A History of Satan (Satan 1)

Welcome to ongoing discussions regarding the origins, development, and significance of personified evil — Satan and his demons — in early Judaism and in the history of Christianity. We will be tracing the history of Satan (a.k.a. the Devil, Beelzebul, Beliar, Mastema, Lucifer, Mephisto) and his minions from ancient Mesopotamian chaos-monsters to early Jewish and Christian fallen angels to modern portrayals in music, television, and film. Dragon-like mythical figure, Ishtar gateTo get a sense of what topics and sources may be covered in the next few months, you can look at my outline for the undergraduate course: “A History of Satan”. There are already a number of entries here on this blog that deal with topics relating to Satan and hell. Ideas associated with this personified evil figure are thoroughly embedded within western culture, and these discussions will be an attempt to partially unravel the layers in his story.

Come again, and I’ll look forward to any historically-minded comments or questions you may have.

UPDATE (Jan. 2): Check out the comments section, where significant (as well as not-so-significant) discussions have already begun.

Photo: Dragon-like mythical figure, associated with the god Marduk, on the Babylonian Ishtar Gate (c. 575 BCE; now in the Istanbul Archeological Museum; photo by Phil). Images like this one may have inspired the story of Daniel slaying the dragon in the Apocrypha, which draws on a long tradition of slaying the chaos-monster.

11 thoughts on “A History of Satan (Satan 1)

  1. Tyler Williams

    Hey Phil… this series looks quite interesting. Maybe I missed it, but I was surprised your class outline doesn’t deal with Job, even though it is not Satan, but the adversary who shows up there.

    Do you cover 1 Chronicles 21? While this has traditionally been considered one of the first explicit places where Satan shows us, a number of commentaries have recently sugested that it, like Job, is also referring to a celestial or human adversay, and not Satan per se.

    Your connection with ANE chaos myths also looks interesting. I have always wondered about the contribution of the LXX to the development of the idea of Satan since it flattens a number of terms related to Leviathan and other chaos monsters by rendering them all as dragon. Thus you seem to have Ugaritic Lotan –> Hebrew Leviathan –> LXX Dragon –> NT Dragon. What do ya think?

  2. Phil Harland Post author

    Thanks, Tyler.

    Yes, I do deal with Job and related “adversary” angelic figures in the Hebrew Bible in class itself, but I chose to focus the student’s readings on some other passages. This is partially to avoid them misunderstanding the Job material–as though it were full-blown Satan–before we have a footing in other materials that perhaps more directly develop into Satan, such as Leviathan, also in Job (but I get them to read chaos-monster passages in Psalms).

    I do tend to agree with those who see the figure in 1 Chron 21 as an angelic “adversary” working on God’s behalf. Looking it up now, I also see that the parallel passage in 2 Samuel 24:1 has “the anger of Yahweh” (rather than an “adversarial” middle-“man”–he’s an angel) inciting David’s action. JAN. 3 UPDATE: As I am re-reading material I am now seeing that among the references to “adversary” (satan) in the Hebrew Bible, the passage in 1 Chron 21 is the one that has what we could call the most independent role for the angel adversary (he acts on his own in this incident, relative to other passages where the “adversary” or the “messenger” act in conjunction with God’s will). So my “working on God’s behalf” (above) is problematic in reference to the Chronicler’s intentions. The Chronicler seems to be trying to remove what that author sees as negative behaviour away from God and attribute it to the angelic adversary figure (this is only evident because we have the 2 Samuel parallel, which still has God doing what the Chronicler evidently saw as something underhanded or evil). Nonetheless, this is by no means a full blown, completely independent Satan yet (Tyler was not suggesting that either, though). END OF UPDATE

    I think you make a very good point (which I hadn’t thought of) about the fact that the LXX/Septuagint’s (Greek translation of the Bible’s) translation of various chaos monsters as “dragon” accelerates the melding and, if you don’t mind, I will refer to your point in the course. I’ll look forward to any further comments you have on future posts, especially since Hebrew Bible/LXX is your thing.

    Thanks for getting me thinking further already, as I should.


  3. Phil Harland Post author

    Oh, I forgot to mention: One of the good things about Beal’s Religion and its Monsters is that it has two whole chapters that deal with Job specifically (mainly regarding Leviathan and Yam rather than the “adversary”, though), and he cites the key passages. The students have to thoroughly read that book really early in connection with the book review. Phil

  4. Linda

    I have recently been studying and inquiring as to the reality of the angels. And while they exist in a different realm, I know there is an ability to know about them, in part at best.

    I read a book that gave me an interesting perspective into their being.

    The book is called “The fall of Lucifer”, written by Wendy Alec.

    The book opens with the three Angelic brothers, Lucifer, Michael and Gabriel, in heaven before the fall. Over the course of the book, the essence of the angels is developed. The controversy arises when God created man to be higher than the angels, in that we are created in the image of God. Lucifer was embittered to the point of rebellion.

    The book works through various historical events and offers the perspective of an angel into the event. The novel develops the beauty of heaven and the grotesque quality of hell, the depths of evil, and the beauty of grace. It communicates these themes through beautiful imagery and an intriguing plot. The beautiful imagery would make for amazing scenery!

    This is a fast read, 300 page novel that is a good spend of your holiday cash. I hope they make this book into a movie. It would be amazing.

  5. Ian Myles Slater

    This sounds interesting!

    You may already know these, but since Beal doesn’t seem to mention them:

    Steven Brust’s novel “To Reign in Hell” (1984), which is currently in print (and readily available, according to Amazon) is very odd; a gnostic Milton in modern prose is the simplest description I can come up with.

    I don’t know how well known it is outside the circle of science fiction and fantasy fans who read Brust’s other novels. I do know that it helps to be able to recognize his passing allusions to all sorts of myths and demonological literature; some readers apparently don’t have the slightest idea of what is going on.

    The short-lived 1998-1999 Fox Television series “Brimstone” had the Devil visiting Los Angeles (mainly, I think) to supervise the hunt for some of the Damned who have escaped from Hell: “They think that they can beat ME! Well, they can’t!”

    He was played by John Glover, who has essentially reprised the role portraying Lionel Luthor on “Smallville” — although Lex Luthor’s father is an even better dresser than the Prince of Darkness. (Perhaps being a corrupt Billionaire Industrialist has some advantages.)

    The actual protagonist of “Brimstone,” Ezekiel Stone, played by Peter Horton, had “retrieved” only a dozen or so of the 113 “worst of the worst” (some of whom weren’t) when production stopped after thirteen episodes. So we never learned if Stone got his new chance at life by completing the mission, or was sent back to Hell himself (long story).

  6. Phil Harland Post author

    Thanks Linda and Ian.

    Both of your comments point strongly to the prominent place that Satan plays in literature, novels, and films in the modern period, something that was spurred on, in part, by the popularity of Milton’s synthesis of Satan’s stories in Paradise Lost (written back in the 1600s). This prominence is something I hope to demonstrate more clearly in the coming months.

    As to the actual existence or non-existence of figures (e.g. angels) in people’s worldviews (referred to at the beginning of Linda’s comment), in History and Religious Studies we tend to focus more on studying what people believe and do without necessarily trying to establish whether what they believe is true in a factual or scientific sense or not. That matters little in attempting to understand someone else’s (or one’s own) culture, in many ways. In other words, in a course like this rather than asking ‘Do angels exist or do they not exist?’, we ask things like, ‘Do the people under historical investigation believe in angels and, if so, what significance does this belief play in their overall worldview and in their day-to-day lives and practices?’, or ‘What are the origins, development and significance of this belief within the culture under investigation?’ (or something like that extended).

    All the best. Phil

  7. Phil Harland Post author

    Or to take a more seasonably appropriate “proof” from film, what about Clarence? Thank goodness there’s no poop-demons (no demons at all, perhaps, besides drink) in that one (“It’s a Wonderful Life”, of course). So many movies, so little time. Phil

  8. Phil Harland Post author

    Hello Jeffery,

    I just a day ago deleted a whole slew of flagged messages which were spam (because they contained more than two links), and perhaps I deleted yours by accident with them. Sorry about that.

    Yes, I find Neil Forsyth’s book (The Old Enemy) the best scholarly analysis available on the subject (at least from a literary viewpoint), even though his expertise is in the Milton material (or at least English Literature generally). (In fact, he now has another book on Milton specifically, which I have yet to read). He has really hit the nail on the head when it comes to the ongoing importance of the Mesopotamian combat myth for understanding Satan. His narrative analysis and focus on Satan as a character within narratives is insightful even if other historical approaches are needed alongside it.

    What were the links (and I’ll make sure I don’t delete it this time)? Have you found online resources relating to this?


  9. Horace Jeffery Hodges

    The links were to Forsyth’s books.

    The first link is to Amazon’s page for The Old Enemy, which has “Search in this Book” enabled, allowing one to read any portion of the book (based on a search-engine that looks for words or phrases):

    The Old Enemy

    Used cleverly, the search engine allows you to read as many consecutive pages as you wish — just keep plugging in the final words of the last page allowed from your most-recent search, and several more pages pop up.

    The second link is to Amazon’s page for The Satanic Epic:

    The Satanic Epic

    The third link is to Princeton University Press’s online copy of the first chapter of The Satanic Epic:

    The Satanic Epic, Chapter One

    I hope that these are helpful.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

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