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Demons, Magic, Healing, and the 91st Psalm

A video interview with Dr. Tupá Guerra

Demons are not just the stuff of silly imagination or horror movies. They were the ubiquitous forces of evil that people of antiquity had to deal with. In this video interview, Dr. Tupá Guerra explains how we can understand them both in ancient times and today. We may call these evil beings by other terms today, but people are always looking for explanations of why bad things happen.

Interestingly, Dr. Guerra shows how the ‘pestilence that walks at noonday’ from Psalm 91 was probably one of the most feared demons – called Acedia. This demon was known in the Dead Sea Scrolls and much later, when carvings of Jesus show his mastery over this demon. Dr. Guerra zeros in on the period of the Second Temple (516BCE – 70CE), because this is when the demons were most feared, discussed, and confronted.

Whether you believe in demons or not, watch and listen to Dr. Guerra’s explanations for the way people thought about evil forces and what that could mean for us today.

Dr. Tupá Guerra lives in Brazil, and I met her at the University of Birmingham in England a few years ago, when we were both working on our doctorate degrees. She was studying demonology and magic in the Dead Sea Scrolls. She had done her Master’s degree at the University of Brasilia where she studied the Book of Tobias and other mythical complexes related to the fear of the feminine. Tupá’s popular Portuguese-language podcast, Dragões de Garagem, often discusses themes related to demonology, antiquity and magic. Subscribe via iTunes, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.  Follow her on Twitter (in Portuguese) @tupaguerra.


The following is a transcript of the video interview.  You’ll need to play the video to see the images being discussed.
SP indicates Shirley Paulson is the speaker, TG indicates Tupá Guerra.   

Announcer:  Hello and welcome to this video from The Bible and Beyond. We explore historical and spiritual questions about Jesus gender, women, salvation, healing, and the meaning of life. Shirley Paulson is hosting a series of conversations by podcasts and video with scholars who are able to unlock mysteries from extracanonical books, forgotten scriptures, so-called Gnostic gospels and the Bible.

SP: My guest today, Tupá Guerra, lives in Brazil, and I met her at the University of Birmingham in England a few years ago, when we were both working on our doctorate degrees. She was studying demonology and magic in the Dead Sea Scrolls. She had done her Master’s degree at the University of Brasilia where she studied the Book of Tobias and other mythical complexes related to the fear of the feminine. Tupá is also a podcaster and often talks about themes related to demonology, antiquity and magic. You sure picked a fascinating subject to get involved in, Tupá. I think it fills in a lot of interesting gaps in our understanding of early Christian texts. Welcome. I’m excited to talk to you.

TG: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m very excited to talk about this. It’s the thing when you study something, you tend to get real excited when people are interested in it

SP: Then that’s great. We’ll have a fun conversation. I should mention also the Tupá is speaking to us from Brazil, which is her home country, and so she speaks Portuguese. But I’m really delighted she speaks English well enough to join us today. So thank you so much for being with us. So I want to ask you, Tupá: People are still really interested in demons today, aren’t they? Why do you think a discussion about demons in ancient times is helpful for us today?

TG: So, that’s quite interesting because people keep asking me if demons actually exist, if they don’t and why, why do I study them? And I believe that for us today, for those who believe in the demons to understand where this, the history came from and what the ancient texts talk about, this is quite important. And for those who don’t believe in demons, it’s also fundamental to understand where your culture came from and how the constructions we have and the beliefs we have in society today were formed and creates it in other times.

SP: Oh, so we’re going to get into whether demons are real or not. That’s going to be great. What period of time in antiquity then should we talk about and why?

TG: So the time we are going to talk about is the Second Temple period and that’s a particularly interesting time. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a bunch of texts that are produced mostly during the Second Temple period. So that’s why we are going   to talk about this particular period. And also because that’s when demons start to be more, you have a more cohesive demonology, we can say, in Jewish texts and then afterwards in Christian texts as well.

SP: Oh, that’s interesting. All right, so now you have a depiction of Herod’s temple also here. How does that help us understand? What’s going on then?

TG: So if we talk about Jewish history in the temples, you have a First Temple, which is known as Solomon’s Temple, and it was destroyed by the new Babylonian Empire. And after that, when the Jews came back from the Exile, they were allowed to have a Second Temple. We have at first to have a very small temple. And this small temple is reformed and made into this magnificent Herod’s temple, which was built by Herod the Great. So when we talk about Second Temple period, we are basically talking about this very specific time, 516 before the Common Era, to 70 in the Common Era when the temple was destroyed by the Romans.

But it’s just important to remember that it’s not a designation that works for the whole world. It’s just for this particular period.

SP: Well that’s very helpful for us to sort of zero in on what we’re talking about. So maybe the implication is that there were other ideas about demons and other places, but we’re zeroing in on this one. So then to get into the world of the evil forces of this place and this time I think many of us easily kind of conjure up images of magic and wizards and sorcerers. But was magic like a serious practice then?

TG: So that’s the thing. It depends a bit on how you understand and you interpret the word ‘magic.’.

SP: Okay.

TG: And I think that’s, that’s always the problem when you study history or other social science. We tend to be always like, okay, it depends on how or what you understand by ‘magic’? And if you understand magic as any type of act you do to try to modify your reality from a perspective of the divine or, if you are any type of act you do asking the help of the divine or if you do something to try to make the divine help you. And I’m using ‘divine’ because it could be since we’re talking about other cultures, it could be more than one divinity. It doesn’t need to be the God that the Jews would believe and still do, of course. So if you understand magic in this way, all religions do some type of magic. So ‘magic’ was definitely practiced. But it depends on how you understand magic.

SP: Well, let me ask you something about this then, because you know, my children had birthday parties with magicians that came and pulled rabbits out of a hat. And I don’t think they thought about the divine in any way. So this idea of magic having to do with the divine, maybe was a concept that was going on then that’s kind of different from now. Is that right?

TG: Yes. When we talk about magic in this way, as the tricks that we do — that magicians that go in parties and stuff — it’s a different type of magic in a way. It’s the same word. But it’s because when I talk about magic, that’s a very particular way I approach the question. Because magic’s a very complex and difficult term to work with. But when I approach magic, I try to use it to describe this specific type of practice people would do in their daily lives: associate with the divine in order to protect themselves, or in order to ask for help. Or I tend to use magic in a way because most scholars for a very long time used ‘magic’ as a derogatory term. So the magic one and the magicians, they are what you should avoid or they are the bad thing. But if we read the text and if we would take the word magician from it, then you understand that actually the practices are forbidden. So magic is when the others practice religion, and yours is real religion.

SP: So magic means somebody is … like the way we use the term ‘othering.’

TG: Yes. Yes.

SP: Okay.

TG: So that’s why I like to use magic when I talk about Jewish practices as well, because you do have some rituals and some forms of using yourself and the way you ask for help and the practices you do in your daily life to protect yourself against evil things. So all of this, if someone from the outside looks at you, they might say you were practicing magic. But for you it’s religion. So that’s why I say there is magic in all religions.

SP: Oh I think this is a really stretch -your-mind kind of concept here. Well, and so tell me about wizards and sorceresses. Are they in the same category, that we should take them seriously?

TG: Well you should take them seriously if you want to. But the thing is, because I use magic as just this study tool, I don’t use magic to… Because I’m a scholar, I need words to describe things I’m studying, and that’s why I chose magic to talk about it. But about the wizards and sorcerers and other magical practitioners, when… That’s the thing, if you look in the text and the text says, Oh, don’t seek the help of sorcerers then of course you don’t need to. I’m not saying that all the sorcerers are nice, or that you should believe, or that they do real magic. I’m just saying that the type of practice is not dependent on the result of it. What I study and what I focus on more is how people who do that believe that it will work and not necessarily on whether it works or not.

SP: Yes. Okay.

TG: Okay?

SP: Oh, okay. So I’m trying to get my head wrapped around this idea of that.

TG: Sorry.

SP: No, you’re doing a very good job with this. So we’re talking about magic and wizards and sources as a way that if they’re doing it themselves, they think of themselves as doing it genuinely and seriously. But others who don’t like it would use terms in a derogatory way because it’s different from what they’re doing. Right?

TG: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And since I wanted to study the Jewish practices in antiquity, from a point of view a bit more not from the person who believed necessarily in the practice, but I tried to put them in a similar place as other practices in antiquity. That’s why use magic in the way I did.

SP: Well then tell us about demons. Are demons in the same category as magicians? Like, if you have a nice demon, it does nice things? But other people call them demons if they’re bad?

TG: Well, ‘demons’ is another very difficult term, because it’s always like this, right?

SP: Yes.

TG: But particularly I try when I’m studying especially the Second Temple period, I tend to use ‘evil beings’ instead of demons because when we talk about demons, we tend to get this very clear image of this red-skinned, horned and wicked figure. Usually masculine, sometimes feminine, but it’s a very strong and powerful image we got from pop culture. And of course it was built on real demons, whether you believe in them or not. But it’s a long construction in history. And when we talk, when we see like in the Dead Sea Scrolls, you don’t have a proper description of the demons in this way, like a head, a horn, or things like that. And also demons came, came from the Greek ‘daemon.’ It’s a later term that will be used. So if we’re talking about the New Testament and we’re talking about Christian texts, they will use the term ‘daemon’ and so describe properly evil figures. But if we look at ancient Greek texts, daemon can be a figure that can be good or evil.

SP: Let me just stop you a moment to, but you’re saying the word ‘daemon’ I’m thinking you are saying it with a little bit of an accent that we would understand as maybe ‘daemon’ (d a e m o n)?

TG: Yes. This one.

SP: Okay. Okay.

TG: It’s a very Brazilian way to pronounce it properly.

SP: Okay. All right. Go ahead.

TG: And then, so this thing, this word in Greek. So in ancient Greece you had this, it was a very ambiguous creature or being. It could be good or evil. It wasn’t necessarily something bad, but then it will be reinterpreted and it will be understood in Christian text as an evil thing. So the idea to use the term demon, it does not apply properly to what they believed in ancient Jewish society. That’s why I prefer to use ‘evil beings,’ because then we don’t get this ambiguity that demons can have in ancient texts and we just get the evil thing in the evil part of it.

SP: That’s very helpful. Thank you for clarifying. What do you mean by that? So then as we’re getting a picture of the meaning of magic or healing practices maybe and then evil beings, do you think that actually demons just died out then when people got better educated about the world of physics and empirical sciences?

TG: I don’t think so. I think if it was because if we look at our society, demons are still believed in, and some people say they still exist, so I don’t like to put religion and science into opposite places because I think that’s not the proper way to look at the question. For me, if we think of how people always wonder why bad things happen to them. And there will be different explanations from different understandings of the world and different societies. And demons is one of the possible answers that humans got for what happened when bad things happen to you, even if you’re a good person. So I don’t think necessarily having more understanding of the sphere of physical empirical sciences got rid of demons. I think it changed a bit the nature of demons and how they were perceived but didn’t choke them out totally.

SP: Well that’s interesting because I think that actually helps us understand how to think about demons in another time and space then, or time and place. That’s very helpful. Well, let’s go back to the second century then. What would you say would be the relationship, then, between demons — or as you’re saying, ‘evil beings’ and diseases, or bodily afflictions?

TG: So in this period it was very clear for people that diseases and bodily afflictions were caused by evil things. Not necessarily evil spirits as we use more today, but an evil non-identifiable thing that can attack you. And it this could be. …so we are clear, …we know that very well because we have quite a lot of texts, especially from later antiquity. So after the Second Temple period you have quite a lot of texts talking about how people can protect themselves against this particular demon that causes this particular disease. So we can see that people did believe that demons were a very palpable threat for them in their daily lives. And it was something very physical. The demon could give you a headache, a toothache, all of those things were actually the actions of evil in your body, because your body was out of balance or something.

SP: Well then, this is getting a little bit scary, and we’re thinking about how things can hurt you like that. How did people deal with them? Did they talk to them, or fight them, or how do they confront demons then?

TG: So yeah, it was, it’s quite scary because I like to think how I like not properly like, but I think it helps to understand them as a real threat that can beseige you and then can fall upon you at any time. And that’s why people had so many ways to protect, to protect themselves. So they had prayers. They had from later periods, you have these amazing magic bowls with inscriptions that were put in your house, or under your house to protect you. You have amulets, you have necklaces, you have all sorts of things that help you to protect yourself. But one thing that’s particularly interesting that you have quite a lot of mentions is, especially in the Second Temple period, is about how music and songs and Psalms help you to get rid of them, or to prove it’s important for your protection.

SP: Wow, that’s fascinating. Well then did demons even have names and could you identify them?

TG: In later periods, Yes. So if we’re talking about already in Christian periods, the second century, third century, you have particular demons. And one of them that I think it’s particularly interesting is the demon of Acedia and I probably mispronouncing it.

SP: Well, I don’t know how to pronounce it, so you can do it any way you want.

TG: I would say, ‘Acedia.’ This particular demon is a nasty one, because it attacks you in a period of time, right? It’s a, this was described by a monk and it’s dangerous for the monks. It’s not a demon that can attack everyone. It usually attacks a monk, and it’s called Acedia the noonday demon, and it’s the most burdensome of all demons according to Evagrius — that’s the monk who wrote about it. If it attacks the monk at about fourth hour, which would be 10:00 AM of the morning encircling his soul until about the eighth hour, which is 2:00 PM. So this demon is the demon that makes you feel tired and as if nothing is worth it and that it makes you question what you’re doing with your life.

SP: Wow.

TG: Which I guess a lot of people can relate to.

SP: So this is like an imposition of depression then?

TG: Yes, there is quite a lot of studies putting both together of how the Demon of Acedia might be an ancient form of representation of depression, and the symptoms do look quite similar. They were talking about this demon in a monastic context, so it not necessarily is the same way we feel today, so it’s a bit difficult to just say, “Oh it was depression,” because we don’t know other symptoms and how it reacts with other things in their life, but it does sound a lot like depression.

SP: Well then, so there were different demons that had different kinds of powers… Is that what you’re saying? or, at different times?Tell us more about the time.

TG: This particular demon, which I found very, very interesting, says is the noonday demon, so it’s the demon that attacks you in this particular period of time and it gives you this particular type of problem. So it lets us to… if this one is so specific, it’s very likely that other demons were associated with other particular things. And it’s interesting that he says that this demon, that’s the noonday demon is the demon represented in Psalm 91.

SP: Oh, Oh! that’s interesting. Okay, so tell us what that phrase is for people who are not familiar with Psalm 91.

TG: The phrase, it says clearly, “You shall not fear the dread of the night or the arrow that flies by day, the plague that rages at noon, or the pestilence that in the darkness proceeds.” So what Evagrius says is that the plague that rages at noon is this same noonday demon that he calls Acedia. And it’s fascinating because you have in the Dead Sea Scrolls, you have Psalm 91 copied. And so it’s preserved there. And then a couple of centuries later you have someone saying clearly that, “Oh look, when they say the plague that rages at noon, what they actually are mentioning is this demon that attacks you at noonday, and it causes this particular type of problem for you.” So we can kind of see how this was developing and how this was getting more refined. The understanding of which demon attacks you in the case if you believed in this. Or if it’s unbelievable — if you were more skeptical — you could say, you can see the historical development of the idea of the demon.

SP: Let me just stop you there for a second then and ask, could you explain a little bit about the relationship then between the timing of when the 91st Psalm one would have been written in the Dead Sea Scrolls?

TG: Yes. So the, the Psalm is in a very particular interesting manuscript: it’s 11 QL 11, also known as 11 Q Apocryphal Psalms. And this is the oldest home for the manuscript. That is, it was preserved in other places. So the manuscript has more psalms, but only Psalm 91 was known from later and other copies of the text.

SP: So give me a sense about the date then Tupa, if you don’t mind. The 91st Psalm would have been written way back in early Jewish writings. Right?

TG: Yes.

SP: And then the Dead Sea Scrolls, when would they have been written or copied then

TG: They are copied, particularly this one, is copied from I think around a hundred years before the Common Era, or something like that.

SP: Okay. So it could have been a long, long time between them.

TG: Yes. Yes. It’s a long time, but it’s, it’s very, uh, I think it’s fascinating to see how it survives and so it was totally a text that was highly regarded and was well preserved. So it was copied many times or maybe was passed down orally and then at some point was copied. And then after that, in the third century of the Common Era. So you have this monk talking about the same psalm from centuries before and talking about how this psalm described this particular type of demon or evil thing.

SP: And then how does Jesus come into all this?

TG: So if we look into representations of Psalm 91, later representations, because that’s one of the things: from the Second Temple period and from antiquity, we don’t have many drawings or like figure representations, demons or evil things, which is very frustrating for me who is with study because I wanted them.

TG: But that’s the thing about history. They don’t, the people from the past don’t give you what exactly we want. That’s how I see it. But anyway, when Psalm 91 is represented in many images and so on, like let’s say during the Medieval Ages of the eighth century, or so on, it’s fairly common to have Jesus and the figure of Jesus as the one who crushes this threat, and the plague, and the beasts, and all the evil things that can attack you in Psalm 91, is protecting you against, and they use the image of Jesus as the one actually protecting you as well. So it’s a very interesting way to read Psalm 91, and it also shows how Psalm 91 is always associated with protection with a very cool word that I like very much: apotropaic measures. So measures of protection.

SP: Okay. Well this is really amazing. So then what are you studying now? What are you doing with all this?

TG: So right now I finished my PhD a couple of years ago. I’m working on this relation between time and evil, and how — I told you about this Acedia demon, but I’m also interested to see how other demons were portrayed as related to time. Whether there was a time of the day that was more dangerous than others. I have a friend who always says that I took his calm in life when I told him there was a noonday demon, because he was sure there were demons only in night.

SP: And now he’s worried about the daytime!

TG: Yes, he thinks it’s terrible.

SP: So you have to find some solutions then who crushes the demons then? Right?

TG: Yeah, I told him I will write some apotropaic text for him.

SP: That’s very good; so we need that. And so you have an image of a very funny looking ancient text. Can you talk about that a little bit? I mean you have a drawing here of this text and it looks like a very weird design.

TG: Oh yes. So that’s Psalm 91.

SP: It doesn’t look like it.

TG: No it doesn’t. So that’s the thing. Both of the texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, they’re very, very damaged and this is one of the texts and was damaged. This is the copy we have, this is the copy for Psalms I was talking about earlier. And imagine it was rolled up and then cut in both ways. And when are you open it, it makes this very weird shape and that’s what happened to it. Then you have a part of Psalm 91; of course you don’t have it entirely. But because we know Psalm 91, we can reconstruct what was missing. But unfortunately for the psalms that are in the same text, we don’t have other copies of them. So that’s it. We only have pieces. So it’s very difficult as well to try to understand how demons were portrayed and understood when all the texts you have are very fragmentary.

SP: So on those little fragments of paper we see looking like this, there are actually words in there? What language are those words? Is that Hebrew?

TG: Yes, this one is in Hebrew. And there are sometimes half of a word, but then because of the way language works, you can usually guess fairly certainly which words were there.

SP: Wow, that’s just amazing. Well, I sure hope you will keep on studying all these things through these amazing looking texts and figure out for us how the demons worked because now I take them more seriously in terms of understanding what they meant in real people’s lives and what magic would be doing if it’s not ‘other’ people doing it, but actually the people that we care about. Do you have any suggestions or thoughts you’d like to leave with our listeners about what you’re thinking about, what we should think about too?

TG: So I think the very important thing to leave is to, when we talk about evil things and demons, there are very different ways societies have dealt with it. And how people understood how to protect themselves, and what you should do and what you should not do. And that’s still relevant to our society. Not only because there are still quite a lot of people who believe in this. And I’m not saying they exist or not exist. The important thing for me is how people who believe in them react to them. So their existence is not really important when I’m researching. My personal things are different… but anyway. And so even though there are people who believe or not, that’s not important. The important thing is that there is a very big influence of how demonic things in our society work in the way we think about them. So even if you don’t believe, you will see films, you’ll see series, you’ll see books and other things written about demons. And so it’s important for us to understand where this came from and how it has developed through history. So we can understand better. We can better understand ourselves in a way.

SP: That is just fascinating. Tupá, I think we could talk for hours. In fact, when you and I were in Birmingham doing our work together, we did talk for hours and I’m hoping maybe you can come back and we’ll talk again, but you should got to start it on a very, very interesting subject. So thank you so much for coming to talk today.

TG: Thank you so much for having me and I can talk for hours, for sure!

SP: That’s great. Thanks so much Tupá. Bye, bye.

TG: Bye.

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