Demons hold us in thrall. Not the literal, sign-away-your soul sort of demons, but the very concept of the demonic. Demons haunt our televisions, our literature, our music, and our art, and because they have such an enormous cultural footprint even in this supposedly scientific age, misconceptions about them abound.
Take, for example, the notion of demons' names. More than a decade has passed since I collected over 1500 proper names of demons in my Dictionary of Demons, drawing on sources mainly from the grimoires of Western Europe. The book opens explicitly with the premise that knowledge is power–explaining how, by better understanding a thing, we naturally gain an edge when dealing with that thing. And yet the single most common question I still receive ten years on: will I summon demons into my life if I read this book?
That is some powerful folklore. The idea that summoning can happen simply by speaking or even reading a demon's name has been seized and perpetuated by movies, books, reality TV–and it is completely false.
So, let's dig into why we have such a pervasive belief about the power of demonic names.
Most people reading this, regardless of their personal beliefs, likely encountered the concept of demons first through a Christian lens. Most modern portrayals of demons are heavily Christianized, whether we're talking the demonology of the Bible or the portrayals of demons in creative works like Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost. But Christian (and later Muslim) concepts of demons were influenced by Jewish demonology, and the Jewish tradition in turn was influenced by a variety of cultures in the Ancient Near East. Of particular interest to our question of demonic names are the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia.
In the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, long before King Solomon even considered building a temple, the civilization of Sumer rose and flourished. This was a land of wedge-shaped language called cuneiform baked into clay tablets and preserved across the millennia, a land of step-pyramid-like temples called ziggurats where the great kings ascended to seek dream-visions of the gods.
And it was also a land seething with demons, if you believe the written record. Before we can properly explore why the names of demons were so important to the Sumerians (and their cultural inheritors of Babylon and Akkad), we have to first understand what they really meant by that word.
To begin with, demon is our word, not theirs, and it is derived initially from Greek. A Greek daemon was not a damned being but something we might think of today as closer to a spirit guide. Not human and not one of the gods, the daemons of ancient Greece were guardians, tutelary spirits, and sometimes troublemakers for humanity. Several prominent ancient figures freely admitted to working with personal daemons in a completely constructive way. Notable among them was the Greek philosopher Socrates, who felt his daemon's insights were a key part of his own remarkable knowledge.
When Christianity came along, many of the Scriptures were written in Greek. In those Scriptures, the word daemon was applied not to neutral spiritual entities, but to fearsome beings that operated in opposition to the will of God. Through this use, our modern understanding of the word was transformed–and we have applied that word now to a vast and diverse collection of beings from the ancient world, often without regard for the nuances that once existed in those cultures.
In Mesopotamian lore, entities that are collectively presented under the modern term demon include monsters, personifications of natural forces, disease, and malevolent children of the gods.
Rites of Exorcism
How does it make sense to lump so many different things under one label? The answer is not a simple one. At least part of that answer comes down to the largely Christian lens through which all of the literature is currently refracted, especially in English translation. However, there is also an element of how the Mesopotamians themselves approached these beings, an element that hinges upon the concepts of possession and exorcism.
For the people of Mesopotamia, formidable spiritual beings were capable of attacking and possessing mortals. Many of them were driven to do so, as their sort of cosmic raison d’être. Through possession, these beings brought suffering to mortalkind. One of the few solutions to that suffering was exorcism, a practice that has echoed down the ages relatively unchanged.
An entire class of priests was dedicated to the rites of exorcism, and numerous tablets have survived detailing the formulae and prayers used to drive evil spirits away (the Maklu texts contain some really fun examples, although reliable translations can be challenging to find outside of academia).
A key aspect of these ancient rites of exorcism revolved around the demons' names. Knowing the name of the being that caused the harm was an important step in gaining control over that being. The name allowed the ritualist to call, compel, banish, and bind the supernatural force afflicting the possessed. (The proper names of deities or other apotropaic powers were also instrumental in breaking the hold of these evil spirits, an element of exorcism viscerally evoked in modern Christian phrases like, "The power of Christ compels you!")
Often, the demon's name was synonymous with the affliction that being brought upon humanity, and so the naming of the demon was also a kind of diagnosis. It's important to keep in mind that, in the world of the Ancient Near East, there was very little difference between what we currently view as magick and that of medicine. (This is one of the reasons why it is so hard to separate modern notions of physical disability or mental illness from ancient notions of demonic possession: in the world of the Ancient Near East, epilepsy was a demon; schizophrenia was a demon; even tetanus was a demon, and the methods for identifying and treating these ailments were inextricable from the magickal rituals used to drive off the demonic influence).
This naming approach to the demonic was widespread throughout the world of the Ancient Near East, and subsequently saw expression in Coptic, Hermetic, Solomonic, and Biblical texts. In the Testament of Solomon, for example, the Biblical king calls up a near-endless parade of demonic entities. He interrogates each one, demanding their names as well as the names of the heavenly beings that constrain them. Armed with that knowledge, and with the seal-ring gifted him by the Almighty, he either puts these demons to work building his temple or seals the most dangerous ones away.
The Testament of Solomon (sometimes also presented under the name the Wisdom of Solomon) is an influential text that was probably written in the last few centuries before the Common Era–a pivotal time for the development of what we understand as the Western magickal tradition.
Arguably, this text is the very seed of the Solomonic tradition in Western magick, and it gave rise to the rich literature of the grimoires that proliferated throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This Solomonic tradition of grimoires (magickal books) picked up the significance of demonic names, pairing them also with sigils, the likes of which are strikingly illustrated in later works like the Ars Goetia. The Solomonic system of demonic magick weaves within and throughout Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions, influencing folk beliefs and texts that are Biblically adjacent. Notably, the Catholic ritual of exorcism, also known as the Roman Ritual, contains language that is almost indistinguishable from exhortations used to compel and control demons in magickal books like the Heptameron.
Our understanding of what demons are and how we might counter their activities is not a simple thread winding back only to the texts of Christianity. Despite how demons are portrayed in our modern art and media, the notions of Heaven and Hell, damnation and redemption, and even the kingly role of Satan come into the picture relatively recently–and they are certainly not the whole story. If we are to understand our cultural inheritance of demonology, we must delve deeply into all the syncretic beliefs that have come down to us from the Greek and Roman world and beyond. Names are a part of that, and if there is one theme that remains consistent as far back as we can delve into the written record on the demonic, it is that names have talismanic power. To know the name of a being is to know its essence, and, in that knowledge, secure some protection against its harm.