Wednesday 12 May 2010

Dark Light

At the beginning of time, according to Jewish tradition, some angels visited Earth, there falling in love with mortal women. In consequence they taught their lovers all sorts of magical arts, revealing all sorts of divine secrets. God, in his anger, banished them from heaven. These rebel spirits, homeless and bitter, turned malevolent, associating themselves with witchcraft and the blacker arts. Now they were to be described in some sources as demons. These dangerous spirits included Azazel, Samael, and one described as the Son of the Morning Star. He is better known as Lucifer.

The Fallen Angels, Lucifer included, entered into Christian tradition, where the story continued to evolve, taking on new forms. In Jewish tradition they were sinners, punished for their transgression against divine law in much the same way that Prometheus was punished in Greek tradition. But the Christians added a new twist: Lucifer and his party were expelled from Heaven because of their pride, because they believed that they were at least equal or even superior to God. They were, in other words, the first rebels.

Cast into Hell the rebels brooded and plotted revenge. Because of their associations with women, because many of the demons were believed to have human mothers, medieval witch hunters, including the notorious Heinrich Kramer, author of the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammerer of the Witches), believed that women in general were more susceptible to devilish temptations than men, especially those of Lucifer, by this time more commonly referred to as the Devil, the horned God, who seems to be an amalgam of the Greek Pan and the Jewish Bringer of Light. Here again we are seeing a corruption of earlier tradition; for beauty has become ugly and light has become dark.

By the earliest accounts the Light Bringer was depicted as beautiful, not ugly and certainly not horned. The early Christians make no distinction between him and the other angels, except that he is always portrayed as falling. But by the fourth century AD Lucifer began to emerge as the Adversary, drawing on another Biblical concept, that of Ha-Satan, who acts in Jewish tradition as a kind of prosecutor in the underworld, judging the souls of the dead, a fearful figure, yes, but still relatively neutral. The Christians transformed him into a monster, in part a weapon in their ongoing struggle with the remnants of pagan worship, where the horned god was a benevolent, life-enhancing spirit.

There is no description of Lucifer or Satan in the New Testament. He was simply given the attributes of the pagan nature god by the Church, suitably demonised along with the earth worship that the old traditions entailed. Nature itself, the realm of the Horned One, was distanced as something wild and dangerous. There was an implicit dualism here: all spiritual entities were either on the side of good or of evil, on the side of God or of Lucifer.

It was during the time of Pope Gregory the Great in the seventh century that Lucifer took on his final form, that of a hunchbacked, goat-skinned man with cloven-hooves, horns and an evil stench. He was also said to carry a stick. either used to punish people or because he was lame, a disability he received when he was cast out of Heaven.

There is the most wonderful process of confusion and syncretism in this. For the Church, Satan - he and Lucifer are now interchangeable -, the limping devil, is clearly linked to various pagan deities and heroes, including Hephasteus, the god of the smiths (Satan is often said to have the skills of a blacksmith), Dionysus, Oedipus, Achilles and Hermes with his one sandal and his shepherd’s crook.

I think it accurate to say that Lucifer or Satan or the Devil is the greatest of the Christian scapegoats, a necessary evil, if you will, a weapon with which to attack pagans and non-believers, an excuse for every misfortune. It is here that Christianity can and does fall into forms of Manichean dualism, a world perceived as a struggle between light and dark, though paradoxically dualism itself was condemned, like witchcraft, as a heresy. But Lucifer, the greatest of the rebels, travelled on his path, finally achieving a kind of resurrection, a heroic transcendence, in Milton's Paradise Lost.


  1. Ana,
    These are all things I've studied in the past but frankly I've never seen the history of the demonic conception in 'western culture' articulated so succinctly and indeed so poignantly, as has been achieved in this. Well bloody devil you :-)
    By the way--all the interesting people in this world have been forced out of a place at one time or another!

  2. By the way, the subtle parallel you draw between the Jewish tradition and the Promethean tale, contrasted with the moral as opposed to strictly legal aspect of Christian Original Sin--is something one could devote a lifetime of study too....Too bad about the Stuart Restoration and rise of Tory Democracy, maybe we could have done something with our lives :-)

  3. Adam, I think we are the devils. :-))

  4. You just reminded me, I need to read my PDF of Milton :-)


  5. Fancy a good laugh? Try Glen Duncan's "I Lucifer". Mischief indeed. :)

  6. Get busy, Coll!

    I will, Rainer, if I ever find the time!

  7. Good morning, Ana,

    It's rare to find someone like you who is so careful to caution against the besetting error of literalism. That error is so common nowadays - which is why I refer to present times as the age of neo-paganism.

    But there are hopeful signs that we are emerging from it.

  8. Jamie, I hope you can see this because comments are taking an absolute age to appear! Paganism is and can be a positive force, at least for some. :-)

  9. And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,

    That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they [were] fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.

    And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also [is] flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.

    There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare [children] to them, the same [became] mighty men which [were] of old, men of renown.

    (The Holy Bible. Genesis 6: 1- 4).

    In Islam Iblis is seen as an anti-God a bit like the Ahraman in Zoroastrianism. Running in the blood of every one of the progeny of Adam according to the prophetic Tradition (except the son of Mary). When the Prophet mentioned this he was asked whether it flowed in his own blood. He replied that it did but that he had subdued it to Allah so that it only ever commanded him to do that which pleased Allah i.e. that which was good.

    Examples of belief in Satan (as well as in heaven and hell, in angels and the Day of Resurrection) is also to be found in the life and teachings of the Buddha.

  10. I forgot to add that the Quran does not say that Lucifer/Iblis was a fallen angel. Angels cannot fall as they have no will of their own. There is, however, a story about 2 people with the attributes of angels that were sent by God himself to teach people the magic arts, they were known as Harut and Marut. This is one of those things you know when you read into but can't recall otherwise so I'll have to brush up on it.

  11. Satan, the concept of Satan, has caused great problems in Christian theology over the centuries, which at points touches, as I have suggested, on Manicheism. I would be interested to know, Rehan, if the figure of Iblis has caused similar problems in Islamic tradition. In other words, what is the precise relationship between an all-powerful God and an anti-God, who would seem to have the power of negation, a power in his own right?