A member of the Conjure Corner forums asked for some historical facts about the figure of Satan. The timing is interesting as I am currently doing some work with the Abramelin system of spirit magick. Thus, I decided to put several obscure bits of theological history into one post – and why not archive it here too? So if you’ve ever wondered about that Satan guy, here you go:
Here are some historical facts you will find very fascinating.
- The name Satan comes from the Hebrew Sathan - which means “accuser” or “adversary.” You see, the Israelite people adopted many aspects of Babylonian culture, both before and during the Captivity (about 600 BCE). The Babylonians, meanwhile, are the folks who created the system of law that we use to this very day – including the concept of the prosecuting attorney. This prosecutor’s job was (then, as it is now) to stand in the royal court and bring formal charges against those accused of crimes. And since Babylonian cosmology assumed the heavens worked just like earthly courts, they assumed the Gods sat around in the same kind of court setting – judging the fates of humans. You can see this in the first known record of “Satan” – the Book of Job. There, we meet haSathan (the accuser) hanging out in the Court of God, BS-ing back and forth with the Big Guy Himself. Not only that, but he is quite comfortable with contradicting God and placing bets with Him over the true faithfulness of a human being. What Job reveals is that Satan (or haSathan – his job title) is not in rebellion against God at all, but merely doing the job appointed to him.
-The Jews understood that haSathan was just a title. They believed the name of the entity depicted in the Book of Job was Samael – the poison of God. Samael was not in open rebellion against God, but still firmly in his employ. Most anciently, he seems to have been an Angel of Death (especially violent and untimely death). In the Qabalah and the grimoires that borrowed from it, Samael became the Angel of Mars and Gevurah – thus making him the Angel of War. There are Hebrew midrashim (legends) that suggest Samael once refused to bow down to Adam (the Image of God), and was thus punished. These legends were likely adopted from similar Arabic myths. For his refusal (which was based on his love for God and refusal to worship a mere image) he was cast down to earth and sentenced to serve the roles of Angel of Death and (thanks to his understandable beef with humans) as haSathan. He took his punishment, and does the jobs he was assigned. But he was still a big wig in God’s Court, as illustrated by the Book of Job.
-Lucifer was originally a Roman deity of Venus. Lucifer Morningstar was the herald of the light of dawn. Meanwhile, in ancient Canaan we find the God of Venus is named Helel Ben Shakhar (Helel, Son of the Dawn). Apparently, there is an obscure Canaanite myth wherein Helel attempts to rise up and take the Throne of the Rising Sun from his father Shakhar. He fails and is cast down. Basically, the entire tale is an embodiment of the fact that Venus is the brightest star in the night sky, rises in the East just before the Sun and is finally the *last* star in the sky to fade out in the dawn light. In this sense, the Sun must “defeat” Venus each morning in order to successfully rise. (Which reminds me of the Egyptian Apophis, a serpent-monster that had to be overthrown by Re’s army each and every morning in order for the sun to rise.)
In the book of Isaiah (chapter 14), the prophet makes a comparison between Helel and the king of Babylon, when he says of the Babylonian king, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Helel, Son of the Morning!” Later, the Bible was translated into Latin, and the translator merely looked for a Latin translation of the name “Helel.” He found “Lucifer”, and thus the Lucifer-as-Satan myth was born. The casting down of Helel by his father Shakhar was transformed into the famous tale of Michael (Archangel of the Sun) casting Lucifer down from heaven. Lucifer even takes the form of a dragon very similar to the Egyptian Apophis (which is interesting considering the Egyptian origins of early Christianity).
-The typical “horned and hoofed” image of Satan didn’t come along until the medieval era. The Catholic Church was by then a massive political force in hot competition with any other religion or Mystery Cult it encountered. The Greek and Roman Pagan Mysteries were certainly a target, and so the image of Pan was adopted and demonized as the image of “Satan.” Pan represented everything the Christian Priesthood stood against – sex, drugs, parties, hedonism and pleasure. Pan represents everything that is still animal about the human animal, and his cult encourages a proper ritualized indulgence in that part of ourselves. The Church surely had a hard time stealing members from that cult – so they demonized its followers and invented stories of witch gatherings who worship and have sex with a horrible goat-demon. The Devil was born – and over the years would become associated with all things vile and horrible about humans (violence, rape, torture, etc).
UPDATE: Unfortunately, I skipped a rather important aspect of Satan’s origin story when I first posted this blog. Several of you wrote to me and pointed that I had forgotten about the god Saturn in my analysis. Well, I can’t agree that Saturn – or Chronos in Greek – has much of anything to do with the figure of Satan. (He has more to do with the image of Thanatos, or Death.) However, I also suspect some confusion may have been made between Saturn – the god of Time – and the god Pluto (or Hades in Greek) – the Lord of the Underworld.
Much of the imagery we associate with Satan as the God of the Underworld comes to us from Hades. Take a look at this image of Hades, with his two-pronged pitchfork in hand and cerberus lying at his feet. That is the origin of Satan, ruler of Hell. In Greek mythology, Hades is one of three brothers who possess the world: Zeus who rules the sky and carries a single-pointed spear or thunderbolt, Poseidon who rules the sea and carries a three-pronged harpoon, and Hades who rules the earth (up top and below) and carries the two-pronged pitchfork. Thus, Hades is intimately connected with nature and its seasonal cycles, as well as with underwold concepts such as the dead, treasure and occult initiation.
When we consider this, the Christian concept of Satan as “God of this world” begins to make more sense. He not only rules in Hell – but notice that the grimoires quite often invoke him as the ruler of the natural world as well. Such as we see in the Book of Abramelin – where all the lesser spirits of nature are classed under the authority of Lucifer, Leviathan, Satan and Belial. (This is likely a break-down into astrological triplicity – Fire, Water, Air and Earth respectively.)
Sadly, the Church tended to see anything associated with nature as evil – as evidenced by its demonization of Pan. The same happened with Hades/Pluto, so that the once-venerated Lord of the Underworld became the feared and despised demonic Satan. Still, the grimoires do seem to preserve some of the older concepts – focusing on Satan in his Hades/Pan aspect as ruler of nature.
-As for Satanists: The actual ‘Church of Satan’, founded by Anton LaVey, is strictly atheist. They view the Church (and in fact all religion and spirituality) as a major historical enemy of humankind. They also realize that Satan (as the Devil/Pan) embodies many things that are natural and beautiful to the human animal. Therefore, they elevate Satan as a fitting symbol of opposition to everything Christianity (as a political force of mass control) has done to the world. They do not believe in any actual entity by that name, nor in God, etc. Even their witchcraft is strictly of the psychological type.
There was once a sub-group of Satanists who believed in an actual entity named Satan. They assumed that Satan traces back to Egyptian concepts of the War God Set (which is only partially true), and thus began to worship Satan as the ancient Egyptian deity. This caused a row in the Church of Satan, as atheism is a strict rule of the Church. So the group broke away and established the Temple of Set. I think they draw a lot from Crowley’s Thelemic material.
-I assume there are also true “Satanists” – that is, those who worship the Christian Satan *as* the embodiment of evil and hatred, etc, etc – but I’m not personally aware of any official groups. To my knowledge, most of these types are teens (either alone or in small groups) looking to freak out their parents and teachers. lol
-Finally, there is also a Luciferian tradition – about which I know little. However, I’m fairly certain the tradition refers to the original Roman deity Lucifer Morningstar, the perfectly benevolent Herald of the Dawn. Someone else might correct me here, but I think they associate Lucifer with other figures like Prometheus (who brought fire to mankind from heaven).