Demons Theutus and Asmodeus, hand-coloured etch­ing from Fran­cis Bar­ret­t’s book The Magus,1801

In the 2021 hor­ror movie, Para­nor­mal Activ­i­ty: Next of Kin, an evil demon named Asmodeus pos­sess­es peo­ple and inspires mur­der, may­hem, and var­i­ous forms of vil­lainy. He also shows up in the TV series Super­nat­ur­al as the Prince of Hell. In fact, the demon appears fre­quent­ly in pop cul­ture. And when­ev­er he rears his head, he is usu­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with hell, evil, and gen­er­al wickedness. 

But Asmodeus is not the cre­ation of mod­ern minds. He is actu­al­ly very old — very, very old. 

While Jew­ish tra­di­tion knows this demon as Ashmedai, the Ara­ma­ic ver­sion of his name, the old­est evi­dence for Asmodeus comes from the Aves­ta, a sacred Zoroas­tri­an text that is over two thou­sand years old (parts of it may be almost a thou­sand years old­er than that).[1] In the Aves­ta, aēšmō.daēva (lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­ed as the Wrath demon”) works to sow vio­lence in the hearts of humankind and spread evil in the world. aēšmō.daēva? Sounds a lot like Ashmedai, no? [2

This demon next shows up in the Book of Tobit, an apoc­ryphal Jew­ish text from the third or sec­ond cen­tu­ry CE that sur­vives in the form of a Greek trans­la­tion. In the sto­ry, a woman named Sarah becomes the object of Asmodeus’s lust­ful obses­sion. Though she has been mar­ried sev­en times, she has nev­er con­sum­mat­ed any of her mar­riages; for Asmodeus has killed each of her hus­bands on their wed­ding night. The hero, Tobias — guid­ed by the angel Raphael — suc­cess­ful­ly exor­cizes Asmodeus, mar­ries Sarah, and the two live hap­pi­ly ever after. (Asmodeus is sim­i­lar­ly malev­o­lent, and opposed to the con­sum­ma­tion of mar­riages, in the Tes­ta­ment of Solomon, a syn­cret­ic text with Jew­ish underpinnings.) 

In all these texts, Asmodeus is evil and directs his vio­lence towards human beings. Giv­en how he is pre­sent­ed in mod­ern media, such a depic­tion should seem familiar.

But here’s where things get weird. Or, at least, weird­er. 

Because the next place where Asmodeus, now Ashmedai, appears is in the Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud, which depicts him quite dif­fer­ent­ly than old­er texts. Here, Ashmedai has received a pro­mo­tion, and now he is King of the Demons. Yet the dif­fer­ences go beyond his title.

The longest extend­ed Tal­mu­dic sto­ry about Ashmedai is set dur­ing the reign of anoth­er king, King Solomon. When King Solomon is build­ing the Tem­ple, he needs to find some­thing called a shamir in order to quar­ry the required stones. Solomon plans to kid­nap Ashmedai and force him to dis­close its loca­tion. The human king asks some oth­er demons where to find the demon-king, and they reply: 

He is on such-and-such moun­tain. [Solomon asked:] How will I rec­og­nize it? [They respond­ed:] He has dug a well, and filled it with water [to drink], and cov­ered it with a large flint rock, and sealed it with his seal. Every day he ascends to the heav­en­ly aca­d­e­m­ic ses­sion and learns the heav­en­ly Torah les­son, and then descends to the earth­ly aca­d­e­m­ic ses­sion and learns the earth­ly Torah les­son and inspects his seal and uncov­ers [the well] and drinks and cov­ers it and leaves. [3]

All of a sud­den, Ashmedai is a Torah schol­ar, who spends his days study­ing Torah in two yeshiv­ot — one in heav­en, one on earth — where he is pre­sum­ably learn­ing along­side oth­er scholars.

Know­ing his sched­ule and where he snacks every day, Solomon sends his ser­vant to kid­nap Ashmedai, bind­ing him with a chain that bears the inef­fa­ble name of God. Over the course of the sto­ry, Ashmedai demon­strates his exper­tise by quot­ing and inter­pret­ing bib­li­cal vers­es, offer­ing insights into the world around him, and shar­ing his wis­dom as it relates to King Solomon. He also helps Solomon get the shamir and build the Tem­ple. But for all his help, Solomon keeps Ashmedai bound until, one day, the human king asks his demon­ic coun­ter­part what makes demons so spe­cial. Ashmedai responds: Take the chain [with the name of God inscribed upon it] off of me and give me your seal-ring [inscribed with the name of God] — I will show you how I am greater.” Solomon does so, and when Ashmedai is freed, he hurls Solomon four hun­dred miles away and steals his iden­ti­ty, rul­ing in his place until the rab­bis uncov­er the ruse and ban­ish Ashmedai from the palace. 

Here Ashmedai is both a sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter and an even­tu­al usurp­er of the Davidic throne. Such dis­junc­tion has led some schol­ars to argue that the Tal­mu­dic nar­ra­tive com­bines dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions about the demon-king. In any case, it is clear that Ashmedai is not pure evil; he’s a wise demon, a Torah schol­ar, and a pro­found­ly com­plex fig­ure. His depic­tion is part of a larg­er strat­e­gy by the rab­bis of the Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud to por­tray demons as neu­tral, obe­di­ent to God’s will, and part of the rab­binic sys­tem. But it also illus­trates the dan­ger of let­ting demons into that sys­tem. After all, giv­en their abil­i­ty to move between heav­en and earth, they may end up more knowl­edge­able about Torah and more wise than the ulti­mate wise man, King Solomon.

The sto­ry of Asmodeus doesn’t end there: medieval Jew­ish texts depict Ashmedai as even more com­pli­cat­ed. One midrash tells a sto­ry in which the demon Igrath assaults King David in his sleep, and she con­ceives Ashmedai as a result. Ashmedai, then, is both the prod­uct of rape and a legit­i­mate heir to the Davidic throne — a detail that may hint at an expla­na­tion for why he chal­lenges Solomon in the Tal­mud. Anoth­er medieval depic­tion can be found in the Tale of the Jerusalemite,” a Jew­ish fairy tale in which an unnamed young man ends up lost in a province inhab­it­ed entire­ly by demons who pray, attend syn­a­gogue reg­u­lar­ly, and are ruled by a benev­o­lent and extreme­ly pious king. This king, Ashmedai, tests the young man on his Torah knowl­edge and then hires him to teach his son. Even­tu­al­ly, the young man mar­ries Ashmedai’s daugh­ter, and they have a child — before the young man’s own mis­be­hav­ior catch­es up with him. 

From an evil and wrath­ful Zoroas­tri­an demon, to a lust­ful Jew­ish demon, to demon who is a Torah schol­ar and mem­ber of the Davidic dynasty, Asmodeus con­tin­ues to be an impor­tant fig­ure in Jew­ish folk­lore, emerg­ing as good, evil, and some­thing in between. And while mod­ern pop­u­lar cul­ture has fix­at­ed on these ear­li­er mod­els of a pure­ly evil Asmodeus, Jew­ish texts and tra­di­tions remind us that the sto­ry is always far more com­pli­cat­ed — just like Asmodeus himself. 

Read Sara Ronis’s Demons in the Details: Demon­ic Dis­course and Rab­binic Cul­ture in Late Antique Baby­lo­nia.

[1] https://​www​.iran​i​caon​line​.org/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​/​a​v​e​s​t​a​-​h​o​l​y​-book

[2] https://​iran​i​caon​line​.org/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​/​a​e​s​m​a​-​wrath

[3] b. Git­tin 68a‑b

Sara Ronis is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of The­ol­o­gy at St. Mary’s Uni­ver­si­ty in San Anto­nio, Texas.