(Roughly) Daily

“When demons are required someone will always be found to supply the part”*…

Hell (detail, c1515) by Hieronymus Bosch and studio

… Interestingly, that role, Professor Martha Rampton explains, has evolved…

Christianity developed in a world with a well-articulated understanding of a multilayered and hierarchical universe that was, above all, animated. Most inhabitants of the ancient world envisioned cosmic energy as alive, meaning that the essence of physicality, spirituality and ethics rested in a host of supernatural sentient beings. Among those beings were demons who dwelt in the space between the earth and the Moon.

In the mid-2nd century, CE Justin Martyr explained the role of demons in Christian thought. The sons of God succumbed to intercourse with human women, and they begot children called the Nephilim (meaning giants). The progenies of the Nephilim were demons. These demons enslaved the human race, sowing wars, adulteries, licentiousness and every kind of evil. All the pagan gods, Justin warned, were, in fact, demons who haunt the earth. The North African bishop Augustine offered a different genealogy. He identified demons as the rebel angels who fought alongside and suffered the same fate as Lucifer (also known as Belial, Beelzebub, the Devil, Satan, and the ‘Day Star’) whom God cast out of heaven after he mounted a failed rebellion.

Both pagan and Christian ideologies envisioned demons in prominent roles but, for pagans, demons could be both good and bad. They resembled deities in that they shared in their immortality, but they were also subject to obnoxious, irrational cravings. Demons were positioned between humans and gods, and could act as guardian angels. Demons were corporeal, though of a material much lighter than, and superior to, the human form; they could move faster than mortals, read thoughts, and slip in and out of spaces impossible for the human body to occupy.

For the Church, all demons were malevolent. Christians saw demons as shape-shifters who copulated promiscuously with human beings, controlled the weather, sickened their victims, flew through the atmosphere, impersonated the dead, predicted the future, and were always to be feared…

Rampton then leads us through the shaping thoughts of Lactantius, Augustine, and others…

… The foundational metaphors of Christianity and paganism differed and conflicted with one another. The importance of place emerged for Christians as they crafted a new identity and a way to express it through ritual. Pagans looked to the natural world for meaning. Christian identity, on the other hand, was manifest in human-made consecrated structures such as churches and shrines. The new place of worship had to be one where demons did not feel welcome. When Christians established consecrated sites (the settings of ritual), they were often competing with pagan holy places that abounded in the world of nature – spots near lakes, beneath trees, at hallowed rocks, and in forests. Although Near Eastern and Mediterranean religions were temple-oriented with a sophisticated concept of enclosed ceremonial, the common person did not, as a rule, enter the hallowed domain, and most popular ritualistic, religious activity took place in the fields or outside the temple precinct – in short, out of doors.

Christians created a new kind of space where demons dared not tread and in which continuity with old rites and the worldview they stored were thwarted. These churches provided a clean slate on which Christians could write in the language of ritual. The building became a symbol for the new religion. It was more than just a different location from those frequented by pagan celebrants and inhabited by their demonic deities. It was a new concept of place particular to Christianity – cleansed of demons, consecrated to that special creator god who does not inhere in his creation (trees, rocks, springs) and should not be worshipped through it. Nothing filled demons with dread and kept them at bay like a sanctified church. The motif of demons fleeing in terror from a consecrating bishop was familiar in late antiquity when the fight against idolatry was a matter of openly confronting pagan cults. In the 3rd century, Gregory the Miracle-Worker prayed at the local temple, and the next morning the temple warden could not induce a lingering demon to enter. Christian structures were fortifications against demons.

The distinctive Christian approach to death emerged as a central feature in the competition with pagans for cultural dominance. Despite the radical differences in pagan and Christian notions of mortality, there were also similarities, and these frustrated the new religion in its effort to establish itself as unique.

Necromancy in the ancient world pertained to the practice of calling the dead back to life for the purpose of learning the future. Pagan works portray contact with the dead as ghoulish and repugnant, but, if approached gingerly and undertaken for desirable ends, it was justified. Revivification of the dead was a major feat that required concentrated syncopation with cosmic powers, and such collaboration was realised and made safe through carefully executed rituals. For example, in his novel The Golden Ass, the 2nd-century pagan philosopher Apuleius relates a story of the corpse of Thelyphron, whom the Egyptian prophet Zatchlas temporarily revivifies so that the deceased can solve a mystery regarding his sudden demise…

Many people in late antiquity saw Jesus and his followers as necromancers. This perception brought forth persistent denials from some of the best minds of the Patristic era. In one respect, pagans were right, Jesus had redefined death, and Christians did approach the deceased differently than their polytheistic neighbours. Whereas most pagan cults dreaded, shunned and burned the dead, Christians formed tender and mutually beneficial relationships with the spirits (and, in some cases, the material remains) of those who ceased to exist on a mortal plane. Rather than ostracising the dead beyond the city limits, by the 2nd century, Christians sought out the remains of their loved ones.

The idea that the dead could live again was a central tenet of Christian belief. Following his resurrection, Jesus assured humanity that they could have eternal life. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus invests the disciples with the power to emulate his miracles, including resuscitating the dead. In the Gospel of John, Jesus revivifies Lazarus who had been gone for four days.

Early Christians bristled when others censured them for necromancy, certainly because the efficacy of the necromantic art rested on demons of the lower air, but also because they sought to distinguish themselves from the many other religions and belief systems in the ancient world. Christian authors worked tirelessly to defend Jesus specifically and Christians generally against accusations of maleficium (malignant magic). Throughout the Early Middle Ages (c500-1000), Christian writers insisted that the power of their holy men and women rested not on demons that lurked between the Moon and the earth, and not on elaborate rites, but on faith, simple Christian rituals, and ultimately on God alone. Elaborate rituals equated to demonism…

Christians walked a tightrope on the issue of revivification. The earliest Christian theologians were univocally in harmony with their pagan neighbours on the evils of using (or trying to use) the deceased either for fortune-telling or to exploit the power of death’s liminal state for nefarious purposes. Dealings with reanimated corpses involved the worst sort of traffic with demons. Yet Jesus and his closest male followers resuscitated the deceased, and all Christians honoured the spirits and bodily remains of departed saints and fostered friendly relationships with these special dead. In the end, through sermons from the pulpit and private correction in the confessional, Christian intellectuals were able to convince converts that Christian resurrection was different from necromancy.

Christianity was ultimately successful at establishing itself as the only legitimate religion in the Roman world. However, the struggle for supremacy was protracted and hard fought. The Church was met with the challenge of facing down an ancient, finely-chiseled and much beloved cultural system of which demons and magic were a part. Christianity’s success was due, in part, to the development of a new and thoroughgoing system of rituals responsive to its own worldview…

The history of Christian belief- it took a tremendous effort to distinguish early Christianity from the finely tuned world of pagan beliefs and rituals: “Miracles not magic,” in @aeonmag.

* Margaret Atwood


As we go deep on demons, we might recall that it was on this date in 306 that Constantine I (AKA Constantine the Great) was proclaimed Roman emperor by his troops. Nine years later, on this date in 315, the Arch of Constantine was completed near the Colosseum in Rome to commemorate Constantine’s victory over rival emperor Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge.

In the meantime, Constantine had warmed and then converted to Christianity. He played an influential role in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan in 313, which declared tolerance for Christianity in the Roman Empire. And he convened the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which produced the statement of Christian belief known as the Nicene Creed.

%d bloggers like this: