Peacock Angel: The Esoteric Tradition of the Yezidis

Peacock Angel: The Esoteric Tradition of the Yezidis

Peter Lamborn Wilson
Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2022: 272 pp., paper, $22.99.

One of the strangest and most misunderstood religions is the Yezidis, a sect of alleged devil worshippers in Kurdistan in the Middle East.

As one might expect from their reputation as devotees of the Evil One, the Yezidis have been subject to intense persecution from Muslims, particularly in recent decades.

In Peacock Angel, Peter Lamborn Wilson delves into the lore and thought of the Yezidis to cast some light on this much-maligned faith.

The first question is, are the Yezidis in fact worshippers of the Devil? That has to do with how you view their principal deity, Melek Ta’us, the Peacock Angel. Defenders of the Yezidis say that he cannot be identified with the Devil as understood in the Abrahamic faiths. But Wilson writes,

Nowadays, it is fashionable to deny that the Yezidis are “devil worshippers,” either out of pious political correctitude, or to shield them from the wrath of Sunni extremists. I will take issue with denial, first because I will argue that the Yezidis . . . worship daevas [devas]; and second, because I am convinced that Melek Ta’us “is” Azazel or Lucifer, the character sometimes known as Satan, the fallen (arch) Angel, who in the Yezidi telling is pardoned and restored by God to his viceregal position. He is certainly Lord of the World, and bestower of all good, but is himself beyond good and evil.

Wilson explains, “The Yezidis say they believe in one God, but that He is a deus absconditus [an “absconded god”] who has left the work of the universe to his viceregent Azazel” or Melek Ta’us.

Like Lucifer, Melek Ta’us fell but has been forgiven and restored to a high position.

The Yezidis have many other curious features. They are a closed group: you simply cannot convert to Yezidism; to that extent, they are an ethnic group of their own. Furthermore, although they have written texts, their tradition is fundamentally oral. Yezidism is not what Islam would call a “religion of the Book”; in fact “Yezidism . . . rejects the Book. It opposes the Book,” Wilson writes. It even prescribes illiteracy for most of its believers.

Indeed the Yezidi sacred texts did not appear till the late nineteenth century, created, Wilson suggests, as a way of deflecting persecution from the Muslims. But these books do not have the authority of the oral tradition.

Where did Yezidism come from? Wilson suggests that it is descended from Indo-Iranian groups that held out against Zoroastrianism in the first millennium BC, continuing to worship the daevas condemned by Zoroaster.

More recently, Wilson traces Yezidism to one Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir al-Hakkari, born into a noble Arab family, who died c.1162 at around the age of ninety. Like certain heterodox Sufis, he claimed to be one with God (blasphemy in Muslim eyes) and picked up another heretical Sufi idea: that Shaytan (Satan) had been redeemed. Wilson believes that these fringe Muslim sources merged with survivals of the old pre-Zoroastrianism daeva worship to create what is now known as Yezidism.

Many other elements went into this mélange of teachings, one being the doctrine of the seven spirits governing the cosmos, an idea that appears everywhere from the book of Zechariah to the old Orphic mysteries. Whether these gods are beneficent or malign (as the Gnostics, for example, taught) is a subtle question that raises the issue of what is good and what is bad. Many fringe traditions (none of them ever granted mainstream legitimacy in their associated religions) believed in a reversal of good and evil—like a Sufi sect called the Ahl-i Haqq (“people of the truth”), who despised the conventional Muslim sharia (law) to the point of roasting pigs and drinking wine.

Both in his own person and through his alter ego Hakim Bey, Wilson has been holding up the black banner of antinomianism and anarchy for decades, so of course the Yezidis would have an almost irresistible appeal for him.

Nevertheless, an attempt at a sober analysis suggests that Wilson’s portrayal of this mysterious and rejected religion is fundamentally accurate. He does full justice to the differences between the Abrahamic Satan and Melek Ta’us, noting that the latter has both been granted full restoration after his fall and that the deus absconditus has given him the rulership of the world.

Wilson has traveled for decades in the Middle East, making friends and acquaintances among heretical Muslims of all kinds, and his account reflects a deep knowledge of the area and its people, while supplying amusing and instructive anecdotes. His take on the Yezidis is learned, convincing, and enjoyable, and is no doubt the best introduction to this vexed subject.

Richard Smoley