A History of Hellions
“Mesopotamia” is a sweeping generalization covering arguably the world’s oldest civilization. The term is shorthand for the Levant/fertile crescent cultures in the Middle East between the northmost Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, a valley defined by the Tigris and Euphrates river…the legendary location of the Garden of Eden. Its history begins in 10,000 BCE, but its written history goes back to 4,000 BCE. Cities like Babylon, Ur, Uruk, and Nineveh and cultures/empires like Sumeria, Akkadia, Assyria provide the backdrop for the Old and New Testament of the bible and the birth of the Jewish people, and Mesopotamia was, to the ancient Greeks and Romans, what the classical civilizations are today. The Mesopotamian period extends to perhaps 539-332 BCE (the fall of Babylon and the reign of Alexander the Great), but it provides the foundational myths for ancient and modern Christianity and Judaism.
Recognizing that it’s impossible to describe “a” Mesopotamian mythology, Mesopotamia had over 2,100 gods, although over time many of these were consolidated into a pantheon of 20-30 key players. For the most part these were regional gods, the powers that watched over key cities. Gods were sometimes divided into gods of the sky and gods of the underworld (the “Anunnaki,” though at times this term applies to all gods.)
Like the Greek gods, Mesopotamian gods weren’t good or evil, but ambivalent. The well-loved Ishtaar had the power to destroy cities. An important concept is the idea of “me”, a long list of divine concepts that, as a whole, are the foundations for civilization: Mesopotamia defined itself by its urban areas and its civilizations, and its gods and goddesses are informed by being a part of a civilization. Their underworld, for instance, is a walled city under the earth. War and conquest are both a part of civilization, so Nergal – as close to a god of slaughter and mayhem as you’re likely to find – is a part of the pantheon. There really aren’t “good” gods or “bad” gods. This pattern continues in Egypt, with its emphasis on the dualistic powers of order/harmony/civilization and disorder/wilderness/chaos.
Some of the more recognizable names: Inanna/Ishtaar, Tiamat, Ereshkigal, Pazuzu, Lilith, Ba’al.
The Mesopotamian underworld was (again, generalizing) ruled primarily by Ereshkigal, a queen of the dead figure originally brought against her will to the underworld, along with her family and to a greater or lesser degree her consort, the lion-like god of war/fire/pestilence, Nergal. It was a bleak, dusty nothing of a place, a dark storage place for the dead (although having a lot of children who respected you might lift this curse somewhat). Theoretically no-one escaped this realm, but there’s always a bit of a revolving door there. At times, the underworld was more of an otherworld, in the realms beyond the mountain ranges that marked Mesopotamia’s borders. At other times, it was deep underground, beyond the river Huber.
The difference between “deity” and “demon” was hazy: deities were worshipped, demons were not. Deities were civilized, demons were creatures of the wilderness. Lilith seems to have been both at some point.
Demons could be invoked in magic (Pazuzu was invoked against XXXX to protect children), but in general, they were unsafe to work with.
Two broad demon categories: wilderness demons (the lilitu and others), which were creatures outside of civilization, and underworld demons (XXX, yyy), who served Ereshkigel and her court. As the underworld was associated with “wilderness” and “far away” these aren’t clear distinctions.
Don’t be afraid of sex! Week-long sex scenes occur in the “Epic of Gilgamesh” and “Erishkegal and Nergal.” They’re physical, graphic, and romantic. One of the biggest threats demons brought to the table was killing children and interfering with pregnancies. Child mortality was high, and having descendants was key to any sort of happiness in the afterlife. There is the suggestion of a same-sex relationship between Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, but it could be argued that the whole concept of “gay relationship” was a few thousand years down the line and this was just a “relationship.” One of the pivotal characters in Gilgamesh’s story is a sacred prostitute, and, in fact, “sacred prostitute” was one of the “me” that built civilization. Pazuzu’s penis is truly remarkable and serpentine. Mesopotamia isn’t the conservativism of the Old Testament…it’s what that conservativism was a response to (and Babylon, Sodom, and Gomorrah’s shadows stretch into 21st century religious sexual angst). Mesopotamian religion was a religion of life, not of the afterlife. Worth remembering.
Written records are scarce, and tend to be documents kept by the mostly male priesthood.
Mesopotamia and its religion is defined by cities and civilization. To be divine was to be a part of a civilization. If there was a dualistic element in Mesopotamian religion it was civilization/wilderness (a dualism that carries through to Egypt and early Judaism.) Demons are a part of the wilderness: they prey on souls journeying between the living world (the city) and the underworld (another city). They live in trees or haunt distant mountains, and take the form of owls, jackals, winds, lions.
The mythological roots of Europe, India, and the Middle East are tied deeply to Mesopotamia, so deep as to be almost invisible. The legend of Persephone has roots in two of Erishkegal’s myths. Many demons prowling the 20th century (Lilith, Astartoth, Ba’al, Beelzebub, perhaps even Lucifer and Satan) have their origins in the Levant: Jahweh/El, the Christian “God,” has roots in Babylon and Assyria. This mythology was old before old was a concept, and even by 700 BCE had been transformed and rebranded. Ishtaar has many names because she was drawn from many sources. Even the boundaries of myth and history are hazy. One king from 3500 years ago becomes a god later. We can pretend to understand Greek mythology, it’s only 3,000 years old, but Mesopotamia is separated from us by 6,000 years.
The Hyskos: Some time after 1700 BCE, a Semitic tribe, probably Ba’al-worshippers, settled in the Nile Delta. Within a century they had grown strong enough to take over the position of Pharaoh, and ruled much of Egypt through about 1532, when they were driven out of power. During their time in power they adopted Set (Egyptian god of strength, chaos, the wilderness, and foreigners) as their patron, likely because of the Vanquishing Tiamat/Vanquishing Apep the Serpent story the two gods shared. After they were driven out of power Set fell out of favor in much of Egypt. There’s some thought that this at least informed the story of Exodus in the Old Testament, and a place where Ba’al intersects with the closest thing Egypt has to an evil god.
With a system of writing dated as far back as 3200 BCE, Egypt defines “Ancient History.” There’s a few broad subdivisions of Egyptian history – the Old Kingdom (2700-2200) is the big pyramid-building, monument-building phase; the New Kingdom (1550-1070) has some exciting experiments with monotheism and some of the best known names (Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ramsesses II). By 500 BCE Egypt had been converted to Greek rule, which was a generally positive period for them, but by this period they had lost much of the national/cultural identity that captures the modern imagination. Egypt had a strong magical tradition, particularly in the New Kingdom period, but their complicated theology and relative cultural isolation made it hard to borrow from them.
The end of the Old Kingdom was marked by plague, famine, and succession struggles following the 90-year (!!) reign of Pharaoh Pepi II Neferkare…and if you want to have your faith in “god incarnated in human form” as a concept shaken, think of poor Pepi II in his last years, it’s a painful image. After a few centuries of less-than-golden years, the New Kingdom launched with less faith in the divine kings and, likely, in the sustaining force of the kingdom’s religious institutions.
Egyptian myth was complex, with stories that appear to contradict each other, animal-headed gods with weird sexual fetishes, and an afterlife ranging from merely complex to “add stats and call it a tabletop role-playing game” complex. One source of confusion is that Egypt didn’t have “gods” in the same sense as the Greeks did: their gods acted like parts of speech or elements in the periodic table. “Horus” was a kingship god, the patron of the Pharoah, although an individual Pharoah (also a god) might take “Horus” as a part of his name. Ra was the sun-god, Horus-Ra was Horus’s aspect as the sun. Soebek the crocodile might transform into Soebek-Ra, and there was an “Old Horus” that predated the myth of Osiris…Ra’s alleged father…entirely. Sekmet the lion-goddess was the fearsome aspect of Bast the cat-goddess, and BOTH were aspects of Hathor the Love/Motherhood goddess when she was having a particularly bad day. Did they actually have animal heads? Or did this merely express an aspect of them? Did the Egyptians really “believe” anything this complex, or was it a sophisticated set of metaphors? It’s hard to say. However, we can say that much of what we think we know about Egyptian myth was filtered through Greek historians, who lovingly added their theistic biases and literal, approachable ideas of god to the story.
There are a few key concepts to understanding Egyptian myth. Firstly, it’s very cyclic. Every day the sun makes its journey across the sky and every night Set fights Apep, and we cheer him on. Today’s God-Pharaoh will take his place in the afterlife, to be replaced by another god-pharoah, just like Osiris is replaced by Horus. This may have created some cultural conservatism that kept Egypt in a cultural eddy for a thousand-odd years.
Second, much of Egyptian magic was concerned with maintaining maat, a force of truth, justice, order, and harmony. This was the principle role of the Pharaoh and how he served as the center of government and culture. He maintained a connection between the gods, the underworld, and humanity, and held back the forces of isfet: chaos and disorder. Civilization was a bright bubble that ritual, community, and law sustained.
Thirdly, Egypt was the religious equivalent of a particularly weird episode of the “Hoarders” show. Ideas were brought in and kept around in case they were useful or interesting. There’s a staggering array of underworld kingdoms, a huge multiplicity of gods, several different creation myths, and huge amounts of contradiction and confusion in even the few myths that we’ve received. And that’s okay.
Two noteworthy shifts in the nature of Egyptian magic: Through the Old Kingdom period and leading into the beginning of the New Kingdom, the afterlife is gradually democratized. Initially, only the Pharaoh and his family had any sort of afterlife. Gradually the “technology” of the afterlife journey became available for anyone with pockets deep enough to get their own hand-written copy of the Book of the Dead, and even those were becoming cheaper, with mass-market editions available. Of course, more complex, expensive, and up-to-date Books of the Dead were available to guide your soul to through the perils of the afterlife journey, and that journey never seemed to become less complicated…
Old Kingdom magic tended to be more positive, focusing on things like cheering for the Barge of Ra as it went through the underworld each night and keeping the ma’at flowing properly. After the Old Kingdom period and its shake-up of faith in the pharaoh cult, curses became much more popular.
The correct answer is “It’s complicated,” but broadly, Egyptian demons can be lumped into a few large categories: the sorts of demons of afflictions and woe that are common in areas that are, well, plagued by demons. During the Old Kingdom there was a rise in demons that harassed the soul of the dead on its journey beyond. Later periods that were informed by the myth of the serpent Apep and Set’s betrayal myth showed a rise of anti-god demons, agents of chaos and isfet in service to greater dark powers (and, incidentally, controlled by rituals and used by priests and other magic-workers.) (More information on the range of Egyptian demons, time permitting).
There’s a popular conception that Egypt was a gloomy land populated by gloomy, death-obsessed people surrounded by dark magic, but that’s unfair…Egyptian religion did put a huge emphasis on mummification and death, and there was definitely a funerary-temple-industrial complex that reinforced this, but Egyptians were on the whole joyful and artistic, and much of their afterlife obsession was to make their life-after-life as pleasant as their current life. That said, most ancient Egyptians would have had a charm or two on their persons, they did live in a magical world.
Egypt’s mythology varies widely depending on the where and when of your point of view. In particular, the dynamics of Horus, Isis, Ra, and Set change quite a bit over time (the best-known Egyptian myth isn’t much older than 2500 BCE, Set is a good guy in the general style of Thor through 1600 BCE or so, and even after his “fall” his demonization isn’t universal.
Still talking about Set, one interesting mythic thread: the Greeks loved Egypt and Egypt loved the Greeks, and they adopted some of their myths, and changed them, too. Set, in particular, was declared to be equivalent to Typhon, the father of such monsters as Cerberus and the Hydra. In the right light, Anubis is Cerberus’s uncle or brother. “Ancient secrets preserved and painted over by the Greeks” might be a useful trope for incorporating both Egyptian and Mesopotamian lore into a more modern story.
The Library of Alexandria: Built around 275 BCE, at the late end of Egyptian history under Greek rule, this temple to learning was built as a collection of all knowledge, and any ships moving through Alexandria’s ports would have to surrender their books and manuscripts (the library would return copies, not originals…) and the library was known to have 200,000 to 700,000 books and scrolls, including texts from ancient Greece, Egypt, and one of the first translations of the Hebrew bible. It has been destroyed a few times over the centuries. During its final destruction in 391 AD scholars smuggled out many of its documents, and many of these would surface again in the classical revival of the European Rennaisance… the period which also saw the Grimoire phase of demon history. Not a direct connection, but one could imagine a thread linking them.
The history of Judaism goes back to the Mesopotamian period, and the Levant valley and the religion of Yahweh. It is likely that Yahweh was at one point a member of the Canaanite pantheon, which was led by the head god El (from which the name Israel, or people of El. Exactly where Yahweh entered the pantheon is up in the air, he may have begun as just another regional all-purpose god, the patron of the tribe of Israel. Over time, Yahweh rose to being the chief god of the Israeli pantheon, head of the divine council of spirits, and then the sole god of that tribe…the beginning of the road to a monotheistic religion. The earliest mention of Yahweh is around 1300 BCE, Israel began to emerge as a distinct people by 1200 BCE, and by the 9th century Yahwism was established., and evolved into monotheism around the 9th century.
King Solomon and the First Temple (around 950 BCE) is a key point in the history of the Jewish religion and in the history of human/demon relations. The establishment of the First Temple was the peak of a golden age of the independent, unified kingdom of Israel, and a symbol of that unity. Israel never reuinted after his death. And in his legends, he gained control over Asmodeus, a king of demons, and through him found the true names and secrets of dozens of spirits (including powerful angels). With the aid of these spirits he built the first temple. Some scholars doubt the fundamental truthiness of this story, but it’s at the heart of the grimoire tradition.
Second-Temple Judaism, a golden age following the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple under Persian patronage through Rome’s destruction of the temple (525 BE-70 BCE) marked a consolidation of Jewish literature, the establishment of the Torah, the growth of the Rabbinic tradition, and so on. At the same time, Israel coexisted with Zoroastrianism and was exposed to Persian dualistic ideas. Their “one god” model adopted aspects of an epic battle between good and evil, a shining union with the divine at the millenium, a much more Hollywood-ready backstory, and the seeds of Apocalyptic theology.
With the destruction of the second temple (70 BCE), Israel went into exile and scattered across the Middle East. From the 200s onward an apocalyptic tradition in Jewish literature was beginning to develop, and it carried through 100 CE, where the transition slowly transitioned into Christian hands. The fall of the Second Temple lead to a strong focus on the millenium, the reunification of the tribe, and a return to God, stories which strongly inform Christian apocalypse theology for the next 200 years (and then, again, in the last 400-odd years).
The rabbinic literature tradition began around 200 CE and continues into the present day. In this literature (particularly, but not exclusively, in the Zohar) the mystical tradition of the Kaballah was developed (including the Sephiroth, the foundations of angelology, the Qlippoth, and – sweeping generality incoming – any European mysticism that isn’t grounded in Egyptian myth). Stories of King Solomon’s occult power come from this tradition, as does much of Lilith’s story.
The Jewish people have been “othered” over and over through European history, and antisemitic charicatures of Jews and the imagery of the Devil swap attributes over and over again and are a part of the modern image of the Devil. It’s tempting to say “…through the middle ages,” but given how antisemitism would play out in the 20th century, it’s better to say this is an association that is still with us.
Popular wisdom says “there is no hell in Judaism,” but that’s only partly true. Jews borrowed their afterlife from Mesopotamia in the form of Sheol, the dusty dark storage bin of the dead. As gnostic/apocalyptic/dualistic elements were adopted into the religion from the second temple period and onward, Sheol became not so much a permanent resting place as a place where the dead slept until the Messiah returned in some distant millennial reunion with his people. Early Christianity shared this idea, and to a greater or lesser degree depending on the writer and the time of writing, both religions shared a view that some people would have a joyful reunion with god, and other people would be consumed by fire, somewhere between “in an instant” and “for all eternity.”
Early Judaism borrowed from Mesopotamian religious ideas because the Jewish people were originally a Mesopotamian tribe (Abraham came from the city of Uruk, Gilgamesh’s home town). Early Judaism shows El/Jahweh presiding over other gods at the head of the table (see psalm 82) in a divine council, which contextualizes some interesting moments like the plural form of God that moved over the waters of creation. Michael Heiser suggests that Jahweh was something like the greatest spirit of a host of angels, demons, lesser gods, spirits of the dead, and so on, and the fall from grace story of the Garden of Eden excludes humanity from that divine council. Demons in these early writings tend to take the form of wilderness spirits (jackals, goat demons, and in some translations, liliths).
As Yahwism evolves toward monotheistic Judaism, it begins to demonize other gods and spirits (Ba’al and Jahweh always seem to have been rivals, and now some of the biggest names in Hell are derived from that name: Ba’al, Baalberith, Beelzebub…)
One of the better-known demon-origin stories comes from late Second Temple gnostic/apocalyptic writing: the Book of Enoch, a text which describes fallen angels (the Grigori) who teach humanity the arts of civilization and mate with the locals to produce a race of giants (the Nephilim). This represents one of the earliest demonologies and has occult echoes that run into the modern era (Enoch is one of the standard texts in the Mormon church), and while it’s not one of the canon Bible texts, it’s referenced by books that did make it into the canon.
Jewish demonology lifts heavily from Mesopotamian demonology, with its airy spirits and wilderness bogies. Apocalyptic writings like Enoch and Ezekiel shape eschatological heavy hitters like the Beast of Revelations, the Antichrist, and Satan himself, but it could be argued that these are literary tropes or scriptural end-bosses more than demons. Later writings give Lilith and Sammael an extensive back-story.
We may not be able to defend this with citations, but it feels like after the Apocalyptic period, Judaism didn’t really develop its demon mythology in any major ways beyond making a soap opera out of the Garden of Eden cast of characters. While the faith had opposition throughout the medieval era and beyond, it didn’t seem to have the kind of fearful conflicts that generate demonic terrors (like the Protestant Reformation). Demons were nuisances to be exorcized and night-time bogies, but this didn’t escalate into witch hunts and mass exorcisms.
Instead, there is an acceptance of demonkind that Christianity seriously lacks…Solomon cheerfully summons and binds Asmodeus and uses his influence to build a temple. Lilith is invoked to protect children, even though at other times she’s been a child-killing spirit. This working relationship with the spirit world seems to be the backbone of the Grimoire period, not the fearful witch-hunt period that informs the modern Satanic Panic.
It’s an easy trap to treat Judaism as the prequel movie for Christianity, but it informs Christianity’s early development and is most definitely its own complicated thing and a strong source of modern occult ideas. Jewish demons seem more like greek Daemons…powers that can be negotiated with, not hellspawn corrupting monsters (which makes sense, since Judaism doesn’t have much of a hell mythology).
Moving from “spiritual leader killed by Rome” into 300 years of martyrdom, religious persecution, and a fair bit of deliberately flipping off the Roman Empire, Christianity picked up the Apocalyptic literature tradition and carried it forward for three centuries. From a strictly infernal perspective, their literature focused more on Hell and the apocalypse than elaborating on demonkind.
Besides its ongoing challenges with Rome, this period involved a lot of defining what was and wasn’t Christian, distancing the Christian religion from Judaism, and evangelizing. In 311 emperor Galerius sanctioned Christianity (the circumstances of this change of policy are absolute nightmare fuel, and may have informed some of the nastier torments in future hellscapes). As Christianity was not only legalized but promoted and moved toward becoming the official religion of the Roman empire, Christianity was able to devote more time to rooting out internal heresies, and Europe slouched into the medieval period as Roman rulership collapsed.
The centuries from about 500 AD to 1000 AD are sometimes called the “Dark Ages,” which assumes that the Classical period was a beacon of light. Historically, this period saw the rise of Islam in the 6th-7th century, trade expanding across Europe and the Middle East, the rise of Monastic Christianity…or just read the wiki article. The rise of the feudal system, going from king at the top to the nuclear family unit at the lowest level, informed the popular perception of a militant god and a strict hierarchy of heaven. Popular culture spread a colorful version of “best of Bible” and some of the more exciting stories, creating a Christian mythology of saint stories, triumphant Christs and visionary journeys into Hell, that became almost as canon as the Bible (and much more exciting.) The Middle Ages are generally held to have transitioned to the early Renaissance period around the 1500s (for any of a dozen reasons), but practically, the story of hell hit a major milestone in 1325 with the publication of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and we’ll use that as our end point for this period.
The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and the Harrowing of Hell left a mark on hell that would take over a thousand years to fade. The narrative begins with Satan chuffing himself about having set up Jesus’s execution, job well done. An entity that is variously Beelzebub or Thanatos/Hades is alarmed: Jesus can resurrect the dead, and his turning up in the Underworld will surely be a Very Bad Thing. Jesus shows up, kicks in the gates of hell, flattening Satan, liberates the Jewish patriarchs, establishes himself as the feudal lord of hell with Beelzebub as his Regent, says he’ll come back eventually, and flies away. This story establishes the myth of what no actual theologian calls the “Gimpy Satan” – a weak and crippled devil that could never overcome Jesus, legions of demons that may or may not be under his control. Images of Satan and Lucifer throughout the middle ages show him as being weak, powerless, or even a drooling monstrosity, a feature of the Hellscape instead of a credible threat.
Hell also had a great many visitors, due to the rise of the mystic/.prophetic Dream Vision Literature genre. Travelers in these visions frequently journeyed through Hell, returning with stories of weird creatures, torments, and horrors. This genre both reached its pinnacle in and was effectively ended by Dante’s Divine Comedy.
With a likely literacy rate of between 5% and 10%, print was not the primary way to transmit religion. Pamphlets like the Elucidarium summarized the highlights of the bible and folk Christian belief for a semi-literate priesthood, adding non-scriptural saint legends and the entire character of “the antichrist” to the Christian canon. Mystery plays, morality plays, and miracle plays spread church myth and misconceptions across Europe, though over time guilds took over the production of plays from the priesthood, and they became more satirical and less religious in nature.
Against a backdrop of folk-story Christianity and with Gimpy Satan at the head of Hell’s armies, even in a golden age of hell, this was a dark period for demonkind. Demons were tricked by a clever and resourceful humanity, and the devil’s pacts invariably had huge loopholes that let any old everyman escape. This made sense, because the war between God and Satan had already been fought, and the devil had lost. A hapless hell combined with the theatrical and audience-pleasing depictions of hell: huge spectacles, fireworks, hellmouth set pieces, and comical demons that scampered around and played fast and loose with fart jokes. The Merry Hell was ascendent: a cartoonish hell with hellfire that was warm instead of tortuous, easy to escape, and maybe not so bad when you were there. This kinder, gentler hell would vanish in the Renaissance under intellectual scrutiny, heresy, and satanic panic.
The Grimoire tradition began in the Medieval period, possibly when the church stopped burning books of magic. The Arabic Picatrix was published in Latin in the 1300s, and the early editions of the Key of Solomon was released in the 15th century.
Demons are at their most active during times of religious strife, and in some ways this was a calm period. Witch trials and burning heretics were strongest in the transition to the Renaissance: the Spanish Inquisition opened its office in 1478, the Malleas Maleficarum saw print in 1486, King James published Daemonologie in 1597, Faust was published in 1587. Hell was a fun place to visit in the middle ages, but demons were trending by the Renaissance.
Digression: The Grimoires (very briefly)
A “grimoire” is ultimately any textbook of magic, ranging from a witch or cunning man’s personal collection of notes and clippings to a necromancer’s heavy leatherbound tome to a modern print-on-demand spell collection. They might contain religious texts and prayers, and there isn’t a clear line between “grimoire” and “prayer book,” particularly in the medieval era where only the clergy were reliably literate. But we’re really focusing on “magical textbook with list of demons.”
The “Lost in the mists of time” origin of that kind of book likely goes back to the days of mythical-legendary-historical figures like King Solomon (~950 BCE), Simon Magus (20 AD?) Hermes Trismegistus (fictional but writing in ~50 BCE), “the Egyptians,” “The Persians,” and “Ancient Jews” generally. By the later medieval period (1200 AD, give or take) manuscripts were often written under old names like these, which made their origins more mysterious and their contents more legitimate in an era without bibliographies or Wikipedia. Grimoire.org’s timeline says that the Ars Notoria (Notary Art of Solomon) and The Sworn Book of Honorius were both published in the 1200s, and particularly Honorius became a part of the DNA of many later grimoires. These books evolved over time as scribes improved on earlier texts. When movable-type printing started becoming a major thing (1436 onward) religious and magical books were common early print products, and in the 1600s something like a mass market paperback was increasingly available (“bleue” books), and a market for popular books created a demand for fresh titles, and sensational titles. Some texts from this era are particularly dark, with extra-forbidden and lurid material to draw in customers (the Grand Grimoire and Red Dragon come from this era and have rituals to make a pact with Lucifer himself).
The way the grimoires trade information is…complicated. Imagine it’s around 1750 and you and a few friends want to make a cookbook…not the FIRST cookbook, but a good, complete cookbook. You’ve got a few older printed texts, but they don’t agree on units of measurement, and all of you have your own version of Mom’s cookbook, mostly ideas torn out of last week’s broadsheet, some guesswork on what the French are doing, and some inventive ideas based on the names of foreign dishes without having seen or tasted them. One of you speaks modern French, one of you can halfway read German and Latin, and one of you is an actual cook. Mom’s cookbook has three different versions of “barded fish,” none of which quite match, so two of you add your own interpretation to YOUR working cookbooks, and when you “borrow” your colleague’s book for the weekend, you suddenly have five “barded fish” recipes, and two for “larded fish,” and if you’re going for completion, maybe “larded trout” and “larded monkfish” are different recipes…and of course, your friends made some errors that you need to correct…..then, 60 years later, someone buys a box of books from your estate, decides to write their OWN cookbook, and incorporates material from you and your friends (although, let’s be honest, your handwriting is atrocious), and his mom’s cookbook, which has pages torn from the Italian edition of what you wrote…grimoires have genetics and pedigrees, borrow from and improve on each other, and rely on sources that may have traded hands in the past but don’t exist now. And “cookbooks” aren’t considered heretical and dangerous texts. So add to the scenario above, “some of your sources and one of your friends write in code so they don’t get arrested and executed,” and “also, mom didn’t want anyone to steal her recipes so she communicated them in allegorical poetry.”
After mass market print editions, the cat was out of the bag, and wherever the Catholic church was out of power occult books were published and studied. An interest in occult books is as old as, well, books, and as the market for literature increased, so did the number of magical texts available for purchase. Please consult the New Age section of your local bookstore for new and fresh ancient wisdom.
Digression: The Book of Oberon
(grimoire.org) This text, or collection of texts, or modern reinterpretation of an older text, or anthology of texts, is a grimoire published (possibly) by John Porter in 1583 or Llewelyn Press in 2015. Refer to Wikipedia for the full jumble.
The text(s) pull from the Sworn Book of Honorius, Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy,and a host of other occult resources floating in at the time. It reads like something of a working notebooik, with bits and pieces shoved in and disconnected ideas. There’s sections on the roman gods, enchanting items, various spells and incantations, angels, and a substantial list of demons…but the spelling is idiosynccratic at best (“Vsago” becomes “Usagoo”, and then Vsago reappears as a seperate entity…) The lists are then repeated, with new and exciting spellings, that go on to populate later grimoires as entirely new entities.
Most terrifying, the text contains a spell to summon and bind a spirit that writes and publishes books. This explains much.
Oberon has at least one major contribution: it adapts British fairy lore to the Grimoire tradition. Oberon is introduced as a demon and king of fairies, and many other fey creatures are incorporated. Overall there’s a fanciful tone to many of the entries for even traditional demons, as if the author was simultaniously incorporating fairies into the world of demons, and demons into the world of the fey.
Your date range may vary, but let’s broadly say the Renaissance was a surge in interest in Classical Greek and Roman art and culture running from the mid-1400s to the 1700s, beginning in Italy and spreading through Europe. Ideas about government and religion were viewed through a classical lens. The printing press made written material more accessible, and literacy rates doubled every hundred years from 1450 to 1750.
At the same time, religious turmoil was on the increase, and where there’s religious strife, there’s demons. Briefly, the Protestent Reformation tore apart the casual assumption of Catholic church supremacy and the cultural institutions that went with it (the entire Feudal system…) and the Counter-Reformation/Catholic Reformation sought to undo those changes. Something like 5 million people died in these religious wars, a sizable chunk of a population of around 100 million. The witch trial craze (1478-1630) generated sensational stories about the goings-on of the devil and his followers. Corruption in the Catholic church and its sheer wealth and power eroded faith in that institution, and, generally, there was a spirit of humanism that moved people toward personal, rather than institutional, spirituality.
The early Renaissance was a truly great time to be tried for heresy. It was frequently dangerous to be a Christian, and fears of devilry collided with crass political gain in some truly ugly trials and legal murders. The discussion of the occult was, from a distance of 500 or so years, weirdly two-faced. The witchcraft scare was huge, particularly in Scotland and Northern Europe. At the same time, alchemy, natural philosophy, white magic (theurgy) and sorcery came together in an early Hermetic magic muddle in the noble, educated classes. Really, the difference seemed not so much the practice as the amount of money and political power involved. Thus, Johann Weyer can argue that witches are deluded old women with overactive imaginations, and then turn around and write the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum. Sorcerers were quick to distance themselves from witchcraft, which created at least one interesting spirit: Vine, a witchfinder demon with the power to consecrate books. As a conflict it seems kind of one-sided, as the witches had very little political power, compared to the church and nobility.
Two different views of demonkind took hold during this period. Culturally, the diablerie of the witch craze is still a part of 21st century spiritual warfare, and is probably the bigger news item. The scholarly demonology of this period likely only touched the community of occult philosophers. Let’s call these two disciplines folk and academic demonology.
Folk: The Malleas Maleficarum (1486) (online edition) helped raise sorcery and witchcraft to a heresy and a death penalty offense. It became the manual of operations for witch hunters and went through 36 editions by 1669. Much of this text is concerned with the activities of (and extermination of) witches, but the book confirms that the powers of demons are very real, and discusses succubi and incubi, demon/human procreation, fallen angels generally, and demonic pacts. The later, more reasoned Daemonologie (1597) (by King James of “King James Bible” fame) covers much of the same material in a less hysterical tone, and adds the question of “whether fairies are demons” to the mix, which is brought up again in the witch trial of Isobel Gowdie, 1662 (from whence the idea of the fairies tithing their fairest to hell arose.)
Academic: The schools of magic that developed in the grimoire tradition drew heavily from Jewish mysticism and natural philosophy, building on the idea of conjuring spirits (both benign and dark) to do magical workings. Overall there’s a strong hermetic/Golden Dawn feel to this kind of magic: set formulas, long lists of correspondences and zodiac charts. But behind them, there’s spells and incantations, conversations with demons, pacts with devils…there’s common legend behind both. The academic path distanced itself from “cunning folk” and witch trial style occultism by hiding behind a scholarly style and noble patronage. And this creates two different styles of demon: a creature that’s like something from a list of temps-for-hire, with negotiable rates and easy to understand skill sets, and the quite biological, corrupting devil flying alongside witches in the night sky to their grotesque and utterly fictionalized sabbats for a night of sacrifice and sex.
More than ever, the distance between what the intelligencia speculated and what the people knew was a massive gulf. Any arguments that demons were purely spiritual beings that operated on some higher plane seems hollow in light of confessions from the witch trials concerning Satan’s icy phallus and the many places it could be stuck.
The line between fiction and spirit was very fine. The demon Mephistopheles rose from being a fictional character in the play Faust to being a synonym for Satan himself. Milton’s Paradise Lost was published in 1667, a sympathetic portrait of Satan/L:ucifer. Faust, technically, is a play, but it seems possible that the rise in literacy (and a surge in humanism) would lead to a different and more intimate relationship with the devil, a character that demanded analysis and understanding rather than one who represented an omnipresent threat.
Digression: The Dictionary Infernal & Les Farfadets
From the title, one would imagine that the Dictionnaire Infernal would be, well, either a dictionary of hell or related subjects, maybe a list of demon names. And it has elements of that. It certainly sustains a lot of demonolgy lore into the modern era. However, it’s also packed with anecdotes, asides, fun trivia, popular folk tales, and so on, with an authorial voice that is sometimes cynical and sometimes almost gullible. It doesn’t have a strong editorial view, and while the author, Collin de Plancy, clearly had strong academic interest in demons, he tended toward being an anti-magical Catholic. Overall, the DI is an embellished and illustrated catalog of the weird, and it takes some serious liberties with the creatures it contains (the demon Buer, for instance, is transformed from a centaur to a strange five-legged lion pinwheel). It was originally published in 1818, and went through six editions, the last in 1863.
It created an exciting bit of circular bibliography.
At some point, an unstable French author named…ultimately…Alexis Vincent Charles Berbiguier de Terre-Neuve du Thym read the Dictionary, and it clearly affected him. His epic 830-page autobiography describes, with great length and a fair bit of tedium, his struggles with the devils that populated Europe: their conspiritorial rule over the land, their many powers and plans, how he fought against them and how they destroyed his life, and how they might fit up his butt. (No, really.) He creates an elaborate courtley world for his demons, giving them a society and hierarchy that is found no where else.
Much of this was folded into later editions of the Dictionairre, and while De Plancy notes that Berbiguier was one of his most eccentric sources, he doesn’t at any point say of any specific entry, “this material was provided by Berbiguier, who has also written several paragraphs on how demons might fly up his butt.”
In fairness, the publication of Berbiguier’s Farfadets was around 1818-1821, and Dictionairre was first released in 1818, so it’s more likely that the two authors had access to common sources. But if one imagines demons to have some sort of life outside being purely fictional creatures…or even wishes for some consistency in one’s fictions…it is alarming how freewheeling De Plancy is with his sources and characterization of demons. On the other hand, the illustrations the Dictionairre provided are absolutely delightful and may have been a huge part of keeping demons in the public imagination.
Trend: Can This Advertise “Coke”?
“Krampus” is one of the better-known examples of a dark spirit catching the public eye: He somehow caught fire in print, gained a career as an aviator, appeared on christmas and valentine’s cards, and went from threatening to amusingly ironic holiday kitsch, almost two centuries before hipsters popularized “amusingly ironic.” The whimsical art of Dictonairre Infernal captures some of this too: dark powers become charming charicatures. Satan’s image of “pitchfork, pointy tail, pointy beard, red tights” was popularized by marketing in the 18th and 19th century, but there’s some suggestion that this particular “look” itself was lifted from popular stage productions of “Faust.”
The look of devils and demons in animation descends from these interpretations, and while it’s not a universal, some of the threat of demonkind was worn away by a process no academic in their right mind calls “Fleischerification.”
Trend: Left Hand Paths
Drawing from grimoires like The Book of Abramelin, Egyptian and Hermetic magic, likely some romantic portrayals of Satan, personal rebellion and his own outsider status, Aleister Crowley, and the occultists who inherited his legacy, made a huge impact in popularizing a spirituality that rebelled against the teachings of Abrahamic religion. Rebellion against God was a virtue, not a crime. Feminist spirituality and later Wicca reclaimed goddesses and gods that were previously demonized.
This spiritual reclaiming predates Crowley and Wicca, but it flavors modern occult/non-Christian demonology, which tends to view demons somewhere between “useful tools in a magician’s toolbox” to “potential familiars and spirit companions” to “part of a broad, eclectic pantheon of interesting things to worship.” Demonolatry (some form of demon worship and veneration) is likely more popular today than it ever was in the Witch Hunt frenzy.
Trend: Pop Culture
Urban legends and horror movies are doing their part to keep demons alive. Exorcism as the surprisingly large industry it is now experienced a rebirth launched by The Exorcist. Though that may simply be good/bad timing; while we’re in a historic surge of exorcism, exorcism and demon scares go hand in hand with times of religious strife, and the United States has been “strife mode” since the 60s. Modern apocalyptic teachings on spiritual warfare create the sense that the world is teaming with very active, powerful demons. These interpretations of demons may not match your personal fiction, but the idea that demons are hostile, present, and interested in humanity something you can conjure with.
And the Satanic Panic/Urban Legend/internet rumormill continues to create new spirits from old: Zozo, the spirit of the Ouija board, is a relatively new spirit tied to the uncontrolled motions of Ouiji board players. If this spirit was mentioned in Bellanger’s Dictionary of Demons, it seems possible that the next authoratative grimoire will reference him, perhaps out of context, as a canonical member of the hosts of hell. We’ll see.