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Demonization or Demonisation is the reinterpretation of polytheistic deities as evil, lying demons by other religions, generally by the monotheistic and henotheistic ones. The term has since been expanded to refer to any characterization of individuals, groups, or political bodies as evil. When Christians spread and conquered land, they demonized the gods and goddesses of the local people.


Religions, even those that are radically monotheistic, do not necessarily deny the existence of other gods or spiritual beings. On the contrary, they claim other gods are not worthy of worship and in actuality are demons who mislead followers from proper belief or practice. Christian missionaries often employed demonization tactics when converting pagans, although Judaism, Islam, and other religions have similar histories. Demonization is not limited to focusing on other religions but can also be directed inward to condemn various schools of thought or movements.

From a secular viewpoint, demonization can be used to denigrate an opposed individual or group, making adherents to one's own religion or viewpoint less inclined to do business with them (and possibly convert) and more inclined to fight against them. If foreigners are evil and corrupted by demonic influence, then any means of self-defense is easily portrayed as legitimate. The portrayal of almost all pagans in the Middle East as Baal worshippers in the Hebrew Bible is an example of this.[1][2] If pagans are corrupted by the demon "god" Baal, then clearly they must be fought or at least oppressed.[3] Especially in the earlier books of the Hebrew Bible, foreign deities are portrayed as existing and corrupting entities rather than being mere powerless idols. Some would argue this later transferred to Christianity after Constantine I's ascension in its suppression of Roman paganism.[4] Some of the most known of these demonizations are Lucifer, Beelzebub and Baphomet up to the extend that they became synonymous with the devil/satan of Abrahamic religions. Later, the language of demonization would be invoked with the rise in Antisemitism in Iberia, leading to the Expulsion of Jews from Spain including the Moriscos.[5]

The view of early Judaism treating foreign deities as devils and later Judaism treating them as nonexistent is not universal. Psalms 96:5, for example, is alternately translated as, "For all the Gods of the gentiles are nothing," "For all the Gods of the gentiles are devils" (Vulgate), and "For all the gods of the peoples are idols."(NRSV) The Greek Septuagint translation of that passage, used by the early Christian Church, used the "devils" version.[4] Jerome would follow the Greek text rather than the Hebrew when he translated the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible. The "devils" epithet would still appear in Bibles up until the end of the 20th century when the consensus reverted to the original Hebrew text for modern translations.

Analogs to demonization exist outside monotheistic religions, as well. Polytheism easily accepts foreign gods in general, and in times of conflict, a foreign nation's gods would sometimes be portrayed as evil. Less commonly, it would be applied to other religions as well. For example, Buddha's portrayal in Hinduism varies: Some strains of Hinduism consider the Buddha an incarnation of Vishnu[6] while in some texts such as the Puranas, he is portrayed as an avatar born to mislead those who deny the Vedic knowledge.[7][8][note 1]

Political conflicts[edit]

Demonization is sometimes used against what are arguably political opponents rather than religious ones. The Knights Templar were destroyed by accusations that they worshipped Baphomet from King Philip the Fair. Baphomet, often thought to be Beelzebub, may have been used because of the likeness of this horned deity with the Christian images of Satan.[10][11]

Modern usage[edit]

In colloquial usage, the term demonization is used metaphorically to refer to propaganda or moral panic directed against any individual or group.

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ The reverse is found in Buddhist texts which similarly caricature Hindu sacred figures. According to Alf Hiltebeitel and other scholars, some of the stories in Buddha-related Jataka tales found in Pali texts seem slanderous distortions of Hindu legends, but these may reflect the ancient local traditions and the complexities of early interaction between the two Indian religions.[9]
  1. ^ "Ye shall destroy their altars, and break in pieces their pillars, and ye shall cut down their groves, and the graven images of their gods ye shall burn with fire." Exodus 34:13
  2. ^ "And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword." Joshua 6:21
  3. ^ "Demons in the Old Testament", Dennis Bratcher, 2006, retrieved 6 May 207.[1]
  4. ^ a b "The Greek Septuagint translated into English", Psalm 95:5, translated by Sir Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton, 1851.
  5. ^ "Edict of the Expulsion of the Jews", 1492, Translated from the Castilian by Edward Peters, retrieved 6 May 2007.[2]
  6. ^ Cambridge University Hindu Cultural Society Archived 3 February 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ John Clifford Holt (2008). The Buddhist Viṣṇu: Religious Transformation, Politics, and Culture. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 18–21. ISBN 978-81-208-3269-5.
  8. ^ Constance Jones; James D. Ryan (2006). Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Infobase. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-8160-7564-5.
  9. ^ Alf Hiltebeitel (1990). The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata. State University of New York Press. pp. 64–68. ISBN 978-0-7914-0250-4.
  10. ^ " Pentacles and Pentagrams", Religious Tolerance, retrieved 6 May 2007
  11. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Baphomet" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 363.