic and, although many religions claim special revelation, their basic components have been around for millennia before they appeared. In the broad sweep of ancient times it becomes clear that religions evolve to fit the viewpoint of the power structures of society. The favorite god of a puissant sovereign became the chief god of a nation. When rulers change, gods sometimes change with them. Without doubting the sincerity of ancient believers, the truth is that gods serve the needs of the state as long as the state upholds the monarch. When gods become too sympathetic to the working class, well, it’s time to shuffle up the pantheon a bit. The story of Akhenaton’s advocacy of Aton worship is a case-in-point.
Somewhere along the way to modernity, symbolism became literalism. Anyone who follows the news of the various theocracies of modern history can see this pattern endlessly repeating itself. Politicians need a power-base and religious believers are often natural followers. By wedding gullibility to expediency a religious right is born. Akhenaton would have been proud. Of course, the message repeatedly doled out by our rapidly evolving, technical society is that studying history and religion (among other arcane subjects) is a waste of time. Look! New toys! We set ourselves up to fall prey to the unscrupulous.
How else do we explain the revelations of hypocrisy that spring up like toadstools whenever an über-religious candidate claims public office? Thank goodness modern religions teach forgiveness! In the empires of days long gone, kings lived a life out of touch with the common worker. They enjoyed luxuries that the laborer couldn’t even conjure. When a challenge arose to that power, all you need to do is bring the gods onto your side and even the most stalwart peasant will back off. When Akhenaton’s young son Tutankhaten inherited his shaky throne, the populace demanded the old gods back. Tutankhamen acquiesced and the balance of power was restored. The gods, apparently, did not seem to notice.
Reading about ancient religions helps to focus the long view. I’m brushing up on ancient Egyptian gods for my Ancient Near Eastern Religions class. Seeing how various gods rose to prominence with the fortunes of their patron kings or priesthoods suddenly struck a chord for modern-day religions as well. Many of society’s most conservative like to think that this is the day of Yahweh (or, not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus). This pre-biblical god has come into his own with the rise of the Catholic Church, following on from the conversion of Constantine, into the post-Reformation development of Evangelicalism. With the superiority of numbers and fiscal wealth, there is no disputing the one true god, is there?
What happens when the ultra-selfish free market consumes itself to a point that other cultures rise above it? Already outnumbered in souls by China and India what will Americans say when Buddhism or Hinduism outstrips Christianity? Is religion proven correct purely by the numbers? Cultural dominance has become inseparable from religious truth for many brands of Christianity. If in doubt, check out Andrew Schlafly’s Conservapedia (if any state would like to take him off New Jersey’s hands, you are certainly welcome). Being the right religion means being the might religion. Somewhere along the way it seems that the message of Christianity has become equated with bullying others around. I think Jesus must have gotten pushed around quite a bit as a kid on the playground.
What's behind that self-satisfied smile, Akhenaten?
When Amenhotep IV became king of Egypt, the priesthood of Amun had grown very strong. Probably in an effort to suppress this powerful rival, the king changed his name to Akhenaten and promulgated the sole worship of Aton. Some like to give Akenaten credit for being a monotheist. To me it seems more likely that the old pharaoh was attempting to show intolerant bullies the way to behave: use religion to political advantage. If the opposition disagrees, shut them down. Problem is, this doesn’t work well over the long term. As soon as the unpopular king died, the former religion reasserted itself and things went back to the way they had been. Tut, tut. Seems like religious bullies never learn.
Volcanoes have long been the prerogative of the gods. Saturday’s eruption in the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcanic complex in southern Chile joins last month’s outburst from Grimsvotn in Iceland for divine fire-storms. In the days before geology, the only explanation for these impressive explosions was the gods. The concept of Hell was fairly late in the development of ancient Near Eastern religions, otherwise volcanoes might have been labeled as Hell breaking loose, literally. Many historic eruptions have influenced the course of history, most notably Thera and Vesuvius. Ancients would have been hard pressed to see such spectacular—and obviously divine—displays as “natural.” Indeed, the concept of “natural” events was itself slow in evolving since the gods were always lurking in the dark corners of the evolving human psyche.
Fortunately, beyond disrupting some air travel, these two latest outbursts have been fairly benign from a human point of view. This too is an evolved perspective since we tend to see ourselves as the overlords of the natural world. Watching industrialists poke new orifices in the planet’s crust for personal gain even in rare and delicately balanced ecosystems, who can doubt that we are masters of our own domain? Much of the misdirected sense of such entitlement comes from interpreting the Bible as declaring the planet ours from the days of mythical Eden. Some of the more perverse applications of this principle include those who try to force the hand of God into sending the Second Coming due to their creating conditions appropriate to an apocalypse. Others declare that since said Second Coming is nigh, why not trash the environment? We won’t be needing it much longer.
Apart from the obviously failure of logic here, the anthropocentric view is also misguided. The earth was not created for us—we simply evolved on it. The corollary also stands true: long after any human intelligence is here to read these words, our planet will continue on its weary track around the sun until it blossoms into a red giant and consumes our final cinders. There are no horsemen in the clouds, but this planet is all that we have (even the space station depends upon it) and when we grow too arrogant, the planet unconsciously gives us a spectacular display to remind us that we are mere guests upon this globe. We need to treat it with respect.
That past informs the present in an oblique way. As religions continue to evolve they often depart from their original purposes. In preparation for my one surviving summer course, Ancient Near Eastern religions, I’ve been reviewing textbook choices. The procedure has reminded me of the unusual nature of ancient Egyptian religion. I have long contended that the environmental and social circumstances of a people determine the character of their religion. In Mesopotamia and the Levant, where rain is not always cooperative and impressive storms roll in, the gods often represent the awesome power of the atmosphere and the unpredictable will of the divine. In Egypt the fertility of the soil is assured by the regular flooding of the Nile. Rain does not play the same role in agriculture in such a system. Whereas the gods of the Mesopotamians are often stormy and violent, those of Egypt are generally peaceful and serene.
Egyptian religion developed independently of ancient Asia. Relatively isolated in the narrow strip of rich soil along the Nile and in the wave-dominated fan of the delta, Egypt reached an early cultural apex. Their religion emphasized the balance and continuity of life. Of course, it helps when your king is a god. This religion was based on the premise of an afterlife, the very fire-insurance that lends urgency to many Bible-thumpers today. Instead of believing the short, and often harsh life experienced by earth-bound mortals was the full picture, those placid eyes of stone pharaohs stare off toward a continued existence beyond that of life in the desert.
This tranquil religion did contain violent elements as well, but overall stability was valued and change unwelcome. Now as we see violence erupting in Egypt as the great ethical monotheistic religions clash for superiority, it is legitimate to wonder what has gone wrong. When did benevolent Ra become subject to the combating ideologies of Yahweh and Allah (who are, in terms of pedigree, the same deity)? Religion has become a tool in the utility belt of political power players. Since no one steps down willingly, the gods must duke it out. Even within Christianity, as is evident in America, multiple gods claim the title of creator and master. Perhaps it is the price of democracy. Otherwise we might experience the fact that even those pharaonic eyes did not always smile.
The moon is too easily ignored. Perhaps we fill our nights with too many other diversions that we easily overlook the millions of tons of rock high over our heads. When I introduce students to the importance of the moon in ancient religions they often seem surprised by the fact. The moon? It gives no heat, it is constantly changing, and sometimes it disappears altogether. Rather wimpy god to worship, don’t you think? Tonight the moon is back in the public eye because it is in perigee, its closest approach to earth in 18 years. In the facile language of the media, it is an “extreme super moon” (sounds like something you could buy at Wal-Mart). As with most ancient Near Eastern religions, modern perceptions, often vaguely scientific, do not encompass the enormity of phenomena before we became masters of the night.
The moon races Venus to perigee
In some ancient Near Eastern religions the moon was superior to the sun. We know that the moon’s light is reflected from the sun – something that did not fit their cosmology. Instead, in those regions often brutalized by a hot sun, the moon appeared kinder, gentler. It’s light helps to make many nights less intense and it never burns you. Since it is easier to stare directly at the moon, it makes an effective timepiece as well. Its changes are periodic and predictable. For a world without electricity, where nights were only infrequently shortened with oil lamps, and where daylight savings time would have made no sense, the moon ruled.
Actually, the moon played a role in developing the concept of the Trinity. Three great luminaries regularly appear in our skies: the sun, moon, and Venus. These days when most people have difficulty locating Venus, and generally no interest to do so, it goes without recognition that it is the third brightest natural object in the sky. In fact, Venus is bright enough regularly to stimulate UFO reports. A celestial triad thus ruled the skies of antiquity, and in many of those cultures the moon was the greatest of the three. So give the moon a few minutes of your time tonight as it gets closer to the earth than it will be again for many, many years. Perhaps it may give us a bit of understanding on the origins of some of our religious ideas that persist to this day.