I’ve been attending a series of lectures as part of a demonology conference called Demon Things at Swansea University during the last few days. This conference was specifically about Egyptian demonology, that is to say the study of demons and liminal beings found in ancient Egyptian myth and lore, and there were many speakers who showed up to present papers on various subjects pertaining to this theme (subjects such as the role of demons, liminal deities, donkey-headed deities, the nature of “evil”, the status of the deity Anubis, protective deities/demons at specific archaeological sites, and much more). Due to regular lectures happening at my university (the last before the university closes on Good Friday and we break up for the spring holidays), I unfortunately could not attend the last few lectures this morning, but the lectures I did attend had a lot of information. I’m not sure if I managed to absorb or contain it all, but I learned some interesting things about demons from the Egyptian view, and about demons in general, that will probably inspire a lot, and I think may have inspired plenty of things already.
Demons in ancient Egypt weren’t necessarily like the concept of “demon” that most are familiar with. For most people, demons are hostile and inherently malevolent beings. And demons often could be hostile beings in ancient Egypt, and some may have been malevolent, but in Egypt a lot of them actually served a protective role. In ancient texts demons were held to guard the afterlife against the souls who were not meant to pass through – if you did not have a certain password (for lack of a better word) that the soul would utter at certain points in the journey to the realm of the afterlife, then you would not be allowed to pass through, leading to the total annihilation of the soul. They were often considered liminal beings, due to the fact that they guarded the threshold in the netherworld through the afterlife. For the layfolk in Egypt, they were defenders and played a vital role in their culture. This basically means that they have a generally ambivalent role in Egyptian myth – they were a potential threat to the deceased (or rather, the unjustified dead), but they can be protectors of the living, and in general they already are charged with protecting the underworld from the negative forces. Their role may have been very morally relative – if you knew how to propitiate them in the trials leading to the realm of the afterlife, or if they were invoked as protection, then they could be seen as good, but if you were crossing the netherworld and were unprepared. Often, demons were under the control of deities such as a Ra, Sekhmet, Anubis, and others. Some deities may have been identified as demonic, or demons as deities, like Bes, Tawaret, Tutu, and a deity named Meneh – the last two are identified as master or lord of demons respectively.
Egypt also seems to be, to my knowledge, the only culture where entities are depicted with weapons on their feet!
Egypt also seems to be, to my knowledge, the only culture where entities are depicted with weapons from their feet!
I realized that the Egyptian notion of demons was largely as ambivalent aggressive/protective beings, and it reminded me this role was actually fairly common in many world cultures before the rise of monotheism. You have in Mesopotamia demons like Pazuzu, who was so powerful that every other demon feared him and so was invoked as protection from other demons. In Tibet, wrathful and/or demonic beings fight and repel negative or evil influence in order to protect the practitioner as well as remove obstacles of spiritual practice and enlightenment. It is similarly true in esoteric forms of Japanese Buddhism. In Bali, the demon queen Rangda is simultaneously seen as an evil and protective force. In Greece, images of chthonic beings like the Gorgons adorn temples in order to ward off evil.
The nature of “evil” was also discussed in one lecture, and within that lecture we got round to discussing the notion of the 42 “judges” that appear in the Book of the Dead, and how they guard the netherworld by feeding off of “evil”; or at least one of them does – a judge named Dwdw=f, who I think may or may not have been a manifestation of Apep.
I was also enticed by a symbol from the Egyptian texts called the Black Ram – an image of something referred to as the “Lord of Power”. It seemed to represent a liminal power, or a hostile power of the netherworld. The ram character may have been connected with a solar being, the liminal state, danger, darkness, hiddenness, injury, and death. There was mention in the same lecture of a Black Sun that appears in the Tomb of Irunefer that devours evil. The ram’s role may have been morally relative just like the other demonic figures, depending on your position in the Egyptian underworld. I have found in that Black Ram a new personal symbol, one that to me at least appears to combine the powers of the sun (and fertility) associated with the ram, with the powers of darkness and the netherworld – it seems to me like a black ram would make for a powerful demonic totem, as the ram symbol gains more personal prominence.
The Egyptian interpretation of the demons is one that I would definitely mix in with the other interpretations of the demons, even with the modern idea of the demon. When I run this in my head, I envision passionate, mysterious, “dark” spirits, embodying the nether of the human being, and mostly ambivalent, whose aggressive/protective nature in the past makes them seem like rajasic (as in one of the three gunas) and I seem to like that. That a lot of them have animal aspects reminds me that they are animalistic beings – remembering what Anton LaVey commented about the deities that represented the animal in Man, and Michael W. Ford’s talk of demonic deific masks typically being bestial or animal. And who knows, over the centuries the demons may have gone through transitions . When they once served the deities in the heavens, in the modern age those deities are no longer in control, or the heavens have rejected the demons. And now they’re rebellious, chaotic spirits, making their own rules in the absence of divine masters. That may be just the fire of inspiration those lectures set off in me, one that I think makes me appreciate the demons ever more, and because of the way I think of demons I feel more excited about the kind of “animalistic” spiritual path that I prefer to follow – in conjunction with my prior reading of Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible.
In my opinion, the lectures were a smash hit and you simply had to be there. But if you missed them, it’s possible that the Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project may publish proceedings from the Demon Things conference in due course.