BMCR 2020.07.35

Demons in late antiquity

, , Demons in late antiquity: their perception and transformation in different literary genres. Transformationen der Antike, Band 54. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. 176 p.. ISBN 9783110626728. €79,95.

Demons were the character actors of early Christian literature. When they appeared in saints’ lives and other late antique sources, they usually offered unambigiously negative portraits of memorably eccentric behavior. Their inevitable defeat proved without a doubt the virtue and discernment of the holy men and women who were the true stars of these narratives. The assault of the demons on the saints was so common in the literature of the desert that scholars have long taken the infernal adversaries of early Christian ascetics for granted, but in recent years historians of late antique religion, most notably David Brakke, have worked hard to understand the meaning of demons in the formation of the monastic self.[1] Until now, however, few have entertained the question of the role of literary genres in shaping the ways in which late antique authors fashioned their depiction of demons. This volume collects eight articles about the representation of demons in late antique texts that originated from a conference that took place in 2015 in Berlin. Contributions vary in insightfulness and do not always cohere as a group. Some offer the superficial reflections of lightly edited conference papers, while others contribute meaningfully to the growing historiography on late antique demons. Nonetheless, the volume succeeds in dismantling some stubborn presumptions about the literary rendering of demons in Greek, Latin, and Syriac literature.

A laconic introduction by Eva Elm admirably surveys recent work on the study of demons in the late ancient world, but does not offer a synthesis of early Christian demonology that would have provided a solid foundation for the discussions to follow. Thereafter the book falls into two parts. The first presents four papers on the rendering of demons in a variety of genres. Christoph Markschies’ “Demons and Disease” demonstrates the causal relationship between demons and human ailments in ancient magical amulets designed to ward off disease and some philosophical texts, but it also offers an example of alleged evidence of a demon evoked “in a positive way in order to heal diseases” (p. 23). This example fails to convince, however, because a close reading shows that the demon itself is not the agent of healing, but the courier of information from Horus to his mother Isis. It is, in fact, the goddess who will grant the requested aid, not the demon. Annette Weissenrieder’s “Disease and Healing in a Changing World” approaches the topic of demons and illness through exorcism episodes that take place during Christ’s ministry in the Vetus Latina, the earliest Latin translations of the Gospels.

Weissenrieder reminds us that the process of translating biblical texts from Greek into Latin is a creative act that reveals cultural presuppositions. In particular, she notes that the translators of the Vetus Latina sometimes had recourse to vocabulary reminiscent of medical descriptions of known ailments, with the result that exorcisms performed by Jesus echo with the language of Roman medicine. Nicole Hartmann’s “On Demons in Early Martyrology” makes the convincing claim that “[i]n most martyr accounts demonological notions are completely absent and no malevolent daimones are considered to be involved in persecution” (p. 70), but arguments based on absence are never entirely satisfying. Finally, Emmanouela Grypeou’s “Demons of the Underworld in the Christian Literature of Late Antiquity” discusses apocalyptic literature that paints in lurid detail the punishments awaiting sinners in the afterlife and the role of demons in dolling out this suffering with particular attention to two well-known Christian apocryphal texts: Apocalypse of Peter and the Apocalypse of Paul. And yet Grypeou spends most of the article talking about angels, because the purveyors of torment in these texts were very often called “angels of Tartarus.” This raises many unresolved questions about the place of angels in early Christian demonology. The author’s claim that “probably, after the fifth century C.E., these angels would be time and again called ‘demons’ or ‘devils’ or ‘angels of Satan’” (p. 91) is not borne out by the evidence of early medieval manuscripts, which specifically evoked angeli Tartarum well into the tenth century.[2]

The second part of the book features four papers that treat the common theme of late antique hagiography. Robert Wiśniewski’s “Demons in Early Latin Hagiography” offers a useful overview of the genre, discussing how hagiographers depicted demons, as well as their function in these narratives and their shared character and qualities. This article also makes two important distinctions: demons are much more prevalent in the lives of monastic saints than in the lives of bishops; and they tend to be a more persistent feature of eastern asceticism than western. Eva Elm’s “Hilarion and the Bactrian Camel” presents a close reading of encounters with demons in Jerome’s late fourth-century Life of Hilarion, which included a unique episode: the exorcism of a rabid camel. The prominence of the camel in the title of this article leads the reader to expect an inquiry into the possession of animals by demons (like the herd of pigs possessed by the demonic collective known as “Legion” in Mark 5:1-20, Matthew 8:28-34, and Luke 8:26-39), but the camel only makes a cameo appearance in Elm’s analysis of the vita. Nienke Vos’s “The Ambiguity of the Devil” likewise takes a case-study approach by offering a “discourse-linguistic” analysis to specific chapters of Sulpicius Severus’ Life of Martin. The volume concludes with an excellent article by Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe on “Demon Speech in Hagiography and Hymnography,” which contrasts the presentation of the utterances of demonic actors in late antique saints’ lives and Syriac and Greek liturgical hymns. Demons did not have their own language, according to Lunn-Rockliffe, but adopted that of their human hosts. While demonic speech in hagiography was reported in the third person, their voices in hymnography appeared in first person utterances. In both cases, scripture provided the archetypes for the idiom of demons. Moreso than any other contribution to the volume, this article lives up to the promise of showing how the expectations of genre influenced the rendering of demons by early Christian authors. Jan Bremmer’s short epilogue wraps up the book nicely with the insights of a scholar well versed in ancient religion.

Demons in Late Antiquity displays many of the strengths and weaknesses of a volume based on conference papers. Scholars interested in the presentation of demons in late antique literature will mine this volume productively for textual evidence and bibliographical information, but they should be aware of its shortcomings. Some of the papers are more successful than others at addressing the limitations posed by the expectations of genre in their presentation of demons. Moreover, there is a problematic tendency to elide categories of otherworldly creatures, as in Grypeou’s chapter on demons and angels. Other contributors conflate demons and ghosts without a second thought (on pp. 108 and 158). Moreoever, it is unclear throughout the volume whether the Devil is a demon or an angel or something else entirely. Lastly, the production quality of the volume leaves something to be desired. The images accompanying the first article muddy and illegible, while many of the contributions suffer too frequently from typographical errors and idiomatic mistakes. The devil, as the saying goes, is in the details.


[1] David Brakke, Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[2] See, for example, Munich Clm 6426, fol. 60r, accessible online at daten.digitale –