Demonology is a theological theory of crime. It is the study of behavior under the premise that human behavior is influenced by supernatural spirits. Depending on its origin, the study of demonology can focus on the study of benevolent or malevolent supernatural beings. These supernatural beings, spirits, or idols take on various forms, but generally are considered lesser than God while greater than humans, such as angels or even mythological Greek gods. However, the modern term demonology generally takes on a negative connotation. It generally refers to the study of deviant behavior as a result of being possessed, influenced, or worshiping the devil or evil spirits.
With the development and rise of Christianity, it was expected that individuals live their lives in accordance with God’s will. Individuals that were adhering to God’s will were believed to be living within God’s plan. However, deviant or criminal behavior was believed to be a direct result of evil forces or demonic influences. Evil spirits, working through the devil, would tempt individuals into committing criminal or deviant behavior through various temptations. Individuals that engaged in criminal or deviant acts were believed to be possessed, influenced, or unable to withstand the temptations of these demons or the devil. Inabilities to withstand these temptations were seen as a lack of faith in God. Individuals that were insane were also seen as being possessed by the devil. Their insanity was seen as a by-product of their sins. Criminality and deviance were not viewed as products of free will, but as a result of demonic influences or supernatural forces.
Individuals found to be corrupted by evil forces could be punished severely. Any behavior that was found to be a result of demonic influences was extremely life threatening. It was not uncommon to sentence someone to death for his or her criminality or deviance. It was believed that evil spirits could infect others; therefore, for the protection of society, the accused were routinely left to fend for themselves.
However, correctional behavior was often the first step in the punishment process. Priests, holy men, or other religious officials tried to cleanse offenders of their demonic influences through religious ceremonies, such as exorcisms. Once cleansed, balance would be restored to the community and death sentences could be avoided. Death sentences were not desired and were not used only for punishment purposes, but for the protection of the community, to ensure that the rest of the community was not infected or harmed by the evil spirit. If the exorcism failed, then death was the only option. A death sentence was an attempt to remove the devil from their presence. In modern Christianity, Catholicism still upholds the practice of cleansing individuals of demonic possessions through exorcisms.
Trial by Ordeal
In the balance of good and evil, the trial by ordeal allowed for the trial and sentencing of the accused without fear of punishing the innocent. The design of the trials would ensure God’s assumed influence on the final judgment. The accused would stand trial and would have to partake in some nearly impossible ritual to determine if he or she was guilty of the alleged crime. Not only were the trials by ordeal nearly impossible to pass, but many times they were a matter of life and death. Trials by ordeal were performed under the premise that God would never allow an innocent defendant to be executed or found guilty of a crime that was not committed. Nor would God allow a guilty party to be exonerated from his criminal activity and escape punishment. To ensure neutrality, trials were generally presided over by a priest inside the local church, and were conducted immediately after church services with the congregation serving as witnesses. The trial by ordeal could take on various forms such as trial by water, trial by fire, and trial by battle.
Trial by Water
The trial by water involved various rituals that could be either a hot water ordeal or a cold water ordeal. An example of a cold water ritual involved the binding together of the hands and feet of the accused and throwing the individual into a body of water. An evaluation of what happened to the accused once submersed in the water would determine the outcome of the trial.
In the classic ironic twist of the trial by ordeals, if the individual rose to the top of the water, he or she would be found guilty for his or her crimes. However, if the individuals fell to the bottom they would be found not guilty for their crimes. An individual that rose to the top of the water was seen as being possessed by evil spirits. Depending on its origin, the interpretation of the rising body was accepted by societies differently. In some origins it was believed that a rising body meant that Satan’s evil spirit was less dense than water; therefore it was causing the human to float to the top of the water. In other origins it was believed that Satan was attempting to escape from the drowning victim. True to the trial by ordeal thinking, it was believed that God would not let an innocent victim perish and allow a guilty defendant to go free.
A similar variation of a cold water ordeal involved binding the hands and feet together, tying a large heavy millstone around the neck, and then throwing the accused into a body of water. In this ordeal, if the individual sank to the bottom he was guilty; if he rose to the top he was not guilty. If the accused rose to the top it was believed that his crime was not heavy enough to have been pulled down by the stone; the crime was less dense than the stone. However, if the crime was a heavy crime, the weight of the crime would easily pull the accused down to the bottom of the water.
A hot water ordeal could involve the accused reaching wrist-deep into a cauldron of boiling hot water for one criminal accusation and elbow-deep for several criminal accusations to retrieve a stone and then wrapping the hand for three days. After the third day, the hand would be unwrapped and examined by a priest for any injuries and for the verdict of the trial. If the hand was burned then the individual would be found guilty of the crime. However, if the hand or the arm of the accused were not injured, then it was believed that divine intervention protected the individual from being burned and the accused would be set free.
Trial by Fire
The trial by fire was another slightly ironic form of trial by ordeal. The trial by fire entailed the accused having to withstand a fire ritual that could also be a matter of life and death. A trial by fire could entail having the accused hold a hot iron rod in his or her hand for a predetermined amount of time, wrapping the hand for three days, then removing the bandages and having the hand examined by a priest. As with the other trials, a priest was believed to be working as an agent of God and was given the authority to interpret the level of injury. If it was determined that the palm developed an injury from the ordeal by fire, then the priest would find the defendant guilty. If the accused did not receive a serious level of injury associated with the ordeal, then he or she would be set free.
Another common trial by fire ritual required the accused to walk on red hot ploughshares. The accused would walk on the ploughshares for a predetermined distance, and if a priest found that the accused had accumulated burn markings on the bottom of his feet, the individual would be found guilty of his crimes and sentenced to death. However, if the priest did not find that the defendant received the anticipated burns on his feet, believing divine intervention had protected the accused from the fire, he would be free from all accusations.
Trial by Battle
A trial by battle was a duel between the accused and his or her accuser. The combatants had several options. The accused might himself combat his accuser; either party might appoint a champion to fight on his or her behalf; or the ordeal might be decided with champions representing both parties. The trial by battle held traditional trial by ordeal beliefs, which argued that God would not allow a guilty party to lose his battle. Trials by battle were abolished in 1819 by Parliament after a criminal eluded punishment by offering to do battle.
- Cuhulain, Kerr. The Law Enforcement Guide to Wicca. Victoria, Canada: Horned Owl, 1997.
- Davis, M. “Demonology.” In The Concise Dictionary of Crime and Justice, Kenneth J. Peak, ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002.
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- Johnson, Herbert A. and Nancy Travis Wolfe. History of Criminal Justice. 4th ed. New York: Anderson Publishing, 2008.
- Levack, Brian Paul. Demonology, Religion, and Witchcraft. New York: Routledge, 2001.
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