Thoughts on demons, and their nature

This image of Bugaboo from Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is used becauses it’s a (sort of) value-neutral example of a conventional depiction of demon, complete with red skin, bat wings, small horns, and pointed tail

I’ve been wondering what the nature of demons might be if we strip back the Christian idea we’ve been fed for generations, which has influenced Western culture and popular culture (especially Hollywood and Western supernatural fantasy) and has probably affected the English translation of foreign cultural terms like ‘asura’, ‘rakshasa’, ‘yokai’, among others. I’ve been kind of interested in demons since playing Shin Megami Tensei, and it sort of feeds in my interest in monsters.

My research starts with the Ancient Greek concept of ‘daemon’. The word demon itself stems from the Greek ‘daemon’, or ‘daimon’, but in pre-Christian Greece, and possibly the rest of the pre-Christian world, it did not refer to strictly evil spirits out to steal peoples souls, but something very different. In Ancient Greek belief, daemons are semi-divine beings, natural spirits, and/or sometimes personifications of concepts, or inner spirits. Actually, the Greek word ‘daimon’ or ‘daemon’ seems to refer to just spirits. An example of referring to different kinds of spirits is the word ‘eudaimonia’, which means ‘good-spiritedness’. ‘Daimonia’ obviously refers to ‘daimon’, which refers to spirits. A similar creature in the classical world is the imp. The imp was a mischievous supernatural creature, fond of prank, but not strictly evil. In fact, you may find this bizarre (I find it very interesting), but some regions portrayed them as attendants of the gods.

An imp, I think.

Believe it or not, the Judeo-Christian concept of demon also somewhat informs my analysis and research, and they are interesting. Dark creatures lurking in the wilderness, they disobeyed god, and they seem like creatures of freedom given they do not conform to the laws of God (nearly all of which, to be honest, are bullcrap anyway). They are also animalistic, often cause disorder and still make mischief, and are quite carnal. Actually, thinking about it, they remind of the imps I previously described. I mean think about it: imps are dark, mischievous creatures with animalistic features (including horns, bat wings, and a pointy tail), so are Christian demons. Only difference, according to the Bible, they’re profoundly evil and out for your soul. Added to that is the concept of Satan, the ruler of demons. His appearance is both imp-like, and derived from pagan gods, including the horns of various gods, the goat features of Pan, and the trident of Neptune (and possibly Shiva as well). This is done to demonize the pagan world and the carnal desires of humans. The Christian conception would go on to appear in occult books like the Ars Goetia.

Satan as he appears in the Codex Gigas.

Then there’s Islam, which has the concept of jinn. Jinn are beings created from fire, supposedly without smoke, and like humans they have free will. This means the free will to even oppose God, sin, and follow a religion that isn’t Islam. Iblis is an example of a jinn who chose to disobey God when asked to bow down to the first man, warred against heaven, and was punished for his disobedience. In pre-Islamic times, jinn were said to refer to any spirit that is less than divine, and some were given tributary status or even worship. In One Thousand and One Nights, several types of jinn are depicted an co-exist and interact with humans.

A supposed picture of a jinn. Notice how it seems to resemble an imp, with tinges of the Christian concept of demon.

In Hinduism, there are many kinds of spirits that are called demons, that seem like fusions of imps, daemons, and goblins, often more malevolent, but both Hinduism and Buddhism have a semi-divine entity that I’ll focus on: asura. Being as I’ve already talked about the concept in detail, I’ll keep the description short: they are semi-divine or divine beings and are often associated with ego, desire, and passion, and in Buddhism are somewhat warlike and eager for battle, eager to express their passion. In modern Hinduism, thanks partly to the influence of Islamic and British Christian invasions of Indian culture (which has kind of bastardized Indian society and culture today)  In Japan, there is the concept of yokai, which refers to supernatural creatures and spirits, and I sometimes call them demons. Some are benign,  some are pranksters, and some are malicious, and in general they are spirits of mischief, disorder, but also the natural world. Similar to imps and Christian demons and devils, they often have animalistic features like wings and claws.

These strange fellows are yokai. And they look insane. Notice one of them appear to have a horse’s head.

Then there’s Shin Megami Tensei’s concept of demon. In those games, ‘demon’ seems to be a catch-all term referring to all kinds of supernatural beings; fairies, goblins, traditional evil demons and devils, monsters, cryptids, ghosts, even gods, demigods, and angels (though angels will probably get pissed off if you try to tell them that they’re actually demons). They can be good and bad and are not strictly evil, or stereotypical horned creatures from the Doom series, but they can still be bad news for humans if they’re not careful. It calls back to the pre-Christian Greek concept which simply referred to supernatural or spiritual beings, or spirits, often semi-divine.

After taking in research, I think I’ve got an idea of what a demon might be. A demon is a supernatural creature of spiritual being, that is carnal, somewhat animalistic (read: animalistic, not stupid), and semi-divine. Power is a part of their nature, a strange kind of power, as is desire, and a kind of divine chthonic-ness. Thinking about it, they’re much like humans, hell even animals (that sounds like moot considering we humans are techincally animals), but they have a supernatural existence, and are slightly different in nature. They are not all-powerful, just more powerful than humans. They’re not strictly good or evil, and they have free will to choose. They are possessed of a freedom far greater than most humans have, and capable of all sorts of unknown feats and pleasures.

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3 responses to “Thoughts on demons, and their nature

  1. This is one of the reasons I love Shin Megami Tensei. They really delve into the whole concept of supernatural beings and how we perceive them. Even with my sort of liberal religious upbringing, it’s weird to play a game like Nocturne, where I have to beat up on the angel Gabriel and then fuse two other angels to get him/her (?) to join my party. But that’s just one of the things that’s great about SMT. Really interesting post, thanks.

      • I guess “liberal” isn’t the best term for it. Maybe non-traditional. I was brought up around both Christian and Muslim relatives in my mother’s and father’s families. I’ve always felt weird about organized religion, partly because I never really got how one side of my family could have the “right” religion and the other side the “wrong” one. But a lot of it’s stuck to me anyway. Might also be part of why I like SMT and how it throws all the mythologies of the world into a big pot. Thanks for writing!

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