Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself: On The Origins of the Devil

10-13 minutes 10/26/2022


For as long as humans have been able to tell one another stories, there have been tales of malevolent and chaotic spirits. The world was full of distressing events that people could not understand—whether it was famine by blights or deaths from mysterious internal causes. To explain life’s most fearful elements, cultures worldwide developed the idea of superhuman beings that sometimes preyed on humanity and engineered misfortunes. As a means of countering these malicious forces, many invoked protection from benevolent gods through prayers and rituals. Such early spiritual traditions also helped uphold the social order: whenever there was conflict, those in power could put the blame on demons.

Cultures and religions around the globe have long imagined Devil-like figures—from the Mayan death gods that lorded over a frightful underworld, to China’s Yanluo Wang, who judged the deceased before the gates of Hell. The roots of Satanism, however, are embedded in the character of Satan in Judeo-Christian theology. But the Prince of Darkness wasn’t created in a vacuum: his conceptualization drew from numerous faiths and folklores, and these influences were crossbred and elaborated over the centuries to form the Devil we know today.

In particular, the religions of the ancient Near East directly shaped the development of the biblical Satan. Babylonian and Canaanite myths spoke of a creator god who battled a sea monster, and a variation of this narrative later appeared in the biblical tale of Leviathan. The Egyptians had a rich pantheon of morally ambiguous deities, meaning that each god had qualities of both good and evil. Set—the god of violence and disorder—skewed closer to the latter and likely inspired the personification of Satan. Ancient Egyptians also conceived of a Hell-like underworld called duat where souls were judged after death. Jackal-headed Anubis weighed human hearts against a feather, and those that were heavier were tortured and consumed by fire or hungry demons.

Likewise, the ancient Greeks had morally ambiguous gods and believed that the dead were ferried across the River Styx to the subterranean abode of Hades. Many of Satan’s visual qualities can be traced to Pan, the goatlike god of fertility and shepherds, who indulged in carnal pleasures in the wild.

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Perhaps the Devil’s closest forebear comes from Zoroastrianism, which is the oldest recorded religion to conceive of the world in dualist terms (the eternal opposition of good versus evil and Heaven versus Hell). The Persian prophet Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, taught of a supreme creator god, Ahura Mazda, which stood for goodness and light and was supported by heavenly deities. His antithesis was the destructive Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman, who dwelled in darkness with his demonic army and sometimes appeared in the form of a snake. Zoroastrianism taught that humans had free will and could choose which of the two to follow. Those who hailed Ahriman were doomed to fall into an eternal darkness of “bad food and lamentation.”


Over time, this pantheon of dark spiritual progenitors directly and indirectly contributed to the emergence of the Judeo-Christian Satan. Although the concept of the Devil came to be integral to Christian interpretations of the Bible, it is difficult to find a coherent description of his biography, personality, and role in its books. Rather, Satan’s story was assembled over the millennia as theologians and writers scoured the scattered references in biblical passages and reinterpreted them through the lenses of other doctrines and legends.

Satan makes his debut in the texts that ended up forming the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, which was written approximately between 1200 and 165 BCE. (The Christian Old Testament contains nearly the same materials but arranged in a different order.) In these early works, he is not the powerful ruler of Hell but merely an angelic servant of Yahweh, the God of Israel and Judah. Satan’s name is derived from the Hebrew root śtn, which refers to one who acts as an adversary or accuser. Rather than describing an individual named Satan, the Hebrew Bible used the noun hassatan (“the satan”) to mean an adversary, as well as to describe any angel in an oppositional role.

In the book of Numbers, Yahweh sends “the satan” to block the path of Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet who embarks on a journey in opposition to divine will. The angelic emissary blocks the path of Balaam’s donkey, which bolts off the path and lies down to avoid the invisible nemesis. Since Balaam cannot see hassatan, the prophet grows angry and whips his animal for being a “smart ass.” That’s when “the satan” reveals himself and explains his divine role as an adversary. Awed, Balaam repents and agrees to do as the Lord commands.

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In the book of Job, hassatan is an officer in Yahweh’s heavenly council and demonstrates his role as an objector for the first time. “The satan” questions whether the devout and prosperous Job is serving the Lord only because the man is blessed with divine favor. With the Lord’s permission, “the satan” tests Job’s faith by taking his wealth, killing his children in a mighty wind, and inflicting sores all over his body. Despite his immense suffering, Job stays loyal to God and his good fortune is restored, proving hassatan wrong.

Satan becomes a proper name in the New Testament, which was written approximately between 50 and 100 ACE. The Scriptures describe a single adversary who still operates under divine control but now has a greater and more powerful role as the enemy of Jesus Christ and humankind. The Devil appears to the son of God during his fast in the wilderness and tempts him to turn stones into loaves of bread. Later, the Devil takes Jesus to a mountaintop and promises Jesus worldly power if he bows down to Satan. Each time, Jesus calls out, “Away with you, Satan!” and banishes his tempter.

The book of Revelation gives the fullest account of Satan as the harbinger of evil, portraying him through the terrifying visions of the apocalyptic war that he wages against God and his angels. The Devil appears in the hideous form of a great red dragon and gives authority to a beast that comes from the sea and one that comes from the earth. The latter has two horns and is described as the false prophet associated with the number 666. (While most people think it is the Devil’s number, 666 was the number of the beast and works out in Hebrew numerology to signify Nero, the cruel Roman emperor who persecuted early Christians.) At the end of Revelation, the archangel Michael conquers Satan and casts him down from Heaven. The Devil is bound for one thousand years, then is briefly set free and wages a final battle against God. Ultimately, Satan and his demons are defeated and hurled into the lake of fire and brimstone to spend eternity there.

Satan’s character is barely sketched out in the Bible. Many now-widespread ideas about his origins and evildoings were developed later through extrabiblical texts, theological treatises, and folk and morality tales. For instance, in the Jewish tradition, the cunning serpent that tempts Eve is simply a talking snake. However, starting in the first century CE, some Christians reinterpreted book of Genesis to suggest that the serpent was the Devil in disguise, enticing Adam and Eve to taste the fruit from the tree of knowledge.

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This retroactive reading of the Scriptures helps explain a paradox: if God is omnipotent and wholly good, then why is there suffering in the world that he made and has the power to change? Christians can come to terms with this contradiction by blaming Satan for leading innocents astray. Since humans have free will, they may decide to follow the Devil into wickedness. However, Christians believe Satan is not God’s equal and can operate only within the limits set forth by his divine will. In other words, God allows the villain to amuse himself on Earth for some time, but the Devil will inevitably be conquered and confined to Hell.

In contrast to this dominant narrative, a modern Satanist can consider the same Genesis passages and metaphor ically interpret them from an empowering, feminist point of view. This alternative reading suggests that Eve considered herself equal to her husband and sought knowledge unfairly denied to her by God. By courageously eating the fruit, she refused to be subjugated by arbitrary authority. From this perspective, Eve should be commended for listening to the Devil’s wise words and standing up for herself, rather than be disparaged for her “original sin.”

Besides the Devil himself, there are a few other figures from the Judeo-Christian tradition who are linked to Satanism:

It is important to note that most Satanists do not believe in the existence of any of these supernatural figures, let alone worship them. Regardless, Satanists may find insight in a diabolical analysis of biblical materials that refutes the Christian narrative that many grew up with. Rereading the Scriptures can help them contextualize a universe that felt imposed upon them and find resolve in the Devil and his infernal comrades.

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Excerpted from The Little Book of Satanism by La Carmina. Copyright © 2022 Ulysses Press. Reprinted with permission from Ulysses Press. New York, NY. All rights reserved.