From an ancient Egyptian point of view, any being, whether supernatural, human, or material, which was involved in a ritual at some time, whether occasional or incidental, was a “god.” The performance of a ritual did not necessarily require a temple, and thus demons were part of the “god” category. There is no Egyptian term, however, that corresponds even approximately to our word “demon.” Demons are usually classified by Egyptologists as “minor divinities,” a category that is hard to define. A temple reveals the theological and political importance of a deity but it does not show the real degree of the god's popularity. The importance of a divinity is a matter of subjective interpretation. For example, the hippopotamus goddess Taweret began her career anonymously during the Middle Kingdom among the fantastic animals figured on magic wands. During the New Kingdom, she acquired a name and became a renowned and revered goddess in temples and with priests. The lion-masked dwarf Bes had a similar origin and destiny. He also became an important god, although there is little evidence of his temples and priests. Many demons were not associated with temples or priests but were nonetheless greatly feared and respected.
The fact that demons were subordinates to a superior authority defined them most appropriately. They were not autonomous and performed tasks on command, usually in a specific sphere, while the greater gods were more universal in character. The specificity of demons concerned their actions, their behavior, and their location. Some demons were attached to a person, place, or building, and these demons remained there. When a demon was freed from his specific bonds of subordination, he became a greater god. This “promotion” was not the result of a conscious decision by an authority; rather, it evolved over centuries from a historical process that involved Egyptian society as a whole.
Demons had a protective-aggressive role: they were aggressive and hostile because they had to protect something or someone. Even evil, cosmic enemies had something to protect. In their passive role, demons repelled whatever threatened the object of their protection; in their dynamic role, they were sent to punish those who transgressed the principles that organized the created world, which had been established by the gods themselves. The dual nature of demons made them either dangerous or beneficial to humans. Demons were distinguished from genies through this aggressive-protective aspect. Though assigned to specific tasks and usually sub-ordinated to another deity, genies were not, by their very nature, involved in protective-aggressive activity. This was true, for example, of numerous genies concerned with economic production. Other deities, either subordinate or dangerous, were assistants to the creator god; they personified different aspects of his creative power and his comprehensive, divine authority. As assistants, they were incorporated in the insignia of royal power on crowns and scepters. They were considered “auxiliaries” to creative power and divine or royal authority outside the categories of “demon” or “genie.”
Demons in the ancient world were also differentiated by their origins or the type of their subordination. Some demons were emanations of human beings, either dead or alive; they were evoked for an individual by divine decision, either permanently or occasionally. Divine subordinates, though used by gods for their personal purposes, were sometimes invoked by humans for their own protection. Cosmic enemies represented a specific case of “subordination” which involved the survival of the created world.
From the beginning of life, the ancient Egyptian was surrounded or assisted by powers which affected his destiny in many ways. Demons of fate were present at his side all his life and accompanied him after death, as witnesses before the Tribunal of Osiris. Such is the case of Shai (“Destiny”) and his female companion Renenet (“Nurse”), or the spirit of the birth-stool, Meskhenet. Shai and Renenet represented a given span of life that could be lengthened or shortened by good or bad deeds. Meskhenet was the personal share or stock of capabilities given to each person at his birth, a kind of life-program to be respected. The righteous man came before Osiris without having modified his personal Meskhenet. These demons were not passive attendants who simply executed a god's will or checked human actions. They were generally positive protectors who acted like “guardian angels” to repel what threatened their charges. Demons of fate also dispensed advice. Unfortunately, protector demons were not always able to shield the ancient Egyptian from bad demons. A child who died was usually not considered the victim of a decision carried out by Shai and Renenet. A demon called Shepeset (“Noble Lady”) seems to have had a more personal relationship with those she was supposed to assist. Each month of the year had its Shepeset, who was a kind of fairy godmother for all born in the month under her protection. The Seven Hathors, also known as the “old ladies,” played a role akin to that of European witches. They were supposed to state, at the moment of birth, all the events (usually bad ones) that one would have to face during life. Once their words had been pronounced, it was impossible to avoid the bad fortune they promised. Magic spells were recited to close the mouths of these Hathors and prevent them from foretelling the future. Other spells, however, ask for their help in desperate situations.
Protective personal demons probably belong to ancient traditions. Fantastic animals represented on magic wands of the Middle Kingdom were the ancestors of some of the above-mentioned creatures. The hippopotamus holding a knife with its feet later became the major goddess Taweret. She was the patroness of childbirth and motherhood, chasing away demons dangerous to the vulnerable mother and her child. Many of these features were shared by Bes. Both Taweret and Bes—or, at least, hippopotami and Bes-like demons—recur later on in birth scenes. They protected not only human children but also the young Horus and his mother Isis when they were hidden in the Nile Delta marshes. There the young Horus was subject to sickness, stung by scorpions, and hunted by demons sent by Seth, the murderer of his father; that is why his image is represented on stelae from the end of the New Kingdom, the so-called Horus cippi, which are engraved with magic spells against fever, crocodiles, and venomous animals.
People were also surrounded by petty domestic demons that resided practically everywhere: in water, doors, bolts, pots, and so on. Some of these had very little power and could be used, after divine approval, by humans themselves for their own purposes. Incubi that “sat” inside a person were also known. Some demons teased humans, apparently just for fun. Peasants usually attributed to them all kinds of mishaps—bad weather, sick cattle, or domestic conflicts.
Once dead, a human could trouble those still alive, so surviving relatives occasionally wrote letters to complain to the dead and try to calm them. A deceased human might even become a dangerous demonic power, not only as an evil soul escaped from the tomb but also as a physical entity. It could attack sinners or those disturbing the tomb, but also any other person without apparent reason. As a ghost, it could haunt homes, perhaps to obtain the reconstruction of the ruined tomb. Little tablets inscribed with the names of supposedly demonic dead persons were buried to prevent them from coming back from the grave. A tale tells how a dead man, wishing to have news about his survivors, asked Osiris to sculpt for him an earth-man, a kind of semi-live “golem.” This humanlike being was sent out to the world of the living to report on the situation and punish those behaving badly to the dead one's family.
Gangs of demons were responsible for many troubles and misfortunes. Most of the main deities had such troops at their service. They could be used against both men and other gods, though the latter had demon bodyguards. These demon troops bear names like khatyu (“fighters”), habyu (“emissaries”), wepwetyu (“messengers”), or shemayu (“wanderers”), which reveal a good deal about their basic nature. They are very anciently known: the khatyu were mentioned in the Pyramid Texts from the Old Kingdom, the first known Egyptian corpus of religious texts. There is no important religious or magical text that does not mention them in some way, to invoke them or to avert them. All these troops are known under the more generic term sheseru (“arrows”). Because the groups usually have seven members, or a multiple of seven, they were also called the “seven arrows.” Their superiors were often dangerous goddesses like Sekhmet, Bastet, and Nekhbet, or the sphinx god Totoes. Sheseru is also the name of the seven Decan stars that are closest to the sun. Emissary demons, arrows, and Decans were identified. All these demons could punish sinners, but they could act simply out of malice to strike any person they found in their path. They occasioned inexplicable illness. Magic spells written on a papyrus strip, simply folded or wrapped inside a little container and worn on a necklace, were considered effectual in keeping them at a distance. In medical documents, spells may be added to recipes to improve the treatment or to protect the patient from demonic influence.
The relationship of demons with astronomic cycles made them most active during specific periods: for instance, when the Decan they belonged to culminated, or at a time corresponding to a baleful mythological event. The last five days of the year—those which were “over the year” because they did not fit in the ideal year of 360 (30 × 12) days—were considered especially dangerous because their departure from the ideal pattern introduced chaotic elements in the organized world. During that period, demons, unbound and uncontrolled, spread over the earth. In all the temples of Egypt, priests recited litanies to dangerous goddesses and their demonic servants, to appease them and calm their wrath.
Demons that protected a person or a place were similar to the emissaries, but their behavior was more static and defensive. The arrow demons were related to the Decans of the southern sky, where the new year star (Sirius) rose and whence came the Nile flood. In contrast, the troop of demons protecting Osiris was connected with the northern sky, the realm of the dead. The underworld was full of evil demons, especially in the spaces between the living world and the Hall of Osiris, which gave access to the green fields of paradise. They guarded the gates, channels, crossings, and so on, which the dead had to pass to reach the hall. Unable to avoid them, the deceased had to persuade them to let him pass. He usually had to answer questions posed by the demons, who only let pass those who could prove that during life they had learned enough about the underworld to be allowed to travel in it. Living persons might meet these demons, too, at least in pictures—but even these images were dangerous. In pharaonic times, visitors to the Osireion of Abydos were frightened by the underworld demons painted on the walls and left inscriptions asking the sun god to protect them from these khatyu.
The demons created to protect the sun god against cosmic enemies might be invoked to protect Osiris, the dead, or even a temple. Emissaries and guardian demons were depicted as having human bodies with animal heads. What usually distinguished them from other deities were the long knives they bear in each hand, hence the name “knife-bearers” or “butchers” sometimes given to them.
Each temple was supposed to be an ordering of the world, and the same held true for Egypt. Once the world was created, the original unorganized and chaotic element was cast out to its margin. A demon called Apophis was supposed to dwell in this element, endlessly fighting to reconquer the space of which the chaotic element was deprived. Every day he attacked the sun in his bark, and after every defeat he returned, a permanent threat to the world. Many rituals were performed to protect the sun bark, to prevent the victory of the chaos demon, or to destroy his evil eye. Similarly, the territories around Egypt were supposed to shelter Seth and his allied demons, who were striving to reconquer Egypt. Here again rituals were used to keep them at a distance. The world, Egypt, gods, and men were bound to be threatened or attacked by demons wanting to gain power over them. Other demons were invoked to repel them, keeping the world in order and people and gods at peace.
See also FANTASTIC ANIMALS.
- Borghouts, J. F. “The Evil Eye of Apopis.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 59 (1973), 114–150. A thorough study of the rite intended to destroy the eye of Apophis, with remarks on various malevolent beings.
- Borghouts, J. F. Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts. Leiden, 1978. A good, handy translation of major magical spells, many of which were used against different kinds of demons.
- Cauville, Sylvie. “À propos des 77 génies de Pharbaïthos.” Bulletin de l'Institut français d'archéologie orientale 90 (1990), 115–133. A history of the evolution of one troop of protective demons.
- De Meulenaere, Herman. “Meskhenet à Abydos.” In Religion und Philosophie im Alten Ägypten, edited by U. Verhoeven and E. Grafe, pp. 243–251. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, 39. Leuven, 1991. A brief commentary on Meskhenet with the recent bibliography.
- Edwards, I. E. S., ed. Oracular Amuletic Decrees of the Late New Kingdom. London, 1960. Complete study of a particular kind of protective amulet, with magic spells inscribed on papyrus strips, intended to protect against various demons.
- Germond, Philippe. Sekhmet et la protection du monde. Agyptiaca Helvetica, 9. Geneva, 1981. Study of the litany addressed to Sekhmet to ask her to protect the world from demons at the end of each year.
- Goyon, Jean-Claude. Les dieux-gardiens et la genèse des temples. Bibliothèque d'étude, 93. Cairo, 1985. An analysis of the main temple protecting demon troops.
- Kakosy, Laszlo. “Decans in Late-Egyptian Religion.” Oikumene 3 (1982), 163–191. A detailed study of Decans as demons and their mythological context.
- Meeks, Dimitri. “Génies, Anges, Démons en Égypte.” In Génies, Anges et Démons. edited by P. Garelli, pp. 19–84. Sources Orientales, 8. Paris, 1971. A general overview of the demons and genies in Egypt.
- Meeks, Dimitri, and Christine Favard-Meeks. Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. Translated from French by G. M. Goshgarian. Ithaca, 1996. An overview of the gods' community and the myths and rites attached to their different activities.
- Pantalacci, Laure. “Compagnie de gardiens au temple d'el-Qalʿa.” In Ägyptologische Tempeltagung, edited by D. Kurth, pp. 187–198. Wiesbaden, 1995. A study of an original troop of temple protective demons.
- Posener, Georges. “Les ʿafarit dans l'ancienne Égypte.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 37 (1981), 393–401. An insight into the world of petty disturbing demons.
- Quaegebeur, Jan. Le dieu égyptien Shaï dans la religion et l'onomastique. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, 2. Leuven, 1975. The basic study on Shai, the fate demon, with many comments on related demons, male and female.
- Thompson, Herbert. “Two Demotic Self-Dedications.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 26 (1941), 68–78. Studies a category of petitions addressed to gods by humans wishing to become their servants, with their families and descent. In exchange, they ask gods to protect them from various forms of supernatural beings.