For thousands of years, different religions have worshipped deities and seen them as benevolent creators and protectors. But many also have believed that divine goodness has a dark counterpart. They see evil as being personified by evil supernatural beings who aim to lead humanity astray.”
These malevolent creatures have different names in various cultures, but collectively, they’re known as devils—a word that comes from the ancient Greek diabolos, which means “slanderer.” Some cultures envision that there are many such evil spirits, but most seem to focus on the idea of a single figure who is the prime adversary of God.
To some religious thinkers, the notion that God would have such a foe is a necessary part of the natural order, essential for providing contrast. “This world of ours is a world of opposites,” the theologian Paul Carus wrote in 1900. “There is light and there is shade, there is heat and cold, there is good and evil, there is God and the Devil.” That’s a duality that most religious believers in modern America seem to embrace. According to a 2013 YouGov poll, 57 percent of Americans believe that the devil exists, and 51 percent think it’s possible to be possessed by the devil or evil spirits.
The belief in devil-like figures goes back at least as far as the ancient Egyptians. Their mythology included the god Seth, a bad-tempered trickster who brought storms, death, and disorder. Cultural historian Alastair Cooke notes that another of their gods, Bes, who was associated with drinking, sex and revelry, sported a beard, horns and a forked tail, and may have served as the inspiration for depictions of the devil in Western art.
The Babylonians believed in demons, which were a manifestation of the nasty, vengeful side of their gods’ personalities. They could be summoned from the underworld to infect humans with diseases and punish them with bad weather.
The idea of a single figure who is the ultimate personification of evil may have originated in several different cultures. In Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, the creator god Ahura Mazda and the benevolent spirit Spenta Mainyu are opposed by Ahriman, Spenta’s twin brother, who has chosen to embody evil. Ahriman tries to promote greed, wrath and envy in humans to cause them to destroy themselves, and has created an army of demons to help him with that task.
Buddhism also has a similar evil figure, Mara, whose name means “killer” or “death” in Sanskrit. In Buddhist belief, Mara’s role is to prevent humans beings from concentrating upon making spiritual progress, by tempting with sensual pleasures and other distractions. In the stories of the Buddha’s life, when he sat down under the Bodhi tree, Mara tried to disrupt his meditation, and went so far as to send armies of demons to attack the Buddha. In the end, the Buddha always managed to persevere and ultimately thwart Mara, but in other Buddhist texts, he continued to cause troubles for other practitioners as well.
Judaism similarly developed the concept of an evil figure, Satan, who tempts people to do wrong things, though he makes only a few appearances in the Jewish Bible. In Chronicles 21, for example, he provokes King David to offend God, which in turn led God to punish Israel. He also appears in the book of Job, in which he inflicts the suffering believer with painful boils. But the Jewish version of Satan seems to be mostly a symbolic figure, rather than an actual being—“an illusory obstacle in one’s way,” as an essay on the Jewish Virtual Library website calls him.
In Christianity, the devil is mentioned numerous times in the New Testament—most prominently in the book of Matthew, when he shows up in the desert, where Jesus is fasting for 40 days and nights, and tries to tempt him to give up his mission to redeem humanity. After taunting Jesus about his hunger, the devil takes him to the top of a mountain, and shows him all the world’s kingdoms in their glittering glory. “All these things I will give thee, if though wilt fall down and worship me,” Satan tells him. But Jesus spurns his offer, and Satan finally leaves him. In the book of Revelation, Satan foments a final battle between the forces of good and evil, and in the end loses. An angel comes down from heaven, wraps him in chains, and tosses him into a bottomless pit.
The story of how Satan came to oppose God isn’t explained in detail in the Bible, though Jesus mentions in Luke 10:18 that he saw Satan fall from heaven, like lightning. But later Christian tradition developed a more elaborate narrative, in which Satan was a fallen angel who rebelled against God, and was cast out of heaven as a result. Since then, in Christian belief, he’s tried to lead humans away from God and his moral rules and down the path to sinfulness.
Islam has its own version of Satan – a fallen angel named Iblīs, whose story differs from Christianity’s devil. In the Muslim narrative, Iblīs refuses to bow down before Allah’s creation Adam, and is exiled from heaven as a result. According to University of Glasgow Islamic studies Professor Mona Siddiqui, on Earth Iblīs morphs into a tempter whose role is to lead people from Allah. His first victims are Adam and Eve, whom he distracts with sexual pleasure. But Muslims believe that the devil actually is less powerful than humans. “All humankind has the potential to be victorious over Satan, i.e., over their own passions that lead them astray,” she has written.
While the idea of the devil comes from religion, how we imagine this evil figure has been shaped by generations of artists and writers. Christian versions of the devil, for example, appear frequently in Western art. Since the devil isn’t described physically in the Bible, Medieval and Renaissance European artists had to invent his appearance, borrowing bits and pieces from other cultural traditions. In addition to the horns and tail of the Egyptian god Bes, they also borrowed the cloven feet of the Greek god Pan.
“In the 15th and 16th century, these solidified into this personification of evil, seen as the great enemy of Christ, the Church, and mankind: a horned, bestial, furry figure,” Bernard Barryte, who curated a Stanford University exhibition on Satan’s depiction in art, explained in a 2014 interview with Fastcodesign.com.
Satan also appears frequently as a character in Western literature. In Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno,” for example, the devil functions as a sort of evil tour guide, taking the poet on a tour of the various levels of hell where sinners of different sorts are tormented. He’s the leader of an angelic rebellion in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust,” he’s the dealmaker who entices a man seeking power and knowledge to sell his soul. As T. J. Wray and Gregory Mobley wrote in their book “The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots,” those depictions “actually became part of the Christian story of Satan, blurring the Biblical portrait…with their own refinements and renderings.”
Modern interpretations of Satan, though, have sometimes depicted the devil as having ordinary human form, and as being more elegant than beastly.
In the Rolling Stones’ classic 1968 rock song “Sympathy for the Devil,” Satan is portrayed as “a man of wealth and taste” who’s been reincarnated again and again throughout history so to participate in Earthly events. In the song, the devil takes part in the trial of Jesus, the murder of the Russian Czar Nicholas II and blitzkrieg warfare in World War II. In the 1997 film “The Devil’s Advocate,” for example, Satan—portrayed by actor Al Pacino – is the cunning, manipulative, and monstrously evil managing partner of a law firm.
The devil has been portrayed in different forms in different cultures throughout history. But to believers of various faiths, the devil’s purpose is the same—to lure humans to the dark side, and away from good.