Spooky Spotlight: Demons and the Devil in Supernatural Literature
Throughout human history our mythology and folklore has studied the duplicitous nature of our hearts. Galant and vulgar. Humble and ambitious. Loving and selfish. Dignified and slovenly. Very quickly we manifested the noble virtues in gods and angels, but just as quickly (and most scholars think even sooner) we described devils and demons who provoked the baser instincts. Nearly all human cultures have devils: tempters, tricksters, and fiends who lure us away from our better selves. In Western culture, the mingling of Greco-Roman, Christian, and Celtic folklore led us to a single recognizable adversary of mankind: Satan. The word literally means “Accuser,” although he has many other names: Lucifer, the Devil, Old Nick, Old Scratch, the Black Man in the Forest.
The history of the devil is long, strange, and surprising. It blends elements of Greek, Babylonian, and Jewish folklore long before the New Testament was written, with origins more Pagan and tribal than the familiar adversary of the Christian God. Most of what we think of concerning Satan has nothing to do with Christianity. In fact, the most basic Satanic traits come from Greek gods like Pan and Hades. Pan gives Satan his appearance and sensuality: both entities are depicted as fauns or satyrs (with the lower half of a goat and goat’s horns on their head), and both are associated with lust, seduction, temptation, indulgence, sensuality, and worldly pleasures. Hades, on the other hand, is the ruler of the underworld, the guardian of death, and the lord of a dark, shadowy realm of tormented souls.
The real Satan that we love and hate comes from Babylon. Before Israel was conquered by Babylon (and its aristocratic caste was exiled to Persia), there was no real Devil in rabbinical literature – not in the way that we know him (more on that later). Babylon – like modern Christianity – was obsessed with balance and polarity, though, and couldn’t conceive of a good, loving God without an evil, hateful Satan to balance him out. If such is the case, a God with a Heaven and angels must have a Devil with a Hell and demons to keep the universe balanced. After living in Babylon for several generations, the Jews who returned to Israel in 538 BCE brought with them a new understanding of a universe that was crafted by a Creator but haunted by a Destroyer.
Satan’s first appearance in the Jewish Bible is in the Book of Job – thought by some to be the oldest book in the Bible – where he appears, not as God’s exiled enemy, but as a concerned angel who harbors a loathing for humanity. Disgusted by God’s naïve faith in his worshipper, the wealthy farmer Job (the Ancient Palestinian version of a billionaire), Satan suggests that Job is only loyal to his pal, God, because he is rich and happy and healthy. Interested in Satan’s theory, God lets him test it out by ruining Job’s life: killing his children, taking his wealth, destroying his home, and giving him debilitating skin lesions. Satan plays the role of sadistic torturer and prosecuting attorney, and is disappointed when Job’s faith proves solid. But every reader of Job is assured that sooner or later Satan might bring the same charge against them.
While Satan is typically pictured as the brain behind the serpent in Genesis, originally Jewish rabbis saw it as something of a fable (answering the question “why the snake crawls on its belly”), but after the Jewish exile to Babylon, cross pollination with Chaldean religion introduced the idea of an evil adversary to God, and the “serpent” became the earliest depiction of the devil in Jewish writing. The Book of Daniel – written during the exile about a Jewish captive who becomes a prophet with psychedelic visions – gives a little background to this new anti-God, naming him Lucifer (or “Bright One”) and describing his expulsion from Heaven due to his leadership in a celestial rebellion (one of God’s lieutenant angels, he lead one third of the rank-and-file angels in a battle against Saint Michael). It is at this point that the idea of Hell is first imagined (prior to the Jewish exile, they believed in a form of Hades: a shadowy afterlife of wandering spirits – no Heaven or Hell) as the bastion of Lucifer, the polar opposite of Heaven. In The Book of Daniel Satan is no longer God’s well-meaning (if sadistic) buddy, but rather a hateful anti-God, although he is still just as misanthropic: he is depicted as dedicating all his energies at keeping Saint Michael from bringing spiritual relief to a desperately prayerful Daniel – just for the hell of it.
Satan has a bigger role in the New Testament where he reprises his role in Job by tempting Jesus during his forty day fast in the desert. Satan finally has some good lines (“If you are the Son of God, make these stones into bread”; “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down (from the top of the highest building in Jerusalem”; etc.), using his primo knowledge of scripture to tempt Jesus’ hunger, pride, and greed. Later in the gospels and the Book of Acts, he is shown possessing things (another first), including a crazy man, a herd of pigs, a psychic, and – most famously – Judas. In the Book of Revelation (essentially Daniel: the Sequel), Satan comes of age and turns into the unholy anti-Christ that we know today, turning the trickster demigod that he had been up to that time into Beast whose destruction is necessary for God to reign on earth. The transition from Pan-like, Puck-like dirty angel to Adversary of God and Mankind had more to do with making him a metaphor for the Roman Empire than Christian theology (which – until Revelation – treated Satan more like a poetic metaphor of human vice than as a genuine spiritual figure).
When Christianity cross-pollinated with Pagan religions in Northern Europe, he took over roles previously held by Norse, Frankish, and Celtic trickster figures like the English Puck, the Norse puki, and the Irish púca. Folk stories about fairies and hobgoblins sometimes adopted the Devil as their antagonists (preserving them for posterity as other Pagan folklore faded during the reign of European Christianity), giving him a more playful, sexy character than the Satan of the New Testament. Sometimes the Devil is even helpful, although – like the leprechauns whose mythology became wrapped into the medieval concept of Satan – he is never to be trusted, and always tickled by twists of speech, turns of phrases, and a lawyer-like appreciation for tricks of wording. Famously he is shown tempting greedy bachelors with promises of wealth in exchange for their souls – bargains they droolingly agree to. But like the playful leprechauns, his wording will lead them to ruin: he will hold out a pot filled with gold and promise “this pot and all its contents” for their soul, but in the morning they will realize that (since he used the word “contents” rather than “gold”), their eyes were tricked: it is a pot filled with nutshells, toenail clippings, and sand.
Two critical literary depictions during the Modern Era brought Satan out of peasant folklore and into the parlors of European intelligentsia: John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust, Part One.” Milton was a member of the failed Puritan Revolution which executed Charles I, established Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, and was easily toppled in the Restoration of Charles II. Chagrined and depressed, he found himself identifying with the rebel angels who tried to resist the tyranny of God. His epic poem “Paradise Lost” told the story of Genesis from Satan’s perspective, writing him as a tragic hero with proto-Byronic charisma and Shakespearian pathos. The Bible’s description of the Satanic Rebellion is brief and vague, and most of what we picture is derived from Milton’s fleshing out of those cryptic verses. His Satan is overtly human: flawed, ambitious, relatable, frustrated, and dignified – a rebellious teenager, a misunderstood radical, a disappointed genius. Every sympathetic depiction of Satan owes thanks to Milton.
Likewise, every version of the one-on-one relationship between Lucifer and an ambitious human victim owes thanks to Goethe’s “Faust.” The story of Faust – a historical German alchemist who was rumored to have made a pact with Satan – had been adapted for three hundred years by Christopher Marlowe and others before Goethe made it a parable for the Enlightenment: the lonely intellectual is approached by Satan in the form of the demon Mephistopheles who promises him wisdom and happiness in exchange for his soul. This famously involves the seduction and corruption of the saintly Gretchen, the ribald witches’ Sabbath on Wulpurgis Night, and Faust’s ultimate redemption. The most important work in German literature, it was later reshaped (with a tragic ending this time) by Berlioz, by Washington Irving (with a comic ending this time) in “The Devil and Tom Walker,” and by Stephen Vincent Benet (with a patriotic ending this time) in “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Musicians (especially violinists and guitarists) like Giuseppe Tartini, Niccolo Paganini, Robert Johnson, and Charlie Daniels have incoroporated the “deal with the devil” into their professional mythology (Paganini and Johnson were said to have purchased their skill with their souls; Tartini claimed to be given a tune by the Devil in dreams; and Daniels played with the idea in his “Devil Went Down to Georgia”).
In modern cinema and literature, the Devil continues to operate as a plot device to promote ambition, shine a light on human weakness, offer humanity varying mixtures of misery, comedy, and lust, and symbolize temptation. Most famously he figures in movies like Damn Yankees, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, Crossroads, The Witches of Eastwick, The Devil’s Advocate, The Ninth Gate, Little Nicky, Constantine, Ghost Rider, Drive Angry, The Devil’s Carnival, and This is the End. He has also manifested in television shows like The Twilight Zone, Battlestar Galactica, Highway to Heaven, Touched by an Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess, Doctor Who, Supernatural, Torchwood, Being Human, and Lucifer. The list of his appearances in literature – in everything from Dante’s Inferno and The Master and Margarita to The Screwtape Letters and “The Man in the Dark Suit” – is far too long to list (though this book will offer a fine sample).
Since the dawn of civilization there has been a need to look outside of ourselves: to have something human-but-not-human there to mock us, tempt us, and define us by our weaknesses, desires, and foolishness. Satan has played this role adroitly whether he has been the lustful Pan, the gloomy Hades, the playful Puck, the ambitious Lucifer, the tempting Mephistopheles, the deceitful leprechaun, the monstrous Beast, or the lawyerly adversary of Job. The following stories -- collected in our Fireside Anthology of Stories About Demons and the Devil -- look at several cultures’ interpretations of the King of Hell – some are humorous, some horrific, some philosophical, and some fantastical – but all ponder the relationship of humanity to its darker side. Take a peek, make yourself easy, and don’t sign away your soul without a crackerjack lawyer:
How Much Land Does a Man Need? – Leo Tolstoy
The Devil and Tom Walker – Washington Irving
Markheim – Robert Louis Stevenson
A Talking Rat – Charles Dickens