The most widespread religion in the world today is the fear of the devil. The supposedly monotheistic religion of Christianity fears him as Satan; the supposedly monotheistic religion of Islam condemns him as Shaytan or Iblis; Judaism acknowledges him as ha-Satan, the Adversary; vodou cults sacrifice to a beneficent spirit very like him; conspiracy theories are based on his presence; the child abuse scares of the 1980s originated in an alleged Satanic conspiracy; and of course there are the plain old devil worshippers, some of whom identify him with the gods of what they call ‘paganism’ such as Pan. All these attitudes are a form of worship.
The devil featured prominently in 18th century Gothic literature; while in modern times S&M groups, Gothic subcultures, horror films, vampires in books, TV series, games and films, and Star Wars’ Darth Vader (Dark Father) show that secular interest in the devil is still going strong. The devil as father of humanity was the belief of some Gnostics. The devil as vampire, Dracula, seems like a mock Christ figure: he rises from the dead not after three days but whenever he’s hungry; has teeth like crucifixion nails or the crown of thorns; and drinks his victim’s blood rather than offering his own. And Dracula gives a new dimension to the word ‘transcendental’.
It might strike some as wrong to say that modern monotheistic faiths ‘worship’ the devil. Isn’t that too strong a word? It’s not of course used by practitioners of these faiths. But when you think about it it seems the unavoidable word. In these faiths (and many others) the devil explains the existence of evil. If no devil, then god would have to be the origin of evil, and as god is perfect, that cannot be. Evil must battle effectively against good, which means the devil must be able in some way to prevail against god. Therefore these faiths treat him with some respect based on trepidation. Every act of envy, every lie or theft becomes an act of worship of the devil. He’s waiting to take believers to hell should they slip up, and they usually do. And he won’t let anyone out. He’s the bogeyman.
Even though care is taken in all monotheistic faiths to avoid saying so, the devil can only prevail against god if he has equal power. If he is also a god. Explanations that say he is a fallen angel beg the question, as we don’t know how an angel differs from a god. We don’t know that god can’t create other gods. To quibble along these lines is to not make any sense, as here, literally, people don’t know what they’re talking about. So the faithful worship, or acknowledge, a god of evil and a god of good. While care is taken to distinguish Yahweh from God the Father from Allah, the god of evil is common to all three faiths. And his worship thus the most widespread.
The divinity of the devil is made clear in the Jewish Bible (Wisdom), where he is Baal, the god of the Assyrians and Phoenicians. Medieval Christianity called him Beelzebub. In other words he is a ‘false’ or deceiving god, luring Jews away to worship wrongly in a foreign cult. For the Jews there is no doubt the devil, as Baal (‘Lord’, compare Hebrew ‘El’) or Satan, is a god.
He is also an angel. The angels were originally gods, from a time when Judaism was polytheistic. The angels once came to earth and mated with the daughters of men, producing a race of demigods (Genesis 6). These beings were imagined as ‘watchers’, guiding men along the right path. Eventually there was a war in heaven, and some angels, under the leadership of Sataniel (or later, Lucifer), fought against the army of god, led by Raphael, Gabriel and Michael.
Trouble with this story of the rebellion in heaven is, how do we know what took place in heaven before the time of humans? Who was around to see and record it? But of course it’s not history. It’s not fact. It’s theology in the form of poetry, like much of the Old Testament, and the story’s purpose is to explain evil.
The Old Testament has its origins in the Iron Age, the time of Homer and the age of epic. By the time of Muhammad the devil had shrunk somewhat in power. When Muhammad reimagined the faiths he knew, the Arabian polytheism, the Christian and Jewish faiths, he saw that Iblis was a Jinn, a spirit, submissive to god and with power only over mankind, over those who were not steadfast in their faith.
The devil was originally ‘diabolos’, a word for the figure encountered in the book of Job in the Jewish Old Testament (when it was translated into the Greek Septuagint). Diabolos means ‘accuser’, and stands for a figure who will come forth during the Last Judgment and argue for each soul’s sinfulness and due punishment (what we call today a ‘devil’s advocate). A similar figure can be found in the more ancient religions of Egypt, originating about 3,000 BC, who eventually became the god Set, of the desert storms, always shown in tomb paintings with horns and tail. From a figure which was part of the believers’ salvation the devil has become part of their damnation. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that the wings of angels and devils shown in paintings aren’t literally there: they are a graphic symbolism for these beings’ roles as messengers.
The idea of the devil is connected with two others. One is mortality, death. The devil has power over the dead. The second is final judgment. The devil first tempts human beings, then carries out punishment in his own peculiar realm, hell.
Death has always been a human fear. Other animals don’t seem to have it, but we do. And the realm of the dead, where we all go to when we die. holds a peculiar fascination. We imagine the ‘undead’; ghosts haunting a particular spot; the walking dead. Spirits that come to warn or to torment. And all under the power of the lord of death, the devil. Unquiet spirits are suffering souls. Perhaps suffering punishment for their sins. But we fear them, because not far away is their master, the devil.
Judgment is another long held concept. We can’t just die, surely? There must be some kind of summing up, of balancing the good and the bad we have achieved in life. Probably this is more important to us than to any god, but still. The idea of punishment for wrong doing was taken to its extreme in the period 1300, with the circulation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and 1700, with the continued influence of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Boiling in oil, stabbing with pitchforks, burning eternally in fire and other punishments even more horrific for all eternity were presided over by the master of hell, the devil, the Prince of Darkness or Old Nick as you prefer. The revelry in this orgy of punishment was in fact a literary phenomenon, not a religious one, personal fantasies of the books’ authors, but it still forms our image of hell, punishment, the afterlife and the devil to this day.
It took another Jew, Sigmund Freud, to secularise the devil, to take him out of heaven or hell (wherever they were) and place him within the mind of human beings. In doing so, he merged the devil with god, and created an entity he called the psyche, where all good and evil came from, all punishment was carried out, and paradise eventually contained. Freud both internalised the matter of religion and made the mind transcendental.
In many ways Freud’s theories bypass the mythologised dramas of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and return to the human centred image of the world evolved by Greek religion. In these faiths good and evil were replaced by ideas of balance and harmony, or excess. The gods aided or impeded, but were essentially immoral, not associated with moral values, which was a human concern. But they did control the borders between this life and the next, and needed to be placated, and they could offer guidance, for they saw the future. This was true even for Hades, god of the underworld, a place as far from Christian Hell as you could get, where nothing at all happened, certainly no punishment.
Similar perspectives can be seen in other ancient religions, such as Hinduism, Egypt, where Set in early times was an aspect of Osiris as well as his enemy, and the religion of Zoroaster, which only in later times evolved a devil figure.
So we can choose the devil as a myth, part of a religion, or as a psychomyth, part of our journey to self knowledge. Out there in a supernatural world, or inside, as part of our evolution in this life, part of us.
But the devil as a supernatural entity, or as a psychic process, is not the only aspect to consider. Equally important are the natures of those people who believe in the material existence of the devil, or more generally of ‘evil’.
It seems regressive in the 21st century to believe in supernatural beings. If gods, angels, saints, then why not spirits, ghosts, zombies, succubi and incubae, witches and wizards, ETs, aliens, and all the demons itemised in the Malleus Maleficarum of 1487? How did we find out about all these beings, and where are they? There’s plenty of room in outer space, so perhaps they all live there and get lonely some times, and come for a visit to earth. Or perhaps we just made them up.
If so, then it is convenient for the lazy. Where does evil, or perhaps the word is wrong-doing, come from? Not me! No, it comes from out there, and there’s nothing we can do about it. How can we fight supernatural powers, except by forming alliances with the beneficent ones? Never mind those who form alliances with the not-so-beneficient ones. All this is so much easier than self reform.
Others of us are more than helpless at the complexity of living. These people feel a real fear. Life is too often confusing, upsetting simple notions of right and wrong. An explanation is needed, and can be found in the idea of evil entities responsible for what’s wrong. Cartels of multinationals exploiting the planet; Zionists trying to take over the world; the Communist threat; Nazism; the plots of the Catholic church; old women thought to be witches; seductive young women; the plots of Islam; terrorists; fundamentalists. Just about anybody can be blamed in fact: immigrants, foreigners, blacks, Jews, Muslims, billionaires, Labor governments; the unemployed; politicians; pop singers: all are either evil or in the control of evil entities. It doesn’t solve anything to think this way, but it explains things, and so lessens anxiety.
Others again are in the psychopathic range of mental development. These are people who need to practise violence to avoid an (imagined) personal disintegration. So they seize on the existence of ‘evil’, and, if not well educated, might even think of the devil, and fight against it. It’s just an excuse for killing people, doesn’t defeat evil, doesn’t cure their psychosis, but they persevere. Violence is an end in itself. Like any addiction it numbs or elates for a short time. Just as the violent need violence, they also need evil to excuse and explain their violent behaviour. Most violent people, whether they be terrorists, fundamentalists or political extremists, have only the haziest notions of the causes they kill for. They only know it is necessary to kill. They’re hazy about whether they are fighting the devil or working for him.
Of course there are the ordinary folk who try to learn from their mistakes. We don’t hear too much about these, but they’re probably still the majority, despite what the news media say. These people tend not to take sides. God? Probably. The devil? Probably not. Smug people believe in hell for those who think differently to they, while saner people can’t believe a god could be so petty as to torture his creatures there. Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? We each create the god we deserve.
I myself think many people experience god in some way at least once in their life. But I believe that only the disturbed see the devil. He is part of their delusion.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.