Where the devil is the Devil?
i. The Devil up
While the world was thundering toward the fatal millennial year 2000 AD and the airwaves were crackling with predictions of plagues and firestorms and battles at Armageddon, I could not help wondering what role the Devil would be playing in this last great drama of mankind. I spent a whole day leafing through the mainstream press of America looking for some mention of him, and all I could find on that particular day was a story in the show-business weekly, Variety announcing that to welcome the year 2000 there would be a movie in which the Devil comes to New York to subvert a human bride, and after many stunt-man adventures and car chases he is outwitted and undone by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The next day I applied to one of those Internet services which promises to keep up with everything being printed everywhere, and it reported 857 entries that day under the heading DEVIL as opposed to 5304 under the heading MONICA LEWINSKI.
No doubt interest in Ms. Lewinski has diminished in the following years, and her name may sound a little unfamiliar to younger people now while every one of any age knows who the Devil is. Still, what a humiliating comedown for one the mere mention of whose name was once enough to make the hair of kings stand up in terror, of whom St Augustine said, "The human race is the Devil's fruit tree, his own property, from which he may pick his fruit."
To appreciate the full extent of that downfall, try to put yourself in the place of some good folk transported by a time machine from some place in western Europe in the year 1000, as the Second Millennium was bowing in, to some town in middle America a thousand years later After the first gasp of astonishment at all the new things -- the automobiles, the skyscrapers, the half-naked women, the plumbing, the supermarkets -- you would begin to remark struck by the virtual disappearance of so many quotidian features of 11th century life. Where are the lice and the rats, the stench of the open sewers, the people screaming or moaning as they lie dying in the streets of famine and pestilence, or at home of traditional medicine, the long lines of Slavic slaves being whipped toward the labor markets of Moslem Spain, the throngs of dead heretics and blasphemers and pickpockets hanging on gibbets for crows to peck at, the random raids rapes and murders committed by armed men both foreign and domestic? But above all, you would ask yourself, where the devil is the Devil?
In the eleventh century and for at least half a millennium thereafter, the Devil was everywhere, you could not escape noticing him. He leered out of every church door, he capered through castle and church and cottage, his plots and pranks and temptings of humans were spelled out in lavish loathsome detail in sermons, on the stage, in pious books, in stories told in taverns or in homes at bedtime.
No corner or cranny of daily life escaped him. He lurked outside every orifice of the human body, waiting for the chance to get at the human soul inside -- that is why to this day we say God Bless You or Gesundheit when we hear some one sneeze.
The Devil fathered children on sleeping women, he stirred up conspiracies and treasons, he led travelers astray. He caused boils, plagues, tempests, earthquakes, heresies, barbarian invasions..Whatever he did, he was constantly being talked about. His name was on every one's tongue, and he went by many names, Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Belial, Mastema, the Prince of Darkness, the Lord of Lies. In the Bible he was the Accuser, the Evil One, the Prince of this World.
So wide was his sway that uncounted thousands subscribed to the heresy of the Bogomils (Cathars, Albigensians) which taught that it was Satan who, after successfully leading an armed uprising in Heaven had sent the true God into exile or bound him with chains, had created the material world we know, with all its misery and pain and death, and has gone on to rule it ever since as absolute despot. Sword and fire and the Holy Inquisition took care of these heretics, but their ideas have flickered on, to be revived from time to time by, among others, the poet William Blake.
And yet today the Devil is a poor devil indeed. He has dropped so far out of sight that some believe he is gone for good. It may be true that forty-eight percent of Americans tell the pollsters they believe in the existence of the Devil and another twenty percent find his existence probable. But though they use him often enough in common light-hearted expressions, (give the devil his due, the devil is in the details, what the devil are you talking about?) and in the privacy of their hearts may put the blame on him when they go to sex shops or cheat on their income tax, they do very little talking about him out loud. You will have a hard time finding him in the Congressional Record or the Wall Street Journal. Reported physical appearances of the Devil are rarer in the newspapers and TV talk shows than sightings of UFO's. When his image appears in the press or the supermarkets, it is generally to advertise some spicy food or some local sports team. A couple of years ago the TV producer Pat Robertson predicted that a great wind would destroy the city of Orlando because it had passed an ordinance favorable to homosexuals, and a great wind promptly did come up and destroyed several respectable God-fearing towns in Oklahoma and Kansas. In any previous century it would have been assumed that the Devil had played a significant role in misinforming Mr Robertson and misdirecting the tempest, and he certainly would have been held responsible for turning Orlando into a replica of Sodom in the Bible. But there was no mention anywhere of the Devil at any stage of the proceedings, at least I saw none in the press, heard none on TV.
People have in practical terms banished Old Scratch from their world view. When they hear the Ayatollah Khomeini call the United States of America the Great Satan, or the Reverend Ian Paisley saying that if you looked at the birth certificates of the people who created the peace accord in northern Ireland you would find that their father's name is the Devil, they have an uncomfortable feeling that they are hearing echoes from some older dirtier century. When they want to blame some one for everything that is wrong in public life, it is never Beelzebub, it is always right-wing conspirators or the liberal eastern media, or, as the director of the local pulp mill told me the other day, Coffee Goffee ("you know, the United Nations fellow, the one Billy sold the country to in 1997").
Every one who discusses the moral standards of contemporary America in pulpits or television talk shows or the New York Times is agreed that they are lower than they have ever been before. Why then is the Devil not out in the streets and on the airwaves, roaring like a lion about his triumphs? Where the devil is Devil?
It all depends on precisely what you mean by The Devil.
Theologians have been arguing for centuries (and sometimes gone to the stake for expressing the wrong opinion) to achieve a satisfactory definition, but the average person with no theological axe to grind, is apt to envisage the Devil these days as a sleek dark-complexioned male figure (to the disgust of feminists, the Devil has almost invariably through history been a male, and a highly sexed male at that), with black chin-whiskers, perhaps with a foxy glint in his eye and a trace of a foreign accent, but on the whole handsome, worldly-wise, a persuasive talker, a friendly sort of customer.. If he has tiny horns on his head and cloven feet like a goat, they can be taken care of by upswept hair and orthopedic shoes. Only later, when he has talked you into some risky bet or shady contract and comes to collect his due, do you realize you have signed away your immortal soul.
He may tell you that he is as old as sin, but remember that he is the Lord of Lies. This suave sardonic Devil is actually a new kid on the block, he has been around for barely a few hundred years, a mere stutter in the long swell of human misery and woe. And the Devil in general, the Devil with a capital D, as opposed to the legions of lower-case devils, demons, imps, and so on, first entered human history a mere three thousand or so years ago.
But humans indistinguishable on the dissecting table from us have been around for scores if not hundreds of thousands of years, and it seems fair to assume that from the very beginning they were all aware of unseen powerful presences affecting their lives and everything around them. All the ancient religions that we know of, as well as modern religions with hundreds of millions of followers like Hinduism and Buddhism, have perceived out there a bewildering array of such presences: gods, demigods, angels, devils, demons, sprites, imps, goblins, ghosts, elves, fairies, fauns, gnomes, nymphs, djinns, leprechauns, poltergeists. Some of them are benevolent, some are malignant, most of them alternate between the two. The gods of ancient Greece are typical: Zeus was a wise and just ruler up on Mount Olympus, he became a serial rapist when he came down to the lowlands; Persephone was goddess of life in spring and goddess of death in autumn.
None of these religions ever developed a single Devil concentrating all the essence of evil in a single person, any more than they ever concentrated the essence of good in a single God.
The Old Testament, which was composed between the 10th and the 3rd centuries BC, has little trace of the Devil with a capital D, and in its earlier books none at all. God, speaking through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, says, "I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil, I the LORD do all these things." The serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was, four thousand years after the event, identified by Jewish rabbis and Christian Church Fathers with the Devil, the principle of Evil, but in the second chapter of Genesis as written, he is only a snake. It took a while longer before both snake and Devil were identified with Lucifer ("light-bearer," the Latin translation of the Hebrew and Greek words for the morning star, the planet Venus), an epithet used by the prophet Isaiah for a Babylonian prince who is represented as being thrown down from Heaven for having presumed to set his throne high above the stars of God.
.Ancient Hebrew had a noun, satan, meaning obstructor or accuser, and several satans appear in the Old Testament being sent by God on different errands, such as blocking the path of Balaam's ass or giving King Saul a fit of depression. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, satan was rendered diabolos,"adversary," from which come Latin diabolus, French diable, German Teufel, English Devil.
The first time the word Satan appears with a capital S, defining a particular person with a particular function, is in the Book of Job, one of the last books to be admitted into the canon of the Hebrew Bible, where Satan sppears as a sort of celestial J. Edgar Hoover, sent by the Lord to check up on the loyalty of the folks down on earth.
The first Devil, the first concentration of all evil in a single personal form, appears in history some time around the 6th century BC, in Persia. His name is Ahriman, described by the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster) as the principle of Darkness and evil engaged in ceaseless conflict for control of the world with Ormazd or Mazda, the Principle of Light and good.
The Jews were under Persian domination for more than two centuries, and it is likely that Ahriman had some influence on the formation of the figure of their Satan. He appears for the first time acting independently in the third-century Book of Chronicles [1Ch.21.1] where the text of the much older Book of Samuel [2S.24.10] is changed from "The LORD incited David" [to the sin of taking a census], to read, "Satan incited David." In the next few centuries of the so-called "Intertestamentary Period" between the compilation of the Old and New Testaments, when a major subject of theological speculation and literature was the apocalypse, the final struggle between good and evil at the imminent end of the world, this Satan grew in stature as the leader and embodiment of the forces of evil. The Jewish rabbis eventually lost interest in him, and though he runs wild through folklore, he is a very minor figure in modern Judaism He would be a major figure, however, as the Satan or Lucifer of the Christians, the Iblis or Shaytan of the Moslems, in the other two other great monotheistic religions which grew out of Judaism. Whatever he does, and however powerful he may be at times, none of these religions has ever followed Zoroaster in allowing him an independent existence apart from God. He is always separate but far from equal, though exactly to what extent of separation and inequality has been the subject of perpetual debate on the questions which the existence of a Devil naturally calls up: why did an omnipotent omniscient all-merciful God, the essence of goodness, create a Devil, the essence of evil, in the first place? And if he felt he had to, why did he give him so much power and let him do so incredibly much mischief for so incredibly long a time? As Friday asked Robinson Crusoe, "If god much strong, much might as the Devil, why God no kill the devil, no make him no more do wicked?" Might the infinite mercy of God extend to pardoning the Devil at the end of time? (Origen the second-century church father best-known for having made himself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven's sake, maintained that it might, and was condemned by later authorities to an eternity of hell-fire for having said so.)
Such questions were being debated by twelfth-century scholars in Paris in Latin in almost the same terms as twelfth-century scholars in Arabic a light-year away in Baghdad, and they are still being debated today, with no sign of a satisfactory answer being reached..
The Christian Devil, who is the one most familiar in today's literature and art, appears often, but with only sketchy details, in the New Testament. It took three or four centuries of debate and speculation for the Church to settle on a unified but not quite consistent picture of his history and functions. By most accounts, he was originally an angel (some said the first born and highest-ranking of all the angels), who had led a rebellion in Heaven (some said out of pride, some said out of envy either of God himself or of the man, Adam, created in God's image, some said out of sexual lust for pretty women) and had been defeated and cast down to Hell (some said on the very first day or hour of the creation of the world, others after the creation of Adam, others after the Fall of Man, others at the time of Noah's flood), had tempted mankind into sin, which allowed him to rule the world until the coming of Christ (or until the Second Coming), and would on the Day of Judgment be condemned to perpetual torment along with all the sinners of the race of Adam.
At the beginning there was curiously little interest in the particular features of this Devil, who does not appear at all in the first six or seven centuries of Christian art. Perhaps the early Christians, members of a small persecuted sect, accused of atheism and child murder and incestuous orgies, faced with the daily possibility of meeting the representatives of the Roman state in the form of armed gladiators, live lions, and howling mobs in arenas, did not need to dream up faces for the Devil. After Christianity became the state religion of Rome in the early 4th century, the fight against the forces of evil changed in character. The heroes were not martyrs in an arena, they were monks who went out into the deserts, abandoning all the comforts of the world, to meet Satan face to face naked amid naked rocks. Satan appeared to all of them to tempt them, and it was then that Satan first acquired a recognizable physical form, appearing to St. Anthony the first hermit and St. Pachomius the first leader of a community of monks, in a variety of frightening or alluring forms. Pachomius once met the Devil in the form of a young black girl who tried to seduce him, and he rebuffed the evil apparition with a blow of his hand, which stank thereafter for two years.
Still, for hundreds of years no one thought of putting an image of the Devil on paper or a church wall. There is a 6th century manuscript of the Gospels in Syriac which shows a couple of little black-winged creatures fleeing from the mouth of a man being exorcized. Not till the 9th century, in an illustrated manuscript known as the Utrecht Psalter, does a recognizable Devil appear, in the form of a half-naked man holding a three-pronged pitch-fork. The Devil would appear often in the next couple of centuries like this, human or at least humanoid in form, sometimes wearing the halo of his old angelic days in Heaven. Mostly, he is ugly, but a ninth-century ivory book cover of the Temptation of Christ shows a handsome authoritative Devil, a worthy opponent for his blessed enemy.
Then, some time around the 10th century, the Devil began, all over the western world to assume monstrous forms. He appeared on the illustrated pages of books now written for the first time in the vernacular languages which could be understood by people who no long spoke the learned Latin. He appeared on the painted walls and ceilings and the carved doors and columns and waterspouts of the churches and cathedrals which were then, said a monkish chronicler, spreading a white mantle over Europe. Everywhere you turned there were scenes from sacred history intended to teach the illiterate masses the way to salvation, and the Devil played a prominent, sometimes a predominant, role in these scenes.
He appeared in a thousand grotesque and horrible guises. His features might be derived from those of old gods of Greece and Rome whose broken images still cluttered the soil of Europe, or the newer gods of the barbarian Germans and Scandinavians, or more ancient supernatural beings from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, even China who spread their wings on imported silks and tapestries. He borrowed horns and hairy legs and cloven hooves from the Greek god Pan, a hooked nose and grimacing lips from the Etruscan death god Charon, a pitchfork from the Roman sea-god Neptune, an animal head from the Egyptian god Anubis. Sometimes he was a furry black monkey with great black bat wings. Sometimes he was a snake, a wolf, a frog, a bear, a mouse, an owl, a raven, a tortoise, a worm. Often he appeared as a combination of human and animal forms, with a tail, spiky flame-like hair, an apish body, a goat's hairy thighs, an ass's feet, a boar's tusks, a wolfish mouth, an eagle's claws, a monkey's paws, a lizard's skin, a snake's tongue, a stallion's penis. Fighting St. Michael when he led the revolt of the angels in Heaven, he was a scaly dragon. Enthroned in Hell, he was a pot-bellied imbecilic old man, with snakes growing out of his head and limbs, mindlessly chewing on the sterile souls of naked sinners as they are dropped down to him on Judgment Day.
He was meant to be both frightening and disgusting, to demonstrate both the horror and the folly of sin. The fright was all the greater because the devices like bone-vices, spine-rollers and red-hot prongs being used to torture sinners down in Hell on the church-walls were copied from those being used to torture heretics and other criminals in public up on earth.
It has always been the nagging problem of religious art that the joys of Paradise, being spiritual in nature, are hard to represent in material form, they end up like so many abstract paintings, perfectly lovely, perfectly devoid of feeling. The taste of an audience, in which every one knows perfectly well what fire feels like, and whips, and broken bones. even a pious and righteous audience, tends to turn more readily to realistic blood-curdling scenes of brutality and horror.
The horror was generally put on with what to delicate modern eyes looks like a very thick hand, as in the Last Judgment of Giotto in Padua, fountainhead of all western art since the Renaissance, where today's guides are generally careful not to point out that the fat swinish Devil in the lower right-hand corner of the painting is simultaneously swallowing and excreting naked sinners who are being directed to him in a steady stream by the stern hand of God in the upper center.
The static visions on the church walls were regularly brought to life in the plays which were staged in front of churches or in public squares. Surrounded by elaborate scenery and exploding fire-crackers, the Devil was always a popular performer when, clothed in snake-skin and with a woman's face he dangled the apple in front of our First Parents in Eden, or, with fanged mask and hairy goat's body he grimaced and grunted and growled as he prodded wailing sinners into a Mouth of Hell that could open and shut and spit flames.
He was popular for an all-too-simple reason: he was more human than his Adversary. He sinned and he made an ass of himself and he enjoyed himself in coarse impious ways, just like you and me. It was easy to imagine yourself sitting down with the Devil in a disreputable tavern to have a drink or two and exchange smutty stories, relaxing a bit from the constraints of ordinary law-abiding life, in a way we could not imagine doing with the Angel Gabriel, let alone God Almighty..
He was often the only lively, not to say sympathetic, character in the moral anecdotes such as the one in the collection of Pope Gregory the Great, in which a gluttonous nun comes upon a luscious lettuce in the convent garden and grabs it and eats it without pausing to make the sign of the Cross over it. The Devil immediately enters into her stomach and torments her until a holy man is brought in to pull him out with prayers. The Devil cries out through the nun's mouth, "Why blame me? What did I do? I was just sitting on the lettuce when she came along and ate me!" The saint drags him out nonetheless and torments him with a splash of holy water.
Another popular story in the Middle Ages was that of Theophilus of Cilicia, a 6th century. ecclesiastic who signed a pact with the devil exchanging his soul for a powerful and profitable position in the church. He was then able to lead a life of unbridled pride and corruption till one day the Devil reappeared and demanded his payment. In terror he repented and threw himself on the mercy of the Virgin Mary who took pity on him, descended into hell, grabbed the pact from Satan, then interceded for the sinner at the throne of God. He was pardoned, and the Devil was cheated of his due.
This tale, translated hundreds of times into all the European languages, played a major role in establishing the cult of the Virgin in Catholic Europe. It had the subsidiary effect of familiarizing everyone with the idea of diabolical pacts The authorities of church and state took advantage of this when some time in the 15th century they claimed to have discovered a vast conspiracy by a confederation of witches dedicated to the subversion of all order. There were of course plenty of witches around, as there had been in biblical days ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," God says in the Book of Exodus, which a modern theologian has interpreted to mean, Thou shalt not pay a witch for her services, so she will have to change her profession or starve to death), as there are to this day, mostly old countrywomen with a knowledge of traditional herbs and chants and charms which could attract a handsome lover or stop an unwanted pregnancy or blast the crops in an unfriendly neighbor's field. But for the space of two or three centuries, tens of thousands of accused witches, most of them women, most of them poor illiterates, were hanged or burned after confessing to taking part in secret midnight meetings at which they ate babies, copulated with the Devil (all witnesses agreed he had a very long and tireless and very black penis) and signed compacts with him with their blood. These compacts were sometimes vomited up by the accused and produced in court as evidence by the prosecutors with the infernal signature in big black letters at the bottom as irrefutable proof of guilt.
The witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 are among the best remembered, they have left an indelible stain on the name of the Puritans who helped to create the new nation of America. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them was that they were exceptional. Of all the thousands of potential suspects living in the American colonies at the time, only the eighteen poor women of Salem, plus one man and two dogs, were sent to join the legions who had been slaughtered in Europe. There were no spectacular witch trials any where else in the colonies. and within a few years of the event, all but one of the men who had conducted the trials in Salem were repenting and begging forgiveness for what they had done.
©1999 Robert Wernick
portions of this text appeared in Smithsonian Magazine October 1999