Over the years, it has amused me no end that Christians believe, in the face of all evidence, that their religion is monotheistic, when in fact, it features as many gods and godlets — divine spiritual beings — as Hinduism or the pantheon of Greek gods. Yes, Yaweh is the boss, but so was Zeus, or Indra, or Odin. Yet, Christians persist in calling the other religions pagan, and their own as monotheistic. It’s a hoot.
And I am not here referring merely to the ineffable concept of the trinity — one god in three forms — which is no different, really from Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, who are aspects of the Brahman — the Great Mystery. (The Holy Ghost can be seen as the creator, Christ as the preserver, and vengeful Jehovah as the destroyer making the comparison more apt.)
No, while that by itself qualifies the Christian religion as polytheistic, what I am really interested in are all the other lesser divinities, the angels, saints and demons. A whole army of Thrones, Archangels, Dominions, Principalities and Seraphim. There are a lot of them.
In the Bible’s book of Daniel, the prophet describes God and his attendees (Daniel 7:9-10). “His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels burning fire; a fiery stream issued and came forth from before him. A thousand thousands ministered to Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.”
Heaven seems traffic-bound with angels. Getting a parking spot must be like in Los Angeles.
But it isn’t the crowded heavenly city of angels that I am interested in, but their opponents: the devils. And, more than all that, the one balancing deity in opposition to Yaweh — Satan, aka Beelzebub, Belial, Samael, Old Nick, Lucifer, Apollyon, Old Scratch, Mephisto. Or a host of other names and circumlocutions.
No agreement is reached among Christian theologians as to whether these are all just aliases of Satan, or whether Beelzebub, Samael or the others are henchmen — sidekicks to Old Nick. There is considerable ambiguity among the sources.
Either way, there are enough spirits floating around in the spiritual ether to populate a Cecil B. DeMille movie. But the one that interests me particularly is Satan, or rather, how he, as the Devil, has been depicted over the centuries. This is about art history rather than about theology.
Neither is there any clear picture of Satan’s role. In one version, he is God’s adversary, seemingly nearly co-equal;
in another, he is cast into hell and suffers eternal punishment and bound in chains;
in another, he is the presiding spirit of hell — its CEO, as it were — and rules the demons or the damned, like the Greek Hades or Roman Pluto;
in another, he is the torturer of the damned and devours them;
and in yet another, he walks the earth creating temptations and havoc. Is Satan to be found in heaven, in hell, or on the earth?
Satan, after all, is really just a bit player in the Bible. He barely shows up. Yet, he is a major figure in the mythology and iconography of Christianity. In the Bible, the word “satan” is just the Hebrew word for “adversary,” or “advocate” (Yes, Satan is a lawyer).
He is one of the bureaucracy of Heaven in the book of Job, where he seems to be the commissar who tests the love of humans for Jehovah, and is allowed by God to test his servant, Job. In other Bible verses, the word “satan” simply refers to a normal human who accuses or admonishes someone else.
It isn’t until after the Second Temple Period, with its Persian influence, when Judaism was heavily colored by Zoroastrianism and its theology of the good Ahura Mazda, god of light, and the evil Angra Mainyu, the god of darkness, that a similar divine dichotomy becomes prevalent in Judaism. Over time, folklore and theology converge. Satan becomes part of the dramatis personae of the theater of beliefs.
For Satan, devils — and much of saints and angels along with them — are much more the product of folklore than religion. And the stories, myths and legends vary from source to source, from country to country, and from denomination to denomination. (Very like Greek myth, there is no single canonic version of any of the stories.)
In the early centuries of Christianity, church fathers faced popular paganism and had to deal with the old gods. Tertullian states unequivocally that all the old gods were disguised demons (De spectaculis, xix).
Pan became one of the templates for our image of Satan, with goat feet and horns. The Germanic earth-sprites, elves, kobolds, fairies, hairy hobgoblins of the forest, water nymphs of the brookside, and dwarfs of the mountains were transformed by Medieval Christianity into devils, or into hellish imps, a sort of assistant or apprentice devils.
One common story involves the rebellion of Lucifer and his army against the angels siding with Jehovah. There are many folkloric versions of this war. In one, Satan’s ambition attempts a coup d’etat against God, in another, God demands Lucifer bow down to God’s newest creation, Man, and the rebellious angel refuses.
Either way, in one version, a tenth of all angels rebelled, in another a third. No matter how you count, that’s a lot of them.
“The number of the angels who participated in this movement of rebellion has never been fully ascertained,” wrote scholar Maximilian Rudwin in his exhaustive 1931 book, The Devil in Legend and Literature. “The belief current among the Catholic Schoolmen, based upon an interpretation of a biblical phrase (Rev. xii. 4), is that a third of the angels ranged themselves under Satan’s standard. The rebel leader’s armed force seems to have comprised nearly 2,400 legions (about 14,400,000), of which each demon of rank commanded a certain number. … Alfred de Vigny thinks that a thousand million followed Satan in his fall (Cinq Mars, 1826).”
Apparently, the population of devils and demons has grown since the rebellious angels were cast out of Heaven. Some Medieval theologians believed that devils can procreate just as humans do, and a population explosion has taken place since the Biblical times. Again, according to Rudwin:
“Johannes Wierus, a pupil of the famous Cornelius Agrippa and author of the learned treatise, De praestigiis daemonium (1563), went to the considerable trouble of counting the devils and found that their number was seven and odd millions. According to this German demonologist, the hierarch of hell commands an army of 1,111 legions, each composed of 6,666 devils, which brings the total of evil spirits to 7,405,926, ‘without any possibility of error in calculation.’ A professor of theology in Basle, Alartinus Barrhaus, is, as far as is known, the last man to take the census of the population of hell. According to this infernal statistician, the devils number exactly 2,665,866,746,664.” That’s more than 300 demons for every person currently alive on the planet.
There have been several times in history when reformers have tried to free theology from myth, to come to an understanding of divinity in the abstract. But the impulse to anthropomorphize is seemingly too strong to resist. Stories are easier to understand than exegeses. Islam began as a simple assertion of “one god,” and became layered with spirits, angels and their own version of Satan (“Shaitan” or “Iblis”). In the Upanishads in India there is an attempt to demythologize Hinduism, but the myriad devotional deities persist. Many Christian theologians have attempted to demythologize their religion, but it is the stories on the stained glass windows that persuaded the faithful.
In the New Testament, Satan tempts Jesus in the desert, and then shows up in parable explanations given by him to his disciples. In the book of Revelations, what was obviously intended as an allegory of Roman hegemony turns Satan into a great red dragon with seven heads, ten horns, seven crowns, and a massive tail.
In later midrash, commentaries and hadith, the stories multiply, and often diverge. And so, Satan has many forms, many motivations, many magical powers, many henchmen. And it is these later forms that are most familiar in art and literature, whether from Dante or Milton, or Salman Rushdie. And the many forms are what interest me, for they change with fashion, just as art does. There are Romanesque devils, Renaissance versions, Baroque Satans, Romantic Satans and modern ones, too.
“The visuals of Satan have evolved over centuries to create the stereotypical Devil that has become familiar to modern viewers,” writes historian Genevieve Carlton. “Medieval artists borrowed from both the Greeks and Egyptians to depict Satan as a terrifying beast — he was often shown ruling over Hell, tormenting the souls of the damned. By the 16th century, artists began to depict Satan walking the Earth, harassing the living, and working with witches to wreak havoc on society. Satan has also appeared as a goat or a creature with enormous bat wings. This visual Satanic evolution continued in the 18th and 19th centuries, introducing the concept of Satan as a tragic figure or trickster.”
In the Middle Ages, Satan was mostly pictured as a monstrosity, with horns, misshapen face, cloven hooves, gnarly knuckles, and often extra faces where genitals should be, or perhaps a face on his rump. Several versions have faces for every bone joint.
These are horrific, completely non-human depictions of the father of lies or lord of the flies. It was an image for an age that actually believed in devils and demons, and a hell for the damned.
And the fear that Satan or his devils or demons could couple with wives or daughters was prevalent.
These were people who took their devils seriously. And they were everywhere, it seemed.
Later ages don’t take Satan so literally, but either as a metaphor for evil, or, if a “real” thing, then an angel fallen from grace. He becomes more literary.
In Dante’s Inferno, Satan is prisoned at the very bottom of hell. He is portrayed as a giant demon, frozen mid-breast in ice. Satan has three faces and a pair of bat-like wings affixed under each chin. As Satan beats his wings, he creates a cold wind that continues to freeze the ice surrounding him and the other sinners in the Ninth Circle. The winds he creates are felt throughout the other circles of Hell. In his three mouths, he chews on three famous traitors: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.
As seen by an anonymous artist of Dante’s time
As seen by John Flaxman in the late 18th century
As seen by poet William Blake
In Dante, as in many other mythographies, Satan was once the brightest and best angel of heaven (often called Lucifer), who either rose in rebellion to God Almighty, or refused to pay obeisance to God’s latest creation, Man.
And so, in various versions, Satan is a once-noble being, whose external appearance maintains some of its former beauty and glory.
That is certainly Milton’s version, in Paradise Lost.
“ . . his form had yet not lost all her Original brightness, nor appear’d
less then arch angel ruind, and th’ excess Of Glory obscur’d . . . but his face deep scars of thunder had intrencht, and care Sat on his faded cheek . . . cruel his eye, but cast Signs of remorse and passion to behold the fellows of his crime. (book I, 591–94, 600–2, 604–6)”
These illustrations are from an early edition of the book
The heroic or anti-hero Satan became even more common in the 18th and 19th centuries. English artist John Martin illustrated Paradise Lost
And more famously, Gustave Dore illustrated the epic poem and made Satan even more heroic
But they weren’t alone. The heroic Satan was all over the 19th century
It is difficult to read Paradise Lost and not find Satan more interesting on the page than God or his angels — who come across as ideas, not as personalities. The 19th century tended to see Satan as the real hero of Paradise Lost.
Poet William Blake famously expressed his opinion on why this should be in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
For Blake Satan was the symbol of creative energy, while God — or “Nobodaddy” — was the enforcer of stultifying rules.
But Blake, who was also an artist, illustrated scenes from the book of Revelations where the biblical Satan was a “Great Red Dragon.”
On the Continent, the devil takes on a dandified aspect, as in Goethe’s Faust, where he goes by the name Mephistopheles. In the Prologue in Heaven, Mephistopheles mimics the scene in Job, where he offers to tempt the scholar Faust. God lets him have his way. As he leaves the scene, Mephistopheles gives an aside:
“I like to see the Old Man now and then, And take good care I don’t fall out with him. How very decent of a Lord Celestial To talk man-to-man with the Devil, of all people.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone in the Middle Ages being so jocular about God and the devil.
Mephistopheles was portrayed on stage often, in plays and operas, and a standard design developed.
This devil is an urbane con man
And his stage costume is almost always red. It is from this theatrical version that our common red devil derives.
You find him all over popular culture.
In comic books
And, of course, in movies, where there has been an evolution in our versions
In early films, the Mephistophelian model survives, as in the Swedish film Häxan (1922) and the Hollywood My Friend the Devil (1922, now lost)
Over the years, a more Medieval version of devil has been popular, too, with horned monsters, still often red
And, also in animated films, from Betty Boop to Disney’s Fantasia
More recently, Satan has become quite dapper, as in Ingmar Bergman’s The Devil’s Eye, or he’s become a hedge fund manager, such as Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate (etymologically redundant) or Tom Ellis as Lucifer Morningstar on TV.
It isn’t just Western culture or Christianity that populates a spirit world with imps and demons. It seems to be a universal archetype, or part of the Jungian collective unconscious.
Either that, or leprechauns, fairies, and trolls are real.
Arabic countries have their djinn, or genies
China has its demons and Tibetan Buddhism has its guardian spirits
Japanese artists have an entire genre of demon paintings
There are Pre-Columbian scary gods and demons
that survive today with Mexican festival masks — indeed with masks from many cultures
More masks, just for fun
Devils predate modern religions and continue to inspire artists and image makers. The Assyrian wind demon Pazuzu in a statuette from the 8th century BC; a sculpture of Satan by Jean-Jacques Feuchère from 1835; and two demons by Fritz Scholder
I could also go into devils in other artforms, such as Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz or the Witches’ Sabbath finale of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Or Stravinsky’s A Soldiers Tale. Or Giuseppe Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata, which the composer said came to him in a dream of the devil playing the violin. (Pictured here by French artist Louis-Léopold Boilly in 1824)
For this blog entry, I have collected hundreds of devil and demon imagery. I could not post all of them. But I will leave you with a detail from Albrecht Dürer’s 1513 engraving, Knight Death and the Devil.
Click on any image to enlarge