Demonology is the study of demons within religious belief and myth. Depending on context, it can refer to studies within theology, religious doctrine, or occultism. In many faiths, it concerns the study of a hierarchy of demons. Demons may be nonhuman, separable souls, or discarnate spirits which have never inhabited a body. A sharp distinction is often drawn between these two classes, notably by the Melanesians, several African groups, and others. The Islamic jinn, for example, are not reducible to modified human souls. At the same time these classes are frequently conceived as producing identical results, e.g. diseases.[1][2][3]

Prevalence of demons

"Nightmare", 1800, by Nikolaj Abraham Abildgaard.

According to some societies, all the affairs of the universe are supposed to be under the control of spirits, each ruling a certain "element" or even object, and themselves in subjection to a greater spirit.[4] For example, the Inuit are said to believe in spirits of the sea, earth and sky, the winds, the clouds, and everything in nature. Every cove of the seashore, every point, every island and prominent rock has its guardian spirit.[1] All are potentially of the malignant type, to be propitiated by an appeal to knowledge of the supernatural.[5] Traditional Korean belief posits countless demons inhabit the natural world; they fill household objects and are present in all locations. By the thousands they accompany travellers, seeking them out from their places in the elements.[1]

Greek philosophers such as Porphyry of Tyre (who claimed influence from Platonism[6]), as well as the fathers of the Christian Church, held that the world was pervaded with spirits,[1] the latter of whom advanced the belief that demons received the worship directed at pagan gods.[7]

Characterization of spirits

Not all spirits across all cultures are considered malevolent. In Central Africa, the Mpongwe believe in local spirits, just as the Inuit do; but they are regarded as inoffensive in the main. Passers-by must make some nominal offering as they near the spirits' residence. The occasional mischievous act, such as the throwing down of a tree on a passer-by, is believed by the natives to be perpetuated by the class of spirits known as Ombuiri.[1][8]

Many spirits, especially those regarding natural processes, are often considered neutral or benevolent; ancient European peasant fears of the corn-spirit would crop up during irritation, as a result of the farmer infringing on the domain of that said spirit, and taking his property by cutting the corn;[9] similarly, there is no reason why the less significant pantheon should be regarded as malevolent, and historical evidence has shown that the Petara of the Dyaks are viewed as invisible guardians of mankind rather than hostile malefactors.[10]


See also: Classification of demons

Demons are generally classified as spirits which are believed to enter into relations with the human race. As such the term includes:

  1. angels in the Christian tradition that fell from grace,[3]
  2. malevolent genii or familiars,[11]
  3. such as receive a cult (e.g., ancestor worship),[3]
  4. ghosts or other malevolent revenants.[12]

Excluded are souls conceived as inhabiting another world. Yet just as gods are not necessarily spiritual, demons may also be regarded as corporeal; vampires for example are sometimes described as human heads with appended entrails, which issue from the tomb to attack the living during the night watches. The incubi and succubi of the Middle Ages are sometimes regarded as spiritual beings; but they were held to give proof of their bodily existence,[1] such as offspring (though often deformed).[13] Belief in demons goes back many millennia. The Zoroastrian faith teaches that there are 3,333 Demons, some with specific dark responsibilities such as war, starvation, sickness, etc.

Ancient Mesopotamian religion

Main article: Ancient Mesopotamian underworld

Further information: Asag and Pazuzu

Ancient Sumerian cylinder seal impression showing the god Dumuzid being tortured in the underworld by galla demons

The ancient Mesopotamians believed that the underworld (Kur) was home to many demons,[14] which are sometimes referred to as "offspring of arali".[14] These demons could sometimes leave the underworld and terrorize mortals on earth.[14] One class of demons that were believed to reside in the underworld were known as galla;[15] their primary purpose appears to have been to drag unfortunate mortals back to Kur.[15] They are frequently referenced in magical texts,[16] and some texts describe them as being seven in number.[16] Several extant poems describe the galla dragging the god Dumuzid into the underworld.[17] Like other demons, however, galla could also be benevolent[17] and, in a hymn from King Gudea of Lagash (c. 2144 – 2124 BC), a minor god named Ig-alima is described as "the great galla of Girsu".[17] Demons had no cult in Mesopotamian religious practice since demons "know no food, know no drink, eat no flour offering and drink no libation."[18]

Abrahamic religions


See also: Jewish mythology

Judaism does not have a demonology or any set of doctrines about demons.[19] Use of the name "Lucifer" stems from Isaiah 14:3–20, a passage which does speak of the defeat of a particular Babylonian King, to whom it gives a title which refers to what in English is called the Day Star or Morning Star (in Latin, lucifer, meaning "light-bearer", from the words lucem ferre).[20]

There is more than one instance in Jewish medieval myth and lore where demons are said to have come to be, as seen by the Grigori angels, of Lilith leaving Adam, of demons such as vampires, unrest spirits in Jewish folklore such as the dybbuk.[21][22]


Main article: Christian demonology

The Torment of Saint Anthony (1488) by Michelangelo, depicting Saint Anthony being assailed by demons
Man being attacked by the 7 deadly devils

Christian demonology is the study of demons from a Christian point of view. It is primarily based on the Bible (Old Testament and New Testament), the exegesis of scriptures, the writings of early Christian philosophers and hermits, tradition, and legends incorporated from other beliefs.

Some scholars[who?] suggest that the origins of early Greek Old Testament demonology can be traced to two distinctive and often competing mythologies of evil— Adamic and Enochic.

The first tradition — the Adamic tradition — ties demons to the fall of man caused by the serpent who beguiled Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Thus, the Adamic story traces the source of evil to Satan's transgression and the fall of man, a trend reflected in the Books of Adam and Eve which explains the reason for Satan's demotion by his refusal to worship and submit to God.[23]

The other tradition — the early Enochic tradition — ties demons to the fall of angels in the antediluvian period.[23] This tradition bases its understanding of the origin of demons on the story of the fallen Watchers led by Azazel.[23] Scholars[who?] believe these two enigmatic figures—Azazel and Satan—exercised formative influence on early Jewish demonology. While in the beginning of their conceptual journeys Azazel and Satan are posited as representatives of two distinctive and often rival trends tied to the distinctive etiologies of corruption, in later Jewish and Christian demonological lore both antagonists are able to enter each other's respective stories in new conceptual capacities. In these later traditions Satanael is often depicted as the leader of the fallen angels while his conceptual rival Azazel is portrayed as a seducer of Adam and Eve.[23] While historical Judaism never recognized any set of doctrines about demons,[19] scholars[who?] believe its post-exilic concepts of eschatology, angelology, and demonology were influenced by Zoroastrianism.[24][25] Some, however, believe these concepts were received as part of the Kabbalistic tradition.[26] While many people believe today Lucifer and Satan are different names for the same being, not all scholars subscribe to this view.[20]

A number of authors throughout Christian history have written about demons for a variety of purposes. Theologians like Thomas Aquinas wrote concerning the behaviors of which Christians should be aware,[27] while witch hunters like Heinrich Kramer wrote about how to find and what to do with people they believed were involved with demons.[28] Some texts such as the Lesser Key of Solomon[29] or The Grimoire of Pope Honorius (although these, the earliest manuscripts, were from well after these individuals had died) are written with instructions on how to summon demons in the name of God and often were claimed to have been written by individuals respected within the Church.[30] These latter texts were usually more detailed, giving names, ranks, and descriptions of demons individually and categorically.[31] Most Christians commonly reject these texts as either diabolical or fictitious.[31] Catholics accused Lutherans of believing in diabolatry or that the devil had unlimited powers.[32][33][34]

In modern times, some demonological texts have been written by Christians, usually in a similar vein of Thomas Aquinas, explaining their effects in the world and how faith may lessen or eliminate damage by them.[35] A few Christian authors, such as Jack Chick and John Todd, write with intentions similar to Kramer, proclaiming that demons and their human agents are active in the world.[36] These claims can stray from mainstream ideology, and may include such beliefs as that Christian rock is a means through which demons influence people.

Not all Christians believe that demons exist in the literal sense. Some believe that the New Testament's exorcism language was originally part of curing ceremonies for what we now recognize as epilepsy, mental illness, etc.[37]


Islam has no doctrinal hierarchy of demonology. Even though some Muslim scholars tried to classify jinn and demons, there is no established classification and terms for jinn may overlap or be used interchangeably. Naming the jinn also depends on cultural influences. Julius Wellhausen states, that Islamic demonology is also zoology.[38] Many demonic or demon-like entities are not purely spiritual, but also physical in nature and related to animals. One prominent classification is made by al-Jahiz:[39][40]

The German orientalist Almut Wieland-Karimi classified the Jinn in the ten most common categories mentioned in folklore literature:[41]

The Ghul and the Si'lah often challenge orientalists to tell them apart, because both are shapeshifters also appearing as females to seduce men. A Ghul in Arabic meaning, the term for any shapeshifting spirit, including the Si'lah.[42] Furthermore, Marid and Ifrit may be hard to distinguish, since they are often used interchangeably, for example in "One Thousand and One Nights ". However, both entities have properties apart from the other. The Ifrit is also related to the ghosts of the dead, seeking revenge, unlike the Marid. On the other hand, the Marid is related to those assistants of truth sayers, striving to heaven to access information from the angels, while the Ifrit does not.

Additionally the Peri and the Daeva are kinds of Jinn in Persian lore. While the Daeva are akin to the Shayateen, subordinates of Satan, the Peris are good Jinn fighting the Daeva. However, the Peri may endanger people if they become angered.[43]: 185 

Ahmad al-Buni relates four Ifrits to archdemons, diametric opposites to the four archangels of Islam. They have their own Shayātīn (plural of "Shaytan") under command and are subordinate to Iblis, who is thought to be the leader of Shayātīn.[44]


Traditionally, Buddhism affirms the existence of hells[45] peopled by demons who torment sinners and tempt mortals to sin, or who seek to thwart their enlightenment, with a demon named Mara as chief tempter, "prince of darkness", or "Evil One" in Sanskrit sources.[46][47]

The followers of Mara were also called mara, the devils, and are frequently cited as a cause of disease or representations of mental obstructions.[47] The mara became fully assimilated into the Chinese worldview, and were called mo.

The idea of the imminent decline and collapse of the Buddhist religion amid a "great cacophony of demonic influences" was already a significant component of Buddhism when it reached China in the first century A.D., according to Michel Strickmann.[47] Demonic forces had attained enormous power in the world. For some writers of the time, this state of affairs had been ordained to serve the higher purpose of effecting a "preliminary cleansing" that would purge and purify humanity in preparation for an ultimate, messianic renewal.[47]

Medieval Chinese Buddhist demonology was heavily influenced by Indian Buddhism. Indian demonology is also fully and systematically described in written sources, though during Buddhism's centuries of direct influence in China, "Chinese demonology was whipped into respectable shape," with a number of Indian demons finding permanent niches even in Taoist ritual texts.[47] In the Kṣitigarbha Sūtra it states that heaven and hell change as the world changes and that many new hells with different demons can be created to fit the different ways that the human realm changes.

Chinese Buddhism also influenced Taoism with beliefs of hell and the Taoists eventually came up with their own demonology lore which in turn created folk beliefs about spirits in hell which was a combination of beliefs from the two religions. However, the demons in hell are viewed differently than Abrahamic faiths who instead of being pure evil are more of guards of hell although they are still viewed as malicious beings. They are ruled over by Yama which came from Buddhism's Hindu influences but certain scriptures and beliefs also state that there are 18 different Yamas in hell which have an army of demons and undead at their side.

Also, the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, a major Mahayana Buddhist text, describes fifty demonic states: the so-called fifty skandha maras, which are "negative" mirror-like reflections of or deviations from correct samādhi (meditative absorption) states. In this context demons are considered by Buddhists to be beings possessing some supernatural powers, who, in the past, might have practiced Dharma, the Buddha's teaching, but due to practicing it incorrectly failed to develop true wisdom and true compassion, which are inseparable attributes of an enlightened being such as a Buddha or a Bodhisattva. In his autobiography, The Blazing Splendor, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, a prominent Tibetan Buddhist master of the 20th century describes encounters with such beings. Therefore, depending on the context, in Buddhism demons may refer to both disturbed mind states and actual beings.


Further information: Hindu demon

Vedic Scriptures include a range of spirits (Vetalas, Rakshasas, Bhutas and Pishachas) that might be classified as demons. These spirits are souls of beings that have committed certain specific sins. As a purging punishment, they are condemned to roam without a physical form for a length of time, until a rebirth. Beings that died with unfulfilled desires or anger are also said to "linger" until such issues are resolved. Hindu text Atharvaveda gives an account of nature and habitats of such spirits including how to persuade/control them. There are occult traditions in Hinduism that seek to control such spirits to do their bidding. Hindu text Garuda Purana details other kinds of punishments and judgments given out in Hell; this also given an account of how the spirit travels to nether worlds.


In the Zoroastrian tradition, Ahura Mazda, as the force of good Spenta Mainyu, will eventually be victorious in a cosmic battle with an evil force known as Angra Mainyu or Ahriman.[48]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainThomas, Northcote W. (1911). "Demonology n". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 5–8.
  2. ^ "Demon" Archived 2007-10-16 at the Wayback Machine from Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, © 2006 World Almanac Education Group, retrieved from
  3. ^ a b c van der Toorn, Becking, van der Horst (1999), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in The Bible, Second Extensively Revised Edition, Entry: Demon, pp. 235-240, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, ISBN 0-8028-2491-9
  4. ^ Ludwig, Theodore M., The Sacred Paths: Understanding the Religions of the World, Second Edition, pp. 48-51, © 1989 Prentice-Hall, Inc., ISBN 0-02-372175-8
  5. ^ Rink, Henry (1875), "Chapter IV: Religion" of Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo, London, 1875, at
  6. ^ Cumont, Franz (1911), The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, Chapter VI: "Persia", p. 267 at Internet Sacred Text Archive.
  7. ^ Augustine, The City of God, Book 8, Chapters 24-25, at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Archived 2006-10-04 at the Wayback Machine.
  8. ^ Hamill Nassau, Robert (1904). "Chapter V: Spiritual Beings in Africa - Their Classes and Functions,". Fetichism in West Africa. Charles Scribner's Sons – via Internet Sacred Text Archive.
  9. ^ Frazer, Sir James George (1922). "The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion". The Corn-Mother in Many Lands. The University of Adelaide Library. Archived from the original on 2007-03-03.
  10. ^ Greem, Eda (c. 1909), Borneo: The Land of River and Palm at the Project Canterbury website
  11. ^ Demon, entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001 Douglas Harper, hosted at
  12. ^ Ghost, entry in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Copyright © 2000, Houghton Mifflin Company, hosted at
  13. ^ Masello, Robert, Fallen Angels and Spirits of The Dark, pp. 64-68, 2004, The Berkley Publishing Group, 200 Madison Ave. New York, NY 10016, ISBN 0-399-51889-4
  14. ^ a b c Black & Green 1992, p. 180.
  15. ^ a b Black & Green 1992, p. 85.
  16. ^ a b Black & Green 1992, pp. 85–86.
  17. ^ a b c Black & Green 1992, p. 86.
  18. ^ cf. line 295 in "Inanna's descent into the nether world"
  19. ^ a b Mack, Carol K., Mack, Dinah (1998), A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits, p. XXXIII, New York: Henry Holt and Co., ISBN 0-8050-6270-X
  20. ^ a b Davidson, Gustav (1967), A Dictionary of Angels, Including The Fallen Angels, Free Press, p. 176, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 66-19757, ISBN 9780029070505
  21. ^ Demonology at
  22. ^ Josephus, Flavius, Wars of The Jews, Book VII, Chapter VI.
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  24. ^ Zoroastrianism, NET Bible Study Dictionary
  25. ^ Jahanian, Daryoush, M.D., "The Zoroastrian-Biblical Connections", at Meta Religion.
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  27. ^ Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica, Question 114, hosted on New Advent
  28. ^ Malleus Maleficarum, hosted on the Internet Sacred Text Archive
  29. ^ Lesser Key of Solomon, The Conjuration To Call Forth Any of the Aforesaid Spirits, hosted on Internet Sacred Text Archive
  30. ^ Arthur Edward Waite, Book of Ceremonial Magic, page 64 and page 106
  31. ^ a b "Waite, page 64". Retrieved 2010-05-13.
  32. ^ Davis, J.C. (1983). Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing 1516-1700. Cambridge University Press. p. 153. ISBN 978-0-521-27551-4. Retrieved 2023-02-17.
  33. ^ Butler, E.M. (1993). The Myth of the Magus. Cambridge paperbacks. Cambridge University Press. p. 136. ISBN 978-0-521-43777-6. Retrieved 2023-02-17.
  34. ^ Eire, C.M.N. (2016). Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650. Yale University Press. p. 650. ISBN 978-0-300-11192-7. Retrieved 2023-02-17.
  35. ^ Jessie Penn-Lewis, War on the Saints on Google Books, introductory chapter
  36. ^ "The Broken Cross - by Jack T. Chick". Retrieved 2009-10-08.
  37. ^ "The Devil, Satan And Demons". Retrieved 2010-05-13.
  38. ^ Tobias Nünlist Dämonenglaube im Islam Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG, 2015 ISBN 978-3-110-33168-4 page 114 (German)
  39. ^ Tobias Nünlist Dämonenglaube im Islam Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG, 2015 ISBN 978-3-110-33168-4 page 63 (German)
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  42. ^ Amira El-Zein, Islam, Arabs, and Intelligent World of the Jinn Syracuse University Press 2009 ISBN 9780815650706 page 140
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  44. ^ Robert Lebling Robert Lebling I.B.Tauris 2010 ISBN 978-0-857-73063-3 page 86-87
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  48. ^ "Who are the Zoroastrians", at