Deities, Dead and Demons: The Interpretatio Christiana of Saint Augustine

Deities, Dead and Demons:

The Interpretatio Christiana

of Saint Augustine

Πάντες οί θεοί τών έθνών δαιμόνια

Aurelius Augustinus, born in the North African city of Tagaste in 354, lived to the ripe age of 76 to become one of the two most influent Christian thinkers, only to be outshined eight centuries later by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Canonized as Saint Augustine, his work is a watershed between the first theological speculations and what would become the canon of the Church. We can have a good idea of his importance from the quote below:

To the Catholics of his own day St. Augustine was the great champion of the church against the Manichees, the Donatists, the Pelagians. To the Catholic of a day fifteen hundred years later he is still the doctor of Grace and Ecclesiology, the builder who set on the stocks every single one of the later treatises of systematic theology. But to Catholics of the thousand years which followed his death he was more even than all this. He was almost the whole intellectual patrimony of medieval Catholicism, a mine of thought and erudition which the earlier Middle Ages, for all its delving, never came near to exhausting.[1]

Augustine’s writings were decisive to the establishment of the orthodox view about demons. The first centuries of Christian development were aptly defined as “an age that was constantly speaking and writing of demons[2]. The main reason for that was the identification of the Pagan gods as being fallen angels in disguise, a very offensive interpretation that gave (and still gives) an excuse for the persecution of every non-Christian religion. We find the identification already in Justin Martyr (100 – 165), who supported his ideas both in the Books of Enoch as in the Septuagint. The Books of Enoch introduced the idea of the fallen angel, and the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Old Testament, used the word δαιμόν to indicate the gods of the nations and other despised cultic figures[3].  The Books of Enoch developed his narrative after Genesis 6:1–4, interpreting the “sons of God” as a group of angels who fell in love with women and generated a progeny with them. By the time of Augustine, the Books of Enoch were mostly rejected by both Christians and Jews, but were still in circulation. In fact, it was left to Augustine to put the final stone upon their use; referring to them, he wrote:

Let us omit, then, the fables of those scriptures which are called apocryphal, because their obscure origin was unknown to the fathers from whom the authority of the true Scriptures has been transmitted to us by a most certain and well-ascertained succession. For though there is some truth in these apocryphal writings, yet they contain so many false statements, that they have no canonical authority.[4]

Augustine, to strength his argument, also let us know that in his time the Jews had already also rejected these books; in fact, it is known that the Jewish rejection of the Books of Enoch weighted heavily in their fall from grace among Christians.

But it is not without reason that these writings have no place in that canon of Scripture which was preserved in the temple of the Hebrew people by the diligence of successive priests; for their antiquity brought them under suspicion, and it was impossible to ascertain whether these were his genuine writings, and they were not brought forward as genuine by the persons who were found to have carefully preserved the canonical books by a successive transmission.[5]

Matters of Angelology influenced these decisions. Judaism rejected the very idea that angels could fall; the Talmud, for instance, see demons as a different category from the angels[6]. Christianity kept the idea of fallen angels, but with Augustine rejected entirely the notion that angels could have sexual intercourse and generate progeny with women. In fact, Augustine dedicated a whole chapter in his The City of God to the subject; Chapter 23 in Book 15 has the title “Whether We are to Believe that Angels, Who are of a Spiritual Substance, Fell in Love with the Beauty of Women, and Sought Them in Marriage, and that from This Connection Giants Were Born[7], and there he concludes that “certainly I could by no means believe that God’s holy angels could at that time have so fallen[8]. The definitive interpretation of Genesis 6:1–4 then identified the “sons of God” with the descendants of Seth who married into the bloodline of Cain.

Demonic Gods

We see that the identification of the Pagan gods with the fallen angels became very popular amongst Christians before Saint Augustine when we check, for instance, works written outside the more serious apologetic endeavors of the Church Fathers. The Confession of Saint Cyprian, usually attributed to the first half of the same century that saw Augustine being born, for instance, describe several of the most important Pagan gods as being subsidiary demons that the young μάγος had to invoke to approach their true leader:

Young men I buried in honor of Hades, and to please Hecate I decapitated many foreigners who were my guests. The blood of virgins I offered to Pallas, and to Ares and Kronos I sacrificed adult men. All these things I did to appease the demons and get near to the Devil himself.[9]

The idea of the angelic leader of the fallen spirits also goes back to the Books of Enoch. There we find him referred by the name of “Samyaza”; the latter Book of Jubilees named him “Mastema“. These angels were not properly rebelling against God: they just disobeyed because they could not ignore the beauty of the daughters of men. But,  inspired by these tales, Christianity invented a far more dangerous adversary:

In the organization of the spirit world of demons, Lactantius like the other Christian writers differs very greatly from the non-Christian expressions on the subject. These early apologists group the entire demon world about the one leader Satan. Satan or the Demoniarch, as he is sometimes called, rules this kingdom like a despot, the other spirits are his servants and satellites.[10]

This is the interpretation we find in Saint Augustine. Here the Devil’s sin is not Lust anymore, but first Pride in relation to God, and then Envy towards Men. Pride drove him to establish his rule over the world, and Envy guided his actions against humanity.

But after that proud and therefore envious angel preferring to rule with a kind of pomp of empire rather than to be another’s subject, fell from the spiritual Paradise, and essaying to insinuate his persuasive guile into the mind of man, whose unfallen condition provoked him to envy now that himself was fallen, he chose the serpent as his mouthpiece in that bodily Paradise in which it and all the other earthly animals were living with those two human beings, the man and his wife, subject to them, and harmless; and he chose the serpent because, being slippery, and moving in tortuous windings, it was suitable for his purpose.[11]

The Christians from the first centuries can then be credited for having created one of the most durable “conspiracy theories”, where the Devil with his demons created the Pagan religions to achieve his double purpose of ruling the world and deceiving humans. To add insult to injury, they conflated Pagan Religion with Magic, the latter being already a category of accusation.

Goetia, Magic and Theurgy

We had already seen a hint of this conflation in the quote from the Confession of Saint Cyprian, where sacrifice to the gods was presented as a preliminary to the invocation of the Devil. By doing this Christians achieved two things: defend themselves from the accusation of being magicians and, at the same time, they denigrated Pagan practices. Augustine’s theory of how Magic works ties all these together, when he says that magical ceremonies are just a method of communication established between humans and demons: there is no intrinsic power in the symbols and materials used. Magicians enter “into fellowship with devils by means of leagues and covenants about signs[12], or as the original Latin says, “cum daemonibus initam societatem per quarumdam significationum quasi quaedam pacta atque convent”. Augustine uses the Latin word “pacta” several times when describing the agreements between humans and demons, as we can see in his repudiation of the divinatory arts:

All arts of this sort, therefore, are either nullities, or are part of a guilty superstition, springing out of a baleful fellowship between men and devils [pestifera societate hominum et daemonum], and are to be utterly repudiated and avoided by the Christian as the covenants [pacta] of a false and treacherous friendship [infidelis et dolosae amicitiae]. “Not as if the idol were anything,” says the apostle; “but because the things which they sacrifice they sacrifice to devils and not to God; and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils”.[13]

Divination was an area where Augustine could bring closer Pagan religion and magic, as Greeks and Romans had a long standing tradition of official oracles like the Oracle of Delphi. When he mentions the oracles attributed to Hecate about Jesus Christ, he says that they “were either composed by a clever man with a strong animus against the Christians, or were uttered as responses by impure demons with a similar design” – so implying that the pagan oracles could only be frauds or operate through demonic agency. In the same fashion, Augustine also denies any kind of manifestation to the dead: the dead are just another demonic disguise:

For Numa himself also, to whom no prophet of God, no holy angel was sent, was driven to have recourse to hydromancy, that he might see the images of the gods in the water (or, rather, appearances whereby the demons made sport of him), and might learn from them what he ought to ordain and observe in the sacred rites. This kind of divination, says Varro, was introduced from the Persians, and was used by Numa himself, and at an after time by the philosopher Pythagoras. In this divination, he says, they also inquire at the inhabitants of the nether world, and make use of blood; and this the Greeks call νεκρομαντείαν. But whether it be called necromancy or hydromancy it is the same thing, for in either case the dead are supposed to foretell future things.[14]

(The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11, detail of fol. 353v (‘Numa Pompilius and Pythagoras by mystification of the devils resort to hydromancy; devils in hell’). Augustine, La Cité de Dieu (Vol. I). Translation from the Latin by Raoul de Presles. Paris; c. 1475 (c.) c. 1478-1480 – Source)

Augustine here makes hydromancy and necromancy the same thing not just because they both operate as a communication channel with demons, but because he thinks that the Pagan gods were created or modeled after notable persons from a now forgotten past:

Wherefore the things which are written in those books were either abominations of demons, so foul and noxious as to render that whole civil theology execrable even in the eyes of such men as those senators, who had accepted so many shameful things in the sacred rites themselves, or they were nothing else than the accounts of dead men, whom, through the lapse of ages, almost all the Gentile nations had come to believe to be immortal gods; whilst those same demons were delighted even with such rites, having presented themselves to receive worship under pretense of being those very dead men whom they had caused to be thought immortal gods by certain fallacious miracles, performed in order to establish that belief.[15]

The same reasoning is behind Augustine’s evaluation of the magical arts of his time: there is nothing about them but pacts and conventions by which man and demon communicate their desires and intentions. The next quote from Augustine is also interesting because it testifies to different categorizations being employed at the time by some practitioners, where goeteia occupies the lowest position in opposition to theurgy. It was important for Augustine to attack theurgy because Iamblichus defense of the theurgic rites also served as a philosophical justification for the practices of the Pagan religion.

These miracles, and many others of the same nature, which it were tedious to mention, were wrought for  the  purpose  of  commending  the  worship of  the  one  true  God, and  prohibiting  the  worship of a multitude of false  gods.  Moreover, they  were wrought by simple  faith and godly confidence, not by the  incantations  and charms composed under the  influence of a criminal tampering with the unseen world, of an art which they call either magic [magian], or by the more abominable title necromancy [goetian], or the more honorable designation theurgy [theurgian]; for they  wish  to  discriminate  between  those  whom  the  people  call  magicians,  who  practice necromancy, and are addicted to illicit arts and condemned, and those others who seem to them  to  be worthy of praise for  their  practice of theurgy,—the  truth,  however, being that both classes are the slaves of the deceitful rites of the demons whom they invoke under the names of angels.[16]


(Augustine, City of God. Paris, Maïtre François (illuminator); c. 1475; 1478-1480. The Hague, RMMW, 10 A 11, f.422v. “Charity admonishes demons representing ‘knowledge without love’ which does no good, but ‘inflates man with an empty windiness’.” – Source)

Demonic Power

The power that demons can manifest are derived from the nature of their bodies; Augustine seems to have first advocated an ethereal body to demons in his treatise The Divination of Demons[17], but later in the City of God he considers their bodies to be aerial due to their fallen state[18]. In the Divination he says that the demonic ethereal body is superior to earthly bodies (human and animal) in terms of sensitivity and speed, what allows them to “predict or announce many events known to them in advance”. Demons also surpass humans due to the experience they acquired from their larger life span.

These qualities are not lost with his later attribution of aerial bodies to the demons. This transition in Augustine thought put him in harmony both with the Pagan philosophical considerations, which placed the daimones in the sublunary air and the gods (now the angels) in the ether, as with the text of the New Testament where we have:

Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.[19]

Demonic communication, and by extension demonic influence, seems to happen in subtle forms. If man can indicate his desire by the ceremonial signs proper to their pact, demons on the other hand can come to the magician “in marvelous ways”:

Or, even if there is such a place which is called paradise in which Adam and Eve dwelled corporeally, do we have also to understand the devil’s approach as corporeal? Of course not! [His approach was] rather spiritual, as the Apostle says, “According to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit who now is at work in the children of disbelief.” Does he appear visibly or approach by corporeal places those in whom he is at work? Of course not. Rather he suggests in marvelous ways whatever he can by thoughts.[20]

This spiritual transmission of thoughts allowed the Augustinian demons to keep their role of teachers of magic and sorcery that the Books of Enoch attributed to them. In the chapter Of the Impiety of the Magic Art, Which is Dependent on the Assistance of Malign Spirits, Augustine says that:

But all the miracles of the magicians, who he thinks are justly deserving of condemnation, are performed according to the teaching and by the power of demons.[21]

(Augustine, City of God. Paris, Maïtre François (illuminator); c. 1475; 1478-1480. The Hague, RMMW, 10 A 11, f.401v. Demons rejoicing in the misfortunes of mankind (i.e. pointing and mocking). Source)



Note: Psalm 96:5 LXX:   ὅτι πντες ο θεο τν θνν δαιμνια ὁ δὲ κύριος τοὺς οὐρανοὺς ἐποίησεν; in the King James Version: For all the gods of the heathen are devils: but the Lord made the heavens.


[1] A History Of The Church, Volume Two: The Church And The World The Church Created, Philip Hughes.

[2] Angels and Demons According to Lactantius, Emil Schneweis.

[3] For a more extensive and detailed description, I refer to my Daemonology: An introduction with a Selection of Texts, published by Hadean Press.

[4] Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series I, Volume 2:  St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, edited by Philip Schaff.

[5] Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series I, Volume 2:  St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, edited by Philip Schaff.

[6] There is a good deal about Talmudic Demonology in my Sepher ha-Maggid: The Book of Asmodeus, published by Aeon Sophia Press.

[7] Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series I, Volume 2:  St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, edited by Philip Schaff.

[8] Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series I, Volume 2:  St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, edited by Philip Schaff.

[9] Confession of Saint Cyprian. In The Book Of Saint Cyprian: The Great Book of True Magick, Humberto Maggi.

[10] Angels and Demons According to Lactantius, Emil Schneweis.

[11] On Christian Doctrine, Book XIV, Chapter 11. In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series I, Volume 2:  St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, edited by Philip Schaff.

[12] On Christian Doctrine, Book II, Chapter 39.

[13] On Christian Doctrine, Book II, Chapter 23 (Why We Repudiate Arts of Divination).

[14] The City of god, Book VII, Chapter 35.

[15] The City of God, Book VII, Chapter 35: Concerning the Hydromancy Through Which Numa Was Befooled by Certain Images of Demons Seen in the Water.

[16] The City of God, Book X Chapter 9.

[17] I provided a translation for this text in mine Daemonology: An introduction with a Selection of Texts, published by Hadean Press.

[18] Several authors I consulted refer to an aerial body also in the Divination of Demons; I will later try to check the Latin text to clarify this point.

[19] Ephesians 2:2 King James Version (KJV).

[20] On Genesis Two Books on Genesis Against the Manichees and On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis: An Unfinished Book , Saint Augustine (translated by Roland J. Teske, S.J.)

[21] City of God, Book VIII. Chapter 19.

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