Satan goes by many names- The Devil, Lucifer, Old Scratch… Probably Satan and the Devil are the most common, and I had a bit of an internal debate on whether to go with “Satan” or “The Devil”… Satan pretty much always refers to the Satan, as in the enemy of humankind. Devil is a bit looser and has a lot of really interesting folkloric interpretations… and we’re going to look at both.
I decided to break this episode into two parts. In this part, part One, we’re going to talk about the Satan, where he came from and how his role developed. In part 2, we’re going to look at some of the folklore surrounding the dark lord as more of a multifaceted trickster figure…
So, where did Satan come from? And how did he become the Satan? To delve into this, we’re going to get Biblical, and pre-Biblical, and look a bit at the history and evolution of the devil… or, more importantly, the idea of the devil, which came to permeate essentially every facet of Western life and thought for centuries, and in some cases still holds a great deal of power!
So, join me for a brief foray into the Old version of the Book of Genesis, chapter 6 verses1-4, where for a hot second between the story of Cain and Abel and God’s decision to destroy humanity with a great flood except for Noah’s Ark, there is the story of the sons of God and the daughters of men.
Very basically, the sons of God were divine beings, later interpreted as angels, who got corrupted by lust for human woman, and after doing the deed together and “mixing their seed” things went south. Now, originally, this passage in Genesis makes a reference to the Nephilim being on earth at that time… and the book of Numbers also mentions the Nephilim. When Moses sends a posse to scope of the Promise Land, they report back that the land is inhabited by a race of giants. “All the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim…” So, it implies that the Nephilim, a race of giants, were on earth before the Great Flood. The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible translated “Nephilim” as “giants,” and this carried over into St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate with “gigantes,” in the fourth century, and thus we got the tradition of “giants before the flood.”
So, what does this race of giants have to do with the devil?
In later Jewish and Early Christian traditions, this story of the sons god god mating with the daughters of men was elaborated upon to create an account of the origin of evil in the world. Specifically, we need to look at the Book of the Watchers, chapters 1-36, which is found within The First Book of Enoch, written some time in the first half of the third century BCE. The Book of Watchers elaborates on the story of the sons of god and the daughters of men.
The Watchers, here, are the sons of god, and their dalliances with the daughters of men are characterized as an act of rebellion against God stemming from lust which results in the birth of ‘bastards-’ or half-human, half-angel beings that turn out to be… giants. And the giants are pretty gnarly. Under their leader, Shemihazah, two-hundred Watchers did the hibbidy dibbity with human woman, to whom they taught sorcery and showed them how to make medicine out of plants and do various forms of magic. The women birthed giants who, in turn, begat the Nephilim.
According to the Book of Enoch, the giants were quite nefarious- murdering people, eating them, drinking their blood, eating one another.
Another story coexists in Enoch that involves the watcher Asael teaching men divination and magic, as well as metalwork- how to make jewelry and weapons- and this also leads to chaos.
Things get out of control and men go to the 4 archangels for help. These are Michael, Sariel, Raphael, and Gabriel, and they relay the message to god: the sons of god have mixed seed with human women, giants were birthed, there is a bloody rampage going on and the human race is consumed by sin and inequity.
God tells the archangel Sariel to give Noah the heads up about the flood, Gabriel to destroy the giants, Raphael to imprison Asael under the earth, and Michael to round up Shemihazah and all the other Watchers who did the hanky panky with the daughters of men, and imprison them under the earth, too, until Judgement Day.
Here we have really the first time in Western thought where evil spirits go to a dark place under the earth, as well as the suggestion of an imminent Day of Judgment.
Imprisoning the evil spirits beneath the earth, however, did not rid the earth of evil, as we learn from stories of Noah’s grandchildren being tormented by demons… But, if they were imprisoned under the earth, how could this be? Well, although their bodies were dead, their souls or spirits emerged and inhabited the air to work as demons in the ongoing torment of humanity.
“But now the giants who were begotten by the spirits and flesh- they will call them evil spirits upon the earth, for their dwelling will be upon the earth. The spirits that have gone forth from the body of their flesh are evil spirits, for from humans they came into being, and from the holy watchers was the origin of their creation. Evil spirits they will be on earth, and evil spirits they will be called…” Enoch 15.8-9
So, in The Book of Enoch, this sort of early version of the demons being confined to the underworld takes place long after Adam and Even and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This is also the case in the book of Jubilee, an early Jewish text from the second century BCE. Jubilee also provides some more insight into how these ill-fated angels, or sons of god, came to be.
According to Jubilee’s version of the Genesis story, the angels were created on the First Day, as the fourth act of Creation. There is a hierarchy of angels here: higher angels were the heavenly angels. The lower angels were tasked with overseeing the natural world.
In Jubilee, the angels play a significant role in the lives of Adam and Eve, bringing the animals to Adam to name, helping to create Eve, teaching them how to do stuff. But they had no role in the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden- the serpent here was just that- a serpent… and we are a ways away from an identification of the serpent with any kind of evil being or Satan. As in Enoch, in Jubilee the fall of the angels happened during the time of Noah, long after the death of Adam. And, like in Enoch, God dispatches the giants and punishes the lower angels by ordering the heavenly angels to “tie them up in the depths of the earth; now they are tied up and are alone.” Jubilee 5.6 And, yet again, we have the spirits of these evil demons surviving the flood and tormenting the humans.
A crucial difference between these two accounts, however, comes with the role of the “leader” of the evil angels. In Enoch we had Shemihazah and Asael who played a role in the fall of the angels. In Jubilee, we are introduced to Mastema, the leader of the evil spirits, who actually asks God not to bind all of the evil spirits because they have a purpose on earth- to lead mankind astray before the final day of judgment.
So, while God has authority over the evil spirits, he concedes the ability to punish mankind for their sins over to this leader of the demons and allows one-tenth of the evil spirits to remain in the world, while the other ninety percent would descend to the “place of judgment.”
This is crucial here because it establishes, really for the first time, a relationship between God and the demons. Demons or evil spirits are allowed to remain in the world with God’s permission, and although God technically can control them, he chooses not to… at least not until the final day of judgment, when Mastema and the other demons will be destroyed. “There will be neither a satan nor any evil one who will destroy.” Jubilee 23.29.
So, in this context, the term ‘satan’ is used not as a proper name but as a description of the role of Mastema. The word Satan comes from Hebrew, where its a noun meaning an adversary. So you could call someone a satan, and it would just mean like an opponent or enemy. It did not yet mean the Satan.
Eventually, this early reading of the origin of evil coming as a result of the sons of god cavorting with the daughters of men was phased out…
A bunch of stuff happened here, and we’re not going to get too deep into the Christian theology, but very basically, a fundamental sort of paradox emerged within Christian discourse.
If God was both all good and all powerful, how did one account for the existence of evil in the world? Basically, the answer to this became free will. Because God was so good, he gave mankind free will. We have the option to sin, and the Devil, of course, tempts us relentlessly to do so. Therefore, all evil that happens is a result of mankind choosing to sin, perhaps as a result of being led astray by the devil, and God remains totally good…
And taking free will a step further, it was also the case that Satan couldn’t actually do anything. He could only manipulate people into acting. He himself couldn’t physically strangle someone just because he felt like it… rather, he can only coax some weak-souled person into doing his dirty work. Once again, it is the free will of mankind that ultimately decided between good and evil.
In the middle of the 13th century, a widespread interest arose in demonology, alongside the study of angels, and particularly in relation to magic. Various authorities within the clergy had conflicting views as to what constituted magic versus science, per se, or whether there was angelic magic, or natural magic, which was acceptable, as opposed to demonic magic, or “necromancy,” which was not.
By the1430’s, the idea arose of a sort of underground sect of heretics that practiced Devil worship and black magic… and, in no uncertain terms, all magic was black magic. There was a text published anonymously around this town called Errors of the Cathars… and the Cathars were a Christian sect that had a very, um, different interpretation of how things were… they kind of believed that Satan created our world, which existed in dualistic fashion with a sort of parallel universe created by God that was presumably good… Anyway, a bit of a tangent, really because all this work, Errors of the Cathars, was technically about the Cathars, it ultimately became a super important foundational document in establishing the idea of magic or witchcraft being inextricably and directly related to Satanic cults and devil worshippers, enemies of the Church. And this text was likely published by a clerical inquisitor who had previous knowledge of witchcraft trials.
We get some very interesting images from this text, such as descriptions of witch gatherings where the devil appears to initiate a new member. Basically, what happens is this:
The new initiate kisses the devil on the anus, then everyone eats a meal of murdered children, and then everyone has sex, including homosexual sex and incest. Finally, the Devil gives the new initiate a jar of ointment for future use to anoint his or her staff or broomstick which is used to fly through the air to such gatherings. The ointment is made from the fat of cooked children along with toads, serpents, lizards, spiders, etc.) In addition to ointments, deadly powders were also made from the internal organs of children and poisonous animals, which, when disseminated through the air on cloudy days would cause illness and bad weather. This was, according to the author, the reason for high mortality rates in some areas and constant bad weather in others.
These kinds of descriptions were nothing new. Some 400 years earlier, a Benedictine monk in France wrote a similar description of a group of heretical clerics in Orleans, gathering on certain nights to summon a demon and have have orgies and burn babies to death.
By the 1430’s, however, these kinds of activities were beginning to move from being attributed to heretics within the Church to practitioners of popular magic and folk religion, and, notably, from groups of both men and women to primarily just women. This was important.
Necromancy, which was generally associated with heretics from within the clergy, was about the domination of demons- causing them to do work for you- and it was predominantly a male practice. Witchcraft, conversely, was focused on submission to Satan… and it is likely that submission, being seen at that time as a female trait, caused demonologists of the era to link witchcraft primarily with women. And a fair amount of literature was produced… almost, if not entirely, by men, one should note… to perpetuate this idea. There were all kinds of reasons as to why women were more likely to be witches, more easily tempted by the devil, and generally, as the New Testament put it, women were “the weaker vessel.” Peter 3.7
The significance of this gendered view of witchcraft really becomes clear when we look at the Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Sorceresses, a manuscript written in 1486 by the Dominican inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, which came to be the go-to book on Catholic demonology and was hugely influential. Taking this notion of witches being women and running with it, Kramer declared that the female propensity towards witchcraft was not only due to a weakness in faith and ambition, but even more so because women were consumed by carnal lust. In fact, women were so horny all of the time that they simply had to “cavort with demons to satisfy their lust.” Enter here the link between female sexuality and evil, whose ramifications echoed for centuries.
And there were many many written works on this subject, going into the innumerable horrors that women performed with male demons in lengthy and explicit detail. We learn from these, however, that the rare male witches were spared from demon sex. Sodomy was too horrible even for demons, and the last shred of their angelic origin prevented even them from engaging in such unnatural behavior. That is, until the 16th century, when this last vestige of alleged decency was stripped from them and we begin to get reports of demons being more than happy to sodomize both men and women, and sometimes in the form of an animal, at that.
It seems several prominent inquisitors were really quite obsessed by the idea of Satanic sex and we get all kinds of very lurid images from some of these texts. It makes one wonder… for people that were so horrified to write pages and pages describing the Devil’s penis and even arguing with one another about what it looked like… what was really going on there?
Equating pagan religions with witchcraft was not new, but it took on particularly forceful role during this time, in the 15th century. Something as simple as knowledge of medicinal herbs could be cause for alarm. Here was where we got this image of the Witch as the servant of Satan. This led, of course, to the infamous period of witch hunts throughout Europe that lasted roughly for the next three hundred years and resulted in the executions of 40-60,000 people, and potentially many more that were undocumented. There has been considerably debate on the numbers here, but its safe to say that a whole lot of people were executed for being accused of witchcraft, and these were usually women from lower socio-economic classes.
Now the witch trials are a whole topic of their own, and I’m not going to get too much into that today. But along with this notion of witches entering into a league with the Devil and demon sex and the orgies and baby-eating stuff… and really at the heart of it all… was the notion that engaging in any sort of magic involved a pact or covenant with the Devil.
A witch bound him or, more likely, herself to the Devil by a verbal agreement that reversed the Divine covenant made between God and a Christian. Sometimes this was a written contract signed in blood and involved defaming the Virgin Mary and other sacrilegious behavior. There was, again, a whole volume of writing speculating as to how exactly this went down.
Of course, the most famous story of a pact with the Devil is the story of Dr. Faustus. Probably having roots in the earlier, similar stories of both Simon Magus and Theophilus, the Faust legend itself originated in 1587 with a German text published by Johann Spies, which was then translated into English in 1592 as the “History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus,” which influenced Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, which then went back to Germany to form the basis for Goethe’s famous Faust in the nineteenth century.
The overall story, effectively, remains more-or-less the same throughout. Johann Spies’s version, in summary, is as follows: In spite of being an acclaimed scholar in divinity, John Faust’s thirst for knowledge eventually drove him towards necromancy and the occult, and ultimately his insatiable desire to understand the mysteries of the world led him to conjure and make a blood pact with the Devil via the Devil’s intermediary Mephistopheles. The Devil slash Mephistopheles would serve Faust for a period of years, bringing him knowledge, power, anything he desired… in return, after the designated time period was over, Faust’s body and immortal soul would belong to the Devil. And so, having renounced the Christian faith, Dr. Faust signed the contract in his own blood. At first it was awesome and Faust did all kinds of wild stuff with his new power, but over time he began to regret his decision more and more.
According to the legend, after 24 years, on the last night before the agreed upon date, Dr. Faustus gave his final lecture to his students, bemoaning his fate. The following morning, his students arrived to the lecture hall to find a bloodbath, with bits and pieces of the doctor strewn about from one end to the other, brains and eyeballs and viscera all over the place and bits of Faust’s body out in the yard amidst horse dung. An image frightening enough, perhaps, to dissuade one from pursuing a similar fate.
Eventually, the notion of witches or malevolent individuals intentionally forging relationships with the Devil through blood pacts, like Dr. Faust, and the perverse obsession of demonologists within the clergy with demonic sex, was replaced by the notion of demonic possession. Rather than seeking out the devil, the devil or, more often demons under his control, now inflicted himself upon poor unsuspecting souls and caused hysteria, illness, or some combination of the two. This notion of demonic possession reflected a merging of religion with science and medicine, and birthed what was ultimately an industry of exorcism.
The fusion of religion, science, and medicine brought about some important shifts in thinking. From the Renaissance at the beginning of the 16th century through the rise of early modern science at the end of the 17th century, we saw the boundaries of what constituted magic versus science debated and redefined. Natural magic, and certain practices that fell in a sort of grey area between science and the occult, such as alchemy, for example, were construed to fall more under the realm of natural philosophy and science- that is to say, acceptable scientific pursuits- and not identified with sorcery or witchcraft. Elements within these domains that were compatible merged with early modern science, and things like necromancy and demonic magic, which were not compatible with the sciences, were increasingly dismissed as superstitions.
A big part of this was the developing notion that all things had a natural explanation. The age of miracles and supernatural happenings was now viewed to have ended during the time of Christ, when God had used miracles to establish the Christian faith. Now that the faith was established, miracles were no longer necessary. And therefore, all things could be explained by science. The demons that had once held such power and caused such fear were thus quietly relegated to the domain of superstition. Of course, as we know, the Devil by no means disappeared…
However, he was now thought to operate in the spiritual realm rather than the physical. No more appearing in the form of a black goat to have sex with witches and make blood pacts and eat cooked children. And, demonic possession went out of vogue at this time, too, though never disappeared entirely.
The Devil was no longer an external force. He was now that little voice in your head telling you to do something bad- a source of internal temptation. And this was a central element of Protestantism. One had to call into question the origin of their innermost thoughts and practice rigorous self-discipline at all times. While now longer an agent in the physical realm, The Devil was still an intimate part of the inner lives of all Christians.
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes came along in 1651 with his famous book Leviathan, which was ultimately about political theory and the establishment of the idea of the social contract. In it, however, he espoused some ideas that were very much at odds with the teachings of the church at that time… particularly, that all things, including spirits, god, heaven, hell, etc. were tangible- made of matter, and, perhaps more importantly, he granted human reason and experience as the highest authority.
As radical as Hobbes was, he treaded lightly in comparison to Spinoza, who basically argued that there was no such thing as the Devil and all of this talk of spirits and demons and angels was due to man misinterpreting his own imagination as reality. Spinoza was actually born and raised as an Orthodox Jew, although he was booted from the synagogue in his early twenties on charges of heresy because of his radical views concerning the authorship of the Bible and the correlation between God and nature.
In a nutshell, Spinoza equated God with nature, as an all encompassing force. And as such, there was nothing Other than or beyond God… and thus no room for the Devil. At the time, this was pretty much universally decried as atheism. Spinoza didn’t see it this way, of course, and by all accounts he was a pretty chill guy and lived a rather saintly existence… And ultimately his ideas laid the foundation of the Enlightenment of the 18th century and modern biblical criticism…
Influenced by Hobbes and Spinoza, the 18th century saw a rise in secular and scientific thought that gave way to progressively more modern understandings and readings of history. The Devil as a real being, corporeal or not, was phased out. There was no longer a place for him in modern society, and for the first time we began to see secular texts addressing the devil as a historical idea that shaped the behavior of western society for centuries…
Daniel Defoe wrote of this transition from the Devil being seen as a real entity to merely an idea in his 1726 book, History of the Devil:
No wonder then that the Devil has changed hands too, and he has left his pawawing in these parts of the world; that we don’t find our houses disturbed as they used to be, and the stools and chairs walking about out of one room into another, as formerly; that children don’t vomit crooked pins and rusty stub nails, as of old, the air is not full of noises, nor the church-yard full of hobgoblins; ghosts don’t walk about in winding-sheets, and the good the good old scolding wives visit and plague their husbands after they are dead as when they were alive. The age is grown too wise to be agitated by these dull scare-crow things which their fore-fathers were tickled with. Satan has been obliged to lay by his puppet shows and his, those things are grown stale; his mortice-dancing devils, his mountebanking and quacking won’t do now.
Quacking won’t do, indeed. As civilization progresses, the Devil advances with it, because he is what humanity makes him. As Mephistopheles says, “Culture, which the whole world licks, Also unto the Devil sticks.”