How Christianity formed the figure of Satan to fight other religions – BBC News

In a historical library in the city of Trier, in Germany, a manuscript was probably made between 800 and 825, which contains a fully illustrated version of the biblical book of the Apocalypse.

An engraving shows the battle of the archangel Michael against the rebellious angels. In that engraving there are two groups of angels: the rebels and those who remained faithful to God.

"The interesting thing is that there is no distinction between both groups, only the position of each in the picture ", says Edin Sued Abumanssur, professor of the department of theology and religious studies of the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo.

"That may be the oldest view of demons known," he says.

"The devil is represented as a huge dragon, but his rebellious and decaded companions are equal to the angels who have dropped them: they have wings, long robes, curly hair, the only thing they miss is the areola," describes the Italian journalist and writer Paola Giovetti in her book "L & # 39; Angelo Caduto" (The Fallen Angel).

According to Abumanssur, in the course of history there is a connection between different political and social moments and the representations of the devil.

"In the field of visual, sculptural or literary art, the attempt to trace a chronological development of the image of the devil will hardly produce good results, there are contradictions and permanences in different ways to represent it, which overlap without clear and plausible criteria "says the professor.

It was almost always depicted until the 11th century with human appearancehe points out. In the West the devil starts from the year 1000 with a grotesque and monstrous appearance, between humans and animals.

Image of the old manuscript preserved in Trier, Germany.
This is the oldest view of the demons we know today.

"In the Middle Ages, the ways of imagining it were not homogeneous: large populations spread out over vast areas, at a time when communication and cultural exchanges were slow, fragmented and of low density, led to the coexistence of different agreements and ideas about the devil, "says the researcher.

"We can say with certainty that from the eleventh century onwards, the non-human qualities of the devil's figure begin to gain some hegemony, although they still survive the representations of fallen angels who are close to the person of man, "says.

The Italian writer and semiologist Umberto Eco discussed this topic in his book "History of Ugliness & # 39 ;.

"It is only from the 11th century that begins to appear as a sample endowed with tail, animal ears, beard and feet of goat and horns, also to acquire bat wings, "he wrote.

Red and with horns

Eco emphasizes that "it also seems obvious, also for traditional reasons, that the devil must be ugly (…). (This devil) ugly, frightening and devilish, makes its entry into the Christian world with the Apocalypse of St. John the Evangelist ".

"It is not that the devil and hell were mentioned in the Old Testament and in the other books of the New Testament, but in those texts the devil is mentioned above all by the actions he performs and the effects he produces", he. the semiologist

"He never appears with the" somatic "evidence with which he will be represented in the Middle Ages," he said.

The most iconic figure of the devil, the being red, with tail, horns and tridentit is a gradual and gradual construction.

Satan's icon
The iconic image of Satan was built little by little.

"From the eleventh century onwards, a process of dogmatic systematization of the figure of the devil in a synthesis attempted to bring together both the theology and the representations of the social imagination of the period while at the same time addressing the need for political needs in a medieval world. that is beginning to fall apart, "says sociologist Abumanssur.

"The devil's extensive iconography bears witness to the theological and political struggle, often violent, which little by little paints the image of a terrible man who subjects men and women to evil."

"The stately and majestic, even inhuman image of the devil, slowly emerges in the process of consolidation of papal power and of the figure of the autocratic king as turrets of strength, able to resist a god of evil, becoming more powerful and antagonist of peace and order, "says the expert.

That image is the mixture of the erudite culture of medieval monks and theologians with the popular culture contaminated with superstition and paganism.

"The hunger, the plagues and the slow collapse of the feudal system worked together so that the devil adopted his inhuman characteristics from the eleventh century," says Abumanssur.

"The assimilation of Greek culture and its gods through Christianity brought contributions such as the horns, goat's feet and tail, characteristics of the god Pan." The arrival of Christianity in the Celtic countries in Northern Europe has helped to reinforce that image, similar to that of the god Cernunnos. "

As the theologian Volney Berkenbrock, professor of religious studies at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora in Brazil, points out that the caricature of the devil as a red and horned being is a consequence of what Christianity tried to combat in the beginning: Greco-Roman convictions.

"In the clashes of cultures – in this case of religions – the symbols of other religions are considered extremely bad and bad, so Satan acquired accessories from those who fought," he explains.

Picture of the head of the god Pan
The devil acquired the horns of the Greek god Pan.

"Christianity, to fight the Greek and Roman religion, he adds horns to the devil for the Greek god Pan, a figure represented as half man, half goat, who seduces young women. And he gives him a trident to fight against Poseidon, the Greek god of the seas – Neptune for the Romans. "

This dichotomy, emphasizes the researcher, is still occurring today. "A typical example is how some Christian churches identify the figure of Exu, of the African religion of the Yoruba, as the devil," he says.

The devil in culture

The cultural representations of the figure of Satan have been recurring since the Middle Ages. Nowadays it is widely used in pop culture, from films to comics.

"In the cinema, the film" El Exorcista ", from 1974, marked a before and after," believes Abumanssur.

From Hebrew origin, the word "satan" means prosecutor or opponent. The oldest use of it therefore does not refer to a figure who is against God, and even less to someone who personifies evil. "He was simply the prosecutor, which today could be called a promoter of justice," emphasizes the theologian Berkenbrock.

"The idea of ​​satan as a personification of evil entered Judaism, probably through Babylonian influence, specifically Zarathustra's religion (Mazdeism), who has a figure who is against God."

The words devil and devil are a legacy of the Greek influence on Christianity. The demon (or daimon) means power, impulse and accidentally identified as a negative force. The devil (diabolos) is the divisor, the one who causes discord.

In her book "The Christ Pantocrator", researcher Wilma Steagall De Tommaso emphasizes that the context in which society lived during the Middle Ages was favorable to creating the image of Satan.

Sistine chapel, in the Vatican.
The "Last Judgment" by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, in the Vatican.

"Human life was always threatened, the daily bales were heavy, death was a constant guide, and the dying man wondered whether eternal life would wait until death or the tortures of hell," he says.

"It was like that the theme of the Last Judgment became the favorite of the eardrums, the arches above the entrance of the church. "They showed God placed parallel to the devil," says Tommaso.

The "Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel, in the Vatican, is also considered the most important fresco of the career of the Renaissance Michelangelo.

Other images

In his book Umberto Eco evokes other representations of the devil.

In ancient Egypt there was the monster Ammut, a hybrid of crocodile, leopard and hippopotamus. The Mesopotamian culture also had references to creatures with animal characteristics.

"As for the Hebrew culture, which directly influences the Christian, it is the devil, assuming the form of a serpent, that tempts Eve into Genesis," said Eco.

Old illustration of Lilith, with snake tail, with Adam and Eve.
Old illustration of Lilith, with snake tail, with Adam and Eve.

"In the Bible we always find references to Lilith, a female monster of Babylonian origin who, in the Hebrew tradition, has one female demon with the face of a woman, long hair and wings. "

Goddess worshiped in Babylon and Mesopotamia, Lilith was associated with winds that, according to someone believed at that time, brought diseases and death. In the old Jewish tradition it appears as a nocturnal demon.

For the Islamists, Lilith was the first woman of the biblical character Adam and was accused of having been the serpent that led Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.


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