A biography of Satan follows the concept of ultimate evil throughout the centuries – and finds it has been a useful scapegoat for very human failings.
Philip Almond’s biography of the Devil reveals a very bad idea
By the time the reader has reached the final page of Philip Almond’s (presumably unauthorised) biography, one is possessed by a curious and wholly unexpected sensation – that of sympathy for “the Devil”.
As might be expected of a respected professor of religion at the University of Queensland in Australia, Almond plays a straight bat throughout his rigorously academic but nevertheless highly readable appraisal of the Devil’s career. He treats his satanic subject as a human concept, developed to serve a cultural need, and resists the temptation to bestow upon him such fanciful notions as thought, motive or any other characteristic of self-determination.
Iblis, the Devil in Islam, is noticeable for his almost complete absence. This, Almond explains in an email exchange, is because although the two are distantly related, Iblis and the western Satan soon went their own ways.
In an early chapter dealing with Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, Almond recounts the tale of Satan’s fall for refusing to worship the image of God in Adam: “This is essentially the story of the fall of Satan as it occurs around 10 times in the Quran,” he says. “There, Iblis refuses Allah’s order to the angels to prostrate themselves before Adam, in part because he was made from fire and Adam only from clay.
“As punishment, Iblis is sent from Heaven and becomes determined to lead humankind astray. So he is above all, like the Christian Satan, the one who tempts humankind into sin.” But “from that point of commonality, the Islamic story goes its own way ”, says Almond.
The concept of the Devil in Islam is an altogether more complex one. Iblis is one of the angels who already existed when Allah created the lower order of spirits – the djinns. At one point in the Quran, however, Iblis is himself said to be one of the djinns and “this issue of Iblis as angel or djinn” has generated “much explanation” in Islamic commentaries, he says.
Satan, Iblis, Beelzebub, Shaytan, Diábolos, Lucifer … call him what you like, says Almond in his book, but recognise him for what he is – a yin of darkness to the yang of light, without which any theology supportive of an omnipresent, benevolent deity must necessarily implode for want of a logical explanation for all the evil in the world.
Almond presents the reader not with the cloven-hoofed Devil of popular myth, but a convenient scapegoat of human invention, born as a necessary evil in the dark ages of the human mind.
As the English writer Daniel Defoe, best known for the novel Robinson Crusoe, put it in his Political History of the Devil in 1727:
“Bad as he is, the Devil may be abus’d,
Be falsly charg’d, and causelessly accus’d,
When Men, unwilling to be blam’d alone,
Shift off these Crimes on Him which are their Own.”
Of course, it’s an arrangement with somewhat wobbly theological foundations, as Almond notes. The Christian Devil is “God’s most implacable enemy and beyond God’s control”, but only as “the result of his having been given by God the freedom to rebel against him”. The responsibility for all the evil in the world can be – and is – laid at the door of the Devil, but “on the other hand, to the extent that the Devil is God’s servant and the enforcer of his will, the responsibility for the evil that the Devil does is God’s”.
In short, the Devil “literally and metaphorically personifies the paradox at the heart of Christian theism”.
The Devil has evolved over the centuries, not through some diabolical shape-shifting ability – though we have always imbued him with such skills of deception – but as a result of human manipulation.
Following a reference-strewn paper trail that begins 400 years before the Christian era, what emerges most starkly from Almond’s book is the extent to which the Devil, called into being in an era when few had access to the skills of writing and reading, had his profile created, tweaked and altered in accordance with the whims of individual chroniclers whose work had the good fortune to survive down through the ages.
Each iteration of the Devil has both informed and been adapted by the next, according to passing need and the demands of fashionable orthodoxies. The result is that the Devil of modern times bears about as much resemblance to his most distant ancestor as the latest smartphone to Alexander Graham Bell’s 1875 acoustic telegraph.
In fact, in the beginning, there was no Devil. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, thought to have been written some time between 950 and 500 BC, can be found four verses telling how angels came to Earth and consorted with human women. At this point, there was no suggestion that any of these angels should be considered “fallen”. Rather, it was mankind that took the rap, as Genesis relates: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great … And the Lord was sorry that He had made humankind”. The biblical God therefore decided to wash it all away and start again.
So far, no Satan. But it was the behaviour of the angels in precipitating the great flood, says Almond, that set the stage for “the fall of the angels, the birth of evil spirits and the supernatural origin of evil in the world”, as spelt out in the first part of the non-canonical Book of Enoch, believed to have been created between the fourth century BC and the Christian era.
Here, the dallying angels are “The Watchers” and their ill-advised interaction with humans is portrayed as a rebellion against God. Their punishment is incarceration in the ground, after which “their spirits emerged from their corpses to exercise as demons an ongoing persecution of humanity”.
By the second century, the First Apology of the Christian theorist Justin Martyr had the ghosts of the fallen ones moving mischievously among men, whispering in ears and sowing “murders, wars, adulteries, intemperate deeds, and all wickedness”.
Almond demonstrates how, through workings of the story both well known and obscure, a single being eventually emerged as chief of the demons. His names were legion but gradually it was Satan, or the Devil, that came to dominate.
At first, the word Satan described a role, rather than a particular person. It comes from a Hebrew noun meaning an accuser or adversary, and an angel with such a role is sent as God’s emissary to challenge Balaam in the Book of Numbers. In the Book of Job, a satan sits as a member of the heavenly council, fulfilling the function of “a tempter of the righteous on earth and their accuser in the divine council”.
It is the Book of Zechariah, written about 500BC, that represents “a turning point in the history of the Devil”, says Almond. He quotes Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, who remarked that Zechariah 3.1-7 depicted Satan “on the verge of deviating from his role as God’s agent to become his enemy”.
Ever since then, this Devil has conveniently taken the blame in the minds of many for all manner of ghastly human failings. Today, he takes a starring role in popular western culture and the sheer volume of material devoted to his machinations – which, in our age of mass communication, vastly outweighs everything produced before – speaks perhaps to an underlying truth.
Almond opens his book with a quote from the 1973 film The Exorcist – “And I’m the Devil! Now kindly undo these straps.” With these words, he says, “the Devil re-emerged in late 20th-century western culture [reminding] audiences of the numinous Other that had been present in western consciousness for more than 2,000 years”.
Almond sees the re-emergence of this Devil “in popular, if not in elite” culture as part of a new western engagement with the imaginary world of good and evil, a world “of vampires and fairies, witches and wizards, werewolves and wraiths, shape-shifters and superheroes, angels and demons, ghosts and dragons, elves and aliens, succubi and incubi, hobbits and the inhabitants of Hogwarts, and zombies”. It is, he says, even embedded in “the reappearance of a set of esoteric and occult technologies of the self”, such things as astrology, magical and spiritual healing, divination and, of course, the faux ancient (and hugely profitable) prophecies beloved of the legions of readers of authors such as Dan Brown.
“The modern enchanted world is one of multiple meanings where the spiritual occupies a space between reality and unreality,” he concludes. “It is a domain where belief is a matter of choice and disbelief willingly and happily suspended.”
Almond shies away from posing the obvious question – why? But one dark answer nevertheless suggests itself. It may have taken him more than 2,000 years, but in an increasingly material world in which spiritual values are under siege, perhaps Satan – the Devil humans both created and deserve – is finally winning the battle.
Jonathan Gornall is a regular contributor to The National.