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.


  1. I also wrestled with the issue of devils/demons in hell AND on earth.

    I did read a book that said that as spiritual beings they do not take up 'space' or be considered in a 'location' and that Hell is a state of being for these creatures. It also said that wherever a demon/devil 'acts' in the physical realm it can be considered to be 'there'.

    Not very clear for D&D though -- seems like something for the more experimental RPGs.

  2. That is actually super-cool - if you're not married to the AD&D cosmology, go with the idea that the other planes are coterminous - planar travel is staying in place but shifting your frequency. Demons/devils are physically in Hell but can shift their essence into the material world as disembodied spirits. Gating and similar magicks allow them to come physically.

    I'll see how the next few columns turn out but that is definitely a neat way to use the traditional Judeo-Christian cosmology.

  3. "if you're not married to the AD&D cosmology, go with the idea that the other planes are coterminous"

    Or you can use both. Maybe the AD&D cosmology is a schematic (like the Tree of Life) suggesting relationships and routes of spirital travel not actual physical locations? Must planes even have physical locations in the same sense as places on the material plane?

    As for the origins of demons, one of my favorite (which I sort of employ borrow for the City) comes from A.A. Attanasio's cool reconception of Arthurian mythos the "Arthor series." The "fall" was the separation of oneness with the godhead to multiplicity. Some angels howled for millenia in lovelorn loss and pain, then got pissed off and decided to destroy the newly formed world of cold matter because of their anger and offendedness at its very existence.

  4. There is also the cosmos and chaos theory. The Gods created the world, essentially as a bubble of light and life in the endless void of chaos. There are Things outside the world, native dwellers in chaos, who occasionally get in (because they're curious, or hungry, or summoned by foolish wizards...) and wreak some kind of havoc.

  5. easy, fallen angels had children with human women. Giants were born. They were killed by God with His Biblical flood. Since Fallen angels created them, they had nowhere to go. They stayed behind here on earth as spirits. These spirits are the unclean spirits we know as demons today. They go around the world posing as grey aliens, sprites, bigfoot,leprechauns, fairies and so on...Everything else is luciferiaan and can be tracked back to its original source. For example the ying-yang is luciferin, in which Lucifer tries to pass himself off as God's equal "be like the Most High" in order for balance to exist. But evil is not needed, Lucifer brought that to humanity. The wages of sin are death, so in essence, we die because of Lucifer introducing us to sin. New age is luciferian too, along with scientology (will smith, tom cruise...also masons). Just research their oroginal sources, their first leaders. All started by occultists/masons. Including the mormon religion. That should tell you something. But look for yourselves.Be careful where you get your info. Nasa was started by occultist/nazi Wernher von Braun. If you believe anything nasa tells you, you are believing a nazi/occultist organization and there is a reason they, along with governments and hollywood would like for you to believe in aliens or transhumanism. Fallen ngels are returning, posing as an extra terrestial threat. By the way, when europeans first arrived and asked the inca who built their megalyth structures, they said giants. When the aztec got to teohtihuacan, the pyramids were already there, and the aztec said giants built them. Same thing everywhere else there are pyramids, except if hyou ask archeologists instead of the locals. Archeologists will always tell you humans built them, with stone and copper tools. HA!