We Are Legion

In the Country of the Gadarenes, around 30AD, a small ship could be seen drifting in from the west. Upon the sea af Galilee, a group of men had just survived one of the harshest storms one could imagine surviving. Of course, they had a miracle worker on board so they had that going for them. Upon docking, A man approached from nearby. But this was no ordinary man. As a matter of fact, this was not just a man at all for the Bible says he was infested with demons. 

Naked, bruised, and living amongst the graves, this man had been known to all the peoples of Gadarenes as a demoniac. People lived in fear of this crazed man who had been tormented by a legion of spirits. They would bind him in chains and detain him outside of the cities to keep him from stirring up trouble but due to the strength the spirits lent him, he would in time snap the shackles from his wrists and would be free to roam the cemeteries and trouble the people once again. 

I call it irony, but the idea of a man possessed freeing himself from his shackles to be (and I use air quotes here) “free” and yet still being tormented by many demons is an interesting foreshadow to what was about to come. It’s almost symbolic in a sense because freedom, at least for this man, was right around the corner. And upon coming out to meet Jesus at the bay, this is exactly what he received. With a simple one word answer the pleading demons were cast out of the man and into a heard of pigs which met their fate there on those cliffs next to the sea. 

Demons are an intricate part of our religion, yet so many of us have absolutely no idea what they even are, much less how they got here. We see them as members of some satanic army but what if I told you that maybe, just maybe – they were all in our heads – or at least, were.

What are demons? Are they little devils with pitchforks or are they something more relatable?

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I want to take a second to preface all of what I am about to say: Demonology is a vast topic, much too vast for a single episode to cover. My attempt today is to give insight into many different methods of study and to attempt to reveal different understandings and cultural shifts on demons throughout our history. Allow yourself to venture beyond what you think you know and if this is something that peaks your interest, do a bit of digging for yourself. But we have a lot of ground to cover, so lets begin.

In most traditional church settings we tend to think of demons as devilish creatures lurking in the shadows waiting to find a vulnerable spot to poke their pitchforks. Sometimes we think of demons as fallen angels kicked out of the throne room for standing on the wrong side of the chasm. But no matter how we view them, there’s a good chance you have probably painted a false, or at least incomplete image of what a demon actually is. Chalk it up to a general lack of understanding in most churches. That coupled with the reality that the term “demon” has changed meanings from culture to culture and age to age. It’s easy to not know what a demon is or what their intent might be when 4 out of 5 preachers will give you a generic-yet-different answer should you ask them to explain to you the meaning of the word. So where does the idea of a demon begin?

The book of Jubilees talks of how unclean demonic spirits lead the sons of Noah into a state of sin. When God noticed the rampant corruption, He began plotting the erasing of mankind from the earth. In Exodus we find the story of the first passover – the final plague brought down upon Egypt that would seal the deal in securing the beginning of Israel’s freedom out of bondage. But where Exodus stops short of providing much detail into the methods used to slay every first born son, once again the book of Jubilees picks up the slack. Chapter 49: 2-4 states “All the powers of [the demon] Mastema had been let loose to slay all the first-born in the land of Egypt…And the powers of the Lord did everything according as the Lord commanded them”.

Here we see an interesting narrative. Not only was a demon in charge of the demise of Egypt’s first born sons, but it was a demon at the command of the Lord. And here we thought demons were under the devil’s control. Now sure, most churches don’t view this as canon, but somewhere down the line someone saw the work done that bloodstained night and thought it much more dark and sinister than the works of an angel.

So it seems that culturally, angels and demons are often mixed together and their works can, in the right circumstances, come across as indistinguishable. But if you look at the origin of the word, “demon”, that might just make a bit more sense then you’d be happy to accept.

Remember how I told you to open your mind a bit as we dug deeper into this? Well, now would be a great time for that because what I am about to say might shake some people’s religion up just a bit.

When we read through the Old Testament, we come across a few scriptures referencing what we label as “demons”. A good place of reference for this would be in Deuteronomy. The 32nd chapter, verses 16-17 reads “They made him jealous with strange gods, with abhorrent things they provoked him. They sacrificed to demons, not God, to deities they had never known, to new ones recently arrived, whom your ancestors had not feared. (NRSV)

At first glance it would be easy to take a scripture like that at face value. Heck, it says it right there in the passage, right? Well that’s the thing: there is no such thing as a word for word translation of the Bible. We have attempted to decipher what the ancient texts have said, but sometimes we honestly and quite literally make it up as we go. Now I know that can make us a bit uncomfortable. It can shake what we thought we knew and leave us feeling vulnerable but that vulnerability is where the truth lies. To accept everything at face value is to rob yourself of understanding who God is.

The funny thing about translating from a language like Hebrew to English is that they operate in different ways of interpretation. Every word in the English language is like a tiny package. When I say words like “school bus” or “parking deck” you take those and run them through all of your predisposed filters. For example, “school-bus: yellow, black wording down the side, kids, stop when you see the flashing lights”. You get the idea.

But Hebrew is not exactly that simple. Hebrew is what is known as a “Semitic Language”. Semitic Languages do not contain vowels. To the speakers of Semitics, vowels are not meant to be seen in writing but to be “understood in the mind”. So if you were an educated Jew reading through what we call Genesis, you might take the story of Noah to mean one thing and the next reader might interpret those exact same texts to mean something different. To those who speak through semitics, language is less a tool of communication and more a tool of understanding.

All that to say this: We have interpreted scripture from the Old Testament like the passage in Deuteronomy we just read and have used the word “demon” because we feel it best describes what the text intended to say. But in Hebrew there is actually not a word for demon at all. Because to the Jews and even to early Christians, we once saw demons as something a bit less demonic and a bit more… well, relatable.

The word we have come to know as “demon” is derived from the Greek word, “Daemon”. A Daemon was understood as a being that had “god-like” power and a very neutral, benevolent nature. One might argue that to the right person daemons were actually friendly. Some daemons were said to be elemental spirits combed together from the energy of creation. Daemons were a lot less “creepy pitchfork devils” and a lot more “casper’s annoying uncles”. It was even believed that daemons in the right circumstances could be used as spirit guides, not too dissimilar to our idea of “guardian angels”.

In pagan practice, daemons were thought to be able to be summoned to do the bidding of the witch or warlock who brought them forth. In traditional demonology, it is commonly theorized that Solomon was a summoner of what the Greeks call daemons. There is an entire volume known as The Lesser Key of Solomon dedicated to this Jewish kabbalistic teaching. It is believed that the Lord gave him command over the daemons to rule righteously and impart wisdom. There are volumes of books dedicated to naming these spirits and labeling the methods one might use to summon a daemon to your aid.

But to posses the power of an elemental comes at a cost. What cost exactly you might ask? That in serving you for the duration of your life, in return upon your death you must serve for the duration of theirs. I guess there really is no such thing as free labor.

But despite how “demonic” that might sound, in reality daemons are less blatantly evil and more selfish. They are used by forces of both good and bad. In the end their primary desire is to exalt themselves. Some might say that this is the very thing that drives a daemon to posses a human. After all, wouldn’t you want eternal life? What could be more precious than the very breath of creation?

In the previously mentioned verses in Deuteronomy a more accurate word that might be used in place of demon would be “demi-god”. There was a time when demon would have made sense but we have lost our understanding of what demons actually are. Of course idols and false-gods are labeled as demons. If you were an egotistical spirit roaming the earth wouldn’t you want to be worshipped? Naturally people took to worshiping these elemental beings.

But the greeks had one other understanding of what a demon is and to me, the weight of what I am about to reveal is by far the most dark and sinister understanding of all.

We know now that many ailments that were onced classified as “demonic possession” are in fact mental health disorders. From depression and schizophrenia to anxiety or Dissociative Identity Disorder we now see these things for what they are: diseases of the mind. Some of these things we are able to cure and others manageable at best. But that hasn’t stopped the church from neglecting the treatment of individuals with mental health disorders in favor of a more “spiritual” approach.

Many people who suffer with disorders of the mind are treated much like the demoniac infested with the legion. They are outcast and helpless. They are prescribed a daily dose of prayer and spiritual counseling but none of that ever touches the deep rooted cause. Freedom isn’t free; It takes work. But many churches are overwhelmed with the stresses of life and demons are an easy scapegoat for the truth which is sometimes we don’t have all the answers. Yes, that even applies to all the pastors and elders.

I often have sat around and wondered how many people were tortured, outcast, or killed in the name of purging evil when in reality the true evil was in the hearts of the disconcerend. Fear is a powerful motivator and few dare to understand someone who is said to be plagued by demons.

All that leads me to my final point. Sure, demons are said to be elemental spirits and who knows, maybe they are. Energy flows all around us so who is to say some of it hasn’t formed a cognitive entity. But the sad reality is that much of what we have called the demonic is in fact more biological than we allow ourselves to believe. But what if there was a third form? What if our most common idea of demons originated in us?

The Greeks didn’t see this as a far fetched idea. You see, the Greek word daemon has one other meaning not previously stated. Most daemons were said to be manifestations of human energy projected into this world. And it makes sense. We hear of residual hauntings and people who can literally feel tragedy when they walk into a place with a violent past. And if demons are elemental energy and we are the bridge between the physical and spiritual, then it’s not a far stretch to say that our thoughts can create things in the metaphysical world that become an embodiment of our fears, thoughts, and emotions and can interact with us here. And if that were to be true, it would give a whole new meaning when we say “be transformed by the renewing of your mind”.

Human’s attempts at understanding demons are as old as religion itself. One might say that attempting to understand the powers and entities beyond our physical scope of understanding is in essence, the epitome of religion. From Ancient Egypt to Zoroastrianism, pretty much every religion has a form of demon lurking in its mythology. To some they are more friendly, to others they induce fear. They are a symbol for the power of thought. They serve as a reminder that we are more than just a physical being in a physical world.

The Spirit is a river of life in which we at any time can dip our hand into. But remember, when you reach into that river be mindful of what you pull out because ultimately, it’s your choice. No matter how we look at demons or anything spiritual for that matter, I feel the best thing to remember is this: “You are a creator designed to create so whatever you put your mind to will in turn have authority over your mind”.

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