Who Is Satan?
A figure known as “the satan” first appears in the Tanakh as a heavenly prosecutor, a member of the sons of God subordinate to Yahweh, who prosecutes the nation of Judah in the heavenly court and tests the loyalty of Yahweh’s followers by forcing them to suffer. During the intertestamental period, possibly due to influence from the Zoroastrian figure of Angra Mainyu, the satan developed into a malevolent entity with abhorrent qualities in dualistic opposition to God. In the apocryphal Book of Jubilees, Yahweh grants the satan (referred to as Mastema) authority over a group of fallen angels, or their offspring, to tempt humans to sin and punish them. In the Synoptic Gospels, Satan tempts Jesus in the desert and is identified as the cause of illness and temptation. In the Book of Revelation, Satan appears as a Great Red Dragon, who is defeated by Michael the Archangel and cast down from Heaven. He is later bound for one thousand years, but is briefly set free before being ultimately defeated and cast into the Lake of Fire.
In Christianity, Satan is also known as the Devil and, although the Book of Genesis does not mention him, he is often identified as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. In the Middle Ages, Satan played a minimal role in Christian theology and was used as a comic relief figure in mystery plays. During the early modern period, Satan’s significance greatly increased as beliefs such as demonic possession and witchcraft became more prevalent. During the Age of Enlightenment, belief in the existence of Satan became harshly criticized. Nonetheless, belief in Satan has persisted, particularly in the Americas. In the Quran, Shaitan, also known as Iblis, is an entity made of fire who was cast out of Heaven because he refused to bow before the newly-created Adam and incites humans to sin by infecting their minds with waswās (“evil suggestions”). Although Satan is generally viewed as evil, some groups have very different beliefs.
In Theistic Satanism, Satan is considered a deity who is either worshipped or revered. In LaVeyan Satanism, Satan is a symbol of virtuous characteristics and liberty. Satan’s appearance is never described in the Bible, but, since the ninth century, he has often been shown in Christian art with horns, cloven hooves, unusually hairy legs, and a tail, often naked and holding a pitchfork. These are an amalgam of traits derived from various pagan deities, including Pan, Poseidon, and Bes. Satan appears frequently in Christian literature, most notably in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, variants of the Faust legend, John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, and the poems of William Blake. He continues to appear in film, television, and music.
Ha-Satan with the definite article occurs 13 times in the Masoretic Text, in two books of the Hebrew Bible: Job ch. 1–2 (10×) and Zechariah 3:1–2 (3×). Satan without the definite article is used in 10 instances, of which two are translated diabolos in the Septuagint and “Satan” in the King James Version (KJV):
- 1 Chronicles 21:1, “Satan stood up against Israel” (KJV) or “And there standeth up an adversary against Israel” (Young’s Literal Translation)
- Psalm 109:6b “and let Satan stand at his right hand” (KJV) or “let an accuser stand at his right hand.” (ESV, etc.)
The word “satan” does not occur in the Book of Genesis, which mentions only a talking serpent and does not identify the serpent with any supernatural entity. The first occurrence of the word “satan” in the Hebrew Bible in reference to a supernatural figure comes from Numbers 22:22,which describes the Angel of Yahweh confronting Balaam on his donkey: “Balaam’s departure aroused the wrath of Elohim, and the Angel of Yahweh stood in the road as a satan against him.” In 2 Samuel 24, Yahweh sends the “Angel of Yahweh” to inflict a plague against Israel for three days, killing 70,000 people as punishment for David having taken a census without his approval. 1 Chronicles 21:1 repeats this story, but replaces the “Angel of Yahweh” with an entity referred to as “a satan”.
Some passages clearly refer to the satan, without using the word itself. 1 Samuel 2:12 describes the sons of Eli as “sons of Belial”; the later usage of this word makes it clearly a synonym for “satan”. In 1 Samuel 16:14-23 Yahweh sends a “troubling spirit” to torment King Saul as a mechanism to ingratiate David with the king. In 1 Kings 22:19-25, the prophet Micaiah describes to King Ahab a vision of Yahweh sitting on his throne surrounded by the Host of Heaven. Yahweh asks the Host which of them will lead Ahab astray. A “spirit”, whose name is not specified, but who is analogous to the satan, volunteers to be “a Lying Spirit in the mouth of all his Prophets”.
Book of Job
Book of Zechariah
Zechariah 3:1-7 contains a description of a vision dated to the middle of February of 519 BC, in which an angel shows Zechariah a scene of Joshua the High Priest dressed in filthy rags, representing the nation of Judah and its sins, on trial with Yahweh as the judge and the satan standing as the prosecutor. Yahweh rebukes the satan and orders for Joshua to be given clean clothes, representing Yahweh’s forgiveness of Judah’s sins.
Second Temple period
The idea of Satan as an opponent of God and a purely evil figure seems to have taken root in Jewish pseudepigrapha during the Second Temple Period, particularly in the apocalypses. The Book of Enoch, which the Dead Sea Scrolls have revealed to have been nearly as popular as the Torah, describes a group of 200 angels known as the “Watchers”, who are assigned to supervise the earth, but instead abandon their duties and have sexual intercourse with human women. The leader of the Watchers is Semjâzâ and another member of the group, known as Azazel, spreads sin and corruption among humankind. The Watchers are ultimately sequestered in isolated caves across the earth and are condemned to face judgement at the end of time. The Book of Jubilees, written in around 150 BC, retells the story of the Watchers’ defeat, but, in deviation from the Book of Enoch, Mastema, the “Chief of Spirits”, intervenes before all of their demon offspring are sealed away, requesting for Yahweh to let him keep some of them to become his workers. Yahweh acquiesces this request and Mastema uses them to tempt humans into committing more sins, so that he may punish them for their wickedness. Later, Mastema induces Yahweh to test Abraham by ordering him to sacrifice Isaac.
The Second Book of Enoch, also called the Slavonic Book of Enoch, contains references to a Watcher called Satanael. It is a pseudepigraphic text of an uncertain date and unknown authorship. The text describes Satanael as being the prince of the Grigori who was cast out of heaven and an evil spirit who knew the difference between what was “righteous” and “sinful”. In the Book of Wisdom, the devil is taken to be the being who brought death into the world, but originally the culprit was recognized as Cain. The name Samael, which is used in reference to one of the fallen angels, later became a common name for Satan in Jewish Midrash and Kabbalah.
Each sect of Judaism has its own interpretation of Satan’s identity. Conservative Judaism generally rejects the Talmudic interpretation of Satan as a metaphor for the yetzer hara, and regard him as a literal agent of God. Orthodox Judaism, on the other hand, outwardly embraces Talmudic teachings on Satan, and involves Satan in religious life far more inclusively than other sects. Satan is mentioned explicitly in some daily prayers, including during Shacharit and certain post-meal benedictions, as described in Talmud and the Jewish Code of Law. In Reform Judaism, Satan is generally seen in his Talmudic role as a metaphor for the yetzer hara and the symbolic representation of innate human qualities such as selfishness.
The most common English synonym for “Satan” is “devil”, which descends from Middle English devel, from Old English dēofol, that in turn represents an early Germanic borrowing of Latin diabolus (also the source of “diabolical”). This in turn was borrowed from Greek diabolos “slanderer”, from diaballein “to slander”: dia- “across, through” + ballein “to hurl”. In the New Testament, the words Satan and diabolos are used interchangeably as synonyms. Beelzebub, meaning “Lord of Flies”, is the contemptuous name given in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament to a Philistine god whose original name has been reconstructed as most probably “Ba’al Zabul”, meaning “Baal the Prince”. The Synoptic Gospels identify Satan and Beelzebub as the same. The name Abaddon (meaning “place of destruction”) is used six times in the Old Testament, mainly as a name for one the regions of Sheol. Revelation 9:11 describes Abaddon, whose name is translated into Greek as Apollyon, meaning “the destroyer”, as an angel who rules the Abyss. In modern usage, Abaddon is sometimes equated with Satan.
Gospels, Acts, and epistles
Satan plays a role in some of the parables of Jesus, namely the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Weeds, Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, and the Parable of the Strong Man. According to the Parable of the Sower, Satan “profoundly influences” those who fail to understand the gospel. The latter two parables say that Satan’s followers will be punished on Judgement Day, with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats stating that the Devil, his angels, and the people who follow him will be consigned to “eternal fire”. When the Pharisees accused Jesus of exorcising demons through the power of Beelzebub, Jesus responds by telling the Parable of the Strongman, saying: “how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house” (Matthew 12:29). The strong man in this parable represents Satan.
The Synoptic Gospels identify Satan and his demons as the causes of illness, including fever (Luke 4:39), leprosy (Luke 5:13), and arthritis (Luke 13:11-16), while the Epistle to the Hebrews describes the Devil as “him who holds the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14). The author of Luke-Acts attributes more power to Satan than both Matthew and Mark. In Luke 22:31, Jesus grants Satan the authority to test Peter and the other apostles. Luke 22:3-6 states that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus because “Satan entered” him and, in Acts 5:3, Peter describes Satan as “filling” Ananias’s heart and causing him to sin. The Gospel of John only uses the name Satan three times. In John 8:44, Jesus says that his Jewish or Judean enemies are the children of the Devil rather than the children of Abraham. The same verse describes the Devil as “a man-killer from the beginning” and “a liar and the father of lying.” John 13:2 describes the Devil as inspiring Judas to betray Jesus and John 12:31-32 identifies Satan as “the Archon of this Cosmos”, who is destined to be overthrown through Jesus’s death and resurrection. John 16:7-8 promises that the Holy Spirit will “accuse the World concerning sin, justice, and judgement”, a role resembling that of the satan in the Old Testament.
Jude 1:9 refers to a dispute between Michael the Archangel and the Devil over the body of Moses. Some interpreters understand this reference to be an allusion to the events described in Zechariah 3:1-2. The classical theologian Origen attributes this reference to the non-canonical Assumption of Moses. According to James H. Charlesworth, there is no evidence the surviving book of this name ever contained any such content. Others believe it to be in the lost ending of the book. The second chapter of the Second Epistle of Peter, a pseudepigraphical letter which falsely claims to have been written by Peter, copies much of the content of the Epistle of Jude, but omits the specifics of the example regarding Michael and Satan, with 2 Peter 2:10–11 instead mentioning only an ambiguous dispute between “Angels” and “Glories”. Throughout the New Testament, Satan is referred to as a “tempter” (Matthew 4:3), “the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 12:24), “the God of this Age” (2 Corinthians 4:4), “the evil one” (1 John 5:18), and “a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8).
Book of Revelation
Revelation 12:3 describes a vision of a Great Red Dragon with seven heads, ten horns, seven crowns, and a massive tail, an image which is clearly inspired by the vision of the four beasts from the sea in the Book of Daniel and the Leviathan described in various Old Testament passages. The Great Red Dragon knocks “a third of the sun… a third of the moon, and a third of the stars” out the sky and pursues the Woman of the Apocalypse.Revelation 12:7-9 declares: “And war broke out in Heaven. Michael and his angels fought against Dragon. Dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in Heaven. Dragon the Great was thrown down, that ancient serpent who is called Devil and Satan, the one deceiving the whole inhabited World – he was thrown down to earth and his angels were thrown down with him.” Then a voice booms down from Heaven heralding the defeat of “the Accuser” (ho Kantegor), identifying the Satan of Revelation with the satan of the Old Testament.
In Revelation 20:1-3, Satan is bound with a chain and hurled into the Abyss, where he is imprisoned for one thousand years. In Revelation 20:7-10, he is set free and gathers his armies along with Gog and Magog to wage war against the righteous, but is defeated with fire from Heaven, and cast into the lake of fire. Some Christians associate Satan with the number 666, which Revelation 13:18 describes as the Number of the Beast. However, the beastmentioned in Revelation 13 is not Satan, and the use of 666 in the Book of Revelation has been interpreted as a reference to the Roman Emperor Nero, as 666 is the numeric value of his name in Hebrew.
Despite the fact that the Book of Genesis never mentions Satan, Christians have traditionally interpreted the serpent in the Garden of Eden as Satan due to Revelation 12:7, which calls Satan “that ancient serpent”. This verse, however, is probably intended to identify Satan with the Leviathan, a monstrous sea-serpent whose destruction by Yahweh is prophesied in Isaiah 27:1. The first recorded individual to identify Satan with the serpent from the Garden of Eden was the second-century AD Christian apologist Justin Martyr, in chapters 45 and 79 of his Dialogue with Trypho. Other early church fathers to mention this identification include Theophilus and Tertullian. The early Christian Church, however, encountered opposition from pagans such as Celsus, who claimed in his treatise The True Word that “it is blasphemy… to say that the greatest God… has an adversary who constrains his capacity to do good” and said that Christians “impiously divide the kingdom of God, creating a rebellion in it, as if there were opposing factions within the divine, including one that is hostile to God”.
In his apologetic treatise Contra Celsum, however, Origen changed his interpretations of Isaiah 14:12 and Ezekiel 28:12-15, now interpreting both of them as referring to Satan. According to Henry Ansgar Kelly, Origen seems to have adopted this new interpretation to refute unnamed persons who, perhaps under the influence of Zoroastrian radical dualism, believed “that Satan’s original nature was Darkness.” The later Church Father Jerome (c. 347 – 420), translator of the Latin Vulgate, accepted Origen’s theory of Satan as a fallen angel and wrote about it in his commentary on the Book of Isaiah. In Christian tradition ever since, both Isaiah 14:12 and Ezekiel 28:12-15 have been understood as allegorically referring to Satan. For most Christians, Satan has been regarded as an angel who rebelled against God.
According to the ransom theory of atonement, which was popular among early Christian theologians, Satan gained power over humanity through Adam and Eve’s sin and Christ’s death on the cross was a ransom to Satan in exchange for humanity’s liberation. This theory holds that Satan was tricked by God because Christ was not only free of sin, but also the incarnate Deity, whom Satan lacked the ability to enslave. Irenaeus of Lyons described a prototypical form of the ransom theory, but Origen was the first to propose it in its fully developed form. The theory was later expanded by theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa and Rufinus of Aquileia. In the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury criticized the ransom theory, along with the associated Christus Victor theory, resulting in the theory’s decline in western Europe. The theory has nonetheless retained some of its popularity in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Most early Christians firmly believed that Satan and his demons had the power to possess humans and exorcisms were widely practiced by Jews, Christians, and pagans alike. Belief in demonic possession continued through the Middle Ages into the early modern period. Exorcisms were seen as a display of God’s power over Satan. The vast majority of people who thought they were possessed by the Devil did not suffer from hallucinations or other “spectacular symptoms”, but “complained of anxiety, religious fears, and evil thoughts.”
The Canon Episcopi, written in the eleventh century AD, condemns belief in witchcraft as heretical, but also documents that many people at the time apparently believed in it. Witches were believed to fly through the air on broomsticks, consort with demons, perform in “lurid sexual rituals” in the forests, murder human infants and eat them as part of Satanic rites, and engage in conjugal relations with demons. In 1326, Pope John XXII issued the papal bull Super illius Specula, which condemned folk divination practices as consultation with Satan. By the 1430s, the Catholic Church began to regard witchcraft as part of a vast conspiracy led by Satan himself.
Early modern period
In the late fifteenth century, a series of witchcraft panics erupted in France and Germany. The German Inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger argued in their book Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1487, that all maleficia (“sorcery”) was rooted in the work of Satan. In the mid-sixteenth century, the panic spread to England and Switzerland. Both Protestants and Catholics alike firmly believed in witchcraft as a real phenomenon and supported its prosecution. In the late 1500s, the Dutch demonologist Johann Weyer argued in his treatise De praestigiis daemonum that witchcraft did not exist, but that Satan promoted belief in it to lead Christians astray. The panic over witchcraft intensified in the 1620s and continued until the end of the 1600s. Brian Levack estimates that around 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft during the entire span of the witchcraft hysteria.
The early English settlers of North America, especially the Puritans of New England, believed that Satan “visibly and palpably” reigned in the New World. John Winthrop claimed that the Devil made rebellious Puritan women give birth to stillborn monsters with claws, sharp horns, and “on each foot three claws, like a young fowl.” Cotton Mather wrote that devils swarmed around Puritan settlements “like the frogs of Egypt”. The Puritans believed that the Native Americans were worshippers of Satanand described them as “children of the Devil”. Some settlers claimed to have seen Satan himself appear in the flesh at native ceremonies. During the First Great Awakening, the “new light” preachers portrayed their “old light” critics as ministers of Satan. By the time of the Second Great Awakening, Satan’s primary role in American evangelicalism was as the opponent of the evangelical movement itself, who spent most of his time trying to hinder the ministries of evangelical preachers, a role he has largely retained among present-day American fundamentalists.
By the early 1600s, skeptics in Europe, including the English author Reginald Scot and the Anglican bishop John Bancroft, had begun to criticize the belief that demons still had the power to possess people. This skepticism was bolstered by the belief that miracles only occurred during the Apostolic Age, which had long since ended. Later, Enlightenment thinkers, such as David Hume, Denis Diderot, and Voltaire, attacked the notion of Satan’s existence altogether. Voltaire labelled John Milton’s Paradise Lost a “disgusting fantasy” and declared that belief in Hell and Satan were among the many lies propagated by the Catholic Church to keep humanity enslaved. By the eighteenth century, trials for witchcraft had ceased in most western countries, with the notable exceptions of Polandand Hungary, where they continued. Belief in the power of Satan, however, remained strong among traditional Christians.
Belief in Satan and demonic possession remains strong among Christians in the United States and Latin America. According to a 2013 poll conducted by YouGov, fifty-seven percent of people in the United States believe in a literal Devil, compared to eighteen percent of people in Britain. Fifty-one percent of Americans believe that Satan has the power to possess people. W. Scott Poole, author of Satan in America: The Devil We Know, has opined that “In the United States over the last forty to fifty years, a composite image of Satan has emerged that borrows from both popular culture and theological sources” and that most American Christians do not “separate what they know [about Satan] from the movies from what they know from various ecclesiastical and theological traditions.” The Catholic Church generally played down Satan and exorcism during late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, but Pope Francis brought renewed focus on the Devil in the early 2010s, stating, among many other pronouncements, that “The devil is intelligent, he knows more theology than all the theologians together.” According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, liberal Christianity tends to view Satan “as a [figurative] mythological attempt to express the reality and extent of evil in the universe, existing outside and apart from humanity but profoundly influencing the human sphere.”
Bernard McGinn describes multiple traditions detailing the relationship between the Antichrist and Satan. In the dualist approach, Satan will become incarnate in the Antichrist, just as God became incarnate in Jesus. However, in Orthodox Christian thought, this view is problematic because it is too similar to Christ’s incarnation. Instead, the “indwelling” view has become more accepted, which stipulates that the Antichrist is a human figure inhabited by Satan, since the latter’s power is not to be seen as equivalent to God’s.
The Arabic equivalent of the word Satan is Shaitan (شيطان, from the root šṭn شطن). The word itself is an adjective (meaning “astray” or “distant”, sometimes translated as “devil”) that can be applied to both man (“al-ins”, الإنس) and al-jinn (الجن), but it is also used in reference to Satan in particular. In the Quran, Satan’s name is Iblis (Arabic pronunciation: [ˈibliːs]), probably a derivative of the Greek word diabolos. Muslims do not regard Satan as the cause of evil, but as a tempter, who takes advantage of humans’ inclinations toward self-centeredness.
The primary characteristic of Satan, aside from his hubris and despair, is his ability to cast evil suggestions (waswās) into men and women.15:45 states that Satan has no influence over the righteous, but that those who fall in error are under his power. 7:156 implies that those who obey God’s laws are immune to the temptations of Satan. 56:79 warns that Satan tries to keep Muslims from reading the Quran and 16:98-100 recommends reciting the Quran as an antidote against Satan. 35:6 refers to Satan as the enemy of humanity and 36:60forbids humans from worshipping him. In the Quranic retelling of the story of Job, Job knows that Satan is the one tormenting him.
In the Quran, Satan is apparently an angel, but, in 18:50, he is described as “from the jinns”. This, combined with the fact that he describes himself as having been made from fire, posed a major problem for Muslims exegetes of the Quran, who disagree on whether Satan is a fallen angel or the leader of a group of evil jinn. According to a hadith from Ibn Abbas, Iblis was actually an angel whom God created out of fire. Ibn Abbas asserts that the word jinn could be applied to earthly jinn, but also to “fiery angels” like Satan.
Hasan of Basra, an eminent Muslim theologian who lived in the seventh century AD, was quoted as saying: “Iblis was not an angel even for the time of an eye wink. He is the origin of Jinn as Adam is of Mankind.” The medieval Persian scholar Abu Al-Zamakhshari states that the words angels and jinn are synonyms.Another Persian scholar, Al-Baydawi, instead argues that Satan hoped to be an angel, but that his actions made him a jinn. Other Islamic scholars argue that Satan was a jinn who was admitted into Paradise as a reward for his righteousness and, unlike the angels, was given the choice to obey or disobey God. When he was expelled from Paradise, Satan blamed humanity for his punishment. Concering the fiery origin of Iblis, Zakariya al-Qazwini and Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Ibshīhī state that all supernatural creatures originated from fire but the angels from its light and the jinn from its blaze, thus fire denotes a disembodiment origin of all spiritual entities.
The Muslim historian Al-Tabari, who died in around 923 AD, writes that, before Adam was created, earthly jinn made of smokeless fire roamed the earth and spread corruption. He further relates that Iblis was originally an angel named Azazil or Al-Harith, from a group of angels, in contrast to the jinn, created from the fires of simoom, who was sent by God to confront the earthly jinn. Azazil defeated the jinn in battle and drove them into the mountains, but he became convinced that he was superior to humans and all the other angels, leading to his downfall. In this account, Azazil’s group of angels were called jinnbecause they guarded Jannah (Paradise). In another tradition recorded by Al-Tabari, Satan was one of the earthly jinn, who was taken captive by the angels and brought to Heaven as a prisoner. God appointed him as judge over the other jinn and he became known as Al-Hakam. He fulfilled his duty for a thousand years before growing negligent, but was rehabilitated again and resumed his position until his refusal to bow before Adam.
On the third day of the Hajj, Muslim pilgrims to Mecca throw seven stones at a pillar known as the Jamrah al-’Aqabah, symbolizing the stoning of the Devil. This ritual is based on the Islamic tradition that, when God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael, Satan tempted him three times not to do it, and, each time, Abraham responded by throwing seven stones at him.
The hadith teach that newborn babies cry because Satan touches them while they are being born, and that this touch causes people to have an aptitude for sin. This doctrine bears some similarities to the doctrine of original sin. Muslim tradition holds that only Jesus and Mary were not touched by Satan at birth. However, when he was a boy, Muhammad’s heart was literally opened by an angel, who removed a black clot that symbolized sin.
According to Sufi mysticism, Iblis refused to bow to Adam because he was fully devoted to God alone and refused to bow to anyone else. For this reason, Sufi masters regard Satan and Muhammad as the two most perfect monotheists. Sufis reject the concept of dualism and instead believe in the unity of existence. In the same way that Muhammad was the instrument of God’s mercy, Sufis regard Satan as the instrument of God’s wrath.
Muslims believe that Satan is also the cause of deceptions originating from the mind and desires for evil. He is regarded as a cosmic force for separation, despair and spiritual envelopment. Muslims do distinguish between the satanic temptations and the murmurings of the bodily lower self (Nafs). The lower self commands the person to do a specific task or to fulfill a specific desire; whereas the inspirations of Satan tempt the person to do evil in general and, after a person successfully resists his first suggestion, Satan returns with new ones. If a Muslim feels that Satan is inciting him to sin, he is advised to seek refuge with God by reciting: “In the name of Allah, I seek refuge in you, from Satan the outcast.” Muslims are also obliged to “seek refuge” before reciting the Quran.
In the Bahá’í Faith, Satan is not regarded as an independent evil power as he is in some faiths, but signifies the lower nature of humans. `Abdu’l-Bahá explains: “This lower nature in man is symbolized as Satan — the evil ego within us, not an evil personality outside.” All other evil spirits described in various faith traditions—such as fallen angels, demons, and jinns—are also metaphors for the base character traits a human being may acquire and manifest when he turns away from God. Actions, that are described as “satanic” in some Bahá’í writings, denote humans deeds caused by selfish desires.
Theistic Satanism, commonly referred to as “devil worship”, views Satan as a deity, whom individuals may supplicate to. It consists of loosely affiliated or independent groups and cabals, which all agree that Satan is a real entity.
Atheistic Satanism, as practiced by the Satanic Temple and by followers of LaVeyan Satanism, holds that Satan does not exist as a literal anthropomorphic entity, but rather as a symbol of a cosmos which Satanists perceive to be permeated and motivated by a force that has been given many names by humans over the course of time. In this religion, “Satan” is not viewed or depicted as a hubristic, irrational, and fraudulent creature, but rather is revered with Prometheus-like attributes, symbolizing liberty and individual empowerment. To adherents, he also serves as a conceptual framework and an external metaphorical projection of the Satanist’s highest personal potential. In his essay “Satanism: The Feared Religion”, the current High Priest of the Church of Satan, Peter H. Gilmore, further expounds that “…Satan is a symbol of Man living as his prideful, carnal nature dictates. The reality behind Satan is simply the dark evolutionary force of entropy that permeates all of nature and provides the drive for survival and propagation inherent in all living things. Satan is not a conscious entity to be worshiped, rather a reservoir of power inside each human to be tapped at will”.
LaVeyan Satanists embrace the original etymological meaning of the word “Satan” (Hebrew: שָּׂטָן satan, meaning “adversary”). According to Peter H. Gilmore, “The Church of Satan has chosen Satan as its primary symbol because in Hebrew it means adversary, opposer, one to accuse or question. We see ourselves as being these Satans; the adversaries, opposers and accusers of all spiritual belief systems that would try to hamper enjoyment of our life as a human being.”
Allegations of worship
In the Middle Ages, the Cathars, practitioners of a dualistic religion, were accused of worshipping Satan by the Catholic Church. Pope Gregory IX stated in his work Vox in Rama that the Cathars believed that God had erred in casting Lucifer out of heaven and that Lucifer would return to reward his faithful. On the other hand, according to Catharism, the creator-god of the material world worshipped by the Catholic Church is actually Satan.
Wicca is a modern, syncretic Neopagan religion, whose practitioners many Christians have incorrectly assumed to worship Satan. In actuality, Wiccans do not believe in the existence of Satan or any analogous figure and have repeatedly and emphatically rejected the notion that they venerate such an entity. The cult of the skeletal figure of Santa Muerte, which has grown exponentially in Mexico, has been denounced by the Catholic Church as Devil-worship. However, devotees of Santa Muerte view her as an angel of death created by God, and many of them identify as Catholic.
Much modern folklore about Satanism does not originate from the actual beliefs or practices of theistic or atheistic Satanists, but rather from a mixture of medieval Christian folk beliefs, political or sociological conspiracy theories, and contemporary urban legends. An example is the Satanic ritual abuse scare of the 1980s — beginning with the memoir Michelle Remembers — which depicted Satanism as a vast conspiracy of elites with a predilection for child abuse and human sacrifice. This genre frequently describes Satan as physically incarnating in order to receive worship.
|“||If he was once as handsome as he now is ugly and, despite that, raised his brows against his Maker, one can understand,
how every sorrow has its source in him!
|— Dante in Inferno, Canto XXXIV (Verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum)|
|“||Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
|— Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost Book I, lines 261–263|
In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, Satan appears as a giant demon, frozen mid-breast in ice at the center of the Ninth Circle of Hell.Satan has three faces and a pair of bat-like wings affixed under each chin. In his three mouths, Satan gnaws on Brutus, Judas Iscariot, and Cassius, whom Dante regarded as having betrayed the “two greatest heroes of the human race”: Julius Caesar, the founder of the new order of government, and Jesus, the founder of the new order of religion. As Satan beats his wings, he creates a cold wind that continues to freeze the ice surrounding him and the other sinners in the Ninth Circle. Dante and Virgilclimb up Satan’s shaggy legs until gravity is reversed and they fall through the earth into the southern hemisphere.
Satan appears in several stories from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, including “The Summoner’s Prologue”, in which a friar arrives in Hell and sees no other friars, but is told there are millions. Then Satan lifts his tail to reveal that all of the friars live inside his anus. Chaucer’s description of Satan’s appearance is clearly based on Dante’s. The legend of Faust, recorded in the 1589 chapbook The History of the Damnable Life and the Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus, concerns a pact allegedly made by the German scholar Johann Georg Faust with a demon named Mephistopheles agreeing to sell his soul to Satan in exchange for twenty-four years of earthly pleasure. This chapbook became the source for Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.
John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost features Satan as its main protagonist. Milton portrays Satan as a tragic antihero destroyed by his own hubris. The poem, which draws extensive inspiration from Greek tragedy, recreates Satan as a complex literary character, who dares to rebel against the “tyranny” of God, in spite of God’s own omnipotence. The English poet and painter William Blake famously quipped that “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.” Paradise Regained, the sequel to Paradise Lost, is a retelling of Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert.
William Blake regarded Satan as a model of rebellion against unjust authority and features him in many of his poems and illustrations, including his 1780 book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,in which Satan is celebrated as the ultimate rebel, the incarnation of human emotion and the epitome of freedom from all forms of reason and orthodoxy. Based on the Biblical passages portraying Satan as the accuser of sin, Blake interpreted Satan as “a promulgator of moral laws.”
In visual art
Medieval Christians were known to adapt previously existing pagan iconography to suit depictions of Christian figures. Much of Satan’s traditional iconography in Christianity appears to be derived from Pan, a rustic, goat-legged fertility god in ancient Greek religion. Early Christian writers such as Saint Jerome equated the Greek satyrs and the Roman fauns, whom Pan resembled, with demons. The Devil’s pitchfork appears to have been adapted from the trident wielded by the Greek god Poseidon and Satan’s flame-like hair seems to have originated from the Egyptian god Bes. By the High Middle Ages, Satan and devils appear in all works of Christian art: in paintings, sculptures, and on cathedrals. Satan is usually depicted naked, but his genitals are rarely shown and are often covered by animal furs. The goat-like portrayal of Satan was especially closely associated with him in his role as the object of worship by sorcerers and as the incubus, a demon believed to rape human women in their sleep.
Italian frescoes from the late Middle Ages onward frequently show Satan chained in Hell, feeding on the bodies of the perpetually damned. These frescoes are early enough to have inspired Dante’s portrayal in his Inferno. As the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Satan is often shown as a snake with arms and legs as well the head and full-breasted upper torso of a woman. Satan and his demons could take any form in medieval art, but, when appearing in their true form, they were often shown as short, hairy, black-skinned humanoids with clawed and bird feet and extra faces on their chests, bellies, genitals, buttocks, and tails. The modern popular culture image of Satan as a well-dressed gentleman with small horns and a tail originates from portrayals of Mephistopheles in the operas La damnation de Faust (1846) by Hector Berlioz, Mefistofele (1868) by Arrigo Boito, and Faust by Charles Gounod.
- Hebrew: שָּׂטָן (sâtan), meaning “enemy” or “adversary”;Ancient Greek: ὁ σατανᾶς or σατάν (ho satanas or satan);Arabic: شيطان (shaitan), meaning “astray”, “distant”, or sometimes “devil”
- In many cases, the translators of the Septuagint, the pre-Christian translation of the Hebrew Bible into ancient Greek, chose to render the Hebrew word sâtan as the Greek word διάβολος (diábolos), meaning “opponent” or “accuser”. This is the root of the modern English word Devil. Both the words satanas and diábolos are used interchangeably in the New Testament and in later Christian writings. The apostle Paul and the Gospel of Mark both use the word satanas more frequently than diábolos, but the Gospel of Matthew uses the word diábolos more frequently and so do the Church FathersJustin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Origen.
- The Latin Vulgate translation of this passage renders Heylel as “Lucifer“ and this name continues to be used by some Christians as an alternative name for Satan.
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- ed. Buttrick, George Arthur; The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, An illustrated Encyclopedia
- Stephen M. Hooks – 2007 “As in Zechariah 3:1–2 the term here carries the definite article (has’satan=”the satan”) and functions not as a…the only place in the Hebrew Bible where the term “Satan” is unquestionably used as a proper name is 1 Chronicles 21:1.”
- Coogan, Michael D.; A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in Its Context, Oxford University Press, 2009
- Rachel Adelman The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe De-Rabbi Eliezer p65 “However, in the parallel versions of the story in Chronicles, it is Satan (without the definite article),”
- Septuagint 108:6 κατάστησον ἐπ᾽ αὐτὸν ἁμαρτωλόν καὶ διάβολος στήτω ἐκ δεξιῶν αὐτοῦ
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- 2 Enoch 18:3. On this tradition, see A. Orlov, “The Watchers of Satanael: The Fallen Angels Traditions in 2 (Slavonic) Enoch,” in: A. Orlov, Dark Mirrors: Azazel and Satanael in Early Jewish Demonology (Albany: SUNY, 2011) 85–106.
- “And I threw him out from the height with his angels, and he was flying in the air continuously above the bottomless” – 2 Enoch 29:4
- “The devil is the evil spirit of the lower places, as a fugitive he made Sotona from the heavens as his name was Satanail, thus he became different from the angels, but his nature did not change his intelligence as far as his understanding of righteous and sinful things” – 2 Enoch 31:4
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