A Cultural History of Satan (HUMA 3795; Winter 2019)

Philip A. Harland (pharland AT yorku DOT ca), Vanier 248.  Meetings (in TEL / DB 0011) : Fridays 11:30-2:20.  Office hours: Thursdays 2:30-3:30 or by appointment.

Course description

This course investigates the origins, development and significance of personified evil–Satan and his demons–in early Judean (Jewish) culture and in the history of Christianity. We will consider some of the most important depictions of this figure (and his story) from the ancient world, but we will also observe developments through the middle ages to our own day. In the process, we will shed light on how intellectuals thought of this figure, but also on how Satan came to play an important role in popular culture into the modern era (when this devilish character often makes an appearance in movies). Throughout we will be concerned with the social and other functions of Satan and his demons.

Required readings

  • Linked readings listed from week to week below
  • Bible in a modern English translation (e.g. RSV, NRSV, Jerusalem, Lexham, NIV), also freely available online at https://biblia.com/books/rsvce/Ge (click on RSVCE symbol and choose table of contents to view all books) and https://www.biblegateway.com/,
  • Timothy K. Beal, Religion and Its Monsters (New York: Routledge, 2002). (in the bookstore)

Evaluation (see end of syllabus for assignment descriptions)

  • Participation and attendance – 10%
  • Surprise quizzes – 15%
  • Academic integrity quiz (link; must be completed before submission of assignment 1 (due week 5 at the beginning of class)
  • Assignment 1: Book review (Beal, Religion and Its Monsters), 5 pages max., due Week 6 at the beginning of class – 20%
  • Test in class Week 11 – 30%
  • Assignment 2: Analysis of primary sources, 8 pages, due Week 12 at the beginning of class – 25%

Important things to know:

  • Readings and participation: Participation is an essential part of the process of learning, so readings (especially the primary, ancient sources) must be done before attending classes for a particular week, coming prepared for discussion.
  • Penalties for lateness: All assignments are due at the beginning of class. Penalties for lateness are one full grade per day (e.g. from a B to a C, if one day late). The only exceptions to this standard will be in cases of serious crisis, which should be discussed with me (the instructor) as soon as possible.


Discussion schedule:

Unit 1: Ancient Origins of Personified Evil – Mesopotamia, Persia and Israel (from 3000 B.C.E.)

Week 1 (Jan 4): Introduction to the academic study of Satan and personified evil: Where in hell did Satan come from, and what functions does he serve?

  • Readings: Revelation 12-13 (to be distributed in class)

Week 2 (Jan 11): Satan’s predecessors in the Ancient Near East: Mesopotamian chaos-monsters

  • Readings: “Anzu” (link); Psalm 74:12-17 and Psalm 89:5-18 (Bible, link); Beal, chapters 1-2

Week 3 (Jan 18): Satan’s predecessors in the Ancient Near East: Zoroastrian dualism (Ahura Mazda = Ohrmazd = Oromazes VS. Angra Mainyu = Ahriman = Areimanius) and rebellious kings in Israelite tradition

  • Readings: Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, section 370 (link); Selections regarding Ahura Mazda and the battle with Angra Mainyu from the Yasna and the Greater Bundahishn (link); Cohn, “Zoroastrianism,” pages 77-83, 96-99 (link); Ezekiel 28-29, 32 and Isaiah 14 (Bible); Beal, chapters 3-4

Week 4 (Jan 25): Israelite predecessors and Satan’s origins in Judean apocalypticism: Fallen angels and evil spirits

  • Readings: Genesis 6:1-8 (Bible); 1 Enoch 1-16 (link); “The Rule of the Community” (Dead Sea Scrolls), columns 1-4 (link); Collins, “The Early Enoch Literature” (link)

Unit 2: Satan and Demons among Judeans and early Jesus adherents (origins-312 C.E.)

Week 5 (Feb 1): Satan among Jesus adherents: Biographies of Jesus, Paul, and John’s Apocalypse

  • Readings: Gospel of Mark (esp. chapters 1-3) (Bible); Gospel of Luke, chapter 4 (Bible); 2 Corinthians, chapter 11 (Bible); John’s Apocalypse (Revelation), chapters 1-3, 12-19, especially chapters 12-13 (Bible); Beal, chapters 5-6

Week 6 (Feb 8): Developments in Satan’s story in the first centuries: Satan (or the demiurge / world-creator), Adam and Eve, and the serpent

  • Readings: “The Life of Adam and Eve,” especially the Vita version chapters 9-17 and the Apocalypse of Moses version chapters 15-21, 39 (link); Genesis 2-3 (Bible); Luttikhuizen, “The Demonic Demiurge in Gnostic Mythology” (link)

**Book Review due at the beginning of class**

Week 7 (Feb 15): Satan in the Church Fathers: Instigator of Idolatry (“Paganism”) and Heresy (150-430 CE and beyond)

  • Readings: Justin Martyr, First Apology, 1, 3-6, 23-27, 54-59 and Second Apology 47 (link); Reed, “The Trickery of the Fallen Angels and the Demonic Mimesis of the Divine,” especially pages 141-155, 168-171 (link).

**Reading week Feb. 16-22 – no classes**

Unit 3: Developments in Satan’s Story in the Middle Ages (312-1500)

Week 8 (March 1):

Medieval perceptions of Satan: Popular religion, heresy, witchcraft, and internal battles of the Reformations

  • Readings: Shinners, “Demons and Spirits,” especially pages 211-228 (link); Briggs, “Myths of the Perfect Witch,” especially pages 17-38 (link).

Unit 4: Modern Re-configurations of Personified Evil (ca.1500-present)

Week 9 (Mar 8): From traditional (evil) Satan to modern (Ironic) Mephisto: Milton (1600s) and Goethe (1700s)

  • Readings: Milton, Paradise Lost, book 1, lines 1-283 and lines 587-612; and book 2, lines 1-485 (link); Russell, “High on a Royal Throne of State” (link)

Week 10 (March 15): Visualizing hell’s torment, Satan, and related monsters — Visit to Fisher Rare Book Library at University of Toronto (120 St George St, Toronto, meeting at the main entrance at 12 noon, finishing at or before 2pm — take subway to St. George Street / University of Toronto exit)

  • Readings — no new ones — study for test!

Week 11 (March 22): **Test in class**

Week 12 (March 29): Modern conceptions of evil: Evil personified in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries

**Analysis of primary sources due in final class**


Assignment 1: Academic Book Review of Beal, Religion and its Monsters (5 pages double-spaced)

Step 1: In order to thoroughly understand what an academic book review is, read at least ten book reviews in the Journal of Biblical Literature here (book reviews appear at the end of the volume) and/or in Classical Review here.

Step 2: Carefully read the assigned book, making note of the author’s main argument or arguments. Write a review of the book (in the form of an essay), which entails:

  • Explaining the main argument (or point) of the book and how the author builds up this argument throughout the chapters (citing relevant page numbers in parentheses).
  • Discussing the author’s methods (or approach) and the types of evidence he uses to support his points.
  • Providing an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Does the author achieve what she/he sets out to do? Is the argument convincing or not, and in what ways? Where do you agree or disagree with the author’s assessment of the evidence and why? Be sure to provide concrete examples (citing page numbers in parentheses) of the problems or strengths you discuss.
  • Addressing how the book relates to our discussions in class.

The review paper should have a clear thesis statement (concerning your overall evaluation of the book) which is supported throughout the paragraphs. The paper should be clearly written and structured with no spelling or grammatical errors. Be succinct and do not exceed the prescribed length. The purpose of this assignment is to provide you with early feedback concerning your analytical, writing and critical skills so that you can work on problematic areas (in writing labs at the university and on your own).

Assignment 2: Analysis of primary sources (8 pages double-spaced)

Carefully read and study the stories and legends in the fourth century Life of Saint Anthony “Christianity in the Desert: St. Anthony the Great” (link) and in the chapter on “Demons and Spirits” (link), which date to the period c. 1000-1500.

Focus your attention on analyzing specific stories for yourself and write an essay on the following: From the early monks (like Anthony) to popular religion in the middle ages, demons or harmful spirits have played an important role in the world-view and actual lives of Christians. In the process, address issues such as the following: What do these stories reveal about popular beliefs concerning demons, their nature and function? What activities did demons engage in and what were their motivations? How did demons relate to humans and to other beings (e.g. good spirits/angels, Satan)? What methods were available for people to counter the dangers of, or gain assistance from, demons? How were such methods viewed by those who wrote down these stories? What are the commonalities and differences among the perspectives of the various stories you analyze?

Note: Develop a clear thesis statement or argument that directly addresses the question. Be sure to deal substantially with the “Life of St. Anthony” and with at least three medieval stories in your analysis, identifying key passages and page numbers in parentheses to support your points. As usual, the paper will be marked in terms of both form (how well it is written, including proper grammar and spelling) and content (how well it addresses the question and analyzes the primary materials).

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