Perhaps the devil’s most famous depiction was crafted by English poet John Milton in his 1667 masterpiece, Paradise Lost. The epic poem tells two stories: one of the fall of man and the other the fall of an angel. Once the most beautiful of all angels, Lucifer rebels against God and becomes Satan, the adversary, who is:
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal SkieWith hideous ruine and combustion down To bottomless perdition, there to dwell In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire . . .
To develop his character, Milton relied on an idea of the devil that had been evolving throughout the Middle Ages and early Renaissance: the foe of God and man, the master of witches, and the tempter of sinners. This personage was largely fixed in the collective consciousness of Christendom, but the devil’s origins are complex, coming from many places, not just the Bible.
The Christian Bible devotes only a few passages to the devil and does not describe his appearance. In Genesis the serpent who tempts Eve is strongly associated with Satan, but many theologians think the composition of Genesis predates the concept of the devil. Passages alluding to Lucifer’s fall can be found in the books of Isaiah and Ezekiel.
The Old Testament’s Satan is not the opponent of God, but rather an adversary as exemplified by his role in the Book of Job. (See also: Halloween: costumes, history, myths and more)
The oldest representation of the Christian idea of the devil may be this mosaic in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. The sixth-century mosaic shows Jesus Christ, dressed in royal purple, seated at the Last Judgment. He is separating the souls of the saved (symbolized by sheep) from the souls of the damned (the goats).
Behind the sheep stands a red angel, and behind the damned is a blue angel. Both angels wear halos, a device originally seen as a symbol of power, but not necessarily of sanctity. The blue figure may be Lucifer, the fallen angel later known as Satan.
Unlike later depictions, he is beautiful and radiant—not the horned, hoofed, red monster of later depictions. The color of the holy kingdom in the sixth century, red became associated with hellfire and the devil in later centuries
In the New Testament Satan has become a force of evil. He tempts Jesus to abandon his mission: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9). He is described as a hunter of souls: The First Epistle of Peter warns:
“Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8). By the Book of Revelation, Satan has become an apocalyptic beast, determined to overthrow god and heaven.
The two devils of the Old and New Testaments are first connected in the Vulgate, a fourth-century A.D. translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin. Isaiah 14 refers to an earthly king as Lucifer, meaning “bearer of light,”
who falls from heaven. Echoing Isaiah’s image, Jesus says in Luke 10:18: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” At the dawn of the Middle Ages in the fifth century, authors began to apply the Vulgate term for Isaiah’s Lucifer to the rebellious angel leader in the Book of Revelation, cast into the pit along with his evil minions.
During the Middle Ages the devil’s appearance changed drastically. A sixth-century mosaic from Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, shows the Last Judgment, and the satanic figure appears as an ethereal blue angel. This angelic imagery will ultimately be shed in favor of a more demonic appearance.
Many of the devil’s animalistic traits can be traced back to influences from earlier religions. One of the first was found in ancient Babylonian texts—wicked demons named Lilitu.
These winged female demons flew through the night, seducing men and attacking pregnant women and infants. In the Jewish tradition, this demoness evolved into Lilith, Adam’s first wife. Lilith came to embody lust, rebellion, and ungodliness, traits later linked to the Christian devil.
Another ancient deity who became associated with Satan was Beelzebub, which translates roughly to “Lord of the Flies.” Beelzebub was a Canaanite deity, named in the Old Testament as a false idol that the Hebrews must shun.
Classical influences also played a role in the development of the Christian devil. As Christianity took root in the Roman world, early worshipers rejected pagan gods and believed them to be evil spirits. Pan, half goat and half man, was a lusty god of nature whose carnal appetites made him easy to associate with the forbidden.
His goat horns and cloven hooves became synonymous with sin and would later be adopted by artists in their horrific images of the devil. (See also: Krampus the Christmas devil is coming to more towns. So where's he from?)
Reproduced in pictures, from the great artists down to the humble village artisan, a reptilian, winged figure of damnation became the iconic devil figure. Artists like Giotto and Fra Angelico often depicted the devil in paintings of the Last Judgment. In them, a ravenous Satan is seated in the center of hell as he gleefully chomps on the souls of sinners.
The devil’s image was further reflected in one of the world’s most influential literary works: Dante’s Inferno, published in the early 14th century as part of the Divine Comedy. Dante describes the deepest regions of hell where Satan holds sway.
The devil has three faces and “At every mouth he with his teeth was crunching / A sinner . . . / So that he three of them tormented thus.” Satan bears “mighty wings . . . / No feathers had they, but as of a bat.”
Theologically, the idea of the devil changed during this period as well. His role in the early Middle Ages was much like his role in the Old Testament: He was an adversary but not an active enemy. Throughout the Middle Ages Satan evolved into an aggressive, malignant force set on tormenting as many human souls as possible.
The Greek daimon—a spirit or minor divinity who engaged with humans—informed a key aspect of this new devil. From the third century A.D., a mystical philosophy known as Neoplatonism incorporated theurgy, invoking daimons to request favors. Neoplatonism was not wholly incompatible with Christianity, but communicating with spirits was.
Rituals could not sway the Christian God into granting human wishes; prayers were only evidence of piety. If daimons were indeed doing a person’s bidding, they had to be in league with Satan, who “helped” mortals to deceive them and cause their downfall.
Some insights into the rituals of the medieval necromancer can be gleaned through the manuals that they used. The best known are those that passed on the supposed magic powers of the biblical king Solomon.The Key of Solomon (Clavicula Salomonis) is generally agreed to be a 14th-century work that contains invocations to demons imploring them for power.
The text includes blasphemous supplications to God asking that the demons obey. In the section entitled “The Prayer,” the necromancer is instructed to intone: “Here ye, and be ye ready, in whatever part of the Universe ye may be, to obey the voice of God, the Mighty One, and the names of the Creator.
We let you know by this signal and sound that ye will be convoked hither . . . to obey our commands.” This being done, let the Master complete his work, renew the Circle, and make the incensements and fumigations.
As more ancient works were translated into Latin throughout the Middle Ages, a new movement, Scholasticism, tried to reconcile the teachings of the early church with pagan writings on science, philosophy, and even necromancy, the art of conjuring spirits and demons. Necromancers were courting damnation through exposure to demons.
In 1326 Pope John XXII issued a bull, Super illius specula, which stated that anyone found guilty of engaging in necromancy could be condemned for heresy and burnt at the stake.
During the 14th century Europe faced a dark period blighted by the Black Death, famine, and war. Fear of the devil and his influence increased, as evidenced by an explosion of witch hunts.
Unlike necromancers, the church believed that the devil sought out women as partners; witches would sign pacts and engage in evil on his behalf. People were no longer seen as merely deceived by Satan, but in active collusion with him against God.
By this time in European history, the devil no longer sat passively. Taking an active role, Satan is present in the world, stealing souls and recruiting people to do his bidding.
Tagging along with Saint Nicholas, legend tells us this "Christmas Devil" comes to punish children who have misbehaved. Learn about his Germanic origins and how this sinister figure is celebrated
The devil goes by many names — Satan, the Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub and Lucifer to name a few — but besides this list of aliases, what do people really know about the brute? That is, how did the story of Satan originate?
Many ancient religions have scriptures detailing the struggle between good and evil. For instance, in the Zoroastrian religion, one of the world's earliest, the supreme deity, Ormazd, created two entities:
the chaotic and destructive spirit Ahriman and his beneficent twin brother, Spenta Mainyu, said Abner Weiss, a psychologist and the rabbi at the Westwood Village Synagogue in Los Angeles.
"The ancient world struggled with the coexistence of good and evil," Weiss told Live Science. "They hypothesized a kind of demonic, divine force that was responsible for evil, arising out of the notion that a good god could not be responsible for bad things."
However, Satan was not a prominent figure in Judaism. There are few demon-like figures in Hebrew scripture, but the most famous one appears in the Book of Job.
In that book, an "adversary" or "tempter" asks God whether the prosperous man Job would continue to praise God after losing everything. God takes up the challenge, and strips Job of his wealth and family, leaving the man wondering why such a horrible fate befell him.
But in this story, God wields more power than this adversary; as such, this evil tempter challenges God, who then takes away Job's fortune, Weiss said.
"[Judaism] found the notion of God having to share authority as limiting the omnipotence and even the omniscience of God," Weiss said. "And therefore, Satan was never personified as a source of evil that was equally powerful."
But Satan did become a part of certain Jewish sects beginning around the time of the Common Era, when Jesus was born, Weiss noted. Moreover, Judaism's mystical teachings, called the Kabbalah, mention a light side and a dark side, but the dark side is never given equal power to the light, Weiss said.
Any Sunday school student can tell you that Satan is a fallen angel, but this fall actually isn't described in the New Testament, or the Christian bible, said Jerry Walls, a professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University and author of "Heaven, Hell and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things That Matter Most" (Brazos Press, 2015).
However, Satan suddenly appears in the gospels as the tempter of Jesus, with nary an introduction of how the evil presence got there. So, Christian theologians have come to this conclusion: If God created the universe, and everything God creates is good, then Satan must have been something good that went bad, Walls said.
"The only thing that can go bad by itself is a free being," Walls said. "Since there was evil before human beings came on the scene, the inference is [Satan] must have been a fallen angel."
There are other references to Satan in the Bible, depending on different interpretations. The Hebrew Bible has two passages about people who aren't respectful toward God. In these passages, Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, human rulers make outrageous boasts, and some Christians interpret these actions as expressions of Satan, Walls said.
Moreover, the gospel of Paul in the New Testament refers to the snake from the Garden of Eden as Satan, though the snake isn't described that way in Genesis, Walls said.
In this sense, the snake and Satan can be seen as tempters that try to get people to disobey God, but aren't always successful, Walls said. [Spooky! Top 10 Unexplained Phenomena]
"The first Adam fell to the temptation of Satan," Walls said. "Christ is described as the second Adam, who successfully resisted temptation."
Satan can also emerge as the enemy — the "other," or an "outside" group.
"I thought of Satan as a kind of a joke, kind of a throwaway character," said Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University and author of "The Origin of Satan" (Random House, 1995).
In the Book of Job, he's practically a device to explain what happened to Job."
The Hasids, a Jewish sect whose name translates into "The Holy Ones," were the first group in Judeo-Christian history to seriously discuss Satan, she said. The Hasids lived just before the Common Era and didn't like how the Romans and some of their Jewish collaborators ruled their country, Pagels said.
So, the Hasids withdrew from Jewish society and began preaching about the end of times, when God would destroy all of the evil people, "which meant all of the Romans and all of the Jews who cooperated with them," Pagels said.
The Hasids took a radical position: They said that they were following God, while their enemies had turned to the dark side, possibly without even knowing it. "So now, it's the 'Sons of God' against the 'Sons of Darkness,'" Pagels said. "It's a split Jewish group."
At this point of her research, Pagels had an epiphany, she said: The concept of Satan emerges when communities split. Radical groups want a clean break between themselves and their enemies, and so they describe their enemies as Satan, as devils who will one day face God's wrath.
"I realized that when people talk about Satan — like if somebody says, 'Satan is trying to take over this country' — they're not thinking of some supernatural battle up there in the sky," Pagels said. "They can give you names and addresses. They know whom they're talking about."
For instance, extremists might say, "America is the Great Satan." That's because "when people talk about Satan, they're talking about people, too," Pagels said.
The Hasids likely had a big influence on early Christianity, because Jesus and John the Baptist preached similar ideas to those of the Hasids. That is, they said that the end of the world was coming and that God wouldn't tolerate evil people, Pagels said. This meant the Romans and the people working with them, she said. [Supernatural Powers? Tales of 10 Historical Predictions]
Turning an enemy into Satan is useful, she added. It suggests that "our opponents are not just people we disagree with — they're bad. You can't negotiate with them. You can't do anything with them, because they're essentially evil."
Editor's Note: This story was updated to fix an error about the number of demon-like figures in Hebrew scripture. The story previously said that Job was the only Hebrew book with a devil-like creature, but there is also one in the Book of Daniel
The Devil, also referred to as Satan, is best known as the personification of evil and the nemesis of good people everywhere. His image and story have evolved over the years, and the Devil has been called many different names in various cultures:
Beelzebub, Lucifer, Satan and Mephistopheles, to name a few, with various physical descriptions including horns and hooved feet. But this malevolent being—and his legion of demons—continue to strike fear in people from all walks of life as the antithesis of all things good.
Although the Devil is present in some form in many religions and can be compared to some mythological gods, he’s arguably best known for his role in Christianity. In modern biblical translations, the Devil is the adversary of God and God’s people.
It’s commonly thought that the Devil first showed up in the Bible in the book of Genesis as the serpent who convinced Eve—who then convinced Adam—to eat forbidden fruit from the “tree of the knowledge” in the Garden of Eden. As the story goes, after Eve fell for the Devil’s conniving ways, she and Adam were banished from the Garden of Eden and doomed to mortality.
Many Christians believe the Devil was once a beautiful angel named Lucifer who defied God and fell from grace. This assumption that he is a fallen angel is often based the book of Isaiah in the Bible which says, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations.
Some biblical scholars, however, claim Lucifer isn’t a proper name but a descriptive phrase meaning “morning star.” Still, the name stuck and the Devil is often referred to as Lucifer.
Names for the Devil are numerous: Besides Lucifer, he may be referred to as the Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, Lord of the Flies, the Antichrist, Father of Lies, Moloch or simply Satan.
The book of Ezekiel includes another Biblical passage Christians refer to as proof of the Devil’s existence. It admonishes the greedy King of Tyre but also refers to the king as a cherub who was once in the Garden of Eden. As a result, some Bible translators believe the King of Tyre was a personification of the Devil.
The Devil make more appearances in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Jesus and many of his apostles warned people to stay alert for the Devil’s cunning enticements that would lead them to ruin. And it was the Devil who tempted Jesus in the wilderness to “fall down and worship him” in exchange for riches and glory.
Most other religions and cultures teach of an evil being who roams the earth wreaking havoc and fighting against the forces of good. In Islam, the devil is known as Shaytan and, like the Devil in Christianity, is also thought to have rebelled against God. In Judaism, Satan is a verb and generally refers to a difficulty or temptation to overcome instead of a literal being.
In Buddhism, Maara is the demon that tempted Buddha away from his path of enlightenment. Like Christianity’s Jesus resisted the Devil, Buddha also resisted temptation and defeated Maara
In people of almost any religion or even in those who don’t follow a religion, the Devil is almost always synonymous with fear, punishment, negativity and immorality.
Perhaps the most lasting images of the Devil are associated with Hell, which the Bible refers to as a place of everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. Still, the Bible doesn’t state the Devil will reign over hell, just that he’ll eventually be banished there.
The idea that the Devil governs hell may have come from the poem by Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, published in the early fourteenth century. In it, God created hell when he threw the Devil and his demons out of Heaven with such power that they created an enormous hole in the center of the earth.
In his poem, Dante portrayed the Devil as a grotesque, winged creature with three faces—each chewing on a devious sinner—whose wings blew freezing cold winds throughout Hell’s domain.
The Bible doesn’t describe the Devil in detail. Early artistic interpretations of The Divine Comedy featuring shocking images of the Devil and his demons inflicting almost unimaginable human suffering only emboldened people’s thoughts about Hell and the Devil.
And by the end of the Middle Ages, the Devil had taken on the appearance of the horned, trident-wielding figure with a tail that has endured to modern times.
Fear of the Devil is at least partially responsible for the witchcraft hysteria of Europe and New England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Protestants and Catholics accused many people of practicing witchcraft and making deals with the Devil.
The Puritans living in New England’s early colonies were petrified of the Devil. They believed he gave powers to witches to those faithful to him. This fear gave rise to the infamous Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts.
The Puritan’s strict lifestyle, their fear of outsiders and their terror of so-called “Devil’s magic” led them to accuse at least 200 people of witchcraft between 1692 and 1693—twenty of the accused were executed.
Religious translations are often controversial. There’s usually some degree of dissent on how to interpret early texts, and texts about the Devil are no exception.
Even so, throughout history, the Devil’s reputation as an evildoer hasn’t changed much. Most Christians still believe he’s literally transformed the world and is responsible for much of the world’s corruption and chaos.
Not all religions shun the Devil, though. People of the Church of Satan, known as Satanists, don’t worship the Devil, but embrace him as a symbol of atheism, pride and liberty, among other things. Another type of Satanists, theistic Satanists, worship the Devil as a deity. They may practice Satanic rituals or even make Satanic pacts.
M I Ro