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.

Medieval Theology

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.

Christian Art

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 on earth.

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.

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