Lucifer, Satan, Father of Lies, Prince of Darkness…the Devil goes by many names, and almost all of them sound like Scandinavian heavy metal bands. In Christian religious writings, the Devil is a fallen angel that rules over hell.
So what does the Devil actually look like? And is it even possible to talk about Satan and Christianity without offending a whole bunch of people? Well, we sent our world-class team of researchers through a portal to hell to find out. And we expect them back any day now.
Most Christians today have an image of the Devil as a red, horned creature.
What does the Bible actually say about the fallen angel that became the Devil?
Well, surprisingly, not a whole lot. In fact, the Bible alludes to the fact that the Devil doesn’t have a specific physical form at all.
In essence, the Bible describes the Devil as a spirit being with no physical form. When the book refers to angels – of which the Devil is a fallen one – it refers to them as spirits.
Furthermore, since Satan is depicted as a master of deception and manipulation, he, she, or them – we will use the traditional historical “he” for the purposes of this article – can apparently take many forms. And what better disguise is there for manipulation purposes than appearing as a beautiful angelic being?
In 2 Corinthians 11:14, the passage reads, “and no marvel; for even Satan fashions himself into an angel of light.”
Many Christians believe that the first time the Devil appears in the Bible is early on, in Genesis 3. According to your one aunt who disapproves of you living with your girlfriend, the serpent that tricks Adam and Eve into falling from grace is the Devil, or at least possessed by the Devil.
This is taken from a line in Revelation 20:2 that says, “he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.”
This unfortunate reference would go on to give a bad reputation to snakes everywhere. Well…the poison doesn’t help either. Nor does the movie “Anaconda”.
Some modern scholars dispute that the Devil took the shape of a snake.
Or, again, even that the Devil was that important in the Bible at all. Henry Ansgar Kelly, a UCLA professor who published “Satan: A Biography”, believes our current interpretation and image of Satan is all wrong.
According to Kelly, not only is Satan not nearly as important or ubiquitous in the Bible as most Christians currently believe, but he’s also not such a uniformly evil character, and certainly not the antithesis of God.
In the 45 books that make up the pre-Christian scriptures, Kelly only counts three direct references to Satan. That’s about as often as you’d mention the weird barista at your local coffee shop in a biography of your life.
Furthermore, in these books, Satan’s job “is to test people’s virtue and to report their failures”, according to Kelly. Even when the word Lucifer appears in the bible, Kelly explains that Lucifer was latin for “light-bearer”, and is unlikely to be a reference to Satan.
Rather, it’s the name the book gives to various other entities, such as Venus and the morning star. So any description of Lucifer can’t be used as an accurate assessment of the Devil’s appearance.
Going back to Adam and Eve, Kelly believes the Revelations passage that casts Satan as a serpent is mistranslated and misunderstood. “Nobody in the Old Testament – or, for that matter, in the New Testament either – ever identifies the serpent of Eden with Satan.”
Christian philosophers of the second and third centuries were the ones who originally attributed all these references to Satan, as they considered him a figure of great importance.
If all that is true, then where did our ugly, horned, horrifying vision of the Devil come from?
Turns out, a lot of it was due to one pissed-off Italian literary genius named Dante Alighieri.
Dante, as those who were at least partially awake in World Literature classes know, wrote “The Divine Comedy” between 1308 and 1320. The narrative poem, now considered one of the best works of literature in history, was divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso.
Because a lot of Italian really is just about adding O’s to English words, these mean, as you may have guessed: hell, purgatory, and paradise. Therefore, the book included a lot of descriptions of the Devil.
In Dante’s “Inferno”, the Devil is grotesque. He is a giant, winged demon, frozen in ice up to his chest, trapped in the center of hell. In Dante’s disturbing vision, Satan has three heads, each with a pair of bat wings under each chin. To top it all off, his three mouths are always chewing on the following historical figures: Judas Iscariot, Marcus Junius Brutus, and Gaius Cassius Longinus.
Judas was, of course, the disciple that betrayed Jesus, Marcus Junius Brutus was of “et tu, Brutus?” Caesar-killing fame, and Cassius was the guy that started the Caesar-killing plot along with him.
As gross as this vision of the Devil sounds, Dante’s version of the Father of Lies was a little more pathetic than in other descriptions. Dante envisions Satan as a slobbering, wordless demon subject to the same terrifying punishments of hell he is doling out.
Furthermore, Dante emphasizes that Satan once used to be beautiful until he rebelled against God. A line from the poem states, “Were he as fair once, as he now is foul”.
Another medieval book, the Codex Gigas, also has very detailed images of the Devil.
Codex Gigas, which means “Giant Book”, is also nicknamed “The Devil’s Bible”. Given that the tome weighs a staggering 165 pounds, we actually think that “Giant Book” is the more accurate of the two names. We have also never been so grateful for Kindles.
Throughout the several, several, hundred pages of the book, the devil is depicted with a greenish face bearing red horns, eyes, and claws.
This comes closer to our modern image of the Devil. But according to some scholars, it turns out Christianity also borrowed bits and pieces from other religions and belief systems to fill in the Bible’s blanks.
Bernard Barryte has curated an exhibit titled “Sympathy for the Devil” at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, which somehow escaped the notice of Mick Jagger’s legal team. Barryte says, “bits and pieces from lots of now-defunct religions got synthesized: the cloven feet from Pan, the horns from the gods of various cults in the near east.”
This image was highly popular in the 15th and 16th centuries, which depicted the Devil as the sworn enemy of Christianity and of all mankind. A horned, furry beast, barely human in appearance.
As we dive further in, the research shows that the image of the Devil, besides being influenced by important literary and artistic works of each era, changed along with the interpretation of what the Devil symbolized.
For example, John Milton’s work “Paradise Lost” drew Satan as a sad figure deserving of pity. This depiction, combined with the effects of the French and American Revolution, led to images of the Devil as a more human character. As Barryte says, “people interpreted the figure less as a demonic creature and more as a heroic rebel against the oppression of the paternal god.”
People wanted to remove the superstitious look of the Devil.
At this point in time, many Christians wanted to remove the superstitious elements of their religion altogether, considering them a bit backwards. Therefore, this new, more human look for the Devil suited them just fine.
By the 19th century, Goethe’s “Faust” leaned into the image of the Devil as a sly, cunning manipulator.
At this point, the image of Satan switches to a more weasley-looking trickster. Many bronze statues of this era depict him as a thin, drawn, frequently hunched over man with the pointed feature.
One thing many depictions share in common is the color red. That’s usually a theme for images of Satan, which makes sense as he rules over a place where the fire is eternally burning and people are bleeding from being tortured.
Some Christians believe that the Devil still occasionally walks the Earth, presenting himself in the form of demonic possessions. Popular shows and cartoons show him carrying a trident and wearing a red cape. A few last-minute, ahem, “sexy” Halloween costumes depict him in a red bodysuit and horns, wearing nothing much else at all, and prone to being fined for public intoxication.
Nowadays, many works of art depict the Devil as embodied by a person or institution, right here on Earth.
The Devil has been depicted as a tailor sewing Nazi uniforms in Jerome Witkin’s “The Devil as Tailor”, or even as a red-clad papal figure next to a bloody woman in “Heaven and Hell”.
In fact, as corruption and sex scandals came to light regarding the Catholic Church, it became common to depict the Devil as existing within the church itself, or at least its important figureheads.
Whether drawn by religious Christians or non-religious artists, as society moves more towards addressing issues and injustices right here on Earth, the concept of the Devil appears more and more in human form. Brutal dictators, genocidal psychopaths, and serial predators are all seen as evil to the point of non-comprehension. Aka…”they have the Devil inside them.”
However, the concept of an evil spirit, religious or otherwise, is hardly unique to Christianity.
Most cultures and religions around the globe have a being similar to “the Devil”, and each has its unique take on what this spirit may look like.
Islamic mythology speaks of a demonic creature below the level of angels and devils called the Jinn, a spirit that can take human or animal form. They live in inanimate objects and are responsible for mental illnesses, destruction, accidents, and other maladies. In English, we know them as…genies. Clearly, Disney sanitized this creature a bit for its movies.
In many Caribbean countries, their folklore speaks of evil spirits known as Jumbees. These Jumbees come in all different shapes and sizes, and carry different intentions as well.
In Guyana, native people speak of the Massacooramanis, a large, excessively hairy man-like creature that boasts a sharp set of teeth protruding from its mouth. He always lives in rivers, where he drags boats into the water and feasts on the men inside.
The Moongazer, on the other hand, comes out only during the full moon. He looks like an extremely tall, slim, muscular man who straddles a road and stares at the moon. Anyone who tries to pass the road underneath him instantly gets crushed to death. And really, if you see a naked 8-foot tall creature straddling a road and try to pass it anyway, your death might be a little bit on you.
The terrifying spirit of all is the Dutchman Jumbee. It, unfortunately, makes sense that indigenous and Black Caribbeans would name the most horrifying demon after the colonizers that enslaved and slaughtered them.
These Jumbees are said to be the spirits of Dutchmen who killed and buried slaves. They reside in Dutchman trees, and if anyone climbs these trees, the Dutchman will make them horribly ill, break their bones, or even kill them.
Some of the strangest-looking devils in the world might be the Baku of Japan.
According to Japanese legends, the gods created the Baku with all the leftover parts they had after completing the rest of the animal kingdom.
In one manuscript, the Baku is said to have an elephant’s trunk, rhinoceros’ eyes, an ox’s tail, and a tiger’s paws. Other illustrations show it with an elephant’s head and tusks, claws, a hairy body, and horns.
The Baku isn’t necessarily all bad. Children in Japan would call on the Baku to come to eat their nightmares. However, the legends warned that people who called on the Baku too often would make the creature too hungry, and it would end up eating their dreams, hopes, and desires, leaving their life empty and miserable.
So the next time you dream that you are naked in class and forgot to study for the past four years of school while your crush points and laughs at you…maybe just deal with it on your own.
The Devil has taken many shapes throughout Christianity and other histories.
Frequently, the Devil changes appearance depending on the beliefs of the time, holding a mirror to what role religion is playing in society during each era rather than having one fixed appearance.
Now that you hopefully have a good grasp on how to identify the Devil and various other demons, as well as several images to fill your nightmares tonight – remember, don’t call on the Baku unless you really need it.
Featured image: Hell and Devil by upklyak on Freepik.com