Ancient Demonology: The Temptations of St. Antony

Temptations of St. AntonyMy first introduction to ancient demonology was the painting to the left, The Temptations of St. Antony, presumed to be by the Dutch painter Hieronymus (Jerome) Bosch (1450-1516).  As you can see, all sorts of the denizens of Hades are surrounding St. Antony, the hunched hermit by the shrub in the middle.  There is a naked woman in a pond, a variety of bizarre monstrosities on the roof of his abode as well as those scaling its walls with ladders.  The bottom left contains an example of the mediaeval imagination it is hard to explain, whereas in the right, above the egg, is a demon clearly designed to frighten.

However, front and centre, is Funnel Butt.  A person with his tunic pulled up over his head, his left foot in a jar, and a funnel coming out of his butt.  Flying from this funnel are birds.  And to the right we see a guy shooting arrows into the funnel from his perch in an egg.  Here’s a closer view of Funnel Butt:

Funnel Butt

This demonological wonder can be seen in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, where Emily first showed me it.  The picture here is scanned from my postcard of the same.

In this late mediaeval painting, we have an example of the primary role demons play in human life: Temptation.

Wait.  Temptation?  What exactly is Funnel Butt tempting St. Antony to do?  What are any of these things tempting him to do?  I mean, the naked woman in the pond seems fairly obvious, but all these others?  What is going on?

To answer those questions, answer these:  What is the role of the monk?  What is the role, indeed, of every Christian?  What does the Devil fear most of all?

Bosch’s painting is inspired by the Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius, one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages.  In this book, we read:

… there was a sudden noise which caused the place the shake violently: holes appeared in the walls and a horde of different kinds of demons poured out.  They took on the shapes of wild animals and snakes and instantly filled the whole place with spectres in the form of lions, bulls, wolves, vipers, serpents, scorpions and even leopards and bears, too.  They all made noises according to their individual nature:  the lion roared, eager for the kill; the bull bellowed and made menacing movements with his horns; the serpent hissed; the wolves leaped forward to attack; the spotted leopard demonstrated all the different wiles of the one who controlled him.  The face of each of them bore a savage expression and the sound of their fierce voices was terrifying.  Antony, beaten and mauled, experienced even more atrocious pains in his body but he remained unafraid, his mind alert.  And though the wounds of his flesh made him groan, he maintained the same attitude and spoke as if mocking his enemies.  ‘If you had any power, one of you would be enough for the fight; but since the Lord has robbed you of your strength, you are broken and so you attempt to use large numbers to terrify me, although the fact that you have taken on the shapes of unreasoning beasts is itself proof of your weakness.’  And he went on confidently, ‘If you have any influence, if the Lord has granted you power of me, look, here I am: devour me.  But if you cannot, why do you expend so much useless effort?  For the sign of the cross and faith in the Lord is for us a wall that no assault of yours can break down.’  They made numerous threats against the holy Antony but gnashed their teeth because none of their attempts were successful — on the contrary they made fools of themselves rather than of him. (Ch. 9, Carolinne White, trans. in Early Christian Lives, pub. by Penguin; another translation is online here.)

Demonology comes up throughout the Life of St. Antony; it is one of the foundational texts for much Christian demonological thought.  The demons are here attempting to draw St. Antony out of his cell, to drive him back into society, to stop him from praying.  David Brakke (Demons and the Making of the Monk) has said that it is more appropriately considered the trials of St. Antony than the temptations (both are the same in Latin).

The lesson for the Christian demon-fighter?  They will try to distract you from prayer.  They probably won’t make it seem as though your house is full of holes; they probably won’t appear like a horde of wild animals pretending to prepare to devour you; they probably won’t physically harm you in any way; unlike here or in Frank Peretti, they probably won’t make your presence known.

But prayer is one of the weapons we have in the fight.  So they will do their best to distract us, to tempt us to do anything else, to draw us into other things, even things that seem noble.  Many of the stories about the Desert Fathers tell of men who were drawn away from prayer and into excessive works of charity to the peril of their souls.  We need prayer to satisfy our souls, keep connected with God, and wage war on the front lines of the battle.  Let us remember the power of Christ within us, the power of His cross, to keep us safe and enable us to fight the fight and pray the prayers.

Demonology and You

Nobody believes in the Devil nowadays.  That is one of the Devil’s favourite jokes.
-Robertson Davies, “Scottish Folklore and Opera,” in Happy Alchemy*

The special essay for my MA was “John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus on Demonology”.  The writing of this bit of comparative demonology brought me into contact with not only Cassian and Evagrius but also with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the anonymous Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, Palladius’ Lausiac History, St. Augustine’s City of God, the Shepherd of Hermas, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, Origen’s De Principatibus and a variety of other Patristic writings.  In these writings, although there were points of variance**, I saw the fundamental interconnectedness of Patristic writers.

They all believed in demons, for one thing.

In the Patristic world, demons are out there.  They are fundamentally hostile and inhabit the air.  Their main action in the life of the Christian is to tempt/test us.  They want to distract Christians from prayer and lead them into sin.  One of the fundamentals of Christian demonology is the fact that demons cannot force people to sin.  Some people don’t realise this, and thus they brush off demonology as having nothing to do with them; clearly their sins are their own.

Yes, your sins are your own.  This does not negate the reality of demons seeking to entice you to omit the good and commit the wicked.  Indeed, if demons are real (which a worldview based on Scripture and tradition proclaims loud & clear), we should be on the guard against them; our sins are own responsibility, so we should be on our guard to avoid being enticed to lead life separate from God’s ways.

Therefore, we should be equipped to fight them.  We should know our weapons.  We should know our enemies.  We should also know what else we’re up against — for not all evil originates with demons.  According to John Cassian’s telling of the eight deadly vices in his Institutes, the will to sin is our own and the vices originate in our own sinful state; the traditional word for this, taken from St. Paul, is the flesh.  The other origin of evil is the world.  The world is full of enough wickedness stemming from other people’s evil and the wickedness of organisations and systems that the demons need not always tempt us.

However, knowledge of the battle is not readily available for the (post)modern Christian.  We are trapped between Frank Peretti and secular humanism.  What we need is a demonology for (post)moderns, something with both eyes open that takes Scripture seriously, does not deny science, but also peers into the wisdom of the Great Tradition, drawing out the teachings on Spiritual Warfare from the ancients, mediaevals, Reformers, and more, looking at liturgies, exorcisms, and training in the spiritual life.

I think a comparative analysis of John Cassian and Walter Wink (for example) would be interesting not only from a scholarly point of view but from the point of view of the average Christian seeking to live in a world surrounded by principalities and powers.  We need work that is not only scholarly but actually useful.  My approach to this question would be inherently Patristic, but there are other ways to deal with this issue with a Christian, biblical, honest approach.

And so I am glad to see that the Internet Monk has posed the following question to his Liturgical Gangstas:

How does the theme and practice of spiritual warfare relate to ministry in your tradition? Where are the boundaries of your own “comfort zones” in the practice of spiritual warfare?

In the post on his blog, we get thoughts on this very important question from the Eastern Orthodox, United Methodist, Southern Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian perspectives.  Unsurprisingly, I liked the Eastern Orthodox and United Methodist best.  You should read the post.

The position that many of us have on the question of demonology is summed up well in that post by Matthew Johnson, United Methodist pastor:

I think attributing every kind of mistake or misfortune to Satan and his minions is ridiculous. However, I would be biblically remiss not to recognize that there are powers, there are principalities, there is a reality beyond my senses that is gruesome and violent in which there are beings who would love nothing more than to see the church and the members of the body of Christ fail.

Hopefully to come shall be more on demons, John Cassian, and you.

*Many thanks to Emily Martin for providing the quotation to me many moons past.

**Most notably the Origenist teachings about the Fall and Christology as embraced by Evagrius in opposition to Cassian & Augustine.

Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Pt. 2

Books, including PsalmsI believe that classical exegesis gives us the tools for unlocking even the most unfortunate parts of Scripture.  Thus, we look upon the aforementioned verse, Psalm 71:13:

Let them be confounded and perish that are against my soul; let them be covered with shame and dishonour that seek to do me evil.

Then we scratch our heads and pray, thinking about what sort of spiritual meaning could lie there.  And then John Cassian says:

When we read or sing all these things [of violence and hatred in the Psalms], therefore, and others like them that have been included in the Sacred Books, if we do not take them as having been written against those evil spirits that lie in wait for us day and night we shall not only not derive from them any increase of gentleness and patience but we shall even conceive a kind of cruel feeling that is contrary to gospel perfection.  For we shall not only be taught not to pray for our enemies and not to love them, but we shall even be incited to detest them with an implacable hatred, to curse them, and unceasingly to pour out prayer against them.  (Conf. 7.21.7-8, trans. Ramsey)

Who are against your soul?  Who seek to do you evil?  Evil spirits.  Demons.  The Psalm in the Christian’s hands becomes a tool of spiritual warfare to combat the forces of darkness.

Let us now, therefore, consider the most famous of the violent Psalms, Ps. 137.  The Psalm closes with the following:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock! (NRSV)

Typically, the Revised Common Lectionary avoids these passages, and if we consider how most of us read the Bible most of the time, I can understand it.  However, if we look to the ancients, such as John Cassian or C.S. Lewis, we find new ways of looking at the above verses:

It behooves us as well to destroy the sinners in our bed — namely, our fleshly feelings — on the morning of their birth, as they emerge, and, while they are still young, to dash the children of Babylon against the rock.  Unless they are killed at a very tender age they will, with our acquiescence, rise up to our harm as stronger adults, and they will certainly not be overcome without great pain and effort. (John Cassian, The Institutes 6.13.2, trans. Ramsey)

And C.S. Lewis:

I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them we feel we are being cruel to animals.  They begin whispering to us, “I don’t ask much, but”, or “I had at least hoped”, or “you owe yourself some consideration”.  Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is the best: knock the little bastards’ brains out.  And “blessed” he who can, for it’s easier said than done. (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 383-384, in Selected Books)

And there you have it, the spiritual interpretation of the difficult Psalms at work.