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DEMON HAUNTED WORLD--Prof Carl Sagan

THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD

(1995) Carl Sagan
 
Random House 1995, pp. 115-24.
Reprinted in
Atheism, A Reader
Prometheus Books, 2000,
S. T. Joshi, editor

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) taught at Harvard before moving to Cornell University, where he became David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies. One of the most renowned astronomers and popularizers of science in his time, Sagan wrote more than 600 papers and a dozen books, including The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (1977), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and the novel Contact (1984). He gained his greatest celebrity for the thirteen-part television series, Cosmos. In the title essay of his final volume, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995), Sagan exhaustively treats the long history of belief in demons, much of it sanctioned by the church, leading to centuries-long persecution of so-called witches. In a later section of the essay (not reprinted here), Sagan likens this belief to modern theories of UFOs and alien abductions.

 

There are demon-haunted worlds, regions of utter darkness.

The Isa Upanishad, (India, ca. 600 B.C.)

 

From Carl Sagan, "The Demon-Haunted World," in The Demon-Haunted World: Sci­ence as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House, 1995), pp. 115-24. Copy­right 1995 by Carl Sagan. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Carl Sagan.

 

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Fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which every one in himself calleth religion.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

 

THE 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?

 

Belief 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."

 

Plato, 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.

 

The 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.

 

St. 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."

 

In the eleventh century, the influential Byzantine theologian,

philosopher, and shady politician, Michael Psellus, described demons in these words: 

 

These animals 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 Crusades.

 

Demons, 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.

 

The 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?"

 

"The demons fight against you?" Father Poemen asked in turn. "Our own wills become the demons, and it is these which attack us."

 

The 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.

 

Obsession 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 of women

 

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.

 

Many 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.”

 

Innocent 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.

 

The 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.

 

In 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

 

In 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.

 

There 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."

 

The 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.

 

They 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.

 

Witchcraft 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.

 

Burning 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.

 

And 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.

 

There 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?

 

NOTES     

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.

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John Stuart Mill on the evils of religion--one page says it all!