on hell, demonology, and language

While writing Miserere, I did some extensive research on early Christianity and demonology, primarily because I had the same experience with Christianity as some of you: I heard snippets of Bible passages in church followed by lengthy soliloquies as to the merits and lessons to be derived from the verses in question. For the record: I was raised in the Southeast United States and was exposed to several variations of Evangelical Christianity (Primitive Baptist, Methodist, Independent Baptist, Southern Baptist). As a child, I was not exposed to Catholicism, because the general Protestant viewpoint in this area is that Catholics are not Christians, a concept I always had difficulty wrapping around my brain.

Unable to grasp the reasoning, I once asked an individual how she could possibly make such an absurd statement with a straight face.

To which she replied: "Catholics worship Mary, so they can't be Christians."

To which I replied: "Please don't go around saying things like that, because people will think you're stupid."

So, as you can see, growing up as a Christian in the Southeast United States can mean different things to different people, and the pastors were no less conflicted with their sermons. At times, the striking visuals of the sermons excited my already overactive imagination. For example: when the pastors preached about the Resurrection, I imagined a Dawn of the Dead scenario with decomposing bodies lurching out of graves. I had no idea why everyone thought this was a good idea. Needless to say, church teachings coupled with horror films from the seventies left me in a confused and agitated theological state of mind throughout my adolescence. 

Furthermore, no two pastors interpreted the same Bible verse the same way. However, there did seem to be a general consensus on Hell, which was a bad place where all sinners went to be tormented by angels. These fallen angels were also sinners, who were kicked out of Heaven. Here is where I encountered my first theological conundrum. If the angels were in Hell for punishment and the mortals were in Hell for punishment, why didn't they work together to formulate an escape plan?

Apparently, no one else had thought of this either. Rather than address my inquiries, adults generally encouraged me to just drop the subject and say "Amen" on cue with everyone else.

So I went to church and listened intently for more references about Hell. While pastors seemed conflicted about who Christians should love, hate, and whether or not it was apropos to come to Sunday morning services with boats attached to the backs of pick-up trucks, they seemed to entertain a fairly consistent view on the types of behaviors that sent people STRAIGHT TO HELL. Which was precisely how it was always thundered from the pulpit--STRAIGHT TO HELL--in all capital letters and sometimes bolded and italicized, depending on the severity of the offense.

Hell was a terrible place filled with--you guessed it--hellfire and demons.

One Sunday, we were told that we were going to watch a movie about sin and how someone goes to Hell. I was very excited, because I thought that now, NOW FINALLY NOW, we were getting somewhere. Let's see this scary, frightening, terrible movie.

The movie was called The Burning Hell, and it was stupid and boring and there were no demons. I, for one, couldn't understand why everyone was carrying on so. Rather than be seen as odd (and honestly, I'd suffered enough in that respect), I just went along with the crowd and oohed and ahhed at all the right places. Needless to say, I was terribly disappointed, but I did learn valuable lessons about blending in with the crowd for survival purposes.

At this point, I knew I would have to conduct my own research into the matter of demons. Like any self-respecting teenager, I began my studies with Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, and The Exorcist, all of which left me so terrified of priests and Catholicism that, to this day, I can only enter a Catholic Church in the company of a tour group.

Which is why when people say Miserere is "too Catholic" I just laugh and laugh and laugh.

In college, I found there were scholars who took demons and demonology seriously. This was all much more to my liking even though these scholars left out all of the flash and glamour and the spitting of pea soup utilized by Hollywood. Scholars tend to focus on texts, and that was essentially what I was after--textual expositions on demonology.

I have read a lot of books on demons and demonology, but one of my favorites is written by Armando Maggi, who is the associate professor of Romance Languages and Literature at the University of Chicago. Professor Maggi is the author of several books, two of which I happily own: Satan's Rhetoric: A Study of Renaissance Demonology, and In the Company of Demons: Unnatural Beings, Love, and Identity in the Italian Renaissance.

Because this post has already grown rather chunky, I'm just going to give you a brief overview of Satan's Rhetoric. The book is an involved exegesis of several Renaissance texts on demons, demonology, and exorcisms and revolves around the power of language. Maggi spends the early chapters teasing out the difference between angelic beings and demonic beings and how they communicate by analyzing Sylvester Prierio's De strigimagarum daemonumque miradis (Rome, 1521).

Essentially, (and a lot is lost in this overly simplistic explanation), demons cannot communicate without a human conduit, because "devils ... are shapeless and immaterial like air." Being without form, they are unable to create noise so they rely on the physical nature of humans. In order to make sound, the demon (or spiritual being) needs the organs of a human body such as the lungs to expel air, and the throat, tongue, teeth, and lips to form the words.

The demon's ability to communicate is also greatly dependent on the intelligence of the host. The theory here being that demons have no actual "voice" or "language" of their own with which to speak, so they use the host's mind to produce the clauses that give them power. Maggi illustrates this point with a story about a man who is possessed by a demon:

"When, according to a basic procedure of every exorcism, the inquisitor directly addressed the devil inside the man's body, he noticed that the devil was speaking in a rather simplistic and unrefined manner. When the inquisitor asked him why he was articulating such an unpolished rhetoric, the devil answered that it was not his fault; he could not help but use the possessed man's 'raw' language."

Maggi fills his study with examples such as these. It's an in-depth examination, not just of demonology, but also of the power of language, and I highly recommend it.

I promised you a bibliography. Here are some of the books that I found valuable when researching demonology (and in some cases angelology) for Miserere along with a few notes:

Charlesworth, James H. The Old Testament pseudepigrapha: apocalyptic literature & testaments. New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Charlesworth, James H. The Old Testament pseudepigrapha: expansions of the “Old Testament” and legends, wisdom and philosophical literature, prayers, psalms and odes, fragments of lost Judeo-Hellenistic works. New York: Doubleday, 1983. [NOTE: I have a caveat and a suggestion on both of the Charlesworth texts. The caveat is that Charlesworth tends to lean heavily toward Christianity in a lot of his works, and that philosophical viewpoint tends to encompass some of the Jewish texts in this two volume set as well. I believe the translations are faithful, but some of the introductory notes might be biased toward Christianity. In Internet parlance: YMMV. The suggestion is that if you are looking for references for angelology, focus on the Book of Enoch.]

Gardiner, Eileen. Visions of Heaven and Hell before Dante. New York: Italica Press, 1989.

Maggi, Armando. In the Company of Demons: Unnatural Beings, Love, and Identity in the Italian Renaissance. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Maggi, Armando. Satan’s rhetoric: a study of Renaissance demonology. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2001. 

Pagels, Elaine. The origin of Satan. New York: Random House, 1995. [NOTE: All of Pagels' works are very readable and accessible. I usually recommend her works as a good starting place.]

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. The Devil: perceptions of evil from antiquity to primitive Christianity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977. [NOTE: Another excellent starting place.]

Stewart, Charles. Demons and the Devil: moral imagination in modern Greek culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. [NOTE: A philosophical approach that I used in order to understand the Greek Orthodox Church's philosophy on exorcism and demons.]

If you want see all of the sources I used while writing Miserere, that bibliography is here.