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On television and in interviews, I tend to get dodgy about the definition of the word “demon.” It’s a highly-charged word and, in the paranormal community, all too easily bandied about. Here are just a few reasons why I hesitate to definitively label any entity a demon:

Throughout myth and folklore, there is a thin line between demons, vampires, spirits, faeries, werewolves, witches, and all those things that go bump in the night. Often, the distinctions depend on who you are talking to and what religious and/or cultural background they come from.

In at least some cases, indigenous pre-Christian beliefs (such as the faeries of the British Isles) were too pervasive to stamp out when the conversion to Christianity occurred, and rather than try to fight the local pre-existing beliefs, those beliefs were merged with or retroactively interpreted by the new religion. To this day, there persists a belief in the Tithe to Hell. This is a tithe the courts of the fey are believed to have to pay to Hell each year to retain their sovereignty. This of course implies that the Fair Folk have some connection to Hell and its infernal denizens while acknowledging that they still operate separate from the infernal powers.

(As a side note, Christianity is not the only religion to do this to indigenous beliefs. Pretty much every religion integrates or re-imagines those elements of the previous faith that it cannot altogether supplant.)

I’m using faeries merely as an example here, of course. I don’t even want to get into whether or not such beings exist — that’s a whole blog post by itself. The important part, for the purposes of this article, is to understand the role played by folklore, myth, and anecdotal reports in all of our current categories for spirit-beings. Before these things were the subject of inquiry for paranormal investigators, the poltergeist and demons and a myriad of other beings were all the denizens of folklore.

Whether any of these myriad creatures are demonic or not depends upon the source material — or who is presenting it. De Plancy’s 19th century opus, Dictionnaire Infernal, presents both Persephone and Kali as demons. From our more globally-informed perspective, we know this not to be true. Persephone is a figure from Greek myth, the unwilling bride of Hades, Lord of the Underworld. Kali is a highly revered goddess in the Hindu tradition.

De Plancy was speaking from his own bias, viewing the deities of another culture through his own faith’s jaundiced lens. In much the same way, ancient gods of the Biblical world are presented as demons in the Old Testament. Belial, Moloch, Astaroth and Beelzebub are seen now as some of the top-ranking princes of Hell because of their appearance in Scripture. However, they started out as gods with their own pantheons.

Not all demons of the ancient world started off on the other side of the fence. Many religions and cultures have spirits that can only be described as demons. Such being are typically malevolent in nature, inclined toward supernatural violence, and arranged against the interests of human beings. However, they may still be unrecognizable as demons to someone coming to that word from a traditional Christian background. The demons of Babylon and Sumer, for example, do not serve under Satan, nor are they interested in souls for the purpose of damnation. They are agents of chaos, destruction, and disease, personifying the forces ranged against humanity in a harsh and unforgiving world.

Notably, many of our concepts regarding demonic possession and exorcism stem from Babylonian rites and prayers. Even the tradition of demanding that a demon give its name so that the exorcist may more completely bind and banish it, originates in the cuneiform libraries of Mesopotamia.

If you’re curious to read some of those ancient rites and prayers from Sumer and Babylon, check out Sumerian Exorcism. It provides a guided tour through translations of tablets recovered from the Library of Ashurbanipal and other locations, many of which have since been pillaged and destroyed by religious extremists in Iraq.