Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Devil

The concept of the devil as the enemy of God appears to be specifically a creation of modern Christianity. He appears in the Old Testament, but here he is more of a trickster, sent by God to test the faith of his people. His identification with the snake that tempts Eve in Genesis appears to be a product of Christian revisionism. In the Qur’an (where he is identified as Iblis, an entity created by God from fire) he is given a mission by God to deceive mankind in order to allow the faithful to be identified at Judgment Day. The role of trickster and mischief-maker is clearly identifiable with Pagan gods such Loki. In Buddhism the figure of Mara, the tempter, appears and tries to tempt the Buddha. Eastern religions such as Hinduism recognize that evil exists, but not in the form of an identifiable being.

In the Middle Ages, especially during the time of the Black Death, it was convenient for the Catholic Church to blame the misfortunes that befell Europe on a malevolent supernatural force. In some ways this was a propaganda coup for the Church, and they were able to increase their hold over the common people and decrease the influence of ancient superstitions and other religions. The devil was identified with Paganism. Witches were thought to consort with him, and therefore were punished horribly. Interestingly, Pagans themselves did not recognize Satan. They did worship horned gods (probably based on Greek deities such as Pan), and the recognizable modern image of the devil (as a horned beast) can probably be traced back to this.

As the concept of Satan developed from more of a metaphor to an embodiment of evil, some religions grew up which, by their own admission, worshipped him directly as a deity. I read recently that there are signs that Satanism is becoming socially tolerated (though perhaps not by Christians). For example,the British Armed Forces now allow it to be practiced openly.

In this BBC podcast, a group of historians discuss the origins of the devil and the folklore that surrounds him:

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