St Antony and His Encounters with Demons

St Antony and His Encounters with Demons

(from St. Athanasius’ Life of St Antony, c. 360AD)

Guest Post by Marcelo P. Souza

In this paper I will analyze St. Athanasios’ Life of Saint Antony, particularly with regards to the element of demonology and spiritual warfare in the work. The Vita addresses many different topics and can be assessed from different perspectives – e.g., Antony’s physical journey as it mirrors the spiritual journey, a historical record of the development of monasticism, the problem of heretics and schismatics and how to deal with them, etc. I will not concentrate on these issues, but, after a brief historical background, I will address Antony’s encounter with the demons, and how that relates to his journey and to Scriptural data. Then, after addressing Antony’s most striking encounter with demons (involving physical injuries and a theodicy), I will analyze, from the text, (1) the demonic tactics and approaches, (2), the Christian response in faith and praxis, and (3) theological issues related to the topic as they are found in the Vita.

Historical Context

The monastic movement was in many ways a continuation of the tendencies already established in the Christian communities, where baptism was understood as entrance upon a life marked by renunciation of the present order of things and the entire dedication to the new order manifested in the resurrection of Christ. The martyrs were the ultimate model of dedication to Christ – who, like him, fought against the powers of evil and triumphed over them through death. Like Christ, they counted the world and its values as things to be spurned, even to the loss of their own lives, for the sake of the kingdom of God.

From early on, the churches had known their ascetics who sought to imitate Christ and his martyrs, seeking the fullness of Christian life in the full renunciation of the attachments of this world. They renounced family, the pursuit and possessions of riches, committed to sexual continence, fasting, prayer and the study of Scripture. Many consciously appropriated the old Hellenistic ideal of the philosophical life, detached from worldly distractions, and directed towards contemplation and the habituation into virtue.

Although giving continuation to such tendencies present in Christian asceticism, the monastic movement also developed in its own particular way. While the former had been present more in the urban centers (since it was there that Christianity initially grew), the monastic movement was mostly a phenomenon seen among the peasantry, who initially sought retreat in the deserts of northern Africa for their ascetic practices. The monastic movement included initially a search for solitude; some sought such isolation primarily for their spiritual development, others for other ulterior motives, such as evasion from debt, tax collectors, family, etc.

This isolation created problems for the ecclesiastical structure of the Church, since those who sought the desert were not, at least in practice, under the supervision and authority of their bishops. This became even more problematic when the populace would revere them and seek them out in the desert for their spiritual guidance and advice. This problem was resolved only as the leaders of the churches themselves became sponsors, organizers, and eventually products of this movement.

One of the earliest and most influential monastic leaders was Antony of Egypt (251-356). Athanasius wrote his biography, Life of Antony, and the bishop’s fame and authority provided the base for the wide dissemination of this work and the consequent spread of Antony’s fame. One of the most influential writings of Western literature, the Confessions of St Augustine, has its central turning point when he is led to repentance and conversion after hearing his friends’ reports of St Antony – his life, asceticism, resolve, and holiness.

Antony was a native of Egypt, of Coptic ancestry and language, born about 250. At about 20, he walked into a church and heard the words of Mat. 19:21: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” He was seized by those words, sold his parental inheritance, and took up the life of a hermit at the edge of his village, under the tutelage of an older ascetic. He eventually moved farther into the desert and spent twenty years in the solitude of a ruined fort near the coast of the Red Sea.

The struggle of the martyrs, in his particular experience, took the form of fighting against the demonic powers in their very dwelling place, the desert. He was able to overcome them through constant work, fasting, vigil, prayer, and the recitation of the Scriptures. When St Antony emerged from his retreat, he was not only perceived as a hero, but also a holy man, one who represented human nature restored to its proper glory. He healed the sick, reconciled enemies, and by word and deed taught the wisdom he had learned. As others started gathering around him, a loose community of hermits appeared under his tutelage. At the opening of the fourth century, other such leaders and communities appeared in North Africa. By the time Antony died in 356, there were probably thousands of ascetics who had sought life in the desert.

With the growth in numbers of those seeking the ascetic life, a new communal form of monastic practice appeared in Upper (southern) Egypt under the leadership and inspiration of Pachomius (ca. 290-346). He organized a monastic community in Tabbenisi in around 320, where members lived a strictly common life (κοινός βίος, Latin “cenobite”) following a common schedule of work, prayer, and meditation. In time, there developed a number of such monastic centers which supported themselves by their work and were directed to mutual assistance and encouragement. Antony’s eremitical monasticism and Pachomius’ coenobitism coexisted and spread.

In some places the ascetic practice was developed into more radical forms. In Syria, Simeon the Elder (390-459) spent thirty years of his life living at the top of a pillar, where he prayed and preached to the pilgrims who came to visit him. Others followed this practice, and they were objects of popular reverence and devotion. Simeon himself was appealed to by the imperial authorities for assistance in settling the controversies surrounding the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon.

In Cappadocia and Pontus, and later in Asia Minor generally, coenobitism became the rule. Basil of Caesarea promoted such monastic communities as means to develop the “philosophical life” and the love of God and of neighbor. Monks were to practice charity toward their neighbors as well as to submit to the leader of the community, called the abbot. Basil also encouraged monasteries to situate themselves on the edges of the cities, so as to be able to offer instruction, example, medical services, hospitality, and care for the populace and the needy.

The growth of these communities eventually required the development of written rules to regulate monastic life. Monasticism also received its intellectual framework from the tradition of Platonist theology which stemmed from Clement of Alexandria and Origen, emphasizing the soul’s progress from the beginning of its life in Christ at baptism to the fruition of that life in contemplative knowledge of God. Evagrius Ponticus (346-399) was instrumental in establishing this framework in Egypt.

Athanasius’ Life of Antony was translated into Latin and became influential in the West. Martin of Tours (ca. 335-397), who had been abbot of a community, became the bishop of Tours and brought his way of life with him there. In Gaul, John Cassian (ca. 360-435), a disciple of Evagrius Ponticus, founded a community in Marseilles. Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences, works designed to acquaint Western ascetics with the Egyptian tradition of monasticism, became foundational documents for Western monasticism. Other communities developed in Spain, Italy, and other areas, and by the fifth and sixth centuries there was a multiplication of formal rules for individual monasteries (Jerome translated Pachomius’ rule into Latin).

Beginning of Struggle

St. Athanasios writes, “for simply to remember Antony is a great profit and assistance for me also . . .  you will want to emulate his purpose, for Antony’s way of life provide monks with sufficient picture for ascetic practice.”[1]St. Athanasios, The Life and Affairs of Holy Father Anthony (Written and dispatched to the monks abroad), Introduction. Athanasios describes Antony as an Egyptian by heritage, of good family possessing considerable wealth, even Christians who reared him in Faith. In infancy he was brought up with his parents, and from childhood to his early adult life, Antony preferred the home life, being obedient to his parents, after whose death he was left alone with one little sister when he was about eighteen or twenty, and on him the care both of home and sister rested. Athanasios relates that it within six months after the death of his parents, as he went into the Lord’s House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Savior, sold their possessions and laid them at the Apostles’ feet for distribution to the needy, and what great a hope was laid up for them in heaven.

Pondering over these things he entered the church when the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you will have a treasure in heaven.” Antony, St. Athanasios says, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers, reserving a little for his sister’s sake. Later, having committed his sister to a convent to be brought up, he devoted himself “outside his house” (perhaps in the outskirts of the village) to discipline and training. In the adjacent village, there was an old man who had lived the life of a hermit from his youth. Antony, after he had seen this man, imitated him. Antony worked manually, having heard, “he who is idle let him not eat,” and he was constant in prayer.

Antony is described as one being loved by all and learning from the virtues he observed in others, such as freedom from anger, lovingkindness, study, endurance, fasting, sleeping on the ground, meekness, piety towards Christ and mutual love. At this point, St Athanasios introduces the early conflicts with the demons, which would last for the rest of Antony’s life. Athanasios writes, “The devil, who despises and envies good, could not bear seeing such a purpose in a youth.”[2]Ibid., 5. First, he tried to lead him away from the discipline, whispering to him the remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister, claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory, the various pleasures of the table and the other relaxation of life, and at last the difficulty of virtue.

It is of notice that the beginning of this spiritual conflict, which would take on many different forms later, begins here in the realm primarily of the mind; Demons were not yet attacking Antony visibly or even physically, as they did later, but the contest began to take place in the realm of this thoughts and feelings, the “intellectual part of the soul,” a more subtle way in which it is not easy do discern whether the events of one’s mental and emotional life are simply the natural movements of a fallen nature and will, or whether they are related in some way to outside spiritual activity. Perhaps Antony would describe this demonic attack later in hindsight, after his more explicit experiences, and that is what St Athanasios is relating here.

Antony fortified his resolve by prayer and fasting – a very early example of a wholistic asceticism, where physical training functions as medicine for intellectual and emotional temptations – and he considered the threat of the fire of judgment. Also, St Athanasios mentions that “working with Antony as the Lord . . . It is not I, but the grace of God which is in me.” Here Athanasios provides (as he does throughout the vita) a theological context for the story. Antony struggled in asceticism and overcame the attacks of the demons, but not by his own strength alone, but by the grace of God. It is the presence and favor of God that allows Antony to struggle in the first place, and ultimately to succeed.

Unsuccessful in his intellectual warfare, the “dragon” begins a less subtle and more visual approach; he “altered himself” and appeared as a “black boy” to Antony, revealing himself as “the spirit of fornication.” It is unclear why the question of a particular race would be featured in the visible manifestation of the devil, particularly as this is taken place in Egypt, where black boys would have been very common; Athanasios does not expound on that either. At any rate, Antony uses the physical blackness to evoke a metaphorical interpretation in his response: “You then, are much to be despised, for you are black of mind, and like a powerless child . . .  The Lord is my helper, and I shall look upon my enemies.” This invocation of Scripture (Psalm 22 (23)) features another central concept in Antony’s struggle against spiritual forces, in imitation of Christ who used Scripture in answer to Satan’s temptations in the desert. Antony quotes a passage and skips a few verses to emphasize the part that mentions “look upon,” so as to present a pointed Scriptural basis for the particular event (looking at the enemy who manifested itself visually). Once again, Athanasios provides the theological explanation, also with a quotation from Scripture, saying that “this was Antony’s first struggle against the devil, or rather this victory was the Savior’s work in Antony, ‘Who condemned sin in the flesh that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit’” (Romans 8:3-4).[3]Ibid., 7.

Athanasios therefore continues to provide a more systematized theological explanation of the devil and his tactics, as well as Antony’s solution. He says that (1) Antony learned from the Scriptures that the devices of the devil are many, that (2) the demon loves sin, and that (3) the body plays a central role in the struggle, but not exclusively; therefore, Antony zealously continued the discipline, reckoning that though the devil had not been able to deceive his heart by bodily pleasure, he would endeavor to ensnare him by other means; and so he planned to accustom himself to a severer mode of life.

Athanasios lists some of the key elements of his ascetic struggle: He kept vigil to such an extent that he often continued the whole night without sleep; he ate once a day, after sunset, sometimes once in two days, and often even in four. His food was bread and salt, his drink was only water only. He ate no meat and drank no wine. He slept on a mat sometimes, but most of the time on the bare ground. He would not anoint himself with oil but sought to weaken the body in order to strengthen the soul, saying “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Most importantly, Antony had a long-term plan for his ascetic struggle, since he considered that progress in virtue and retirement from the world ought not to be measured by time, but by desire and fixity of purpose. In this way he did not dwell in the past, but day by day, as if he were at the beginning of his discipline, mindful of passages such as “ Forgetting the things which are behind and stretching forward to the things which are before” (Phil. 3:14) and the life of Elijah (e.g., “the Lord lives before whose presence I stand today,” 1 Kings 18:15); from that prophet, says Athanasios, Antony sought to see his own life as in a mirror.[4]Ibid.

Intense Warfare

We see now in the narrative a new, escalating level of demonic attack opposing Antony. What had started as mental and emotional suggestions, and later progressed to visual attacks (whether they were visions or appearances), now becomes physical attacks inflicted by the spiritual beings. This in itself seems counter intuitive, because it raises the question of how non-physical, spiritual beings can manipulate the physical world so as to cause physical pain. Since the time of Antony, this kind of attack is related in the lives of many saints,[5]Most recently, in the memoirs of St Joseph the Hesychast. but the early account here does not present a philosophical explanation of how the process works, but merely that it happened.

As part of his increasingly strict training and self-discipline, Antony departed for the tombs which at a distance from the village. He asked one of his friends to bring him bread at certain intervals of several days and to depart and shut the door on Antony, who remained within alone. Athanasios explains that the enemy was afraid that Antony’s influence would grow in the desert, so he came one night with a multitude of demons and cut Antony with stripes so severely that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. The torture was so severe, the account explains, that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused Antony such torment.

However, once again God intervenes; Athanasios calls it the “providence of God” that the next day his friend came bringing him the loaves, opened the door and saw him lying on the ground as though dead. He lifted him up and carried him to the church in the village; the villagers thought Antony was dead, but at about midnight he came to himself and arose. Antony then proceeded to ask his friend to carry him again to the tombs without waking anybody.[6]Ibid., 8. The attack had been physical, severe, and left Antony half dead. We can infer that the narrative is presented with the implied wonder that this would evoke; and yet, there is no explicit reaction as to how this could happen, if this was unheard of before, or anything of the sort. Rather, the narrative brings its focus to the providential care of God (leaving the question open as to how or why He permitted this, to be answered later) and, most of all, to Antony’s astonishing resolve and purpose, as he, before having time to recover, asks to be brought back into the nightmare he had just barely escaped. Antony was taken back but he could no longer stand up because of his injuries, so he prayed as he laid down, shouting to the demon, Here I am, I do not flee from your stripes, for even if you inflict more nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35-39). The enemy, marveling at his resolve, called his minions and told them how Antony could not be won either by lust or blows, so another tactic was needed.

At this point in the narrative, as with many others, one gets a sense that the particular details, reasons, conversations, explanations, vindications, theological context of events receive a certain hand from Athanasios, who puts the story in its proper context as a paradigm for monasticism, general spiritual life, ascetic struggle, spiritual warfare, God’s grace, etc. This does not detract from the truth of the Vita (and certainly it does not diminish the dynamism of the narrative), but rather augment it. The demons then go back to the attack in the tombs, so in the night they shook the place as in an earthquake, and the spiritual beings seemed to enter through the four walls, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things.

This is yet another feature and escalation of the demonic activity: they now appear as hideous creatures and/or wild beasts ready to devour, tormenting by shock and awe, fear, and terror. The place, Athanasios tells, was filled with (the forms of) lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach; the apparitions were dreadful. Antony felt the pain of his wounds, but he decided to mock them, saying that if there had been any power in them, it would have sufficed for only one of them to come and destroy him. He challenged them to attack and consummate, or else, if they were unable, to leave him alone.

God’s Appearance and Theodicy

Once again, Athanasios reminds the reader that the Lord was no forgetful of Antony’s wrestling but was at hand to help him. Looking up, Antony saw the roof as it were opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again intact. Here we have perhaps the most memorable conversation in the vita, which is familiar to many people who have heard of St Antony even if they have had not the chance to read the account. Recognizing God’s entering on the stage, so to speak, in the climax of a hellish battle of movie-like proportions, and causing the demons and the pain to instantly disappear, Antony candidly asks the God whom he served, “Where were you? Why did not come at the beginning to make my pains to cease?’ God spoke to him and said, I was here, Antony, but I waited to watch your struggle. And now, since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be your helper forever, and I will make you famous everywhere.[7]Ibid., 10. Having heard this, Antony arose and prayed, and received such strength that it seemed as though he had more power in his body now than formerly. He was then about thirty-five years old.

This is reminiscent of a curious passage in the book of Job, as found only in the Septuagint. For readers of the Masoretic text in its many translations, it is notorious that God never gave Job an answer to his perplexing questions. Rather, God answered by changing Job in a theophanic encounter, while asking Job the rhetorical questions of “where were you, Job, when I created?” In other words, who can scrutinize the purposes of God, or, in the words of St Paul, “who are you, man, to answer back to God? . . . Does not the potter have power over the clay?” (Rom. 9:20-21). However, in the text of the Septuagint, which was mostly used by the early Church, and certainly by St Athanasios, there is a passage in Job that does not appear in the Masoretic text, and which does provide a similar answer to Job as to what we read here in the interaction between Antony and God. In chapter 40, the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: “Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me: Would you indeed annul My judgment? Would you condemn Me that you may be justified?” However, in the LXX, the text is different; it says, “Do not set aside my judgment: and do you think that I have dealt with you in any other way, other than that you might be manifested to be righteous?”[8]Μὴ ἀποποιοῦ μου τὸ κρίμα. οἴει δέ με ἄλλως σοι κεχρηματικέναι ἢ ἵνα ἀναφανῇς δίκαιος; (Job 40:8)

As God told Job that He allowed his suffering so that he could be vindicated as a righteous man, as an example to generations to come, of faith, perseverance, struggle, and the grace of God, so too, here, God tells Antony the same thing: “I waited to watch your struggle, and since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be your helper forever, and I will make you famous everywhere.” The encounter with the demons not only vindicates Antony’s faith, courage, strength, and perseverance – and the attending grace of God – but it also serves a model for those who will take upon a life of discipline, devotion, and askesis. Athanasios says that the inroad and manifestation of the evil spirits is filled with confusion, with sounds and cries which cause fear in the heart, tumult and confusion of thought, dejection, hatred towards them who live a life of discipline, indifference, grief, remembrance of kinsfolk and fear of death, desire of evil things, disregard of virtue and unsettled habits. However, says Athanasios, in one’s perseverance and through the grace of God, one’s fear is immediately taken away and in place of it comes joy unspeakable, cheerfulness, courage, renewed strength, calmness of thought, boldness and love toward God. Therefore, one ought to be of good courage and say one’s prayers to God.[9]Ibid., 36.

Now the narrative takes on a new chapter, as it includes a new “exodus” in Antony’s life. He had left home for the outskirts of the village; later he left for the desert, and the tombs; now he leaves for the mountain. On his way, the enemy puts real gold on the path before him, but Antony is not swayed. Eventually he finds a deserted fortress beyond the river and remains there, alone, receiving loaves of bread twice a year. Later he would go to what he called the “inner mountain.”


There are several ways in which the demons whom Antony encountered are described as to the manner they engaged in spiritual warfare and harassment. For example, even the people outside of Antony’s cell could hear crowds within clamoring, dinning, sending forth piteous voices and crying, “Go from what is ours. What do you want in the desert? You cannot withstand our attack.” As Antony explained to his friends, the demons make their seeming onslaughts against those who are cowardly. Sign yourselves therefore with the cross, he exhorted them, and depart boldly, and let these make sport for themselves.[10]Ibid., 13

When they see all Christians, and monks especially, making progress, they attack by temptation and place hindrances like evil thoughts. They attempt to strike fear, changing their shapes, taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things, gigantic bodies, and troops of soldiers. They pretend to prophesy and foretell the future, and to show themselves as having immense height and breadth.[11]Ibid., 23 They are deceptive and liars, and that which appears in them is no true light, but they are rather the preludes and likenesses of the fire prepared for them, who attempt to terrify men with those flames in which they themselves will be burned. They appear, but in a moment disappear again, hurting none of the faithful, but bringing with them the likeness of that fire which is about to receive themselves.[12]Ibid, 24.

They wake up the faithful to prayers, and at times they assume the appearance of monks and feign the speech of holy men, but they do this that they may carry off the simple to despair; and that they may say the discipline is useless, and make men loathe the solitary life as a trouble and burden.[13]Ibid., 25 They confuse, they confound and deceive the simple. They laugh madly, and whistle; but if no heed is paid to them they weep and lament.[14]Ibid., 26 Their appearance is filled with confusion, with sounds, trying to arise fear in the heart, tumult and confusion of thought, dejection, hatred towards them who live a life of discipline, indifference, grief, remembrance of family (particularly for monks) and fear of death, and desire of evil things, with disregard of virtue and unsettled habits.[15]Ibid., 36

Antony relates that often they would beat him with stripes, and he repeated again and again, “Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ,” and at this they started beating one another.[16]Ibid., 40 Once demons possessed an animal and appeared in a hybrid way. He saw a beast like a man to the thighs but having legs and feet like those of a donkey. Antony crossed himself and said, “If you are sent against me, behold I am here.” But the beast together with his evil spirits fled, so that, through his speed, he fell and died. And the death of the beast was the fall of the demons.[17]Ibid., 53.

Christian Response

There are also several places in which Antony describes the appropriate response to the attacks and tactics described above. We ought to fear God only, despise the demons, and not be afraid of them. The more they attack, the more we intensify our discipline against them, for a good life and faith in God is a great weapon, for they fear the fasting, sleeplessness, prayers, meekness, quietness, contempt of money and vainglory, humility, love of the poor, alms, freedom from anger, and most of all, piety towards Christ.[18]Ibid., 30. To keep the faith and observe the commandments delivers from judgment and from demons.[19]Ibid., 33.

We ought never to be fearful or despondent, but always remember that the Lord is with us, and so they cannot hurt us. They come to us in a form corresponding to the state in which they discover us and adapt their delusions to the condition of mind in which they find us. If they see us rejoicing in the Lord, contemplating the bliss of the future, deeming all things in His hand, and that no evil spirit has any strength against the Christian, nor any power at all over anyone, they are turned backwards.[20]Ibid., 42.

Ascetic struggle also features prominently not only for one’s progress but also for a defense against demons. Antony taught that a man ought to give all his time to his soul rather than his body (while caring for bodily necessities) to seek its profit, that it might not be dragged down by the pleasures of the body, but, on the contrary, the body might be in subjection to the soul.[21]Ibid., 45. To this end, he gave very specific advice. Keep yourselves from filthy thoughts and fleshly pleasures, he says, pray continually; avoid vain-glory sing psalms before sleep and on awaking, hold in your heart the commandments of Scripture, be mindful of the works of the saints. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, try your own selves and prove your own selves, daily taking note of your actions. If you have sinned, cease from it. If we record our thoughts as though we are about to tell them to one another, we shall the more easily keep ourselves free from vile thoughts through shame lest they should be known.[22]Ibid., 55.

Antony counselled his monks (and all of us) not to grow idle in their labors, nor to become faint in their training, but to live as though dying daily. Guard the soul from foul thoughts, eagerly to imitate the Saints, and to have nothing to do with schismatics, for you know their wicked and profane character (here we see perhaps the hand of Athanasios clarifying theological matters). Observe the traditions of the fathers, and chiefly the holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, which you have learned from the Scripture, and of which you have often been put in mind by me, he said in the counsels he gave before his death.[23]Ibid., 89.

Theological Issues

            The first and most obvious theological aspect to be seen in the Vita is the description of the origin of demons, particularly as this is a very early writing, which indicates the state of a more systematic approach to spiritual doctrine. Already in the 4th century, Antony (no doubt with editorial help of the great Athanasios) has a doctrine of creation which explains the existence of demons without compromising the goodness of God in his will to create. There are no traces of, say, Origenism, Gnosticism, Manicheism (which is explicitly rejected as heretical in the text), or any other dualistic system. Antony states that the demons have not been created as they are now, for God made nothing evil, but even they have been made good. Having fallen, however, from the heavenly wisdom, they were cast to the earth. They deceived the Greeks with their displays, while out of envy of us Christians they move all things in their desire to hinder us from entry into the heavens; in order that we should not ascend there.

Here we see not only an account of the angelic fall in which such creatures, by their envy and free will, were cast out from the presence of God to inhabit the created realm, but also their hatred of God being exacted also in their hatred for men, as the creatures of God. They deceived the pagans, they seek to deceive Christians, and ultimately, out of envy, to keep all from communion with God in heaven. Spiritual discernment, he says, will allow one to distinguish their traits and even judge between more or less evil demons, and to what kind of specialization, so to speak, they each devote themselves (Antony clearly understood them as individuals with particular assignments or preferences), and how each of them can be overturned and expelled.[24]Ibid., 22.

Another remarkable theological feature is the early understanding that the coming of the Lord had cosmic consequences not limited to the redemption of mankind. Antony says that since the Lord visited earth the enemy is fallen, and his powers weakened. He can do nothing, and yet, still like a tyrant, he did not bear his fall quietly, but threatened, though his threats were words only. They are immaterial, not being restricted with bodies like we have (although they are able to affect the physical realm and even injure one physically, as we have seen). Because they have no bodies, we cannot escape them by hiding of locking them outside of the door. They haunt all places, they are in the air, ever seeking evil and ready to injure. They cannot repent, they cannot be amended; nothing is so much sought after by them as wounding them that love virtue and fear God. But since they have no power to effect anything, they do nothing but threaten.[25]Ibid., 28.

They have no foreknowledge of things that have not yet occurred, for God is the only one who “knows all things before their birth.” They can only report what they see, even if unhindered by space or travel; in other words, they can tell things they have seen in the past or in the present to which one does not have access, and thereby lie, seeking to manipulate events and people.[26]Ibid., 31. They are also able to possess people, as seen in the Gospels. Antony relates that one time, Martinian, a military officer, came and asked concerning his daughter afflicted with an evil spirit. Antony had decided to be in seclusion, but when Martinian continued for a long while knocking at the door, and asking him to come out and pray to God for his child, Antony looked out from above and said, “Man, why are you calling me? I also am a man as you. If you believe on Christ whom I serve, go, and according as you believe, pray to God, and it shall come to pass.”  Martinian departed, believing, and calling upon Christ, and he received his daughter cleansed from the devil.[27]Ibid., 48.

Finally, the Vita includes descriptions of the demons as powers of the air who desire to attack and hinder souls who are departing from this life. A full discussion of the issue of “Toll Houses,” as put into contemporary theological discourse (particularly in Orthodoxy) is far beyond the scope of this paper. Here I seek only to present Antony’s words in the section that describes elements related to the topic.

Antony describes how once he was caught up in the spirit, standing and seeing himself, outside of the body; and he was led in the air by certain beings, angels in the context. Demons stood in the air and wished to hinder him from passing through, but when the angels opposed them, they demanded whether he was not accountable to them. The angels responded, “The Lord hath wiped out the sins from his birth, but from the time he became a monk, and devoted himself to God, it is permitted you to make a reckoning.” When they accused him and could not convict him, his way was free and unhindered.[28]Ibid., 65. Theologically it is evident that (1) the demons opposed his ascent in the spiritual realm as they did in the earthly realm; (2) there is a difference (Sacramental? Mystical?) between his life before becoming a monk and after, with regards to his accountability for sins; and (3) this is given in a vision, so Antony could relate to others during his life, as a teaching and warning.

He describes how he was astonished when he saw the opponents against whom we wrestle, and what efforts are needed to pass through the air because they fight and to attempt to hinder those who pass through. He grounds this theologically by citing St. Paul, who speaks of the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), against whom we ought to “take up the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day” (Eph. 6:11).

In another vision, “one from above” called Antony and commanded him to look up. As he did so, he “beheld one standing and reaching to the clouds, tall, hideous, and fearful, and others ascending as though they were winged. And the figure stretched forth his hands, and some of those who were ascending were stayed by him, while others flew above, and having escaped heavenward, were borne aloft free from care. At such, therefore, the giant gnashed his teeth, but rejoiced over those who fell back.”[29]Ibid., 66. Antony understood that this was the “passing of souls,” and that the tall being who stood was the enemy who envies the faithful. And those whom he caught and stopped from passing through are accountable to him, while those whom he was unable to hold as they passed upwards had not been subservient to him. Again, theologically, the implication is that the demonic forces were able to hinder those who served them. There is no discussion of guilt being weighed over against good deeds, but a more wholistic view in which how this life is lived will carry implications after death, when the spiritual curtain will be removed, so to speak. The result of these accounts, naturally, is an exhortation for purity of life” “having seen this . . .  he struggled the more daily to advance towards those things which were above.” Antony believed that relating these accounts would be beneficial for his monks, that they might learn that discipline bears good fruit.


            St. Athanasios’ account of the Life of St. Antony is rich with theological, ethical, and monastic teaching. The theological content itself encompasses many areas, especially as intended to counteract heretics and their teachings (noticeably as it has an Athanasian flavor to it). This paper outlined one of these areas, viz., demonology, which, while not the first account in early Christianity, is still very early, and therefore tremendously influential, especially as it relates to practical issues of faith, trust in God, the providence of God, theodicy, and the connection between the ethical and the spiritual life of all Christians.


1 St. Athanasios, The Life and Affairs of Holy Father Anthony (Written and dispatched to the monks abroad), Introduction.
2 Ibid., 5.
3 Ibid., 7.
4 Ibid.
5 Most recently, in the memoirs of St Joseph the Hesychast.
6 Ibid., 8.
7 Ibid., 10.
8 Μὴ ἀποποιοῦ μου τὸ κρίμα. οἴει δέ με ἄλλως σοι κεχρηματικέναι ἢ ἵνα ἀναφανῇς δίκαιος; (Job 40:8
9 Ibid., 36.
10 Ibid., 13
11 Ibid., 23
12 Ibid, 24.
13 Ibid., 25
14 Ibid., 26
15 Ibid., 36
16 Ibid., 40
17 Ibid., 53.
18 Ibid., 30.
19 Ibid., 33.
20 Ibid., 42.
21 Ibid., 45.
22 Ibid., 55.
23 Ibid., 89.
24 Ibid., 22.
25 Ibid., 28.
26 Ibid., 31.
27 Ibid., 48.
28 Ibid., 65.
29 Ibid., 66.
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