Lucifer. Belial. Lord of the Flies. Prince of Darkness. Satan. The Devil. Most of us who come from a Judeo-Christian background, or who at least grew up in a culture where Christianity is the dominant religion, recognize some or all of these names. We all have at least a vague concept of the being behind the names: Satan, the biggest and baddest of all evil spirits, who rules over the domain of sin and suffering and is the primary adversary of the Christian God. But where does this idea of Satan/the Devil come from?
There’s actually surprisingly few references to Satan in the Old Testament. Oh, there are lots of references to devils (with a lowercase “d”), but these seem to be unconnected cases involving unrelated spirits, and there aren’t any references to a ruler of demons or to a supremely evil spirit whose role is to oppose God and the forces of good. Most modern Christians believe that the serpent who tempted Eve in Genesis was Satan in disguise, but that association seems to have developed in later Christianity — the scriptures themselves make no reference to Satan here, and although the serpent is certainly a devil, the idea that he is the Devil is not explicitly evident within the text. (And, on a related note, most major Christian denominations teach that Genesis is almost entirely metaphorical/mythological and should not be interpreted literally anyway.)
The Hebrew word “satan” means “the accuser” (as in, an accuser in a court of law) and was not originally used to refer to any single being. Interestingly, two of the most oft-quoted biblical passages referring to a “satan” are references to kings who have abused their power. Isaiah 14:12-21 rebukes the “Morning Star, son of the dawn,” who has “ruined [his] land” and “slain [his] people” and will be “cast forth without burial, like loathsome carrion.” This is often interpreted to be referring to Lucifer, the fallen angel, but is probably actually referring to a corrupt Babylonian king — “Morning Star” was a title of the king of Babylon, and Babylon’s oppression of the Jews is well-documented in the Old Testament and beyond. Ezekiel 28 refers to a “satan” whose “heart had grown haughty because of [his] beauty,” who was “banished from the mountain of God,” and who had “become a horror, never to be again.” This is another passage often associated with Lucifer, but it is actually referring to the king of Tyre, although the author does use imagery related to the serpent of Genesis (though likely as a literary device, not because the two are the same being). We can gather from all this that the term “satan” was used in Old Testament times to refer to forces of evil, both supernatural and human, but not to any specific entity.
The New Testament seems to hold a little more evidence for the existence of a Devil with a capital “D.” Jesus is tempted by a/the devil in the wilderness in Matthew 4, and this devil quotes Jewish scripture in an attempt to trip Jesus up and lead him into sin. Jesus, being Jesus, outsmarts the devil, but this story does supply a more concrete of example of a/the devil, as modern Christians understand him, in action.
We know that, by the time of Jesus’s birth, Jewish theology had shifted to a focus on the cosmic battle between good and evil. Jesus clearly saw himself as an adversary of all evil, quite possibly personified in the Devil or in multiple devils. (A really good historical analysis of Jesus’s role as messiah and prophet, and the reading material that inspired this blog post, is N. T. Wright’s “The Mission and Message of Jesus” from the book The Meaning of Jesus, which I highly recommend to anyone with an interest.)
It was the early Christians who really took this whole idea of a supreme adversary and ran with it. The mythology surrounding Lucifer as the foremost of God’s angels and as the first to fall seems to have been pulled together from several places in scripture, including the passages in Isaiah and Ezekiel that I referenced earlier, but the main reference seems to be this passage in Revelation 12: “Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels thrown down with it… Then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus.” Lucifer is often equated with this dragon, and this bit in Revelation seems to be where most of our modern ideas about the Devil originated.
So, if that’s what the Bible has to say about Satan, then where did the little red guy with the horns come from? After all, when most people hear the name “Satan,” they probably picture something like this:
That, my friends, is actually a depiction of Baphomet, a goddess that the Knights Templar were accused of worshiping in the Middle Ages. Baphomet is one of many deities who, because of their followers’ opposition to the Christian Church, came to be associated with Satan. (Baphomet has also become a major figure in modern occult practices, but that’s a story for another post.) For another example, “Beelzebub,” a name commonly ascribed to Satan, actually comes from the name of a god worshiped by the Philistines and Canaanites. A lot of lore and imagery surrounding the devil is based off of the mythology of various pagan gods. You can believe or disbelieve whatever you want, obviously, and just because something doesn’t appear in the Bible doesn’t mean it isn’t true, but I do think it is important to know the various sources that this information comes from.
To complicate things even further, a lot of the lore that we take for granted regarding Satan is not only not Biblical, but is pulled from works of fiction. Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia and other fictional works by Christian authors have contributed more than we’d like to admit to our ideas about the afterlife, and the Inferno segment especially has had a huge influence on the ideas modern Christians have about Hell, demons, and Satan. Separating church canon from fiction based on said canon is another discernment that is essential to understanding the reality of our religion. (Not dissing Dante Alighieri, by the way. The Divine Comedy is one of my favorite works of fiction, and I frequently take inspiration from Inferno for my own works of writing and art.)
So, where DID Satan come from? Like all questions involving the mythology of a millennia-old, living religion, the answer is complicated. But it’s an important question, and one that I personally believe all Christians should dwell on and try to come up with their own answers to. I am not a priest or a church historian, and I can’t tell you what to believe or which information to give merit to. This post is simply me sharing some of the answers I’ve come up with, and I hope that it will be helpful to others in their search for answers of their own.
(Note: For anyone wondering, the Bible translation that I use is the New American Bible, Revised Edition. All Bible passages quoted in this post are from that translation, and thus may differ significantly from, say, the King James version.)
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