Evil That Men Do

the-demonicTheologians, for the most part, gave up studying demons a long while ago. With the advent of modern medical science, the descriptions of demonic possession in the New Testament seemed pretty clearly to be cases of epilepsy. Since people in antiquity had no means to study brains electro-chemically, there was no recourse for them to understand the sudden changes in behavior that often accompany seizures. They drew on what their culture knew—malevolent spirits—to explain this disturbing behavior. Ewan Fernie takes a different approach in The Demonic: Literature and Experience. As an English professor, he looks at both demons and the demonic in mostly English literature, often focusing on the adjective more than the noun. There is a great deal of insight in this study and characters the reader may or may not recognize seem to fit fairly easily into the category as described by the author. Indeed, God and the Devil appear much closer than many religious readers would feel comfortable seeing them.

Although I enjoy reading about literature, my favorite chapter in this book was the treatment of Martin Luther. Not having grown up Lutheran, I feel that I don’t know the great reformer well enough. The anniversary of his 95 Theses is coming up next year and there’s a lot of attention being paid to the former monk right now. Even despite this, he was a fascinating figure who firmly believed in diabolical activity in the world. Indeed, much of what science would eventually strip away he saw as evidence of the demonic. Other theologians who’ve followed him built on these same ideas. The Dark Ages were the high point of official demonology, after all.

Writers since Luther, many of them touting fiction, also latched onto the concept of the demonic as a great explanation for “the evil that men do.” Quite often Fernie traces them to Shakespeare, the anniversary of whose death is quickly drawing to a close. The Reformation would’ve been much closer to the Bard than it seems to us. Demons were still around and available for all varieties of nastiness against human beings. Fernie makes the point that the association of the demonic and sexuality became more pronounced over time. We see this even today in possession movies. The origins of the ideas, however, are more complex than they might seem. The Demonic will give the reader plenty to think about in this season of long nights and short days and the basic confusion running rampant over what is good and what is evil.

Shaman on Us

My reading habits are unorthodox. I don’t follow a fixed plan, but hope for something that will keep me engaged for the fifteen or so hours I spend commuting each week. I began October with a book about werewolves and followed it up with a book on the Hmong. Apropos of neither and both, I turned next to Shamanism: An Introduction, by Margaret Stutley. While not the best organized book, it does provide a smorgasbord of shamanistic traditions, principally from Siberia, where Shamanism was first recognized. Before I’d finished, I’d read about both epilepsy and werewolves.

Shamanism is not a “religion” per se. There is little agreement among scholars about what a religion is at all. Shamanism is very much a local set of beliefs and practices that have only very basic elements in common (shamans being one of them). It is a good example, however, of how moral heathens can be. Shamans often accompany egalitarian societies who do not require governments and religious leaders telling them to be nice to each other. No, this is not the noble savage myth, but it is a clear indication that major religions are not required for morality. It evolves on its own. Often shamanism is not constrained by overly left-brain influence, and sees connections science can only deny. The plight of Lia Lee was explained here in a way physicians could access—epilepsy and other diseases are problems of the soul as much as the body—if only they read books about religion. Healing involves calling the soul back. Treatment of the body misses the point. And sometimes the dead become werewolves.

We live in a world where real suffering is caused by lack of understanding about religion. Assuming a cultural hegemony of Christianity, or Islam, and sometimes even other religions, we discount those who believe differently than we do. The New Atheists frequently overlook just how seriously people take the world of the emotions and belief. That realm is a large part of what makes us human and it plays by no logical rules. Nor does it care to. In a country, such as the United States, where money is believed to be the very warp and woof of the good life, shamans sometimes secretly cut the thread. Still, don’t ask universities to expand the study of something as insignificant as religion because all intelligent people know that nobody really believes that stuff any more.

Disease Divine

Diseases, for most people of the modern West, are difficult to diagnose as divine. At my wife’s urging, I’ve been reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. I have a feeling I’ll be commenting on various aspects as I read through it, but something caught me almost immediately. Although the book is not about religion, the culture of the Hmong (about which I knew nothing just hours ago) is truly imbued with religion. Our medical science is, well, science (unless perhaps you’re from Athens, Georgia). Western culture since the Enlightenment has come to understand many of the body’s systems intimately, discerning just which chemicals to proscribe to treat this or that electro-chemical reaction in the body. And we consider it normal. Epilepsy, the condition of Lia Lee, is a disease that, as Fadiman points out, has had a long divine pedigree even in the west. The Judaic tradition at various stages considered it demonic possession, the Romans understood it as a kind of deity-induced madness.

Interestingly, Fadiman uses the case of Tony Coelho, an epileptic and congressmen, to make a point about the Hmong community. Coelho, she notes, had been intending to enter the priesthood but the Church has a canon forbidding ordination to an epileptic. This gave me a considerable pause. Clergy in many cultures must be “perfect” physical specimens. According to the Hebrew Bible, men who had certain deformities “down there” were disqualified, although, one notes, that they would have served fully clothed. Epilepsy, having been putative cured by Jesus many times, might seem a strange disqualifier from priesthood. I wondered why it was singled out from among the many maladies that might have seemed more pressing. Even in our enlightened age, epilepsy still bears the scars of the divine.

Narrating the experience of the Hmong in a Thai refugee camp, Fadiman notes that the subtext was often conversion. As she points out, for the Hmong medicine is religion. Although the missionaries had converted some, their very enthusiasm ensured that the Hmong would not generally go to them for treatment. Here is a stark difference between a people whose religion permeates every aspect of their lives and westerners for whom religion is compartmentalized in a different place than medical science. For the Hmong, wellness is part of a larger picture from which religious belief simply can’t be separated. For some epilepsy is a disease to be cured, if possible. For others it is a sign of a budding shaman. I look forward to reading more, as it is clear that by shifting perspectives, even the enlightened might have something to learn from those they deem uneducated.

Demonic Beginnings

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.

Parsing an Exorcism

The latest in my spate of scary movie viewings is The Last Exorcism. The press when it was released last year made claims of extreme fright, but my impression was that I’d seen it all before. The “found footage” fantasy is difficult to maintain—although the camera work in the film is good—and the premise of demonic possession is frightening if the viewer is a believer. The hook for this movie, however, is that the exorcist himself doesn’t believe and becomes a victim of his own unbelief. The pattern overall follows The Exorcist, but without the creepy soundtrack and staged lighting effects, The Last Exorcism relies heavily on the viewer’s willingness to believe. The demonic possession is presented as extreme contortionism and self-destructive behavior, as well as the uncharacteristic violence by the victim. When Nell Sweetzer gives birth to a demonic child, a la Rosemary’s Baby, the role of good Christian gone occult feels a little hackneyed.

I’ve tried to analyze what scares so many people with movies of demonic possession. The core fears seem to come down to two: belief in the reality of demonic possession and the fear of being out of control. Historically the concept of possession was originally relegated to the gods with demon possession apparently arising as a pre-scientific attempt to explain epilepsy. The fact that most Christian denominations no longer recognize physical demon possession (a fact exploited by The Last Exorcism) makes it more frightening still. For a generation of media-saturated viewers convinced that cover-ups are common the credibility of the church, struggling with its own metaphorical demons, is suspect. Perhaps demons are out there—a common enough assertion on the reality show Ghost Hunters—and the church has lost control over them. When Jason and Grant explain what demons are, however, they are pretty far afield from Legion being cast into a herd of swine.

If the Internet is any kind of reliable measure of people’s fears, zombies and demons appear to be nearly on a level when it comes to belief. Both are supernatural and neither stretches credulity to the point of humans growing fangs or matted fur. Both participate in the idea that there is more to be feared beyond death. Both fail in the court of science. The Exorcism of Emily Rose raised the ambivalence of demonic possession to the level of the courtroom. One thing I learned on jury duty last week is that the truth is measured on the basis of the judgment of a quorum of rational individuals. The implications of this are frightening indeed: those who accept the reality of non-physical monsters (the jury is still out on ghosts) are fully capable, in a legal setting, of deciding the truth of the matter. The only corrective to witch-hunts and state-sponsored exorcisms would seem to be education. Today education comes via the media where zombies and demons freely roam.