The Foot-Licking Demons & Other Strange Things in a 1921 Illustrated Manuscript from Iran

Few mod­ern writ­ers so remind me of the famous Vir­ginia Woolf quote about fic­tion as a “spi­der’s web” more than Argen­tin­ian fab­u­list Jorge Luis Borges. But the life to which Borges attach­es his labyrinths is a librar­i­an’s life; the strands that anchor his fic­tions are the obscure schol­ar­ly ref­er­ences he weaves through­out his text. Borges brings this ten­den­cy to whim­si­cal employ in his non­fic­tion Book of Imag­i­nary Beings, a het­eroge­nous com­pendi­um of crea­tures from ancient folk tale, myth, and demonolo­gy around the world.

Borges him­self some­times remarks on how these ancient sto­ries can float too far away from rati­o­ci­na­tion. The “absurd hypothe­ses” regard­ing the myth­i­cal Greek Chimera, for exam­ple, “are proof” that the ridicu­lous beast “was begin­ning to bore peo­ple…. A vain or fool­ish fan­cy is the def­i­n­i­tion of Chimera that we now find in dic­tio­nar­ies.” Of  what he calls “Jew­ish Demons,” a cat­e­go­ry too numer­ous to parse, he writes, “a cen­sus of its pop­u­la­tion left the bounds of arith­metic far behind. Through­out the cen­turies, Egypt, Baby­lo­nia, and Per­sia all enriched this teem­ing mid­dle world.” Although a less­er field than angelol­o­gy, the influ­ence of this fas­ci­nat­ing­ly diverse canon only broad­ened over time.

“The natives record­ed in the Tal­mud” soon became “thor­ough­ly inte­grat­ed” with the many demons of Chris­t­ian Europe and the Islam­ic world, form­ing a sprawl­ing hell whose denizens hail from at least three con­ti­nents, and who have mixed freely in alchem­i­cal, astro­log­i­cal, and oth­er occult works since at least the 13th cen­tu­ry and into the present. One exam­ple from the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, a 1902 trea­tise on div­ina­tion from Isfa­han, a city in cen­tral Iran, draws on this ancient thread with a series of water­col­ors added in 1921 that could eas­i­ly be mis­tak­en for illus­tra­tions from the ear­ly Mid­dle Ages.

As the Pub­lic Domain Review notes:

The won­der­ful images draw on Near East­ern demono­log­i­cal tra­di­tions that stretch back mil­len­nia — to the days when the rab­bis of the Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud assert­ed it was a bless­ing demons were invis­i­ble, since, “if the eye would be grant­ed per­mis­sion to see, no crea­ture would be able to stand in the face of the demons that sur­round it.”

The author of the trea­tise, a ram­mal, or sooth­say­er, him­self “attrib­ut­es his knowl­edge to the Bib­li­cal Solomon, who was known for his pow­er over demons and spir­its,” writes Ali Kar­joo-Ravary, a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Reli­gious Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia. Pre­dat­ing Islam, “the depic­tion of demons in the Near East… was fre­quent­ly used for mag­i­cal and tal­is­man­ic pur­pos­es,” just as it was by occultists like Aleis­ter Crow­ley at the time these illus­tra­tions were made.

“Not all of the 56 paint­ed illus­tra­tions in the man­u­script depict demon­ic beings,” the Pub­lic Domain Review points out. “Amongst the horned and fork-tongued we also find the archangels Jibrāʾīl (Gabriel) and Mikāʾīl (Michael), as well as the ani­mals — lion, lamb, crab, fish, scor­pi­on — asso­ci­at­ed with the zodi­ac.” But in the main, it’s demon city. What would Borges have made of these fan­tas­tic images? No doubt, had he seen them, and he had seen plen­ty of their like before he lost his sight, he would have been delight­ed.

A blue man with claws, four horns, and a pro­ject­ing red tongue is no less fright­en­ing for the fact that he’s wear­ing a can­dy-striped loin­cloth. In anoth­er image we see a mous­ta­chioed goat man with tuber-nose and pol­ka dot skin mani­a­cal­ly con­coct­ing a less-than-appetis­ing dish. One recur­ring (and wor­ry­ing) theme is demons vis­it­ing sleep­ers in their beds, scenes involv­ing such pleas­ant activ­i­ties as tooth-pulling, eye-goug­ing, and — in one of the most engross­ing illus­tra­tions — a bout of foot-lick­ing (per­formed by a rep­til­ian feline with a shark-toothed tail).

There’s a play­ful Bosch-ian qual­i­ty to all of this, but while we tend to see Bosch’s work from our per­spec­tive as absurd, he appar­ent­ly took his bizarre inven­tions absolute­ly seri­ous­ly. So too, we might assume, did the illus­tra­tor here. We might won­der, as Woolf did, about this work as the prod­uct of “suf­fer­ing human beings… attached to gross­ly mate­r­i­al things, like health and mon­ey and the hous­es we live in.” What kinds of ordi­nary, mate­r­i­al con­cerns might have afflict­ed this artist, as he (we pre­sume) imag­ined demons goug­ing the eyes and lick­ing the feet of peo­ple tucked safe­ly in their beds?

See many more of these strange paint­ings at the Pub­lic Domain Review.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

700 Years of Per­sian Man­u­scripts Now Dig­i­tized and Avail­able Online

1,600 Occult Books Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online, Thanks to the Rit­man Library and Da Vin­ci Code Author Dan Brown

160,000 Pages of Glo­ri­ous Medieval Man­u­scripts Dig­i­tized: Vis­it the Bib­lio­the­ca Philadel­phien­sis

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Abbas says:

    This is book by some­one who claims he could give peo­ple spe­cial ” hol­ly texts” ( دعا) so their night­mare stops. This — sell­ing hol­ly texts- has been a job for so-called Mol­las in Iran for a long time.
    This per­son bring his busi­ness to the next lev­el by illus­tra­tions of many pos­si­ble demons which one could have a dream of. The poten­tial cus­tomers could look at the pic­tures and tell him which demon is both­er­ing them and he sell them the prop­er hol­ly texts.
    These illus­tra­tions remind me of my child­hood fan­tasies as I hap­pened to hear about them in my grand­moth­er sto­ries.

  • Laura says:

    Thank you Abbas, your com­ment real­ly put into per­spec­tive as to how these draw­ings would have been use­ful in dai­ly life.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Fas­ci­nat­ing, thanks Abbas!

  • Asef says:

    as abbas said those pics have ref­er­ence to Per­sian sto­ry and Per­sian demons we call them div (دیو) and also some ppl like exor­cist use that hol­ly word to keep away the demons from their life and their night­mare

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