It’s Halloween, and like everywhere else in the country, retail shelves in Albuquerque that have been lined with masks and costumes, candy, novelties and party favors are suddenly empty in expectation of the next big rush: the Christmas buying season that begins tomorrow. The plastic masks and satiny costumes depict many familiar faces from horror movie baddies to current and former presidents, celebrities, and cartoon characters. One of the perennial favorites it the devil, usually depicted in bright red with little horns, upturned black eyebrows and a goat beard, a trident in his lengthy, fingernailed hands, and the famous tail highlighted by a spade ending.
On the more serious side, trick-r-treaters wear the costume as casually as they would Freddie Kruger or Michael Myers, while recent polls indicate the belief in the devil is declining among Catholic Christians. Satan (the name means ‘adversary’) the evil plague of humankind has been relegated to a comedian in a party hat.
In The Divine Comedy, Dante ended his imaginative journey through hell by literally climbing the “foul creature” to escape the inferno, the ninth circle and the clutches of Satan who he called the “source of every woe.”
But long before Dante wrote about Satan, he was well known in a variety of literature, and every religion from paganistic mythology to Hindiism, Judaism, and so on have given a personification to an evil presence. Stories about competition with the devil, usually won by the human have dotted the landscape of every culture on earth.
Even before the misunderstood appearance of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, too often depicted as an apparition of the devil, stories of evil gods and demons had been around for ages. It was not until sometime after the Babylonian Captivity, approximately 300BC, the Hebrew writers began to retell the stories of ancient Sumer, Akkadia, and Babylon. Before the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament; Torah) was written, Jewish folklore already spoke of Satanil or Sammael, the poison angel of death, and that was not the only evil spirit. For the Ancient Greeks, most gods represented good and evil, and the special deities of Mount Olympus all had multiple facets to their personalities.
The Satan we know in the Christian tradition does not have a significant appearance by name until the Book of Job. In the first chapter of that book, Satan appears with other angels created by God. It is probable that at the time Job was written (between the 7th and 5th centuries, BC) the word for ‘adversary’ had not became a proper name yet and may have constituted a particular group of angels rather than an individual. It was also after the Babylonian Captivity, and partially because of it, that the religion of Persia, Zoroastrianism, began to have an influx into the Jewish literature, a philosophy that most clearly recognized a distinct force of good and evil, and it became a basis for Christian doctrine.
God asked Satan where he came from and was told that he had been walking the earth. The Lord said that surely Satan knew of his loyal and faithful servant Job. In responding to that, the image of evil declared his belief that Job would not be so faithful had God not provided him with obvious protection. Thus begins the epic of suffering inflicted on Job, and the final separation between God and his fallen angel. One thing that remains true throughout the Bible is that the devil is accountable to God in all things. Although we live in a world that has also fallen and is suggested to be under the dominion of the evil one, we are assured of his limitations, and that God is always triumphant. Even though Job was mercilessly hammered by the devil and struggled to have faith through the ordeal, it was God who raised him above the suffering and delivered him from the clutches of evil.
Almost all other notable mentions of the devil take place in the New Testament, and the nature and ability of the character have changed with the Christian tradition. It could easily be seen that once Jesus came to the earth, the devil’s work became that much more difficult to accomplish. Jews of Jesus’ time saw suffering as punishment for sin as evidenced by several Gospel passages. In their latter tradition, the legend arose about Lucifer, a persona of Satan who raised an army of ‘bad’ angels but was defeated and condemned to hell by the forces of fellow archangel, Michael. The story is retold in Revelation 12, this time with the prince of evil being banished to earth where he continues to seek the destruction of humankind’s allegiance to God.
The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell that Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert during the earliest days of his ministry. Luke 22 clearly states that Satan entered Judas Iscariot. Satan’s presence remains throughout the remainder of the New Testament, and Revelation promises his demise.
Whether or not people choose to believe in Satan or hell does not alter the fact of the choices each of us make everyday regarding good and evil. Surely he would prefer that we didn’t believe, which would make it much easier to practice deceit among us. The devil is far beyond caring what we might think of him, and probably enjoys that we might consider him no more than a cute, fuzzy-collared specter with the spade tail.