The image of Satan on the British Isles


(Fonte: )

By Dienifer Vieira

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are Abrahamic religions which have the same root, growing from the Judaism of the ancient Israelites. In these religions, there is an entity that seduces humans into sin or falsehood. Its name is Satan. Satan has many other names, such as Lucifer, Asmodeus, Belial and others. Lucifer and its demons have taken on a series of images from other religions, beliefs and cultures in the Middle Ages. As the topic studied in this semester was Anglophone Cultures, I decided to research the depiction of the Devil, a creation of ancient religions, also influenced by those who inhabited, colonized or sacked the British Isles, such as the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Jutes. The Roman invasion brought Christianity to the islands, which when its forces withdrew in the territory from the fifth-century of the Middle Ages, had already left the Abrahamic religion with considerable force in Britain, giving rise to internal disputes exiling pagan beliefs, making room for the consolidation of Christianity and for adding features to the already started folk creation of the Devil. Thus, the Devil is also a product of religious imperialism on the British Isles.

If someone asked a person to picture the devil, he/she would probably imagine a red demon with a pitchfork in hand or with goat horns, hooves and a tail, half-goat and half man. However, referring to Christianity, none of these images appear in the Bible when referencing Satan. The only vibrant image is in the Book of Revelation (or Apocalypse), the last book of the New Testament of the Bible “A red dragon with seven heads, 10 horns and seven crowns, with its angels, is thrown out of heaven by the Archangel Michael” (Rv 12:3-9). But also, there is a serpent mentioned in Genesis, referring to Satan in the Garden of Eden, who possessed the body of the serpent to deceive Adam and Eve, making them believe that it was the animal talking to them, not the entity itself. Even so, we do not usually see Satan portrayed as a dragon, though he does sometimes show up with snakes, which are grouped together with dragons, as happens in Revelation. Furthermore, we do not usually see Satan portrayed as a serpent either, unlike it is portrayed in Genesis. However, Western Culture often relates the serpent as a symbol of corruption, temptation, cheating and with the seductive principle of women, who were also associated to the destruction of the men, as agents of Satan “magnificent evils, baleful, poisonous and deceitful pleasure, the woman as accused by the other sex of having introduced sin, misery and death” (JEAN DELUMEAU).

Equal to any new creed and/or belief, there is a hybridization of adapted concepts adopted from other religions in Christianity. Christianity assimilated, as well as disparaged concepts of Eastern and Middle Eastern religions. Because it is a mixture of antecedent materials (cultural, spiritual and philosophical), this syncretism is one of the greatest reasons that every religion has always heterodox and heretics, for repressing some tradition that composes such religion. Christianity has its monotheistic basis, but it obtains an intrinsic dualism in its structuring. God, being the personification of absolute goodness, would not have a rival being an absolute personification of the bad. The Church Fathers explain that evil is the absence of God, and thus, of good. This idea comes from the classical tradition and systematized by Plato, who explained that what is bad is the absence of the essential and good reality. However, society in the medieval era did not have theological and philosophical reflections of such a level, or were not prepared for it. Evil was felt and experienced all the time in the Dark Ages, and from all this, an evil being was born and filled the absence of good with his presence. The Devil was almost as absolute as God. However, since the monotheistic reality of the bible had no explicit personification of bad, it remained a gap to be fulfilled by the ancient religions. All the gods of antiquity known by Christianity (Egyptians, Greeks, Mesopotamians, Persians, Celts, Norse, etc) were regarded as false liars and were demonized. The intention of priests and bishops in the medieval period was to terrorize believers with tales and legends about the Devil. The Devil’s folkloric definitions used in homilies and sermon literatures were established from comparisons with other beings, such as giants, dragons, ghosts, monsters, humanized animals, and even small people. There was a greater use of those tales and legends in the witch-hunting season, to make people dislike such acts and judge them as demonic. The divine representatives of other cultures became the profane representatives of Christianity, becoming the servants of the Devil, who himself is a mosaic of various cultures. 

Thanks to the Gods of ancient religions Satan is sometimes depicted with a pitchfork. The Greek God, Poseidon (Neptune by the Romans) had a trident in his hands – which is more commonly what Satan is shown with rather than a four-tined pitchfork. Ancient Hebrews viewed the sea as a place of monsters, such as the Leviathan mentioned in the Book of Job (40:25). Satan is associated with a monster, adopting one of its accessories on his hands when imagined or depicted. Moreover, Shiva the Destroyer, one of the main deities of Hinduism, carries a trident named Trishula. Hinduism dates to at least the second century before Christ but has even more ancient roots. Also, “money”, “divorce” and “fun” are three aspects considered as “the three sharp tips” to devour the flock of the Lord that may be associated with the trident previously given to Satan’s hand.

The bat wings of Satan were a medieval addition. At that time, angels like Michael were portrayed with feathered wings resembling birds, creatures of the day. Satan and the fallen angels were portrayed with bat wings in many artworks in medieval Europe. In addition, the Mayan god, Cama-Zotz was depicted with bat wings and lived in the darkness through which the dead had to pass, representing that not only medieval European civilization depicted the evil with bat wings.

Cernunnos, a Celtic God, known as the horned god, would be the great influence in the image of the Devil, lending him horns and some animal characteristics (that were also condemned in homilies and sermon literature), as well as Pan, a god very well known in Greek Mythology. The devil is also portrayed in green color, being related to hunting. The green color is derived from the god Cernunnos retranslated in it for being related to nature, animals, abundance and hunting. However, the devil is portrayed as a hunter, but of souls. This appropriation of the image of Cernunnos, the oldest god of the Celtic mythology, being the Celtic peoples the ones who were in various parts of Europe and Asia Minor, gives strength to Christianity against paganism in the Middle Ages. Moreover, Hathor the cow-headed goddess, is an Egyptian deity that has horns. Showing the devil with horns developed from images of pagan gods. 

Loki, a Norse god, has much influence and resemblance with the Christian antagonist – also related to Judas as being a traitor – especially at the time of Christianization of the Viking Kingdoms. These are great examples of how the image of Lucifer modified with these appropriations. These innumerable changes in the Devil’s image made him a horrendous monster as it is commonly depicted, but this imaginative influence provided a greater crystallization of it, allowing penetration into various cultures, replacing and becoming the example of evil. When something gets more publicized, it tends to become bigger and more powerful. When something is very present in the discourses of the layers that govern society, it tends to become the thought of society, a fomentation of the imaginary through discourse (BACZKO).

The sin, whatever it was, was always presented as an approach to the Devil. The condemnation of souls was done by the sins committed by the body. Sexual practice was another gateway to the devil. Sex was preached by the Church as a practice aimed only at the multiplication of men, and it should be done only after marriage. Unruly sex or pleasure-oriented sex was a serious sin that could be an attraction to demons, so much so that it was common to say that Sabbath witches practiced sex to attract the Devil – they did as he did – by kissing his anus (symbolic gesture of devotion to Lucifer). Therefore, sexual practices, addictions, vanity, lust, lack of faith, blasphemy and practically everything that is corporeal and material was in the domain of the Devil, for the creation of the material world was made by Satanael, the eldest son of God (the second would be Jesus Christ). Adam would also be the Devil’s creation. The Devil ended up hating the material creations (including Adam) for their various defects, and he eventually asked his enemy, God, to help create mankind. In return, the Devil would allow God’s entry into this world and the division of power. “… the human soul, a creation of the true good God, is imprisoned in the human body which is a creation of Satanael, the false god, who deceived God, who helped him and now holds the soul prisoner in a disgusting and dirty body” (RUSSEL). 

In each historical era the Devil changed and was transformed with the purpose to remain, and the Church made it possible by fighting against the Protestant Reformation, accusing the Devil as responsible for heresies, obstacles in the Church’s way and especially for ending agrarian cults of the ancient religion, in which people depended on agriculture to live, worshiped nature and learned by observing it. These peoples who worshiped nature, like the Celts who inhabited many parts of Europe and were more successful in the British Isles (compared to other parts of Europe), were called pagans by the Romans, from the Latin paganus, meaning “farmer”. These pagans also worshiped animals, celestial bodies and elementals; they also associated the fertility of the land with the woman, and built female totems known as mother goddesses, as well as shrines of stones – stones that were magic for having lived hundreds of years, therefore storing deep knowledge of life. The woman was also seen differently in those peoples, for she was venerated for her fertility, ability to generate life and for her knowledge and intuitive power. Moreover, women’s rights in a Celtic society existed and were more flexible compared to the non-pagan civilization. Pagans, as well as the Celts, Vikings, Anglos, Saxons, Jutes, Slavs, Teutons and others had their culture and religion decimated by the expansion of the Roman Empire, which brought with it many influences such as the culture, politice, arts, language and the Abrahamic religion Christianity, demonizing all that which was not part of their faith and proliferating such a stance in the societies where they passed, building a collective imaginary through their imperial power and the power of the Church. So powerful was the Christian imperialism that the image of Satan grew over many cultures exempted in Europe. In the British Isles, the Roman Empire was successful in Great Britain, but failed in Scotland and Ireland, where strong pagan culture traits remained. 

Even though Christianity is dominant and allied with the Roman Empire and taken as the official religion of the British Empire, two dominant empires in the history of mankind, there are many adherents and admirers of the ancient religion and cultures that existed before the Christian era that, like I am, are interested in finding out why such old religions, cultures and concepts were so demonized, even ending up building a character, a patchwork of religions, beliefs and noble values of annihilated peoples, making from all of it a personification of absolute evil: Satan.


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Dienifer Vieira (aka Jenny) é professora de inglês e acadêmica do curso de Letras, Línguas Adicionais. É fascinada por línguas, filosofia, música, ultrarromantismo, artes clássica, gótica e funerária, além de história antiga, clássica, medieval e estudos religiosos, como religiões pré-cristãs, cristianismo na idade média, desmistificação, imperialismo e tabus religiosos. 


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