To “demonize” something is to make it universally hated and reviled: to speak or act as though it has no positive or redeeming traits, does bad things simply for the sake of being bad, and is generally evil.
In today’s culture, in the United States at least, the word also carries a subtext of dishonesty. When you hear someone say “he was demonized by the press” or “there was an effort to demonize him during the trial”, there is an implication that the person is being treated unfairly. After all, no human being is as bad as an actual demon, right? If you convince the world that you have been demonized, the world will feel sorry for you.
Nobody feels sorry for the demons, though. Why do you suppose that is?
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Demons aren’t just a fictional archetype, they are a negative space archetype: they are defined almost entirely by what they are not. Some say they are fallen angles: the negative (equal-and-opposite) of everything an angelic being ought to be.
In other mythological traditions, the demon is invoked to explain terrible things that have no other cause. Why did that poor child get sick? He was attacked by demons. How could that man do such awful things? He is possessed by demons. How could that priest molest that boy? He was influenced by demons. What makes your teenager say he hates you? Must be demons. Why did those peasants rise up against their lord, who after all is decreed by God to rule over them? Heck, they must have been under the spell of those demons. Demons are the explanation for bad things that have no explanation.
If you created a painting of the world, but you only painted the parts that you think are right and proper and good…. then the negative space, the parts unpainted, would be in the shape of demons.
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When you say that something is caused by demons, it means you have given up on explaining it. Weak people, tired people, and lazy people live in a world with a lot of demons. If you don’t want to bother to think deeply about the complex universe we live in, or the motivations of people you disagree with, you just shrug your shoulders and think: “Demons.”
Demons are a kind of explanatory principle. An “explanatory principle” is not an explanation; in many ways, it is the opposite of an explanation: it is a label that you give to something so that you can sit back and feel good, and not worry about explaining it any further.
In medieval medicine, patients asked doctors why opium makes people sleepy. The doctors would answer that opium makes people sleepy because opium contains a soporific agent. “Oh, that’s very interesting! What is a soporific agent?” The term “soporific agent” simply means: “something that makes people sleepy.”
“It has a soporific agent” is not an explanation; it is an explanatory principle. It means the doctor does not know the answer, and does not want to bother finding out the answer, and would prefer you just went away and left him alone.
A person who tells you that your teenage son or daughter is misbehaving because she or he is possessed by demons is basically giving you the same answer.
This is another way in which demons are a negative space archetype: emptiness, void, a lack of explanation that has been transformed into a thing for no purpose other than to fill the gap and make use feel like we have explained something when we have not.
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But, oh my goodness! Look at human history, and the stories we create!
We have woven brilliant, complex and absurdly human stories even into the demons we have imagined! From the myths written down by early Judaic scribes to Dante’s Inferno, we have stories of demons having names, histories, personalities, and even complex social relationships. Pan is the prince of incubi, and Lilith is the princess of succubi. Beleth is the commander of 85 legions of demons. And when Samael began to doubt the ultimate supremacy of Jehovah, he went to Ramiel for advice, who then brought him to his good friend Penemue, in hopes that the wise scribe could find some words to convince Samael not to rebel and cause trouble. Penemue did not end up fulfilling this purpose, which is part of why he’s my favorite demon.
(You think I’m making this craziness up? Go ahead and just google “demonology” some time to get a taste of all of the demon lore that is out there… but make sure you have a solid afternoon with no obligations if you really want to go down that rabbit hole!)
Apparently, our ability to demonize our fellow humans goes hand-in-hand with an ability to humanize our demons.
So to answer the question I started with: I actually do feel sorry for the demons!
Don’t they have a right to their own point of view? Shouldn’t we be seeking out their side of the story? Isn’t it possible that, from their own cultural perspective, they are just doing what they think is right?
It’s almost as though, every time we use the word “demonize”, we are…..
(…wait for it…)
….demonizing the demons! A kind of meta-demonization, if you will: a self-fulfilling prophecy, a snake eating its own tail.
And this is one of the lessons of that Satanism has taught me: the realization that every explanation is a human one at some level, flawed and complicated and subjective, even the ones that we identify by calling out their name in the night: “….demons!”