History of the Demonic in Western Thought

RLST: ###

[work in progress... last updated: 9/5/11]

Instructor:   Jessica DeCou

Course Description

This course surveys the evolution of the demonic in the philosophy, theology, and literature of the West. Conceptions of the demonic played an important role in appraisals of pagan philosophy among early Christians, while the Middle Ages produced such infamous texts as the Malleus Maleficarum in response to concerns about demonic sorcery. Martin Luther’s famous preoccupation with the devil influenced his impulse toward reform and the centrality of devil imagery in his polemical writings. Public fascination with demonic possession in the 17th century served as inspiration for Descartes’ malin génie. While the Enlightenment put a damper on “primitive superstitions,” and demonology all but disappeared from academic theology until Tillich’s ontological re-appropriation of the concept, modern literature and popular entertainment reveal an undiminished fascination with Lucifer and his minions that surpasses any comparable interest in the divine. Authors include Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Descartes, Milton, Goethe, and Twain.

Grading and Assignments

Students will be given a take home midterm covering the development of demonology from the Hebrew Bible to the Middle Ages. Students will then write a final paper (10-15 pages) on a topic of their choice, in consultation with the Instructor. To facilitate this, students will submit a research proposal that suggests a topic and relevant sources for the final paper and provides a basic outline of the argument.

Grades for the course will be based on the following:
  • Take-home midterm (20%)
  • Research paper proposal (15%) due mid-quarter
  • Final research paper (40%) due at the end of the quarter
  • In-class participation (25%)

Assigned Readings

(full schedule of readings and assignments coming soon...)

* indicates full text available online at no cost for students

Ancient/Biblical and Early Christian

  • *Bible (preferred translations include RSV, NRSV, NIV, and KJV):
    • The serpent: Genesis 2 and 3
    • The divine-demonic relationship: 1 Kings 22.22; Job 1-2; Zech 3
    • Demonic temptation/affliction: 1 Sam 16:14-23; Hos 4.12; 1 Chron 21; Matt 3-4; Luke 22; 1 Tim 4.1; 1 John 5.18; 2 Cor 12.7, 11.14; Jude (cf. Rev 20.2)
    • Exorcism: Mark 5; Matt 7.22 and 9.18-38; Luke 10.16-23 and 11.14-36; Acts 19.11-16;
    • Fall of Satan: Isa 14; Ezek. 28; Luke 10:18; Revelation esp. 9-22

  • *Justin Martyr, First Apology and Second Apology (c. 155-161). Available in Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 1, edited by A. Roberts and J. Donaldson. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1885

  • *Origen, De principiis (On First Principles c. 230). Available in Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 4, edited by A.C. Coxe. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1885.
    • Book I: Preface and Ch. 4- 8.

  • *Augustine, City of God (c. 420). Available in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II, edited by P. Schaff and translated by M. Dods. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1886.
    • Books 8-10 and 12.

  • *Athanasius, Life of Antony (c. 360). Available in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV, edited by A. Robertson. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1891.

  • Charlesworth, J.H. The Good and Evil Serpent: How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
  • Russell, J.B. The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1977.



  • Boureau, Alain. Satan the Heretic: The Birth of Demonology in Medieval West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  • Bailey, Michael D. Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.

Early Modern

  • Luther, Lectures on Galatians 1-4 (1535), Luther's Works, Vol. 26. Edited and Translated by J. Pelikan. St. Louis: Concordia, 1963.
    • Chapter 2, pages 79-186.

  • ---, Lectures on Genesis 1-5 (1544), Luther's Works, Vol. 1. Edited by J. Pelikan. St. Louis: Concordia, 1958.
    • Chapter 3, pages 141-236.

  • Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, “The Second Week” (1522). In Ignatius of Loyola: The Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, Classics of Western Spirituality, translated by G.E. Ganss, 146-166. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1991.

  • *Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641).

  • *Milton, Paradise Lost (1674).

  • Muchembled, Robert. History of the Devil: From the Middle Ages to the Present. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.
  • Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons. Oxford University Press, 1999.

  • Maxwell-Stuart, P.G. "Rational Superstition: The Writings of Protestant Demonologists." In Religion and Superstition in Reformation Europe, edited by Helen L. Parish and William G. Naphy, 170-187. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.


  • *Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-1793).

  • Goethe, Faust: A Tragedy (1808). Edited by C. Hamlin and translated by W. Arndt. New York: Norton, 2001.

  • Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §44 and §45 (via handout).

  • Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1923), Ch. 18 (via handout).

  • *Twain, The Mysterious Stranger: A Romance. New York: Harper, 1916.

  • Tillich, The Courage to Be (1957), Chs. 2-3 (via handout).

  • Lambert, "The Ontology of Evil." Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 3.2 (1968): 116-128.

  • (DVD) The Exorcist (1973).

  • Bonting, "Spirit and Creation." Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 41.3 (2006): 713-726.

  • (DVD) Reaper, Episode 1.14 "Rebellion" and Episode 1.18 "Cancun” (2008).

  • Midelfort, H.C. Erik. Exorcism and Enlightenment: Johann Joseph Gassner and the Demons of 18th Century Germany. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

  • Slater, Peter. “Dynamic Religion, Formative Culture, and the Demonic in History.” Harvard Theological Review 92.1 (1999): 95-110.
  • Mann, Thomas. Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn As Told by a Friend (1948). Translated by J.E. Woods. Vintage International, 1999.

  • Pelikan, Jaroslav. Faust the Theologian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

  • Zucker, Wolfgang M. "The Demonic: From Aeschylus to Tillich." Theology Today 26.1 (1969): 34-50.

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