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  ‘Demon’ comes from the Greek word daimon, which meant a kind of intermediate supernatural being between gods and mortals. Some daimones were the souls of people from the Golden Age, whose function in the afterlife was to take interest in specific places or human beings. Others were the indwelling spirits of rivers, woods, hills and so on. Others again were the souls of one\'s own dead friends and relatives—or in the case of wicked demons, one\'s enemies and rivals.

This kind of demon is part of every supernatural belief-system in the world. Animist belief depends on it; Roman Catholic saints and Buddhist great souls are kinds of demon; demons are the main spirits controlling life in religions as far apart as those of China and pre-Christian Scandinavia. In many religions—those of the ancient Middle East are a case in point—demons are not inherently good or bad, benevolent or hostile. They are not aloof, beyond understanding, like the gods; they are changeable, influencable, like mortals. They can be persuaded to help us (more easily than gods can be persuaded) and conversely, they can more easily and quickly turn against us. Thus, a large part of the practice of many religions is the propitiation and celebration of demons, or the attempt to dislodge or avert their evil powers. Many festivals and ceremonies, even in the world\'s most ‘developed’ religions, grew out of demonism of this kind, and it remains one of the most colourful, and most personal and deeply-felt, aspects of much religious practice.

The position of demons in Judaism and Christianity is particularly interesting. Monotheism in early Judaism involved the denial of all other supernatural beings but God. The gods of non-Judaic worshippers were dismissed as idols; spirits and demons were categorized as the shock troops of evil, always waiting to infiltrate the mind and body of unwary believers and turn them away from God. If people fell ill or went mad, this was demons\' work; if your children misbehaved or your neighbour cheated you, they were afflicted by demons. The way to put matters right was not to address the demons directly, but to ask God to deal with them for you. In this belief-system, all demons are by nature evil, servants of the Devil (the arch-demon). Later, the souls of the faithful departed were assumed to become angels, but their function never quite became that of benign demons (since only God can be benign). Angels praise and rejoice in the majesty of God; even saints, when they entered Christian practice, were thought not to work miracles by themselves alone (as demons did in other religions), but only by the power of God, or by intercession on our behalf with God.

Demonism, which is an exclusively religious phenomenon, has a secular parallel in spiritualism. The spirits of the departed are thought, in the same way, to retain an interest in the mortal world, to be prepared to listen to us, talk to us and help us—or, if they feel like it, play mischievous and hurtful tricks on us. The chief differences from demonism are that there is no real hierarchy among spirits (they have no God to intercede with on our behalf), and they move towards us or away from us more or less at will, needing cajoling or exorcism only in the most extreme cases. KMcL

See also magic; Satanism.



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