Devas and devils

lusthaus at lusthaus at
Sun May 5 09:30:05 UTC 1996

>>The "good" gods were called Devas
>>in India, and the cruder, envious deities were called Asuras; The
>>Zoroastrians called their main deity Ahura (mazda), and we Indo-European
>>speakers inherited their term for the anti-gods as "devils."
>I apologize for (temporarily) changing the subject, but is this really an
>etymological fact? What I've always read is that "devil" derives from Greek
>diabolos, meaning "adversary". My knowledge of Greek is very scant, but I
>believe dia- is a prefix meaning (in this context) "against", etc. If you
>compare a few modern European languages, you will find that their words for
>"devil" are generally not very like "deva", and that the -l- element is very
>marked: Fr. diable, Ge. Teufel, Sw. djaevul, etc.

>Martin Gansten
>mgansten at

The etymology you trace out is indeed typical and correct, but you are
picking up the trail too late. Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary
offers the following etymology for "devil" (p.237b):
Middle English devel; from Old English dEofol; from Late Latin diabolus;
from Greek diabolos, lit., slanderer; which it tries to derive from
diaballein, to throw across, slander, from dia + ballein, to throw.

Maybe the OED digs a bit deeper, but one has to look to other sources for
the actual etymology. E.g., William Malandra, _An Introduction to Ancient
Iranian Religion_, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983, p. 5:

"Ancient cultures did not exist in isolation, but were either related
generically to or influenced by contact with other cultures.... Old Iranian
posses a word, Av* _daEwa_, OPers *_daiwa_ meaning 'demon' or false or
hostile god'. Other termns used by related peoples include OInd _deva_
'heavenly; god' Lat _deus_ 'god'; OIr _dia_ 'god'; and ONorse _tivar_
'gods.' The differences in meaning between the Iranian terms and their
counterparts in other languages suggest that, in the course of Iranian
religious history, certain changes have taken place in ideology that have
led to a demonization of the gods.... one can safely reconstruct a history
of daEwa/daiwa, at least to the extent that one knows that the word
originally meant 'god,' not 'demon'.

On p. 81 of the same work, who do we find banished as a daEwa? Indra...

If it is not sheer neglect or oversight that has failed to make the link
between daiwa and devil better known (since the whole sons of darkness
ideology came into Western thought from Iran with the term -- there are no
devils in the Hebrew Scriptures), then perhaps it is fear of relativising
the divine... One person's divinity is another's devil, and perhaps for no
more profound reason than that two clans didn't think very highly of each
other, or perhaps they fought over grazing rights.

Your student's hunch wasn't wrong.

Dan Lusthaus
Macalester College

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