Magic, Mystery, a little Whisky, and a Cat

What the Devil? —–or——- What? The Devil!

Demons—malevolent creatures sent by Satan to monkey with human willpower and ultimately drag us all down to the fiery pit of Hell.

I call bullshit on this!

Everybody and his brother claims to see demons, cast out demons, hunt demons, or be possessed by demons.  Everything from eating the last piece of chocolate cake to chopping Granny into bite-sized bits gets laid off on Satan or one of his minions. And every ghost, entity, or poltergeist gets labeled a demon and assaulted with holy water and crosses.


So here’s the strait skinny on demons.

Our word demon probably comes from the Greek word daimon  (δαίμων )which refers to a spirit or divine power. The word’s roots means to divide or distribute—and may have denoted the difference between the regular, everyday wine-guzzling, run of the mill human and the same guy in the throes of a creative frenzy. To be possessed by a daimon was to be in the zone, on a roll, doing something with passion, to be inspired.

The concept of daimons extended to nature spirits, elementals, fertility gods and goddesses, and all manner of fairies and weebles. Some of them are warm and fuzzy and some of them are not. Many daimons are blissfully unconcerned with us, preferring to hob nob with their brother daemons and ignore humans completely. And who can blame them?

Demon Seated by Mikhail Vrubel (1890), an illustration to the Russian romantic poem demon byMikhail Lermontov. Vrubel views this demon as "a spirit, not so much evil as suffering and sorrowing, but in all that a powerful spirit... a majestic spirit".
Demon Seated by Mikhail Vrubel (1890), an illustration to the Russian romantic poem demon byMikhail Lermontov. Vrubel views this demon as “a spirit, not so much evil as suffering and sorrowing, but in all that a powerful spirit… a majestic spirit”.

Others enjoy playing with us—not always nicely. It is possible to get on the bad side of a daimon and find yourself imprisoned inside a hill for eternity or sucked into an alternate reality along with a collection of biting bugs and lizards. Again, who can blame them?

When organized religion came along, the old daimons who represented nature,   art, music, and earthly delights were transmuted into evil, soul-sucking malevolent little bastards who tempted mortals away from God. This is where we get The Devil Made Me Do it scenario.  You can absolve yourself of all those  pesky but normal human instincts like drinking too much mead, lusting after the well-rounded breasts of your neighbor’s wife, and slapping your brother-in-law silly just for fun by simply claiming you were tempted by Satan or bedeviled.

Oh-oh, and here’s a fun part. One of the earliest uses of the word demon to mean an evil apparition was

St. Anthony plagued by demons,engraving by Martin Schongauer in the 1480s.
St. Anthony plagued by demons,engraving by Martin Schongauer in the 1480s.

in the fifth century when a doctor asserted that neurotic women and girls could be driven to frenzies by imaginary apparitions or—demons. I suspect the apparitions were anything but imaginary and those gals—the same as today—were driven to the brink of madness by very real creatures which we still call Men.

And while we are on the subject of demons, let’s just talk about the head monkey himself—Satan, Lucifer, The Devil!

The concept of Satan as an evil influence is a relatively new thing—not quite as new as cell phones and the Internets, but not as old as Baptists and certainly not as old as tales of things like The Green Man or The Wild Hunt. As a matter of fact, the part about Satan as a horned, goat-like fellow who lurks in the woods comes directly from those pagan beliefs and practices.

The biblical version of Satan incorporates elements of myth such as the ancient story of Prometheus. In Greek myth, Prometheus is one of the Titans who sided with Zeus against Cronos and the old order of gods. When Zeus successfully tossed his father Cronos off Mount Olympus, Prometheus was the fair-haired lad.

Prometheus created humans to worship the gods and Zeus was all for this. The problem was that Prometheus grew so fond of his little critters that he often chose them over his god buddies. Prometheus tricked Zeus into accepting the untasty bits of animals for sacrifice which left the tastier bits for his human/pets.

And one fine, cold day, Prometheus found that his little darlings were freezing. He asked Zeus if he could take them fire, telling Zeus “If you’re cold, they’re cold. Give your humans fire.” Zeus refused, leaving Prometheus no choice but to steal fire.  When Zeus found out, he chained Prometheus to a rock and decreed that an eagle would tear out Prometheus’ liver each day. Because Prometheus is immortal, the liver regenerates at night providing an all-you-can-eat pate buffet for the eagle. At least until Hercules comes along and slays the eagle as part of his retribution for being a very naughty hero.

So Prometheus was the light bearer and for that sin, he was cast out.  Incorporate a couple of other myths like Pan, the goat-man who plays flutes to lure young women and men into the forest, and you have a simplified history of Satan.

When organized religion came along, priests and zealots cleaned house and tossed everything non-Christian into a big pile of Pagan. At least they tried. Pagans are party animals with celebrations at least twice per month.  Nobody was about to give up Saturnalia, that most excellent feast and bacchanal which marked the return of the sun, so it was replace by Christmas.  But gods and most especially goddesses did not fair so well. What was once a source of pleasure and inspiration became creepy mutant creatures used to scare kids into being good—demons and devils.

So this:



Became this:



You tell me which culture has the problem.

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, a central figure in John Milton's Paradise Lost c. 1866
Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, a central figure in John Milton’s Paradise Lost c. 1866

The biblical tale goes that God made a perfect angel and named him Lucifer—the Light-Bearer.  God and Lucifer were like this, but not for long. Lucifer may have rebelled against God or he may have displeased God by actually bringing light to humans ala Prometheus. All holy Hell broke out, literally. God cast Lucifer out of heaven and Lucifer found new digs where he let it be know that from now on everyone had to call him Satan (or Satin as he is often immortalized in graffiti).

Nasty things do float around the Universe and bad things happen to good people, but blaming that stuff on an amalgamation of mythical beings and misunderstood legends which cannot be defeated by humans is  a cop out. Blame, instead, the real devils of ignorance and poverty and accept responsibility for working toward a cure for those two blights. In such a struggle, we could use the help of kindly spirits who bring inspiration and joy– the daimons of the old ways.

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Next Week–The Green Man

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