A demon, we have come to assume, is the personification of evil. So deeply ingrained is this belief that, whenever we think of a demon, we picture a monster with malevolent intentions. But despite the negative connotation, the origin of the word suggests a different story altogether. In fact, ‘demon’ is derived from the Latin word ‘daemon‘ and the Greek word ‘daiman‘, both of which translate to ‘lesser god’, ‘guiding spirit’ or ‘tutelary deity’. So, how and why did the misnomer come about?
Before 7th century BCE, many cultures around the world were polytheistic–they worshipped multiple deities. When the monotheistic Abrahamic religions–Christianity, Judaism and Islam–spread in the Mesopotamian, Mediterranean and Arabian regions, several deities were branded ‘evil’.
Perhaps, what was saintly to one culture, was satanic to another. Let us take the case of the ancient Greek god Pan, who was half goat and half man. According to mythology, Pan was a shepherd. He was a protector of human beings and a friend of the wild. He is believed to have urged people to act on their primitive instincts. Archaeological evidence clearly indicates that Pan was a favourite god among the Greeks for his uninhibited way of living. But by 300 CE, he had been defamed and demonised for his unabashed virility.
“Perhaps, that is what demons are: The dark side of ourselves, a projection of our minds. They are probably just misguiding thoughts that are created by external circumstances.”
Similar is the case of the Roman demon Bifrons. Called the Earl of Hell, he is said to have had 60 legions of demons under his command. He was a ‘demon’, but he was also believed to be a teacher of science and arts who propounded the healing power of gems and herbs! Turns out Bifrons is merely the dethroned and demonised Roman god, Janus–a two-faced mythical character who embodies both the good and bad in mankind.
While many mythologies around the world give demons a physical presence, Buddhism holds that demons don’t necessarily need one. Buddhist mythology talks about Mara, a demon that attempted to distract Gautama Buddha during his journey towards enlightenment. But unlike demons with physical forms, Mara is simply the dark side of one’s own nature. It is believed to surface from an ignorant mind. This demon is associated with death and rebirth, and lures one to succumb to worldly pleasures. The Buddha is known to have practised equanimity on his path to enlightenment. It is said that by mastering the art of remaining unaffected by his thoughts, he managed to defeat Mara.
Perhaps, that is what demons are: The dark side of ourselves, a projection of our minds. They are probably just misguiding thoughts that are created by external circumstances. In any case, it may be unwise to shun this dark side as evil or deny its existence. After all, as explained in the Yin-Yang concept in Taoism, the polar-opposites of our nature–good and evil–are inseparable, as they constantly interact with each other. This is the core duality of our existence. Good can turn evil, and evil good, in an instant. All we can possibly do is acknowledge the bad within us and strive to be better individuals.