Nick Gilmartin's Weblog

And he used to be such a nice, quiet boy

A Biography of the Devil

leave a comment »


Much invoked, often implicated, always despised.  The Devil is as old as deity worship by humankind.  He is the yang to God’s Ying.  The dark side of us all.

“Having the Devil in you” is an often used phrase for agitated or highly aggressive behaviour.

“Being a devil” would be acting on selfish impulse regardless of short term consequences.

He has been worshiped, appeared in film, in art, in song and he even has his own football team.  Somebody even tried to sue him once.  But who or what is he or it and where did he come from?

Note: for the sake of consistency the Devil will be referred to as a He.

As mankind evolved we developed many rituals, such as burial and veneration of our dead.  That was the start.  Our psychology developed and emotions became more sophisticated and elaborate.  Our violence became less chaotic and more premeditated.  Empathy grew more intense in some, and much less in others.  A greater sense of empathy became the key to raising a family or tribe.

Selfish, devious, scheming and violent behaviour became the prime sources for the breakdown of early human society.  Both empathy and violent behaviour gradually clustered into two tangible forms.  We know them today as God and the Devil.  The two seem to be as old as the other, and they are in some way interlocked figures, we cannot have one without the other.

God, Allah, call him what you will is one of the most sought-after benefactors in history.  But he is not the topic of this essay, I will leave him for another time.

The devil 2

The Devil is an equally ambiguous character, and one much harder to pin down.  While God is generally regarded as a genial, bearded middle age man the devil is a hybrid of humanoid and animal.  This image springs mostly from the palette of renaissance painters and their vivid imaginations.  His form is, theoretically,  supernatural, with limbs of the creatures early man feared or hated the most.  The bat, the snake, and the goat.  (The last one seems a bizarre addition but nonetheless is there)

His powers are said to be great, but little is said of what they actually are.  He seems capable of great violence but there is little evidence of him using this as a first resort.  Instead, the Devil likes to trick, to scheme and to manipulate.

In view of the early church’s irrational fear of all things female it is surprising that the Devil is not imagined as a woman.  Not that the women of the time were any less inclined to devilish behaviour, they just lacked the physical capacity to carry it out in such a spectacular manner.

The devil appeared in early Jewish text first, not as the epitome of evil, but as a form of prosecutor sitting opposite the judgment of God.  The name Satan is a Hebrew version of ‘accuser’.  In some Talmud or Rabbinic versions he is seen as an Agent Provocateur, testing man for sin in the judgment of God.

In Christianity he seems to have been some kind of subordinate being who rose up and led a rebellion.  His exact reasons are hard to figure, but pride and will seem to figure in the case for both the protagonist and the antagonist.  But which was which?

Some kind of supernatural war has featured in renaissance art, fought with swords and breastplates.  It seems that God and the Devil were capable of mustering armies and leading them in armed struggle.  Ultimately God seems to have won and banished the devil into the wilderness where he planned his revenge.

We can reason from this that God is more powerful than the Devil, either physically or mentally.

Although far from universally popular or attractive, some people do worship the devil.  Their reasoning is highly personal.  Some worship his for personal gain, others, quixotically, because they do not believe in God.  For others it is some kind of protest against an over-paternalistic Christian society.  Few devil worshippers are balanced individuals.

The format for the worship of God are clearly laid down in the Koran, and in great detail in the Bible.  The precise method of devil worship seems to vary greatly.  Animal or human sacrifice, deviant sexual practices and child abuse have all been implicated.    The greater details seem to be a closely guarded secret and accounts of dark masses are rarely reliable.

The devil's bible author

In the late Sixties a man called Anton LeVay wrote The Satanic Bible.  This set down the Constitution for Satanism as a religion.  Those who bought the book expecting a charter for deviant behaviour were to be bitterly disappointed.  Le Vay’s book was more pragmatical in nature, banning outright human sacrifice (boo!), Sexual deviance (hiss!), and any act that breaks that country’s laws (sod this!).  Although LeVay has undoubted terrifying appearance, his is too practical-minded to make any headway with the crazies that his religion attracts.  The Satanic Bible, I would suspect is outsold by Mein Kampf by a significant margin.

The Devil has some symbols.  The most common in use is a hand signal consisting of a punching fist with the first and fourth fingers extended, the ‘horns of the devil’, popular at rock concerts.  So now you know.  In fact not many people knew what the hand signal stood for, I only just found out myself.

His main symbol is the Pentagram, the five pointed star.  The one subtle difference between Satanists and other religions that use the pentagram is this:  Satanists use the one with two points at the top and the three points at the bottom.  The two points at the top symbolize the triumph of the devil (they are the horns) over the three points (representing the holy trinity).  Within the star the face of a goat is sometimes portrayed.  It’s origins are unclear but, like the Swastika, it seems to have been hijacked at some point and used as a hallmark of wrongdoing.  The Pentagram had no association with Satanism at all until the Spanish Inquisition came along and associated the Devil with any symbol it didn’t like.  Somehow the association of the Pentagram and the occult looks set to stick, like the Swastika and the Nazis.

Now about that Goat.  The Goat, in ancient Egypt was a symbol of carnality.  Within some Satanic rituals it was used to procure fertility.  Other religions were already eating Goat only as part of a ceremony.  At some point the idea crossed over but animal sacrifice tailed off.

The Devil has two numbers, 666 and the less well known 616.  Why does he have these numbers?  Why did he want them in particular?  And what did he intend to do with them?  And why does God not have a number?

The answers are highly ambiguous and mostly come down to early Christian superstition.  616 may have been a typo, not as I thought, the devil’s Fax number.  The 666 could be a numerical code for something or other, but no theory has stood up to scrutiny.  Even in the year 666 very little of note happened.  The Devil never appeared, there was no fire and brimstone.  It was the medieval Millenium bug scare.

Al Pacino's raging rendition of Lucifer

Al Pacino's raging rendition of Lucifer

The Devil has been portrayed in several films, the most recent being The Devil’s Advocate, where he is played by Al Pacino.  In the film he is depicted as sardonic, cynical and bitter.  He also seems to hate God but still lives in fear of him, even if he will not openly admit it.  Personally I liked Jack Nicholson’s version better.

Jack Nicolson's understated mischief making devil.

Jack Nicolson's understated mischief making devil.

The Rolling Stones wrote a song about him, expressing their sympathy for him.  The song describes him as a man of wealth and taste, wily and mischievous.

So what does the future hold for the Devil in this brave new Millennium?  At the minute not much.  He has largely been sidelined while radical Islam and their Neo-Conservative enemies seek endorsement from God for their activities.  Nobody cares for the Devil anymore, poor Devil.  But as long as there is light there is dark and if there is a God then we can be sure the Devil will be hiding out there somewhere just waiting for his chance.


Written by Nick Gilmartin

October 21, 2009 at 10:58 am

Posted in Art and Culture

Tagged with , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: