Mankind has long believed in the existence of evil spirits that haunt and torment the living. Tales of demons are found in many ancient civilizations, including the Assyrian, Persian, Hindu, and Hebrew; the first known account of demons is in the Testament of Solomon, supposedly written by the Hebrew king Solomon himself, but thought to be a work of the early Christian era. But it was Christianity that developed a full typology of demons and their activities. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus drives demons out of people, and he is also recorded to have passed that power onto his disciples. Roman Catholic priests, who are said to derive this power from these disciples through the principle of apostolic succession, still perform exorcisms, a fact that was perhaps most powerfully imprinted on the public consciousness in modern times by William Peter Blatty’s book and movie, The Exorcist. Indeed, exorcism films have appeared regularly in theaters during the last decade, and there are more in Hollywood’s pipeline. A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans aged 18-29 believe in the concept of demonic possession.* So, the idea that the Devil and demons exist has not gone out of style in our modern world, despite our secular society’s professed hostility to the supernatural.


Illustration by Gustave Doré for “Paradise Lost”

Perhaps paradoxically, while belief in the demonic may be on the rise in the United States, belief in God seems to be declining among Americans, as does church attendance. Though one might speculate as to the reasons for this seeming contradiction, it seems logical that a belief in demons should at least encourage a belief in God. “People say that God is dead,” writes the stricken, eponymous character in the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose, “but how can they think that if I show them the Devil?”

Christian theology teaches that Lucifer (whose name means “Light”) was an angel who rebelled against God, and that his minion-demons are fallen angels who followed Lucifer in his disobedience. The War in Heaven, which is mentioned in the Book of Revelation, was dramatized most memorably in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, where it precedes the fall of Adam, and ends with St. Michael the Archangel routing Lucifer and his minions.

Today, many Catholics still recite the St. Michael prayer, which asks God to “cast into Hell Satan and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world, seeking the ruin of souls.” Too, Catholic baptisms, and those of some other Christian churches, employ a “minor exorcism,” a prayer that seeks to shield the baptized against the temptations of Satan. And yet the average Christian, even the one who belongs to one of the more conservative churches—whether, say, Fundamentalist Protestant, Roman Catholic, Missouri Synod Lutheran, or Eastern Orthodox—rarely asks for protection against specific demons on a daily basis.

At the same time, however, the idea of saints intervening on behalf of humans has remained popular among Christians since early medieval times. Thus today, the devout Catholic may still use intercessory prayer to ask a favorite saint to intervene on his behalf in front of the Almighty, or may pray to certain patron saint for specific help: to, say, St. Anthony to help him find a lost object, or to St. Blaise to cure a throat ailment, or to St. Rita for a seemingly impossible request. But even the religious among us Westerners have largely abandoned a dualistic view of spiritual warfare. Aside from the spectacular cases entailing possession (or tormenting and infestation, the other levels of demonic activity according to Catholic doctrine), those of us in the West seem to have forgotten that the Devil—or demons—can make one do it. That is, just as God’s grace impels us to do good unto others, the temptations of demons may lead us into evil.

Moreover, even those who assent to the existence of an evil spiritual being, or beings, tend to reduce Satan or his minions to remote, often comic characters. C.S. Lewis recognized this modern tendency as early as the first half of the twentieth century, in having his demon-mentor Screwtape advise his protegé: “Suggest to him something in red tights, and suggest to him that since he can’t believe in that, (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.” Believing in the Devil and demons as serious, present, and active enemies of mankind is perhaps a necessary condition of maintaining a strong faith in God. Without the former, the latter will likely crumble.


The demon Asmodeus as depicted in “The Infernal Dictionary”

Alas then, our poor, patron demons are largely forgotten in the twenty-first-century, secular West. Why? In a time when we tend to coddle our children, are we afraid to upset them by making real the presence of demons? It used to be a common parental tactic to frighten one’s offspring into behaving by regaling them with tales of evil spirits and creatures who set upon wayward children. One thinks of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and the story of Little Red Riding Hood. But perhaps we are simply too sensitive today, too sophisticated, too “enlightened,” to believe in such stuff?

It was not always this way. In the medieval period, Christian thinkers began to classify demons according to type and activity. Michael Psellos, an eleventh-century Byzantine monk and scholar who advised emperors, the fifteenth-century Spanish Franciscan, Alphonsus de Spina, and the German astrologer-theologian Cornelius Agrippa (in his De occulta philosophia of 1509-1510) were among these. (De Spina was precise when it came to classifying and counting demons, once calculating the number of fallen angels who rebelled against God to be 133,306,668). Other Christian writers associated specific demons with specific sins. The demon Asmodeus was identified with sins of the flesh—as he had been since the time of the Ancient Hebrews, appearing in the deutero-canonical Book of Tobit. The Lanterne of Light, an anonymous tract published in 1409-1410, associated the demon Belsabub with that of envy; the German bishop Peter Binsfield named a different demon as responsible for each of the Seven Deadly Sins (Lucifer for pride, Mammon for greed, Asmodeus for lust, Leviathan for envy, Beelzebub for gluttony, Satan for wrath, Belphegor for sloth).

The French Dominican Sébastien Michaëlis was involved in the exorcism of a young nun and recounted what the demon that possessed her supposedly told him about the infernal hierarchy  in his account, The Admirable History of Possession and Conversion of a Penitent Woman, published in English in 1620. Michaëlis told of certain saints being pitted as the nemeses of specific demons, in a dualism that foretold the modern paradigm of comic-book superheroes and their arch-enemies: thus, St. Peter fights Leviathan, the tempter of heresy; Sonneillon, who entreats men to hate, is opposed by St. Stephen; St. Francis of Assisi battles Beelzebub, who fosters the sin of pride. The Dictionnaire Infernal, authored by the French occultist Jacques Auguste Simon Collin de Plancy, and which described Hell’s demonic order akin to that of a French court, was so popular that it appeared in several editions between 1818 and 1863.


Titivillus torments a scribe

But demonic activity was not confined simply to the realm of sin. Demons came to be associated with general trouble-making—pranksterism, as it were. Medieval scribes, for instance, attributed their writing errors to a puckish demon named Titivillus. This demon seems to have originated in the fourth century, when he was first seen jotting down the mistakes of priests in their recitation of the liturgy, as well as the gossip of churchgoers on pieces of parchment, which he then stuffed in his sack, saving them for evidence against souls on Judgment Day. According to John of Wales’ Tractatus de Penitentia of 1285, Titivillus was tasked by the Devil with bringing him “a thousande pokes full of faylynges, and of neglygences in syllables and wordes”—known as “jangling”—each day.

In 1303, the Englishman, Robert Manning of Brunne, composed Handlyng Synne, a devotional work that contained a story about Titivillus. It seems that the demon was busy at work during a Mass, copying down the gossip of two women, when he ran out of room on his parchment to record their words. Stretching the parchment with his claws and teeth, Titivillus went flying when the paper ripped in two, causing the unfortunate demon to bang his head into the church wall and lose his work. A deacon who witnessed the incident burst into laughter, disrupting the Mass and watching the shamefaced Titivillus slink into the shadows.

Titivillus came into his own when Charlemagne ordered that all classical and Christian manuscripts in his empire be re-copied into Carolingian miniscule, the new script developed by his teacher-advisor, Alcuin of York. The emperor’s order spurred legions of monks to spend their days carefully copying texts in writings rooms, known as scriptoria; inevitably, mistakes crept into their work. Interestingly, modern scholars report that the most typical errors made by monks were the omission of words. Ah, more evidence for the existence of the sticky-fingered Titivillus!

The invention of the printing press spurred Titivillus’ work even further. In 1631, the demon achieved his greatest coup, when the London printers Robert Barker and Martin Lucas produced a copy of the King James Bible in which the word “not” was left out of the Seventh Commandment in Exodus 20:14. The “Wicked Bible,” as it became known, thus reported that the Almighty instructed the devout to commit adultery. Titivillus’ gain was the printers’ loss, as the King fined Barker and Lucas 300 pounds; in addition, the 1,000 copies of the Bible were ordered destroyed, though several copies survive today, with a recent one being offered at $99,500.

What has happened that we no longer think of demons as everyday presences? Perhaps it is because the secular West has rejected the very idea that our world is fallen in every respect, that original sin has disfigured not only the human soul but also the human mind, and indeed the entire physical world. Yes, earthquakes, floods, fires, storms, and disease are the result of man’s banishment from the peaceful paradise of Eden, which in turn is the result of sin. But we are generally insensible to hints that nature can be not just inconvenient, but downright malevolent. Many firemen, for example, will tell you that the fires they fight seem to have vicious minds of their own, bent on death and destruction. And there is a reason that malicious, poisonous serpents have, from time immemorial, been associated with the Evil One himself. Evil, then, is at the root of all worldly imperfection and all human suffering, whether the latter is the result of external or internal forces. Under this Christian paradigm, human error—including simple mistakes of judgment and lapses in mental performance—ought to be rightly understood not as mere neutral phenomena or random failings but, like human wrongdoing, the consequence of the Fall, of Evil… and of those very real agents of Evil: demons.

So, perhaps that typo or spelling eror you just made on your laptop… oh, wait a minute… DARN YOU, TITIVILLUS!


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* See the poll here.

The featured image is a detail from “La Virgen de la Misericordia con los Reyes Católicos y su familia” by Diego de la Cruz, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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