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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Demonology, the theory of beings intermediate be-
tween the divine and man, begins in European thought
as a collection of religious and philosophical ideas. In
general, classical and Hellenistic Greek thinkers
ordered these ideas in relation to the philosophical
concept of the One, while Jewish and Christian thinkers
ordered them in relation to the religious concept of
a unique Creator God. These two principles of order
interact, Neo-Platonic speculation influencing angel-
ology, as in the dependence of Pseudo-Dionysius' On
Celestial Hierarchy
(ca. 500) upon Proclus, and the
reverse, as in the progressive degradation of the pagan
“gods” to “demons.”

Greek demonology includes the following religious
ideas. There are incorporeal beings differing in rank
but all requiring human respect to insure their favor.
There is a being called a daimon who is either identical
with theos or is the power or agency of theos (Homer).
The souls of the dead who are distinguished—either
for great goodness, as the men of the Golden Age
(Hesiod, Works and Days), or for great evil—survive
and have an influence upon the living. Some part of
man's consciousness is akin to the divine, can be puri-
fied of sensual attachments and become a higher being


called a daimon (Pythagorean). A daimon is a divine
sign given to an individual (Phaedrus, 242B) or it is
a guardian spirit that acts as a conscience.

The Pythagorean philosophical idea that there are
spirits who are the necessary intermediaries between
the gods and men, “because the divine will not mingle
directly with the human,” is expressed by Diotima in
Plato's Symposium (203A) and is developed by succes-
sive Neo-Platonists. It is combined with the notion of
the survival of the souls of the dead in the Xenocratic
philosophical theory of daimones who are capable of
good and evil, are suprahuman but limited, and who
dwell near Hades and under the moon. Plato contrib-
utes the notion that the heavenly bodies are moved
by divine souls, which develops into Aristotle's theory
that the planets and stars are moved by “intelligences”
(later called “separated substances” in medieval
thought) which are perfect and incorporeal—a philo-
sophical answer to the question of the origin of the
movement of the heavenly bodies. The idea of a hier-
archy of corporeal and incorporeal beings between
earth and the outermost border of the world is a philo-
sophical theory of the cosmos in the pseudo-Platonic
Epinomis (ca. 347 B.C.?) and later works of the Neo-
Platonic school.

In the Judaic religious tradition the concept of
mal'ak, a “messenger” of the one God, entirely subject
to his will, is found in the Old Testament, carried on
in the New Testament, and developed as a theological
idea in Christian thought. Also found in the Old Testa-
ment is the statement that certain “sons of God” (later
interpreted as fallen angels) intermarried with women
and gave birth to “giants” (Genesis 6:1-5). A satan
(“adversary”) or Satan is included in Jahweh's council
of angels and functions as tempter of Job and David
in the Old Testament (Zechariah 3:1; Job 1 and 2; I
Chronicles 21:1). Alien national or nature gods are real
though inferior spiritual powers in the Old Testament
from 700-600 on.

In the Septuagint (200-100), the Greek angelos
translates mal'ak, while daimon (or neuter daimonion)
with the meaning “a spirit less than divine” translates
the Hebrew for idols, alien gods, some hostile natural
creatures, and natural evils, and theos is used for the
one God. Hence, the hitherto morally ambivalent or
neutral word daimon acquires an almost exclusively
evil connotation in the monotheistic context. At nearly
the same time the idea of the angelos develops in
Hebrew Rabbinical commentary as a source for the
explanation of the origin of evil. The “sons of God”
in Genesis 6 are interpreted as angels who had de-
scended of their own will and given birth through
women to evil spirits in this world. Sammael, chief of
these rebel angels had entered the serpent in Eden to
tempt man. Subsequently, the Jewish Pseud-Epigrapha
and Apocalyptic literature elaborate on the angelic
rebellion and descent to earth, the origin of evil spirits,
the hierarchical ranking of the angels, their habitations,
their physical and moral affliction of men, and their
temporal and final punishment, as well as that of the
evil spirits born of their union with women. The chief
rebel angel is variously called Semjaza, Azazel,
Mastema, Beliar, Satanail, Sammael, or Satan in this
literature. The context of Jewish religious thought lies
behind the frequent New Testament references to
Satan, to the diabolus (“adversary”), and to daimones
and daimonia. Also the idea of the evil spirits who
issued from the union of angels and women and who
remained on earth to plague mankind probably lies
behind the New Testament concept of possession by
disease-causing demons.

Greek and Judaic traditions mingle inextricably in
the synthesizing comment of Philo Judaeus (20
B.C.-A.D. 50) on Genesis 6:1-5: “It is Moses' custom
to give the name of angels to those whom other philos-
ophers call demons (or spirits), souls that is which fly
and hover in the air” (De gigantibus, Loeb trans.). In
equating biblical angelos with daimones and in
peopling the upper divisions of the universe with
spirits, Philo anticipates the subsequent adaptation of
Greek philosophical speculation to Christian exegesis,
a most important result of which is On Celestial Hier-
which becomes in turn the basis for most medi-
eval scholastic doctrine on angels. The blending of
traditions persists throughout the Middle Ages and
Renaissance; as late as 1621 Robert Burton writes:
Substantiae separatae and intelligences are the same
which Christians call angels, and Platonists devils, for
they name all the spirits daemones, be they good or
bad angels” (Anatomy of Melancholy, Part I, Sec. ii,
Mem. i, Subsec. 2).

Under Platonic influence Philo varies from the
Hebrew view that the “gods” of the Gentiles are evil
daimones, treating them as good subsidiary powers. He
sees (De somnium) these intermediary spirits allegor-
ically in the angels who ascend and descend the ladder
in Jacob's dream (Genesis 28:11-13), a figure that par-
allels in Christian thought Plato's ladder of Love in
the Symposium and becomes one of the most influential
in Christian speculation and art.

Both Philo and Plutarch (De defectu oraculorum)
anticipate the Christian Apologist Justin Martyr in
explaining pagan myth, ritual, and oracles as the ac-
tions of daimones, but Justin's interpretation of them
as deceits of the fallen angels and their offspring
demons (Dialogue with Trypho, A.D. 155) is the back-
ground for Saint Augustine's treatment of the pagan
gods in The City of God, Books 1-X.


The idea of a hierarchy of grades of being among
the various spiritual beings—gods, daimons, heroes—
correlative to their positions in the physical universe
seems to originate with the Neo-Platonists. In the
schematic order of spirits in Epinomis the greater the
degree of participation in matter, the lower the status
of the being. Between the stars (which are made of
fire and are either gods or images of gods) and men
are the daimons made of aether, air, and water. Like
Plato's Eros in the Symposium—only in a physical
sense—they fill the gap between gods and men and
communicate in both directions. More abstractly,
Xenocrates theorizes that daimonic souls exist between
the divine and the human on the analogy of the isosce-
les triangle existing as a semi-perfect form between
the equilateral triangle (perfect) and the scalene trian-
gle (imperfect). The schematization of grades of being
is even more abstract in Plotinus, where it takes the
form of the doctrine of emanation of all grades of being
from the One, who is beyond being. In Plotinus, there
is a subdivision of species of intelligences within the
Intelligence, which is the first of the degrees emanating
from the One.

In Proclus' Platonic Theology (ca. A.D. 450) the
hierarchical entities are correlated with the gods,
goddesses, daimons, and heroes of Hellenistic religion.
It can be said that in rationalizing thus their deities
the Neo-Platonists developed a “theology,” but their
concept of theos, as a being less than the Good, the
One, or some other philosophic principle, limited their
“theology” to a “demonology”—a system dealing with
beings less than the highest being or principle. In
Platonic Theology, Proclus correlates his gods with the
“intelligibles” organized hierarchically under the
Plotinian “One.” He has no reason to rank any of them
on a level with the One, the first principle of reason,
as Christian theology ranks its unique Creator God.
In Christian thought the Creator is, philosophically
speaking, the first principle, existing beyond nature but
not beyond being; and there is created nature, which
includes both angels and demons—all things except

The anonymous Christian thinker called Dionysius
the Areopagite adapts Proclus' schema of incorporeal
beings to the various angels of Judaic-Christian revela-
tion. In his Celestial Hierarchy he places in the highest
triad the Seraphim (OT), Cherubim (OT), and Thrones
(NT); in the second, Dominations (NT), Virtues (NT),
and Powers (NT); in the third, Principalities (NT),
Archangels (NT), and Angels (OT, NT). The fusion of
the philosophic idea of beings who are pure intellect
with the religious idea of angelic messengers is com-
plete when Dionysius says of the angels that “their life
is only intellection.” In Dionysius each rank contains
in a simpler mode, and governs the functions of any
rank inferior to it.

Saint Thomas Aquinas carries speculation on the
angelic nature to its theological conclusion, using
Aristotle's notion of the intelligences that move the
spheres, Neo-Platonic ideas about pure spirits as
degrees of being, and Scriptural accounts of angels and
demons. Rejecting the early notion of their union with
women, he affirms their incorporeality, and to the
question of how to distinguish angels if they have no
matter to provide a basis for distinction, numerical or
otherwise, he replies that each is a species unto itself.
More importantly, in order to distinguish them from
God, Thomas discerns composition in them in that their
immaterial form remains in potentiality in what con-
cerns its actual existence, its own proper esse. Only
in God is there no difference between his esse and his
essentia, between the act-of-being and what God is.
Thus Thomas places angels definitively within a God-
created universe. Between God and creation there is
“discontinuity in the way the act-of-being is possessed”
although there is continuity of order of both knowing
(becoming more and more simple reaching up to God)
and of being (becoming more and more pure) (Gilson,
1957). Accepting the Judaic idea of the pre-Adamic
fall, Thomas deals with the problem of the angels' sin
as with the case of man's: the angels have liberty of
choice. One fell through pride and envy in seeking to
have final beatitude of his own power. Others, from
all ranks (Saint Gregory) or from only the lower ranks
(Saint John Damascene) followed the first; some are
punished in hell and some in the cloudy atmosphere
where they serve God by tempting men (Summa theo-
I, 63, passim).

The idea of beings intermediate between the divine
and man changes definitively with the definition of God
and his relation to nature in the Thomistic philosophy
of being. In withdrawing from nature true “divinity,”
Thomas redefines the border between the “natural” and
the “supernatural,” not placing it between the cor-
poreal and the incorporeal but between created nature
and the Creator. Hence, created nature, having been
made by a God who freely bestows existential reality
though not the divine capacity for self-existence, be-
comes philosophically assured of the reality of its being
and of its complete accessibility to human reason and
experimental investigation.

In Renaissance Christian thought it is clear that the
divine is not locatable in anything short of God, whose
essence is unique, but the revived Neo-Platonism of
Cornelius Agrippa, Marsilio Ficino, and Giordano
Bruno brings with it the old gods and demons located
in the stars, planets, and elements and the theurgy
associated with them in the Hermetic tradition. Making


use of the emanationist theory of the origin of being
and the Pythagorean idea that man's soul is akin to
the divine, they attempt to carry on the old idea of
gods and demons in nature who are manipulatable by

In the seventeenth century demonology becomes for
some a mistaken line of defense for Christianity based
on the equation of the incorporeal with the super-
natural. The power and reality of the devil were de-
fended by polemicists such as Joseph Glanvill, Sad-
ducismus triumphatus
(1681) and Richard Baxter, The
Certainty of the World of Spirits
(1691) as if God's
existence itself were involved. On the other hand, for
rationalists such as Descartes the Thomistic distinction
remains clear and demons themselves dwindle into
sophisticated rhetorical figures, as for example in Med-
itation I of his Discourse on Method, where the first
step in systematic doubt is to entertain the possibility
that all perceptions are the delusive work of a malig-
nant demon. Such rhetorical use is echoed in J. C.
Maxwell's nineteenth-century figure of a demon who
plays a logical role in his thought-experiment in statis-
tical thermodynamics.

In the nineteenth century, Renaissance demonology
together with its Neo-Platonic philosophical founda-
tions survives in the use of the old nature gods and
demons, with their Judaic-Christian accretions, as
sources of feeling in romantic and symbolist literature.
Concurrently, the history of demonology is used by
some historians of religion for their theory that moral
dualism may be inherent in all historic religions.


Denys L'Aréopagite, La hiérarchie céleste, eds. R. Roques,
G. Heil, M. de Gandillac (Paris, 1958). Marcel Detienne,
La notion de daïmôn dans le pythagorisme ancien (Paris,
1963). E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley,
1968). Gilbert François, Le polythéisme et l'emploi au
singulier des mots dans la littérature grecque
d'Homère à Platon
(Paris, 1957). Étienne Gilson, Being and
Some Philosophers,
2nd ed. (Toronto, 1952); The Christian
Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas,
trans. L. K. Shook
(London, 1957). Francis X. Gokey, The Terminology for the
Devil and Evil Spirits in the Apostolic Fathers
D.C., 1961). Soren Jensen, Dualism and Demonology
(Munksgaard, 1966). Edward Langton, Essentials of
(London, 1949). Proclus, The Elements of The-
rev. ed., trans. E. R. Dodds (Oxford, 1963). Erwin
Rohde, Psyche, trans. W. B. Hillis (New York, 1925). Frances
A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (New
York, 1969).


[See also Evil; Hierarchy; Music as a Demonic Art; Neo-
Platonism; Pythagorean....]