September 1, 2020 Category: Religion

The Genealogy Of “Satan”:

The quintessence of goodness is typically personified by a revered deity–a point that needs little elaboration.  Naturally, our predilection for anthropomorphizing what is otherwise nebulous is operative when it comes to the ultimate source of evil as much as to the ultimate source of good.  Let’s turn, then, to the personification of evil; and see how this archetype crops up in cultures around the world.

In its earliest instantiation, the word “Satan” derived from the ignoble brother of Osiris, “Set”, in ancient Egyptian myth (via Coptic).  This morphological adaptation likely occurred during the Ptolemaic era, as indigenous lore was coopted into the Hellenic repertoire to yield a hybridized theology (see my essay, “The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation”).  As is often the case with creolization, this moniker was based on a minor taxonomic glitch.

In the earliest version of the myth, it was Set who fought the serpent of chaos, Apep[i] (rendered “Aphoph” in Coptic; “Apothis” in Greek).  This embodiment of chaos was seen as the quintessential nemesis of “Ma’at”–who represented the natural order, and was associated with light (in contradistinction to chaos / darkness).  The genealogy of this ideation in Abrahamic lore likely stemmed from Set being depicted as the fallen brother of the savior-god, Osiris.  Hence the moniker for the Prince of Darkness in Christianity, Mandaeism, Manichaeism, and Islam has its origins in EGYPTIAN MYTH. {30}

The idea of the deified figure battling a cosmic serpent (chaos) goes back to the Assyrians–with the tale of Marduk and Tiamat.  It also crops up in Vedic lore, wherein the nefarious super-being was “Ahi” / “Vritra”, who–lo and behold–was portrayed as a serpent.  (For more on this, see my essays on “Mythemes”.)  And in the Torah, we find the Hebrew moniker, “Nakhash” for the hissing serpent (herald of impudence) that led Adam and Eve astray in Eden, an act that precipitated a Fallen World.  The leitmotif continued on through the Book of Revelation (12:9 and 20:2).

The SEMITIC notion of evil-embodied-as-a-serpent dates back to the Phoenicians, who associated the ills of the world with mythical serpents (disruptors of divine order).  This likely influenced the development of the Judaic story about the Garden of Eden.  We might note that “Gan Eden”–as found in Deuteronomic texts–was a variation on the (much older) Sumerian “Dilmun”.  Meanwhile, the association of a serpent with knowledge (“Nachash” was the proprietor of the Tree Of Knowledge) dates back to the early Babylonian period.

It seems that we are all predisposed to personify whatever it is we deem to be “evil”.  And so it came to pass that a Satanic figure served as the quintessential embodiment of  evil.  This (personified) cosmic force might exist for any of a number of reasons, can have any of a number of motives, and can possess any of a number of traits.  What complicates the matter even more: The personification of evil can be based on any of a number of conceptions of “evil”.

One of the earliest instances of such a figure was “Angra Mainyu” (later known as “Ahriman”; alt. the embodiment of evil known as “Aka Manah”) in Zoroastrian theology.  “Ahriman” was said to be the nefarious twin brother of the god-head, Ahura Mazda (nefarious because he was resentful of his twin’s superior power).  Thus “Ahriman” was a celestial being with a grudge.

As it turns out, the Zoroastrian tale of “Ahriman” ALSO reflects Egyptian mythology, in which “Set” was posited as the evil counterpart (possibly even the brother) of the benevolent god-head, Horus / Osiris.  The same theme would later be found with “Loki” in Norse mythology.

The Buddhist Satan-figure is “Mara”.  The “temptation of the hero” leitmotif began with Mara’s attempt to lure the Buddha away from his righteous path (with an apparition of the former’s beautiful daughters).  The theme is timeless.  Five centuries later, the writers of the synoptic Gospels recycled the plot-point, this time with Satan and the Messiah cast in the starring roles (e.g. Matthew 4:1).  John Milton would play upon the same theme in his “Paradise Regained” c. 1671. In most cases, the personification of evil proved to be an effective narrative device…a fact that is clear even in children’s programing, whether it’s Mumm-Ra (the ever-living source of evil in “Thundercats”) or the jilted “Skeletor” (the hooded vicar of Hordak in “He-Man”).

So what of the MOTIVES and AGENDA of the “Big Bad”?  It seems that an ax to grind is at the root of most evil entities–driven by a seething resentment for having been somehow CROSSED by the cosmic order…and so seeking to lash out in reprisal.  The way this is done is by sabotaging the otherwise divinely-governed existence of homo sapiens–typically via some combination of deception and temptation.

As the godhead GUIDES, the adversary MISLEADS.  Instead of putting us on the right path, he leads us astray.  Instead of enlightening us (via some kind of illumination), he sullies our good sense (via some sort of gambit).  This can be boiled down to an “Well, I’ll show them!” sort of spite.  Sure enough, per Zoroastrian cosmogony, the modus operandi of “Ahriman” was deception (effected in the form of “daebaaman”).  He would lead people awry via his proxy, “Aka Manah” (a.k.a. “Akoman” / “Akvan”): a crafty agent of temptation.  His perfidy primarily lay in his instigation of “achistem manah” (the worst kind of thinking).  The idea was to cajole we mere mortals into succumbing to our baser primal drives.  (The Avestan “Angra Mainyu” is roughly translated as “destructive mentality”.  It is rendered in Pahlavi as “Ahriman”.)

Thus virtue was seen to be a function of self-discipline: having the gumption to over-ride the nascent “achistem manah” within all of us (what the Greeks dubbed “enkrateia”).  Vice was seen as succumbing to “daebaaman” (what the Greeks dubbed “akrasia”).  We find the same kind of “right thinking” in Hinduism: “dharma”, by which one has cultivated sufficient self-discipline to remain on the right path (with the understanding that one can be led astray by one’s baser appetites if one is of weak mind).

The need to overcome temptation has typically been the foundation for accounts of avoiding “evil”.  The Hebrews of yore posited “Ha-Satan”: an emissary of the god-head DELIBERATELY sent (by Yahweh) to give mankind CHALLENGES (as was the case with, say, Job).  This was done so that humans might have obstacles in their lives to overcome (and thereby a chance to prove their fealty).  Thus, in the Book of Job, Ha-Satan is effectively the proctor of an existential TEST (in keeping with the serpent in Genesis, which persuaded Adam and Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge).  Adam and Eve’s FAILURE of said test is the Christian basis for “Original Sin”.  Rather than temptation (as with JoN; or Adam and Eve), Job was saddled with tribulation.  

In other words, the Judaic version of “diabolos” was not an adversary of the Abrahamic deity; it was serving a divine purpose–though a rather duplicitous one–ON BEHALF OF the Abrahamic deity.  To wit: It was about creating adversity so that supplicants might prove their spiritual mettle.  This theme was epitomized by the arduous trials that the Hebrews were forced to endure during their 40 years in the desert (Deuteronomy 6:13-16 and 8:3).  To Recapitulate: The “Fall” in Eden (as recounted in Genesis) was essentially a failed test…for which mankind was forced to atone forevermore.

Note that throughout the Hebrew scriptures, “satan” was otherwise the Hebraic term for “adversary” (Numbers 22:22/32; First Chronicles 21:1; First Samuel 29:4; 2 Samuel 19:22; First Kings 5:4 and 11:14/23/25); not for the personification of evil (i.e. a maniacal demon-king).  That is to say, the term was a general descriptor, not the name of a specific character–a personage who represented some nefarious cosmic force (pace 1 Peter 5:8, which compares the “adversary” to a lion seeking victims to devour).  The kabbalists were obsessed with demonic figures like Lilith (ref. the “Zohar”).  Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, satan is described as the King of Tyre, and even the director of celestial music (Ezekiel 28).  In Isaiah 14, he–peculiarly–speaks in the first person.

In keeping with the aforementioned Zoroastrian “Aka Manah”, the Christian Gospels depict Satan primarily as a TEMPTER–especially of Jesus himself (Mark 1:13, Matthew 4:3, and John 6:15/26-31). That Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert was an odd plot-twist, as it entailed god effectively testing HIMSELF.

This prosaic leitmotif was nothing new in the 1st century.  Indeed, the Buddhists had already been using the narrative device (i.e. a supernal agent of temptation) for centuries with the aforementioned “Mara” (likely derived from the Hindu goddess of death by the same name; or “Yama”, the god of death)…who first tempted Siddhartha Gautama.  “Mara” was subsequently the source of all human temptation (read: a natural force to be overcome by an act of will).  In another sense, the ultimate “evil” in Buddhism is self-absorption / selfishness (read: succumbing to the wiles of “Mara”).

The idea that humans are exalted–or, at least, enhanced–insofar as they are able to overcome obstacles (endure burdens and resist temptations) was also put forth by Ancient Greek philosophers–in the form of “enkrateia” (mental discipline, seen as the basis for virtue).  The touting of “enkrateia” was an indictment of “akrasia” (whereby one is at the mercy of whims and urges); and thus an enjoinder for self-discipline.  In keeping with this, the Bahai’i Faith posits Satan merely as the Id of our own psyche.  In other words: the devil is none other than our baser instincts–which must be kept in check via sheer will-power.

Unsurprisingly, this has clear parallels in Eastern thought.  Hindu theology refers to humans’ caving-in-to-temptation as “tamas”, sometimes attributed to the duplicitous interloper, “Kroni”.  Some Mishnaic lore refers to such an interloper as a fallen angel–variously named “Azaz-El”, “Mastema”, “Sama-El”, “Samyaza” / “Semihazah”, or “Sathar-i-El”.  In Mishnaic lore, however, Satan is NOT a fallen angel…nor is he even the embodiment of evil.  Rather, he is a conniving–nay, devious–instigator.  (The Classical Hebrew translation of the “ha-Shatan” is “the accuser”.)  As we see in the Book of Job, he is a figure that chides and goads the Abrahamic deity in mischievous ways.  Satan talks the godhead into making Job suffer horribly–and pointlessly–in a gambit to test the latter’s fealty (also ref. “Balaam” in Numbers 22:22).

As it turned out, “diabolos” (Greek) underwent an etymological ramification across Europe.  Via the Vulgar Latin derivative (“Diabolus”), the Italians rendered it “Diavolo”, the Castilians (proto-Spanish) “Diablo”, the Portuguese “Diabo”, the Basques “Deabrua”, the Catalans and French “Diable”, and the Romanians “Diavol”.  Meanwhile, via the Old English (“Deofol”) the Welsh rendered it “Diafol”, while the Dutch rendered it “Duvel”.  Bosnians / Serbians say “Davo”.  It is interesting that the Mohammedans truncated the “D” from the beginning of the Greek / Latin moniker when establishing the name of their fallen angel: “Iblis” (alternately referred to as “Azazel”, from Judaic lore). {14}

It is instructive to ascertain the ways in which etymological lineage has tracked with meme propagation; yet these things are not always concomitant.  We find that, in many cases, the etymological origins of some words / phrases have little to do with their current meanings.  (After all, linguistics is as much a feature of a culture as are memes.)  Be that as it may, sometimes the etymological lineage can be quite telling, as with “diabolos”.  Such a lineage MIGHT reflect the virality of a meme across cultures over long periods of time.  The history of an idea might thereby be traced to its earliest roots.

An illustration of this is the menacing deity, “Yam[mu]” in Canaanite theology (thus found in both Ugaritic and Phoenician lore), which represented primordial chaos.  The moniker is associated with the turbulent, unpredictable waters of the raging sea: uncontrollable and oftentimes deadly.  As mentioned, the Assyrians had a similar deity, the nefarious “Tiamat”, associated with–or simply dwelling in–a dark oceanic abyss.  Such deities posed as antagonists to the deified hero-figure.  So what of Yam’s ignoble character?  He was cast out of heaven (“Sappan”) for insolence (read: bucking divine ordinance), and so became resentful.  Again, we find a celestial entity with an ax to grind; thereby explaining his sinister motives.  This takes the form of SPITE: spoiling to sabotage the lives of humans–who are earnestly seeking to stay in the good graces of the god(s)– by luring them into folly.  (If I fell out of favor with godhead, then I’ll make sure everyone else does too!)

This theme is as tedious as it is ubiquitous.  In the Hebrew Bible (ref. Ephesians), Satan is described as “the spirit that woks in those who disobey”.  Thus evil is not malice; it is disobedience (as stated explicitly in, say, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 2:2).  Equating iniquity to defiance of authority is a tricky game to play when it is indistinguishable from the m.o. of every authoritarian regime since the beginning of time.  We have learned that civil society does not emerge from a command-and-control approach to “law and order”.

As if to make matters more confusing, Satan is not ALWAYS associated with darkness.  In the Book of Isaiah (chapt. 14), for instance, Lucifer is depicted as the “son of the morning” or “morning star”…a trope that dates back to the Sumerian goddess, Inanna…and continued on through the Greco-Roman “Venus”.  It’s worth noting that “luc-ifer” is simply Latin for “bringer of light”, a crude rendering of the Hebrew “hay-lel”; in contradistinction to “noct-ifer” [“bringer of darkness”].  The Koine Greek equivalent was “heos-phoros” / “phaos-phoros”.  It is worth tracing the emergence of this meme via etymology; yet the lexical metamorphosis is often not a straight line, so can be somewhat misleading.  Such inquiries are complicated by the fact that, in any given place, several different words / phrases have been used to refer to the same thing over the course of time.  Meanwhile, the connotation of any given word / phrase often changes over the course of time, as it winds up in new contexts.  In the long-term, such exigencies entail a disconnection of onomastics from memetics.  Even so, the etymology of a word indicates where people may have adopted a leitmotif; and–ultimately–how it came to be as it now is.

And so it went in Judaic scripture, where various nefarious characters were cast as the principle nemesis:

  • “Mastema” (as found in the “Covenant of Damascus” as well as the “Book of Jubilees”)
  • “Baal-i-El” (often rendered “Belial”; as in the “Ascension of Isaiah” and the “Book of Jubilees”)
  • “Gadr-i-El” [Wall of God] (as in the Book of Enoch)

Other appellations included “Sama-El” (Venom of God), “Mash-hit” (Destroyer), and “Satan-El” (Adversary of God).  This principle nemesis was invariably considered the angel of deceit.

In the New Testament, Satan is variously described as:

  • “Baal Zebub”, ruler of demons (often rendered “Beezlebub”; Mark 3:22, Luke 11:15-19, and Matthew 12:24-28; lifted from the first chapter of Second Kings) {15}
  • The “deceiver” (Luke 4:1-13 and 11:15; Matthew 4:1-11; and Paul’s Second letter to the Thessalonians 2:3-10)
  • A sentinel in hell named “Apollyon” [a Greek version of the Hebere, “Abaddon”] (in the Book of Revelation)
  • The (non-specifically-named) angel who was cast out of heaven for disobeying god

It is this last caricature that probably inspired the authors of the Koran to portray “Iblis” cum “Shaytan” as a fallen angel.  (Also ref. Daniel 8:9-11 from the Hebrew Bible: a likely source of inspiration for any End Days scenario.)  The entire point of the theological flourish was to discourage intransigence / defiance of the godhead.

And so we are told of a disgruntled angel with an abiding vendetta (per Ezekiel 28:15) and outsized ambition (per Isaiah 14:12-14) fell out of favor with the godhead.  Such hubris that led to his banishment from heaven…and, subsequently, a seething resentment (a vindictive streak that led him to focus his reprisals on those who were vulnerable: mankind).  The notion of a jilted angel being responsible for all the ills of the world has appeal, as it simplifies things (boiling all evil down to a singular culprit).  (Satan’s banishment from heaven is also referenced in the “Book of Revelation” 12:9.)  Hence the abiding leitmotif of a dastardly villain with an ax to grind.

The tale is retold throughout the Koran (2:30-34, 7:11-18, 15:28-35, 17:61-64, 18:50, 20:116-117, and 38:71-85).  (Note that, per 15:35, Satan is not eternally cursed; he is only accursed until the Day of Judgement.)  Mohammedans opted to re-name Azaz-El with an Arabicized version of the Greek term, “diabolos” (yielding “Iblis”).

The inclination to posit a “Big Bad” is understandable.  The world appears to be a rather fucked-up place.  This can be stultifying; not to mention exasperating.  Oftentimes, it would seem that there are unseen, sinister forces at work–all conspiring against us.  (This is made all-the-more apparent when grave misfortune befalls us “out of the blue”.)  Indeed, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to destitution, diseases, and other tragedies…especially when they befall incontrovertibly good people.  Supposing that there is a nefarious impresario–deviously operating “behind the scenes”–kinda-sorta seems to account for the raft of (otherwise inexplicable) injustices that relentlessly assail us.  Such a supposition has the benefit of providing us with a thing that we can all BLAME…and SCORN…and declare war against…whenever we are forced to endure tribulation.  The bonus is that we can simply assume anyone with whom we have enmity is in league with this omnipresent super-villain; a conceit that can be consoling in frustrating times.

There are other perks.  This cosmogony justifies the existence of a protector-deity.  For we find ourselves in a rather dire predicament: the “Big Bad” is lurking somewhere out there; and there’s seemingly nothing we mere mortals can do–on our own–to thwart it.  Without our deity “going to bat for us”, we’re toast.  (The deal is that he shall look over us so long as we continue to placate him.  Keep in appeased, and he’ll ensure all is well.  Fall out of favor with him, and you’ll be left out in the cold.)  This grand cosmic clash has the added benefit of dramatizing human existence, giving the godhead an antagonist. {26}

This clash helps to make the world (almost) make sense.  We are validated by having the righteous super-being on OUR side; and reassured, knowing that we will be protected insofar as we remain in his good graces.  In this sense, the devil justifies god.  Without the devil and his diabolical machinations posing an immanent threat, the need for god would not seem nearly as urgent.  And when we are tempted to be iniquitous, we can attribute our moral lapses to this ultimate of saboteurs.

Positing an insidious supernatural entity for the purpose of conducting a test of will-power is tempting.  Yet, oftentimes, supposing that there is an intelligent agent that provides obstacles (to deter us) and temptations (to divert us) is little more than a provocative narrative flourish; and thus something to be taken allegorically.  (Note, for example, John 8:44 in the New Testament.)  Whether such an agent is merely performing a task assigned to him by the godhead or doing so to spite the godhead is a matter of narrative choice.  (Note that the godhead portrayed in the Koran is HIMSELF the schemer who deliberately misleads certain people…thus leaving little room for Satan to play an important role in the proposed cosmogony.)

Alas, the ethereal notions of “good” and “evil” are often too abstract to grasp.  The matter of making a FIGURATIVE explanation more relatable is to think of it in VISUAL terms.  Ergo the ubiquitous use of light and darkness as a heuristic.  It is worth exploring this semiotic routine at length; as it has proven to be so compelling across so many cultures.

Associating evil with darkness makes sense, as the inability to SEE things is, after all, often dangerous. Such an exigency naturally instills fear.  The dark spooks us in part because it is associated with that which we can’t see.  The optical becomes a heuristic for the psychical. For darkness represents the unknown; an epistemic blindness–which is itself quite frightening.  It is no coincidence that the etymology of the Arabic term, “jinn”, may be derived from the Syriac term for “[that which is] hidden from sight”.  Darkness is concomitant with danger and ignorance.  For the unseen may harbor some kind of threat. {19}

In this sense, darkness (qua absence of light) is a rather un-interesting–nay, rather pathetic–thing of which to be prince!  Ergo the Ancient Hebrew moniker for the devil, “Belial” is taken to connote “worthless” / “impotent”. Light EMPOWERS. Nay, it ENLIGHTENS. It is no surprise, then, that SOLAR deities–as beacons and/or providers of illumination–are typically associated with good things like wisdom, justice, and even salvation (as with the Semitic “Shamash”).  Illumination (alt. “enlightenment”; “seeing the light”) is a metaphor for wisdom / insight; which is seen as an existential ballast.  (It was for this reason that Hellen Keller entitled her book on religious epiphany: “Light In My Darkness”.)

The metaphorical use of darkness stands to reason.  We are supposed to be scared of the dark; it is a rational fear that evolution has programmed within us (as perils we can’t detect may be awaiting us).  And being able to SEE something (this includes cognitive functions such as recognizing and envisioning / picturing) is an obvious idiom, based as it is on LITERAL optics.  Be that as it may, oftentimes our intuitions run amok–as when we speciously associate doves (white) with peace and wholesomeness…while associating crows (black) with nefariousness.  In fact, doves are dumb and rather intemperate; whereas ravens are highly intelligent and quite friendly. {33}

The spookiness factor of darkness is hard not to notice.  Suffice to say, if one fashions oneself the “Prince of Darkness”, one is probably not a swell fellow.  Good intentions almost always involve illumination of some kind. This is a reminder that an idiom often conflates the literal (in this case: the optical) with the metaphorical (in this case: the psychical). {20}

Physical manifestations of the divine (theophany) have taken many forms.  Broadly speaking, the phenomenon might be called “hiero-phany” (a term coined by Mircea Eliade).  This semiotic trick captures how that which is deemed sacred is considered the means by the divine is revealed (“hieros” means sacred; “phainein” means to bring to light).  The motif goes back to the Bronze Age.  The Ancient Egyptian god-head (“Amun” / “Ra”) was associated with light; while his nemesis (“Apophis” / “Apep”) was associated with darkness. {21}  Also note the Persian demon, “aeshma daeva” (rendered “Asmodeus” in the Book of Tobit).  Mohammedans described demons (“jinn”) as wafts of dark smoke (sans fire).

It makes sense that a point-counterpoint schema permeates most of the world’s theology.  The dichotomy is typically cast in terms of light vs. darkness–as with the Ancient Egyptian “Horus” vs. “Set”, Ancient Greek “Aether” vs. “Erebus”, Ancient Turkic “Bai-Ülgen” vs. “Erlik”, and Ancient Slavic “Belo-bog” vs. “Cherno-bog”.  The dichotomy is best captured in Manichaeism’s dualistic theology–in which the righteous (represented by light) are pitted against the forces of evil (i.e. darkness), led by the sinister “Ahriman” [alt. “Melech Kheshokha” in Syriac]. {22}  We also encounter the motif in the (Aramaic) apocryphal prophecies such as the “The Book of the Wars of the Lord” [alt. “The War of the Messiah”; “The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness”].

The Light vs. Darkness dichotomy found Zoroastrianism (with Zurvan and Ahriman) would later be epitomized in Manichaeism.  (The Manichaean heaven was dubbed the “Gardens of Light”.)  In Syriac liturgy, heaven was also associated with “naheere” [light].

The leitmotif is also found in Mandaean cosmogony, with “malka dhshuka” [“king of darkness”].  To reiterate: The contemporary “Prince / Lord of Darkness” trope has not much more to it than the fact that darkness is scary: unknown perils are more terrifying than known perils. {18}

In Archaic Greek, the Divine was equated with Light in the concept, “pleroma”.  In keeping with this paradigm, throughout Antiquity, the realm of light was posited as “pleroma” in myriad cosmologies–from the ancient Greeks to the Gnostics to the Mandaeans and Manichaeans.  “Pleroma” also intimated a state of being filled by the divine.  Again, illumination has a two-fold meaning: in terms of both optics and wisom (that is: as both LIGHT and as ENLIGHTENMENT).

And so we find the dichotomy in the New Testament–as with 8:12 in John’s Gospel, in which Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world.  He that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”  The forces of Light vs. the Forces of Darkness invariably correspond to good vs. bad.  Even in the Druze Faith, “Lahut” [the divine] is seen as the ultimate source of light.  The Neo-Platonist / Gnostic realm of Light was known as the “Pleroma”, which was associated with Enlightenment.  Indeed, light as MENTAL illumination is also a ubiquitous metaphor.  In the Book of Ecclesiastes, for example, wisdom is associated with light (2:13).  And the leitmotif also crops up in Eastern mysticism.  Notably, a major book on Hinduism published in 1875 was Dayanand Saraswati’s “Satyarth Prakash” (The Light Of Truth).

Sure enough, in the Koran, the Abrahamic deity is referred to a the ultimate source of light (as in 24:35).  The Ishmaelites’ holy book sells itself as showing the way from darkness into light (as in 14:1), a common motif found in Christianity, Manichaeism, and Zoroastrianism.  Even the scripture itself is referred to as a “light” (to the world).  This is in keeping with the Christian tradition; wherein god incarnate (the Christ) was seen as a light to the world (Matthew 5:14-16; John 8:12 and 12:46).  The idiom is found in Judaism as well–as with the treatment of the Torah (“teaching”), which is from the root “OR” (“light”, as found in Psalm 119:105).

In the Torah, the first thing the Abrahamic deity did (in his capacity as Creator of the Universe) to bring order to the world was to separate light from darkness (as roiling primordial waters); for THAT seems to be the most elementary way to make sense of the world.

In the New Testament, we are told that piety is a matter of partaking in the inheritance of the saints of light, who have delivered us from the power of darkness” (as in Colossians 1:12-13; Hebrews 12:28; Revelation 1:9).

In Gnostic Christianity, the Light vs. Darkness motif is found in the “Pistis Sophia” (with righteousness coming from the “Treasury of Light” and evil coming from the “Outer Darkness”).

Examples of this motif go on and on.  In ancient Norse cosmology, Myrk[r]-heim[r] (alt. “Nidavellir”) was seen as the house / world / field of darkness (ref. the “Voluspa”).  In ancient Hungarian myth, the personification of darkness and of evil were one in the same: “Ördög”…just as it was in ancient Prussian myth (“Peckols”), Maori myth (“Whiro”), Filipino myth (“Saragnayan”), and in countless other cultures.

Later, the basis for the Abrahamic cosmology of Mandaeism would be a grand, cosmic battle between the Lord of Light (good) and the Lord of Darkness (bad).  The former is nameless, and serves as the godhead.  The latter is a demiurge referred to as “Ptah-El”. {23}  This motif was even prevalent in Platonic thought, where the Form of the Good was associated with light (ref. the allegory of the Cave).

The environment in which people find themselves often informs the memes that are adopted. Hence, instead of light and darkness, the Koranic alternatives were shade and heat.  Its target audience being desert-dwellers, it offered a reprieve from swelter (pavilions) and a quenching of thirst (rivers of milk and honey; plus an endless supply of wine without any hangovers).  A Celtic god, who’s target audience dwelled in cold, wet climes, would surely have designed his paradise a bit differently.  Lo and behold: the Druidic “Summerland”, a place where it was always warm and sunny. (For more on this, see “A Brief History Of Heaven And Hell”.)

And so it went: Rather than illumination, the allure of the Islamic heaven is the slaking of primal cravings.  This is to be held in stark contrast to the Far East–as the Buddha was not offering large-breasted maidens to those who died in battle. {24}  Nor did carnal desire seem to be much on Jesus’ mind.

In every case, we encounter binary thinking…and consequently a binary taxonomy.

As mentioned above, Zoroastrian’s chief antagonist, “Angra Mainyu” was associated with darkness.  This was in contradistinction to the god-head, “Ahura Mazda”…who was associated with light.  Moreover, that the Avestan term for being divinely blessed / empowered, “khvarnah” [Pahlavi: “khwarrah”] has connotations of illumination; which makes sense, as divinity is associated with fire in Zoroastrianism.

Associating darkness with villainy is universal.  In Japan, the heroine of the manga “Sailor Moon” battles the Dark Kingdom, led by an evil queen: a jilted girl named, Beryl (there we go again with an ax to grind).  This even incorporates the motif wherein the feminine (as Queen Metaria) is equated with chaos (as “Shadow Galactica”), as was the case with the primordial waters in ancient mythologies.  (The dark, primordial waters associated with the world before there was light is best known in the opening verses of Genesis.  Also recall that the Assyrian serpent, “Tiamat” was female.)

This dichotomy is sometimes couched in terms of thesis-antithesis: an idiom that involves an interplay between creation and destruction.  Such cosmogonic co-action is found in several cosmologies around the world–notably:

  • Hinduism: Shiva “Nataraja” (sometimes manifested as [Kala] “Bhairava”) is a destroyer who also creates (involved in the Yug[a] cycle).
  • Taoism and Buddhism: The Yin-Yang dichotomy (involved in the cycle of Samsara).
  • Japanese (Shinto) mythology: Izanami-no-Mikoto (a.k.a. “Izanami-no-Kami”) is the goddess of both creation and death.
  • Norse mythology: Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, symbolizes both creative and destructive forces.

A cosmogony of this sort does not involve “evil” PER SE…so much as it presents a progressive cycle of creative destruction.  It is often articulated as the interplay–within each of us–between self-discipline and succumbing to temptation.

Another narrative trope that is pivotal: FALLEN-NESS.  Per the Christian notion of original sin, ALL OF MANKIND of fallen.  And Satan is more than happy to keep it that way (again: out of spite).

Mohammedan theology takes the angle-with-a-grudge motif to new heights.  It renders Satan little more than a jaded seraph with an ax to grind.  After rebuffing (then being rebuffed by) the Koran’s protagonist, “Iblis” makes it his vocation to mislead mankind.  That is to say: His sine qua non is to sabotage the “din” of every human…all in a diabolical scheme to spite god.  (The same theme is found with hellions like “Loki” in Norse mythology.)

What was Iblis’ (Shaytan’s) fatal crime?  So the story goes: When the Abrahamic deity commanded all the angels to bow down to Adam (the first of the homo sapiens), Iblis–at the time, one of the angels–disobeyed; as recounted in 2:34, 7:11-13, 15:31-32, 17:61, 18:50, 20:116, and 38:75-77.  (Yes, the authors of the Koran found the need to repeat this anecdote SEVEN TIMES.)

Why such defiance? Ironically, Iblis’ grievance was in keeping with Koranic teaching: Why bow to anyone other than god himself?  He did not think it made sense to bow to a PERSON.  So his choice was to either commit “shirk” or to disobey god. {25}  A problem arises here.  For in standard Islamic theology, angels are said to not have free will.  So it would have been impossible for an angel (Iblis) to have decided–of his own volition–to disobey an order (to rebuff the command to bow to Adam).  In other words, Satan becomes god’s antagonist of his own choice; yet this could not be so if he had initially been an angel.  Of course, god ordering all angels to bow to Adam–so as to show respect–would have also been pointless, as such propitiation on the part of volition-less beings would have been compulsory upon god’s command.  (In any case, bowing to any being other than the godhead is considered “shirk”; so what is one to do when god commands one to commit the ultimate blasphemy?)

The predicament of Abraham’s would-be sacrifice of Isaac is illustrative of the same theological dilemma: Is it moral because god commands it or does god command it because it is moral?  Abraham put blind, unconditional obedience over the inclination to refrain from committing a repugnant act.  Iblis took the alternate course. 

Why Iblis made this decision is up for debate.  Hubris?  Jealousy?  Disagreement about the hierarchy of angel-human statuses?  In any case, Iblis put a higher priority on what he deemed “the right thing to do” over obedience for obedience’s sake.  Abraham prioritized things the other way around.

The up-shot is that Iblis was banished from heaven by a displeased celestial monarch…and consequently harbored resentment.  He subsequently deigned to misguide all of Adam’s descendants (i.e. mankind) out of sheer spite.  (His wiles, then, are simply a gambit to sabotage god’s grand project so as to “thumb his nose” at his former master.)  This explanation makes Iblis vengeful rather than inherently malevolent…which is, ironically, the exact character profile the Koran gives to god himself. (!)

This leads to the obvious question: Would not a perfect entity be above vengeance?  If so, then what does that make the Koran’s stridently vindictive protagonist?  For his conceit in some ways SURPASSES that of Iblis (though the latter takes his grievance out on ALL of the human race while the former is vindictive “only” with MOST of the human race).  In this sense, the Koran’s protagonist is no better than Iblis.  In any case, none of this makes the least bit of sense.  Why not?

If Iblis wants to mislead mankind out of sheer SPITE, his endeavor would be rather gratuitous; for the Koran’s protagonist is already doing so (proclaiming himself to be the best of schemers). In other words, Satan deigns to do what GOD HIMSELF is already doing anyway.  But if THAT is what makes Satan “evil”, then the Abrahamic deity HIMSELF must be deemed to be evil; and deemed to be evil for the same reason.  Indeed, Satan is known as the deceiver; but the Koran’s protagonist proudly announces that he HIMSELF deceives large swaths of mankind.  Why?  So that they will be damned.  Satan even stipulates that he will ONLY lead non-Muslims astray–which is exactly what god says HE will do (per the numerous pronouncements in the Koran about pre-destination, in which god favors the fate of some over others).  Thus, according to the Koran, Satan and the Abrahamic deity essentially play the same game with mankind; and thus play analogous roles vis a vis the misguidance–and consequently, the damnation–of billions of humans.

The Koran’s authors obviously did not think this through very well.  (If you’re going to make up a story, at least get your characters straight.)

There have been myriad versions of the angle-with-a-grudge motif.  The Abrahamic variety is but one of many.  (Take, for instance, the Norse jötnar, “Surtr”, who will return with a vengeance at the end of days to engulf the world in flames.)  Here Satan is posited as a rogue agent (i.e. a “fallen” angel) of the god-head…who places obstacles in the way of humans just to spite his former master. {16}  The nefarious being that sabotages mere mortals has had many names–as with “Erlik” by (Turkic-Mongol) Siberians or “Ordog” by western Turkic peoples (spec. Magyars).  The embodiment of evil can even be female–as with the Akkadian she-demon, “Lamashtu”, the Judaic “Lilith”, and the Norse “Hel[a]”.  Even hobgoblins are often female–as with harpies (Greek) and banshees (Celtic).

Thus the evil that animates this “fallen” being is born of the same thing that animates human malevolence: (repressed) shame and resentment (in the form of venting).  Iblis was contending with humiliation; and his only recourse–so far as he could ascertain–was to LASH OUT.  His modus operandi was based in vulnerability, and impelled by spite (“I’ll show THEM.”).  We find the same impetus lies at the root of malice when it occurs in homo sapiens.  And so it went with Cain vis a vis Abel…then Isaac vis a vis Esau. {17}

The “fallen angel” trope seems to have been lifted from “The Cave of Treasure[s]”, composed by Ephrem of Nisibis in the 4th century.  THAT may have been inspired by the so-called “Covenant of Damascus”, a Syriac document that was found both at Qumran (as part of the “Dead Sea Scrolls”) AND at the geniza (storehouse of books) at Cairo, in which the fallen angel was named “Mastema”: (a character that was also adapted in the Book of Jubilees.

Disgruntled angels aside, since the advent of Islam, Satan has typically been conceptualized as much more malevolent than merely a celestial being with an ax to grind.  There seem to be more menacing characters than just an angel who refused to obey orders (orders that he thought were unjustified; ref. 2:34, 7:11, and 15:28-31 in the Koran).  Nevertheless, the MOST nefarious depictions of Satan are a comparably recent development (as with the musings of authors like Dante and Milton); and are not something found in the theologies of Antiquity.  Indeed, the demonic super-being (who was evil incarnate) became fashionable only after John of Patmos described the “Beast” in is anti-Roman propaganda.  The notion of an inexplicably malicious entity was later put into overdrive after the (Roman Catholic) “Knights Templar” posited “Baphomet(h)” in the 14th century.

And so it goes: In Mohammedan lore, the root of all evil is a jilted “malak”.

But what of Satan’s worldly proxy?  If we are to have a Messiah or savior-figure, should there not be his antithesis? Indeed.  The son-of-Satan (i.e. false savior) leitmotif goes back to the fiendish “Zahak” [alt. “Azi Dahaka”; “Dahag”], son of the malevolent Angra Mainyu in Zoroastrian theology.  According to Persian legend, Zahak was a member of the Arabian “Tayyi” tribe [alt. Banu Ta’i].  In Guarani myth, the fallen angel “Tau” is the ever-present bogeyman, luring mankind into all sorts of mischief.  In Abrahamic lore, we encounter the same schtick.

The anti-Christ is alternately “the Beast” or the “whore of Babylon” in Christian millenarianism.  It is the “Masih ad-Dajjal” in Islamic eschatology.  “Dajjal” has been chained up on an island somewhere in the Erythra Sea (“Bahr al-Ahmar” in Arabic; a.k.a. the “Red Sea”).  As the story goes, at the appointed time, this diabolical imposter-Messiah will become unchained and usher in a time of drought, famine, and pestilence.  The idea is that he will wreak havoc so that he may then pose as the savior. {31}

Our penchant to ascribe intentionality to everything that happens is what drives animism; so it is only natural that we attribute the ills of the world to the machinations of some sinister force–a phantom menace lurking in the shadows, scheming to make bad things happen.  After all, HOW ELSE could bad things happen…especially in a world ruled by an allegedly benevolent overlord?

Naturally, then, it is our duty to ally ourselves with the godhead, and to FIGHT the nefarious forces arrayed against us.  But WHO are those forces?  Well, THE OTHER, of course.  Suddenly, the world makes sense.  And our purpose is now crystal clear!  Anyone who may have been disoriented (afflicted with existential vertigo) can now get his bearings.  That is to say: This scheme gives one a sense of direction; and being so simplistic, it is readily adopted by even the most simple-minded of people.  For pragmatic creatures, it is very pragmatic.  And for the meaning-making machines that we are, it imbues life with oodles of meaning.  Its appeal is undeniable.  What good is a religion if it does not help one orient oneself in the world, and give one a sense of purpose?

So it comes as no surprise that many theologies around the world have posited an anti-Christ figure–as with “the Beast” in Nicene Christianity.  The “Dajjal” (the false messiah in Islam mentioned earlier) is one of many instances of this motif.  Behold:

  • Persian: “Azhi Dahaka” (a.k.a. “Dahag”)
  • Judaic: “Armilus”, chief antagonist of the coming Messiah in Judaic eschatology, who’s arrival shall augur the arrival of the long-awaited Messianic Age, “Olam Ha-Ba”. {32}
  • Hindu: “Hiranya-kashipu”

Yet a singular worldly proxy is often not enough.  To convince us that evil permeates a “fallen” world, there need to be demonic forces lurking around every corner.  In Islamic theology, we are also told that Satan’s minions are evil genies (“[d]jinn”, derived from the Nabataean vernacular): a legion of fiends that were forged in fire.  Those “jinn” are just another version of the Zoroastrian “daevas” (a.k.a. “devs” / “divs”; esp. “varios daevas”): minions of “Ahriman”.  (That lexeme seems to have derived from the Vedic term: “dev[a]”.  Also note the Persian usage of “Peri”.)  To further demonstrate Assyrian / Persian influences on Judaic lore, during the Exilic Period, Babylonian scribes posited “Ashmedai” / “Asmodai”, based on the Old Avestan, “Aesma-daeva” (known for inducing lust). {27}

Unsurprisingly, there were myriad other pre-Islamic Arabian antecedents–including “ifrit” / “afreet”, “qareen”, and “silah”; tales of which continued in Arabian folklore into the Islamic era, as the penchant for animism persisted.

The notion of spiritual beings charged with leading humans astray (demons) probably began in archaic Mesopotamia with the belief in “gallu[s]” (later Arabized to “ghul”; origin of the Anglicized “ghoul”), which were the henchmen of the god-head, “Enki”.  Also note the Sumerian / Akkadian usage of “edimmu” / “utukki”; as well as the Chaldean “shedu” (a Babylonian term that inspired the Hebrew pejorative term for Canaanite deities).  In ancient Indian mythology, “raksha[sa]s” were agents of “mada” (who posed as a spiritual impediment to “moksha”).  Other versions included the “vinayakas” of Hindu theology–derived from the Sankrit term for “obstacle-creator” (“vighnakarta”)–and the “dasyu”.  In Buddhism, there were “asuras”.  And in African religions, there was a potpourri of nefarious beings.

Thereafter, the idea occurred in Ancient Greek mythology: the “Erinyes” (a.k.a. “Furies”)…and then in Ancient Hebrew lore: the “shedim”, a derivative of the Babylonian “shedu” mentioned above.  Eventually, Judaic theologians posited “Beelphegor”, a diabolical character based on the Assyrian “Baal-Peor”–who’s sine qua non was inducing gluttony / greed.  Meanwhile, Christian theologians personified greed as “Mammon”.

Mythology generally involves some kind of animated FOIL for mankind.  Hence the idea of devious specters (who are determined to sabotage the lives of mortal men) has been commonplace throughout history.  Indeed, it is no surprise that such entities can be found in folklore around the world: Norse (“jötnar”), Anglo-Norman (“goblin”), Germanic (“drude”), Celtic (“puca”), Chinese (“yao-guai” / “yao-mo”; “huli-jing”), Japanese (“yokai” / “oni”), etc.

In virtually every case, we find the same scheme at play: An admonition that there are spooky forces (somewhere out there)…and they are out to GET YOU.  This sets the stage for the “You need X to protect you” sales pitch (where X is the appointed authority).  Wherever this formula is found, there is usually an effort to control people via fear.  We might recall H.L. Mencken’s observation that “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed–and hence clamorous to be led to safety–by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

And so it goes with “jinn”.  Presumably, we are expected to look to the god-head for protection from these conniving interlopers–which, we’re led to believe–may be lurking around the next corner, eager to lure us into a panoply of vices.  However, the super-being we REALLY need to fear, according to the Koran, is god himself.  After all, it is HE who promises to mislead most of us.  And it is HE who will eagerly damn us and–with great relish–carry out a series of horrific punishments in the hereafter.

Or, rather, he will delegate the task to Satan (and/or “Malik”, the Arabized version of the Canaanite god, “Molek” / “Moloch”) who has been charged as the warden of the cosmic penal colony called “Jahannam” (43:77).  In any case, nothing happens in the universe except as god so wills it. {28}  Yet with the protagonist of the Koran as the ultimate schemer / deceiver (reveling in the opportunity to punish those whom he has intentionally blinded / misled), renegade angels are the least of our worries.

It is telling that, like venerated deities, feared deities are depicted according to the sensibilities of the ambient culture.  In Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters” (1721), Rica writes to Usbek: “It seems to me that we judge things only by applying them secretly to ourselves.  I am not surprised that Negroes paint the devil in dazzling white and their gods in carbon black.  [Meanwhile] if triangles were to create a god, they would describe him with three sides.”  And if elk had a devil, it would surely be in the form of a lion.

The positing of a nefarious super-being (as the source of all that is bad in the world) is ubiquitous.  It stems from our chronic urge to place blame.  That is: Satan is based on the need to attribute all bad things to a sinister actor. {29}  This is especially useful when it comes to instances of grave misfortune that cannot be attributed to poor decision-making (that is: to free will gone awry); for such things must surely be SOMEONE’S fault, right?  Tragedy itself is thus anthropomorphized.

It makes sense that the ULTIMATE culprit is the personification of evil itself.  By believing in such a diabolical character, we can channel blame for–and indignation about–all of life’s tribulations toward a singular object-of-scorn.  Thus we are furnished with a wonderful simplistic model of the cosmos.

For those who believe in a (putatively) benevolent godhead, there is the need to posit a FOIL; as a formidable antagonist is necessary to get narratives about a deified protagonist to make sense.  (Every story needs a villain.)  A nefarious super-being explains why–and how–BAD things happen in a universe governed by a GOOD super-being.  Otherwise we would have no explanation for all the injustice and suffering we encounter after having placed our trust in our deity-of-choice.  (In spite of tragedy endured, our fealty is not in vain!)

Confessors of the Abrahamic tradition are required to address the conundrum of theodicy.  That is: They are forced to explain why we humans–created, as we purportedly are, by a deity that is supposed to embody probity–have a penchant for iniquity.  It cannot be the godhead’s fault; so there must be a bad actor working at cross-purposes.  The existence of Satan seems to resolve this quandary in a satisfying way; though he does not ACTUALLY solve the problem.

In sum: Satan serves as a means of ATTRIBUTION and as an EXPLANATION.  Belief that he exists satisfies our need to blame AND our need to understand.  Hence the positing of a Satan-type figure meets both emotional and intellectual needs.  It is no wonder, then, that the archetype crops up again and again in theologies around the world.  The same goes for the motif of “light” vs. “darkness”, and the intercession of angelic vs. demonic entities, bending our ear throughout life.

In the end, we can draw some conclusions from the preceding survey.  When Faith begins from a place of FEAR, it is invariably dysfunctional.  Happily, there is no need to posit malign spirits to account for the fundamental features of human psychology–our primal urges (or, for that matter, our capacity to conscientiously over-ride them).  We have within us what Kant called “the moral law” (an innate moral compass, and the wherewithal to follow it of our own devices).  Elsewhere, this has been dubbed, “the better angels of our nature”.  According to this understanding, when avarice gets the better of us, it’s because we ALLOW it to.  The only demons, it turns out, are the ones we create for ourselves.

Pages: 1 2 3 4

CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 - 2010-2019 -
Developed by Malagueta/Br
Note to readers: Those reading these long-form essays will be much better-off using a larger screen (not a hand-held device) for displaying the text. Due to the length of most pieces on our site, a lap-top, desk-top, or large tablet is strongly recommended.


Download as PDF