The devil you know: exploring literature's fascination with Satan

Written by Tom | 1st October 2020

Theologically inclined or not, you've likely heard of the devil. A manifestation of evil that takes up a different form and name depending on the cultural lens you view it through, the devil is viewed as history's arch-evil. And yet, the world's creative forces have long looked to evil for inspiration and sometimes respite. Whether it's Lucifer, Beelzebub or Satan, literature has profiled the nuance and complexity of evil and even found liberation in it, as books expert Mark Harrison explains. 

An angel of light. A horned figure with cloven hooves. A goat. Somebody that looks just like you. 

These are just some of the forms the devil has been dreamt up as, many of which are courtesy of literature, classic and contemporary. And that's without mentioning the many themes we allow the devil to represent: deception, trickery, sin. Over time, writers have reinvented and re-energized the so-called Father of Lies. But why? 

The Devil first became associated with goats in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, as noted in Matthew 25: 31-46

“Everyone likes the bad boy,” says Mark. “I guess evil has always been more interesting than goodness. Although most people aspire to be vaguely good, the notion of chaos and the 'devil may care' is more exciting ”. 

And if literature's purpose is to engage and entice then there is little more enthralling than something that represents the forbidden. Maximilian Rudwin writes in The Devil in Literature :

The fiend has never failed in fascination ... He is an everlasting fountain of pathos and poetry, a perennial power for interest, inspiration and achievement ... Whether or not we favour the belief in the devil's spiritual entity apart from man's, we always show a deep interest in his literary incarnations. All intelligent men and women, believers and unbelievers, may be assumed to hold a unanimous opinion with regard to the Fiend's fitness as a fictional character ... lacking the devil, there would simply be no literature. 

Biblical beginnings

While we often associate the devil with the Bible, he only made a brief appearance there, having made himself first known in the Old Testament. “Satan and the devil were only linked as one and the same later,” explains Mark. “'Satan' appeared early on in the Old Testament (the Torah) as subservient to Yahweh, and his role was to test the faith of the people. This was more like an agent of God. It was only later on that Satan became associated with leading people into evil ”. 

Lucifer by Gustav Dore. Wikimedia Commons

But when the devil did turn up in the Bible, his misdemeaning ways had already begun to take shape. “Where his initial purpose was to test peoples' faith in the New Testament, his role later on was to tempt people and lead them away from God. He also occasionally possessed people and caused pestilence or illness. Eventually, with the Book of Revelation, written approximately 100 years after the death of Christ, he became the ruler of the evil world during the 1000 years before the return of Christ. By this point, he was seen as the root of all evil in the world ”. 

Lucifer's literary evolution

For the all-menacing, all-despairing figure the devil was supposed to represent, he managed to provide a healthy dose of comic relief in medieval times. After all, evil looks a lot less intimidating when reality is already dire. “[Seeing Satan as a comedic figure] was partly a reaction to living conditions at the time - well, plague and death! People needed something to laugh at, ”explains Mark. “Medieval mystery plays had some pretty heavy content (life, death, everlasting salvation or damnation), so in between these bits, you needed a bit of levity. And the devil provided this. The devil was not as important or as scary in early medieval theology. It was later, with witchcraft and demonic possession, when the devil became a more significant masthead for evil ”.

Paradise Lost as illustrated by Gustav Dore. Wikimedia Commons

The devil's literary breakthrough arguably came at the hands of two of history's most celebrated literary figures: Dante Alighieri and John Milton. But where Dante's epic poem, Inferno, is more preoccupied with Hell, the world of Satan, Milton's Lucifer provided audiences with the first glimpse of the devil as a redeeming figure.

“Dante's Inferno was an allegory to look at all the different ways that society sinned and was imperfect,” explains Mark “In Milton's Paradise Lost, the idea of ​​God's favourite who destroyed himself by his fatal flaw is similar to many heroes of Greek literature. The anti-hero is a very classical idea. So Milton was drawing on this to a large extent ”. 

A symbol of rebellion, liberation and humanity

Dante and Milton weren't the only literary greats to look to the devil - William Blake used Lucifer as a symbol of rebellion while Marlowe's Doctor Faustus examines the question of liberation versus damnation. His ability to represent a variety of causes explains why he was so popular at times when Christian tradition dominated the Western world. In a world of absolutism, anything not with the Christians was against them - and almost always the work of the devil. This capacity to become a mouthpiece and a patron for other voices gave writers and people the chance to express themselves and do so justifiably. 

The devil became a vessel for making veiled critiques against the ruling institutions of the time. Wikimedia 

“The devil was often used as a way of making social or political criticism and blasphemous statements, at a time when all of these were likely to get you into a lot of trouble. Say that kings should be punished for misrule and you'd get into much trouble. But if it's the devil who's saying it, then you'd get away with it ”. 

Scholars have argued, for instance, that Milton's Lucifer and his rebellion against God was used as a means to criticize the monarch's sweeping power and stand as an envoy for Republicanism. If these views were taboo at the time for Milton, Lucifer allowed them to surface; representing the quashed chorus of voices that was the will of the people. Philosopher William Goodwin expands on this thought in An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice

But why did he rebel against his maker? It was ... because he saw no sufficient reason for that extreme inequality of rank and power, which the creator assumed. He bore his torments with fortitude because he disdained to be subdued by despotic power. 

Beyond rebellion, the devil in literature has been a way to liberate voices and ultimately interrogate what it means to be good and human. As Robin Kirkpatrick notes in his introduction to Inferno: “Evil is not a self-existent principle. It exists only as a silhouette of goodness ”. 

The devil in literature is flawed, fascinating and complex. Wikimedia Commons. 

Perhaps that's where the fascination lies. When it comes to theological lore, it's far easier to relate to a flawed, fallen angel than it is to an almighty, all-knowing deity. Readers see a part of themselves in the character and are drawn to that.

If literature tells us anything it is that through evil, we learn about the adversity of being human. And in the devil, we learn how to face it. 


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