The History of the Devil

Posted in: History, Religion

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The notion of the devil does not originate in the Bible, as many may think – In the Old Testament, Satan is just another one of God’s servants. It is in Iran that the religious teacher Zarathustra simplified things, ending up with only two – a God of the Good and a God of Evil. This belief then spread throughout the Middle East. In the Jewish world, Satan, God’s obedient servant, was gradually replaced by Saden, God’s eternal enemy. The Greeks had an underworld called Hades. It didn’t have fire, but the valley outside Jerusalem, called Hell, did. In Hebrew it was known as Gehenna, a smouldering rubbish heap to which fire was regularly set. That is where bodies of executed criminals were burned. Gehenna was the inspiration for the Christian hell.

When the Romans ruled, their persecutions of Christians and Jews were attributed to 666, symbol of the Devil, but also the numerical identity of Emperor Nero. Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the 5th century and made it the state religion. Anyone not adhering to Catholic rules was a heretic, a worshipper of God’s enemy. As Christianity spread under the Roman Empire, the devil took on some of the characteristics of Pan, whom the Romans kept on worshipping- Hence the horns and claws for feet in the newly born imagery of the devil.

By the Middle Ages, the devil became real – everything physical and material was bad, everything spiritual was good. Islam was then seen as evil personified, hence the Crusades. The Inquisition then went so far as to claim that “heretics” were in league with the devil. The Church used excuses of heresy in order to acquire wealth. Women in particular were considered to be close to the devil. Between 60,000 and 300,000 women were burned as witches.

Luther split the Church and each denomination accused the other of demonisation. When the New World of the Americas was colonised, the devil went along. The town of Salem is synonymous with witch hunts. By the 18th century, science had come into the picture and the idea of the devil became more sophisticated, being well groomed, wealthy and sexually appealing. He promised everything to people in return for their soul.

With the age of Revolution, a completely new image of the devil appeared. He was depicted as a lonely figure who suffered under an overbearing God. He was now a brave and handsome fellow and becomes romanticised. The devil was now admired. In the 20th century, the devil became a figure of fun and is considered no better or worse that the common man.

In 1966, the Church of Satan was founded in California. Satan became a popular figure in modern film. In the film “Rosemary’s Baby”, Satan triumphs and the film “The Exorcist” brought evil into a new perspective. In the 1980s, news of organised Satanists swept the media.

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