Many religions contain an enemy of the system: a being that questions why things are the way they are, who challenges the supreme power(s), who accuses them of hypocrisy and who leads mankind away from cosmic ideals of subservience and acquiescence1. Satan often represents the world itself2. It has not appeared universally and many cultures lack any such centralized figure of evil3. In those places where it did arise there has not been a common path of development4. The root of the word Satan comes from ha-satan, a Hebrew word meaning "the accuser", "opposer" and "the adversary", or as a verb, "to accuse" and "to oppose". Anyone could be described as ha satan depending on their actions. The Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures rendered the word as diabolus, from which we get the word "devil". In Christianity it is Satan, The Devil; in Islam it is Shaitan or Iblis and in Buddhism it is Māra, which means "bringer of death"5. All these opposing beings promote the materialism of this world, rather than the more spiritual route of abstaining from stuff in order to obtain the next world. In other words, the primary role of Satan, in its various guises in world religions, is the rejection of spiritual wishful-thinking, and the embrace of our present real-world life. It seems that from the point of view of philosophical naturalism, Satan turns out to be the "good" guy!
Aside from Satan, Christianity and Islam say that hosts of beings fell from heaven. In Islam these are Jinn - sometimes spelt "Djin", "Jinn" or even "Genies" in some popular myths. In many polytheistic religions many gods have dark and evil sides as well as good ones, and those sides are given individual names and personified. These types of beings represent the parts of the natural world that people found it hard to explain - pain, disease, natural disasters, mental instability and other evil and scary things. Because their "good" gods can't have crested these things, there must be other being responsible for them. God forbid that such things are merely the results of impartial natural laws of physics - unthinkable! Because the simple and ignorant people of the past could not fathom the basis of life in chemistry, the basis of natural disasters in geology and physics, and the basis of disease in biology and genetics, the representations of the evil forces in nature seemed to them to be perfectly suited to an intentional agency. So they perceive demons, devils, the jinn, and many others. They all result from ignorance and fear, and they all oppose the supreme creator and what is "good". Through these scapegoats the supreme creator is excused responsibility for creating death, pain and suffering.
“The word jinn probably means covert or darkness. Jinns are the personifications of what is uncanny in nature, or perhaps the hostile and unsubdued aspects of it.”
By trying to separate the "evil" side of the natural world from the "good", these religious beliefs make it very hard to understand the natural world. In reality there is no good and evil, and natural forces are simply impartial, amoral and blind. It is a great boost to the ego to believe that cosmic forces are fighting over you, but reality is much more boring. By creating hosts of demons and devils to represent the evil, and then trying to blot them out, these religionists lose grip of reality. This is why scientists - who study the truth - have very frequently come into battle with religious institutions!
Now, the development of such arch-nemeses has come by various historical means and is not universal. In the Hebrew world, over time the disparate hosts of demons slowly came to be seen as being organized under various demon-princes. As superstitions slowly decreased, the number of individual, unique demons fell. In their place arose the more philosophically-minded idea of a generic personification of conscious evil (which was incidentally under the control of god). But it was all-too-easy to imagine that there was a genuine battle between God and ha-Satan (the opposer), although to believe that you have to find a way of explaining why the all-knowing creator of everything chose to create Satan at all. You'd think it would simply pass him by. These philosophical problems are the result of a mythology that developed over time, rather than the result of one that was worked out sensibly from the beginning. In India there is no such all-pervading figure that represents evil. Gods have good and angry sides, so, no single figure of torment was necessary. But A. A. Macdonell reports that this wasn't always the case - there was once the idea of a cosmic battle between good and evil more akin to Zoroastrianism. He says: "the older Rig-Vedic notion of the conflict of a single god with a single demon, mainly exemplified by Indra and Vrta, gradually developed into that of the gods and the Asuras in general being arrayed against each other in two hostile camps"4, although nowadays (and for some time), such abstract notions are not given credence amongst the world's most populous nation. Sir Charles Eliot declares confidently that "no sect of Hinduism personifies the powers of evil in one figure corresponding to Satan, or the Ahriman of Persia"4.
Zoroastrianism is one of the most ancient religions about which anything is known, and is over 3,000 years old7. It still has followers today8. It arose in ancient pre-Islamic Iran "in the eastern and south-central regions of the Iranian world, between the great mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush and Seistan, an area that today is divided between Iran and Afghanistan" and it still survives there, although it faces constant and sometimes violent persecution. It was supposedly founded by Zarathustra (Zoroaster)7.
It is in many ways monotheistic, in that there is a single creator god (Ahura Mazda)9, and this makes it a significant precursor to many of the religions that later rose in a similar vein, including the monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But Zoroastrianism is often called dualistic1 because most concerns are to do with Ahura Mazda's twin children "Spentu Mainyu ('beneficient spirit') and Angra Mainyu ('hostile spirit')"7. The hostile spirit is better known by its Middle Persian equivalent: Ahriman. Their different temperaments arise "from the choice they made between 'truth,' asha, and the 'lie,' druj, between good thoughts, good words, and good deeds and evil thoughts, evil words and evil deeds"7. The battle between these two define the theology of Zoroastrianism and this dualistic idea of 'spiritual warfare' remain with monotheistic religions to this day, especially Christianity and Islam1, although the perceived balanced between God and Satan is different.
Many religions, typically Eastern religions such as Buddhism10 and Hinduism11, assert that everyone lives through a long succession of lives and that the material world and all conscious beings are separated from Nirvana. The cycle of rebirth (samsara) is a cycle of angst, pain and delusion, and only escape from the whole system can end suffering. To escape you need to attain enlightenment, and it is your desires, wants and carnal side that prevents this from happening, in Buddhism the being that represents the distractions of the real world is called Māra. The bad guys of the Buddhist the Pāli Canon are "dominated by the single figure of Māra" and long passages are devoted to this 'Evil One'12.
Reference to Māra in the Buddhist cannon, and its etymology, identify it with the very concept of death (and life, and consciousness, and all other Earthly things). "It is connexion with death, but particularly the overcoming of death, that Māra is often mentioned in the Canon. In this context death is always regarded as an evil, the unwelcome Antaka, the ender of an existence which is not ready to be ended"13. Māra represents darkness and blindness14 and all the sensory pleasures15. The full extent of Māra's power is utterly formidable to everyone except those on the verge of enlightenment, and is generally formidable even to those who have been following the eightfold-path for some time:
“Put into Māra's mouth in the Kassaka Sutta:'Mine, recluse, is the eye, mine are material shapes, mine is the field of visual consciousness. Where can you go, recluse, to escape from me? Precisely mine, recluse, are the ear, sounds, the field of auditory consciousness; the tongue, tastes, the field of gustatory consciousness; the body, touches, the field of tactile consciousness; precisely mine, recluse, is the mind, mine are the mental states, mine is the field of mental consciousness.'
All these claims of Māra are conceded by the Buddha: 'Precisely yours, Malign One, is all this. But where there is none of this, there is no coming in for you.' [...] What emerges from these definitions is a conception of the whole of samsāric existence as the realm over which Māra rules. [...] In terms of Buddhist cosmology this is a way of referring to the whole of life apart from [Nirvana]. [...]
Enumerated in detail in the Suttanipāta [Māra's forces] consist of passion, aversion, hunger and thirst, craving, sloth and torpor, fear, doubt, self-will, cant, and various forms of self-exaltation. Prominent among these, and specially closely connected with Māra is the first, passion (kāma, or rāga).”
An author who has studied Māra and the Christian Satan, Ernst Windich, came to the conclusion that despite some striking similarities, there are an equal number of striking differences, and that each idea really did develop independently17. It seems easy to see that where Māra and the Christian Satan mesh well is exactly in the way that us humans excel at creating abstract personalities from real-life problems (why is there evil, suffering and death in the world?), and where they mesh least well is in the theological and philosophical underpinning of the arch-enemy of mankind.
There are surprisingly few references to Satan in the Christian Bible. Some references once seen as being references are now known to be otherwise due to better translations, such as that to Lucifer, which we now know refers to an honourable dead king. Even the serpent in the story of Adam and Eve is not Satan (and isn't called Satan) as the Garden of Eden was a perfect paradise and a place free of sin, so Satan could not have been there. It is ridiculous to think that God ejected Adam and Eve from Eden for sinning whilst it allowed Satan itself to creep around there!
Satan wasn't even the name of the opposer for most of the history of Judaism. There was a being called the opposer, or the adversary. So in The Book of Job in the 4th century BCE, a being described as the satan approaches God. "Satan" wasn't its name; the word used means "the opposer". It was only later that "Satan" became a name of a being18.
“In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character. Although Hebrew storytellers as early as the sixth century B.C.E. occasionally introduced a supernatural character whom they called the satan, what they meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity.”
"The Origin of Satan" by Elaine Pagels (1995)19
“Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.”
Psalms 139:12 (KJV)
“And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.”
As various authors copied copies of the Hebrew Scriptures, changes accumulated in the stories. Sometimes, the same story appears twice. There are even two accounts of the Creation that contradict each other in the details. One such doubled story shows us clearly that the Old Testament God is evil, and Satan itself is not a separate being, but is actually part of God, a face of God. There is one occasion when David took a census of his men in order to count how many could fight in the armies of Israel. 1 Chronicles 21:2 and 2 Samuel 24:2 both contain a copy of the exact same text:
“So David said to Joab and the commanders of the troops, "Go and count the Israelites from Beersheba to Dan. Then report back to me so that I may know how many there are."”
“So the king said to Joab and the army commanders with him, "Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enroll the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are."”
What had happened is that God had a rule: That David was not allowed to 'number' Israel. But, for some reason, David went ahead and did so. As a result, God punished them all for breaking his rule. But, it is very telling when we examine the preceding verse: Who inspired David to count Israel's fighting men?
“Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.”
“The anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go and take a census of Israel and Judah."”
In one copy of the story, we are told Satan told David to do so. In the other, it was God. How can this be? It is because in the Old Testament, Satan and God are the same being. Satan in the Old Testament is merely the face that God puts on when it is testing its people. "The anger of the Lord" is Satan. Another example is 1 Timothy 1:20, where God mentions "Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme". Satan isn't a being that freely chose to reject God; it is a hidden part of God, that God uses as a tool so it doesn't have to sully its own name. It was common in old religions (Hinduism, Roman religions, etc) for gods to have multiple faces, each associated with different emotions. In the Christian Bible, Satan is God.
A similar confusion of roles happens in the Book of Job. In Job 1:8-12 Satan approaches God and asks to test Job's loyalty to God. In Job 1:11 it is God who is asked "put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face". Satan's idea is that if God demolishes Job's good life, then Job will no longer be faithful to God. But Satan can't do this itself as it is God that has the power to do evil. In the next verse God gives that power to Satan:
“And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand.”
Job 1:12 [KJV]
So, Satan acts only when God gives it power to do so. Once again, we see that God and Satan are merely two facets of the same being. One final verse seals this idea. Who, when it comes to the concluding of the story in chapter 42, is given the credit for bringing evil against Job? It is God itself:
“[Job's friends and family] comforted him over all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him.”
Job 42:11 [KJV]
Other translations such as Young's Literal Translation phrase it in the same way. God and Satan are intertwined. Satan can't do anything except by the will of God. Psalms 139:12, 1 Chronicles 21:1-2 and 2 Samuel 24:1-2, and Job 1:8-12, 42:11 all confuse good and evil, God and Satan into one single creative force, with God being described as not only the source of evil, but as its actual instigator. God cannot be benevolent.
Lucifer is counted amongst the Four Crown Princes of Hell in LaVeyan Satanism: See "Lucifer, the Eastern Crown Prince of Satanism" by Vexen Crabtree (2001) a fuller analysis of the word and its historical uses in theology and literature.
Most people equate Lucifer with Satan because of the mistakes of a large number of enthusiastic Christian writers, relying upon, as they were, a mistranslation and misunderstanding of a verse from the Bible. Popular poems, stories and (nowadays) the film industry, are all compelled towards continuing the association due to a lack of theological knowledge and academic fact-checking. Lucifer is not Satan.
“The idea of the Devil as Lucifer, the fallen angel cast from Heaven because of his pride, derives from Isaiah 14:12-15. Although Isaiah was not actually referring to the Devil, but to the King of Babylon, the name Lucifer has become associated with Satan because of the similarity of passages such as Luke 10:18 and Revelation 9:1 to the Isaiah scripture.”
The academic world has realized the errors. For example, in 1913 Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary stated:
Lucifer \Lu"ci*fer\, n.
[L., bringing light, n., the morning star, fr. lux, lucis, light + ferre to bring.]
1. The planet Venus, when appearing as the morning star; -- applied in Isaiah by a metaphor to a king of Babylon.
|Translations of Isaiah 14:12|
|"light bringer" or "morning star"||Lucifer|
|New International Version|
New American Standard Bible
New Living Translation
English Standard Version
Contemporary English Version
American Standard Version
Young's Literal Translation
|King James Version|
New King James Version
21st Century King James Version
The notes of the Amplified Bible on Isaiah 14:12 are particularly useful: "The Hebrew for this expression--"light-bringer" or "shining one"--is translated "Lucifer" in The Latin Vulgate, and is thus translated in the King James Version. But because of the association of that name with Satan, it is not now used in this and other translations. Some students feel that the application of the name Lucifer to Satan, in spite of the long and confident teaching to that effect, is erroneous. The application of the name to Satan has existed since the third century A.D., and is based on the supposition that Luke 10:18 is an explanation of Isaiah 14:12, which many authorities believe is not true. "Lucifer," the light-bringer, is the Latin equivalent of the Greek word "Phosphoros," which is used as a title of Christ in II Pet. 1:19 and corresponds to the name "radiant and brilliant Morning Star" in Rev. 22:16, a name Jesus called Himself. This passage here in Isaiah 14:13 clearly applies to the king of Babylon".
So not only is the association of Lucifer with Satan wrong, but, it seems it is incredibly wrong: every indication points towards Lucifer actually being an alternative name of Jesus Christ, and, Isaiah 14:13 is an honourable and mournful passage about the loss of a fallen king, not about the fall of a being called Lucifer. The Greek means "bringer of light", and is the name of the planet Venus, which has long been associated with clear-mindedness and spirituality by the myths of the world. It occurs in Buddhism in its positive and correct sense:
“We are told that on the night of the full moon of Wesak (the month of May in the Western calendar), the Buddha fixed his mind on the morning star as it was rising, and the moment of full enlightenment occurred.”
The Islamic theology of Satan runs like this: After creating Adam, God commands all to bow before Adam. Satan, one of the Jinn (genies) (Qur'an 18:50) refuses because he was made from fire, while humans are only made from clay (7:10-18, 15:26-39, 17:61-63, 18:50, 20:115-123). The argument doesn't make any sense, but, rather than re-educate Satan, God decides that a more useful course of action is to condemn Satan forever. Satan asks permission to cause evil for others and to lead them astray (e.g., 15:39), and rather than keep peace in the Universe and protect humanity from this powerful foe, God goes for it. The whole story is stated in 7:10-27, again in 15:26-46 and again in 20:115-124; and a shorter version in 17:61-63. In a world where many have been killed people 'following orders', we have all learnt to question instructions, but Satan and the Jinn were treated remorselessly, punished for an infinite period of time for an action that was not even a moral concern (the same happens to Adam and Eve in the Bible). In the modern world where we expect justice and morality to be embodied by the divine, the Quranic story of Shaitan is very difficult to accept and it portrays God as the enabler of arbitrary evil rather than as a protector of humankind.
It is hard to find a comparison for Satan within Hinduism, Norse religion, Greek religions, etc, because in polytheistic religions many beings have good and evil sides, and there are frequently different beings representing death, hell, evil, etc, but which also had positive sides. In such complicated and loose systems it is not possible to find a being or force that represents an enemy of the entire pantheon. "Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil" by Trevor Ling (1997)22 quotes Sir Charles Eliot on p46: "No sect of Hinduism personifies the powers of evil in one figure corresponding to Satan, or the Ahriman of Persia'".
“Nidhogg. Germanic mythology, a dragon living at one of the three roots of the cosmic tree Yggdrasil. The freezing mist and darkness of Niflheim, which was the lowest of the nine worlds, was where the dragon lived, ripping corpses apart and eating them. Between mouthfulls he would send the squirrel Ratatosk up the cosmic tree on an errand of insult. [...] when momentarily tired of the taste of dead flesh Nidhogg would gnaw at the root of Yggdrasil itself.”
Satan is also later described as a dragon by Christian authors. Heathenism did not have a single "evil" god or force, nearly all the gods had darksides. But there is something appealing about Nidhogg! Depictions of the roots of Yggdrasil have snakes wrapped around the lowest roots. Such a being, feeding off of death (as life feeds from its killed prey, in turn feeding Nidhogg) constitutes the death of the cycle of life itself. If we see that all life dies, then Nidhogg will be victorious over all life, just as Satan represents death's victory over all life. Nidhogg is not listed as an Infernal Name by Anton LaVey in The Satanic Bible24, probably because beyond a few artistic details there is not much that can be formed in the way of a philosophy or a principal of Nidhogg.
“Ymir in Germanic mythology was the first living creature. He was a frost giant who emerged from the ice in 'the yawning emptiness'. He was evil and the mother and father of all frost giants. [When dead] his flesh became the Earth.”
Counting the Earth as good because it supports Human life (my life!), Ymir is an aspect of mythology that, like Satan, can be seen to be a mechanism by which the Earth is dependent on Satanic power. (All good is based on evil, see "Good is Derived from Evil: Satanic Theory" by Vexen Crabtree (2002)).
This ties in roughly with the Islamic view of Satan. The Earth was created because Satan wished to create a secret domain away from God in order to have power. Although Satan is evil, we consider the Earth good and without the effects of this evil force the Earth would not exist.
The Raelian Movement: "According to the Raelians, Satan is one of the Elohim, the race of aliens that created humanity. While most of the Elohim want humanity to develop and grow, Satan considers them a threat, is against the genetic experiments that created them, and believes they should be destroyed. He is blamed for some of the catastrophes that the Bible blames on God such as the Great Flood that destroys everyone save Noah and his family. The Raelian Satan is not necessarily evil. While he works toward the destruction of humanity, he does so with the belief that only evil can ultimately come from humanity"25.
Heaven's Gate: "Satan is a being that has partially gone through the process of reaching the Next Level, which is the goal of believers. However, before fully completing this transformation and gaining acceptance into the Kingdom of Heaven, Satan and other "fallen angels" decided to re-embrace material existence and encouraged others to do so. As elevated beings, they can possess human bodies just as the aliens of the Kingdom of Heaven can"25.
Zhonghua Dalu Xingzhen Zhishi Zhan: An obscure and short-lived sect in China, which spun off from a Christian group called The Shouters. They themselves became the rebels, arguing "that the current government was associated with Satan and should be overthrown. The sect's leadership was eventually arrested in 1995. It is unlikely that the membership ever numbered more than a few thousand"26. China is not a good place for such irrationality (or dissent).
Representing the enemy of God and the materialism that prevents spiritual escape from this world, Satan is the being of life, and of the enjoyment of this life, and is therefore the nemesis of nearly all religious escapism. From my "Who is Satan? The Accuser and Scapegoat" by Vexen Crabtree (2010):
“Satan is good and evil, love and hate. It is the gray; the totality of reality undivided into arbitrary dichotomies. Satan is not a real being, not a living entity, not conscious, nor a physical thing that can be interacted with. It is a symbol, something ethereal, something that exists as an emotional attachment and personal dream. Just like Buddhists do not worship Buddha, Satanists hold up Satan as an ultimate principle rather than an object of literal worship. Satan inspires and provokes people, so, like all (honest) religions the ultimate point is self-help. God-believers have a different opinion on what Satan is, but their opinion is a result of their religion, steeped in mankind's ignorant past. Satanism's Satan is much more eclectic and multicultural than to be defined by Christianity or Islam.
Satan is the dark force in nature representing the carnal nature and death of all living things. The vast majority of the Universe is cold, uninhabitable and lifeless. In the only part of the Universe that we know to host life, it is tied to a system of predator-and-prey: the natural world is violent, desperate, bloody and amoral. If there is a god, it is surely evil. Satan, and Satan alone, best represents the harshness of reality.”
Some theologies and theories place Satan as a saviour and a defender of righteousness, and the white light God as an evil oppressor. Most common is the acceptance of Satan as a "true" correct symbol used to represent crisp reality, with God as the negative symbol of delusion. Satanic religions hold to this idea even if they lack the actual belief in a real god or Satan. These are common themes in Satanic music, and are also present in nearly all schools of thought that are labelled as Devil Worship. Some ancient Gnostic religions also hold that the good-seeming god is evil, whereas there are other more obscure good forces in life. I have a page on this particular take on Satan on my Satanism website; here is its menu:
The concept of a single figure of personified evil has not appeared universally and many cultures lack any such centralized symbol. For example, In Hinduism3 and in other polytheistic belief systems there is no such single deity because all of the gods themselves have good and bad sides, which together explain the evils of life without the need for a monopolizing instigator of suffering. Likewise in some philosophical-minded religions such as Bahá'í Satan is denied any power or formal standing in the theology. Developed, liberal, Christianity has reached the same conclusion, with bodies such as the Church of England being highly reticent to mention "Satan" anywhere. Aside from religious groups, the large number of atheists, humanists and other non-religious folk around the world also, of course, lack a belief in Satan.
In Europe, Satan was taken most seriously in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period28, a time in which human learning and knowledge was severely challenged by social instability and the Christian domination of education. Satan's "most feared subjects were witches, whose unspeakable acts threatened the very core of Christendom. The tragic result of this fear led to the torture and execution of hundreds of thousands of women and men"28. Likewise, in other parts of the world where superstition is rife and schools are sparse, the idea of evil spirits cause much fear, and is used as a way to justify violent actions against outsiders and any strange folk who do not conform to social norms. Philosophical and intellectual development tend to weaken the worth of the idea of Satan, and in Christianity and Buddhism the symbol is becoming superfluous29, with the concept of "evil" itself often being downgraded to mere "human sinfulness" (part of the system) and natural disasters (explained by science). Despite this, Satanists hold on to the positive elements of the symbol, and the biggest Satanic organisation is the Church of Satan which already accepts Satan only as a metaphor, and not as a real being30.