In myths, legends, and various religions, devils and demons are evil or harmful supernatural beings. Devils are generally regarded as the adversaries of the gods, while the image of demons ranges from mischief makers to powerful destructive forces. In many religions, devils and demons stand on the opposite side of the cosmic balance from gods and angels. Although devils and demons have been pictured in many different ways, they are usually associated with darkness, danger, violence, and death.
Some people, including many Christian writers, have used the terms devil and demon almost interchangeably. But although devils and demons sometimes seem to be closely related or even identical, they also appear in myth and religion as two quite different creatures.
supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous
adversary enemy; opponent
cosmic large or universal in scale; having to do with the universe
Devils. In most mythologies and religions, a devil is a leader or ruler among evil spirits, a being who acts in direct opposition to the gods. The general view is that devils are trying to destroy humans, to tempt them into sinning, or to turn them against their gods. Monotheistic religions often speak of one Devil, just as they recognize one God.
Devils and gods may be opposites, but they are also usually linked in some way. Many religious and mythological explanations say that devils are related to the gods or that they are gods of evil.
Demons. A demon (sometimes spelled daemon) is generally thought to be a harmful or evil spirit or supernatural being, sometimes a god or the offspring of a god. Demons may be the messengers, attendants, or servants of the Devil. They are often monstrous in appearance, combining the features of different animals or of animals and humans.
Demons were not always regarded as evil. The ancient Greeks spoke of a person's daimon as his or her personal spirit, guardian angel, or soul. In many cultures, demons were merely inhuman supernatural powers that could be evil or good at various times, depending on whether their actions harmed or helped people. Human witches, wizards, and sorcerers were thought to gain some of their abilities by summoning and controlling demons through magical practices.
The spread of religions has had an interesting effect on demons in world mythology. When one religion replaces another, the gods of the former religion may become demons in the new faith. For example, as Islam spread through West Africa, Central Asia, and Indonesia, some local deities did not disappear but were transformed into demons within a universe governed by the God of Islam.
Devilish and demonic forces have taken many shapes and forms around the world. Frightening and dramatic stories and images of them have always had considerable appeal.
Egyptian Mythology. The devil could be seen in the evil god Set in ancient Egyptian mythology. Once a helpful god who ruled the kingdom of the blessed dead, Set's place in the Egyptian pantheon changed after he murdered his brother. Followers of the supreme god Horus conquered Set's followers, and the priests of Horus made Set the enemy of the other gods and the source of evil.
The Egyptians believed in the existence of demons. One such demon was Nehebkau, who appeared at times as a powerful earth spirit, a source of strength for the other gods. At other times, though, he was a menacing monster, a serpent with human arms and legs who threatened the souls of the dead. Like many demons, Nehebkau had more than one role.
monotheistic believing in only one god
sorcerer magician or wizard
deity god or goddess
pantheon all the gods of a particular culture
chaos great disorder or confusion
Persian Mythology. In the mythology of Persia, now known as Iran, two opposing powers struggled for control of the universe. Ahura Mazda was the god of goodness and order, while his twin brother, Ahriman, was the god of evil and chaos. The Zoroastrian religion that developed in Persia pictured the world in terms of tension between opposites: God (Ahura Mazda) and the Devil (Ahriman), light and darkness, health and illness, life and death. Ahriman ruled malevolent demons called daevas that represented death, violence, and other negative forces.
Judaism and Christianity. Hebrew or Jewish tradition, later adopted by Christians, calls the Devil Satan, which means "adversary." Satan took on qualities of Ahriman, becoming the prince of evil, lies, and darkness. Jewish tradition also includes a female demon known as Lilith. Said to be the first wife of Adam, Lilith was cast out when she refused to obey her husband and was replaced by Eve.
In Christian belief, the Devil came to be seen as a fallen angel who chose to become evil rather than worship God. Satan rules the demons in Hell, the place of punishment and despair. In the Middle Ages, some Christians believed that a separate devil—or a separate aspect of the Devil—existed for each of the seven deadly sins. In their view, Lucifer represented pride, Mammon greed, Asmodeus lust, Satan anger, Beelzebub gluttony, Leviathan envy, and Belphegor sloth.
malevolent doing or wishing harm or ill toward others
underworld land of the dead
The common image of the Devil in Western culture is drawn from many sources. The Devil's pointed ears, wings, and sharp protruding teeth resemble those of Charu, the underworld demon of the Etruscans of ancient Italy. The Devil's tail, horns, and
Islam. In the Muslim religion of Islam, which shares many elements of Jewish and Christian tradition, the Devil is called Iblis or Shaitan. Like Satan, he is a fallen angel. He commands an army of ugly demons called shaitans, who tempt humans to sin. The shaitans belong to a class of supernatural beings called djinni or jinni (genies). Some djinni are benevolent or neutral toward the human world, but those who do not believe in God are evil.
Hinduism and Buddhism. In the earliest form of Hinduism in India, the gods were sometimes called Asuras. But as the religion developed the Asuras came to be seen as demons who battled the gods. Another group of demons, the Rakshasas, served the demon king Ravana. Some were beautiful, but others were monstrous or hideously deformed. One demon, Hayagriva (meaning "horse-necked"), was a huge and powerful enemy of the gods whose troublemaking constantly threatened to overturn the cosmic order.
The Buddhist religion incorporated many elements of Hinduism, including the demon Hayagriva. It turned the Hindu demon Namuchi into Mara, the Evil One who tempts people with desires and deceives them with illusions. Mara tried to tempt the Buddha. He failed—but he still tries to keep others from reaching enlightenment.
Chinese and Japanese Mythology. Although traditional Chinese and Japanese religions did not recognize a single powerful devil, they had demons. In Chinese legends, the souls of the dead become either shen, good spirits who join the gods, or gui, malevolent ghosts or demons who wander the earth, usually because their descendants do not offer them the proper funeral ceremonies.
Japanese mythology includes stories about demons called Oni, generally portrayed with square, horned heads, sharp teeth and claws, and sometimes three eyes. Oni may have the size and strength of giants. Although these demons are cruel and mischievous, some tales tell of Oni who change their ways and become Buddhist monks.
Christians of the Middle Ages and afterward believed that humans occasionally made bargains with the Devil, selling their souls to him in exchange for riches, power, or other benefits they would enjoy before they died. Witches were said to have made such bargains, an act that condemned them to death in the eyes of the church. An obscure German schoolmaster-turned-magician named Faust, who lived in the 1500s, gave rise to one of the most famous stories about a deal with the Devil. The legend of Dr. Faustus has been the subject of many plays, books, and operas.
satyr woodland deity that was part man and part goat or horse
trident three-pronged spear, similar to a pitchfork
benevolent desiring good for others
enlightenment in Buddhism, a spiritual state marked by the absence of desire and suffering
African Mythology. The Bushpeople of southern Africa say that Gauna, the ruler of the underworld, is the enemy of Cagn, the god who created the world. Gauna visits the earth to cause trouble in human society and to seize people to take to the realm of the dead. He also sends the souls of the dead to haunt their living family members.
See also African Mythology ; Ahriman ; Angels ; Buddhism and Mythology ; Chinese Mythology ; Faust ; Gauna ; Genies ; Hell ; Hinduism and Mythology ; Japanese Mythology ; Lilith ; Monsters ; Persian Mythology ; ; Set ; Witches and Wizards .