He’s got demons? Cool! – The Great Gonzo, Muppet Treasure Island
We’ve talked a little about the gods here, so this week I figured we’d take a look at another supernatural group that exists in The God’s Wife: demons.
Specifically, two different cultural approaches to these semi-divine entities – through the eyes of the Egyptians, and then, through the eyes of the various traditions of South Asia and the Indian subcontinent, whose views will come more into play in Daughter of Eagles. Don’t worry (or worry?), we’ll have help.
One thing both of these traditions share is a truly immense cosmogony. The Egyptians and Hinduism in particular from among the Indian religions are known by their hundreds of gods, which in Hindu temples rise in these astoundingly intricate walls of bas relief that seethe with arms and heads, and very often, riotous color. A student of Western art is certainly reminded of Dante’s spires of souls in his Paradiso, or of Michaelangelo’s Vatican frescos.
But in Hinduism, this tower of divinity is a little deceptive, because while it is true there are many gods with many names, the godhood of all of them is seen as a part of the Supreme Godhead. Richard Dawkins labels this as monotheism masquerading as polytheism, and he’s not really wrong. Now, like many of you at least in the West, I was taught in school that Hinduism is polytheistic, and the only gods I was really introduced to were Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. There was an attempt to impart the idea that they were a sort of three-in-one god on par with Christianity’s trinity, but as you might imagine, a lot is lost in translation to twelve-year-olds taught by non-specialists about a complex ancient religion. But the idea that the other Hindu gods were also part of the same being wasn’t even broached. The major sacred texts, the Vedas, speak of seeking to be one with God, not with the gods. Which is why there is no serious sectarianism between, say, those who are especially devoted to Krishna and worshippers who prefer Ganesha or Lakshmi. If all are aspects of a singular spiritual center, the same deity is being praised so it doesn’t really matter.
The Egyptian religion isn’t completely devoid of this idea. Ra is the supreme deity in the pantheon, but he has many forms; in part because the sun is constant, yet changeable. He is Ra particularly at his zenith, the noonday sun, but in the morning, he is also the scarab-headed Khepri, and at sunset he is the creator god Khnum.
Egyptian gods were also adept at absorbing each other and reinventing themselves, which is how they ended up with a dozen lioness goddesses (Mafdet, Sekhmet, Menhyt, Pakhet, and Baset, just to name a few), and compound gods like Amun-Ra and Ptah-Sokar. Egyptians also were fond of adopting foreign deities like the Semitic goddess Ishtar into their pantheon. But they also generally didn’t remove members, either, so thousands of years of civilizations led to a dizzying number of entities.
But as I said, we’re not here to talk about the gods per se. Both the Egyptians and the various Indian cultures believe(d) in a variety of supernatural beings that rank lower than the gods, but have abilities far beyond those humans. Among these are demons, and to start us off in the Egyptian world of demonology, we’ll bring in Ammit.
Ammit is sometimes classified as a goddess, but as a being with only a monstrous form, she is usually considered a demon. As you can see, whether in her long-legged form above or the stubby version below, Ammit is a combination of several of the most feared animals in the Egyptian world. Her head is that of a crocodile attached to the front body of a lion (with a lion’s long mane), and the rump end of a hippopotamus. The last one might surprise you if you’ve never seen The Discovery Channel’s Hippos: The Dark Side, but in fact, hippos are incredibly destructive when crossed and most Egyptians feared them on the Nile even more than crocodiles because angry hippos were known to flip boats and crush sailors. So they were a natural creature to be appeased as much as the carnivorous predators they shared Egypt with.
Much like the various Semitic religions of their neighbors, Egyptians had a generally negative view of demons. They were, like hippos, a force to be warded off and magicked against. As we talked about with the Book of the Dead, demons were numerous in the Duat, the afterlife, and many of the spells contained in the book text are designed to defeat them as you navigate the terrain of the underworld. Like when eight crocodile demons come after you:
Get back you crocodile of the West, who lives on the Unwearying Stars!
Detestation of you is in my belly, for I have absorbed the power of Osiris, and I am Seth.
Get back, you crocodile of the West! The nau-snake is in my belly, and I have not given myself to you, your flame will not be on me.
Demons in the Egyptian world are to be defeated, but that is not to say they did not have a purpose in the greater cycle of the universe. Ammit’s name means “Devourer” because that is her purpose.
Ammit lives in the Hall of Two Truths, the place where a deceased person’s heart was weighed by Anubis before the throne of Osiris. A heart was measured against the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of Truth. If a heart was lighter than the feather, the person entered the Field of Reeds and the blessed immortality of the Duat. However, if a heart was weighed too heavy, it was given to Ammit to consume.
Without a heart, a person was believed to die a second death, and would at best be doomed to wander as a restless spirit.
At worst, the person was said to be thrown into the Lake of Fire, where they would be destroyed. As a result, Ammit was feared by the Egyptians, but she also helped them by reminding them of price they would pay in the afterlife for unrighteous conduct in the here and now. An Egyptian Ghost of Christmas Future, if you will.
So far, we’ve mostly talked about demons in a way that is likely familiar to many of you from Christian or other Middle Eastern religious background. Even the Greeks and the Romans speak of evil spirits and terrible monsters. Hinduism (and by extension, Buddhism) is a little more complicated than that when it comes to demons or rakshasas.
Rakshasas were born from the breath of Brahma, and upon their creation, they began to immediately devour the god. After this, they were banished to earth by Vishnu, who comes to Brahma’s aid. The traditional depiction of the creatures is in line with the picture above: bestial in appearance, although still human-esque, with long fangs and claws, and bright red eyes. Horns optional.
Rakshasas are defined by their bloodlust, and share many of the same basic characteristics as demons like Ammit and those found on death metal album covers. They are cannibalistic and drink blood, especially enjoying human flesh. They are fierce warriors and are immensely strong, but these are only the beginning of their powers. Individual rakshasas may have special abilities, but as a whole, they are thought to be able to fly and vanish at will, as well as what may be their most famous skill: shapeshifting.
Many stories come out of epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata about rakshasas disguising themselves as animals or people to help or hinder the heroes. And that’s really the fundamental difference with Indian demons – they’re not all bad. Like the human characters, there are good rakshasas and evil ones. They can be tricked and killed, although doing either is often very difficult. But a defeated demon can become an invaluable ally in battle.
In the Mahabharata, the Pandava brother Bhima even marries a rakshasi (female demon), Hidimbi, after she helps him defeat her brother, in classic mythological style. Rakshasi are always shown as being very ugly, but like all good female monsters, they are adept at changing themselves into beautiful human women for their own purposes.
Their son, Ghatotkacha, fought alongside his father in the Battle of Kurukshetra against the Kauravas, and is such a formiable warrior that a divine weapon must be used to bring him down.
In the Ramayana, the rakshasa Maricha turns into a golden deer in order to lure Rama away from his wife Sita so that his master, the demon Ravana, can kidnap her.
Ravana is one of the most famous rakshasas in Hindu epic lore. The king of Lanka, he was said to have ten heads and often a corresponding number of arms to match.
But Ravana is another rakshasa who isn’t all bad. He’s mortally punished for kidnapping Sita, but he is depicted as a good king who is otherwise pious and exemplary. He is devoted to the god Shiva, and is a skilled musician and poet. These beings are more than simple “man-eaters” like Ammit.
Rakshasas in Hindu lore are rulers and writers and spouses and friends, in addition to being fearsome supernatural beings with a host of terrifying abilities. And in this, they are much closer to the original Greek word daimōn (δαίμων), a word denoting divine spirit or power, with no negative connotations. Indeed, Plato uses the term to describe the divine inspiration of his mentor Socrates, the idea of power given by the gods. And in that, we’ve circled back to heka and Egypt and useful demons. More than anything, ancient demonology shows a world where the forces of the universe are interconnected, where light and dark have a place and a role to play. And that is certainly more thought-provoking than mere ghouls who go bump (or chomp) in the night.