16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of

Natasha sheldon - August 21, 2018

The word ‘demon’ conjures images of evil entities out to tempt or torment. However, originally, the term referred to something very different. For the word, ‘demon’ comes from the ancient Greek for spirit ‘daimon’ (daemon in Latin).These Classical ‘demons’ were not evil per se. Instead, they were gifted with divine powers to help and harm and acted as intermediaries between the gods and humankind. Some were minor gods, others dead heroes. To the Romans, they were also guardian spirits of individual people or places. “Daimons” could be good or evil, dependent on their character or circumstance.

However, in the second century AD, the meaning of the word “daimon” changed. For a Greek translation of the original Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint Bible, for the Jews of Alexandria used the term daemon in specific reference to evil spirits. And so, the concept of the demon as an agent solely of evil was born. Whether wholly spiritual or in a physical form, the sole purpose of these diabolical entities was to corrupt or torment humanity.

This concept of malign forces at work in the world is a universal one. For across all time periods and cultures, the idea of evil spirits has been used to explain the unexplainable, be that disease, disaster or just plain ill luck. The word demon became a cross-cultural term for the entities behind such events. It also became a way of relabeling the gods of defunct religions. By downgrading fallen deities to the demonic rank and file, they were discredited and made less attractive objects of worship. In fact, the demons of any given time or place tell us a great deal about the preoccupations of those cultures. Here are just sixteen of those demons from history.

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
Imam Ali Conquers Jinn, unknown artist, from the book Ahsan-ol-Kobar (1568). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

1. The Djinn, a being between an angel and human, whose purpose was to tempt humans with their trickster ways.

The Jinn or Djinn of Arabic and Islamic mythology closely match the original, Classical daimon or daemon. Neither good nor evil, the Djinn were supernatural spirits, born of smokeless fire long before the creation of humanity. The Djinn were spiritual beings; formless shapeshifters with magical powers, who are ranked somewhere between humans and angels. They were not immortal, and humans could kill them. However, a long lifespan compensated them for these disadvantages.

In Persian mythology, the Djinn had their own land, Jinnistan, whose capital was The City of jewels. However, the djinn also haunted the human world, with favorite places of residence being the desert as well as rivers, wells, and even marketplaces. In this sense, they are very much like Roman Geni Loci-spirits of place, and it was customary to ask the local djinns permission before drawing water or even traveling into alien territory.

If they appeared before humans, the djinn could appear as animals, monsters or people. Whatever form they took, people could quickly identify them by their flaming eyes which were also vertical rather than horizontal. This unusual attribute gave the djinn a sinister appearance that married well with some of their more suspect traits. For although the Djinn could be helpers, they were also known to be malicious tricksters. In the worst scenarios, they would raise storms and cause disease, insanity, and death. Islam teaches that every human has an evil djinn whose sole purpose is to tempt its’ human opposite number into evil. This reputation for malevolence is compounded by the fact the chief Djinn, Iblis is also known as Azazel-the Islamic Devil.

The Djinn are not the only demons with an ambiguous reputation.

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
“Asura” in 249th cave of Mogao Caves. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

2. The Asuras exemplified balance between light and dark.

The Asuras made their first appearance in the Hindu Vedas, a collection of poems written between 1500-1200 BC. However, they seem to originate in the Iranian Ahura, the celestial beings of the Zoroastrians. While Zorastarians regarded the Ahura as a force for good, Hindus saw the Asuras as evil. These Hindu Asura included various classes of demons: the Nagas or serpent demons, the Ahi, the demons of drought, Kamsa, an archdemon, and Rakshasa or “Harm to be guarded against,” a group of demons who haunted cemeteries and caused violent deaths and caused people to commit foolish acts.

Along with the Devas or gods, Azuras seemed to be a way for Hindus to conceptualize the balance between light and dark in the world. For although Hindus classed the Asuras as evil, they also regarded them as equal to the gods- hence the meaning of their name, which came from the Sanskrit, for ‘divine.’ The Asuras merely acted as the balancing opposite numbers of their better-natured brothers and sisters- and explained why bad things happened.

Both the Asuras and Devas were children of the great celestial god. However, the two camps of celestial siblings became divided over the quest for the elixir of immortality. Both wanted to drink it to ensure everlasting life. So it was agreed that whichever group discovered it would share it with the other. However, when the Devas discovered it first, they kept it for themselves. Thus, the gods became immortal- and the Asuras did not, ensuring the two groups remained in perpetual conflict.

The Chinese also had tales of demons who wanted to be gods.

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
Bai Gu Jung, one of the Yaoguai. China Underground.

3. The Yaoguai were Chinese mythical demons who were firmly on the dark side.

The Yaoguai or ‘strange ghosts’ or ‘strange devils’ were mythical Chinese demons, who, like the Asura desired immortality and godhood. They included in their number animal spirits such as the fox spirits and fallen celestial beings. However, even though they acquired their powers through the practice of Taoism, the Yaoguai cared little for the balance between light and dark. They were firmly on the dark side and would stop at nothing to achieve their goals of deification. They believed they could accomplish this goal by consuming the life force of holy men.

One tale of the Yaoguai appears in the sixteenth-century Chinese novel, Journey to the West.” The story tells of the pursuit of the holy man Xuanzang by Bai Gu Jong or white bones demon. However, unfortunately for Bai Gu Jong, Xuanzang was traveling in the company of Sun Wukong or the Monkey King. The company first encountered the evil spirit, disguised as a young girl searching for food. However, the Monkey King saw through the demon’s disguise and drove it off with his staff. The Bai Gu jong tried again, firstly disguised as an old woman and finally as an old man. This final time, the Monkey King killed the demon, revealing its true form: a skeleton.

Staffs, however, were not the only way to deal with Yaoguai. As they lived in the underworld, the Chinese believed they were afraid of the light. So bonfires, fireworks, and torches were the perfect way to keep them at bay.

Some demons, however, started off as gods.

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
Shedu. Photograph by Tyler de Noche. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

4. The Shedim were demons from Mesopotamia associated with destruction, illness… and human sacrifice.

From the earliest of times, one man’s god was another man’s devil. To the Mesopotamians, the Lamassu or the Shedu were powerful, human-headed, eagle-winged guardian spirits of the home or the state. The Mesopotamians erected statues of these powerful entities, who had the body of either a bull or lion, at the gates of palaces or cities. There, they were well placed to ward off invading armies and ensure peace to those within the city walls. In ordinary households, images of the Shedu were carved on clay tablets and buried under the threshold to ensure peace and happiness within.

When the Israelites encountered the Shedu, however, they interpreted them in a very different way. Some of them took up the Mesopotamian custom of worshiping them- hence disapproving references in the Old Testament to how such people “sacrificed unto devils, not to God; To gods whom they knew not, To new gods that came newly up, Whom your fathers feared not.” (Deut. 32.17). To the Jewish mainstream, the shedu were false idols that possessed statues and masqueraded as gods. As such, they were evil and so became the Shedim, demons associated with destruction, illness- and human sacrifice.

“They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons,” stated Psalms 106:37, referring to those worshiping the Shedu/Shedim. Jewish myths gave these Mesopotamian demons a variety of different potential origins. In one, they were god’s half-finished creations, left without bodies. In another, they were the demonic descendants of serpents. The final myth, however, made the Shedim the descendants of Adam, the first man, and his original wife, one of the oldest demons: Lilith.

5. Lilith became the mother of demons after leaving Adam in the Garden of Eden.

Lilith probably has her origins in another Mesopotamian entity, Lilitu, an Assyrian storm demon. Both demons began to appear in their respective Sumerian and Jewish texts at around the same time. Both of their names have their root in the Semitic root word for night, the time of Lilith’s most significant activity when she was an especial threat to children and women in childbirth.

Lilith however, started out very differently. According to rabbinic myth, she was the first wife of Adam. Like Adam, Lilith was created from the earth, making her equal to her husband. Adam however, expected Lilith to submit to him, something Lilith refused to do. The story goes that Lilith refused to lie beneath Adam during sex and eventually tired of him. So she decided to leave him and Eden behind and headed for independence in the wilderness. Three angels tried to persuade her to stay. However, Lilith refused.

In the wilderness, Lilith became the mother of demons, either as a legacy of her time with Adam or through her union with Samael, a fallen angel. These demons, who counted the incubi and succubae amongst their number were then sent out to plague humanity As for Lilith, she haunted people in storms or during the night, earning herself the name “screech owl’ or “night monster.”

Lilith was not the only female demon.

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
Baba-Yaga Dancing with Old Man, mid-18th C. Wikimedia commons. Public Domain

6. Ala destroyed and snacked on crops… as well as children.

Ala is a female demon from Eastern Europe, who, like many demons, seems to be derived from a belief in nature and weather spirits that could cause disaster and disease. Ala was believed to reside in clouds, lakes, and springs or remote mountains or caves- or in large trees. When she visited humankind, she could take many forms. Ala could manifest as a vast black wind or a female dragon, a large-mouthed human or a raven. She could even possess people. All or any of these relate to Ala’s primary characteristic: all-consuming greed.

If angered, the demon could manifest violent thunderous hailstorms to destroy fields, vineyards, and orchards. However, it was equally likely she would satisfy her enormous appetite by devouring the produce herself. When not over-consuming stolen grape or grain, Ala also liked to snack on children. Her greed was so insatiable that she also periodically tried to eat the sun and moon- therefore causing eclipses. Baba Yaga is believed to be a manifestation of Ala in that she too ate children and brought cold weather and storms.

If a person encountered Ala, their health could suffer. However, if they gained the demons’ favor, she would not only restore health but also bestow upon them good fortune for the rest of their life.

The Japanese also blamed demons for specific element-related deaths.

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
Yuki-onna.1781. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

7. Yuki-onna – The beautiful winter woman who lured travelers to their icy deaths.

The Japanese also have their demons, the Yokai. Just one of their number is Yuki-onna; the “Snow Woman” or “Winter Woman.” Unlike many demons, the Winter Woman was beautiful and ethereal. She had long black hair and piercing violet eyes. Her skin was white and icy to the touch- rather like the frigid climate she prowled. For Yuki-onna haunted snowbound mountains and blizzards, using her loveliness to lure unwary travelers to their deaths. For the Winter Woman would suck out the life force of any unfortunate mortal unlucky enough to encounter her, leaving them dead and as hard as ice.

The Yuki-onna was a way of rationalizing deaths from exposure and extreme cold. She was a nature spirit. However, she was not always malign. For legends tell how some Yuki-onna chose to live as mortals if they fell in love with their prey- at least for a time. One legend tells of a man from Yamagata who married an exceedingly beautiful woman. However, his wife refused to take hot baths. One cold, snowy night, the husband tried to persuade his wife to have a hot soak to warm her up. The wife refused. Her husband persisted until eventually, his wife relented. However, when the husband went to check on her, he found the tub was empty except for a few fragments of rapidly melting ice.

Demons also epitomized the destructive forces of nature for the Celts.

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
“The Cyclops” by Odilon Redon, 1914. Google Images. Public Domain.

8. Balor’s powers of nature threatened the Celtic with blight and death.

Balor was the chief of the Fomoire, a demonic tribe who represented the destructive powers of nature and who threatened the people of Celtic Ireland with blight and death. Balor was a giant. However, his defining feature was a vast, poisonous eye, so large it had to be opened by his servants. The eye was lethal to any who Balor gazed upon, and the Fomoire put it to good use. Balor would wipe out whole armies of the Fomoire’s adversaries with a single glance, thus ensuring the demon tribe’s dominance.

However, there was a prophecy that Balor’s grandson would kill him. So Balor locked his only daughter, Ethlinn in a tower so she could never become pregnant. However, Birog, a druidess of the Tuatha De Danann helped an enemy of Balor named Mac Cinnfhaelaidh to enter the tower and seduce Ethlinn. She subsequently gave birth to triplets. Balor drowned two of the infants in a whirlpool. However, Birog managed to save the third. He grew up to be Lugh Lamhfada who as foretold, killed his grandfather in the last battle between the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomoire. Lugh killed Balor with a single slingshot to his evil eye, and the defeated Fomoire slunk away into the depths of the sea.

Balor is not the only demonic Celtic spirit associated with death.

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
A Banshee. Google Images

9. The Cyhyraeth/Gwrach y Rhibyn could be one of the most frightening demons of all; many accounts describe it looking like a corpse and sounding like death.

The Cyhyraethis the Welsh equivalent of the Irish Banshee. The name”cyhyraethrefers to the creature’s corpse-like appearance for it incorporates the Welsh words for flesh and bone. Thus the Cyhyrarth was a ghastly looking wraith, pale and wasted which appeared to foretell death. It would do this not by its physical manifestation but by the dreadful moaning of its voice. For the Cyhyraeth had a voice like a person dying. She would cry out three times before a person passed away due to a disaster or epidemic- even if they are miles away from their original home.

Closely related to the Cyhyraeth was the “Hag of the Mist” or Gwrach y Rhibyn. Also a death spirit, the Hag would take the form of a desiccated harpy of, particularly unpleasant appearance. As well as pale leathery wings, the hag had long straggly hair and black teeth. She specifically targeted those due to die at night. Then, she would creep to their window and moan their name through the window panes. Or, if they were abroad, she would walk beside them, traveling invisibly or as a nearby mist. Sometimes, however, the hag would be seen at a river or stream, washing her hands- hence her association with the washer at the ford.

Other Celtic demons haunted the natural landscape.


16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
“The Kelpie” by Thomas Millie Dow. C. 1895. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

10. Kelpies, the shape-shifting demons from Scotland who attacked stragglers and made children vanish without a trace.

Kelpies were shape-changing demons from Scottish legend. They could take on human form but also commonly appeared as horses– hence their name which comes from the Gaelic for heifer or colt. Every lake or river in Scotland reputedly had its resident kelpie. Unlike many demons, when they appeared, they seemed harmless. However, looks were deceptive. For kelpies harbored malevolent intent against anyone who strayed onto their territory.

Children, in particular, needed to beware of lone ponies grazing on riverbanks. For if they attempted to ride the little beasts, no one would see them again. For many of these horses were Kelpies in disguise. Their magically sticky hide would prevent the children from dismounting, allowing the water demon to drag the children into the water and devour them. Kelpies also appeared to young men as lovely young women who lured their victims to a watery death. Less subtle was the form kelpies took for general travelers. They would either appear as burly humans who would crush them to death or else summon a flood to wash them away.

However, if the kelpie took equine form, it was possible to control it like any other horse by using its bridle. For this would render the Kelpie helpless and bound to obey the holder of the bridles commands.

Kelpies could only strike next to bodies of water. The next demon was even more localized and would cease to exist if it left the island of Bali.

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
Rangda, demon queen of the Leyaks. Picture Credit: Rollan Budi. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

11. The Leyak was the most gruesome vampire-like demon which discarded its body and drag its organs from the severed head.

The Leyak was a horrifying, vampire-like demon particular to the island of Bali. By day, the creature appeared to be a human being. However, come nightfall, a horrific change occurred. For the demon would then throw off its human disguise and reveal itself as a monstrous head, with fangs and bulging eyes. It would discard its body- but still retain its entrails and organs, which would dangle beneath its mobile severed head.

The Leyak generally lurk about graveyards, feeding on the blood of corpses. However, if possible it preferred its blood fresh and its favorite source was the blood of newborn infants and their mothers. An offering of fresh blood left outside a house was often enough to dispel a Leyak. However, ultimately, the creatures fell under the control of Rangda, the Demon Queen. This female demon played a prominent role in Balinese religious ritual. Each village kept her mask in the village death temple where she was propitiated to ward off the malign influence of her demon hoards.

Leyaks were not natural-born demons but rather the corrupted souls of those who practiced black magic. Besides drinking blood, they were believed to be able to possess their unfortunate victims. This aspect and their former human nature suggest the Leyak was a way for the Balinese to rationalize mental illness. However, like many other demons, the Leyak was also a way of explaining physical disease, as they were also held responsible for epidemics and crop failure. Interestingly, the easiest way to dispose of a Leyak was to remove it from Bali. For it was repatriated anywhere else, even to a nearby island, it would cease to exist.

Other cultures also used demons as an excuse for deviant behavior.

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
Wendigo. Google Images

12. The Wendigo, the North American nightmare that forced its victims to murder and cannibalize.

In the folklore of the Algonquian Native American Indian tribes, the Wendigo was a man-eating evil spirit who haunted the forests along the northern Atlantic coasts and the great lakes of the US and Canada. The demon could shapeshift into a gaunt human-like monster. However, it also liked to possess human beings and work their will through them. This generally involved them forcing their victim to break cultural taboos, including murder and cannibalism.

The wendigo generally struck during the winter, when food was short, and life was on a knife-edge. Whichever form of manifestation it chose, its appearance was always the same. It would have a corpse-like appearance, its skin drawn and dry, its eyes sunk deep in its sockets. It also gave off a smell of decay and decomposition. Once it fed on human flesh, it would start to grow in size. However, it could never lose its corpse-like appearance- or its desire to feed.

Demonic possession by a Wendigo could be a way of explaining the extremes people were pushed to when on the edge of survival in a harsh climate when they were forced to abandon cultural norms to survive. So, in times of famine, certain tribes such as the Cree and Ojibwe performed ceremonial dances to reinforce tribal cohesion and ward off the Wendigo. Today, uncontrollable craving for human flesh is viewed as a mental illness known as Wendigo psychosis.

Other demons had a more seasonal nature.

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
A Postcard of Krampus. c. 1911. Wikimedia Commons.Public Domain

13. Krampus’s popularized story may not need introduction, but this demon’s actual roots are lesser-known.

While some demons appear as the opposite number of the gods, Krampus was a Germanic demon that acted as the antithesis of Father Christmas. Looking remarkably like the archetypical, goat-like Christian devil, with horns and a long tongue, Krampus was rumored to look up all the bad children on December 5th. While Santa Clause rewarded the virtuous, Krampus would use his day which was known as Krampusnacht to punish the naughty. Those who were lucky would be let off with a beating from Krampus’s switch. However, those who had been especially bad would disappear forever, carried away in the demon’s basket. Krampus would then drown them.

Krampus may seem somewhat satanic in looks and actions. However, the origin of Krampus was much more pagan. In some legends, this Christmas demon started off as the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of the underworld-which would certainly explain how he was stylized as a devil. However, Krampus was initially personified by wild-looking men dressed in furs who went from house to house at the time of the mid-winter festival. Householders appeased these wild-looking visitors with food and alcohol as a way of warding off the privations of the season. Likewise, Krampus’s switch was initially intended to purify rather than punish. So Krampus was a demon that personified the dangers of the winter season rather than any relation of the Christian devil.

Some demons associated explicitly with the Christan devil have their roots in pagan gods.

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
‘Beelzebub’ by Fred Barnard. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

14. Beelzebub began “life” as a pagan god and morphed into many different forms throughout the ages.

Beelzebub or “The Lord of the Flies, was a demon who Milton deemed to be second only to Satan in power and crime and the supreme chief of the Christian hell. In appearance, Beelzebub was confusing. He could manifest as a fly or as a monstrous or magnificent human hybrid. Milton said he had a wise face while other authors claimed he was as high as a tower, with a bloated chest and flashing eyes. Some sources claimed the demon had the face of a snake and was effeminate, while others described Beelzebub as having two horns and being covered in shaggy fur.

Beelzebub is another example of a demon that began life as a pagan god. His original inspiration seems to be the Mesopotamian deity, Baal. Baal’s name meant “lord” to the ancient Semitic people who upheld him as one of their chief deities. He was the “lord of the high places,” responsible for fertility, and the weather. Baal was also responsible for the well-being of his people. One text from the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit refers to Baal’s expulsion of flies from the city because they were causing sickness. This benign ability to command flies was later twisted to take on a more sinister aspect.

This twisting came about because although Baal may have been a god to many, he was just another idol to the Israelites. His standing, however, was enough to have him branded “the prince of devils’ and not just any old demon. Kings II even admits his divine origins by referring to Beelzebub/Baal as “Baalzebub, the god of Ekron” (1:2). However, mud sticks and Baal/Beelzebub’s demonic reputation carried on into the New Testament and so Christian tradition.

Beelzebub is not the only pagan entity associated with the devil.

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
Cloven-hooved Devil. Google Images

15. Ordog had many forms but had one purpose: to collect and corrupt souls.

The Ordog was a shapeshifting Hungarian demon who, in Christian times became identified with the devil. In Hungarian pagan tradition, the Ordog was an entity that worked in partnership with another spirit called Isten to create the world. While Isten – whose name means ‘god’ in Hungarian’ – was in control of light and goodness, Ordog controlled the dark forces of evil.

In his natural form, Ordog was an archetypical devil. He took the form of a warped satyr or faun. His torso was of a male human while his lower body was that of a goat with black cloven hooves and a blade-like forked tail. His phallus was also disproportionately large, which suggests that this physical appearance took its inspiration from pagan fertility gods. In this form, Ordog dwelt in Pokol, the Hungarian hell where he brewed the souls of the damned in a hellish cauldron.

However, Ordog was not content to wait in hell for souls to come to him. So, he would often venture forth to the mortal world. When he did so, he abandoned his hellish form to wander in disguise. Ordog’s favorite earthbound forms included that of a black fox or a dark-eyed shepherd. Or, he would hide in the walls of buildings, only detectable by the sound of his malicious laugh. However, whichever form he took, Ordog’s aim remained the same: to find souls to corrupt- and collect.

Ordog shares some traits with the ultimate of Demons.

16 Disturbing Historical Demons People are Scared Of
“Luzifer” by Franz Stuck. C 1890. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

16. Lucifer/Satan is the ultimate demon in this list.

Lucifer/Satan is the ultimate demon. The adversary of the Christian god and agent of all evil in the world, he is the ruler of all other demons. However, the concept “The Devil” as this king of demons is generally known has evolved. It also amalgamates a variety of different traditions.

Lucifer is the name applied to Satan before his fall from grace. Initially, Lucifer was an angel, one of the Seraphim, the highest order of angels. His name meant the “light-bearer,” but he was also known as “The Morning Star” due to his association with the planet Venus. However, after he and a group of other Angels unsuccessful rebelled against God, Lucifer was cast out of heaven into “the depths of the pit” No longer a bearer of light, he became known as ‘Satan”- the adversary because of his opposition of God.

When translated from the original Hebrew, the name Satan means “adversary.” Initially, however, Satan was not the adversary of God but rather of evil on earth. He was sent by God to roam the earth seeking out wrongdoers to report to God, as well as testing the goodness of humans. However, under the influence of the Persian Zoroastrianism, Satan’s role changed as this religion’s belief in the duality of creation cast Satan in opposition to God. Thus God’s adversary on earth became the embodiment of darkness and evil in contrast to the deity’s goodness and light.

Sources For Further Reading:

Medievalists – Demons, Djinns, and Devils of the Medieval Islamic World

Ancient Origins – Lilith: Ancient Demon, Dark Deity or Sensual Goddess?

CTGN – Eat the Sun: Eclipse Tales Down the Years

Legends of America – Wendigo – Flesheater of the Forests

National Geographic Channel – Who Is Krampus? Explaining The Horrific Christmas Beast

History Collection – Spooky Native American Monsters That Will Keep You Awake at Night