Did we invent the Devil? Yes, I think we did, and since ancient times we have been inventive and creative in the names, forms and roles we have given him.

His origin and history is fascinating, perplexing, and at times most confusing. Major theological structures have been built around him. They were however, always made of sand and are now dissolving in the light of contemporary scepticism informed by reason, our painful memory of the Inquisition, and a better understanding of how nature works.

In some ways the history of the Devil is a history of human evil, and not of the supernatural. We’ve often used the Devil to shift personal responsibility away from our own evil and failings. We have also used the Devil to explain, and perhaps even help us come to terms with, natural catastrophes such as floods, plagues, and crop failures.

For many today, the role of Devil is to still to tempt and corrupt and destroy. The theological logic is that God has allowed a near equal as a way of testing our faith.

I do not think the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s atrocities in Cambodia, or Stalin’s purges were a test of faith by an all powerful and compassionate God. These were human acts of untold cruelty that we could not, and still cannot, understand how our fellow human beings could commit. And because they are beyond the reach of our understanding, they must in some way have been the work of some darker force, the Devil supposedly, sanctioned by a supposedly more powerful God. We found it convenient to shift blame from ourselves to what I think is a fictitious third party, and on many sad occasions, we found it a convenient tool way to condemn others cruelly.

What are the origins of the Devil?

The seeds of this fictional figure of evil were born 3000 years ago when there was a big shift in religious thinking, introduced by Zoroaster (aka Zarathustra).

I have an optimistic intuition. Perhaps it is just wishful thinking. It is that I think the more profound minds among these early Iranian or Zoroastrian thinkers were trying to simplify a set of multiple Gods to a set of mutually complementary energies working on the physical plane. Much in the same way as the Taoist idea of Yin and Yang represents two impersonal, complementary and fundamental energies permeating reality, constantly in motion.

But it seems not all adherents in ancient Iran were of the same mind. Some thought it made more sense and would be easier to understand to personalize these two energies behind the visible world, such as light and dark, positive and negative, death and rebirth, as a God and his adversary. I guess if you are illiterate, and most people were, then an old man with a beard that looked human would be easier to understand than invisible and abstract energies driving reality and all the invisible worlds around us.

However, confusion and distortion stepped in early. It is, by the way, important to acknowledge profound spiritual ideas get distorted over time for all kinds of reasons. This is one of the reasons Madame Blavatsky wrote the Secret Doctrine, to set the record straight.

Encyclopaedia Britannica gives this example how the meaning of the deava and devas, the origins of the word devil, were variously distorted through the lens of different religions:

“The positions of spiritual beings or entities viewed as benevolent or malevolent may, in the course of time be reversed. Such has been the case in the ancient Indo-Iranian religion, from which evolved early Zoroastrianism and the early Hinduism reflected in the Vedas (ancient Aryan hymns).

In Zoroastrianism the daevas were viewed as malevolent beings, but their counterparts, the devas in ancient Hinduism, were viewed as Gods. The ahuras of Zoroastrianism were good ‘lords,’ but in Hinduism their counterparts, the asuras, were transformed into evil lords.

In a similar manner, Satan, once the prosecutor of men in the court of God’s justice in the Hebrew Old Testament book of Job, became the chief antagonist of Christ in Christianity…” [1]

“The word Satan (or Shaitan) in Biblical Hebrew meant something akin to ‘adversary’ or ‘anti-advocate,’ or more idiomatically, ‘prosecutor.’ It was the job title of an angel (not always the same angel) whose duties were to test the faith of the righteous, to force the souls of people to defend themselves before the Heavenly Court, and who was the guardian angel or ‘patron’ angel of the yetzer ha-ra, the ‘Urge to do Evil,’ or the ‘Urge to Chaos.’ This angel was seen as simply doing the will of God, faithfully executing an office needed by Heaven: there was never any suggestion of rebellion, since in Jewish theology, angels have no free will, nor did the Satan rule in Hell, since Judaism has no Hell. [2]

In Christianity he began his work in the Garden of Eden, supposedly inhabiting the serpent that suggested the tempting Red Delicious apple might be a good thing. Here we see the distortion of an ancient symbol. The serpent was in ancient times a symbol of wisdom and knowledge. The original meaning of eating the apple, I think, was that at some stage humanity had developed the power of wisdom, i.e. a conscience, a new self awareness that gave us the ability to choose right from wrong.

Even though Satan started out as (again, by taking a most optimistic view), be someone that challenged us to be our better selves in the ‘courtroom of life’, by the middle ages, he’d been turned into a malevolent force unto himself, equal to God.

He was able to live underground, but at the same time, whisper bad thoughts into every living person’s ears (the population was at that time over 900 million), creating chaos and his own brand of vicious madness.

We should understand that when the Devil was invented and given more and more influence in our lives, we did not understand how the real forces of nature worked. For example, the biological systems for humans, animals and plants were complete unknowns. Diseases such as the black plague were caused by mysterious forces. In one Italian city, Siena, two thirds of the population died. And neither did anyone understand what made the tides rise and fall, the grass grow, the clouds move, eclipses come and go, a storm appear, where the sound of thunder came from, the seasons change, crops fail, a baby to be stillborn, or even a volcano to erupt. Invisible darks forces were behind many dark events and human failings.

“Some medieval scholars of demonology ascribed to a hierarchy of seven archdemons the seven deadly sins: Lucifer (Pride); Mammon (Avarice); Asmodeus (Lechery); Satan (Anger); Beelzebub (Gluttony); Leviathan (Envy); and Belphegor (Sloth). Besides tempting men to sin, the fallen angels, or Devils, were believed to cause various types of calamities, both natural and accidental.

Like the demons and evil spirits of nature in primitive religions, the fallen angels were viewed as the agents of famine, disease, war, earthquakes, accidental deaths, and various mental or emotional disorders. Persons afflicted with mental diseases were considered to be ‘demon possessed.’[3]

A fear of the Devil helped to strengthen the hold of the church on a poorly educated and illiterate population. It helped weaken the hold of the ancient Gods of the field and what remained of the pagan approach to worship. Now, our ‘salvation’ was only possible through Jesus, and anything not condoned by the church was likely to be the work of Devil. On a positive note, a new development was that personal spiritual salvation was now possible, whereas it had not been available before. A new code of ethics, the Ten Commandments also made it easier to build a consistent moral code for an entire society.

Even so, the next stage was to turn the abilities of a ‘fallen’ and supposedly over-proud angel into what today would be portrayed in the cinema as a criminally insane mastermind to oppose God’s will. Fear, rather than a moral compass of encouragement, understanding and tolerance, became a tool for character development.

But it went even further than this, to a dark and cruel fanaticism. The Inquisitions and all their atrocities, such as the burning of children suspected of witchcraft. The inquisitions eventually saw 10,000 people burnt at the stake and 80,000 tortured. This is an extreme and terrifying example of how a fanatical fear of the Devil and Satan were cultivated. Even my Dutch ancestors fled the inquisition along frozen canals in the mid 1500’s to settle in northern Germany.

So you can see, an attribute or a complementary force in nature, at its simplest and most profound appreciation, let’s say the dark or yang side of creation both inside and outside us (that is, goodness cannot exist without evil, as light cannot exist without dark), when seen through the eyes of human values became a dark force. It was nearly as powerful as God, no longer complementary, but twisted to represent an entity somehow working independently of us, trying to oppose us as a species, to undermine us. Yet, at the same time the Devil was condoned by a supposedly all powerful God, and helped to conveniently explain the unfathomable and the inexplicable.

In Wind of the Sprit by G De Purucker,[4] he writes: “All peoples have taught of opposition in the universe, and they taught beautifully of it. But as far as I know it is only the very savage tribes and later Christianity which have ever personified of humanized this cosmic principle into an angelic entity, in Christianity of the demoniac type.”

No wonder does the idea of an all powerful devil make little sense. An all powerful God is either all powerful or it is not.

The various name of Devil and their origins

  • Devil, based on a corruption of the ancient Indian word deva, which originally meant a shining God, and from Greek diabolos, ‘slanderer,’ or ‘accuser’
  • From deamon to demon
  • Prince of darkness, Manichaeism
  • Satan, in the old testament a prosecutor in Yawweh’s court
  • Beezlebul lord of dung, Beezelbub or beelzebul, ancient Egypt’s God of the flies, also confused with Apollo the household God, apparently a mistranslation, but correctly means ‘God of the dwelling’
  • Lucifer, ironically the light bringer, the planet of Venus as the bright morning star, Before Milton Lucifer was never the name of the Devil, but one of God’s angels. Interestingly Jesus says of himself in revelations “I am the bright morning star”, ie Lucifer
  • Demiurge, ‘the creator’, the Gnostics

The ever changing appearance of the Devil

If you think of all the ways the Devil we have portrayed physically, my sense is we seemed to have made it up as we went along. We changed his appearance to suit our needs.

In William Woods’ book, A History of the Devil, he describes how our perception of the Devil moved to a more physical form: “In the early days Satan had been a spirit, but by the time of St Martin in the fifth century, he had become palpable, weighty and of course visible. Being the antithesis of God, he was course unbearably ugly.” As time went on his appearance became more and more menacing. He was now a real being we needed to resist, and not simply an abstract energy of evil.

Remarkably, the earliest and perhaps most unexpected evidence of our creativity at work was that the Devil began life a blue angel, assisting Jesus on judgment day separating the goats from the sheep.

At some point he developed a red, not blue skin. The latest Devil often wears a suit, sports a pointy beard and sideburns. Contrast his changing appearance with the fairly static appearance of Mary, Buddha, and Jesus for example. I think their images have stayed much the same perhaps because they were real people, whereas the Devil’s appearance is a fiction. Even what we call him and what he does has kept changing, depending on the fashions, fears and fanaticisms of the day.

Although often disguised as a young man in the middle-ages and blamed for many teenage pregnancies in the countryside, he is often drawn as having:

  • a pitchfork
  • a tail
  • menacing dark eyes
  • wings like a bat
  • cloven hooves or claws
  • horns
  • red skin
  • the body of a goat and a goatee beard (I guess that’s logical if the rest isn’t)

Pan as a source of inspiration for the Devil

One could argue that if we asked today’s cartoonists to draw a new Devil, they would likely use some reviled public figure’s nose or ears to satirize and undermine. This is similar to how the Devil’s appearance came to be.

What seems clear after one reads the explanation of the origins of his appearance is that, for most of his illustrated life, he looks like Pan. For those who you who do not know who or what Pan was, he was the Greek God of forests, pastures, flocks, and shepherds in pre-Christian times, in the ancient world.

On a more profound level, Pan was a figure of reverence. Pan represented the creative divine energy inherent in nature, destructive too, but bountiful, often seen holding pan pipes. Pan had cloven hooves and the body of a goat, but human arms, chest and face. Just like the Devil.

As M Blavatsky writes in the Theosophical Glossary published in 1892, “Pan means ALL, and is the origin of the word pantheon. He was the inventor of the Pandean pipes, and is related to the Mendesian goat, only so far as the latter suggests, as a talisman of great occult potency, nature’s creative force.”

Artists, I think, used Pan as they could easily rework his image into an object of fear. At the same time, recasting him would erase the memory of important figure of the ancient world. Transforming Pan into the Devil is an example how one transforms cultural memory, in the same way churches were built over ancient sites of worship. For example, “St Paul’s in London was remembered well into the middle ages as a shrine sacred to Diana”,[5]

Madame Blavatsky, unamused by this jaundiced transformation, says in the Secret Doctrine, that we turned what once represented the “abstract and divine power of procreative nature – Pan – into something so malevolent, and anthropomorphized.”[6]

But, Christianity had to isolate itself and assert its authority, the church needed something, an antagonist to contrast and strengthen its protagonist, the ‘shining Jesus’.[7]

The abode of the Devil – Hell

After looking at pictures where hell is represented though the ages, we see the Devil often lives in a burning ‘hellfire’. However, he is also shown as living in the clouds, walking around earth.

“The Old English hel belongs to a family of Germanic words meaning ‘to cover’ or ‘to conceal.’ Hel is also the name, in Old Norse, of the Scandinavian queen of the underworld. Many English translations of the Bible use hell as an English equivalent of the Hebrew terms Sheʾōl (or Sheol) and Gehinnom, or Gehenna (Hebrew: gê-hinnōm). The term Hell is also used for the Greek Hades and Tartarus, which have markedly different connotations. As this confusion of terms suggests, the idea of hell has a complex history, reflecting changing attitudes toward death and judgment, sin and salvation, and crime and punishment.” [8]

There is even confusion about where hell is. “The physical location of hell is similarly ambiguous. Some ancient and medieval Christian texts describe places of postmortem torment and demonic mischief in the upper atmosphere, while others locate hell in the centre of the earth, finding entrances in caves, moors, bogs, and volcanic fissures.

Drawing on diverse biblical, Classical, and folkloric sources, a great variety of cautionary tracts and tales…further developed the imagery of hell, mapping its flaming lakes, perilous bridges, demon-infested pits, and stinking cesspools and enlarging its catalogue of torments while at the same time providing milder sufferings for penitents.

In the 2nd-century Apocalypse of Peter, for example, blasphemers hang by their tongues over a lake of flaming mire, murderers are tortured in the sight of their victims, and slanderers have their eyes burned out by hot irons.” [9]

The character and role of the Devil is changing

Philip Almond is professorial research fellow at the University of Queensland and author of ‘The Devil: A New Biography’ He recently wrote a wonderful piece about the devil in the Daily Telegraph online, Giving the Devil His Due, from which I will quote selectively:

“In a recent development along these lines, the Church of England removed the words Satan from its baptism ceremonies. All struggles now are against an impersonal power of evil, not the Devil or Satan.

For some forms of modern conservative Christianity, the Christian story of the Devil is very much alive still. The belief remains that the Devil is active and will remain so until finally consigned to an eternity in Hell at the end of history. The existence of the Devil and his capacity to act in history, nature, and human lives, remains for many Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, a satisfactory explanation of natural misfortune and human suffering.

Christianity has always wrestled with the apparent contradiction between a God who is both all-powerful and all-good, and yet appears either unable to control the Devil or unwilling to do so.

Still, the story of the Devil is one that had lost its central role in Western intellectual life by the middle of the 18th century. By then, for an educated elite, if not for the masses, the Devil was no longer a matter of fact but of fiction, and even occasionally a folkloric figure of fun. For some, the Devil became merely a metaphor for the evil within us. For others, he became merely a personification of an impersonal force.

It was no longer a valiant struggle against sin, the world and the Devil but rather, as the new baptism service has it, a matter of ‘standing bravely’ and opposing ‘the power of evil’. For others, it was a convenient excuse for men, as Daniel Defoe put it in 1727, to “shift off these crimes on Him which are their own” [10]


So if there were a Devil, who is he? Perhaps Satan is us.

There is a Theosophical teaching, elegantly stated by the author in the Wind of the Spirit, that “there is no such cosmic individual acting as an opponent or adversary of men or of the Gods; for the accuser, the adversary or opponent is in actual fact, so far as humans are concerned, is our own weaknesses, evildoings, evil thoughts, evil emotions which will someday sooner or later spring up in our path to face us, and facing us as it were, point us out as the evildoer.” [11]

And so, the need to use the Devil as a scapegoat is slowly falling away. “Many Christian theologians have found some of the concepts of psychoanalysis helpful in reinterpreting the meanings underlying primitive and traditional beliefs in angels and demons. The tripartite cosmos was re-mythologized into a tripartite structure of the personality—the superego (the restrictive social regulations that enable man to live as a social being), the ego (the conscious aspects of man), and the id, or libido (a “seething, boiling cauldron of desire that seeks to erupt from beneath the threshold of consciousness”).[12]

We have a better understanding of the forces of nature around us and the forces at work within us. As we become better educated we’re more willing to question the basis of a frightening and effective fiction.

I think the challenge of human is to know ourselves fully, to tune into the deeper self awareness that drives the better part of our human selves. To understand that many of our so called sins are borne of anxiety, stress and fatigue and sometimes early traumas we could not process.

So let’s not to be too hard on ourselves. We’re not saints, and neither do I think should we try to be. Life is challenging and difficult enough. A line from the Desiderata, written in 1927 by Max Ehrman, is still as potent as when I first read it and sounds very much like the wise Buddhist injunction to take the middle path: “Beyond a wholesome discipline be gentle with yourself”.

So, I don’t think we need a devil, just our own inner guru to push us past our comfort zones to be better hu

[1] Angel and demon. 2015. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 23 August, 2015, from http://www.britannica.com/topic/angel-religion

[2] http://www.religiousforums.com/threads/is-satan-mentioned-in-the-earliest-versions-of-bibles.109632/


[3] Angel and demon. 2015. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 23 August, 2015, from http://www.britannica.com/topic/angel-religion

[4] G De Purucker, Wind of the Spirit, Theosophical University Press, 1984,p283

[5] Woods, William, History of the Devil p97

[6] Blavatsky Helena, Secret Doctrine, The Theosophy Company, 1925, p358

[7] Ibid., p508

[8] Hell.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014

[9] Ibid.

[10] Almond, Philip, the Telegraph, retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10965366/Giving-the-Devil-his-due.html, July 14, 2014


[11] G De Purucker, Wind of the Spirit, Theosophical University Press, 1984, p280

[12] Angel and demon. 2015. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 23 August, 2015, from http://www.britannica.com/topic/angel-religion


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