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Beelzebub is a name associated with evil, demons and the devil himself. While the name itself is multi-layered in its meaning and variations, the character of Beelzebub has had significant influence on religion and culture.
Who Exactly is Beelzebub?
There is some variation in spelling, and it is not uncommon to find the name rendered Beelzebul. This is due primarily to differences in translation. Scholarly consensus is that the name originates from ancient Phillistia.
The city of Ekron worshipped a god whose name was Ba’al Zebub or Zebul. Ba’al is a title meaning ‘Lord” in the Semitic languages of the region. The variation in spelling also gives rise to differing views on the meaning of the name.
Ba’al Zebub strictly translated means “Lord of the Flies”. This could be referring to a possible cult of flies which existed as part of Philistine worship. In this understanding Beelzebub held power over the swarming pests and could drive them out of the land. It may also refer to his ability to fly.
An alternate view suggests that Beelzebub is a derogatory term used by the Hebrews for the rightly named Ba’al Zebul, “Lord of the Heavenly Dwelling”. In this circumstance, the Hebrews would be associating the Philistine god with dung heaps and the Philistines themselves with flies. Either way, the name as it continues to be used today has its point of reference in the Hebrew Bible.
Beelzebub and the Hebrew Bible
Direct reference of Beelzebub is made in 2 Kings 1:2-3, where the story is told of King Ahazi’ah falling and injuring himself. He responds by sending messengers to Ekron to ask Ba’al Zebub whether he will recover.
The Hebrew prophet Elijah hears of what the king has done and confronts him, prophesying that he will indeed die from his injuries because he sought to ask the god of the Philistines as if there was no God in Israel, Yahweh, who could answer. Implied in this prophecy is that Yahweh is the one who has the power to heal, not foreign gods.
It is the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, that renders the name Ba’al Zebub from the Hebrew pronunciation Ba’al Zevuv. Some of the uncertainty around the translation of the name can be seen in comparing the narrative in 2 Kings with the use of the word zebul in 1 Kings 8. While dedicating the Temple, King Solomon declares, “I have built thee an exalted house”.
Beelzebub in the Christian Bible
The Christian Bible carried on the preference for using Beelzebub. It was used in the early versions translated in Syriac, also known as Aramaic. This was then copied into the Latin Vulgate that became the official Roman Catholic version of the Bible for centuries during the Middle Ages.
In 1611, the first edition of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible utilized the same spelling for its English translation. This is how the spelling Beelzebub became the dominant usage throughout western civilization to the exclusion of alternatives. This persisted until relatively recently with modern biblical scholarship and archaeology. For example, the references made in Matthew 12 and Luke 11 speak of Beelzebul in the Revised Standard Version.
The use in Matthew 12, repeated in Luke 11, is part of Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees. These religious leaders accuse Jesus of being able to cast out demons by the power of the greater demon Beelzebul. Jesus responds with the famous words, “No city or house divided against itself will stand” (Matt.12:25) He goes on to explain the illogicality of Satan being against himself, and that if it is by the power of Beelzebul that he casts out demons, he asks how the Pharisees do it.
Apparently, Jesus’ opponents calling him Beelzebul was not new to him. He was already familiar with the accusation, according to another reference in Matthew 10:25. In Matthew it is unclear whether Jesus is referring to Satan and Beelzebul as separate beings or using the names interchangeably. This could be the source for how the two names became synonymous with one another in later Christian tradition.
Beelzebub in the Christian Tradition
By the early modern period of the 16th and 17th century, a significant amount of speculation had developed in the area of hell and demonology. Beelzebub figures prominently in these myths.
According to one he is one of the three leading demons along with Lucifer and Leviathan, all of whom serve Satan. In another he led a revolt against Satan in hell, is Lucifer’s lieutenant and leader of the Order of the Fly, a court of demons in hell.
He is present in two great works of Christian literature. In Paradise Lost, written by John Milton in 1667, he is part of an unholy trinity along with Lucifer and Astaroth. John Bunyan also includes him in the 1678 work Pilgrim’s Progress.
Beelzebub is also responsible for his fair share of demon possessions, most notably at the Salem witch trials in Salem Massachusetts. Between 1692 and 1693, more than 200 people were accused of being involved in witchcraft, and ultimately nineteen were executed. The Reverend Cotton Mather, the most prominent and influential of New England Puritans, was heavily involved in the carrying out of the trials and present at several executions. He later wrote a small work entitled Of Beelzebub and His Plot.
Beelzebub in Modern Culture
The ending of the Salem trials, the last of the significant witch hunts, was not the end of the influence of Beelzebub, however. The name continues to carry significance into modern culture.
The title of the 1954 debut novel by William Golding, Lord of the Flies is a clear reference to the demonic figure. The 70’s rock band Queen refers to Beelzebub in their hit song Bohemian Rhapsody. The Archdevil Baalzebul is a character in the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.
Modern Demonology carries forward and adds to the lore of Beelzebub begun in the 16th century. It combines many of the elements, recognizing Beelzebub as a god worshipped by the Philistines, who participated in the rebellion of Satan and was numbered among the ⅓ of heavenly beings who fell as a result and were thrown into hell.
He is one of the top three demons, and rules over his own army known as the Order of the Fly. He is an advisor to the devil and closest to the chief demon Lucifer. His powers include the power to fly and the enormous influence he holds due to his close association with the leaders of Hell. He is associated with the vices of pride and gluttony.
The name Beelzebub has been in use since the time of some of the earliest known civilizations. It is a name synonymous with evil, hell, and demonology. Whether his name is being used interchangeably with Satan or as an advisor and close associate with other high-ranking demons, the influence of Beelzebub on western religion and culture is enormous. He continues to appear in prominent ways in our own times.