Demons in the Modern World
Author: Morgan St. Knight
Do you believe in demons? I don’t mean allegorical ones (“She’s fighting some demons, ” they say, as the woman checks into rehab for substance abuse) . I mean independent entities that can harm us.
Let’s forgo discussing whether Forcas, Buer, Malphas and their friends would ever take up residence in a rundown house in Vidalia, Georgia, the shed out back, or the Chevy on cinderblocks in the front yard. Yes, I’ve seen things like that on television. No, I’m not convinced they were real. Full disclosure here: I have no evidence that the scenes depicted in any of those shows weren’t real either. Just an empath’s gut instinct.
No need to invite me down the road of “Wiccans don’t have a Devil.” I fully acknowledge that I don’t believe in a grand evil entity that’s pulling out all the stops to get my soul. However, by my estimate millions of Pagans past and present believe (d) demons could harm humans. There is ample evidence the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Sumerians did. We have numerous examples of amulets and incantations these cultures devised to avert the influence of malignant entities. These demons took many forms, and not one of them was really interested in corrupting a person’s soul. Maybe the ancients understood that humans could do that all on their own, without the need of outside inspiration from a malevolent being. Demons are not commonly seen as tempters before Christianity’s interpretation of them.
There were demons of pestilence, demons responsible for killing babies, demons that could strike people blind, demons that could inflict abject terror, demons that destroyed crops, demons that created (or personified) natural disasters such as storms and earthquakes, demons whose sole interest was in killing humans in the most horrible ways imaginable, demons who drove people to insanity, and demons of general misfortune.
Then there were really big, bad demons that focused on the ambitious stuff, like destroying the boat of Ra as it journeyed through the underworld at night (Apep/Apophis) , or in destroying love and beauty in the world (Ereshkigal and company trying to destroy Inanna) .
Times change, and so did our perception of how the world works. Now we say that virus, bacteria, genetic issues, or certain choices in lifestyle cause diseases. We know loss of sight comes from accidents, untreated diabetes, macular degeneration, or cataracts. Infants die in the night from getting caught in or falling out of ill-constructed cribs, being placed on their stomachs on overly-soft bedding, or abuse such as shaken-baby syndrome. Crops fail because of blights or pests, which are treated with harsh chemicals that may cause further health issues for the environment and us. People lose their ability to cope with day-to-day life through dementia or mental illness.
Is there still a place in the modern world for demons? While we’ve come up with many explanations for certain events and personal circumstances, there are some that don’t quite fit into those molds. We may try to force them to conform in our minds because we don’t want to accept alternative explanations that make us uncomfortable, but that is no solution.
Part of our rational, modern-day brain just doesn’t like the idea of blaming certain incidents on beings we can’t (usually) see or sense in other ways. It seems too much of a cop-out. “The devil made me do it” or “I can’t get a job because someone cursed me” are scorned as excuses these days because they amount to lack of accountability. Believing in demons is seen in many circles, including some Pagan ones, as denying rational explanations for events. As I stated in a previous essay on this forum, I absolutely believe you should do a thorough reality check before assuming there’s a supernatural explanation for your troubles. If that reality check comes up with only one answer, you have to go for it.
Sometimes that answer is not the one you want to hear.
I think we have to look at why there’s resistance to accept that demons might be real. It’s not just that the term “demon” leaves a bad taste on the Pagan palate because of its associations with certain fundamentalist religious teachings which often conflate our religions with Satanism, and which turned benign “daimons” into evil “demons.” There’s more to it.
When the Age of Enlightenment took firm hold in Europe and North America in the mid-18th century it ushered in a new perspective of the world, one in which supernatural beings didn’t fit very well (apart from a general belief in God) . But demons didn’t go away for good. People wanted them, even needed them to still exist in some form. If believing in the traditional goat-legged monsters wouldn’t do, then they had to be accommodated in other ways.
It became fashionable in the first part of the 20th century to claim that demons were real but did not have an independent existence. They were not just bogeys conceived by religious leaders to frighten and control the foolish; they were aspects of our own personalities. Even in his introductory remarks to the Goetia , Aleister Crowley (1) says the spirits listed in the book are parts of our brain. He claims the names of God used to control them are really vibrational formulas to stimulate those parts of the brain, and the sigils used to summon them do the same thing through visual stimulation.
In other words, it’s all in the magician’s head. Conjuring demons is nothing more than stimulating one’s own potential in the specific areas they govern, such as developing wealth, finding a sexual partner, and overcoming enemies.
That paradigm has appeal because people have great faith that psychology can answer all the thorny questions about human behavior. It’s true that a person might approach a situation with more confidence if they believe they have some supernatural upper hand through the help of a Deity or a demon. More confidence increases the likelihood they will achieve their aim. But I believe that giving all the credit to the power of positive thinking, and denying the possibility that anything else is at work, is throwing Beelzebub out with the bathwater.
In modern Wicca and other magically-inclined traditions the closest you usually come to hearing about anything “demonic” is the phrase “negative energy”. This is problematic on a couple of levels. First, using the term “negative” as a synonym for “dangerous, harmful, or undesirable” is oversimplifying and confusing things. “Negative” does not always mean bad.
Example: the electrons flowing through the power lines that provide electricity to your house are “negative” in terms of polarity; but this “negative” energy produces some very desirable results. Your washing machine, television, computer, and kitchen appliances all operate on negative energy. Polarity, in a spiritual as well as electrical sense, is very real; you can’t operate the universe without it. Negative energy is just as important as positive energy.
Another problem with attributing unwanted events to random “negative energy” without considering that an actual intelligence is at work is that it limits perspective on a situation. It’s like saying a person hit by a sniper’s bullet just was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, this is true on a broad level, but it takes the sniper’s deliberate actions out of the equation altogether; it implies mere circumstance put the person in the path of a bullet that was just whizzing randomly through the air. In either case the person is dead, but in one case we have a much clearer picture of why the person is dead.
We run into a morally gray area when discussing demons because traditionally they are perceived as deliberately evil or malicious. In other words, they have a choice and they harm us because they want to. Certainly that’s how many ancient cultures viewed things. This makes us uncomfortable nowadays because it seems silly. Would a non-corporeal being really hang around curdling milk and blighting crops, or making little Sally get the measles, just for fun? It seems puerile at best.
Experience taught me that paranormal entities, like humans, mostly fall into the vast, hazy field between absolutely good and absolutely evil. There are beings whose mere presence causes harmful effects, but to automatically decide that it’s a deliberately malicious activity is narrow-sighted. If a bear mauls someone we agree harm was done, but do we say it was done with malice, or because it was the nature of the bear to act that way if it felt threatened?
Some entities survive by draining energy from people in much the same way that mosquitoes, leeches and certain bats survive by drawing blood. The mosquito doesn’t rub its front legs together in lurid anticipation, cackling gleefully as it zooms down to bite someone for its nightly meal. It doesn’t regard the feelings of its temporary host at all; it’s not in a mosquito’s nature to do so.
So it is with parasitic entities. They don’t necessarily delight in weakening someone by draining them of energy, but the ultimate effect is the same regardless of the entity’s personal view. The human host grows weaker, perhaps undergoing behavioral changes such as moodiness or depression due to decreased vitality, and becoming more susceptible to illness and fatigue. In some cases the person’s internal energy may become so drained that they succumb to serious medical conditions; in rare cases they may die. These symptoms mirror some of the banes traditionally associated with demons. What is different in this interpretation is the motive (the entity’s survival as opposed to actual malice) .
Here’s another example. I’ve found some entities can cause people to become uncomfortable by their mere presence. This level of discomfort can extend from a vague sense of malaise to absolute terror depending the type of entity involved and the sensitivity of the human involved. Even the Greek God Pan was said to create this reaction in people who strayed into the remote areas where He liked to sport. This effect was known as panikon deima which means a dread belonging to, or owing its origin to, Pan. It is from this phrase that we derive the word “panic”.
No one suggests that Pan did this out of absolute malice, although there are some tellings of the tale that imply a mischievous intent. Equally, there is no sure way of determining whether a paranormal entity that affects humans this way is doing so out of spite, or whether it’s just part of the entity’s intrinsic nature. Perhaps these entities are simply operating on an energy level that doesn’t mesh well with typical human energies.
We know from science that when waves collide they can weaken or skew each other if their peaks and troughs are out of synch; it is not unreasonable to believe that two different sorts of being might have the same effect on one another if their energies conflict. It may even be an instinctive defense mechanism, operating to dissuade beings with incompatible energy from getting close to the paranormal entity.
When energy waves are in synch (peaks match peaks and troughs match troughs) . The waves intensify. This is the basis of the belief that interaction with certain entities, such as Deities, angels and spirit guides, can bring us to a higher level of awareness, peace and health. They are in harmony with us and strengthen our own spirits. This is much more accepted in the Pagan communities than the opposite side of the coin, in which other sorts of entities can weaken us.
There are steps you can take when encountering entities that have a harmful effect on your and others, and I’ll discuss them in a bit. First, a note about that one word people inevitably link to the topic of demons: possession.
Another full disclosure here: I have absolutely no personal evidence or experience one way or the other on whether demonic possessions are real. I can’t confirm them and I can’t discount them; I haven’t met anyone who claimed, or was claimed by others, to be possessed. However, I have seen people become possessed by Orisha and Loa during ceremonies of Santeria and other Afro-Carribean traditions. I have also reviewed detailed studies of the shamans known as mudang (variation, manshin ) in Korea, who channel entities more often than going on astral journeys. I must conclude, based on the objective reports of trained anthropologists, that in at least some cases the shaman is taken over by an outside entity. In both of these examples the possession benefits others by providing spiritual counsel, healing and blessings.
So I am forced to admit it might be possible for entities we would consider harmful to invade people in some circumstances. Clearly, a mechanism for subliming the human consciousness that allows another entity to take control is feasible based on the above examples. The difference mostly lies in the willingness of the person involved to allow possession, and the results of the possession.
It is admittedly difficult to argue the possibility of possession nowadays, when the behavior traditionally associated with demonically possessed people is reassigned to mental illness. It’s a tough distinction to make, and I certainly don’t want to downplay the seriousness of mental illness or dissuade anyone from seeking proper medical care for such conditions. I do, however, think we should consider the possibility that mental illness may not explain all of these cases.
There is another experience which can produce similar results: demonic obsession. In this instance a spirit is believed to affect people’s behavior by tormenting their minds rather than taking over their bodies. Again, it can be hard to differentiate this from conditions involving hallucinations and dissociative states, but I believe it is rash to conclude that all such cases must be mental illness.
I have personally experienced a situation in which an outside entity caused severe alterations in the behavior of several people, though it was short of possession/obsession. This case involved a business with multiple owners, several employees, and clients coming in and out of the business on a daily basis. I met the owners just after they took over the business.
I heard several stories from people who worked there describing bizarre happenings, including one instance in which two of the owners were there late at night. Both saw and heard the sound of a large vehicle slamming on its brakes and crashing into one of the entrances. They felt the building shudder from the impact. They saw the beams of the headlights coming under the doors. They raced to the doors and threw them open, but found nothing there. The street was deserted with no sign of any vehicle pulling away. There was no damage to the building such as you might expect from such an accident, nor any skid marks on the pavement leading to the door, which you would with the sound of squealing brakes before the impact.
The people who told me the story were credible witnesses, and certainly had no vested interest in portraying their business as haunted or demon-infested; it would have dissuaded, rather than encouraged clients from coming there.
But those stories were nothing compared to the changes I saw in the people who worked there. They began engaging in harmful, even self-destructive behaviors that were not in keeping with their normal personalities. Two of the owners developed distinct but equally severe medical conditions, both of which involved progressive physical and mental deterioration and loss of energy. This may, admittedly, have been coincidental, but two such cases in one business seemed highly unusual.
Finally the business closed because none of the owners were able to function. Having been in the building on numerous occasions over several years, I knew this was not just bad luck, especially since the business had great potential to succeed.
I could sense a presence in the building, and it was not a nice one. I was in there after business hours more than once. Every time, the sense of something overwhelmingly hateful was undeniable. I had a fair amount of experience with empathic readings of buildings as well as people at that point, and every time I was there the urge to reinforce my psychic shields was intense. Even when I did a miasma of nasty energy seemed to seep through them.
I took some steps to alleviate the oppressive atmosphere at the request of some of the owners but never went so far as a full-out banishing ceremony. That was a mistake, because whatever was in there wasn’t held at bay for long by the half-measures I took. Looking back on the experience I’m not sure anything I could have done would have worked. I’ve gained a lot more experience in the decade-and-a-half since then, and one thing I’ve learned is this: it’s not like the movies. Sometimes the bad guys win.
So what do you do if you encounter an entity you perceive to be harmful? Even if you accept that some of them may not be deliberately malicious, you shouldn’t accept interactions such as uninvited energy feeding out of a misplaced sense of “live and let live.”
The best advice I can give is to read up, and then read up more, on various methods of psychic self-defense. There are several good books that can help you. Read many of them, find the common themes, and practice them. Most of these techniques involve visualization, intent, and firm belief. Ward your home at least, and extend it to your workplace if needed.
Research traditional rituals for banishing harmful entities in case you are ever confronted with something that won’t take a polite “no” or “please leave us in peace.” Even if you follow a very specific trad I strongly recommend researching the banishing and protection rituals of many cultures, such as the Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese, Native Americans, Greeks and Romans. You may pick up useful information that you can incorporate into a rite from your own trad. Used with proper intent, focus, and above all respect, the techniques from other spiritual traditions can be quite effective.
Always have a protective amulet or talisman on hand. This is not a sign of fear or weakness. It can be a favorite piece of jewelry that you wear regularly (although I recommend against using wedding, engagement, or commitment rings for this) . Simply cleanse and consecrate it according to your trad, charging it with the purpose of keeping you safe. In lieu of jewelry you can use a protective amulet cast in metal or drawn on parchment. There are several such talismans in the Key of Solomon and other grimoires if you’re inclined, or you can design your own, incorporating symbols with meaning to you. The more confidence you have in the symbolism the more effective the talisman will be. Remember to periodically recharge the talisman, perhaps by lighting a candle with that intent and laying the talisman next to it until it burns out, or exposing it to the light of the Moon or the Sun with the same intent.
If you’ve encountered a harmful entity or energy and used the talisman for warding, you may want to cleanse and rededicate it. This can be done simply. You can bury it in the Earth overnight, stating your wish that any harmful energy be drawn into the ground and neutralized. Washing it in (unpolluted!) running water such as a stream or the ocean while stating the same intent also works. Then recharge it as you originally did.
Devise a short mantra for extreme cases when you need to invoke outside protection. This can be something like: “Mighty Mother, enfold me in your wings!” or a more traditional one, such as the Kwan Yin mantra, “Namu Kwan Shih Yin Pu’sa”, which invokes Kwan Yin’s protection from all harm. Visualize the Power you are invoking as clearly as you can. Keep the process simple. A 30-verse Gaelic binding won’t be easy to remember if you’re under intense stress.
If you feel overwhelmed don’t be afraid to admit it, at least to yourself. Separate yourself from the situation; regroup if possible, retreat if necessary. Above all assess the situation as objectively as possible. Sometimes the bad guys are real; sometimes, they’re just bad dreams. Learn to act appropriately for each circumstance to provide maximum benefit for yourself and others.
(1) Mathers, S.L. MacGregor and Crowley, Aleister; “The Goetia: the Lesser Key of Solomon the King” (revised edition) : Weiser Books, 1997, pg. 17