Mankind Beset by the Devils (1500-1504). Attributed to Hieronymus Bosch.
Mankind Beset by the Devils (1500-1504). Attributed to Hieronymus Bosch.
The Devil is the name given to a supernatural entity, who, in most Western religions, is the central embodiment of evil. This entity is commonly referred to by a variety of other names, including Satan, Asmodai, Beelzebub, Lucifer and/or Mephistopheles. In classic demonology, however, each of these alternate names refers to a specific supernatural entity, and there is significant disagreement as to whether any of these specific entities is actually evil.

The English word devil derives via Middle English devel and Old English dēofol and Latin Diábolus, from Late Greek Diabolos, meaning, slanderer, from diaballein, to slander: dia-, across + ballein, to hurl. The term devil can refer to a greater demon in the hierarchy of Hell.

In other languages devil may be derived from the same Proto-Indo-European root word for deva, which roughly translates as “angel”. However, a “deva” or “diva” is not a devil.

Some scholars believe that the notion of a central supernatural embodiment of evil, as well as the notion of angels, first arose in Western monotheism when Judaism came into contact with the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Much like classical monotheism, Zoroastrianism has one supreme God, and an evil spirit who chose to be evil, locked in a cosmic struggle where both are more or less evenly matched, though from the beginning Ahura Mazda’s triumph is foretold; making Zoroastrianism an ethical dualism. Ahura Mazda (“Wise Lord”), also later known as Ormazd in Middle Persian, is the God of light, or Truth, and Angra Mainyu (“Evil Spirit”), also later known as Ahriman in Middle Persian, is the primeval Spirit of darkness, or the Lie. In a final battle between the forces of good and evil, human souls will be judged in a fiery ordeal of molten metal where the good will pass through as if it were warm milk and those who chose evil will be purified and all will be reunited in the new perfected world. Accordingly, humans are urged to align themselves with Ormazd and his Yazatas (“angels”) and to shun His adversary who is the ruler of darkness and his demons, so that they may facilitate the final renovation (Frashō-kereti).

Christianity views Satan as an angel cast from heaven by God, for being prideful, deceitful, and the tempter: all strikingly similar to the story of Ahriman.

Concept of the devil in world religions


Christianity understands the Devil in the context of the Old Testament. Unlike Manichaeism which teaches a coeval dualism, Christians see the devil as a corrupted or fallen angel. He was Lucifer, an angel in authority before the Creation who fell because of pride and because he waged a war against God.

Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, said:

“An angel or any other rational creature considered in his own nature, can sin; and to whatever creature it belongs not to sin, such creature has it as a gift of grace, and not from the condition of nature. The reason of this is, because sinning is nothing else than a deviation from that rectitude which an act ought to have; whether we speak of sin in nature, art, or morals. That act alone, the rule of which is the very virtue of the agent, can never fall short of rectitude. Were the craftsman’s hand the rule itself engraving, he could not engrave the wood otherwise than rightly; but if the rightness of engraving be judged by another rule, then the engraving may be right or faulty.” (ST I.63.1, italics added)

Commonly-quoted Bible-texts are:

The grave below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you — all those who were leaders in the world; it makes them rise from their thrones — all those who were kings over the nations. They will all respond, they will say to you, “You also have become weak, as we are; you have become like us.” All your pomp has been brought down to the grave, along with the noise of your harps; maggots are spread out beneath you and worms cover you. How you have fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit. Those who see you stare at you, they ponder your fate: “Is this the man who shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble, the man who made the world a desert, who overthrew its cities and would not let his captives go home?” (Isaiah 14:9-17 – this is commonly held to be a dual prophecy about the King of Babylon and Satan)

“And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down — that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” (Revelation 12:7-9)

The epic poem by John Milton, Paradise Lost, has a stylized depiction of the devil that influenced C. S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters and Space Trilogy), and the J. R. R. Tolkien characters Melkor and Sauron.


In Hebrew, the biblical word ha-satan means adversary or obstacle, or even “the prosecutor” (recognizing that God is viewed as the ultimate Judge).

In the book of Job (Iyov), ha-satan is the title, not the proper name, of an angel submitted to God; he is the divine court’s chief prosecutor. In Judaism ha-satan does not make evil, rather points out to God the evil inclinations and actions of humankind. In essence ha-satan has no power unless humans do evil things. After God points out Job’s piety, ha-satan asks for permission to test the faith of Job. The righteous man is afflicted with loss of family, property, and later, health, but he still stays faithful to God. At the conclusion of this book God appears as a whirlwind, explaining to all that divine justice is inscrutable with human intellect. In the epilogue Job’s possessions are restored and he has a second family to “replace” the one that died.

There is no evidence in Torah, or in the books of the Prophets and other writings, to suggest that God created an evil being. In fact, the Book of Isaiah, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Deuteronomy all have passages which God is credited for creating both the good and the evil of this world.

The Hebrew word for evil used above is usually translated as ‘calamity’, ‘disaster’ or ‘chaos’.

Names of the devil

The original names

Originally, only the epithet of “the satan” or “the adversary” was used to denote the character in the Hebrew deity’s court that later became known as “the Devil”. The article was lost and this title became a proper name: Satan. There is no unambiguous basis for the Devil in the Torah, the Prophets, or the Writings.

Zechariah 3:1–“And he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and ha-satan standing at his right hand to resist him.” This reading has since been erroneously interpreted by some to mean Satan, “the Devil”, but such is not the case. The Hebrew Bible views ha-satan as an angel ministering to the desires of God, acting as Chief Prosecutor.

  • The tempter: Matthew 4:3–“And when the tempter came to him.” None escape his temptations. He is continually soliciting men to sin.
  • In Matthew 10:25, Matthew 12:24, Mark 3:22, and openly in Luke 11:18-19 there is an implied connection between Satan and Beelzebub (originally a Semitic deity called Hadad, and referred to as Baal-zebul, meaning lord of princes) Beelzebub (lit. Lord of the Flies) has now come to be analogous to Satan.
  • The wicked one: Matthew 13:19–“Then cometh the wicked one.” Matthew 6:13; 1_John 5:19. This title suggests that Satan is one who is wicked himself. Abrahamic religions generally regarded sin as a physical manifestation of opposition to God, and therefore evil; dissent only comes from the topic of ‘where does sin come from?’
  • In John 12:31 and John 14:30 Satan is called Prince of this World (Rex Mundi); this became a nickname for him.
  • In 2_Corinthians 6:15 the Devil is referred as Belial. “What agreement does Christ have with Belial?”
  • 1_Peter 5:8–“Your adversary the devil.” By adversary is meant one who takes a stand against another. In the Christian worldview, Satan is the adversary of both God and humanity.
  • The Devil, diabolos: This name is ascribed to Satan at least 33 times in the Christian scriptures and indicates that Satan is an accuser or slanderer (Rev. 12:9).
  • The Dragon or The Old Serpent: These epithets are used extensively in the Book of Revelation.
  • The Beast (Revelations 13:1-18) is a term John the Evangelist used to refer to a “puppet” of the dragon’s (Satan); this name appears several times in the book of Revelation, and it became another nickname for Satan.
  • Abaddon or Apollyon: Referred to in Revelations 9:11, commonly interpreted as the name of Satan in Hebrew and Greek respectively. However, the actual Abaddon mentioned in the Book of Revelation is the name of an angel “holding the key to the Abyss”, so the original text does not originally point to Satan.

There are some who erroneously claim that the word ‘devil’ is from ‘d’evil’ -‘of evil.’ Some also believe that because the word ‘evil’ itself is ‘live’ spelt backward, the word originated through the nature of evil being “against living things,” or the antithesis of life itself. Both claims are false, as the words are etymologically derived from pre-existing languages.

Further development

When the Bible was translated into Latin (the Vulgate), the name Lucifer appeared as a translation of “Morning Star”, or the planet Venus, in Isaiah 14:12. Isaiah 14:1-23 is a passage largely concerned with the plight of Babylon, and its king is referred to as “morning star, son of the dawn”. This is because the Babylonian king was considered to be of godly status and of symbolic divine parentage (Bel and Ishtar, associated with the planet Venus).

While this information is available to scholars today via translated Babylonian cuneiform text taken from clay tablets, it was not as readily available at the time of the Latin translation of the Bible. Thus, early Christian tradition interpreted the passage as a reference to the moment Satan was thrown from Heaven. Lucifer became another name for Satan and has remained so due to Christian dogma and popular tradition.

The Hebrew Bible word which was later translated to “Lucifer” in English is הילל (transliterated HYLL). Though this word, Heilel, has come to be translated as “morning-star” from the Septuagint’s translation of the Scriptures, the letter ה in Hebrew often indicates singularity, much as the English “the,” in which case the translation would be ה “the” ילל “yell,” or “the wailing yell.”

Later, for unknown reasons, Christian demonologists appeared to designate “Satan”, “Lucifer”, and “Beelzebub” as different entities, each with a different rank in the hellish hierarchy. One hypothesis is that this might have been an attempt to establish a hellish trinity with the same person, akin to the Christian Trinity of Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, but most demonologists do not carry this view.

  • Sitanel: A mixture of ‘Sitan’ (honest) and ‘el’ (god).
  • samael: Again, a name thought to have been the personal name of satan before he fell from heaven although more through myth than fact.
  • satanael: A nickname for the devil most commonly used by non-authodox christians. It is the result of the marriage of the name “satan” and the suffix “ael”, a term found very commonly on the end of an angel’s name.

In Christian tradition

Christian tradition differs from that of Christian demonology in that Satan, Lucifer, Leviathan and Beelzebub all are names that refer to “the Devil”, and Prince of this World, The Beast and Dragon (and rarely Serpent or The Old Serpent) use to be elliptic forms to refer to him. The Enemy, The Evil One and The Tempter are other elliptic forms to name the Devil. Belial is held by many to be another name for the Devil. Christian demonology, in contrast, does not have several nicknames for Satan.

It should be noted that the name Mephistopheles is used by some people to refer to the Devil, but it is a mere folkloric custom, and has nothing to do with Christian demonology and Christian tradition. Prince of Darkness and Lord of Darkness are also folkloric names, although they tend to be incorporated to Christian tradition.

The medieval Cathars identified the devil with the demiurge of older gnostic and Neoplatonic tradition. Earlier sects believed the Old Testament Yahweh was, in fact, the devil, based partially on ethical interpretations of the Bible and partially on the beliefs of earlier gnostic sects (such as the Valentinians) who regarded the god of the Old Testament as evil or as an imperfect Demiurge. Early Gnostics called the Demiurge Yao, the Aramaic cognate to the Tetragrammaton, YHWH (Yahweh). Moreover, modern research into Ugaritic texts revealed that the names of the Jewish god were the same as earlier gods worshipped in the same region; Yahweh is cognate to Ugaritic Yaw who was the Semitic deity of chaos, evil, and world domination.


  • The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels (Vintage Books, New York 1995) explores the development, the “demonization” of the character of Satan against the background of the bitter struggle between the early Church and the Synagogue to be the legitimate heir of ancient Hebrew religious tradition. She discusses how Satan becomes a figure that reflects our own hatreds and prejudices, and the struggle between our loving selves and our fearful, combative selves.
  • The Old Enemy: Satan & the Combat Myth, by Neil Forsyth (Princeton, New Jersey, 1987) seeks to show how Satan emerged from ancient mythological traditions and is best understood not as a principle of evil, but as a narrative character in the context of “the Combat Myth”. Forsyth tells the Devil’s story from the Epic of Gilgamesh through to the writings of St. Augustine.
  • The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, by Jeffrey Burton Russell (Meridian, New York 1977) is “a history of the personification of evil” which, to make things clear, he calls “the Devil”. Accessible and engaging, full of photographs illustrating the text, this is the first of a four volume series on the history of the concept of the Devil. The following volumes are, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages, and Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World.
  • The Devil in Legend and Literature, by Maximilian Rudwin (Open Court, La Salle, Illinois, 1931, 1959) is a compendium of “the secular and sacred adventures of Satan”. Engaging, wide-ranging and good-humored (and out-of-print for thirty years), this “classic” was re-printed in 1989.

External links

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It uses material from the Wikipedia article “Devil“.