- Although infamous today, the character of Satan has been reinvented many times over the course of human history.
- Generally speaking, he developed from Dante and Milton’s tragic and misguided villain into Goethe’s and Bulgakov’s sardonic antihero.
- When placed side by side, these iterations can tell us a great deal about the time of their creators.
by Tim Brinkhof
By taking Satan out of the religious context, storytellers explored the nature of sin in new ways.
Given how familiar we are with Satan today, it may come as a surprise to learn that the concept of the “great opposer” was not embedded in the Abrahamic religions from the very beginning. Instead, the character evolved slowly over time, his origin story becoming a mishmash of different Eurasian myths, and his relationship to God and man changing in accordance with society itself.
While some theologians argue that the snake in Eden was actually Satan, the actual text of the Book of Genesis contains no mention of his name or likeness. In the Torah, Satan makes his first explicit appearance during events of the Book of Job. Here, he appears as a loyal albeit snarky angel that was tasked with filling the human world with obstacles that forced its inhabitants to chose between good and evil.
In her book, The Origins of Satan, religious historian Elaine Pagels argues that Satan did not become a true antagonist to God until the 1st century. Looking to unite the Jewish followers of Christ during their relentless persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire, Gospel writers adopted an us-versus-them narrative that depicted their oppressors as incarnations of the Devil himself.
As the personification of evil — be it mindful or mindless — Satan soon began appearing in nonreligious writings. Placing this larger-than-life figure outside of the scriptures in which he was first introduced, these storytellers not only influenced our thoughts on the nature of sin, but also taught us a thing or two about the religious institutions that have claimed to protect us from it.
The Divine Comedy – Satan
One of the most famous depictions of Satan outside of religious texts can be found in Dante’s Divine Comedy, where he is depicted as a fearsome, three-headed beast. Entrapped in an icy lake (frozen, ironically, by the frantic flapping of his own wings), the once beautiful Angel of Light consumes the greatest traitors in Christian and Italian history: Judas Iscariot, and Brutus and Cassius, Julius Caesar’s assassins.
Located at the very center of hell, Dante’s Satan is further removed from heaven than any other being in the Divine Comedy. This is fitting, considering Dante portrays him as God’s inverse. Both, noticeably, are presented as immovable movers: beings that, like stars, attract others while they themselves remain in stasis. However, while God stays put by the power of his own volition, Satan remains stuck.
The punishment this Satan received for his rebellion against God is nothing short of poetic. The imprisoned giant, incapable of speech or thought, is a far cry from the angel which had been described in the Book of Revelation, who chose free will over servitude to God and used his cunning and charisma to start a rebellion in the court of heaven.
Not only was Satan’s rebellion unsuccessful, but it actually caused him to end up in the very situation he had wanted to avoid. Conversely, the most unsettling thing about this iteration of the character isn’t the punishment to which he has been subjected, but the sheer fact that he is rendered incapable of grasping his own terrible fate.
Paradise Lost – Lucifer
Lucifer, the antagonist of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, is often considered as one of the most striking characters in all of British literature. As far as depictions of Satan in modern media are concerned including the titularly titled Netflix show as well as series such as Breaking Bad and Peaky Blinders, Milton’s version of the character – mobile and full of personality – has proven to be far more influential.
As with Dante, Milton’s poetic genius was so great that he was essentially able to add his own chapters to a religious narrative that had been passed down for centuries. In the poem, he attempts no less than to offer an alternative version to the book of Genesis, built around the theme of “Man’s disobedience, and loss thereupon of Paradise.”…