1-3 Satan In The Middle Ages
The Growing Accommodation To Paganism
As Christianity met with Paganism over the centuries, it picked up some
of the local paganic ideas. J.B. Russell summarizes the situation in this
period: "The Christian concept of the Devil was influenced by folklore
elements, some from the older, Mediterranean cultures and others from
the Celtic, Teutonic and Slavic religions of the north. Pagan ideas penetrated
Christianity while Christian ideas penetrated paganism" (1). Thus
the Celtic god of the underworld, Cernunnos, "the horned god",
was easily assimilated into Christianity, just as the pagan feast of December
25th was adopted as 'Christmas'. The horned gods of the Scandinavians
were easily compared to the Devil- and hence the idea that the Devil has
horns became more popular in Christian art [although there is absolutely
no Biblical association of the Devil with horns]. Hilda Davidson carefully
researched Scandinavian views of the Devil figure and showed at great
length how these ideas were accommodated into Christianity- rather that
the radical call of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God being presented
as it is, a fundamentally different worldview (2). Once the Devil was
associated with Pan, he became presented as having hooves, goat hair and
a large nose (3). No longer was Satan pictured with long dark hair, but
rather spikey hair like the Northern European gods of evil. Thus 'converts'
to Christianity were allowed to keep some of their existing ideas, and
these soon became part of the core fabric of popular 'Christianity'. For
example, the northern European fear of demons entering a person led them
to cover their mouths when they yawned, and to fear sneezing as the intake
of air could allow demons to rush in to the person. Christianity adopted
these practices, adding the phrase "God bless you" whenever
someone sneezed, in an attempt to Christianize the practice.
The Influence Of Islam
It's evident that the Qu'ran was heavily influenced by both Hebrew and
surrounding Middle Eastern myths. The Islamic view of the Devil is very
similar to the common Christian view, albeit expressed under different
names. The Qu'ran teaches that Iblis [Satan] fell because he refused to
bow before the newly created Adam. This is at variance with the Biblical
account, which says nothing of any Satan in Eden nor the whole of the
book of Genesis. But the Qu'ranic teaching is so very similar to the way
the Christian 'fathers' decided that Satan envied Adam and 'fell' because
of his envy and wounded pride. This in turn was a view evidently influenced
by the apocryphal Jewish "Books Of Adam And Eve". My point from
all this is that the popular Christian views of the Devil have stronger
similarities with Jewish myths and Islamic / pagan concepts than they
do with the Biblical record.
Gregory "the Great" and others continued to grapple with the
contradictions and theological problems inherent within the belief in
a personal Satan. Gregory especially developed the idea that Satan has
power over humanity because God gave this to him in order to punish us
for our sins. Again, this begs many questions. How can someone be punished
for their sin by giving them into the hands of a being who wishes to make
us sin yet more- and how can this be done by a God whose stated aim is
to redeem humanity from sin? And why, then, did God supposedly have to
buy us back from the Devil with the blood of His Son? And if this happened
at the cross, then how is it that humanity is still under the power of
"Satan" just as much after the crucifixion as before it? Seeing
God has ultimate foreknowledge, why would He have allowed Satan to get
away with all this? It seems to me that all this misses the point- God's
heart is broken by our sin, by our freewill turning away from
Him; and not because some rival god temporarily got the better of Him.
Anselm continued the tortuous arguments. Desperate to avoid accepting
God as the author of evil, He continued to blame the Devil for it, but
struggled with why God allowed the Devil to sin. Anselm claimed that God
offered the Devil grace, but he refused it. And yet, given the ultimate
foreknowledge of God, this again only drives the question of origins a
stage further back- why did God allow that to happen, and from where did
the Devil get the impulse to refuse grace?
Thomas Aquinas struggled with the origins of sin and evil by teaching
that sin and evil are only in action, and therefore God wasn't the source
of sin by providing freewill to people. Whilst it is the human mind which
exercising God-given freewill which is indeed the Biblical source of sin,
Aquinas' zeal to distance God from anything negative led him to deny the
ABC of Christ's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7). For there,
clearly enough, the whole manifesto of Jesus was based around the theme
that sin does not only occur in actions but also in thoughts.
Again, Aquinas followed the usual Christian tendency to ignore the huge
Biblical emphasis upon sin occurring in the heart, and therefore the need
for mind control rather than merely cheering on God's side in some cosmic
conflict which we observe from earth.
The Middle Ages contributed to the development of the Satan image by
the widespread depiction of him in art forms, making the idea visual and
thus more widespread. The difficulty and awkwardness faced by mainstream
Christians in dealing with the idea of the Devil is reflected in how Christian
writing and art has depicted Satan, Lucifer etc. For example, as the Roman
empire disintegrated, mainstream Christian literature came to present
the Devil as increasingly sinister and evil, perhaps in reflection of
the growing sense of evil and disaster engulfing the empire. It's been
pointed out that whenever there were famines and plagues in Medieval Europe,
the images of Satan and hell became all the more terrifying in Christian
literature and art (4). J. Zandee further observes how in Egypt, Coptic
Christianity introduced surrounding religious ideas into the Christian
image of the Devil- e.g demons came to have "the heads of wild animals,
with tongues of fire sticking out of their mouths, with teeth of iron"
(5). Other research has shown that the same admixture of pagan ideas of
the Devil occurred in European Christianity. And as time progressed further,
the Devil came to be spoken of not so much as a physical being but as
a less well defined, ghostly, "spirit" being. J.B. Russell in
similar vein summarizes how visual depictions of demons changed over time-
again indicating that they 'exist' in the changing perceptions of people,
rather than as direct reflections of what the Bible says: "In Byzantine
art, demons are generally anthropomorphic, looking like angels... black,
occasionally having horns or a tail... In the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries a radical shift from the humanoid to the monstrous occurred
in Greece, Rumania and Russia, when the demons took on increasingly bestial
forms... sheep, dogs... pigs" (6). He also observes that "The
serpent with a human face appears in the art of many cultures; such representation
seems to have become common in Christian art in the thirteenth century"
(7). The point of all this is that the history of art reflects how 'Christian'
conceptions of the Devil were influenced by paganism and by surrounding
social events, rather than by Biblical study.
Dante's illustrated works were perhaps the most influential in visually
fixing the idea of a personal Satan in peoples' minds. Having departed
from the simple Biblical equation of hell with the grave, Dante decided
that if there are degrees of sinful Angels, therefore there must be degrees
of hell with which to punish them. Satan, of course, was located at the
very centre of hell, imprisoned in darkness and ice. Of course, to any
thoughtful mind, hell being a place of darkness and ice contradicts the
popular idea that it was a place of fire. The contradictions within Dante's
images of hell and Satan really do stack up- he decided that Satan must
have landed somewhere when he came to earth, and he suggested that craters
and depressions in the earth's surface were where the fallen Angels had
landed. The monstrosities of Dante's Inferno are likely rejected
by most people today, including those who believe in a personal Satan.
And yet they cling to the same basic misconceptions about fallen Angels,
a Satan literally cast from Heaven to earth etc. which he did. So why,
then, would they think that Dante's conceptions are so wrong? Do they
have any better answers to the questions he tried to address- e.g. where
did Satan and the Angels land on earth, where did they go etc...?
The Middle Ages saw the continued harnassing of the personal Satan, cosmic
combat myth in order to demonize people- Jews and Moslems were demonized
as in league with Satan; anti-Semitism, crusades and wars against Moslems
etc. were all justified with the idea that they were of 'Satan'- and so
any abuse of them was somehow justified. It was claimed that Satan killed
Jesus, yet the Jews killed Jesus, therefore, Jews = Satan and should be
destroyed. There was a convenient connection made between the stereotype
of Jews having large noses, and the pagan gods of evil having large noses
(see fig. 4). This is where bunk theology leads in practice. The Biblical
emphasis is that Jesus destroyed Satan on the cross (Heb. 2:14), and not
the other way around; and that nobody took His life from Him, He laid
it down in love for us (Jn. 10:18). This use of the cosmic combat myth
to demonize people led to the murders of a few hundred thousand people
in the Middle Ages in the craze of witch hunting which broke out in Europe.
Any catastrophe was blamed on Satan, and therefore his agents on earth
had to be found and slain. And anyone who was physically or theologically
a bit 'different' to the crowd was assumed to be one of Satan's representative
It seems to me that nothing has essentially changed; our race seems to
incurably transfer guilt and evil onto our opponents. Some Moslems demonize
America as "the great Satan", Western Christians do the same
to Moslems. Rather than face up to our own personal sin, humanity so earnestly
seeks to project evil onto others- Jews, Catholics, Communists, Russians,
Arabs, blacks, whites... when the root of all cruelty, the ultimate flaw,
is within the human hearts of every one of us (Mk. 7:15-23).
(1) J.B. Russell, Lucifer: The Devil In The Middle Ages (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1992) p. 62.
(2) H.R.E. Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology (London: Hamlyn,
1982) pp. 94-96; H.R.E. Davidson, The Lost Beliefs Of Northern Europe
(London: Routledge, 1993).
(3) The merging of the pagan Pan with the popular concept of the Devil
is traced in great detail in P. Merivale, Pan The Goat-God (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969).
(4) See R. Emmerson, The Antichrist In The Middle Ages (Seattle:
University Of Washington Press, 1981) chapter 4.
(5) J. Zandee, Death As An Enemy (Leiden: Brill, 1960) p. 329.
(6) J.B. Russell, Lucifer: The Devil In The Middle Ages (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1992) p. 49.
(7) ibid p. 211.