An Urban Fantasy Writer’s Guide to Classical Demonology
by J. S. Kupperman
Ah, demons. You know you love ‘em.
So, as it turns out, do readers and writers of the genre known as “contemporary fantasy,” and the sub-genre “urban fantasy.” The contemporary fantasy genre takes the fantasy concepts familiar to fans of J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Tad Williams or Patrick Rothfuss placed not only in a modern world, but some version of our modern world. Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, for instance, takes place in modern Chicago. With wizards.
Though not as popular as vampires, zombies and werewolves, demons are slowly becoming a literary force to be reckoned with. But there are demons and then there are demons. Though some might be satisfied with equating demons, and the magic involved in their summoning, with evil creatures and black magic, there is an entire history of Western demonology fantasy writers can draw upon to ground their fiction in fact. This paper represents a basic introduction to the topic of classical Western demonology. I will first examine the question as to what, exactly, is a demon before examining Jewish and Christian, including Gnostic, demonologies. Following that will be a look at the Solomonic grimoire tradition, especially as it is presented in the most famous of those grimoires, the Lesser Key of Solomon. Finally, I will give examples from contemporary fantasy writers: James Blish, Jim Butcher and Kelley Armstrong.
What are demons, anyway? Etymology
So, you’re an urban fantasy author and want demons in your story. Of course you do, who wouldn’t? Demons are bad ass. But demons aren’t just really big monsters. Yes, I know you’re the author, so demons are whatever you damn well want them to be, but you also have an audience, and the word “demon” means something in particular to them, especially if there are occultists amongst them. So, to get your demons seeming like demons, let’s try to figure them out.
Unfortunately, though “demon” might mean something in particular to reader X, to reader Y it might mean something else. The word is used a lot, to mean a wide variety of semi-related things. To examine this we’ll set the way back machine to ancient Greece and look at from where the English word “demon” comes. The word in question here is daimon.
In ancient Greece to late Antiquity, a daimon was a non-physical being, typically beneath the gods but above humans in the hierarchy of creation. A daimon can be good or evil, specific or generic. For instance the Neoplatonists, in the 3rd century CE, talked about an individual’s guiding daimon. According to this idea, you have your very own daimon (several, actually), who is trying to lead you towards the gods and to develop your soul to possibly god-like proportions. There are also daimons of punishment that drag impure souls into incarnation, and daimons that guide the natural patterns of the physical world. Different kinds of daimons, but all still daimons.
With the spread of Christianity after the Edict of Milan in 313, the view of daimons, at least amongst Christians, began to change. Daimons within the New Testament were largely bad things. For instance, the Gospel of Mark used the term pneuma akatharton, unclean spirit, interchangeably with daimonion. This becomes combined with the idea of the war in heaven from the Book of Revelation, and the popular idea of demons as fallen angels is formed. Sure, Neoplatonists of the time were still going on with a more traditional, pagan use of the term, but times change. The English word “demon” comes from the Latinized form of daimon, daemon. And so the evil demon is born, at least in English.
But this only tells us where the word comes from. Unfortunately, it does not tell us how it is being used now. For instance, when I think demon I rarely think “fallen angel.” Part of the difficulty is that English is not a particularly good language for dealing with such things. So while we have our demons, Judaism has lots of different demons, each with their own category, all of which we commonly translates as “demon.” That’s convenient, but not very helpful.
The language lesson is over. Next we will look at demons in Judaism and then Christianity.
Demons in Judaism
In Hebrew, there is a generic word for “demon”: shed. The word covers a lot of ground. The Hebrew Bible, and later Talmud and then kabbalistic texts such as the Zohar, also uses different terms to refer to specific kinds of demons. Generally speaking, Jewish demons included satyr-like creatures, evil spirits, night demons and the children of Lilith. Eventually, we will see beings more like what will become normative in Medieval and Renaissance occultism, though the differences, even if subtle, are significant. We will not see much fallen angle-type demons outside of the Enoch material, a small portion of which will be taken up into the Zohar.
For simplicity, let us divide our Jewish demons into the following categories:
1. Nasty nature spirits
2. The Children of Lilith
The nasty nature spirits are typically described as satyrs or goat demons, varying in power and prestige. Perhaps the most famous of these, that will eventually become as close to a fallen angel as we find in Judaism, is Azazel. An “Azazel sacrifice” used to be made on Yum Kippur during the Temple Period. Originally, Azazel appears to have referred to a mountainous region where a scapegoat-like sacrifice offering was made. The region was eventually connected to a local demon, or possibly a pagan deity. We will then see in various texts the idea that the sacrifice was made to appease the demon.
A lot of us are at least vaguely familiar with Lilith, or with the popular stories that one will find about her in the internet; most of which, unfortunately, lack a basic foundation in research. First, Lilith is not in the Bible. She appears in Talmud and various commentaries on the Bible, and eventually in Jewish mystical material. The short version of her story is that Lilith was Adam’s first wife. Nastiness between the not-so-loving couple ensued and Lilith leaves Eden. Out in the real world she goes demonic, cohabits with bodiless spirits and produces her own demonic offspring. They are known for suffocating babies in their sleep. Historically, it seems likely that Lilith was originally not an individual demon but a class of spirits, appearing in ancient Akkadian mythology. As such she, or they, appear in a story of the goddess Inanna, where the lillitu spirits or demons have to driven from Inanna’s sacred tree by the hero-god Gilgamesh.
The generic demon is an interesting category. On the one hand we find beings like Samael, who is the accuser, tempter, angel of death, the Evil Inclination and a host of other nasties. However, in much Jewish lore, including the Zohar but also seemingly in the Biblical Book of Job, Samael cannot act without God’s permission, so there is no notion of rebellion here. Ashmedai  was the king of demons, and a child of Lilith, but apparently not of the really nasty variety. It is said that Ashmedai studies Torah and keeps the commandments.
This is part of what makes this kind of demon so difficult. Many Jewish demons are not necessarily evil, just unpleasant. A whole class of them are actually human souls that were not given bodies before the beginning of the seventh day of creation. They became jealous of their embodied cousins (i.e. us) and so started being mean to us. That being said, they are also frequently described as being good Jews, going to synagogue and being in charge of punishing people who violate commandments or abuse prayer books. Eventually, though influenced by Greek and Christian thought, we will see the idea that each demon has an angelic counterpart that can make the demon obey a magician. Similar ideas are found in Medieval and Renaissance occultism and may have been influenced by Neoplatonism, as much of Medieval and Renaissance occultism have been.
Demons in Early Mainstream Christianity
Generally, there are two kinds of demons in Christianity. The first is the unclean spirit and the second the fallen angel. There are twenty mentions of “unclean spirits” (pneumata akatharta) in the New Testament, such as the ones Jesus casts out into swine that then killed themselves. There are also the “air spirits” (aero tou pneumato) of Ephesians 2:2. Presumably those spirits are demons of some sort, but of what variety it’s hard to say. The term “daimon” isn’t used, nor are these spirits described as fallen angels It is perhaps noteworthy that daimon, or daimonion, appears fifty times in the New Testament, as opposed to the twenty or so times pneumata akatharta appears.
The unclean spirits are responsible for making people sick as well as for possession. They are clearly antagonistic in the New Testament but also recognize other spiritual beings, such as Christ. So, though malevolent, they are also intelligent. This is important. We should not mistake demonic for brutish. Also, they are not physical. The unclean spirits are able to squeeze large numbers of themselves into a single being, as seen in Luke 8:30 and Mark 5:9: “My name is Legion, for we are many.”
It is interesting that there is no direct connection, Biblically speaking, between these spirits and fallen angels, fallen angels that show up in . . . a bunch of different places, actually. For instance there is 2 Peter 2:4 “For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgment,” and Jude 6: “And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day.”
The Apocalypse of St. John, or the Book of Revelation, is another source for fallen angels. Importantly, the idea of the “war in heaven” comes from here, though it was likely heavily influenced by the apocryphal 3 Enoch, which describes a similar war between the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness.” The war in heaven is first discussed in Rev 12:7-9, where the angle Michael boots Dragon, identified with Satan, from heaven, along with Satan’s angels.
An earlier portion of Revelation, 9:1, will eventually be connected with the figure of Satan as well. Rev 9:1 describes a star fallen from heaven to the earth, just as Satan is cast to the earth by Michael in Rev 12, and who has the keys to the abyss, or hell. Due to what is, in my opinion, a misreading of Isaiah 14:12, this fallen star will be given the name Lucifer, to be connected with Satan.
Lucifer is a somewhat difficult but important subject, especially as he is connected to Satan. It seems clear that the part of the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 14:12) where Christianity gets Lucifer from isn’t talking about an angel, fallen or otherwise. Rather the text is talking about the king of Babylon, who is given the title Day or Morning Star, and is described as metaphorically falling from heaven. Eventually, this will get translated into Greek, and from Greek into Latin, where some readings the title is turned into a proper name, something that is retained in the King James Bible today.
Finally, at least a few demons are described, such as Abaddon. Originally, Abaddon meant “place of destruction” and was associated with Sheol (an afterlife realm) in Jewish writings. In Revelation, Abaddon becomes a king of hell and may even be associated with, or as, the Anti-Christ. Revelation also mentions “demonic spirits” that go out and perform miracles. Again, just what demons are is questionable. Another is the Dragon, identified with Satan, Dragon has seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns and is probably meant to represent the Roman Empire.
The Gnostic Demiurge and Archons
Though not technically part of classical demonology, with the growing popularity of modern Gnosticism, and the Gnostic bad guys as a largely untapped area for fictional villains, it is a useful area with which to be familiar. What we might call “classical” Gnosticism is a form of early Christianity that did not become part of mainstream Christianity as we know it today in the West, i.e. descendants of the Roman Church. Gnosticism flourished in the first and second centuries, had sects join Islam in the form of the Manicheans (who still exist today, though they are greatly persecuted in the Middle East), a Bishop that almost became the Bishop of Rome, and lasted into the middle ages by way of the Cathars. Much as there are different sects or denominations of Christianity today, there were different groups among the classical Gnostics as well. Besides the Manicheans, the most well known sects are the Sethians and the Valentinians.
In Gnostic cosmogony the physical universe is created by a being sometimes called the Demiurge, and more regularly known as Yaldabaoth or Yaltabaoth, who is variously also called Saklas and Samael. According to the Sethian Apocryphon of John, Yaldabaoth was created by the aeon Sophia, a divine hypostasis, or anthropomorphised element of divine reality. Sophia, which means “Wisdom” in Greek, did this without permission and without her masculine opposite, Barbelo, and so instead of emanating like she had planned, she brought forth the malformed, insane and/or evil Yaldbaoth. Because of his origin, Yaldbaoth is filled with divine power and thought he was God. Being God, Yaldbaoth set about creating his own set of angels, the archons or governors. Together, Yaldabaoth and his archons would create humanity and enslave us into worshiping them as false gods.
Some of the Gnostic texts give a very detailed account of the various archons. For instance, the Apocryphon of John tells us:
[Yaldabaoth] became strong and created for himself other aeons with a flame of luminous fire which (still) exists now. And he joined with his madness which is in him and begot authorities for himself. The name of the first one is Athoth, whom the generations call [...]. The second one is Harmas, who [is the eye] of envy. The third one is Kalila-Oumbri. The fourth one is Yabel. The fifth one is Adonaiou, who is called Sabaoth. The sixth one is Cain, whom the generation of men call the sun. The seventh is Abel. the eighth is Abrisene. The ninth is Yobel. The tenth is Armoupieel. The eleventh is Malcheir-Adonein. The twelfth is Belias, who is over the depth of Hades.
This is only a single list of archons within the Apocryphon, and The Hypostasis of the Archons and On the Origin of the World, all of which are found in the Nag Hammadi Codex, give a similar story and different archonic names. Yaldabaoth remains more or less the same, only varying in his degrees of evil and insanity.
That there are twelve authorities listed above is no coincidence. Yaldabaoth creates an archon for everything, the seven planets, the twelve zodiacal signs, the 365 days of the week and every part of the human body. The point here is thateverything in the physical world is governed by these false gods. Unlike the Solomonic system, there does not seem to be a way to control the archons, though some have suggested magical gems with the image of Yaldabaoth or Abraxas on it might have been used in such a way. The only way to transcend the control of the archons and their master is to transcend the physical world and return to the pleroma or fullness of God.
The Solomonic Grimoire Tradition
There is a class of ceremonial magic generally referred to as Solomonic magic. This is, of course, named after the famous King Solomon who built the Temple of Jerusalem. The idea that Solomon was a magician is fairly old, as the second century Testament of Solomon, a sort of prototype for later Solomonic grimoires, attests. Though Solomonic magic is primarily Christian in origin, it is dependent upon both Jewish lore and Arabic magical practices.
The most famous of the Solomonic grimoires is the Lemegeton Clavicula Salomonis, the Lesser Key of Solomon, which dates mostly from the 14th century. The first book of the Lesser Key, called the Goetia, deals explicitly with demons and their evocation. This portion of the Key was re-popularized in the 19th century through the “translation” of S.L. MacGregor Mathers, one of the founders of the Order of the Golden Dawn.
It is important to know that there is quite a debatable concerning whether or not the Goetia is about demons, i.e. fallen angels, or some other kind of spirit. Some of the demonic names found in the Goetia are clearly derived from the names of pagan deities. Astaroth, the 29th spirit, is an excellent example of this. The name “Astaroth,” who described as a mighty and strong duke, is understood to come from the Canannite goddess Ashtoreth, the consort of Ba’al, one of the Jewish God’s chief cultural rivals. However, not only are all 42 of the Goetic spirits considered diabolical, they are, generally, considered fallen angels, some of whom, we are told, hope to regain their place in heaven.
The Goetia gives each demon a rank: Marquis, Duke, Prelate, Knight, President and Count or Earl. In some Solomonic-derived systems, such as the Grimoirium Verum, all of the demons are ruled over by one of three greater demons: Lucifer, Beelzebuth and Astaroth, though this is not part of the Lesser Key. Regardless, each demon listed is itself a greater spirit, ruling over a multitude of legions, a legion consisting of 6666 lesser demons. Further, each greater demon is associated with a certain power or ability. The aforementioned Astaroth, whose seal was featured on the “Malleus Maleficarum” episode of the WB’s Supernatural, can “make men wounderfull knowing in all Liberall siences.” The 40th spirit, the Earl Raum, is said to “steale Treasures out of kings houses, and to carry it where he is commanded, & to destroy Citties, and ye dignities of men; & to tell all Things past, & wt is, & wt will be; & to cause Love between friends & foes.”
The Goetia is not, however, simply a book about demons. It is a grimoire about how to summon, or evoke, the demons and bend them to servitude. The magic of the Lesser Key relies upon a number of physical implements, including magical seals, a large circle filled with divine names, a magical triangle, and a lamen, a sort of magical pendant, with the demon’s seal or signature on it. To these some include the vestments, magical sword and blasting rod found in the Greater Key of Solomon, which deals not with demonic evocation, but astrological talismans and other, similar, forms of magic.
The actual process of evocation is somewhat drawn out and makes use of lengthy prayers, conjurations and exhortations. Importantly, this is not a kind of demonolatry or diabolical worship. The magician does not even conjure the spirit through his or her own power, but through the holy power of God, who is called upon through various names, some Jewish, some akin to the voce mysteicae of Neoplatonic theurgy.
Classical Demons in Contemporary and Urban Fantasy
There are several examples of how demons have been employed in contemporary and urban fantasy. Though not as popular as vampires, zombies and various species of shapeshifters, demons are still quite useful as powerful hitme . . . hitbeings, and may play a larger role at times, too.
In Jim Butcher’s popular Dresden Files (and yes, I am a fan), there is only the occasional use of demons. When they do appear, however, the system Mr. Butcher uses appears to be a modification of the Solomonic tradition. There is an important emphasis on the magic circle and the use of true names, though the latter is an important features of the series and does not relate only to demonic beings. The use of a magic circle seems to be very important. Crossing the circle, breaking its physical barrier, is enough to ruin the protection it provides, thus releasing the demon. The demon is generally unhappy at having been summoned in the first place and, well, they’re way bigger than most humans, even full-blown wizards. Goriness typically ensues.
Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series (and again, yes, a fan), employs demons differently. First, they are more active in the world. Some of the series main characters are half-demons, expressing some sort of power depending on the kind of demon their father is and how powerful he is. Ms. Armstrong also divides demon-kind in two groups, one evil and one . . . not actively evil: cacodemons and eudemons. As with the Solomonic system, there is also a hierarchy of demons, given the titles of human nobility. These titles, rarely used, are related to their overall power of the demon, which is transferred to a certain extent to their human-demon hybrid children. Perhaps most interesting, though, is that Ms. Armstrong has used, in at least few occasions, the name Aratron, one of the “Olympic Planetary Spirits” from the Arbatel of Magic. Though not considered a demon per se, that doesn’t really matter, as Ms. Armstrong presents Aratron as one of the most powerful of eudemons, which fits the Olympic spirits fairly well.
Finally, though it predates either Dresden Files or the Women of the Otherworld, is James Blish’s The Devil’s Day. This story is about a munitions mogul who is looking for the next big thing. He finds it in the form of demonic evocation. After hiring Theron Ware to summon a demon to assassinate a rival, Blish’s main character contracts Ware to summon every major demon in hell and let them loose for a day to see what happens. The result, of course, is Armageddon, with the win going to Satan, who now has to be God, whether he wants to or not.
Mr. Blish’s uses of Solomonic demonology is quite literal, and he derives his rituals and demonic descriptions from several medieval grimoires. His approach to the nature of the Goetic spirits and their hierarchy is taken verbatim from the grimoire tradition, resplendent in its Christian overtones. In this Mr. Blish’s demonology is far more conservative than either Ms. Armstrong’s or Mr. Butchers, neither of whom, or instance, have a particularly religious overtone to their demonology. Where Mr. Blish’s demons are fallen angels, those of Mr. Butcher’s and Ms. Armstrong’s are simply very powerful, frequently, but not always, very evil, other-dimensional beings. We call them “demon” more out of reflex than accuracy.
Demonic evocation is a nearly untapped area in the genre today. These three examples demonstrate the variety of ways in which demons can be employed in contemporary and urban fantasy. With a deeper knowledge of classical demonology, the writer can create a realistic presentation of demons and evocation that can fit into almost any contemporary fantasy worldview.