The word qliphoth is a Hermetic term that comes from the Hebrew kellipot (“shells”). In Kabbalah, the kellipot are barriers that separate things from Yahweh, the God of Abraham. They aren’t necessarily “evil”; they are what make individuality possible, which can be good or bad depending on the context. But in Hermetic Qabalah (which is altogether different from Kabbalah), qliphoth are considered to be the astral “shells” of beings and worlds that use to exist, but which have long since been destroyed. Soulless and bodiless, they do whatever they can to intrude upon our reality; and like vampires, they feed upon the psychological traumas of the living. Many of them are completely evil by any definition of the term, and they should be avoided at all costs. The singular form of qliphoth is qlipha, and the term is more or less equivalent to how the word “demon” is most often used in our modern vernacular. In other words, qliphoth are basically malevolent ghosts that are bad for the living and that must be execrated whenever they are encountered.
I try to use the word qliphoth as much as possible whenever I refer to evil spirits on this website. I prefer to use this term rather than demon because the latter is very culturally loaded. In the original Greek, a daimon is virtually any spiritual entity that exists somewhere between Gods and humans. This is an incredibly wide spectrum that includes everything from ghosts and ancestral spirits to regional nature spirits (e.g., centaurs, dryades, nymphs, satyrs, etc.). In this sense, daimon (as well as its Latin equivalent, daemon) is a morally neutral term that has nothing to do with whether a paranormal entity is “good” or “evil.” In fact, the Greeks referred to spirits that are friendly toward humans as agathodaimones or eudaimones, while malevolent spirits were called kakodaimones. When Christians came along, they started using daemon as a word for any spirit that didn’t submit to Yahweh’s authority. This included not only fallen angels, but polytheist Gods and Goddesses as well. Hence why medieval Christian grimoires include such “demons” as Ammon (a corruption of Amun), Astaroth (a corruption of Ishtar/Astarte), and Bael (a corruption of Ba’al Hadad).
However, there are Hellenic reconstructionists who prefer to use the word daimon in its original context as a morally neutral term; in this sense, “demons” are just intermediary spirits in general. There are also Demonolators (demon worshipers) who believe that demons aren’t necessarily “evil,” but that they are a distinct class of intermediary spirit (i.e., usually a class that’s chthonic and that relates to the Underworld somehow). In this context, demons are altogether different from elves, faeries, ghosts, elementals, etc. Some Demonolators actually worship Deities who were demonized by Jews and Christians (e.g., “Astaroth” or “Bael”), but accept the word “demon” as a valid term for these Divinities. Still others use the term “demon” specifically for regional nature spirits that are described in the Bible (e.g., se’irim or satyrs, lilitu or succubi, etc.), which they don’t see as being categorically “evil.” (In many cases, these entities are only described as “evil” in the Bible because their cults were competition against that of Yahweh in ancient Israel.) The really important thing to understand here is that when Demonolators and Hellenic reconstructionists say they “worship demons” or “daimones,” they are not claiming to worship evil spirits.
Even spirits that hurt people aren’t necessarily evil through and through. It’s one thing if a spirit is provoked into hurting people; consider Goetia, in which the magician evokes spirits and binds them to his or her will. This normally involves hurling abusive insults at the spirits and bossing them around while standing inside a protective circle that the spirits supposedly can’t cross. The idea is that the spirits might tear the magician apart if he or she is foolish enough to step outside the circle, but bearing such ill treatment in mind, can anyone blame them? Plus, many (though not all) of the Goetic “demons” are just polytheist Gods and Goddesses who’ve been bastardized, which means they aren’t really “demons” at all. It’s quite a different matter, however, when a spirit harms people simply because it can, without any sort of justifiable reason. We can debate all day as to why it does what it does, but for all practical intents and purposes, it is purely and simply evil. The only appropriate way to interact with such spirits is to avoid and/or execrate them accordingly.
When I use the word qliphoth, I’m referring to spirits that are specifically characterized as evil in their own original lore and that have always been considered such for as long as we’ve known about them (even in pre-biblical times). This doesn’t include entities like “Astaroth” and “Bael,” who are simply Divinities that were demonized by other religions. Only beings like Anzu, Lamia and Zahhak count as qliphoth, and I personally think they should be avoided at all costs.
Now you might be wondering just where I think qliphoth come from. Let’s say there’s this guy named Freddy who really enjoys hurting people as much as he can. Freddy dies, and Anubis comes and takes him to Duat while his spirit double remains here on Earth as a ghost. Once there, Freddy’s heart is weighed and is (unsurprisingly) found unworthy of the afterlife, so Anubis feeds his dirty rotten soul to Ammut (whereupon Freddy ceases to exist forever). Meanwhile, Freddy’s ghost still lingers here on Earth. Since Freddy has no living relatives who like him enough to want to remember him or visit his grave, his ghost is in danger of fading away forever. Perhaps it might learn to survive by tormenting the living and feeding on the psychic and/or bioelectrical energy they release when they’re terrified. If this happens, Freddy’s ghost becomes a qlipha. It might not remember that it was ever a living person, and it might not even be fully aware of what it’s doing; but this qlipha will do whatever it can to perpetuate itself. What’s more, it will very likely target children (since they’re already more vulnerable to astral attack than most adults) while they’re asleep and dreaming (since this is when we’re all more prone to travel on the astral plane).
I think that most (if not all) qliphoth are astral fragments of people and creatures (both terrestrial and extraterrestrial) that were once alive, but which no longer exist. Lamashtu, for instance, probably began as a woman who died in childbirth, and qliphoth that were never human to begin with (e.g., druden) probably began as aliens of some sort (possibly from alternate universes in some cases, rather than planets). I realize I’m reaching into some truly weird territory here, and that it’s truly impossible for anyone to be certain as to what qliphoth actually are; this is just a working theory, not a dogma. The only thing I feel sure of is that qliphoth are not on the same level as Deities, that they’re bad to mess around with, and that any true Deity (especially apotropaic ones like Seth-Typhon) can dispense with them very easily. I fully admit that this is a dogma on my part, and it’s one that I happen to be very happy with, so take from it what you will.
I don’t think that qliphoth always fully understand what they’re doing; I agree with Big Steve King when he wrote in Desperation that “Evil is both fragile and stupid, dying soon after the ecosystem it’s poisoned.” But regardless of whether they’re fully cognizant or not, they all serve the Backward Face and help it to oppose Ma’at. This is part of the reason why I think qliphoth originate as normal living things; they clearly have a natural instinct for self-preservation, even if that instinct has been twisted and warped into something imbalanced and self-destructive. The Backward Face, however, is far worse because it doesn’t want anything to exist, not even itself. Its ultimate goal is to erode all of Ma’at back into Nun, the primordial nothingness, but it will also settle for uncreating small things whenever it can. This is precisely what happens when a human being is reduced to an astral fragment of him or herself after death. The more that people commit evil acts, the greater a chance their souls have of being destroyed after the Weighing of the Heart. The more human souls that are destroyed, the greater a chance that their lingering spirits will become qliphoth. And the more qliphoth that come into existence, the more unwitting servants the Backward Face has to help it destroy more people’s lives.
This is yet another reason why being a good person and upholding Ma’at is more than just a good idea to live by. There’s an actual spiritual war going on here, by Gods, and by being nice to a complete stranger or providing food and clothes to someone who really needs them, you aren’t just being a good person; you’re reinforcing the sense of reciprocation and togetherness that helps to keep our world alive. And in the long run, you’re helping to prevent both yourself and the people whose lives you touch from becoming qliphoth after death.