by Bryan KnightIs the Devil alive and well? Or is Satan a myth, designed to explain why bad things happen? For many people, the existence of the Devil is indisputable, for others the concept is either ludicrous or evidence of psychosis.
The fascinating variety of beliefs about the Devil are deeply explored in Gerald Messadie's The History of the Devil, translated by Marc Romano from the 1993 original, Histoire generale du diable.
The author begins by recounting his own bewilderment as a Catholic schoolboy whose questions about the Devil were inadequately answered by the Jesuits.
There is a delightful lilt to the author's serious research: "the Devil is knowable only through reports; never having met him, I cannot offer a firsthand account. I am thus obliged to pay tribute to the historians and ethnologists who took the trouble to gather the words of those who speak about him, and also to the anonymous scribes who recopied ancient texts."
It is refreshing to read Messadie's honest approach to his difficult task (of evaluating the opinions and beliefs of writers from other lands and other times): "there is no such thing as dispassionate knowledge any more than there is dispassionate thought."
Clearly the author does not believe in a physically "real" Devil. He analyses what has been believed over the millennia about Evil and Satan but evidently considers all the views to be human constructs. Could not this dispassionate approach be applicable to all religious claims, all matters which we are expected to accept on faith, no matter how far-fetched or illogical?
Ironically, as someone recently said (concerning, I think, kosher food) it is precisely because a religious assertion has no rational basis that it serves to bolster religion. And Messadie writes, "Histories are wholly made up of real events, but the Devil has never participated in any of them. He is scandalously absent from the great moments of this past century. Neither his tail nor his horns were sighted during the Russian Revolution. He wasn't seen at Hiroshima, or on the moon, no more than he was spotted in Pasteur's laboratory or Hitler's bunker."
Are we mistaken in thinking that ancient peoples conjoured up the concept of the Devil to explain disease, floods, forest fires, death of relatives, etc.? Apparently so. "Evidence from midpaleolithic and neolithic cultures -- a period that extends from 60,000 to 8,000 B.C. -- and especially much more plentiful traces from the neolithic and Bronze ages, merits attention. Every indication is that religious sentiment was entirely directed toward the celebration of life and in particular the sun. The hollower sort of divinity embodied by the Devil seems to be absent: fear or hatred of Evil is much less in evidence than is the worship of life."
Later in the book the author explains how the myth of Satan is used today as a pretext "for pornography, sadism, and depravities of all sorts."
Certainly the Devil thrives in the fervent imaginations of exorcists, misogynists. and abuse-specialising therapists. There's even a Web page which, according to Skeptical Inquirer (May/June 1996) tells social workers "how to distinguish which clients are in need of counseling and which need exorcism."
Messadie's book is a vast work of scholarship to which a short review cannot do justice. The author surveys beliefs about the Devil in India, China, Japan, Greece, Rome, Egypt, Africa, Israel, as well as in Islam, among North American Indians, and in ancient Mesopotamia. Let us peek at his accounts of Zoroaster, The Celts and Modern Times.
The Devil seems to have made his first appearance in Iran when Zoroaster [whose birth and life foreshadow that of Jesus] restructed the ancient religion of Vedism. Messadie describes the social and political origins of this reform: "the Median magi [priesthood] had to radically differentiate itself, through its rigor and simplicity, from the polytheisms of the day."
Gradually adherents were won over by "fostering a feeling of urgency about what was at stake: the entering of or exclusion from Heaven, salvation or eternal disgrace." In short order the old demons and secondary deities were reduced to the Spirit of Evil, then the God of Evil and thus, the Devil. The clergy's power rested on their assuming the mantle of definers of Good and Evil, the arbiters of right and wrong, of who would and who would not, enter Heaven. Thus secular power was enshrined by spiritual power.
Monotheism was born. Devil belief was integral to the Monotheistic clergy's social status and their control of the citizenry. But the magi "did not succeed in establishing [the Devil] as a political opposition. Only the Christian church would carry off that feat," writes Messadie.
In an intriguing chapter subtitled "Thirty-five Centuries without the Devil",the author tells us that the Celts worshipped at least 400 gods. Despite the horns on the head of one of them, Cernunnos, he was no Devil. He "was indeed associated with the underworld . . . but he was also the deity of fertility, luck and the harvest."
Claims by other historians that certain Celtic gods were regarded as the Devil are dismissed by Messadie, who considers those either not gods, but at best buffoons. The question then arises as to why the Celts "lacked" a Devil. The author answers that the religious power elite, the Druids, did not emulate their Iranian counterparts in creating a sole God and thus a sole Devil, because Celtic society was more fluid, upward social mobility was common. Also Celtic gods were "gods of strength; since there aren't and never have been gods of weakness, a countergod representing that particular fault could not exist. As a theoretical power, the Devil could not be an enemy if he displayed courage, intelligence, and cunning."
Another difference to Iran was that Celtic states were not centralized. No unified religion overseen by a centralized clergy was required. Finally, Celts shared no common national identity: "Each Celtic tribe cast a jealous eye over the possessions of every other. Under such conditions, it was impossible to establish an organized religion."
The final chapter ,"Modern Times and the God of Laziness, Hatred, and Nihilism" provides a potent critique, and an excellent summing-up of the author's research. He first delineates numerous examples of high-ranking police officers who believe that Satanists are kidnapping and torturing children, even raping their exhumed bodies. That child molestation exists is indisputable. That Satan, rather than human pedophiles, is responsible would be laughable, were the results of such Devil beliefs not so tragic. As during the Inquisition and the Salem witch trials, the Devil's influence is seen everywhere and ordinary , innocent, people have been subjected to extraordinary accusations and imprisonment.
Of course, there are people who openly practise a brand of Satanism, who do worship the Devil. Messadie scoffs at their ignorance of history, philosophy and religion. "It is evident that the perfect and entirely substanceless fiction devised by the Zoroastrians in the sixth century B.C., (and adopted first by dissident Jews in the third century B.C., and then by Christianity) is still alive and well in the world's supposedly most developed nations. One could hold Satanism in the same contempt we hold astrology, for example, but the problem is that these prelogical ideas produce real and dangerous consequences -- indeed, there is no way to count the various acts of violence brought about by the pathological obsession with the Devil, an obsession that serves as the focal point for serious psychiatric disturbances and impels those suffering from them toward violence, which later can be pardoned as the product of 'possession.'"
The author goes on to condemn the intrusions of religion into history, which in his view, have without exception, been disastrous. He points to the human tendency to kill and maim in the name of one's God. It has always struck me as tragically amusing that clergypersons on both sides of a war bless the machinery of destruction. Indeed, our history is largely a catalogue of battles and brutality. So who needs a Devil -- except as somewhere to point the blame away from ourselves?
I am impressed with the author's conclusion to this enlightening book: "My conviction is that it is profoundly Satanic to believe in the Devil. We live under the sign of a nonexistent deity cobbled together twenty-six centuries ago by power-hungry Iranian priests. We live under the sign of Satan. Is this our destiny -- are we to let an imaginary monster devour us forever?"
translated by Marc Romano