• Arthur Bruso

Disempowering the Devil

Updated: Jan 24


Printed, die cut and embossed paper. c.1900, each head 2 1/8" h x 5 5/8" w

The devil has worn many guises throughout history, from God’s Questioner in the Book of Job to the suave deceiver Mephistopheles of Faust. In this essay I take a look at how fortunes of Satan have waxed and waned through time. From the cosmic duality of the Mesopotamian world view, to Satan’s swift rise in power during the witch hysteria in the Early Modern Period, and down through his decline after the Enlightenment.


An Ancient Duality

There are evils, taboos, wrongs and disasters in all societies. The Christian concept of good and evil was influenced by the ancient Mesopotamian belief that the world is separated onto the dualities of Marduk (the force of Order in the world) and Tiamat (the force of Chaos in the world). In the Mesopotamian world view, Marduk (order), armed with the arrows of the winds, a net, a club, and an invincible spear overcame Tiamat (chaos), and dismembered her body to create heaven, earth and the rivers of Mesopotamian world. To the Mesopotamians, Marduk created order out of chaos. Tiamat was the chaotic, raw material that the new creation was made out of. This duality of an all-powerful creator and what was created influenced the later Israelites thought about an all-powerful God who created a world in seven days out of a formless void.

The ancient Jewish concept of an evil entity in constant conflict with the god of creation was defined by the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism whose main deities were Ahura Mazda (illuminating wisdom) and Angra Maniyu (destructive spirit) who were constantly warring with each other. Angra Maniyu as the spirit of destruction became the prototype of the Jewish Adversary and later the Christian Satan who both were depicted as working against the will of God.

A New Evil is Born

The Adversary or Accuser of Jewish belief is the yetzer hara or the human inclination to do evil and violate the will of God. It is not a particular being or a personification of an idea that is in opposition to God. In Judaism, yetzer hara is man’s tendency to misuse the things needed for survival. Therefore, the need to eat can become gluttony, or sexual arousal can become promiscuity. In Jewish thought, man is inclined to do both good and evil. It is a choice that each person has free will over. The Early Christians misunderstood the appearances of the Accuser/Adversary in the Abrahamic Old Testament scriptures not as the concept of the yetzer hara, but instead deified the Adversary/Accuser into an entity that can tempt people into sinful actions against God’s Law. This is where the idea of sin became incarnated into the entity that has become known as Satan or the Devil.

The Creation of Devils

The ancient scriptural Book of Enoch provided an interpretation of all these Middle Eastern legends and spiritual ideas. By tradition, the Book of Enoch is believed to be written by Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah and considered by the faithful to be a pre-flood religious document. It contains the stories of the fall of the rebel angels, the creation of demons, an explanation of the necessity of the Great Flood and a prediction of the coming of the Messiah. The Book of Enoch provides a persistent folkloric explanation that fed the origins of the Christian idea of devils and Satan by its story of the Fall of the Rebel Angels and its description of the creation of demons. Initially, the Book of Enoch was accepted by the Early Christian fathers as scripture. It was included in the canonical texts mainly because it was quoted in the New Testament book of Jude. Whether the Book of Enoch had been divinely inspired was later questioned because of the many conflicts it had with accepted doctrine. By the 4th century, it was deemed apocryphal and subsequently omitted from the Bible (except in the Ethiopian Christian communities). It is a widespread belief that the Christians invented Satan as a way of personifying evil, but the force we consider evil has always existed and exercised its power on all of mankind. The Christians simply personified and gave their own name to the pervasive negative energy that plagues mankind and the world.

Slithering Out of Eden

It was not a great leap for the Early Christians to equate the evils attributed by the Adversary/Accuser, or devils in the Old Testament with their idea of Satan. From the temptation in the Garden of Eden in Genesis (Genesis 3), the Adversary in the Book of Job (Job 1-2), the devil that rose up against David in 1 Chronicles (1 Chronicles 21:1), and the dispute between Satan and the Angel of the Lord in Zechariah (Zechariah 3:1-2) each provide a base for the force in opposition to God. Then in Isaiah, the reference to Lucifer (Isaiah 14) was interpreted by the church fathers Origen and Jerome as the moment Lucifer/Satan was expelled from heaven. Once the existence of Satan and his devils were established in the Old Testament by Early Christian theology, it was easier to include and describe his misdeeds in the New Testament. Cited by a variety of epithets in the Gospels of the New Testament, Satan was depicted as working against God and God’s plan for the world and humankind including, tempting Christ, several instances of demonic possession, as well as having a major role in the Revelation of St. John. The Revelation of St. John depicts the second coming of Christ and the end of the world in which Satan and evil is finally conquered. It becomes the source of much of the visual imagery of Satan and demons.


For all of the Church Fathers development of the theology of Christianity, the early Christian practitioners were mainly concerned with maintaining their piety through self-sacrifice, virginity and martyrdom as the true road to the promised Paradise. Satan as an entity was not a priority and remained ambiguous. The primary tenant that was believed and followed, was that God had dominion over all of humankind, including their transgressions. The idea of keeping the soul pure arose from the belief that the end of the world was at hand and Christ was returning imminently to judge mankind. Satan as the Adversary working against God was still an evolving Biblical concept. It was only after the fall of the Roman Empire and the Northern European invasion into Roman territories that the Christian missionaries, trying to convert the invaders found that they had to modify their doctrine. One God who had dominion over good and evil made no sense to peoples who believed in a spiritual dichotomy. This caused the Christians to redefine Satan’s role from Job’s questioner and doubter, into a full-fledged enemy of God’s authority, who fought for the control and sometimes possession of human souls. And as Christianity is a religion of the book; God’s Word as dictated to humankind, the necessity of Satan being something more frightening and threatening became important for the missionaries to show God’s power over sin and wickedness.


First a Dark Angel

In the book of Matthew (25: 31-33) there is this passage that describes what will happen at the Last Judgement:


“31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:

32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:

33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.”


This passage from the New Testament sets the concept that the pious followers of God’s Word would receive their reward at the Last Judgement, while the sinners who ignored or worked against God’s Word would be prepared to be punished by first being refused the heavenly Paradise He promised to the faithful. The pious were described as sheep and put on His right side. The sinners placed on the left were described as goats. In the Basilica of St. Apollinaris, Ravenna, Italy there is a 6th century mosaic that illustrates St. Matthews description of the Last Judgement. It is considered the first visual depiction of Satan in Christian iconography. The image depicts Christ returning to judge the human souls. He is flanked on the right by a red angel of Heaven and on the left by a blue angel of Hell. The only difference in the appearances of the two angels is their color.


Christ dividing the sheep from the goats. Mosaic. Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy, 6th century.

The notion that the right is good while the left is bad, has its origins in the daily cycle of the sun, with the East being the place of the rising sun, while the West is the place of the setting sun. When a person positions themselves facing the North Star, the East become right, while the West is left. Therefore, right is associated with light, the rising sun and increase, while left is associated with darkness, the setting sun and decrease. By extension, this polarity took on the meaning of the right or light side as being the side of goodness and favor, while the left or dark side was associated with enmity and evil.


Since the beginning of Neolithic Mediterranean pastoralism, sheep have been regarded as a symbol of renewal and the victory of life over death because lambs are born pure white and during the renewal of early Spring. With their apparent purity and guilelessness, the newborn lambs, were considered especially appropriate as sacrifices to the various deities. It was assumed that offerings to the gods should be the most sacred and pure of their kind. The symbolism of purity and sinlessness was applied to Christ in scripture as the Lamb of God, who in in His perfection was sacrificed for the sins of man.


Francesco Zuccarelli, "Bacchanal," 1740 - 1750, oil on canvas, 55.9 ″h x 82.6 ″w, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, Italy

Conversely, goats are a symbol of all that is unclean. They have indiscriminate eating habits; a strong, unpleasant odor; and are hypersexual when in season. For Early Christians, the goat’s association with the cult of Dionysus cast a pall. The followers of Dionysus were known for their celebration of wine, drunkenness, violence and sexual licentiousness which was in direct opposition to the Christian ideal of virginity and sobriety. In Classical art Dionysus’ worshipers were often depicted reveling with such fun-loving nature spirits as pans, fauns, and satyrs. Pans and fauns were conceived as half goat, half human pastoral entities with the goat’s constant interest in frivolity and mating. Satyrs were conceived by the Greeks as a mixture of horse and human and disposed to wisdom, while being continuously sexually frustrated. Through time and the Roman assimilation, satyrs took on goat-like attributes of pans and fauns and became associated with and interchangeable with them. It is in the Gospel of Mathew that the image of evil as a goat first hit the Christian imagination. For the Church, the goat became equated with sin and a symbol of our failure with our Christian covenant with God.

Gislebertus - Last Judgment (detail). 1130-1145. Stone. Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, Autun, France

A Grotesque Transformation

By the Medieval period the innocuous and amorphous image of the Devil as the Adversary became corrupted into a more distinct vision of sin and deceit. The Medieval devil was a being that emphasized the bestial nature allowed to flourish without holiness. Unlike our more modern concept, Satan did not always conform to the goat standardization we now have come to accept. In the Medieval mind Satan was often depicted as a creature constructed from the dangerous or grotesque parts of other animals including but not limited to the diabolical goat. Be he hairy, scaly, cloven hoofed or with webbed amphibious feet, he was always a mixture of animal and human. The more repulsive the depiction, the better to show that his sin had transformed him wholly. His grotesque visage was to serve as a fearful and dire warning to the faithful that this hideous monster could be the eternal tormentor of all sinners. Satan epitomized the unenlightened and base nature that humans were promised to conquer if they followed the Christian teachings. Further, Satan was not yet conceived as a wanderer of the Earth seeking souls to damn for eternity. Instead, he was usually depicted as the stationary ruler of Hell who received the damned into his Inferno especially during the events of the Weighing of Souls as part of the Last Judgement. The Last Judgement was the major vehicle for the depiction of Satan. There he was enthroned as the king of Hell, devouring the souls of sinners and defecating them out only for them to be swallowed again in never ending torment. Depictions of the Last Judgement were popular in Medieval art. They were often placed at the entrances to cathedrals or chapels as a first impression and appeal to the conscious of the faithful to consider their soul’s ultimate fate. In an evolution from the dark angel of Lucifer’s first appearance in the 6th century mosaic in the Basilica of St. Apollinaris, he became a dark figure of a man in control of his realm of fire, devouring the souls of the damned sent by the angels of God as depicted in the mosaic of the late 11th century, early 12th century Last Judgement in the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice, Italy.


Last Judgement, Feeding the Damned into Hell,12th-century Byzantine mosaic, cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice, Italy

Dante’s Inferno Sets the Stage

It was Dante in the 12th Century, when describing him in the Inferno, who solidified the image of Satan as a hideous creature, deformed by his hubris and deceit:

“The emperor of the kingdom of despair

Rose up from mid-chest out of the sheer ice;

30 And I come closer to a giant’s height


Than giants match the size of his huge arms:

See now how large the whole of him must be

If it’s proportionate to that one part!


Were he once as beautiful as now he’s ugly

35 (And yet he raised his fist against his Maker!)

Well may all our grief come down from him!


Oh how much wonder was it for me when

I saw that on his head he had three faces:

One in front — and it was fiery red —


40 And two others, which joined onto this one

Above the center of his shoulder blades,

And all three came together at his crown.


The right face seemed halfway white and yellow

While the left one looked the color of the race

45 That lives close to the source of the Nile.


Beneath each face there sprouted two large wings,

Suitably massive for such a bird of prey:

I never sighted sails so broad at sea.


They had no feathers but looked just like a bat’s,

50 And he kept flapping these wings up and down

So that three winds moved out from in around him:


This was the cause Cocytus was all iced.

With six eyes he wept, and from his three chins

Dripped down the teardrops and a bloody froth.


55 In each mouth he mashed up a separate sinner

With his sharp teeth, as if they were a grinder,

And in this way he put the three through torture.


For the one in front, the biting was as nothing

Compared to the clawing, for at times his back

60 Remained completely stripped bare of its skin.”



Nardo di Cione, Hell (north wall), 1354-57, Fresco, Cappella Strozzi, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

Dante’s Inferno provided the ultimate template for Satan and the lasting blueprint for the layout of Hell and its torments. Throughout the Late Medieval and early Renaissance eras, the Devil took on many horrific guises, after Dante, images of Satan based on his particular description became more frequent in art. His division of Hell into various circles of greater punishment to match the greater mortal transgressions of sin became the Catholic vision of the unredeemed soul’s afterlife. This is shown to great effect by the 1350 -1357 fresco on the north wall of the Chapel Strozzi in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence of Hell by Nardo di Cione. But the image of Satan was changing. As the Renaissance approached with its interests in the classical past, the demonization of Pan began to affect the Catholic vision of baseness. The c. 12th century, the mosaic of the Last Judgement on the ceiling of the Baptistry of San Giovanni in Florence shows Satan has now sprouted horns. This becomes the first obvious depiction in Western art of his hircine ancestry and a throwback to the lascivious fauns and satyrs that occupied the Classical interests of the Renaissance mind.

From the golden calf in the book of Exodus (Exodus 32:1-16), to Pan of classical antiquity and Cernunnos of Celtic mythology, deities with horns have been symbolic of a transgression into our basest natures. Horns are symbolic of undisciplined sexuality, since they emulate the form and thrust of the penis, coupled with the violence of the animal’s charge. They became an attribute of Satan because they symbolize his transformation from the angel Lucifer to the Devil. Horns are the indication that Lucifer had relinquished his glory and grace by his fall and illustrate how far into degradation he had regressed. As fearsome and worrying as the image of Satan was at this time, he gained his full power of destruction and corruption during the Inquisition and Witch Hysteria of the Early Modern Era (c.1500 – c.1800).


Mosaic, 11th century Baptistry or Baptistery dedicated to St John the Baptist, interior showing the cupola with Satan eating the sinners, Florence, Tuscany, Italy

Finding the Door to Hell

The Inquisition that began in the 12th century within the Catholic Church was originally intended to combat heresy. There was no interest in witchcraft, since the mainstream Christian doctrine condemned it as pagan superstition. People who believed or practiced witchcraft were considered delusional, but not heretical. It was the Church’s view that God held control over all of man’s actions and that the ability for any mortal person to gain power from the Devil was impossible. But, in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas laid the groundwork for a change in this doctrine. Aquinas argued that the Devil was a tangible being who could assail men with the permission of God. Therefore, a heretic could also be a person who had given himself over to the wishes of the Devil. Aquinas decided further that all sin was as a result of the Devil and his demons tempting man with power and false miracles. This was a slight, but important change in the theology. Aquinas still claimed the ultimate power over man rests with God, but he definitely gave a greater power to Satan than the Church had done before and moved witchcraft toward the crime of heresy by defining heresy as looking to Satan for power rather than accepting God’s will.


With Aquinas’ change in theological thinking, the door to Hell was cracked open and the Devil began to take his first tentative steps in his new kingdom on Earth. Around 1474, the Dominican monk Heinrich Kramer was appointed Inquisitor of Tyrol, Salzburg, Bohemia and Moravia. At first his tireless activity within his jurisdiction and his eloquence in the pulpit brought him recognition from Rome and the admiration of the Archbishop of Salzburg. But eventually, his preoccupation with defining witchcraft and sorcery as consorting with, and gaining power from the Devil, and therefore the crime of heresy, began to become problematical. On a trip to Innsbruck as the head of an inquisitorial commission, he ran afoul of Helena Scheuberin, the wife of a prominent burgher. Scheuberin was outspoken in her dislike for Kramer and cursed him publicly. She would not attend his sermons and encouraged others to keep away as well. Kramer retaliated by accusing Scheuberin of witchcraft and brought her to trial. Ostensibly, Scheuberin was accused of using diabolical magic to inflict a fatal illness on a knight who was infatuated with her. But Kramer’s trial focused heavily on Scheuberin’s sex life, leading the bishop to accuse Kramer of presuming too much which could not be proven. In the end, Kramer’s animosity and indiscreet interests toward Scheuberin, as well as the Church’s (and the legal authorities) position that sorcery was a minor offense, and not associated with heresy or Satan, resulted in her acquittal. Ending the events of Scheuberin’s trial did not end Kramer’s interest in the matter. Dissatisfied with the verdict, Kramer stayed in Innsbruck to continue his investigations into Scheuberin and tried to find recourse to accuse her again of heresy through his belief in her consorting with the Devil. This continued obsession with the Scheuberin case caused the bishop of Innsbruck to expel him from the town. Kramer returned to Cologne, his city of origin, where he wrote a treatise on witchcraft as a direct revenge piece against Scheuberin which he later expanded into the Malleus Maleficarum.


The Inquisitor’s Instruction Book


Heinrich Institoris, Malleus maleficarum (First Edition)

Upon its publication in 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum was condemned for proposing unethical and illegal procedures in dealing with witchcraft and being inconsistent with Catholic doctrine on demonology. Against the prevailing Christian teachings, the book continued Kramer’s mission to elevate sorcery and witchcraft to the (then) criminal status of heresy by trying to insist that witches received their power from associating with Satan and turning away from God. Unrelenting, Kramer intensely promoted his book and the connection of witchcraft and Satan through his sermons. His prestige grew and his expertise on witch trials had him a frequent consultant on such matters. His fame was such that in 1500 he was appointed a special ecclesiastical diplomat and reinstated as inquisitor to Bohemia. Kramer died in 1505, but through his ruthless efforts, the Malleus Maleficarum went through 13 editions by 1520.


Kramer’s book became the authoritative source on witchcraft and Satanism and became the accepted guide on how to defend against satanic forces. His book explained in detail how Satan would lure women into sin and how the witches would work in concert with the Devil to recruit new souls. It was explicit in detail of how witches after trading their souls to the Devil to gain their power could cast spells. It also offered remedies that could be used to counter these spells. It gave explicit instructions on how to prosecute witches, including the initiation of the charges, assembling the accusations, interrogation with torture and formal sentencing of the accused.


Woodcut from "The History of Witches and Wizards" 1720

While Aquinas had pushed the door to Hell ajar, Heinrich Kramer, with his Malleus Maleficarum as the key, flung the portal open wide. From 1500 to 1630 the Devil and his minions ran rampant. During this time an estimated 50,000 persons were tortured and executed as witches. Fueled by the Protestant Reformation, food shortages, war, and disease, Satan, with witches as his assistants in his diabolical schemes to subdue mankind into surrendering their souls to Hell, became the convenient perceived source for all of the troubles that were plaguing European society during these turbulent times. Women took the brunt of the hysteria as at least 80% of those put to death were women. This time of the Early Modern Period of Europe was a time of great social change and uncertainty. The Protestant Reformation shook loose the firm grasp the Catholic Church had on the minds and souls of the population and started a new doxology and way of thinking about the spiritual. Everywhere people were wondering where God was to let these unchecked evils run rampant through their lives. Answers were needed and scapegoats were sought in the absence of facts. Once torture was seen as an effective method to gain confessions and rout out other perpetrators through forced accusations, there was little to stop the finger pointing. The more names the inquisitor received, the more they wanted. It wasn’t enough for those arrested to recant their sins; they were forced to give explicit and vivid detail about their consorting with demons. The courts wanted to know exactly how the demons looked, the demonic procedures done, what ghastly food was offered at the Sabbaths, and especially, detailed and titillating accounts about sexual intercourse with the Devil. In the hope of gaining freedom and escaping the torture, most of the accused complied. But this was a vain hope, since the more that was “confessed” the more it sealed their fate. It wasn’t all in the name of the preservation of souls and curtailing the Devil’s influence. When the Catholic Church decided that the horror had grown out of proportion to their intentions, they began to put an end to the proceedings. However, there was still a desire to quell the imagined evils of Satan, so inquisitors became independent agents. The fees for these independent inquisitors was a percentage of the victim’s wealth. This led to greed becoming another factor in the perpetuation of the atrocities.


Frontispiece of the "Historia von D. Johann Fausten," published in 1587

Satan Gets a Makeover

At the same time as the witch hysteria was taking place, a new story began circulating. The Historia von D. Johann Fausten was first published by an anonymous author in 1587. Ostensibly, the Historia von D. Johann Fausten was about the historical figure of Johann Faust, an itinerant magician and alchemist in the early 1500s who had developed an unsavory reputation in southern Germany by performing astrology readings and magic tricks (he claimed that he could reproduce all of the miracles of Christ). He had been denounced by the Church as a charlatan, blasphemer and in league with the devil. He died in 1540 or 1541 in an explosion that occurred during an alchemical experiment which horribly mutilated his body. This circumstance was interpreted by his enemies as the Devil coming to collect his soul as his contractual due. The legends about him grew through word of mouth and became more fantastic with the retelling. By the time the first chapbook was written in 1587, the tale of Dr. Faust had become a tale of warning to the readers of the sin and dangers of acquiring knowledge beyond what was necessary, of entering into contracts with the devil and engaging in sorcery.

Woodcut of a 1620 printing of Doctor Faustus showing Faustus conjuring Mephistophilis.


Besides the moral applications, what the story of Dr. Faust’s diabolical pact and downfall offered the world, was to enter into the artistic canon the new character of Mephistopheles. He was a new demon that Faust conjured up to bargain his soul with for all knowledge and a return to youth. Mephistopheles was not in the canon of demonology before the Faust stories. He was created for the stories to be a particular kind of tempter. His name translates to “scatterer of lies,” and his particular skill was to get his victims to make bad decisions by convincing them that they were good decisions and the victim’s own. He gained trust by sympathizing with the victim and gaining their confidence. He seemed to be looking out for their best interests and by warning them that what they were about to do might have consequences, but it was all a ruse. This new devil used flattery and psychology to get the victim to trap themselves.


Woodcuts from a Dutch version of the Faust chapbook. c.1590 Image 1. Faust first meets Mephistopheles. Image 2. Mephistopheles appears as a monk and reveals his name. Image 3. Faust signs the diabolical pack.

Eugene Delacroix, "First Meeting between Faust and Mephistopheles: `Why all this Noise?'" from Goethe's Faust, 1828, lithograph, Bibliotheque des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France

In the original Faust stories, Mephistopheles appeared several times over the course of many nights before he convinced Faust to sign the pact that would pledge Faust’s soul to Satan. During these visits, Mephistopheles took on a different shape each time. Most incarnations were depicted as the usual conception of a devil: grotesque with various animal characteristics and in the illustrations of the story, always with horns. On the night he convinced Faust to pledge his soul away, in a nadir of blasphemy he appeared as a monk and finally divulged his name. It is part of the lore of demonology, that a person cannot have control over a demon until he gets the demon to tell his name. In occult thought, names are inextricably bound with identity and are an important factor for binding a supernatural entity.

In later retellings of the Faust story, especially during the Romantic period (1800 – 1850) Mephistopheles was recast as the suave, educated, sympathetic, sophisticate; well dressed, and still possessing the silver gift of persuasion and deception. This cast Mephistopheles as a new kind of modern demon, less of a frightening, crude bully and more of a conman, who uses guile to subdue and ensnare; a devil of slower, more refined and selected temptations, and a perfect character for literature and opera. This Mephistopheles was created for an age that had come to see Satan and his minions as toothless superstition and had become immune to his obvious horrors but were still persuaded that life had morality and redemption. In the original Faust story, Faust in the end pays his debt to the devil and for his sins by being taken to Hell. For the Romantics, this end could not stand if God was forgiving and just. Instead, Faust was allowed to repent and ask forgiveness on his death bed as a host of angels carry his repentant soul to Paradise and Satan cheated.



Satan Begins to Lose Power

After the unrelenting darkness and fire of the Inquisition there came the light, glory and growth of the mind with the Renaissance, and the expansion of the world with the Age of Discovery. Mankind was entertaining new knowledge and new ideas. The Church tried to hold onto its grip of control by condemning the new discoveries as against God, but with the Protestant Reformation taking hold, its power was tenuous. We had had a glimpse of something radical and new. The old fears could not hold us back when there were new enticing worlds to conquer across the sea, in our minds and even in the heavens. The fear of the devil and his Hell could not keep us from whatever was out there. The church tried. It forced Galileo to recant his discoveries of the stars and planets. They excommunicated Martin Luther and declared him a heretic. They instituted the Counter Reformation in an attempt to address the excesses of the clergy and instituted reforms for priests and monasteries. Pastoral care was instituted to bring the Catholic Church doctrine out to the laity and gain back some control. But the deed was done. Now only truth could quench the thirst for knowledge.


In 1687 Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica where he laid out in mathematical terms the laws of motion, mechanics, gravitation and the movements of planets. Newton redefined physics as constant and provable and the Age of Enlightenment was born. God did not run the heavens, gravity did. This could now be proven by facts and equations. Superstition and religion were questioned by philosophers and the idea of atheism was bantered. Yet the greatest thinkers of the time, while willing to ignore miracles, angels, and the resurrection of Jesus, were not ready to drop all belief in God. Voltaire held that without belief in a God who punishes evil, the moral order of society would be undermined. Philosopher John Locke believed that if there were no God or divine law, the result would be anarchy. Religion was seen as a stabilizing force for society and a necessary deterrent of evil.


The gates of Hell were not closed so much as erased as they disappeared with sleight of hand. Hell was no longer a fearsome alternative for the punishment of sin, but an imaginative reverie for debauched thoughts. Satan and the Black Mass became a plaything of the elite, a sort of entertainment to relieve the boredom of the drawing room. Satan became specialized and fetishized, abandoning the hovels of the poor and finding a welcome in the laps of the wealthy through events such as the French court’s scandal of the Affair of the Poisons and the British elites Hellfire clubs.

The Affair of the Poisons had members of Louis the XIV court holding Black Masses and buying spells and poisons from a witch (La Voisin) who was reputed to be in partnership with Satan. The witch had convinced them that through these methods, it would be possible for them to remove those obstacles that prevented their advancement at court or eliminate people who blocked their way to desired spouses or lovers. It was all in good fun, yet King Louis XIV was very concerned about any public and social scandal the Affair might bring to his reign. In a show to restore order to his court, he ordered the execution of 36 people involved with the Affair.


The Hellfire clubs were a number of secret societies formed by the elite of Britain and Ireland for the purpose of secret debauchery, black masses and pagan rituals – this was their rumored purpose. Their true intent was unclear. However, they often claimed Satan as their president as a satirical jab to mock religion. Through these and other dissipations of the high born, Satan was diminished to a show and a lap dog. His power had been reduced to fun and satire. Never again would the Devil have the power he wielded during the Inquisition to claim so many souls from God. To be sure, in the 19th century there was a resurgence of interest in Satanism through the books of Montague Summers, but it remained an esoteric interest. Aside from a few folk superstitions, for the 19th century general population, the devil was an annoying imp that caused pots to boil over in the kitchen, tempted one’s spouse into affairs or to be trotted out on Halloween as a companion to the witch and a disguise to confuse the wandering spirits.


A Sentimental Satan

The mechanization of the printing press and paper embossing in the 1830’s made color printing affordable and contributed to the Victorian fad of scrap collecting. Any appealing image could be and was collected and pasted into scrap books. As the pastime gained in popularity, entrepreneurs began creating pieces that were created expressly for collecting and designed special books for keeping the scrap. Many of these images were holiday based, especially Christmas, Easter and Valentines Day. These holidays appealed to the Victorian zeal for sentimentality. Halloween was a holiday that was mainly confined to Ireland and England and did not gain popularity through the rest of Europe. For most of the Catholic Continent there was still too much of the Enlightenment rationality for allowing the idea of the imps of Hades to run about even for one night. They preferred to celebrate the Church sanctioned All Saints/All Souls Day that was intended to replace and sanctify the pagan and diabolical celebration of death.

Halloween was imported to the United States in the late 19th century by Irish immigrants. The holiday was assimilated into mainstream American culture by the turn of the 20th century. Devils were originally rampant in Halloween imagery as it was the belief that ghosts, and devils were afoot to make mischief on this particular day. Folklore had it that all cross-quarter days like Halloween (the halfway mark between the solstices and equinoxes ) were the times of the witches sabbath, and so, days of devilry. Imagery for Halloween was rare until the 1920s when Halloween took a leap in popularity. Still, among the harvest and fortune telling postcards that were sent by the Victorian Halloween celebrants, devils can be seen cavorting in the innocent pranks that were allowed for this celebration.


Left: Raphael Tuck & Sons "Hallowe'en" Post Card Series 160. Printed, embossed paper, 5.5 h x 3.5" w, c. 1910. Right: Fortune telling postcard, Printed paper, c. early 1900s with art copyright of 1810, 5.5 by 3.5 inches


A rare example of Victorian die-cut scrap of devil heads shows how far the devil had been disempowered by the late 19th century. The two heads illustrated above have the traditional attributes of Satan; they have red complexions that reflect their fiery dwelling place, their passionate indulgent sexuality, and the anger and hate toward their fall from Grace. They exhibit the looping hair that reflects the curling smoke of Hell as well as their bestial nature since all beasts have ungroomed hair. The lolling tongue is reminiscent of both the panting, dangerous wolf and the Greek Gorgon

whose hideous gaze turned men to stone, only now they are a curvilinear design element to move the eye from one head to the other. The pointed teeth are an indication of the fangs and viciousness of the animal predator and further illustrate the devil’s bestiality. They have the hircine beard, horns and features of their ancestor Pan. One has a hooked nose that is an allusion to ugliness since it is the opposite of the straight nosed classicism of Greek perfection. Most important is the chain around the neck of the devil on the left and the ring in the nose of the one on the right. Satan is shackled and subjugated. He has been entrapped and subdued. His power has been taken away. Both faces show the emotion of defeat. The great Lord of the Underworld has been reduced to a cartoon, an object of ridicule and jeering. A simple decoration for our amusement.


Evil Goes into the Shadows

It easy to believe that with modern science to prove to us how unfounded our superstitions are, and democracy to guide us into a sense of personal empowerment, that evil and Satan are mere figments of our collective imaginations. However, our peace of mind against the extinguished fires of Hell and a toothless and disempowered Devil is misplaced. Evil has not been eliminated. While we may not ascribe to a belief in an actual being that personifies wickedness, bad things continue to occur in the world. There are still disasters that cause great tribulations to thousands of souls. People still wrong and harm one another. Our vanity, righteousness and selfishness still do us in. The old idea of the evil of multiplicity still has relevance, since the physical accumulation of more often transitions into greed, pestilence or pollution. The negative power of destruction still exists and still resides hand in hand with the positive power of good. The old notion of the Adversary as God’s confidant has become more evident as humankind progresses. Through modern wars, holocausts and social unrest, it becomes only too clear that our attempts at trying to force a population or individual to do right, can easily fall into excesses that soon conjure up wrong. There is no polarity of good and bad, just muddy water that does not clean or purify. Satan as the inclination towards evil is always at the ready to lend a cant to the proceedings of justice. We may wish it away and want to disbelieve in the Devil as a silly superstition, but he still lurks in the shadows.


Arthur Bruso © 2020


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