Angels, Devils, or None of the Above?
Having talked about angels and demons, I want to see if those beings exhaust all the non-corporeal beings that exist. Typically, the Abrahamic religions tend to categorize all immaterial, incorporeal beings–what we’d tend to call “spirits”–as ultimately either angelic or demonic. With the partial exception of Islamic jinn, there are no other categories envisioned.
Pagan religions, both ancient and modern, by contrast, have a bewildering variety of spirit-beings that cover the entire spectrum of morality from good to evil and everywhere in between. As Jeffrey Burton Russel points out in The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, in most ancient religions, God (in this context, Russell uses the term “the god” in referring to the monotheistic deity) and the gods are morally ambivalent. Gods and spirits might be helpful or harmful, good or bad. Any given god might in fact be harmful or helpful, depending on the context. The fickle behavior of the Greek pantheon is a perfect example of this, with even beloved and noble deities such as Athena being capable of spiteful and vindictive actions, as in the myth of Arachne.
This is true even of the Bible–note the passage from Isaiah 45:7, to which I’ve referred before (KJV): “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Certainly God’s behavior as reported in the Old Testament seems more than a little questionable at times.
In any case, to the ancients, gods and spirits were as varied as humans. Some deities might be generally beneficent or generally maleficent. Even a generally kind deity might be dangerous and dispense curses or punishment if crossed. On the other hand, even malicious or dangerous spirits might provide help if properly appeased. This, in fact, is what we observe of human behavior, so we can hardly be surprised that the ancients, as well as members of modern pagan religions, assumed the spirit realm to be more or less the same.
I have been shifting between saying “gods”, “deities”, and “spirits” because of the deficiency of English. Most pagan religions had or have dozens of words for different categories of what we’d call “spirits” or “nature spirits” or “minor deities”. The Romans had Lares, lemures, genii, Dii Consentes, dii inferi, and so on. The Greeks had nymphs, daimones, daimonia, and many chthonic, sea, forest, and other deities. Hindu mythology has devas, asuras, rakshasas, and many other divine or quasi-divine beings; and Japanese Shinto lore has myriads of kami and other such beings that come in dozens of sub-categories. As with the ancient Romans and Greeks, these beings may be good, bad, indifferent, or totally alien to human ethical concepts altogether.
Zoroastrianism, which I’ve discussed in detail in the post on demons, seems to have been the first religion to line up spirit beings and divinities on teams, so to speak. All spirit beings were seen as ultimately serving either Ahura Mazda (God) or Angra Mainyu (essentially, the Devil). There might be distinctions or subcategories–for example yazatas, ahuras, and Amesha Spentas seem to be different classes of beings; but they are all held to serve Ahura Mazda. I’m not aware that the daevas–demons–that serve Angra Mainyu are distinguished to this degree. The point is that the orientation of these beings–good, on God’s side, or evil, on the Devil’s side–is more important that the particular divisions on either side.
This attitude transferred to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, probably being most systematized in Christianity. There are said to be divisions in the ranks of angels–angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, powers, principalities, virtues, cherubim, and seraphim (according to Pseudo-Dionysius), and, presumably, the fallen versions of each among the ranks of the demons; but these distinctions are less important than the angels’ and demons’ moral orientation for or against God.
I think this lumping together of divine beings as good guys or bad guys without too much concern about differentiation in their ranks is what causes the paucity of terms available in English to talk about such beings. We view all incorporeal beings as angelic or demonic, and thus have lost any other terms aside from “spirit” with which to refer to such beings. “Spirit” thus is extremely overworked–it can mean the life force that makes a living being alive; it can be a synonym for “soul“; it can mean a soul that has departed its body, i.e. a ghost; it can mean an angel or devil; and in general it can mean pretty much any kind of incorporeal being from any belief system that is considered as not being a god. Actually, in some cases, “spirit” could mean a god, since gods are generally thought of as spirit beings.
One good reason to avoid the term “spirit” is that it gives the wrong impression to modern people. “Spirit” is usually construed to mean something immaterial, abiding on a different plane of reality from the ordinary physical world we live in. Many of these mythological beings, by contrast, were conceptualized as having bodies and being quite capable of interacting with the material world. Heck, in Greek mythology, Peleus begot the hero Achilles on the nymph Thetis–you can’t get much more physical than that! On the other hand, modern Westerners, tending towards a materialistic view of nature, often are too literal about the corporeality of divinities and other creatures of myth. Often in tales about them, there is an almost dreamlike quality, in which the Other World or the land of the gods or whatnot seems not to be quite in this world. This is especially notable in Celtic mythology.
Our materialistic bias is also why we search for such beings of Native American mythology as the Sasquatch, aka Bigfoot. We assume that such tales must be of literal, material beings, when they are in fact the Native American version of tales of giants and ogres and their Classical equivalents. The ancient Greco-Roman culture, the pagan cultures of Northern and Central Europe and Asia, and the Native American cultures all seem to have been similar in that they were much less dualistic than ours. We tend to think something is totally immaterial–a spirit–or completely material–a human, animal, or cryptid. For the ancients (the ancient Iranians aside), there seems to have been a rather fuzzy spectrum between the material and the incorporeal, with many beings straddling the line, with no clear belonging to either side (see my extended discussion of this issue here). Such beings might abide sometimes in the physical world, and sometimes somewhere else.
To get back to what to call these beings, I have no good solution, but for the time being, to ease up a bit on the overuse of “spirit”, I will use the term “divinity” to mean anything from a major god(dess) of a pantheon down to nature spirits. If nothing else, that will be a change of pace. It will also be a bit more accurate in that it makes no commitment to strict, black-and-white categories of “spirits” and “material creatures”.
I said we lack the elaborate vocabulary for the various classes of divinities of pagan and non-Western cultures, but that’s not quite true. I hinted above at giants and ogres. In fact, we have quite a few words for quasi-spirit, quasi-divine entities: fairies, elves, dwarves, brownies, pixies, giants, trolls, ogres, and leprechauns, just to name a few. Of course, we’re not used to thinking of such beings as “divinities” or “spirits”; and we tend to think of them as either literal, physical beings that our ignorant forebears imagined to exist out there somewhere, or as flights of fancy cooked up by the ancients for entertainment. Neither of these views is correct.
Rather, these beings are the folk continuation of nature spirits and lower-ranking deities in the context of a Christianized Europe in which there was no place for any god besides the One God of Christianity (and its forebear, Judaism, of course). Angels and demons were lower beings created by God and serving Him or the Devil, respectively; but the Fair Folk and their ilk didn’t fit very well into this schematic. Thus, belief in them continued without referring to them as divinities but without trying to shoehorn them into the structure of Christian doctrine, either. What, exactly, was an elf or a pixie or an ogre, and how did it fit in with the Bible? No one knew, or particularly cared. Better not to think about it too deeply, while taking the appropriate steps to avoid the ire (or cultivate the favor) of these beings, as a matter of practicality.
Some theologians occasionally suggested that all such beings must be demons of some sort, out to mislead and bedevil humanity. For that matter, some theologians and Church Fathers assumed all beings not explicitly described in Scripture, including the deities of pagan Greece and Rome, to be demons. As with most one-size-fits-all hypotheses, this “everything but God and angels is a bunch of demons” notion is simplistic and lacking in subtlety. Many of these beings, according to lore, do not exhibit demonic behaviors, after all. More importantly, it seems odd that God would have left all of humanity except for the Jews, and later Christians, at the mercy of demons faking divinity. It seems to me that something else must be at work in such cases.
Some speculated that certain beings might be exotic forms of humanity–merfolk, for example, being humans adapted to the sea. Indeed, there are many Medieval stories of mermaids seeking baptism. Others, following the ancient writer Euhemerus, suggested that ancient gods and other supernatural beings might be exaggerated and distorted folk memories of human heroes. By and large, there was no “official” ecclesiastical explanation for elves, fairies and such phenomena. This is even true of the “they’re all demons” hypothesis. As widely held as that view has been at certain times, it has never been raised to the status of official teaching in any church. As a matter of fact, as I’ve noted at length in my posts on angels and demons, linked in the first paragraph above, the Bible not only does not teach such a doctrine, either, but is remarkably garbled and confused in its presentation of spirit beings of various kinds, including angels and demons. Neither Scripture nor Tradition nor official Church teaching has ever either affirmed or denied the existence of intermediate (non-angelic, non-demonic) divinities, nor explained or elaborated upon their nature. As far as official theology goes, we’re on our own.
My perspective is that given that the vast majority of all human cultures throughout history have taken the existence of these intermediate divinities for granted, there is no particularly good reason to reject them. The rationalism of the Enlightenment assumed that such commonalities merely showed that ignorance and superstition were rife; but this is an a priori assumption that is not automatically right, and which has never actually been demonstrated. It’s worth pointing out, moreover, that the Enlightenment project isn’t in such good shape itself, these days. In any case, I hold not with the philosophes of the Enlightenment, but with the mass of humanity in, to put it in a droll but not inaccurate way, believing in fairies. To be less jocular, I don’t claim actually to know much about what these beings are actually like. Some themes crop up consistently in the folklore of various societies–beings that are large humanoids (giants, Sasquatches, etc.), beings that are tiny humanoids (gnomes, dwarves, pixies, and so on), half-human, half-animal beings (merfolk, centaurs, etc.)–and such themes probably indicate certain things about such beings. I think such notions would go a long way towards explaining many so-called cryptids. The likelihood of an actual Sasquatch or chupacabras or lake monster is highly small, not least because of lack of breeding populations or fossil records; but beings not quite of our world, inhabiting the boundaries between different planes of existence, might well manifest as large, hairy ape men, or goat suckers, or sea serpents, or the like.
This leads to a second question, which could be briefly, albeit in a flip way, phrased as, “So what?” To expand on that, one might well ask, “All right–given that such beings do exist, how does that affect one’s life? What difference does it make?” There no simple answer to that question. I don’t go hunting cryptids, nor do I frequent the more isolated regions to which they seem to be endemic, so I’ve never seen one. Either because of random happenstance or because of a low level of “second sight” (for lack of a better term), I’ve never seen, heard, or experienced such beings (though I personally know perfectly normal, sane, and rational individuals who have, and whose accounts I have no reason to doubt). Be all that as it may, such beings enliven a sometimes dull world and make it much more interesting, as well as explaining certain phenomena that science, despite its sometimes grandiose claims, has been ineffective in elucidating.
One final question might be, “Given the existence of such beings, in what way should we relate to them, if at all?” That is a fair question; but it is one I will reserve for a future post.
Part of the series “Religious Miscellany“