“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
– William Shakespeare
A Brief History of the Devil
The Devil, which is the universal symbol of all things wicked, heinous, corrupt and destructive is ever present in the awareness of the people of all cultures today. So common is the knowledge of the Devil that one imagines that this embodiment of evil has existed from the beginning of time itself. Strangely, before the emergence of Western monotheistic (a single all-powerful God) ideas, there was in fact no concept of a singular ‘lord’ of evil, no cosmic enemy and no Devil or Satan. There were gods of darkness, death, the underworld and other things that we could associate with ‘evil’ but no single and exclusive embodiment of all things nefarious and beastly as the biblical ‘Satan’.
In Western monotheistic traditions which covers Judaism, Christianity and Islam, a central figure which is known as The Devil is believed to be behind all that is wrong and malefic in the world. In other words the primary role of the Devil, in its various manifestations in these faiths, is to create a rejection of God and spiritual attainment, and the embrace instead of our present secular world characterised by avarice, conflict, desire and materialism. The Devil is portrayed as being the engineer of all undesirable things – pain, disease, natural disasters, mental instability and other evil and “negative” elements.
Eastern traditions and religions on the other hand are primarily polytheistic (presence of multiple gods) in nature, with many gods and goddesses possessing both dark sides as well as good ones. A large proportion of deities in the pantheon of Eastern religions are capable of both good and evil, and can equally bestow fortune or inflict injury depending on whether you were on their good or bad side and these sides are in turn given individual names and personification. There is no clear dichotomy of good and evil as is the case in Western religions and the concept of the Devil/Satan has historically been a Western one.
A brief history of good and evil
In almost all languages today we find expressions and words denoting ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It follows that in civilisations and communities with such expressions, there is a moral divide and the concepts of “right versus wrong” and “good versus bad” are distinctive and absolute.
During the ancient or early historic period of civilisations a clear example of the crystallisation of “good versus evil” ideal is seen in eastern ancient Persia, almost 3000 years ago. A religious philosopher named Zoroaster simplified the pantheon of early Iranian gods into two opposing forces: Ahura Mazda (Illuminating Wisdom) and Angra Mainyu (Destructive Spirit), both of whom are in conflict with one another.
At the same time when Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu took shape as opposing entities, the West similarly witnessed the formation of a “good versus evil” notion in religions. Around 400 BC, during the Greco-Roman period, words describing “bad, cowardly” and “good, brave, capable” in their absolute sense started to emerge, as reflected in the thinking of pre-Socratic philosophers like Democritus the Greek. During their time, this “good and evil” dichotomy morphed from being a relative concept to an absolute one and over time, polarised into extremes giving rise to the dualistic belief that the material world should be shunned and the spiritual world embraced. Thus monotheism was born.
Moving into the Medieval Era, the “good versus evil” duality was shaped primarily by early Christian theologians, St Augustine of Hippo (Algeria) and St Thomas Aquinas (Italy). According to St Augustine of Hippo, sin was “a word, deed, or desire that stands in opposition to the eternal law of God”. Today, we see the basic contrast being defined along these lines – “good” is a broad concept often associated with life, kindness, charity, happiness, love and justice whereas bad or evil is often associated with conscious and deliberate wrongdoing, discrimination designed to harm others, humiliation of people designed to diminish their psychological needs and dignity, destructiveness and acts of unnecessary and indiscriminate violence.
Differing views also exist as to why evil might arise. Many religious and philosophical traditions claim that evil behaviour is an aberration that results from the imperfect human condition. Sometimes, evil is attributed to the existence of free will. Some argue that evil itself is ultimately based on an ignorance of truth. A variety of thinkers from the Enlightenment period of history suggested that evil is learned as a consequence of tyrannical social structures. Interestingly, there never was a single and agreed source of evil.
‘Evil’ by Western interpretations
The concept of a single deity representing evil, such as Satan or the Devil, highlights the difference between Western monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism.
What most people mean today by the Devil is a concept that is at home only in Western monotheistic religions. In fact, the Devil is only really possible in these religions because the very nature of this character is as an antagonist or adversary to a single God. The essence of this being is that he is the negative counterpart to God. Here are some examples of how the Devil functions in these religions.
In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) a malevolent force is called a satan (Hebrew for “adversary”) and though he rarely appears in the texts, one may locate him in the first chapter of Job trying to undermine Job’s credibility and thereby God’s discernment. In truth, Satan makes scant appearance prior to the New Testament (known to have been in existence since 70 AD to 96 AD) and in fact there is no mention of Satan in Genesis which was written roughly in 700 to 600 BC.
In the Christian New Testament, the imagery of the Devil takes on a much clearer shape as Satan and he attempts to counteract God’s work of redemption at every point. The Gospels speak of Satan’s testing of Jesus in the wilderness. In Mark, he is named as Satan. In Matthew and Luke, he is the “tester” or “the Devil”. In Luke, the Devil promises Jesus worldly glory if the Son of God would pay proper homage to him. In Luke 10, Jesus comments that he has seen Satan “fallen like lightning from the sky”, a reference similar to the fall of Lucifer in Isaiah that is probably a prophecy of a fall to come, not one that occurred in the past. Luke also states that Satan entered into Judas to induce him to betray Jesus. The Gospel of John makes several references to the Devil. In the first, he is the “man killer from the beginning” who does not stand for truth, a reference often taken to refer to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Jesus refers to him as the Ruler of the World.
The Devil and Satan are both mentioned in reference to entering into the heart of Judas. The Epistles refer to both the Devil and Satan. Paul refers to Satan by name as obstructing his efforts to spread the gospel, as a tester of men’s morals and faith, and as an agent of punishment for the wicked. In 2 Corinthians 2.10 – 11, Paul indicates that Satan has his own designs on the world, and that forgiveness will outwit Satan. In the same letter, Paul urges people to be on guard against Satan, who can disguise himself as an angel of light.
In Judaism, the concept of the Devil as the head of the realm of darkness developed slowly. The Hebrew Bible mentioned the “Morning Star” that had fallen from heaven or “cast down to earth” (in Isaiah). “Morning Star” has been widely translated into Latin as ‘Lucifer’ (Light-bearer). By the 1st Century BC, this concept had evolved and become associated directly with the figure of Satan as having been the same as Lucifer, now seen as a fallen archangel.
There is also a Devil in Islam and he is called Iblis as well as Shaitan and the Qur’an tells us that he was too proud to bow down before God’s creation (Adam) as God had instructed (Qur’an 2:34).
Muslims regard the Devil not as a counterpart to God, but rather merely a fallen angel who chose pride over God. But there is in fact a twist. By some interpretations, Shaitan in fact has God’s permission to use temptation to test souls. He has no power over those who love God, and is most potent against those who have relinquished their belief in the one God. The Devil is therefore part of Allah’s grand scheme and is part of His plan which involves testing and punishment.
Iblis is mentioned nine times in the Qur’an, the central religious text of Islam revealed to the prophet Muhammad gradually over a period of 23 years from 609 CE to 632 CE. Seven of these nine references concern his fall from God’s grace.
Islamic scholars frequently discuss the essence of Iblis. Because he was in heaven and among the angels, some believe he could be an angel. But otherwise, he is called a djinn, or a spirit of lower rank than the angels, in Surah 18:50. Academics who reject the angelic nature of Iblis argue if he were an angel, he would not disobey God´s command. Again, there is an absence of a definitive nature of the the Shaitan or Devil.
Interestingly, in all cultures and religions that acknowledge the Devil, he is regarded as a creature who owes his very existence to the fact that God made him, but he does not let this fact stand in the way of his making himself God’s adversary whenever possible. These religions differ in the degrees of power they ascribe to the Devil but all share a basic fundamental opposition to the forces of ‘good’.
Nowhere is Satan and the Devil seen in such clear definition as the personification of evil and the head of all demonic elements than in the New Testament of the Christian religion. At some point – the origin is unclear – Satan becomes the ruler of hell and the chief tormenter of souls of the dead. This concept was more firmly cemented by way of literature such as those authored by Dante (14th Century) and John Milton (18th Century). In any case, from the 16th Century onwards the Devil took singular form and assumed the role as tempter of Man.
However, by the coming of the 18th Century the depiction of the Devil as a single and all-powerful embodiment of evil was seen as somewhat antiquarian and superstitious by leading theologians. As argued by the influential German minister of the reformed (Protestant) church Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834), the previous understanding of Satan as the prince of darkness was ‘unenlightened’ as according to him and his contemporaries at the time, Satan did not exist except to be used as a convenient metaphor to evil.
The dawn of the 20th Century saw again the rising emergence of Satan, partly as a result of the increase of fundamentalism in Christianity as well as a deepening interest of demonic possession and exorcism in popular culture.
‘Evil’ by Eastern interpretations
In Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern traditions there is a fundamental ambiguity underlying the concept of the Devil. In brief, there is no such singular personification of an adversary of a powerful one-God because such definitions are simply absent in these traditions.
For example, within the Hindu pantheon, there is an army of spirits but no one Devil. Indian religions, including Hinduism as well as Buddhism and Jainism, espouse a universe populated by many spirits and elementals. There are spirits that live on the lowest rungs of the cosmos in hell, there are hungry ghosts that roam the earth, there are the many spirits that reside in homes, rice fields and forests. Then there are also the mighty and sometimes malevolent spirits, called the Asuras who possesses great power.
In some of the earliest writings of Hinduism, there were two kinds of divine beings – the Devas (gods) and the Asuras (lords). Originally there was no particular distinction between them as being good or evil, but the stories about them include warfare and the Devas are certain to triumph over the Asuras. For example, the Deva Indra defeated the Asura Varuna. As Hindu thought developed the Asuras assumed increasingly malicious roles, causing harm and creating conflict with the Devas. In the epic poems and the puranas, Asuras were the enemies of the great heroes, such as the evil Lord Ravana who was defeated by Rama and his able assistant Hanuman.
But here’s the twist – one should not think of the Asuras as essentially and thoroughly evil. They frequently conducted evil activities and there is no question that they were the enemies of the Devas. Still, in the end they were only after the same thing as the Devas, namely power and glory. It is also essential to note that the Devas themselves are morally vague. When one reads the stories of Indra, Shiva, Krishna and not to mention the blood-thirsty Kali, one realises that the gods are not necessarily all that pleasant either. Generally speaking, Devas “act” better than the Asuras but they do not carry all-good positions, just as the Asuras are not truly all-evil.
In terms of Buddhism, many supernatural creatures populate Buddhist literature, but among these Mara is unique. He is one of the earliest non-human beings to appear in Buddhist scriptures as an “evil” spirit who played a significant role in Buddha’s ascension to enlightenment. He is the god of lightning, seduction, temptation, sensuality and death.
Before he became the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama in his final watch sat in meditation and Mara brought his most beautiful daughters to seduce Siddhartha. Siddhartha however remained focused in meditation. Mara then sent vast armies of monsters to attack him. Yet Siddhartha sat still, untouched. Finally, Mara claimed that the seat of enlightenment rightfully belonged to him and not to the mortal Siddhartha. As Siddhartha reached out his right hand to touch the earth, Mara disappeared. And as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha Gautama became Buddha, the Enlightened One.
Is Mara the Buddhist equivalent of Satan? Although there are some obvious parallels between Mara and the Devil or Satan of monotheistic religions, there are also many significant differences. Mara is a relatively minor figure in Buddhist mythology compared to Satan. Satan is the Lord of Hell in the monotheistic religions whereas Mara is the lord only of the highest Deva heaven of the Desire world of Triloka, an allegorical representation of reality adapted from Hinduism. One may even argue that Mara served the Lord Buddha by manifesting seduction, temptation and warfare to attack Buddha and in turn precipitate his enlightenment.
“Evil” in early history interpretations
Ancient mythologies, generally speaking, share common traits with Eastern polytheistic religions e.g. Hinduism and Buddhism, where the morality of the gods and goddesses are somewhat ambiguous and lacking in clear demarcations. Good and evil in that period is relative, not absolute. Sumerian, Egyptian and Greek religions provide clear examples of this thought.
Sumer was the first urban civilisation in the historical region of southern Mesopotamia, in what is now modern-day southern Iraq and it was arguably the first civilisation in the world alongside Ancient Egypt. The Sumerian belief systems influenced Mesopotamian mythology as a whole and survived the mythologies and religions of the Akkadians (Babylonians and Assyrians) and other culture groups.
In the Sumerian belief there is no imagery of Satan, the Devil or any kind of single all-powerful deity ruling an array of evil spirits. These evil spirits often serve as agents of ill tidings leading to catharsis, renewal and revitalisation.
In Sumerian and Akkadian mythology, the Gallus were great demons that hauled unfortunate victims off to the underworld. They were one of seven devils of Babylonian theology that could be appeased by the sacrifice of a lamb at the altar. One of the most well known gallu was known as Asag (Asakku), that would attache itself to human beings and kill them with fever and diseases related to the head. Asag is also mentioned in the Sumerian poem Lugale – his depiction was hideously rendered and he possessed the power to make fish boil in their rivers. The poem tells of how Asag battled the hero Ninurta and was defeated. This allowed Ninurta to organise the world and use stones to construct the mountains so that streams and lakes flow into the Tigris and Euphrates thereby aiding irrigation for agriculture, leading to ideal environments for permanent settlement and thereby civilisation taking root.
Amongst the the most powerful Sumerian demons is the Maskim who are a collection of seven demons regarded as the princes of hell. Maskim means “ensnarer” or “layers of ambush”. Azza, Azazel and Mephistopheles are among the Maskim. Sumerian descriptions of the Maskim say that they have the ability to disrupt planets and cosmic order. They can cause earthquakes and alter the course of the stars in the sky. They have also been known to attack humans with the most severe evil and spells.
In Ancient Egypt, which formed around 3150 BC, beliefs in the divine and the afterlife were ingrained in ancient Egyptian civilisation from its inception; pharaonic rule was based on the divine right of kings. The Egyptian pantheon was populated by gods who had supernatural powers and were called upon to help or protect. However, the gods were not always viewed as benevolent. Egyptian gods embodied qualities of both good and evil, but the god Set personified more of the dark side than others.
Set or Seth was a Lord of the desert, storms, disorder, violence and foreigners in ancient Egyptian religion. In Ancient Greek, the god’s name was given as Sēth. Set was not a god to be avoided or shunned – though he was a dark force, he also held positive roles in ancient Egypt and Greece.
All around ancient Egypt were monuments erected in worship of Set, referring to him as “the powerful one of Thebes,” and “Ruler of the South”. Set’s pictures are easily recognised by his long, erect and square-tipped ears and his proboscis-like snout, which are said to indicate the head of a fabulous animal called the Oryx.
As an enemy to life, Set was identified with all forms of destruction. “He was the waning of the moon, the decrease of the waters of the Nile, and the setting of the sun”. But he was not alike Satan or any kind of evil deity. He was officially worshipped in a province west of the Nile, the starting point of the road to the northern oasis. The inhabitants, who were shepherds and guides to desert caravans, had good reasons to remain on friendly terms with the Lord of the desert. They regarded Set, or Sutech, as the only true God, the sole deity who alone was worthy of receiving divine honours. A great temple was also devoted to Set, as the god of war, in Tanis, near the swamps between the eastern branches of the Delta, an important town of the frontier.
Set was revered as the god of irresistible power, brute force, war, destruction as well as protection. Set was employed by the sun god Ra on his solar boat to repel the serpent of Chaos known as Apep. Set also held a vital role as a reconciled combatant and as he was Lord of the desert, he was the balance to Horus’s role as Lord of the black land (soil). In spite of the terror which he inspired, Set was originally not merely an evil demon but one of the great deities, who, as such, was feared and propitiated.
The pharaoh and second king of the 19th dynasty of Egypt Seti I (1294 BC to 1279 BC) derived his name from Set as a sign of high honour in which he was held among the shepherd kings.
Greek mythology features a religion and folklore with forces of both good and evil. In the pantheons of gods and goddesses, they are both benevolent and malevolent, and though some are mostly evil they are seldom completely so. The job of the more malevolent gods and goddesses is to tear things down via disaster, illness and death – they are essential in the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth.
In Greek mythology the Underworld is where souls go after death, and is the original Greek idea of afterlife. At the moment of death the soul is separated from the corpse, taking on the shape of the former person, and is transported to the entrance of the Underworld. The Underworld itself is described as being either at the outer bounds of the ocean or beneath the depths or ends of the earth. It is considered the dark counterpart to the brightness of Mount Olympus, and is the kingdom of the dead that corresponds to the kingdom of the gods.
As ancient Greek mythology carry neither wholly good or wholly bad gods and goddesses, the most Devil-like character of the ancient Greek pantheon would be Hades, the eldest son of titans Cronus and Rhea and brother to Zeus and Poseidon. When the three brothers divided the world between themselves, Zeus received the heavens, Poseidon the sea and Hades the underworld. While Hades’s responsibility was in the underworld, he was allowed to have power on earth as well.
In art and literature Hades is depicted as stern and dignified, but not a fierce torturer or Satan-like in the least. However, he was considered the enemy to all life and was hated by both the gods and men; sacrifices and prayers did not appease him so mortals rarely tried. Though he ruled the underworld he was a benevolent keeper and exercised hospitality to the dead – there is no record of Hades tormenting those in the underworld. In Greek society, many viewed Hades as the least liked god and even the gods had an aversion towards him.
The origin of the Devil as “the horned beast”
Whether you call him Satan, Lucifer or Mephistopheles, he is popularly seen as a bestial figure with even more faces than he has names. Over the past five centuries, artists have variously depicted the Devil as a fanged, horned and cloven-footed demon.
From around the 1500s and 1600s, Satan was portrayed as a horned beast with fur covering his body and he was regarded as the great enemy of Christ, the Church and mankind.
During the Middle Ages artists who has drawn Satan – Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, Hendrick Goltzius, all German – assembled together a picture of this beast based on various traditional imageries and depictions. Satan became a synthesised effigy – the cloven feet from Pan (the ancient Greek god, half goat and half man and a symbol of lustiness for life and a god of nature) and Pan’s horns, as well – and indeed the horned devil visage is also taken from the gods of various cults in the Near East. This devil archetype finally takes on the horror-inducing form of Baphomet, or the Sabbatic Goat as drawn by the occultist Eliphas Levi in the 19th Century.
Literature, too, has always had a major influence on how artists choose to represent Lucifer. In Dante’s Inferno (14th Century) the author provided the most graphic descriptions of the Devil: he stands upright, his lower half buried in a sea of ice and he bears three faces. He is seen grotesquely dining upon the three great traitors of historical legend: Judas Iscariot, Brutus and Cassius.
In later centuries, depictions of Satan in art evolved from a wretched beast to a more human figure. By the 18th Century, he appears ennobled and almost looking like a venerated Greek god. This is due to the aftermath of the French and American Revolutions which tried to expunge the more superstitious elements of Christian religion. People began to interpret the figure less as demonic and more as a heroic rebel against the oppression of the paternal god. These renderings were also influenced by Milton’s Paradise Lost, which drew Satan as an almost pitiable tragic hero.
In the 19th Century, the publication of Goethe’s Mephistopheles in Faust and Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger influenced artists to portray Satan as much more of a cunning, dandyish archetype – instead of scaring people into sin and intimidating them, he now uses persuasion.
While the image of Satan as a red, winged, horned figure persists in today’s popular imagination, contemporary artists have bestowed the Devil with the most human likenesses to date. It is an allegory to the “banality of evil,” as philosopher Hannah Arendt put it in her descriptions of Nazism. The Devil has become us, in a way. He is less personified as some evil creature. It’s the human who creates hell on Earth.
The Devil in New Age traditions
“New Age” is a broad movement characterised by alternative approaches to traditional Western culture with an interest in spirituality, mysticism, holism and environmentalism. It is a term applied to a range of spiritual or religious beliefs and practices that developed in the West during the 1970s. This movement has since become global. Although analytically often considered to be religious, those involved in it typically prefer the designation of “spiritual” and rarely use the term “New Age” themselves.
New Age teachings became popular as a reaction against what some perceived as the failure of Christianity and the failure of Secular Humanism to provide spiritual and ethical guidance for the future. Its roots are traceable to many sources: Astrology, Channelling, Healing, Hinduism, Buddhism, Gnostic traditions, Spiritualism, Taoism, Theosophy, Wicca and other Neo-pagan traditions.
During the 1980s and 1990s the movement came under criticism, Channelling was ridiculed, group leaders were criticised for the fortunes that they made, beliefs in the “scientific” properties of crystals were exposed as groundless and so on. The movement has since become more established and is now a stable and major force but during this particular time the most alarming condemnation received by the movement were from certain conservative Christian circles who did not differentiate between Wicca (a New Age religion) and Satan worship.
Wicca (also known as Pagan Witchcraft) is a contemporary Pagan new religious movement. It was developed in England during the first half of the 20th Century and draws upon a diverse set of ancient pagan and 20th Century hermetic motifs for its theological structure and ritual practices.
Wiccans and Satanists – much to the consternation of each – are often confused for one another. There are a number of reasons for this: self-definition as witches, a belief in magic and the use of an encircled, five-pointed star as a holy symbol, to name a few. Fundamentally speaking, the two are not the same. Most Wiccans are essentially duo-theistic, venerating a God and a Goddess in equal measure, although some see both as different aspects of a greater, single deity.
Wiccans do not worship, nor do most recognise the existence of Satan or any other Devil-like archetype. Their beliefs are typically Earth-centred, with rituals and observances focused on the seasons and other natural forces and phenomena. Wiccans also believe in and perform “magick”- a highly ritualized form of prayer.
Wiccans also adhere to the Wiccan Rede (meaning creed): “If it harms none, do what you will; and the Three-fold Law of Return: that which you send out returns to you, three-fold.”
Wicca and Satanism are as different as any two religious belief systems and if there is any one thing Wiccans and Satanists have in common, it is that they are often maligned and misunderstood by others outside of their respective faiths. While it may be argued that Satanists invite this to some degree by deliberately setting themselves in philosophical opposition to more mainstream religions, understanding all faiths in all their differences and similarities is key to ensuring that protection and freedom of religious practice remains in place for everybody.
In reality it appears that there is no intrinsic good and evil and neither is there an agreed personification of the Devil. The Devil or Satan it seems is more a term denoting evil than an actual entity, a god of Hell and leader of the demonic hordes as he is regarded today. In turn, what is ‘evil’ has evolved over time to reflect the pevailing politics and influences of the period. What was once a god to be worshipped in one era can easily become the personification in another era.
Perhaps, there is no Devil or satan or dark prince we can blame our afflition and weakneses on. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung suggested that a healthier response is to confront “evil”was not by religious repression, which only increases the shadow of the unconscious, but by conscious mindfulness and management of “evil” elements that we recognise in ourselves. Quoting Jung, “None of us stands outside humanity’s black collective shadow”.
For more interesting information:
- Halloween 2013
- Halloween Greetings
- My Halloween in Salem
- Shangmo Dorje Putri – The Bamo of Sakya
- The Burning Times
- Shall We Hate the Jew and those Different Than Us
Please support us so that we can continue to bring you more Dharma:
If you are in the United States, please note that your offerings and contributions are tax deductible. ~ the tsemrinpoche.com blog team