A Cultural History of Satan (HUMA 3795; Winter 2022; Remote)

General Information:

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 pdf readings in outline below
  • Bible in a modern English translation (e.g. RSV, NRSV, Jerusalem, Lexham, NIV), also freely available online https://www.biblegateway.com/.  NRSV available as pdf here: link
  • Timothy K. Beal, Religion and Its Monsters (New York: Routledge, 2002) (ebook link)

Evaluation (see end of syllabus for assignment descriptions)

  • Attendance at zoom meetings, participation in discussions (in zoom meetings and on the forum), and surprize quizzes (at beginning of meetings): 20%
  • Fishbowl discussion for 15 minutes at the beginning of class (4-5 students are marked individually): 15%
  • Assignment 1: Academic book review essay (Beal, Religion and Its Monsters), 5 pages max, due Week 6 at the beginning of class – 25%
    • Academic integrity quiz (link; must be completed before or with submission of assignment 1
  • Assignment 2: Reading response on the Life of Adam and Eve, 3 pages, due Week 8 at the beginning of class– 10%
  • Assignment 3: Analysis of primary sources, 8 pages, due Week 12 at the beginning of class – 30%

Important things to know:

  • Readings and participation: Read and study materials before meetings.
  • Penalties for lateness: Assignments are due at the beginning of class (if in person, hardcopy; if remotely, by email attachment). Late submissions will be penalized by one full grade (e.g. from a B to a C) and a further grade for each additional day beyond the due date.
  • Academic honesty and plagiarism policies: Absolutely no form of plagiarism will be tolerated. Study York’s policies here and here.
  • Password protected files for the course, which are used under fair dealing provisions for the purpose of education, are for course use only and should not be redistributed in any form.


Discussion schedule:

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

Week 1 (Jan 11): Introduction to the academic study of Satan and personified evil – Where in hell did Satan come from, and what functions does he serve?

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

Week 2 (Jan 18): Satan’s predecessors in the Ancient Near East – Mesopotamian chaos-monsters

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Predecessors of Satan from Mesopotamia (link); Predecessors of Satan from Canaan and Israel (link)
  • Satan soundtrack (link): ???
  • Readings: “Anzu” (link); Psalm 74:12-17 and Psalm 89:5-18 (link); Beal, Religion and Its Monsters, chapters 1-2 (ebook link)

Week 3 (Jan 25): 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

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Predecessors of Satan from Persia (link); Other Predecessors of Satan from the Hebrew Bible (link)
  • 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 (link); Isaiah 14 (link); Beal, Religion and Its Monsters, chapters 3-4 (ebook link)
  • Fishbowl discussion (four-five people who begin our discussion for the first 15 minutes of class):

Week 4 (Feb 1): Israelite predecessors and Satan’s origins in Judean apocalypticism – Fallen angels and evil spirits

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Fallen Angels in 1 Enoch (ca. 225 BCE) (link); Mastema in Jubilees and Beliar in the Dead Sea Scrolls (ca. 100 BCE) (link)
  • Readings: Genesis 6:1-8 (link); 1 Enoch 1-16 (link); “The Rule of the Community” (Dead Sea Scrolls), columns 1-4 (link); Collins, “The Early Enoch Literature” (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion:

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

Week 5 (Feb 8): Satan among Jesus adherents – Biographies of Jesus

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): The Devil and Beelzebub in Early Biographies of Jesus (70-100 CE) (link); Internal Functions of the Rhetoric of Satan in Paul and John (ca. 50-110 CE) (link)
  • Readings: Gospel of Mark (especially chapters 1-3) (link); Gospel of Luke, chapter 4 (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion:

**Assignment 1 (academic book review) due before meeting**

Week 6 (Feb 15): Discussion of Beal’s Religion and Its Monsters / Modern fundamentalist uses of Satan and hell

  • Video (watch before meeting): “Hell House (2001 documentary)” (link; 1 hour, 25 minutes — NOT the horror film of the same name)
  • Readings: Remaining chapters in Beal, Religion and Its Monsters (ebook link)

*Reading week Feb. 19-25 – no class*

Week 7 (Feb 29): John’s Revelation as an early synthesis

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): A Satanic Empire in John’s Apocalypse (ca. 80-100 CE) (link)
  • Readings: ; John’s Apocalypse (Revelation), chapters 1-3, 12-19 (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion:

Week 8 (March 1): Developments in Satan’s story in the first centuries – Satan (or the demiurge / world-creator) and the serpent

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Jealous Satan, the Image of God, and the Serpent in the Life of Adam and Eve (link); The Jealous Creator and the Serpent of Wisdom in Gnosticism (2nd century CE) (link)
  • 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 (link); Luttikhuizen, “The Demonic Demiurge in Gnostic Mythology” (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion:

*Assignment 2 (short reading response) due at beginning of meeting*

Week 9 (March 8): Satan in the Church Fathers – Instigator of Idolatry (“Paganism”) and Heresy (150-430 CE and beyond)

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Satan’s Demons and the Greco-Roman Gods in the Church Fathers (2nd-3rd centuries CE) (link); Satan as Father of Lies and Heresy in the Church Fathers (2nd-4th centuries CE) (link)
  • Readings: Justin Martyr, First Apology, 1-6, 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)
  • Fishbowl discussion:

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

Week 10 (March 15): Medieval perceptions of Satan – Popular religion, heresy, witchcraft, and internal battles of the Reformations

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Satan and Demons in Everyday Life in the Middle Ages (link); Witchcraft Accusations and Pacts with the Devil (1400-1600) (link); Satan’s Home in Medieval Depictions and Dante’s Inferno (link)
  • Readings: Shinners, “Demons and Spirits,” especially pages 211-228 (link); Briggs, “Myths of the Perfect Witch,” especially pages 17-38 (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion:

**Assignment 3 (analysis of primary sources on medieval notions of demons) due before meeting**

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

Week 11 (Mar 22): From traditional (evil) Satan to modern (Ironic) Mephisto – Milton (1600s) and Goethe (1700s)

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): The Devil and Internal Struggles of the Reformation Period (1500s) (link); Milton’s Traditional Satan in Paradise Lost (1600s) (link); Goethe’s Ironic Mephistopheles (1700s-1800s) (link)
  • 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)
  • Fishbowl discussion:

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

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Satanic Imagery And Conspiracies In Modern Culture (link)
  • Readings: Frankfurter, “Experts in the Identification of Evil,” excerpts on contemporary examples and the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion:



Fishbowl discussion (first 15 minutes of meeting, students marked individually):

  • For most weeks, four or five students on their own will begin discussion of that weeks main readings in their group with the rest of us observing quietly and, eventually (after 15 minutes), joining the discussion.  Our focus questions for the course may be a guide for some issues to explore.  You will also want to show how the current week’s readings relate to other things we have been learning in the course.
  • There is no need for the group to meet or discuss things in advance.  In fact, it is preferred that you don’t since this is not a cooredinated presentation but rather a somewhat spontaneous discussion based on your own reading of the materials.

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: Reading response (2 pages double-spaced)

Life of adam and eve

Assignment 3: 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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