The personification of evil. In Christianity, Devil is the proper name for the evil counterpart to God, who rules the torments of Hell and commands armies of Demons. The Devil represents darkness, chaos, destruction, suffering, and the complete absence of good, light, and love. The word devil, spelled in lowercase, also is a generic term used interchangeably with Demon to denote a lower-ranking evil entity.
The term devil is derived from the Greek diabolos (slanderer or accuser), in turn translated from the Hebrew word Satan. The concept of the Devil as archfiend of evil developed slowly over many centuries, becoming a composite of Lucifer, the Fallen Angel whose pride and ego cause him to be expelled from heaven; Satan, the tempter of humans; and pagan deities such as Pan and Cernunnos.
In non-Western traditions, evil is expressed through deities, who are seldom completely evil. The gods of a conquered people become devils or evil; Christianity Demonized pagan gods as it spread in dominance.
Evolution of the Devil
The Christian Devil evolved from ideas and personifications of evil in Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and classical mythology and in Hebrew Demonology. Egyptian gods embody qualities of both good and evil, but the god Set personifies more of the dark side than others. As the evil brother of Osiris, Set represents chaos and destruction. In myth, he slays Osiris, dismembers him, and scatters parts of his body. Osiris’ wife, Isis, reassembles them and reanimates the corpse long enough for a sexual union, which produces the son Horus.
Mesopotamian Demons are the offspring of gods, such as Tiamat, the goddess of chaos and the primordial waters, and her partner, Apsu, as well as the high god Anu. Demons rule diseases, illnesses, nightmares, plagues, and all misfortunes that befall living things. They are grotesque and deformed and often part-human and partanimal. Protections against them are gained through Amulets, incantations, and Magic.
In Zoroastrianism, the one God, Ahuru Mazda (who became Ohrmazd), generates the twins Spenta Mainyu, who is holy, and Angra Mainyu (who became Ahriman), who is evil and destructive. The creation story varies according to the streams of Zoroastrianism. In one, Ahuru Mazda and Ahriman are separated by a void. As does the Christian Devil, Ahriman dwells in darkness on the opposite side of the void and is fated to be conquered by good, Ohrmazd.
Ahriman sees the light of good across the void and lusts for it. He sends his weapons of destruction, which include toads, scorpions, Serpents, lust, and chaos, against Ohrmadz. Ohrmadz offers a truce of redemption, but Ahriman refuses it. Orhmadz reveals his fated defeat, which sends Ahriman spinning unconscious into the outer reaches of the void for 3,000 years. He revives with the help of Jeh, a whore, and engages Ohrmazd in battle for 6000 years, foreshadowing the Armageddon of REVELATION. In the first 3,000 years, the forces of good and evil are balanced. In the final 3,000 years, good triumphs over evil. In his assault, Ahriman tears apart the sky and creates the hours of night and darkness, and violence and destruction of life. He creates hordes of Demons.
Ahriman corrupts the man and woman who are the ancestors of humanity, Mashye and Mashyane, by tempting them to believe the lie that he, not Ohrmazd, created the material world. Ohrmazd creates forces of good that bind Ahriman, ultimately enabling the world to be repaired. But in the last phase of the battle, the entire cosmos shakes and much destruction is done. Stars fall from the sky. Ohrmadz either destroys Ahriman or imprisons him forever.
In the Yasht text, Ahriman will be defeated by the coming of a Saoshyant, or Savior. Three saviors will come forward, and the third, a son of Zarathustra conceived by a virgin, will destroy evil and bring forth the reign of righteousness. The world will be restored, the dead will arise, and life and immortality will arrive. In classical mythology, the gods and goddesses all have both good and evil characteristics; there is no one personification of evil alone. Shades of the dead live in a dull, shadowy realm, Hades, the lowest level of which is Tartarus, a pit or abyss in which the wicked are tormented. Greek philosophy evolved along the lines of moral good and evil, and the distinguishing of the originally ambivalent Daimones into good Demons and evil Demons. The Judaic concept of the Devil developed slowly. The Old Testament tells of different satans, or accusers, rather than a single Satan. One of these is permitted by God to test the faith of Job. The apocalyptic literature placed the harsh and punishing aspects in certain angels, such as Mastema, the only significant angel mentioned by name in the book of Jubilees. In Enoch, the Watchers are wicked angels whose fall, of their own choice, leads to evil on the earth. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs name Belial, or Satan, as the leader of evil angels. SAMMAEL and AZAZEL also are named as leaders of wicked angels, who dwell in darkness. The apocalyptic literature developed a more dualistic idea of evil personified in the Devil as the head of a realm of darkness whose primary role is to seduce, accuse, and destroy.
In Islam, the Devil is not the dualistic counterpart to God, but a high-level being—either an angel or Djinn— who chooses to fall from grace rather than bow to God’s first human, Adam. The Devil is most often named SHAYTAN in the Qur’an, an accursed and rejected rebel who has God’s permission to use temptation to corrupt souls. He has no power over those who love God. God has no power over his Demonic servants, the Shaitan. The Devil is part of God’s creation and plan involving punishment and testing. The Qur’an also gives the name of Iblis as the Devil. There is no concept of original sin in the Qur’an. Adam and Eve sinned but did not pass on the taint to others. Humans are prone to evil and, therefore, vulnerable to the snares of the Devil. The Devil vows to put all of Adam’s descendants under his sway.
In the New Testament of Christianity, the Devil becomes more personal and the great antagonist of God as well as humans. He is a fallen angel, the leader of hordes of fallen angels-turned-Demons, and he is the principle of evil itself. He has power over the physical world. His forces of darkness are pitched in war against God’s forces of light. Jesus, as the Son of God, goes to Earth in order to defeat him. Revelation forecasts that Christ, in his second coming, will bind the Devil for one thousand years, at which time the Devil will reappear one final time, as the Antichrist, before being destroyed. The dualism of Christianity became firmly established, with a god of light and goodness and a god of evil and darkness. In 325, the Council of Nicaea confirmed that God was the creator of everything visible and invisible. Therefore, the Devil was originally created good but chose the path of evil.
It was not until later in Christianity that the Devil was seen as the ruler and inhabitant of hell. These concepts were more firmly cemented in literature, such as authored by Dante and John Milton.
By the Middle Ages, the Devil was a real, potent being who possessed terrible supernatural powers and was intent upon destroying humans by undermining their morals. In this pursuit, he was aided by an army of evil Demons. This army expanded to include heretics and sorcerers, whose magic posed a threat to the divine miracles of the church. Witches were included, first as associates of sorcerers, then as heretics.
Preachers in the Renaissance and Reformation pounded fear of the Devil into their followers by constantly inveighing against his attempts to pervert people and turn them away from God. Satan’s kingdom was the material world. He would tempt people with false riches, luxuries, and carnal pleasures, only to claim their souls for eternal damnation in the end. His chief means of attacking others was through Demonic possession. Pacts with the Devil, which date back to the sixth century, became implied; any consort with the Devil automatically meant one had entered into a diabolic pact. John Stearne, the assistant to Matthew Hopkins, England’s notorious witch finder of the 17th century, was of the opinion that the preachers’ obsession with Satan encouraged witches to worship him.
Appearance of the Devil
Christianity portrays the true form of the Devil as ugly, deformed, and reptilian: a human torso and limbs with reptilian head, clawed hands and feet, a tail, and scaly snakeskin. He has horns, which signify power and association with the dark forces—night, chaos, the Moon, death, and the underworld—and fertility, the latter of which is reinforced by an enormous phallus. The Devil is a shape shifter, appearing in many guises in order to trick people. His most common human shape was that of a tall black man or a tall man, often handsome, dressed in black. Black is universally associated with fear, evil, the dark, and chaos. Henri Boguet, a 16th- and 17thcentury jurist in witch trials, stated that “whenever he (the Devil) assumes the form of a man, he is, however, always black, as all witches bear witness. And for my part I hold that there are two principle reasons for this: first, that he who is the Father and Ruler of darkness may not be able to disguise himself so well that he may not always be known for what he is; secondly, as proof that his study is only to do evil; for evil, as Pythagoras said, is symbolized by black.”
When not in black, the Devil is most frequently in red. St. Paul stated that the Devil can appear disguised as an angel of light. His disguises of good also include saints, the Virgin Mary, comely young women, handsome young men, and preachers.
The Devil appears in a multitude of animal shapes, most commonly as a BLACK DOG, Serpent, goat, or cat. He also has ugly appearances: As the alleged god of witches, he was portrayed as half-human, half-animal, like Pan, with horns, cloven feet, hairy legs, a tail, a huge penis, glowing eyes, and saturnine features.
The Devil appeared to MARTIN LUTHER in the form of a monk with bird claw hands, according to an account written by Georgius Godelmannus in 1591. Godelmannus relates that while he was studying law at the University of Wittenberg, Germany, he heard a story from several of his teachers about a monk who appeared and knocked hard upon the door of Luther. He was invited in and began to speak of papist errors and other theological matters. Luther grew impatient and said his time was being wasted, and the monk should consult a Bible for answers. At that point, he noticed that the monk’s hands were like bird claws. Luther showed the monk a passage in Genesis that says, “The seed of the woman shall bruise the head of the serpent.” Exposed, the Devil went into a rage, threw about Luther’s ink and writing materials, and fled, leaving behind him a stench that lasted for days.
The Devil as Buffoon
In legend, the Devil is often portrayed in a lighter fashion, perhaps to lessen the fear inspired by the clergy. He is called by nicknames such as Jack, Old Nick, Old Horny, and Lusty Dick. Buffoonish and somewhat dim-witted, he can be easily tricked, as in the numerous versions of the Devil’s Bridge, in which the Devil builds a bridge in return for the soul of the first to cross the bridge but is fooled when a dog or cat is sent across. In other tales, the Devil shoots off arrows and rocks to try to destroy villages and churches but always misses the mark. He constantly tries to makes Pacts with people in order to get control of their souls but fails.
Devils versus Demons
In both theology and folklore, the distinction between the Devil as Prince of Evil and his hordes of Demons often blurs. “The Devil” can refer to both. Joseph Glanvil observed in Saducismus Triumphatus (1681), “The Devil is a name for a body politic, in which there are very different orders and degrees of spirits, and perhaps in as much variety of place and state, as among ourselves.”
– Finlay, Anthony. Demons! The Devil, Possession and Exorcism. London: Blandford, 1999.
– Pagels, Elaine. The Origins of Satan. New York: Random House, 1995.
– Rudwin, Maximilian. The Devil in Legend and Literature. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1959.
– Russell, Jeffrey Burton. The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 1977.