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The universe is all that is and all we can ever know about it. But there may be other universes, inhabited by other beings.
We know their names. Gabriel, Raphael, Beelzebub, Michael, Lucifer, Ariel, Iblis, Azazel, Mara, Sammael, Mephistopheles. The Malleus Maleficarum, a bestseller of 1486 which fuelled the great persecution of witches, mentioned the names of thousands of demons as well as the existence of species of demons such as the incubi and sucubi, who specialised in sex. What is not clear is how these names are known. Did god introduce them? “Hello, I’d like you to meet my chief angel, Gabriel. Gabriel, this is…”. Hardly. So the origin of the names, like the species, is a mystery.
Equally remarkably, it is an article of faith in most ‘monotheistic’ religions, as well as all polytheistic ones, that a myriad of other divine beings, other than god, exist and interact with mankind.
There are three general explanations of this anomaly. One is that the angels are aspects or qualities of god. This leaves the devils unexplained. Another idea is that divine beings with a similar nature to god exist, some (angels) being its supporters, others (devils) being its enemies. This explanation leaves god much less than omnipotent: though it does give mankind a role to play in the great battle between good and evil.
The third explanation is that there was another or even several creations, other than the creation of the natural world and mankind; that god also created angels and devils, beings which live in an alternative world where there are places called heaven and hell, and have supernatural powers such as immortality. These supernatural beings, it is said, can travel between worlds and intervene in the life of mankind. This scenario, which seems somewhat science fictional, is nowhere explained in any scripture, merely assumed. If you are orthodox in your faith, you have to believe in these alternative creations, or you will go to hell when you die.
Angels and devils are not the only beings to inhabit this alternative universe. Also existing there are a large number of human beings who have died and become immortal, called saints. The condition of being immortal is not explained either. What exactly has become immortal? Not the body, because saints’ bodies corrupt like any other, though they survive in pieces which become relics which perform miracles. Their self, or human nature, seems to be believed to have survived death (even though it is a function of the body), as well as their souls, and they can be prayed to as intercessors with god just as if they were still alive.
Also in this alternative universe live yet another species, akin to the saints, called the prophets. These are like Buddhist bodhisattva, beings who are of such holiness that they can speak to god, and come to earth with god’s message for mankind. They seem very close to angels (“messengers”) in this regard.
This cluttered universe of angels, devils, demons, prophets, saints and perhaps other non living beings such as ghosts, vampires and aliens, has inspired many ‘back to basics’ movements in nearly all religions. The question as to why we need them, why god is not enough, seems unanswerable.
The devil and his demons
The devil is an entity that has been a major figure in monotheistic religions. In theological terms the devil has been used to explain the existence of evil in the world, a world created by a perfect and good god, and so a creation where evil can have no place. Except where introduced by the devil.
As evil, and the devil, are absolute terms and supernatural powers, their existence has been used to justify an enormous amount of cruelty inflicted by human beings on one another. It is to be suspected that cruelty is an intrinsic part of human nature, and would be manifested had there been no devil. But then humans might have felt guilty about their cruelty. So the devil was a necessary invention. In a world and a mankind contaminated by evil, salvation justified a lot of cruelty.
‘Devil’ comes from a Greek word, diabolos, which means accuser. In the worship of Isis and Osiris that was widespread in the Graeco-Roman world at the time Christianity was being formulated, at every man’s death there is a sort of trial in the underworld. The man who has died comes before Osiris and is asked to put the good they have done in their life in the scale (shown in paintings as their heart), and in the other scale the feather of Ma’at is placed, Ma’at being balance, justice, moderation. Should the good not balance the feather of Ma’at, (his virtue making the heart lighter in weight) the soul of the deceased will be left to wander in the underworld for ever, or be destroyed. Should it balance, the soul of the deceased may be reborn, or settle with Osiris in the kingdom of the dead. Present at this trial is Set, the brother of Osiris and his competitor. He it is who makes light of the good done in the deceased man’s lifetime, shows with what ignoble motives even the little good done was motivated by. He is the accuser. Thoth is the recorder god, and records the result of the scale’s balance, Set, Thoth and Osiris forming a kind of trinity of gods. Set acquired this role late in history, at a time when he had already been denigrated as the god of foreign oppressors. He had always been the god of the desert storms, the enemy of stability, a power to be feared, a similar role to the Hindu Kali, the dark side of god. For ancient Egyptians and many Hindu religions, death and discord were a part of the creation, along with life and spirit, and were not feared as evil. The iconography of Set shows him with long horns and a forked tail. These attributes would have been visible to Christians unfamiliar with their cultic significance, and could have contributed to the growing awareness Christians were experiencing of their own faith’s devil.
In the Hebrew scriptures the devil, called the Adversary, is an angel whose name is ha-satan (the accuser), one of the sons of god. He speaks up during the trial of Job in the book of that name. He comes “from going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it” (Job 1:7) to discuss Job with god. He is literally ‘the devil’s advocate’, the one who questions mankind’s piety and virtue and attempts to denigrate it before the just god. But not with an intention to destroy mankind: rather to test it, to ensure its virtue is genuine. In this sense he is more an aspect of god, one that gives scope for mankind’s free will to take effect. For the Jews, monotheism is of the utmost importance. There can be no devil because such a being would infringe on the omnipotence of god. There can be no evil for such an concept would infringe on the goodness of god. There is, instead, misfortune. Job finds that the way one deals with misfortune affects the way one lives, and that misfortune itself comes from refusal to submit to the will of god.
Islam’s idea of the devil is as the tempter of mankind. Iblis has disobeyed god and out of envy tries to take as many men as he can with him to the fires of hell on judgment day. As Islam is an absolute faith to which devotees submit, it has no subtleties. Religion is a form of war in which the faithful fight the infidel as they did in Muhammad’s time, or correct observance fights the evil bought about by heretics and those misled by false gods. Like the medieval Christian crusaders it gives the faithful a mission that many find fulfilling. Evil, in this system, is a concrete force to be resisted, and the fight against Iblis is one of the many battles the faithful fight (not the least one is against their own weak human nature).
In Christian mythology the devil has become synonymous with Lucifer (originally a rebellious king in Babylonian history). The story of Lucifer, Satariel or Satan, who rebelled against god, and led a host of followers in a war against god, then was defeated and exiled to Hell, is a Jewish folk tale. It originally, like the Adversary, had nothing to do with the existence of evil. The Jewish rabbis in fact believed the world god created was intrinsically good. It was Christian moralists of the third and fourth centuries, perhaps influenced by Gnostic beliefs that there were two parallel worlds, one good, one evil, each ruled by a good and an evil god, who synthesised these earlier beliefs into the familiar idea that god and his antagonist, the evil devil, are engaged in a war over the souls of mankind. In this war, men can survive only through the protection of the Church. This idea has its origin in the doctrine of Zarathustra of a battle between the forces of darkness and light, but Christianity took it to extremes, and created a world of terror, where frightening supernatural entities tried to lure mankind to an agonising place in Hell where they would suffer eternal torments. There is not much of the balance of Ma’at left in this concept.
There seems to have been a development from the concept of a supernatural force related to god, but not god (at least in the monotheistic tradition) from which evil originates, to the imagined existence of a terrifying supernatural force attacking mankind from whom men need protection. The earlier concept sees evil as relative, that is, what is evil to man may not be evil to god, or, what is evil now may not be seen as evil at another time when seen in a different perspective.
As civilisations that supported sophisticated and insightful speculations on the nature of evil fell into decline, a more superstitious attitude emerged. One of the more influential writers, at least for Christians, in this superstitious tradition, is a Middle Eastern writer known as John, the author of the Book of Revelations. This John seems from his writings to have been a gnostic with psychopathic tendencies. He was not an orthodox Christian and the church Fathers rightly suspected his book and only grudgingly accepted it into the canon because of its popularity. He in turn was influenced by the much greater and more inspired Isaiah to utter doleful (and vague) warnings of the desolations and trials that would befall mankind. One of John’s inventions was to portray the serpent in the garden of Eden, who passed on god’s message about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life to Adam and Eve, as Satan, and his message as an attempt to deprive mankind of paradise.
The devil has always been a useful concept for paranoid people with persecution complexes. Not only was the devil engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to ruin mankind, and bring it to eternal persecution in hell, but the devil was also present in evil people working against god and his church, and had to be expelled from those people by torture. This battle was fought most gruesomely by the medieval and renaissance Christian inquisitors. But all faiths have their inquisitors.
Angels of the lord
Strangely enough, the devil was an angel. Angels are the messengers of the gods (the Greek word angelos means messenger), often depicted with wings to symbolise their swift flight from heaven to earth. Angels and devils bring messages to mankind from supernatural sources. Inspiration, intuition, second sight and many other forms of non rational transactions in the brain are the result of words whispered to the self by angels and devils.
In the Hebrew scriptures there are a number of supernatural species other than god, such as the cherubim and the seraphim. Cherubim are guardians of borders, and one was placed outside the gates of Eden to prevent the return of Adam and Eve. These species date from a time when the Hebrews were a polytheistic people, and by a process of doublethink are not seen as conflicting with the omnipotence of the one god. The early Hebrews thought of god as married; there was a wife of god, and sons of god, some of whom formed a kind of advisory council in heaven, much as the Greek gods met with their king Zeus on Olympos (Greece’s highest mountain). In fact the supernatural concepts of the Hebrews were not originally markedly different from other middle eastern peoples, save that these were their gods. The sons of god included one who was (confusingly) called Satan. The sons of god, it is recorded in Genesis, came down to earth and mated with the daughters of men. As in Greek mythology, this gave rise to a number of demi-gods, but was also a way of explaining the existence of a divine spark in human nature, eventually defined as the ‘soul’. As monotheism developed among the Hebrews these angels and other divine functionaries of heaven gradually came to be seen as functions of god, emanations for specific purposes. Thus the Ruah, the breath of god, is god’s creative aspect: god breathed life into Adam. Christianity later transformed this aspect of god into a ‘person’ in the divine trinity. For the Hebrews, there were many more than three aspects of god (but only one god).
In Greek mythology the messenger god was Hermes, depicted with winged sandals, but also with a caduceus, two serpents twined around a staff, the symbol of heralds. Snakes in many cultures, including the Greek ones, were also messengers of the gods. They were wise because eternal (they shed their skins and were ‘reborn’ periodically) but spoke in oracles, obscure couplets that had to be interpreted by experts (the forked tongue). The oracle at Delphi was originally a snake god called python, later replaced by a human priestess called the pythoness. Apollo, who came to rule at Delphi, was also referred to at times as python. The most potent and fearsome divine emissary of this kind was the dragon, who combined the body of a snake with wings. There is an essay to write here on composite divine beings, such as Cherubim, with lion’s body, eagle’s wings, and man’s head, of griffin, with eagle’s head and wings and lion’s body: and their purpose.
There are three main ways of seeing angels (and devils). Firstly, as intimations of the divine, a way in which the divine touches human life. As such they are unknowable, as the experience is overwhelming or sudden, and are sometimes discovered only in retrospect. Secondly, as real beings whose nature is intermediate between divinity and humanity. All faiths have beings of these kinds which some faiths emphasise and others do not. The nature of these beings is confused by the third way of seeing them, through their iconography. Various functions, such as the role of angels as messengers, can be signified by wings. But the wings, in turn, can be seen as an real attribute of the being. Long Byzantine robes worn by the king’s (human) messenger in the fourth century AD are now de rigueur for angels.
It is easy enough to be involved with a world of purely human concerns. Most of us are busy doing just that and have time for little more. But the spiritual dimension of our reality is appealing, because it gives significance to all our efforts (which we call morality) and to our existence (which we call soul).
But is this spiritual dimension one in which god acts on mankind, and can we find god within and without ourselves when we focus on it? Or is god more remote, in a heaven far away, the intermediate space filled with intermediate divine beings, devils and angels in all their hierarchies and degrees? Are these spiritual beings real, as both Catholicism and Islam command us to believe? (To which I would add the question, can we believe anything on command?). Or are devils and angels some kind of manifestation of divine qualities? Or symbols of these qualities? How can we possibly know anything other than the data provided by our senses? Is the intimation of the existence of these beings itself an indication of their reality, or a form of delusion?
The wide gap between belief and knowledge is a fertile ground for faith.
My instinct is to distrust too much detail given for experience we can never have in this world and which no human being has ever been able to authenticate. My view of these ‘revelations’ is that we can get lost in a quagmire of speculation which serves no purpose. The thousand names of devils and of angels, their ranks and qualities, whether they are god’s creation, though immortal, or divine beings like god, whether they have specific purposes, and why: these are questions nobody can answer. To appeal to others that they believe what they are told is a call to fools. But should an angel (or a devil) join my conversation with god it would be most welcome.
©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.