GODS WATCH OVER US and guide our destinies, many human cultures teach; other entities, more malevolent, are responsible for
the existence of evil. Both classes of beings, whether considered natural or supernatural, real or imaginary, serve human
needs. Even if they're wholly fanciful, people feel better believing in them. So in an age when traditional religions have
been under withering fire from science, is it not natural to wrap up the old gods and demons in scientific raiment and
call them aliens?
in demons was widespread in the ancient world. They were thought of as natural rather than supernatural beings. Hesiod casually
mentions them. Socrates described his philosophical inspiration as the work of a personal, benign demon. His teacher, Diotima
of Mantineia, tells him (in Plato's Symposium) that "Everything demonic is intermediate between God and mortal.
God has no contact with man," she continues; "only through the demonic is there intercourse and conversation between
man and gods, whether in the waking state or during sleep."
Socrates' most celebrated student, assigned a high role to demons: "No human nature invested with supreme power is able to
order human affairs," he said, "and not overflow with insolence and wrong. ...
We do not appoint
oxen to be the lords of oxen, or goats of goats, but we ourselves are a superior race and rule over them. In like manner God,
in his love of mankind, placed over us the demons, who are a superior race, and they with great ease and pleasure to themselves,
and no less to us, taking care of us and giving us peace and reverence and order and justice never failing, made the tribes
of men happy and united.
He stoutly denied that demons were
a source of evil, and represented Eros, the keeper of sexual passions, as a demon, not a god, "neither mortal nor immortal,
neither good nor bad." But all later Platonists, including the Neo-Platonists who powerfully influenced Christian philosophy, held
that some demons were good and others evil. The pendulum was swinging. Aristotle, Plato's famous student, seriously considered
the contention that dreams are scripted by demons. Plutarch and Porphyry proposed that the demons, who filled the upper air,
came from the Moon.
early Church Fathers, despite having imbibed Neo-Platonism from the culture they swam in, were anxious to separate themselves
from "pagan" belief-systems. They taught that all of pagan religion consisted of the worship of demons and men, both
misconstrued as gods. When St. Paul complained (Ephesians 6:14) about wickedness in high places, he was referring not to government
corruption, but to demons, who lived in high places: “For we wrestle
not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world,
against spiritual wickedness in high places.” From the beginning, much more was
intended than demons as a mere poetic metaphor for evil in the hearts of men.
Augustine was much vexed with demons. He quotes the pagan thinking prevalent in his time: "The gods occupy the loftiest regions,
men the lowest, the demons the middle region.... They have immortality of body, but passions of the mind in common with
men." In Book VIII of The City of God (begun in 413), Augustine assimilates this ancient tradition, replaces gods by
God, and demonizes the demons— arguing that they are, without exception, malign. They have no redeeming virtues. They
are the fount of all spiritual and material evil. He calls them "aerial animals . . . most eager to inflict harm, utterly
alien from righteousness, swollen with pride, pale with envy, subtle in deceit." They may profess to carry messages between
God and man, disguising themselves as angels of the Lord, but this pose is a snare to lure us to our destruction. They
can assume any form, and know many things—"demon" means "knowledge" in Greek1—especially about
the material world. However intelligent, they are deficient in charity. They prey on "the captive and outwitted minds of men,"
wrote Tertullian. "They have their abode in the air, the stars are their neighbors, their commerce is with the clouds."
the eleventh century, the influential Byzantine theologian,
philosopher, and shady politician,
Michael Psellus, described demons in these words:
exist in our own life, which is full of passions, for they are present abundantly in the passions, and their dwelling-place
is that of matter, as is their rank and degree. For this reason they are also subject to passions and fettered to them.
One Richalmus, abbot of Schonthal,
around 1270 penned an entire treatise on demons, rich in first-hand experience: He sees (but only when his eyes are shut)
countless malevolent demons, like motes of dust, buzzing around his head—and everyone else's. Despite successive waves
of rationalist, Persian, Jewish, Christian, and Moslem world-views, despite revolutionary social, political, and philosophical
ferment, the existence, much of the character, and even the name of demons remained unchanged from Hesiod through the
the "powers of the air," come down from the skies and have unlawful sexual congress with women. Augustine believed that witches
were the offspring of these forbidden unions. In the Middle Ages, as in classical antiquity, nearly everyone believed such
stories. The demons were also called devils, or fallen angels. The demonic seducers of women were labeled incubi; of men,
succubi. There are cases in which nuns reported, in some befuddlement, a striking resemblance between the incubus and the
priest-confessor, or the bishop, and awoke the next morning, as one fifteenth-century chronicler put it, to "find themselves
polluted just as if they had commingled with a man." There are similar accounts, but in harems not convents, in ancient China.
So many women reported incubi, argued the Presbyterian religious writer Richard Baxter (in his Certainty of the World of
Spirits, 1691), "that 'tis impudence to deny it."2
As they seduced, the incubi and succubi were perceived
as a weight bearing down on the chest of the dreamer. Mare, despite its Latin meaning, is the Old English word for
incubus, and nightmare meant originally the demon that sits on the chests of sleepers, tormenting them with dreams.
In Athanasius' Life of St. Anthony (written around 360) demons are described as coming and going at will in locked
rooms; 1400 years later, in his work De Daemonialitate, the Franciscan scholar Ludovico Sinistrari assures us that
demons pass through walls.
external reality of demons was almost entirely unquestioned from antiquity through late medieval times. Maimonides denied
their reality, but the overwhelming majority of rabbis believed in dybbuks. One of the few cases I can find where it
is even hinted that demons might be internal, generated in our minds, is when Abba Poemen—one of the desert fathers
of the early Church—was asked,"How do the demons fight against me?"
demons fight against you?" Father Poemen asked in turn. "Our own wills become the demons, and it is these which attack us."
medieval attitudes on incubi and succubi were influenced by Macrobius' fourth-century Commentary on the Dream of Scipio,
which went through dozens of editions before the European Enlightenment. Macrobius described phantoms (phantasmata)
seen "in the moment between wakefulness and slumber." The dreamer "imagines" the phantoms as predatory. Macrobius
had a skeptical side which his medieval readers tended to ignore.
with demons began to reach a crescendo when, in his famous Bull of 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared,
It has come to
Our ears that members of both sexes do not avoid to have intercourse with evil angels, incubi, and succubi, and that by their
sorceries, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurations, they suffocate, extinguish, and cause to perish the births
as well as generate numerous other
calamities. With this Bull, Innocent initiated the systematic accusation, torture and execution of countless "witches" all
over Europe. They were guilty of what Augustine had described as "a criminal tampering with the unseen world." Despite the
evenhanded "members of both sexes" in the language of the Bull, unsurprisingly it was mainly girls and women who were so persecuted.
leading Protestants of the following centuries, their differences with the Catholic Church notwithstanding, adopted nearly
identical views. Even humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More believed in witches. "The giving up of witchcraft,"
said John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, "is in effect the giving up of the Bible." William Blackstone, the celebrated
jurist, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), asserted: “To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence of witchcraft and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict
the revealed word of God in various passages of both the Old and New Testament.”
commended "Our dear sons Henry Kramer and Jame: Sprenger," who "have been by Letters Apostolic delegated as Inquisitors of
these heretical [de]pravities." If "the abominations and enormities in question remain unpunished," the souls of multitudes
face eternal damnation.
The pope appointed Kramer and Sprenger
to write a comprehensive analysis, using the full academic armory of the late fifteenth century. With exhaustive citations
of Scripture and of ancient and modern scholars, they produced the Malleus Maleficarum, the "Hammer of Witches"—aptly
described as one of the most terrifying documents in human history. Thomas Ady, in A Candle in the Dark, condemned
it as "villainous Doctrines & Inventions," "horrible lyes and impossibilities," serving to hide "their unparalleled cruelty
from the ears of the world." What the Malleus comes down to, pretty much, is that if you're accused of witchcraft,
you're a witch. Torture is an unfailing means to demonstrate the validity of the accusation. There are no rights of the
defendant. There is no opportunity to confront the accusers. Little attention is given to the possibility that accusations
might be made for impious purposes—jealousy, say, or revenge, or the greed of the inquisitors who routinely confiscated
for their own private benefit the property of the accused. This technical manual for torturers also includes methods of punishment
tailored to release demons from the victim's body before the process kills her. The Malleus in hand, the Pope's encouragement
guaranteed, inquisitors began springing up all over Europe.
It quickly became an expense account scam. All
costs of investigation, trial, and execution were borne by the accused or her relatives— down to per diems for
the private detectives hired to spy on her, wine for her guards, banquets for her judges, the travel expenses of a messenger
sent to fetch a more experienced torturer from another city, and the faggots, tar and hangman's rope. Then there was a bonus
to the members of the tribunal for each witch burned. The convicted witch's remaining property, if any, was divided between
Church and State. As this legally and morally sanctioned mass murder and theft became institutionalized, as a vast bureaucracy
arose to serve it, attention was turned from poor hags and crones to the middle class and well-to-do of both sexes.
more who, under torture, confessed to witchcraft, the harder it was to maintain that the whole business was mere fantasy.
Since each "witch" was made to implicate others, the numbers grew exponentially. These constituted "frightful proofs that
the Devil is still alive," as it was later put in America in the Salem witch trials. In a credulous age, the most fantastic
testimony was soberly accepted—that tens of thousands of witches had gathered for a Sabbath in public squares in France,
or that 12,000 of them darkened the skies as they flew to Newfoundland. The Bible had counseled, "Thou shall not suffer a
witch to live." Legions of women were burnt to death.3 And the most horrendous tortures were routinely applied
to every defendant, young or old, after the instruments of torture were first blessed by the priests. Innocent himself died
in 1492, following unsuccessful attempts to keep him alive by transfusion (which resulted in the deaths of three boys) and
by suckling at the breast of a nursing mother. He was mourned by his mistress and their children.
Britain witch-finders, also called "prickers," were employed, receiving a handsome bounty for each girl or woman they turned
over for execution. They had no incentive to be cautious in their accusations. Typically they looked for "devil's marks"—scars
or birthmarks or nevi— that when pricked with a pin neither hurt nor bled. A simple sleight of hand often gave the appearance
that the pin penetrated deep into the witch's flesh. When no visible marks were apparent, "invisible marks" _ sufficed. Upon
the gallows, one mid-seventeenth-century pricker "confessed he had been the death of above 220 women in England and Scotland,
for the gain of twenty shillings apiece."4
the witch trials, mitigating evidence or defense witnesses were inadmissible. In any case, it was nearly impossible to provide
compelling alibis for accused witches: The rules of evidence had a special character. For example, in more than one case
a husband attested that his wife was asleep in his arms at the very moment she was accused of frolicking with the devil at
a witch's Sabbath; but the archbishop patiently explained that a demon had taken the place of the wife. The husbands were
not to imagine that their powers of perception could exceed Satan's powers of deception. The beautiful young women were perforce
consigned to the flames.
were strong erotic and misogynistic elements—as might be
expected in a sexually repressed,
male-dominated society with inquisitors drawn from the class of nominally celibate priests. The trials paid close attention
to the quality and quantity of orgasm in the supposed copulations of defendants with demons or the Devil (although Augustine
had been certain "we cannot call the Devil a fornicator"), and to the nature of the Devil's "member" (cold, by all reports).
"Devil's marks" were found "generally on the breasts or private parts" according to Ludovico Sinistrari's 1700 book. As a
result pubic hair was shaved, and the genitalia were carefully inspected by the exclusively male inquisitors. In the immolation
of the 20-year-old Joan of Arc, after her dress had caught fire the Hangman of Rouen slaked the flames so onlookers could
view "all the secrets which can or should be in a woman."
chronicle of those who were consumed by fire in the single German city of Wiirzburg in the single year 1598 penetrates the
statistics and lets us confront a little of the human reality:
The steward of
the senate named Gering; old Mrs. Kanzler; the tailor's fat wife; the woman cook of Mr. Mengerdorf; a stranger; a strange
woman; Baunach, a senator, the fattest citizen in Wiirtzburg; the old smith of the court; an old woman; a little girl, nine
or ten years old; a younger girl, her little sister; the mother of the two little aforementioned girls; Liebler's daughter;
Goebel's child, the most beautiful girl in Wiirtzburg; a student who knew many languages; two boys from the Minster, each
twelve years old; Stepper's little daughter; the woman who kept the bridge gate; an old woman; the little son of the town
council bailiff; the wife of Knertz, the butcher; the infant daughter of Dr. Schultz; a little girl; Schwartz, canon at Hach.
On and on it goes. Some were given
special humane attention: "The little daughter of Valkenberger was privately executed and burnt." There were 28 public immolations,
each with 4 to 6 victims on average, in that small city in a single year. This was a microcosm of what was happening
all across Europe. No one knows how many were killed altogether—perhaps hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.
Those responsible for prosecuting, torturing, judging, burning and justifying were selfless. Just ask them.
could not be mistaken. The confessions of witchcraft could not be based on hallucinations, say, or desperate attempts to satisfy
the inquisitors and stop the torture. In such a case, explained the witch judge Pierre de Lancre (in his 1612 book, Description
of the inconstancy of Evil Angels), the Catholic Church would be committing a great crime by burning witches. Those
who raise such possibilities are thus attacking the Church and ipso facto committing a mortal sin. Critics of witch-burning
were punished and, in some cases, themselves burnt. The inquisitors and torturers were doing God's work. They were saving
souls. They were foiling demons.
of course was not the only offense that merited torture and burning at the stake. Heresy was a still more serious crime, and
both Catholics and Protestants punished it ruthlessly. In the sixteenth century the scholar William Tyndale had the temerity
to contemplate translating the New Testament into English. But if people could actually read the Bible in their own language
instead of arcane Latin, they could form their own, independent religious views. They might conceive of their own private
unintermediated line to God. This was a challenge to the job security of Roman Catholic priests. When Tyndale tried to publish
his translation, he was hounded and pursued all over Europe. Eventually he was captured, garroted, and then, for good
measure, burned at the stake. His copies of the New Testament (which a century later became the basis of the exquisite King
James translation) were then hunted down house-to-house by armed posses—Christians piously defending Christianity by
preventing other Christians from knowing the words of Christ. Such a cast of mind, such a climate of absolute confidence
that knowledge should be rewarded by torture and death were unlikely to help those accused of witchcraft.
witches is a feature of Western civilization that has, with occasional political exceptions, declined since the sixteenth
century. In the last judicial execution of witches in England a woman and her nine-year-old daughter were hanged. Their crime
was raising a rain storm by taking their stockings off. In our time, witches and djinns are found as regular fare in children's
entertainment, exorcism of demons is still practiced by the Roman Catholic and other churches, and the proponents of
one cult still denounce as sorcery the cultic practices of another. We still use the word "pandemonium" (literally, all demons).
A crazed and violent person is still said to be demonic. (Not until the eighteenth century was mental illness no longer generally
ascribed to supernatural causes; even insomnia had been considered a punishment inflicted by demons.) More than half of Americans
tell pollsters they "believe" in the Devil's existence, and 10 percent have communicated with him, as Martin Luther reported
he did regularly. In a 1992 "spiritual warfare manual" called Prepare for War, Rebecca Brown informs us that abortion
and sex outside of marriage "will almost always result in demonic infestation"; that meditation, yoga and martial arts are
designed so unsuspecting Christians will be seduced into worshiping demons; and that "rock music didn't 'just happen,' it
was a carefully masterminded plan by none other than Satan himself." Sometimes "your loved ones are demonically bound and
blinded." Demonology is today still part and parcel of many earnest faiths.
what is it that demons do? In the Malleus, Kramer and Sprenger reveal that "devils . . . busy themselves by interfering
with the process of normal copulation and conception, by obtaining human semen, and themselves transferring it." Demonic artificial
insemination in the Middle Ages goes back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas, who tells us in On the Trinity that "demons
can transfer the semen which they have collected and inject it into the bodies of others." His contemporary, St. Bonaventura,
spells it out in a little more detail: Succubi "yield to males and receive their semen; by cunning skill, the demons preserve
its potency, and afterwards, with the permission of God, they become incubi and pour it out into female repositories." The
products of these demon-mediated unions are also, when they grow up, visited by demons. A multi-generational transspecies
sexual bond is forged. And these creatures, we recall, are well known to fly; indeed they inhabit the upper air.
is no spaceship in these stories. But most of the central elements of the alien abduction account are present, including
sexually obsessive non-humans who live in the sky, walk through walls, communicate telepathically, and perform breeding
experiments on the human species. Unless we believe that demons really exist, how can we understand so strange a belief
system, embraced by the whole Western world (including those considered the wisest among us), reinforced by personal experience
in every generation, and taught by Church and State? Is there any real alternative besides a shared delusion based on common
brain wiring and chemistry?
1. "Science" means "knowledge" in
Latin. A jurisdictional dispute is exposed, even if we look no further.
2. Likewise, in the same work, "The
raising of storms by witches is attested by so many, that I think it needless to recite them." The theologian Meric Causabon
argued—in his 1668 book, Of Credulity and Incredulity—that witches must exist because, after all, everyone
believes in them. Anything that a large number of people believe must be true.
3. This mode of execution was adopted
by the Holy Inquisition apparently to guarantee literal accord with a well-intentioned sentence of canon law (Council
of Tours, 1163): "The Church abhors bloodshed."
4. In the murky territory of bounty
hunters and paid informers, vile corruption is often the rule—worldwide and throughout all of human history. To
take an example almost at random, in 1994, for a fee, a group of postal inspectors from Cleveland agreed to go underground
and ferret out wrongdoers; they then contrived criminal cases against 32 innocent postal workers.