Humanity Creates Gods and Demons Alike


Demonology and Devil-Lore – Moncure Daniel Conway (1879)


            For someone like me who loves to read older books the Project Gutenberg website is a gold mine.  It allows me to discover thinkers and writers otherwise lost to me.  Sometimes I have heard mention of the authors or their works.  Oftentimes I have not.  Either way I love digging through their archives.  This is how I came across Moncure Daniel Conway’s “Demonology and Devil-Lore,” an amazingly rich book that has captured my mind for the past weeks.  This book traces the development of the demons and devils that have plagued human religious thought since before the advent of writing.  In doing so, it explores much of our past, our collective fears, and the many ways that gods become demons as one culture/religion usurps another.

            Initially, humanity feared everything.  Mother Nature was brutal, harsh, unsparing, and sought to destroy early man at every turn.  Humanity sought to placate Nature, even before we invented gods.  The tribe reinforced personal rites and superstitions.  In this ancient estimation of Nature, there was no “Good” or “Evil” as we think of them today.  The earliest revelation of humanity was the knowledge that to stay alive means killing other living things.  Primitive man saw evidence of this constantly.  There was no favored species.  All things suffered the wrath of a hurricane, or a wildfire, or a volcano's eruption.  All creatures had to kill to stay alive.  Conway shows how this initial metaphysical idea is found in the early passages of Genesis, in the parable of man gaining the knowledge of Good and Evil.  Before humans had that knowledge, they existed in the state I described above.  It was a huge metaphysical leap for early humans to understand that some things can be seen as only Good and some seen as only Evil.  From there, it was a small step to imagine that offerings or sacrifices would appease the Evil and please the Good.  It was in this stage of humanity that we began to codify specific things as Demons.

            Conway describes Demons as initially being personifications of destructive force in the world around us.  They were the flip-side of the wonder that humans felt when they looked at the beautiful Earth and the heavens above.  The very earliest religious texts we have, the Vedas of Southeast Asia, speak in simple terms of how the Creator brought forth all that is good and all that is evil.  The Creator brought forth all that is joyful as well as all that is painful.  It took a long time, and a period of intellectual maturation, for humanity to split evil from the Creator, and to assign the source of evil to an entirely malicious entity.  Zoroastrian belief, a very ancient religion, shows the next step.  In Zoroastrian thought, there are two equal and opposing forces created at the beginning of time.  Light eternally battles Darkness.  Good eternally battles Evil.  Only later did these personifications receive proper names, and humans given their role in the entire process, which is to strive for Good to defeat eventually the forces of Evil in the world, creating everlasting peace and harmony.  This is the next level of theological thought humans achieved.

            Once humans saw the Universe around them as a battleground between the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness, as stated in the text by Conway, “Man found that in the earth good things came with difficulty, while thorns and weeds sprang up everywhere.  The Evil powers seemed to be the strongest.”  Even the greatest deity, the Sun itself, could burn you, kill you, and wither your life away.  The whole world was divided into realms controlled by individual malicious entities, whence came storm gods, water gods, mountain gods, etc.  Early sacrifices and offerings were not given to the “good” spirits” but to the “bad” ones.  It was the bad spirits that needed placating, whether this was in the form of an offering meant to keep evil away, or a sacrifice intended to send evil to an enemy instead of one’s family/tribe.  One tribe’s gods became another tribe’s demons.  This has continued until the present day.

            For example, one of the earliest names for the glory of the Sun was Baal.  Once sun-worship became outdated, and prayers to the Sun forbidden, the god Baal was converted into the demon Baal-zebub, a personification of the power of the Sun to rot things, and bring forth clouds of maggots and flies.  In the interim, Baal-zebub combined both of these traits.   As most old religions, including the Hebrew faith, did not have a need for an Evil One, their gods embodied both Good and Evil traits, such as the Jehovah of the Old Testament who not only saves the Jews, but kills thousands of first-born children, drowns Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, destroys whole cities (Sodom, Gomorrah), etc. The Hebrew Jehovah is an old god, raised to primacy by the Hebrews from a pantheon of pre-existing deities.

            Conway discusses how early humans saw the world as haunted by demons way before they assigned specific moral qualities to those very demons.  Early demons behaved like a ravenous tiger, who kills and eats because it is in his nature, not because he is “bad.”  They were not judged in the manner that modern Christians seek to judge what they see as demons.  Instead, these demons were appeased, praised, and sacrificed to but never ignored.  The history of humanity shows evidence that one generation’s gods become degraded until they are seen as the next generation’s demons. 

            For example, In the Old Testament the Hebrews are spoken of as setting an offering to a deity named Azazel (meaning “Strength of God”) as well as to Jehovah.  Jehovah was just one of a pantheon of gods back then.  Only through endless repetition and the “refinement” of religion by priests did Jehovah become THE GOD, the one and only that exists (at least for the Hebrews.)  As time passed, Azazel was seen as a powerful Demon, an enemy of Jehovah.  In fact, the Hebrew myths mention four arch-demons, Azazel, Samael, Asael, and Maccathiel, which originally represented four aspects of the divine Creator.  As stated above, Azazel was the “strength of god,” Samael meant “the left hand of god,” Asael was god’s reproductive force, and Maccathiel was god’s retributive power.   For the past few thousand years, these four have been seen as some of the mightiest of demons.  This is how gods, or the personifications of a god, degrade and eventually turn into demons.

            Conway explores so much that it is difficult to discuss it all.  One of the critical points he makes is the difference between the idea of Demons, and the idea of a Devil.  Demons are the personification of malevolent forces that assail humans and animals alike.  They are not moral, and they are countered by proper sacrifice or incantation.  Conway details the earliest demons, those of Hunger, Heat, Cold, the Elements, and Animals, as those were the very first deep fears in early man.  As we developed socially and intellectually, the demons became more specific, such as those of Illusion, Darkness, Disease, and Death itself.  Conway explores each type and their development in their own chapter.  Very cool.

The Devil however, is a much later development in the theological life of humanity.  The Devil is specifically an adversary to the Creator, who actively seeks to undermine and destroy the Creator’s good work (i.e. the divine soul of humans).  In many cases, humans ascribe the Devil more power than that of the Creator, at least on Earth itself.  Once the idea of a Devil was loosed upon the world, humans began to imagine the world itself as a fully evil, sinful, corrupt place.  The Earth and everything on it, ruled by the Devil himself, exists solely to test whether humans can survive with their divine souls intact.  If successful, when they die, they end up joining all that is good in heaven and leaving behind the carnal, sinful world of flesh and bone.  Many humans today live in this theological world.  From this came the idea that detachment from worldly pleasures is a good thing, instead of worldly pleasures being something gifted to us by the Creator.  All the good and beautiful in the world, from food to sex to beauty itself, is a temptation used by the devil to corrupt our souls.  Once the Devil was in charge of the Earth, his powers grew exponentially, until every manner of bad luck and evil was blamed on Satan himself.

            Moncure Daniel Conway details everything he discusses.  He delves into the way that spiritual/religious beliefs of the populace tend to help everyone get along, and provide them with purpose and meaning, until a priest/sacerdotal group decides to take over and dictate what the tribe/group is supposed to believe.  This has occurred through all of our time on this planet.  Whether it was the shaman who relied on handouts from the village to procure his services, the rabbi who dictated who was Hebrew and worthy of Jehovah and who was not, or the priest that “explained” exactly what the Bible stated whether or not the congregation felt or believed otherwise.  Those same people gained incredible power, luxury, and prestige from their subjugation of our collective human beliefs.  They still sit in the lap of luxury, castigating us for being sinners; all the while, they commit the most heinous acts of torture, sexual abuse, outright theft, and moral degradation imaginable.  They claim to know who the demons and the Devils are, always hiding their own flawed humanity behind the veil of organized religion.  Conway hated those bastards so much.  I am eternally thankful that I found this book and this author, another intellectual hero to add to my ever-growing list.  I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand how humans have created their gods and demons, and how we continue to do so today.

(This book can be downloaded here: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/40686 )

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