What a strange concept is Satan, the devil! He occupies such a large part in Western culture and literature that few people ever stop to reflect on the weirdness of the idea of a single person that is responsible for all the bad things in the world. Certainly I never considered it until the other day.
Satan seems to me to be a particularly Christian concept, in emphasis if not in origin. Other religions have supernatural beings with varying degrees of benevolence or malevolence, but I don’t think the concept of a single Prince of Darkness is widespread. China, India and Japan have mythologies replete with good and evil spirits, but no single spirit has control of all the bad stuff. For instance the Ramayana’s Rawanna, king of demons, comes across as more naughty than evil. So does Loki from Norse mythology. Actually Rawanna is a good deal less frightening to me than the Indian goddesses of destruction Kali and Durga, both of whom are worshipped by perfectly nice, law-abiding, kind people. I get the two mixed up, but one or both of them wears a necklace of skulls and is portrayed dancing on the bodies of those she has slain.
Chinese folk religion seems to encompass a multitude of evil spirits. We have to orient our houses the right way and do specific things with water, air, numbers and chants to keep them at bay.
Having multiple bad spirits seems to me like having a proliferation of petty criminals, whereas Satan is more like how Stalin appeared to the West at the height of the Cold War – the supreme leader of a tremendously powerful organisation capable of doing unfathomable harm. Some people, perhaps out of nostalgia for the good old days of the cold war, tried to resurrect that image with people like Osama Bin Laden, but it never really caught on. Stalin could have killed hundreds of millions just by pressing a button. Osama Bin Laden – to be blunt – couldn’t.
Satan does get the occasional mention in the two other Abrahamic religions: Judaism and Islam. After all, he makes his debut appearance in the Garden of Eden story in Genesis chapter three, which all three Abrahamic religions share.
But while I don’t know a whole lot about either Judaism or Islam, a bit of googling about devils in Judaism and Islam didn’t turn up anything with a prominence like the following from the RC baptismal rite:
Celebrant:Do you reject Satan?
Parents & Godparents: I do.
Celebrant: And all his works?
Parents & Godparents: I do.
Celebrant: And all his empty promises?
Parents & Godparents: I do.
You know you’ve made it to the big-time when an organisation with a billion members makes three successive references to you in the induction ceremony for every one of its new members.
The biggest speaking part that Satan is given in the Jewish scriptures – to my knowledge – is in the Book of Job, where he wagers with God (Yahweh) about whether Job can be induced to curse Yahweh if enough suffering is inflicted on him. Job is a fascinating book, partly because Satan comes across in it as a less malevolent entity than Yahweh. But I wouldn’t want my fate to be in the hands of either of them, as portrayed therein. There’s not a lot of ‘Duty of Care‘ going on.
Satan’s literary influence is so pervasive that his avatars pop up in secular literature as well. Classic instances of that are Sauron from Lord of the Rings and Voldemort from Harry Potter. Both are known as ‘the Dark Lord’ and have the honorific ‘Lord’ affixed before their name. One might ascribe Tolkien’s symbolism in Lord of the Rings to his Roman Catholicism. On the other hand JK Rowling is not a Christian, yet her use of such a clear Satan substitute shows how deeply embedded the role of Satan has become in Western culture, both religious and secular.
From a literary standpoint, having the notion of Satan is a wonderful cultural advantage. Pitting the hero(s) against the overwhelming odds of a leader of a massively powerful army of evil is so much more gripping than against a mere mortal villain.
Both Tolkien and Rowling hedged their bets a bit though. Both allude in their mythologies to earlier evils, which in some sense detracts from the uniqueness of their Dark Lords. With Tolkien it was Morgoth, while Rowling had Grindelwald. I think the latter name is unfortunate because Grindelwald is the name of a lovely village in the Swiss alps. I went there about thirty-five years ago and did not encounter any dark forces. But maybe it has changed since then.
Western culture has a rich tradition of tales about Satan and his followers. That has given us such chilling works of fiction as Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist. The English author Dennis Wheatley wrote a series of best-selling novels about Satanist cults conjuring up the devil in gothic country mansions, sacrificing virgins and doing other dastardly deeds. Going back further in time we have Goethe’s Faust, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. I have not read any of these three, although I know the story of Faust. I am keen to find time to read Paradise Lost (if only it weren’t so LONG!) because it is said that it presents Satan as a complex, multi-faceted character that is in some senses almost a tragic hero, rather than just the pure evil image to which we are generally subjected.
I don’t think I ever really believed in the devil entirely, although I said I did, both to others and to myself, because that was a requirement of the religion in which I was raised. I found Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen scary, but not so much The Exorcist.
On reflection, I think what scared me most about Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen was not the devil but rather his creepy followers. In Rosemary’s baby it was the solicitous, secretly Satan-worshipping neighbours that befriended Rosemary and took advantage of her trusting nature to gradually poison her with various herbs that they told her were medicine for a mild ailment she had. In The Omen it was the creepily motherly yet homicidal nursemaid, plus the kid Damian (son of Satan) who killed people by doing things like crashing his tricycle into them at the top of the stairs so that they fell and broke their neck. Malevolent children are always scary, regardless of whether any evil spirits are in sight. Horror movies love to make use of them, and ‘Lord of The Flies‘ is like the apotheosis of the evil children genre. How apt that William Golding chose the title ‘Lord of The Flies‘ for that novel, which is a translation of Beelzebub, one of Satan’s many names.
The book that scared me the most was Dracula. I read it at much too young an age and spent the next several years sleeping in terror with my head under the blankets to try to keep the vampires away. As far as I recall Dracula doesn’t actually mention the devil at all. Count Dracula is evil, but there is no suggestion in Bram Stoker’s book that he is unique.
I wonder what it is that made Satan such a prominent figure in Christianity, and the cultures that were heavily influenced by Christianity.
One theory I’ve come across is that, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century CE, the Romans sought to spread the religion by discrediting the existing folk religions of Europe, many of which involved some sort of worship of nature and fertility. The sort of ‘dancing in a circle, naked in the woods‘ image that is associated in modern times with witches’ covens and satanic cults (in the popular imagination at least – whether also in reality I have no idea) may have been a feature of those pre-Christian folk religions. So associating them with a powerful evil figure would have been a way to discredit those religions, and maybe to justify suppressing them.
That theory has an intuitive appeal, but strikes the problem that for many of those folk religions the anthropomorphic image of nature that was worshipped was female – a mother goddess. Yet Satan is male.
An equally plausible, and rather simpler, explanation is that the notion of an immensely powerful Dark Lord just makes for a great story, and great stories make for successful social movements.
There’s an interesting theological conflict between the notion of Satan as the Embodiment of Evil on the one hand, and on the other, the Roman Catholic doctrine that evil is an absence of good, rather than a presence of something bad. The origin of that doctrine is first attributed to St Augustine (late 4th century), and later reinforced by St Thomas Aquinas (13th century). I find it hard to square this with Satan being an entity that is supposed to be actively evil. I have no idea what RC theologians make of this, although I am confident that their explanation would be extremely LONG. Make an explanation long enough and the chances are that the explainee will not raise any objections, out of sheer weariness and the fear that the explainer may launch into a further diatribe.
When I was in high school there was a boy who attended our school for a short while. He gained notoriety by telling people that he had seen the Devil. He had just woken up in the middle of the night and the Devil had been standing there at the foot of his bed. I remember that he had red eyes (the devil, not the boy), but can’t recall any other details being given. Still, the red eyes would be enough to narrow down the suspects fairly effectively if the police were to conduct a manhunt. A short conversation was had, twixt the boy and the devil. I don’t remember the topic but I do remember that it was surprisingly banal.
Did he really think he saw the devil, or did he just make up the story in order to gain attention and acceptance at a new school, as boys are wont to do? We’ll never know, because he left after being there only a couple of months. I hope it was made up, because such visions are often associated with mental illness and I wouldn’t wish for him to have suffered that.
Having meandered about all over the place in this essay (as usual) I feel I should lay my cards on the table and say that, although I think the devil is a marvellous literary figure that we couldn’t do without, I don’t believe in him any more. I hope that most other people don’t either, regardless of their religious or cultural associations, as belief in the devil seems to lead to black and white thinking that before you know it has medicine women being burned as witches and teenagers with schizophrenia being subjected to horrific exorcism rituals.
What I do believe in, at least in the middle of the night as I struggle out of bed to go and empty my bladder, is a frightful monster hiding under the bed with scaly claws that will grab my shins, pull me under the bed and then – I don’t know what then, but no doubt it will be horrific. But that’s more Doctor Who than Paradise Lost, and is the subject of another (not yet written) essay.
Now, having whinged shamelessly about the verbosity of both John Milton and of theologians, I had better stop here, lest I commit the very misdemeanor I have been moaning about.
Bondi Junction, May 2017