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Sources of Medieval Demonology

Sources of Medieval Demonology

By Diana Lynn Walzel

The Rice University Studies, Volume 60, Number 4 (1974)

Introduction: When most of us think of demons today, if we do think of them, some medieval imp undoubtedly comes to mind. The lineage of the medieval demon, and the modern conception thereof, can be traced to four main sources, all of which have links to the earliest human civilizations. Greek philosophy, Jewish apocryphal literature, Biblical doctrine, and pagan Germanic folklore all contribute elements to the demons which flourished in men’s minds at the close of the medieval period. It is my purpose briefly to delineate the demonology of each of these sources and to indicate their relationship to each other.

Homer had equated demons with gods and used daimon and theos as synonyms. Later writers gave a different nuance and even definition to the word daimon, but the close relationship between demons and the gods was never completely lost from sight. In the thinkers of Middle Platonism the identification of demons with the gods was revived, and this equation is ever-present in Christian authors.

Hesiod had been the first to view demons as other than gods, considering them the departed souls of men living in the golden age. Going a step further, Pythagoras believed the soul of any man became a demon when separated from the body. A demon, then, was simply a bodiless soul. In Platonic thought there was great confusion between demons and human souls. There seems to have been an actual distinction between the two for Plato, but what the distinction was is impossible now to discern. It is uncertain whether or not he believed demons to be personal beings.

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