Monday, July 25, 2011

Mythic Monday: The Origin of Demons


It's been a few weeks since the last Mythic Monday - I'm finding I don't have as much time for reading, research, and writing with a brand new, non-native  4 year old in the house.  Every day is a little better though!

One thing that struck me when researching Azazel a few weeks ago were the conflicting ORIGINS for demons in folklore, magic and religion.  Whether it's a side ways mention in the Bible, the Book of Enoch, the rabbinic tradition, or the magical theorizing in Renaissance grimoires, each writer has a different theory whether demons are fallen angels, devils, spirits, djinn, or something else.

D&D is surprisingly silent on the origins of demons.   Here's about the most you can surmise from the various 1E monster books and Manual of the Planes:  The Abyss is an evil place, and the demons just happen to be the indigent race birthed there - they're demons because they're natives of the Abyss.  Other editions of D&D introduce the idea of the Blood War (you know - demons hate the devils, devils hate demons, grrr, fight, fight, fight).  4E goes a bit further by explaining an origin for the Abyss - the cosmology posits the placement of a Shard of Pure Evil that creates the Abyss (tearing a bottomless hole in the elemental planes).  Demons are corrupted elementals, and demon princes are corrupted versions of greater powers (like "Primordials").  Of course, it just shifts the question to "where did the shard of pure evil come from?"  In 4E, evil predates the gods.

However, real world folklore has some useable ideas on the origins of demons, so the Monday column for the next few weeks will be on how these could be used in a D&D game.  A few I'll be looking at are the war in heaven, the lost angels, and the old gods theory.

And there was war in heaven...
The War in Heaven
Lots of myth cycles involve a war in heaven.  I imagine most readers are already familiar with the Judeo-Christian version.  Rebellious angels, led by Satan, fight against the Creator in Heaven; banished, they are consigned to Hell, where they plot to corrupt creation.  It's not exactly a Biblical story - there are a few oblique references in the big book, but most of the story about the rebellion and fall evolved in folklore in the early centuries AD.  The most famous retelling is in Milton's Paradise Lost - it's really excellent.

So why'd they do it - why did the rebel angels turn against the boss?  Milton's Satan is too prideful to take orders - he considers himself "above the law" - he denies the boss's authority, declares God a tyrant, and becomes the first rebel.  Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.  A similar figure is Iblis, also called Shaytan, in Islamic folklore; man is given free will and a soul, and the prideful Iblis disobeys the creator in respecting man, whom he views as a lesser creation and beneath him.  Another story of pride and arrogance.

The fallen angels in these stories are exiled to Hell and swear to spend eternity confounding mankind evermore.  The first thing Lucifer does in Paradise Lost is conspire to travel to the world and corrupt it.  However, you'd be right in thinking these guys are a better fit for the origin of D&D's devils instead of demons.  Here's the thing - Renaissance occultists didn't differentiate between demons and devils - they were the same thing.  Lists of demons in the Renaissance grimoires, like the Lesser Key of Solomon or other Goetic texts, are actually the names of the fallen angels.

Okay - I have to say, I'm not a big fan of using the War in Heaven theory as an explanation for bad actors like last column's demon, Azazel.  If the devils are all in Hell, how do we get these dispossessed demon spirits deep in the wilderness, possessing victims and causing mayhem?  Maybe some of them got lost on the way to Hell?  Could be that when some devils escape to earth, they got stuck here as the bodiless spirits we see in the demonic possession stories.  However, I do think we'll see some better ideas for demons in the coming weeks.

But there's no doubt that using the War in Heaven as a basis for a campaign cosmology is excellent.  It supports a fairly straightforward world-view of opposing sides with clear battle lines.  You can play it straight up (good vs evil) or build in some sympathy for the devil.  There's no lack of literary inspirations or ideas in popular fiction - I'd dip into books like Anne Rice's Memnoch the Devil, or The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman and his use of Hell and Lucifer (and of course, Milton's Paradise Lost).  Since plenty of fallen angels are named in the grimoires, there's no lack of cool and evocative names to find out there.  Drop a note in the comments on your favorite literary use of Hell or devils - I'm interested to hear what's out there.

Even if you don't use Angels and Devils, you can still use similar ideas by making the War in Heaven related to a mythological pantheon or some homebrew.  The War in Heaven theme isn't limited to the Judeo-Christian tradition -  for instance, the myth of the Titanomachy.  The Greek gods needed to kick the Titans out of heaven before they could assert ruler ship; even the Norse deities fought the Giants before the world was created.  The Percy Jackson series of kid's books bases its central conflict on the ongoing struggle between the Titans, representing pure evil, and the Greek gods.  Demonic spirits in a D&D game could be the cast down losers of such a War in Heaven, exiled to the prime plane as bodiless entities.

That's all for now, next week we'll take a look at the Nephilim and the Grigori angels of the Book of Enoch.