When Peter Stanford wrote The Devil: A Biography in 1996, a non-fiction book whose premise doesn’t need much explaining, it sold remarkably well. Following its success, his publisher sat him down and said, “Ooh, we should do the opposite now, shouldn’t we?” Stanford went and wrote Heaven: A Traveller’s Guide to the Undiscovered Country. “Hardly sold at all,” he says.
Famously, and as Stanford discovered, we are far more interested in Satan than God. “The Devil has all the best tunes”, “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company” and other such well-worn lines attest to what we all know to be true: sinners are more interesting than saints.
A recent high-profile example of this trend is Lucifer, an American TV series whose fifth and penultimate series aired on Netflix in August. The show casts the Devil as a handsome nightclub owner (played by the British actor Tom Ellis), who has moved from Hell to Los Angeles, where he acts as a consultant to the city’s police department.
Lucifer agonises over whether Chloe, the detective he loves, will be able to bear his true devil face (considerably more burnt and unattractive than his human one). By and large, though, this Satan is nothing to fear: he is one of us, except more charming, strong and attractive. Because it is absolutely not apparent from his appearance, Lucifer tends to say, “I am the Devil” in almost every episode.
There was once a time when such a sympathetic portrayal of the Horned One would have been unthinkable. How did we get here?
It was only in the “very very very late books” of the Hebrew scriptures that a Devil figure appeared, Stanford tells me.
There is one in the Book of Daniel. In the Book of Job, the “tempter” who wants God to challenge Job’s faith by stripping him of his wealth and family is the Devil, a prosecutor on the divine council whose role is to highlight a person’s failings.
But, with some exceptions in its early days, Judaism never really needed Satan. Today, most Jews wouldn’t claim to believe in the Devil that, thanks to Christianity’s seismic influence, most of us readily understand: the external, malevolent demon who rules over Hell.
Christianity put a face and a personality on something that had been intangible, says Stanford. In the Epistles of Paul, Satan is revealed to have been the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and in the Book of Revelation he is characterised as a dragon.
It was Christianity that began to conceptualise Satan as an external living being – convenient, Stanford says, because if you murder someone you can always blame the Devil sitting on your shoulder. This version of Satan as existing in flesh and blood would have far-reaching implications for literature, art and films in the years to come.
When he was depicted in early Western art, the Devil sometimes shared characteristics with the pagan gods whom Christians demonised as being responsible for natural disasters: he had goat legs like Pan, or facial hair like Bes, an ancient Egyptian dwarf god. Satan has almost exclusively been depicted as male, but still othered: he is an animal.
In early Christianity he was reptilian and beastly. As the Church grew in power, having become the official religion of the Roman Empire, it enforced its dictates through fear, as many populist politicians still do today. The ultimate threat, says Stanford, was: “The Devil is waiting for you.”
Satan has always been a product of his time. It was in the Middle Ages that the character began to acquire the traits we now identify as quintessential. Above their chancel arches, mediaeval churches bore a picture of the harrowing of Hell – the period of time between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in which he descended into the underworld. “It was a real control mechanism,” says Stanford. “They wanted to terrify people.”
The hook-nose began to appear, playing into anti semitic stereotypes to reinforce the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. In Michael Pacher’s 15th-century painting “The Devil Presenting St Augustine with the Book of Vices” we see a figure intended to disgust: unusually, he is green, but has cloven hooves, horns, red eyes, fangs and reptilian wings. For some reason, he also has a face on his bottom.
The prospect of Hell seemed like a very real threat. But surprisingly it was also around this period that the most prominent comic presentations of Satan took hold. “There was always a comic element to him, otherwise he wouldn’t have got defeated all the time,” says Diarmaid MacCulloch, an academic specialising in the history of Christianity. In mediaeval mystery plays, Satan was often a laughable character who farted and fell over.
This, says Stanford, relieved the pressure created by the Church’s intense and uncompromising portrayal. Crucially, Satan was always a villain – and an unattractive one – who was not portrayed as being enticing.
A lot changed with the Renaissance, a period when individual agency was emphasised. “What the Renaissance was saying was that individual human beings had capacity; you got away from that collective idea that we’re all doomed,” says Stanford.
If someone was going to seduce you away from the path of righteousness, it would be someone who looked like you. Here we see the beginnings of the idea that runs through the modern hit Lucifer: that the Devil is the person you know.
In 1667, John Milton irrevocably altered Satan’s image by essentially making him the hero of his epic poem on the fall of man. “In Paradise Lost, the Devil is incredibly seductive and good-looking and rather magnificent,” says Stanford. Consciously or not, depictions of Lucifer today owe much to this text.
As religion’s grip began to loosen in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Church stopped presenting Satan as a repulsive figure with horns and a tail. One of the effects of the Enlightenment was to expunge Christianity of these mediaeval relics, ushering in a more terrestrial vision of evil. Religion began to present the Devil as “a trickster in disguise”, says Stanford.
Here we see the inspiration for the more irreverent portrayals of the modern era: Harvey Keitel in Little Nicky; the character in The Simpsons who says “Boy, is my face red”; South Park’s version, in which he is depicted as Saddam Hussein’s abusive gay lover.
Needless to say, the latter in particular relied on centuries’ worth of dwindling clerical influence. “I suspect there is a relationship somewhere,” says Stanford, “between the decline of organised religion in western culture and laughing at the devil.”
In Peter Cook’s character (and, later, Elizabeth Hurley’s) in the film Bedazzled, the point of the Devil is that he – and, significantly, she – is good-looking. How else would he manage to seduce people over to the dark side?
The Church has “stopped playing its Devil card to frighten people”, says Stanford. This means that today, to present the Devil as a handsome nightclub owner, as Lucifer does, is playful but no longer risky.
“Most of western Christianity now has abandoned the idea of Hell,” says MacCulloch, “so its custodian is not as worrying for believing Christians as he used to be.” The fact that Satan is so preposterous to a contemporary audience actually makes him harder to lampoon. A more popular conception of evil today is not a fiery man with horns, but instead something that lurks in the hearts of those who commit unfathomable atrocities.
Satan is an enduring symbol, and one that is hardly likely to disappear from popular culture. But in the modern era, it would seem that attention is shifting to the evil of our fellow man, as the explosion in the popularity of true crime documentaries demonstrates.
The Devil was born out of a need to put a face to evil. In his absence, it may simply wear a different mask.