MythologyWhat's a...

What’s a demon?

This has to be cleared up, because the word contains so much baggage that it’s going to get confusing otherwise. In studying other religions, cultures, beliefs, and mythologies, the word demon pops up from time to time. But this shouldn’t be considered at all related to the modern English word that’s bogged down by Christian baggage. A great example is in Egyptian and Mesopotamian contexts where we see terms like ‘coffin text demon’ or ‘wind demon’. So, why use it? And what does it actually mean?

Table of Contents

Benefits of Using the Term “Demon”

The term “demon” offers several benefits when employed in the study of ancient Near Eastern religions, including those of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Primarily, it serves as a convenient and widely understood descriptor for certain categories of supernatural entities depicted in the mythological and religious texts of these cultures. 

It’s a convenient word. Primarily, it serves as an easy and widely understood descriptor for certain categories of supernatural entities. Within academic discourse, “demon” functions as a shorthand to refer to beings that possess characteristics such as otherworldly powers, spiritual significance, and/or roles as intermediaries between humans and the divine. Using this word facilitates communication and comprehension among scholars, particularly among scholars of different religions, by providing a common language for discussing complex and multifaceted concepts within ancient religious traditions.

Moreover, the use of the term “demon” enables scholars to identify commonalities and patterns across diverse cultures and religious contexts. By applying a consistent label to certain types of supernatural beings found in Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts, researchers can recognize recurring motifs, themes, and symbolic meanings that transcend specific cultural or geographical boundaries. This comparative approach enhances our understanding of the universal aspects of human spirituality and religious practices while highlighting the unique cultural expressions and interpretations of the supernatural found within various belief systems.

Risks and Limitations of Using the Term “Demon”

Despite its utility, the application of the term “demon” also presents certain risks and limitations, particularly in the context of Mesopotamian and Egyptian practices. Chief among these concerns is the potential for misrepresentation or oversimplification of ancient religious beliefs and concepts. In modern Western discourse, the term “demon” carries strong (strong) connotations, often evoking images of malevolent or evil entities associated with temptation, chaos, and suffering. When applied indiscriminately to beings from ancient cultures, this label can obscure the nuanced and multifaceted nature of their beliefs, perpetuating stereotypes and misconceptions.

A great example of this risk is Pazuzu. Was he the “King of the Wind Demons”? Yes. Was he also invoked for protection? Also yes. And this was just part of his role. The people involving him were just normal people doing something normal for their culture. 

And we also risk cultural imperialism. The truth is that Christianity is so rooted in western worldviews that we often don’t even see it.  The use of the term “demon” may inadvertently reflect an imposition of Western or Christian interpretations onto ancient religious traditions, thereby distorting or misrepresenting their original meanings. Ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian religions possessed complex cosmologies and belief systems that differed significantly from modern Western conceptions of demons. By applying Western terminology without regard for the specific cultural and religious contexts of these societies, scholars risk obscuring the unique perspectives and understandings of the supernatural held by ancient peoples.

Evolution of the Concept of “Demon”

The Encyclopedia of Religion (2005) has a good overview of the evolution of the term  and its usage(s), but the short version is this: 

Except in some monotheistic religions, all demons are not assumed to be evil. Many kinds of spiritual beings who are not obviously gods may be described as demons. Demons are far more powerful than humans, though their powers are limited and they are longer-lived, though not necessarily immortal. Demons often seem to be the anthropomorphic conceptualization of discrete, invisible natural forces that are perceptible mainly through their effects, such as wind or specific diseases. In prescientific cosmologies, air, wind, and the “breath” (spiritus) of life are usually conceived as invisible or even immaterial. As spirits, demons are normally invisible, becoming perceptible either through their effects on hu-mans, or through language or signs. When becoming visible, demons may exhibit their own inherent shapes or assume  familiar or monstrous forms.(2275)

The term “demon” itself has undergone a significant evolution and transmission across cultures and time periods, including within the contexts of Mesopotamian and Egyptian religions. Originating in ancient Greek mythology as “daimon” (δαίμων), it described divine or supernatural beings occupying the space between gods and humans. As Greco-Roman culture flourished, the concept of “daimones” influenced Western philosophical, religious, and literary traditions. With the spread of Christianity, however, the term underwent a transformation, aligning more closely with malevolent or evil spirits opposed to God and humanity.

Christian theology and demonology in western european cultures later solidified the notion of demons as fallen angels or malevolent entities intent on tempting and corrupting humans. This understanding has deeply permeated Western…everything.  Literature, art, and popular culture, etc. It reinforces the perception of demons as grotesque, terrifying creatures capable of possessing and tormenting human souls. But the transmission of the concept of demons extended far beyond Christian Europe. As European explorers, missionaries, and traders encountered diverse cultures, they encountered beliefs in supernatural beings often labeled as “demons” through Christian interpretations.


Basically, we’re lazy. The use of the term “demon” is mostly a term of convenience for beings that may simply not have words in English. The best example is in ancient Near Eastern studies but similar supernatural beings that are between humans and deities exist in (probably) all religions and play all sorts of roles. While it provides a useful framework for categorizing and discussing supernatural entities, its application requires nuance and an awareness of the potential pitfalls of imposing modern Western interpretations onto ancient traditions.

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