ONLY with the utmost difficulty, if at all, do men succeed in forming a concept of an incorporeal substance, essentially different from that which meets their senses. For them, the incorporeal is usually an attenuation, a rarefaction, of the corporeal, a state of minimum density, comparable though inferior to that of air or flame. To all uncivilised men, and to the great majority of those who call themselves civilised, the soul is a breath, or a light vapour, and it can be seen under the appearance of a shadow. The gods of all the mythologies are, to a lesser or a greater degree, corporeal; those of Greek mythology feed on ambrosia and nectar, and in case they meddle (as they are sometimes wont to do) in the brawls of mortals, they run the risk of catching a sound drubbing. It ought not to seem strange, then, that the pneumatological doctrines of both Jews and Christians generally assign bodies to angels and to demons.
Doctors and Fathers of the Church are almost unanimous in holding that demons are provided with bodies, already possessed by them when they lived in the condition of angels but become denser and heavier after their fall. The density of these bodies of theirs, always far lighter than the bodies of men, has not been similarly estimated by all investigators; in the second century Tatianus declared that it was like that of air or fire, and a body formed of air was attributed to the demons by Isidorus of Seville (560-636) at the beginning of the seventh century. Others, like Saint Basil the Great (330-379), were inclined to assign to them an even more rarefied body. But it is easy to understand how, in a matter of this sort, there could not possibly be one single opinion that must be universally accepted; and how Dante, without offending the conscience of any one, could give his Lucifer, down amid the frost and ice of Cocytus, a solid, compact body, to which he and Virgil cling, as to a rock.
Having bodies, the demons must also have certain natural needs, as have all living, corporeal beings; foremost among all these being that of repairing their organism, whose structure is being constantly worn away by the exercise of life. The devils must require to be fed; and in fact, Origen (185-253), Tertullian (150-230), Athenagoras (about 176), Minucius Felix (second century), Firmicus Maternus (about 347), Saint John Chrysostom (347-407) and many others, say that the devils greedily absorb the vapour and smoke of the victims sacrificed by the pagans—a somewhat unsubstantial food, to be sure, but one not unsuited to their constitution. Some Jewish Rabbis, in a little more generous spirit, endeavouring to introduce a somewhat greater variety into the diabolic diet, said that the devils subsist on the odour of fire and the vapour of water, but that they are also very fond of blood when they can get it; and a German proverb adds that when the Devil is famished he eats flies.
The common people frequently speak of old devils and young devils; and many are the proverbs which, in various languages, give evidence of this popular belief. We know that the Devil, grown old, became a hermit; and it would seem reasonable that he too should grow old, since all organic beings do likewise; but Isidorus of Seville, who has already been quoted, declares that the demons do not grow old, nor can we well make any different assertion until diabolic anatomy and physiology have been more thoroughly studied. If they do not grow old, neither ought they to die; and those Rabbis are guilty of a great falsehood who declare that they too die, like men—not all of them, it is true, but yet the great majority. It seems that they could fall ill, however; at any rate the witches, during the days of the Inquisition, sometimes went so far as to say in their depositions—after having suffered two or three turns of the cord—that the Devil did fall ill from time to time, and that it was then their task to nurse and cure him.
Some Fathers and Doctors, like Saint Gregory the Great (Pope 590-604), —not to mention others—would have it that the devils were altogether incorporeal; but this belief was, as I have shown, far from being the generally accredited one. However, one was at liberty to accept one belief or the other, and Saint Thomas (1225-1274), after citing the conflicting opinions on the subject, concludes by saying that it matters but little to faith whether the demons have bodies or not. But if it matters little to faith, it matters much to fancy, and people were not slow in giving the devils as solid a body as possible.
And how was this body formed? Let it suffice here to treat only of the bodies that the devils possess naturally, not of those which they can assume at their pleasure and of which I shall speak later.
In general, and as a rule, the bodies of the demons had a human form. This ought not to excite our wonder, since man, who has made the gods in his own image, has also made in his own image both angels and devils. However, when we speak of a human form, we must not conceive of a form in all respects like our own. In consequence of his sin and of his fall, Satan (“The creature who fair semblance once possessed,” as Dante Alghieri calls him) and with Satan the other rebels, not only beheld their bodies grow denser and coarser, but they also saw changed into ignominious deformity the sovereign beauty wherewith God had first clothed them. The form of the devils is, then, a human form, but disfigured and monstrous, wherein the beastly mingles with the human and not seldom exceeds it; and if, on the basis of this form, we were to assign to the demons (with the consent of the naturalists) a place in the zoological classification, we must needs class the greater portion of them in an appropriate family of anthropoids.
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