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Eastern Demons

Disclaimer: This work has been completed as an educational tool for students of history, religious and paranormal studies. The author wishes to discourage any use of this work in conjunction with paranormal field investigations of demons.

Presented by Kyle T. Cobb, Jr. to the audience of Dragon-Con 2013

Nos tibi credere.

A  Literary History

Death demons

There is a class of Tibetan demon called the “death demon”. A popular exorcism ritual used to stop the death demons is called the “za-dre kha sgyur”. In these rituals, the Paju directly threatens the demon with harm from the wrathful form of Buddha from the Vajradhara called the Phyag-na rDo-rje. The Paju says "If you disobey Phyag-na rDo-rje, he will split your head! He will chop up your body and send down a rain of weapons and turn you to dust! Instead it is better that you leave!" If the demon fails to leave the victim is ritualistically purged with the use of a special phurba to force the demon out of the spirit world. While some of the Paju assert this is a "higher rebirth" other Lama assert that the demon is destroyed.

3 headed black demons

Another key exorcism rite used by the Tibetans in the Gyasumdo is the expelling of the 3-headed black demon, Nag-po mgo gsum. This ritual is performed annually because the Paju believe that once a demon has arrived, unless it ascends it will periodically return.

The exorcism begins with "Among the eight trigrams some have become friendly, others enemies, and the planets and the nine numerical squares are fighting. By doing so, they send harm to us. Fight then develops among us and property deteriorates."

For this ritual an effigy of the demon's host is made to trap the demon. The dough of the effigy has the nine numerical squares of the Tibetan astrological chart and 8 religious trigrams added to it. Signs for the 7 planets are also added. These symbols are believed to attach the demon and then temporarily trap it in the effigy. The effigy is then threatened. Chants are used to draw any other demons in the area into the effigy. The effigy is encased in a small structure to represent the house it attacked. The structure has bamboo crosses on the top with five colored threads in concentric designs. The demon is trapped inside the construct with the placement of a fence of wooden knives to seal it in. The entire trap is then placed at across road to ward off any traveling demons from passing the intersection as a Zor ward against demons. The story of the Nag-po mgo gsum is actually a story of what happens if you fail your dharma and how karma exacts revenge on the wicked.

Gcod- inviting the demon in

One final Tibetan exorcism rite of note is the Gcod or severance rite. Unlike all other exorcism rites, the Gcod instead of binding the demon and repelling it, encourages the demon to enter freely and feast on the body of the ritual performer. The rite calls on the goddess Ma-gcig slab-sgron (ma-cig lab-dron) to cut up the body and distribute it among the swarms of demons that the ritual attracts. Once the demons are satiated, they leave and take the anger, passion, ignorance and ego with them. The self-sacrifice of the Gcod pays the Karmic debts of those at the ritual by paying the demons with self-sacrifice.

Burma and Thailand

While many of the traditions of the various sects of Buddhism have made their way throughout southeastern Asian, there is one class of spirit in particular that meets our criteria for demons.

The people of Burma and Thailand believe that there is a type of nature spirit that instead of possessing people generally prefers to live in trees, along the rivers or serving as cemetery guardians. The Nat (in Burmese) or the Phi (in Thai) generally are represented as positive nature spirits unless provoked.


In Japan, demons have manifest in their own uniquely Japanese form, the Oni. Alive in both history, religions and modern pop culture, the Japanese Oni is both a feared Ogre and a harbinger of luck.


While today's Oni are more the monsters of anime than western demons, historically the Oni have adapted and evolved. In early works, the Oni are the strangers lurking in the mountains that plague the villagers. They are also the causes of many illnesses in the Chinese influenced medical treaties. In Heian court literature, the Oni are also the Kokoro No Oni, "the oni in one's heart" or the evil controlling one's soul.

Beyond the general idea of the Oni as a demon, like in the western tra

ditions, Oni have come to represent the very nature of evil. In the Onmyodo, the way of yin and yang, the Oni are the evil spirits dedicated to harming humans.

In studying the personified Oni demons, there are 5 general characteristics that describe them:



The Other- Oppressed, outsiders, alienated, isolated



Shuten Doji

While there are hundreds of stories of the Oni, one of the most famous old stories is that of the Shuten Doji, the drunken Demon. In the Heian legend, the Shuten Doji would come into the capital, kidnap a beautiful maiden and then eat her. Because this demon is fought by a less than loved ruling warrior class of Heian, to the general population the demon became a symbol of resistance to the central authority... a kind of demonic Robin Hood. In many ways, the demon also represents the resistance of the old religions to the encroachment of the government on the freedoms of the people. One early writing on Shuten Doji even claims that “there is nothing false in the words of Demons."

In part, one of the reasons for the persistence of the Shuten Doji is that the demon finally faces his defeat at the hands of the warrior hero Minamoto No Raiko (Yorimitsu) and his four lieutenants. Because the rise of warrior class was at the expense of farmers, the outcast demon's struggle became that of the villagers outside the capital.


Unlike the Shuten Doji, the female Oni rarely are portrayed positively themselves. The Yamauba is most often portrayed in the old stories as an ugly woman forced to live in exile in the mountains. Capturing and murdering people, the Yamauba serves as a warning of the dangers found in being less than vigilant when leaving the villages. Yet even this personification of evil periodically is treated with some positive aspects. In later stories the demoness may briefly take the form of a beautiful woman to seduce her would be victim. In a story related to the Raiko, one of the four lieutenants that kills Shuten Doji is actually the son of a Yamauba.

For a researcher today, one of the most fascinating aspects on the Oni is how they have transformed over time and still remained relevant in the Japanese society. As early as 1824, Tsuruya Nanboku began commercializing and sensationalizing the Oni in his book Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan (Yotsuya Ghost Stories). Edogawa Ranpo continued to do so with his 1930s book Koto no oni (Oni of a Solitary Island). Today it is not uncommon to find the Onis as manga, anime, books and movies.

Perhaps most striking is the continuation of the Oni as part of today’s religious institutions



One of the most prevalent types of Oni is the fearsome Namahage. Primarily originating along coastal village, the Namahage are most frequent represented as red, blue or black faced demons dressed in straw garments. In the annual Setsubun ceremony, a small group of men costumed as the Namahage storm down from hilltop shrines and raise havoc in the villages. Searching for lazy or disobedient children, the Namahage enter the homes where the villagers shout:

"Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!"

"Oni, Go out! Blessings come in"

To prevent the children from being taken, soy beans are tossed at the Oni and food is offered. Eventually a large meal is consumed to appease the Namahage. As they depart, the straw that is dropped from the costumes is first tied around the children's heads for luck and then gathered as a luck token for the coming year.

The origins of this demonic ritual have two distinctive origins:

One legend has the Namahage demons descending from the mountain to take a little girl from the village. The elders agree to give up the girl if the Oni will build a 100 steps to the top of a hillside shrine before the crowing of the morning rooster. Just before sunrise the villagers cheat and fake the crow. The demons flee but the villagers feel remorse and every year honor the Oni.

A second more pragmatic analysis is that the Oni represent foreigners that at some point invaded the villages and are now personified as demons.

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East Demon 4

za-dre kha sgyur or Tibetan Death Demon

Nag-po mgo gsum, the 3-headed black demon

Building a spirit trap

An Oni mask

Shuten Doji, the drunken Demon



Namahage ceremonial costume