Closeup on feet of evil statue that is wrapped in rusted chains with keys to left of feet

Anthropology: Cultural Elements and Concepts of ‘Evil’ Over Time

Evil and Demons are ancient concepts that we, as humans, never quite understand. From mythology to modern times, the idea of something dark lurking around the corner has always fascinated us. In older days, these shadows were things with wings and glowing eyes. As humans progressed, so did their understanding of all things sinister. Today, we see evil has become more of a concept than an entity itself. Anthropologists focus this concept into their ethnographic work as they work to understand evil as a cultural element.

History of “Evil”

Old oil painting of man laying in bed being possessed by demons and priest standing beside him with cross in hand casting demons away
Credit: The Bona Venture

Perhaps most well known is the story of Satan and his fall from heaven. This story found in Christianity is one of many examples as to how people explain humanity’s evil nature. Such a story of something, or someone, giving into their darker side can be found in many religions and belief systems.

Ancient Beliefs

The term “demon” comes from the Greek word “daimon”. Originally, this referred to any supernatural being, gods and spirits alike. In Greek usage, daimon held no negative connotation. Rather, Greeks saw such powerful beings as ambiguous, capable of both great kindness and harsh torture.

Ancient Geeks were not alone in their belief. Mesopotamians, Northern Syrians, and Anatolians also saw their “demons” as multifaceted creatures. While these societies had similar ideas of demons, they did not have the same vocabulary. Instead of a singular word in summation of the simplex creatures, they were called by their descriptions.

These “demons” were more alike to divine spirits than the demons we picture today. As both benevolent and harmful, they primarily had the ability to interfere with humans’ daily lives. In some contexts, these “demons” acted as messengers between the divine being(s) and humanity. Because of this, many groups and religions saw their demons as being closer to the divine being(s) than humanity was. These ideas come closer to the English idea of “angel” than they do “demon”.

As Time Went On

As humanity migrated across the globe, so did their ideas. Through translation and change of gods, their ideas of “demon” and “angel” became more solidified into the ideas we are more familiar with. Part of their separation between spiritual beings also came from the separation of religions. Colonialism and The Reformation greatly affected the way belief systems interacted with each other. Anthropologists focus on “demons” through the separation of Western religions and Eastern Religion.

Western Religions are classified as being monotheistic, which includes Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Within these, demons and evil spirits are seen as being terrestrial entities. In comparison, there are celestial beings, those that remain in an atmospheric sense and do not interact with humans. Part of the fear of demons and evil spirits is that they are able to have these earthly interactions, and also cause earthly harm. This is not to say that celestial beings cannot be evil themselves, but they are not typically shown as being evil or malevolent.

In the Eastern religions, the understanding of demons and evil spirits is more complex. Overall, demons and evil beings are seen as direct opposition to those good and pure. But Eastern Religions are much more variant than their Western counterparts. Perhaps of ease, or the colonial white man, Western Religions were more focused on. This resulted in them having a more thorough description. Eastern Religions, on the other hand, classify as everything that is not a Western Religion. This happens to be a lot of religions.

To get an idea of demons within non-Western Religions, let’s look at Buddhism. In this belief, demons are seen as “forces that inhibit humans from achieving nirvana.” These aren’t necessarily demons, in the sense of an evil being who wants to harm people, but rather elements of life that pull people down. Mara is known as the arch tempter of Buddhism, who has three daughters who keep people from nirvana. Mara’s three daughters are Rati (desire), Raga (pleasure), and Tanya (restlessness). Similarly, many other non-Western Religions have evil entities that aren’t beings themselves, so much as concepts that keep humanity from happiness.

Contemporary Demons

Black background with shadow face of Donald Trump in middle, made of scratchy lines of white and red with the word “lie” written in red on his forehead
Credit: The Dots

In our modern life, devils and demons have been vastly removed. While we see them in the media, they are there in superstition. The actual belief in such creatures has diminished significantly over the years, replaced by something else. It is not that humanity has any less of an interest in their darker side, but it is not focused on in the same way.

To learn more about demons and evil entities, check out this blog from YoAir!

Evil as We See it Now

Over time, humanity has moved toward separation of religion and science, and thus lessened their belief of demons being the source of life’s wrongdoings. Yet evil and demons are still a predominant topic in society.

We, as people, became increasingly fascinated with evil following World War II. The more horror humanity witnesses, the more we needed to understand it. Philosophers, social scientists, and politicians grappled with all the wrongs in the world. Yet the more they learned about that which is bad, they realised just how bad people can be. Philosophers turned to that ancient idea of “evil” once again. In their natural sense of over-thinking and over-analysing all that they encounter, philosophers arranged the ideas of evil into different categories.

Categorisation of Evil

To understand evil and how it has impacted our world and modern anthropology, we need to focus on how evil is understood. Philosophers first narrowed evil into two primary concepts: Broad Evil and Narrow Evil.

Broad evil includes any sort of wrong doing, flaw in humanity, or negative state of affairs. Hurricanes to toothaches are all considered evil because they are all negative existences of humanity. Broad evil is further divided into Natural evil and Moral evil.

Natural evils are the horrible things in life that occur without deliberate intent. Natural disasters, diseases, and accidents are examples of this category. Moral evils, on the other hand, are those events that are based on malicious intent. Murder, lying, and racism are examples of this category.

Broad evil, which includes both moral and natural, is the type focused on religion and ancient beliefs. Here, people are trying to understand the all-encompassing elements of evil, who are are believes to have been created by all-powerful being(s).

In contrast, there’s Narrow evil. Where Broad evil includes all things negative in our lives, narrow evil only focuses on the events that are most morally corrupt. This concept focuses solely on events impacts by moral decisions. Because elephants do not have morals, they cannot commit an act of narrow evil.

Categories Put to Use

In other words, narrow evil is only the terrible things humans do. The evil we see portrayed in media is typically what falls under narrow evil. While natural disasters and disease are horrible, humans seem more interested in the horrors committed by those with a conscious.

Philosophers spent much time figuring out these categories of evil. Today, they are more concerned with the usage of evil. Where does this term fit into our modern society, in an active sense? For example, is a criminal evil or wrong? It also begs the question of nature vs nurture. When is a person truly evil, and when are they taught to act in harmful ways? Such thoughts have cost philosophers much energy, and more often than not, resulted in further question.

It is this place of contradiction and confusion that many scholars like to study. Anthropologists work in this area too, as they apply these large theories to specific situations and cultures.

Anthropology and Evil

Up close image of an Evil statue wrapped in rusting chains
Credit: RIC Journal

Philosophers are included in this discussion for two main reasons. Firstly, much of anthropology includes philosophical methodologies. Anthropologists analyse humans and society with the purpose of theorising about our existence, much like philosophers do. Secondly, and quite similarly, anthropologists find roots of their theories in original philosophical work.

It is because of this that it’s important to understand evil not just through current anthropologists that apply ideas to specific communities, but also through the philosophers that theorised about evil in the first place. Original theories of evil are what has allowed for whole ethnographies on the topic.

A Classic Study

For a good period of anthropology’s history, researchers focused on evil and demons in relation to African countries. While there are definite ties to dark rituals in some African communities, the ideas of demons cannot solely be associated with Africa. In their study of “exotic” communities, old scholars frequently made the assumption that evil worship was associated with what they called “primitive” religions.

Missiologists, those who study the history and methods of Christian missionaries, found that the church had a large part to play in such beliefs. On one hand, the church did not recognise beliefs in demons or Satan even. And yet on the other hand, they created specific churches, services, and prayer camps to address the issue of demons. In such places, missionaries diverted beliefs away from ambiguous entities and into their systematic approach.

In Modern Times

Similarly to the belief in demons and evil spirits, the study of such topics also slowed during the advancement of science. Yet missiologist Scott Moreau found that such conversations were taking place all throughout the world. In North America, people are especially fascinated with the idea of dark and evil creatures. Just think of all the popular books and movies revolving around some sort of old, demonic entity. Twilight, Teen Wolf, Supernatural – all mainstream media that romanticises those ancient beliefs.

The fascination with darker things has been gaining traction since the 1980’s in North America. This interest has gone well beyond a playful fantasy and worked it’s way into an anctual issue multiple times. Social scientists and various Christian organisations have needed to address demonology and what role it does, or does not, play in their groups.

Contemporary groups that participate in demonic rituals or spiritual celebrations have been encouraged to learn about their group’s origins. Some groups find their roots in their communities, being a religious and/or cultural formation from the people in their town. Others have found that their history goes back much further. These groups can be connected to religions, but have also been formed for other reasons. Spiritual warfare, prosperity gospel, territorial spirits, and curses are some the reasons such groups were formed.

From the Theorists

Image of skeleton statues in the poses of hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil
Credit: Medium

Throughout anthropology’s history, theorists have taken different stances on how evil and demonology is seen, particularly in urban settings. As people have regularly returned to focusing on their ideas of evil and wrong, examples of such evil has commonly taken place where a lot of people interact. Anthropologists focus on this setting of an urban landscape as it is both what they experience themselves as well as where they find the most diversity. 

Places of Battle

Two classic anthropologists, Peter Deschiere and Filip de Boeck, have differing stances on the matter. Geschiere argues that households and neighbourhoods are the primary place where evil and the Holy Spirit battle. De Boeck, on the other hand, believes that the powers of good vs evil take their battle to urban spaces. 

Both Geschiere and de Boeck theorise that evil stems from people’s suspicion of others. As everyone experiences suffering and loss in life, they look to find answers to their hardships. Frequently, those answers are found in people they don’t know. Unknown people, places, and things being the source of evil, or at least the assumed source, is who both Geschiere and de Boeck place the battlefield in urban spaces. Geschiere thinks it to be with at-home communities, whereas de Boeck understands it to be in the places that people regularly work and interact.

Sources of Evil

Anthropologist Katherine Pype theorises that individual places are more prone to evil and demons. Some of these places include rivers, cemeteries, government buildings, and roundabouts. Pype argues that these places hold more evil power because of the ways they are able to alter people’s characters so greatly. However, these places can be cleansed from such evil with proper prayer and cleansing, according to Pype.

Other anthropologists, such as Felix Riedel, argue that demons and evil are simply imaginative explanations for nature and science. Through his work on Ghanaian films, he found that people tend to associate illnesses with evil. Riedel does not see these sicknesses as a place where evil resides, but rather as a way people can cope with their losses. In this context, a parallel can be drawn to the myths of Ancient Greeks and Romans that explained the world around them.

Evil and Ethics

Image of golden statue blindfolded with our outstretched holding a balance
Credit: Josiah Way

A point that these anthropologists, and all anthropologists for that matter, struggle with is ethics. While studying such topics of evil, many have come across instances of exorcisms and demonological practices. Be it through the rituals or the lack of scientific understanding, many people have been hurt and evil killed in the process.

A large part of anthropological study involves the active participation of the researcher. While they attend many of the ceremonies and events, they do so in a place of observation, always taking notes and carefully remembering their part in the process. Anthropologists work really hard not to impact the people they are researching. Even in participation, they aim to leave the people and the culture as it is. In situations that are fun and harmless, this is a relatively easy task. But when people are harmed, the anthropologists’ role becomes more complex.

It is this point that anthropologists grapple with. When should the scholar move from a place of observation to a place of intervention? More often than not, anthropologists find it best not to intervene. To understand the practices and people they are studying, they must understand all aspects. It is difficult to accept this as an outsider to the situation, but the scholars don’t have the authority to make changes to these people’s lives. Remaining neutral is not simply for the purpose of their studies, but also for the individuals.

If an anthropologist were to intervene in one ceremony and insist the process be stopped or altered, they would require an explanation that could impact other ceremonies. This would affect both the process and the belief system, but it also may backfire. If not explained in an effective way, it could result in more sacrifices or harm. It is a difficult decision anthropologists must make, but they have to be very careful when choosing to alter the situation that they are observing.

Want to learn more about evil and ethics in relation to anthropology? Check out this article from Max Planck Institute!


Ink drawing of two skeletons standing opposite sides of a tree representing Adam and Eve
Credit: Daniel Hosego

Be it demon interaction or a grid of evil doings, humans are constantly trying to understand the world around them. Evil fascinates our human minds because it is something outside of our regular understanding, and no matter the depth we reach, there is always something worse that we can’t quite comprehend. As the study of humanity, anthropologists need to understand evil for research just as much as we need it for our own comfort.

Each society that we learn about has their own idea of evil, and knowing more in a general sense is a great help for the anthropologist. From this knowledge and their own interest, anthropologists have conducted research solely focused on the topic of evil. Western or Eastern, scholars are regularly learning how ideas of evil interact with modern society.

It is a concept that has existed as long as humanity is recorded, and just like our ancestors, we are continuously fascinated with the idea that people can do wrong. Despite such an interest, it is a difficult topic to study. From the concept itself to the roles played by the researcher, the concept of evil is a tricky topic. Anthropologists don’t give up on this study, as they continue training and careful consideration to continue learning.

Leave a Reply