Demons, genies, and evil spirits permeate ancient occult traditions in Iran and neighboring countries. An early 20th-century Persian manuscript on magic and astrology held at Princeton’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections provides a glimpse into this mystical world with dozens of watercolor illustrations of demonic, otherworldly creatures.
Dated to 1921, Kitāb-i ʻAjāʾib-i makhlūqāt (Wonders of Creation) includes an illustrated manuscript on magic and astrology, a book of spells listing incantation and talismans, and 56 painted illustrations of demons and angels. Several texts accompanying the illustrations in Arabic and Farsi are dated from 1911 to 1921.
A closing line at the end of the book suggests that it is composed of two main texts. It reads, “The book of the ‘Wonders of Creation’ and ‘The Seventy Two Demons’ have been completed.” It is not entirely clear which text is which, but Ali Karjoo-Ravary, an assistant professor at the Department of Religious Studies at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, tells Hyperallergic that the illustrated book of demons is most likely the second.
“This text describes the different demons associated with each zodiac sign and the ailments associated with each and some remedies,” Karjoo-Ravary, who published a blog post about the manuscript in 2017, says.
The zodiac demons are introduced as a series of menacing (although somewhat endearing) beasts, some multi-headed. Each is depicted with cuffs on its clawed or hoofed limbs, suggesting that these creatures had been bound or confined.
Other illustrations show the monstrous demons in action, attempting to inflict harm on humans with inscriptions of spells and incantations in Farsi. These latter drawings, according to Karjoo-Ravary, describe ailments and the demons associated with them, together with instructions on how to exorcise them. For instance, one inscription instructs sorcerers to take a handful of soil from underneath the feet of the possessed person and repeat the following sentence seven times: “God of the heavens and the earth, hurry, hurry, bring back, bring back, bring back the love for virtue.”
By contrast, the manuscript also includes illustrations of winged angels like Michael and Gabriel, who are summoned to expel demons and malign spirits.
The author of the demonology book attributes his knowledge to the court of Biblical King Solomon, who was believed to possess power over demons and spirits. However, the author’s identity remains a mystery. “We don’t know much about this figure other than the fact that he wrote this book, that he had some artistic skill,” Karjoo-Ravary says.
The author signs the book as “Rammālbāshī, the son of Ja’far.” However, “Rammālbāshī” is not a name, but rather a profession derived from the Farsi word rammāl (healer, sorcerer).
“A rammāl was a type of occult expert to whom people would frequently turn in the event that they had problems that couldn’t be solved by normal means, such as sicknesses that appeared incurable,” says Karjoo-Ravary. “They could do many things, primarily divination (which their name alludes to), types of magic, breaking spells, exorcisms, spirit summoning.”
Persian demonology has a long tradition that predates Islam. The Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”), a 50,000 verse epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, is teeming with descriptions of battles between humans, devils, and demons.
Practicing rammāls still exist in Iran, typically performing palm-reading, faith-healing, and exorcism, but they have been outcast to the fringes of society.
“Rammāls are ridiculed by a good chunk of society,” says Karjoo-Ravary. “The official clerical establishment is mostly against them and magic, and even recently conservative critics of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [former president of Iran] accused him of associating with rammāls and magicians.”
In his book, The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam, and the Uncanny, Islamic studies scholar Alireza Doostdar writes that secularizing officials and intellectuals in Iran of the early 20th-century disparaged rammāls as charlatans, and blamed them for Iran’s “backwardness” in comparison to the developed West on superstitious beliefs.
This negative attitude towards rammāls continued throughout the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Shi‘i clerics found the sorcerers’ use of the Islamic notions of the “world of the unseen” (Gheyb) and of genies (Jinn) as a threat to their spiritual hegemony.
And yet, these occult practices continue to thrive not just in Iran, but also in neighboring countries, according to Karjoo-Ravary. “Magic, the world of the jinn, demons, and exorcism are still around in most Muslim and other societies, even if they’ve been pushed into the peripheries by polite society.”