Musee des Tapisseries, Angers, France/Giraudon/Art Resource, NY

Babylon is invaded by demons in this apocalyptic 14th-century French tapestry illustrating chapter 18 of the Book of Revelation: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons” (Revelation 18:2).

The first-century author of this text is using Babylon as a metaphor for Rome, but the idea of demons as malicious spirits reflects a shift in Jewish—and later, Christian—thinking that began with the exile to the real Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E. After that disaster, Jews’ understanding of the covenant changed: Worldly fortune and misfortune were less tied to having pleased or displeased God—divine reward and punishment now being reserved for the afterlife—and demons came back into the picture as malicious forces affecting human life irrespective of God’s will. The spirit- and demon-rich religion of Persia that the Jews encountered in their exile no doubt contributed to the return of demons in postbiblical Judaism.