Satan (Hebrew: שָּׂטָן satan, meaning “adversary”; Arabic: شيطان shaitan, meaning “astray” or “distant”, sometimes “devil”) is a figure appearing in the ancient texts of the Abrahamic religions who brings evil and temptation, and is known as the deceiver who leads humanity astray.
Some religious groups teach that he originated as an angel who fell out of favour with God, seducing humanity into the ways of sin, and who has power in the fallen world. In the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, Satan is primarily an accuser and adversary, a decidedly malevolent entity, also called the devil, possessing demonic qualities.
Satan is a surprisingly difficult character to pin down biographically, primarily as references to him are wildly inconsistent, right down to his name regularly changing, depending on the time written and the source.
The most oft-old story relating to Satan goes back to the supposed second day of Creation where upon God created the firmament of Heaven and the angelic inhabitants, the most revered of whom was Lucifer, Son of the Dawn (or if you prefer, the Angel of the Morning). A cherub measuring eighteen feet in height made of pure light and furnished with six, eight foot-high wings, Lucifer, as with the other angels, was given free will, later to be upgraded to being put in charge of God’s greatest triumph, the creation of Earth.
Said to be a vision of pure beauty and adorned with precious stones, Lucifer grew to question why he should answer to anyone, considering the many gifts which had left him near perfection. When God inspected the goings-on of Adam in the Garden of Eden, Lucifer seized the opportunity to take his place on God’s throne, a third of the angels gathering to view their new leader (no mean feat – an early theological estimate put the number of angels in heaven at an impressive 133,306,668). The rebel group set up camp in, according to Milton in Paradise Lost, the North of Heaven, where they waged war upon the remaining two thirds still loyal to God who were led by the Archangel Michael.
Upon returning from Eden, God was inevitably displeased, unleashing his wrath immediately on Lucifer and his subjects, casting them from Heaven and sending them crashing through nine days of descent, their bodies first tarnishing from their golden hues until they were eventually black and oily. When the angels eventually hit the earth, the weight of their sins caused the ground to part, sending them into the fiery pits beneath. Here it was that Lucifer vowed to match the might of heaven with an evil, vengeful equivalent.
Job 14:12: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How are thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”
Unfortunately, as the Bible combines texts from so many cultures over such a vast span of many years, much, literally, is lost in translation. ‘Lucifer’, the morning star described, is first mentioned in Hebrew texts and refers to hêlêl or heylel, now widely believed to refer to a Babylonian king who fell from power – only when Christian writers translators re-wrote these lines did this change to Lucifer, the nearest they could approximate to the source material: Lucifer meaning morning star in the planetary sense, in particular the first shining light seen in the morning sky, Venus. Only by the 4th Century had this now corrupted imagery get taken to the ultimate extreme, merging with already firmly accepted understanding of the Devil.
The original Hebrew term satan is a noun from a verb meaning primarily “to obstruct, oppose”, as it is found in Numbers 22:22, 1 Samuel 29:4, Psalms 109:6.Ha-Satan is traditionally translated as “the accuser” or “the adversary”. The definite article ha- (English: “the”) is used to show that this is a title bestowed on a being, versus the name of a being. Thus, this being would be referred to as “the satan”. Some time by the year A.D.70, the Greeks had translated ha-satan with the word “diabolos” (slanderer), the same word in the Greek New Testament from which the English word devil is derived. This entymology was reinforced by the Middle English “devel”, from Old English “dēofol”, that in turn represents an early Germanic borrowing of Latin diabolus.
In the New Testament he is called “the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 12:24), “the ruler of the world”, and “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). The Book of Revelation describes how Satan was cast out of Heaven, having “great anger” and waging war against “those who obey God’s commandments”.
The early Christian church encountered opposition from pagans such as Celsus, who claimed that “it is blasphemy… to say that the greatest God… has an adversary who constrains his capacity to do good” and said that Christians “impiously divide the kingdom of God, creating a rebellion in it, as if there were opposing factions within the divine, including one that is hostile to God”.
Beelzebub, meaning “Lord of Flies”, is the contemptuous name given in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament to a Philistine god whose original name has been reconstructed as most probably “Ba’al Zabul”, meaning “Baal the Prince”. This pun was later used to refer to Satan as well. The Book of Revelation twice refers to “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan” (12:9, 20:2). The Book of Revelation also refers to “the deceiver”, from which is derived the common epithet “the great deceiver”.
If all this weren’t exhausting enough, we haven’t yet considered the Islamic references to this most confusing of entities. Shaitan (شيطان) is the equivalent of Satan in Islam. While Shaitan (شيطان, from the root šṭn شطن) is an adjective (meaning “astray” or “distant”, sometimes translated as “devil”) that can be applied to both man (“al-ins”, الإنس) and Jinn, Iblis (Arabic pronunciation: [ˈibliːs]) is the personal name of the Devil who is mentioned in the Qur’anic account of Genesis. According to the Qur’an, Iblis (the Arabic name used) disobeyed an order from Allah to bow to Adam, and as a result Iblis was forced out of heaven. However, he was given respite from further punishment until the day of judgment.
When Allah commanded all of the angels to bow down before Adam (the first Human), Iblis, full of hubris and jealousy, refused to obey God’s command (he could do so because he had free will), seeing Adam as being inferior in creation due to his being created from clay as compared to him (created of fire):
“It is We Who created you and gave you shape; then We bade the angels prostrate to Adam, and they prostrate; not so Iblis (Lucifer); He refused to be of those who prostrate. (Allah) said: “What prevented thee from prostrating when I commanded thee?” He said: “I am better than he: Thou didst create me from fire, and him from clay.”
It was after this that the title of “Shaitan” was given, which can be roughly translated as “Enemy”, “Rebel”, “Evil”, or “Devil”. Shaitan then claims that, if the punishment for his act of disobedience is to be delayed until the Day of Judgment, then he will divert many of Adam’s own descendants from the straight path during his period of respite. God accepts the claims of Iblis and guarantees recompense to Iblis and his followers in the form of Hellfire. In order to test mankind and jinn alike, Allah allowed Iblis to roam the earth to attempt to convert others away from his path. He was sent to earth along with Adam and Eve, after eventually luring them into eating the fruit from the forbidden tree.
Actual depictions of Satan don’t appear in the Christian world until it had taken hold in Europe, as late (or early) as the 6th Century. The images showed Satan and his minions as something like black imps, only as the years passed did these primitive images begin to become more and more extreme, exaggerating human features and often used to keep mortals in check by revealing the ultimate in fear. By the Enlightenment, these had matured somewhat to show a more obviously human character imbued with duplicity.
Although the Pagan influence on the depiction of Satan usually centres solely on the adaptation of Pan, other early beliefs led to familiar traits we now regularly associated with the Devil. The horns are possibly a nod to the illicit, highly sexualised view of bulls, or indeed the shape of a crescent moon.
In Northern Europe, Satan is often depicted as being black in colour, the familiar red in Western Europe being attributed not just to the fires of Hell but the blood of Hell-bound sinners. Although regularly featured wearing similarly red clothes, his ‘official’ livery is black and yellow, signifying infection and disease. As religious fervour increased yet further, even greater detail was given to his behaviour; his penchant for playing dice (The Devil’s Bones) or cards (The Devil’s Bible), his love of the dramatic arts and favoured times of day – noon, dusk and midnight. Although associated with the number 666, this is again most likely a mistranslation, the number actually being 616, a numerical value given to the Roman emperor Nero, at the time, seemingly accepted as the Earthly embodiment of the Devil.
An almost unrivalled influence on all aspects of popular culture, Satan is still big news and has many present-day worshippers, loosely divided into two camps; Theistic Satanism, the more traditional worship of the Devil and the accompanying rituals and Atheistic Satanism, now most readily associated with its most famous practitioner, Anton Le Vey (who founded the Church of Satan in the 1960s), actually somewhat distanced from the actual worship of any deities.
Finally, to perhaps ensure maximum bafflement, here are just some of the names Satan also goes by:
Angel of Light
The Black Dog
Father of Lies
King of Tyre
The Old Gentlemen
Potentate of the Pit
Prince of Lies
Prince of the Pit
Daz Lawrence (written by, not one of His names)
Images of Satan in popular 20th century culture: