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The Death of Satan
How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil
By Andrew Delbanco

Chapter One: The Old Enemy Comes to the New World

Once, Satan was understood to be everywhere. But when he attacked, he gave the "fatal stab unseen," and his slyness--his very essence--was confirmed by the difficulty of recognizing him. This was always true of him, as Baudelaire made clear in his famous remark that the devil's cleverest wile is to convince us that he does not exist. One way to track the approach of modernity is to follow the devil's decline into invisibility, a process that has seemed, for centuries, as ominous as it was inevitable and that began a long time ago. "It is a policy of the Devil," remarked one Englishman in the years before the first American settlements, "to persuade us that there is no Devil."i As long ago as 1600, Satan had embarked on his modern project of feigning humility.

He had once been a braggart crowing in God's throne, as in the medieval mystery plays: "Aha, that I am wondrous bright . . . / All in this throne if that I were / Then should I be as wise as he." But by the time of the high Elizabethan drama of Marlowe and Shakespeare two centuries later, he has put on a disguise or stepped behind the curtain; he has become the debonair Mephistopheles and the poisonous whisperer, Iago. Yet a millennium before, in the early Christian era and into the Middle Ages, when the air was thought to be so thick with demons that a needle dropped from heaven would have to pierce one on its way down, his appearance and attributes had already been subject to fierce debate. This was in part because there was no sacred text in the Judeo-Christian tradition hat exhibited him with entire clarity. "We gather not from the four gospels alone any high-raised fancies concerning this Satan," Melville remarked many centuries later, "we only know him from thence as the personification of the essence of evil."

Scripture, of course, is full of images of evil--the serpent of Genesis; the Lucifer of Isaiah; Beelzebub in the Gospel of Luke; St. Paul's Belial, the "prince of the power of the air," and the devil who speaks to Christ like a pimp: "All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it." But the devil as a figure of identifiable aspect exists in the Bible only sporadically and in fragments that only later were assembled into a unified concept.

It took centuries for this to happen. The Christian devil emerged slowly as the amalgamation of all the scriptural elements--a process that can be followed at the linguistic as well as the doctrinal level. The Hebrew word Satan, which means obstructor or adversary, is given in the Book of Job to the agent of God who is sent to test Job's constancy, and to the obstacle against which David must prove his kingship in the first Book of Chronicles. This Satan, as one writer genially puts it, has "access to Heaven . . . and [is] evidently on good terms with the Almighty." When the Old Testament was rendered into Greek in the third century, the Greek word diabolos (from dia-bollein, to tear apart) was chosen to translate this Hebrew Satan, and at the same time a different Greek word, satanas, was used in the New Testament to denote, not a tempter sent by God to test men, but an enemy of God himself. This new Satan appears most vividly in the Book of Revelation as "that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan . . . cast out into the earth." (Still another word, daimon, was used to signify various evil spirits from the Hebrew texts, such as the demon bride in the apocryphal Book of Tobit.) To compound the confusion, the Greek diabolos and satanas were both rendered as "Satan" in the Tudor-Stuart English translations, culminating with the standard King James version of 1604. By the later Renaissance, therefore, when the Bible had become the central vernacular text of every literate Englishman, a permanent consolidation of subtly different meanings had taken place, and Satan had reemerged as a unified contradiction, an inherently paradoxical creature.

But even before the contaminations of translation, he had already been ambiguous in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Book of Job he has a certain independence, standing apart from the other "sons of God," and answering God's query "Whence comest thou?" with a renegade's insolence: "From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it." When God takes up this gambit, and holds up his servant

Job as "a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and eschewethevil," Satan concentrates his insolence into a specific taunt, daring God to test Job by tormenting him: "Put forth thine hand now, and touch all that [job] hath, and he will curse thee to thy face." Thus begins the contest over Job's endurance--initiated by a cheeky, meddling Satan who doubts the possibility that a faithful man can exist in the world, and who thereby challenges his father's dominion. Show me this perfect man, he says, and I will reduce him to sputtering curses. Yet once God accepts the challenge, Satan subsides for the rest of the narrative into a mere agent of God's will, as if the master has decided to humor this upstart by agreeing to his plan at Job's expense. Evervthing Job has-his family, his possessions--will be fair game; only the man himself will be spared: "And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand." After this dismissal, the story becomes a conversation between God and Job from which Satan is shut out.

With the scriptural canon still in flux, early Christian cosmology was continually redrawn and refined, and Satan's habitat, hell, was as unstable a concept as the devil himself. Some of the Apostolic Fathers considered hell as an amalgamation of the Hebrew Sheol and Gehenna--the former a place of eternal torment, the latter a kind of purgatory, a way station for souls awaiting salvation; others regarded it as a permanent prison for the damned. The distinction between God's angels of righteousness, whose office was to punish sinners, and the demons who stood watch over them in hell was also elusive. Inevitably, as one scholar puts it, "a curious question emerged: are the demons in hell keepers or inmates? Eventually they came to be both."(6)

Even the moral meaning of the events in the Garden of Eden was a matter of dispute. For the Gnostics, whose intellectual prestige peaked in the second century, the serpent was not a deceiver at all, but a giver of knowledge, the source of man's moral understanding. He was the generous creature who liberated man from the darkness imposed by a tyrannical God. (This is the beginning of a long tradition that culminates in the dark, magnetic heroes of Byron and many other romantic writers. In cases where Scripture provided only hints of cosmic history-such as the tantalizing accounts of Christ's descent into hell ("I am he that liveth, and was dead . . . and have the keys of hell and of death")(7)--It took centuries for the doctrine to become hardened into orthodoxy. First introduced as a creed in the middle of the fourth century, the idea of Christ's descent into hell slowly became part of the liturgy and took on the character of a violent assault--the harrowing" (from the Old English hergian, to raid) of hell--as an important feature of the Last Judgment.(8)

Despite all the controversy over his nature, power, and habits, the devil, along with his subordinates and his dwelling place, has received sustained attention from only three major councils in the history of the church--in the sixth, thirteenth, and sixteenth centuries (Braga, Fourth Lateran, and Trent). A great deal of the European lore about Satan in fact derived from pagan traditions, from figures in Teutonic and Scandinavian folklore like Wotan and Loki, while the visual image of the devil had immediate sources in such predecessors as the Celtic horned god Cernunnos, the satyrs, and the Greek god Pan.

As this visual image of Satan emerged, there was still considerable disagreement over what exactly had precipitated his fall. According to Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, the fall of Satan followed the creation of man and was occasioned by his festering jealousy of Adam as a rival in the affections of God. In the fourth century a variant idea was introduced (by Lactantius): that the object of Satan's jealousy was not Adam, but Christ, who stood in the mind of the jealous angel as a kind of favored older brother. Both of these accounts had at their heart the problem of what we would call sibling rivalry." Meanwhile other theologians, notably Origen, were convinced that Satan fell before the creation out of pure jealousy of God himself--a chronology that eventually became the orthodox version, as narrated, for example, in Milton's Paradise Lost. It is striking how close in both the "Oedipal" and the sibling-rivalry versions the ancient story of Satan's fall runs to the paradigms of modern psychoanalysis.

A great deal of early Christian writing is devoted, then, to the exposition of the nature of Satan's pride. For some writers it is a desire to supplant the father; for others it is Satan's need to believe in his own self-creation, or to govern himself without higher authority, or to achieve apotheosis without walting for permission ftom God. When these ambitions are thwarted, and Satan is reduced not merely to subservience but to exile and disgrace, the plot of evil in the Christian tradition comes to center on man. The story becomes a tale of revenge, and Satan's satisfaction comes ftom his power to distract, inveigle, and corrupt God's new human favorite. The story of Satan's work in the world becomes the tale, in psychoanalytic terms, of the id breaking free from the superego--with the result that the ego is left broken and permanently in pain.

Despite the fluldity in early Christian thinking about Satan, there was always, along with this central idea that man's sin rccapitulates Satan's pride, another constant element that unified these views into something we may call a tradition: the idea that Satan is a being without a center. This idea emerged at a time when the Christian community was small and riven, huddling in the face of persecution and-since the faith was fragile and new--intensely wary of heresy. Satan bears the marks of these stresses. He is, at bottom, a deceiver; he is falsehood, doubt, despair. He is the embodiment of fear. As a picture of his physical appearance begins to take shape (in the third and fourth centuries), he is often a creature of mingled parts--"a beast," according to Athanasius, "like to a man to the thighs but having legs and feet like those of an ass." Sometimes handsome, he is also able to disguise himself as "giants, wild beasts, and creeping things."(9)

One of his favorite haunts is the theater, where makeup and costumes and the whole spectacle of feigning are devoted to the exhibit for profit or pleasure. He is an enthusiastic gambler, enticing men to mock God's providence by betting their fortunes on blind chance Wherever he can, he subverts and inverts the structures and customs of ordinary life; he and his followers ride horses sitting backward in the saddle. Sometimes he is singular and sometimes plural--dispatching an army of demons with thin, windy voices who take on false appearance (schemata) and enter the bodies of their victims. Thus begins the tradition that demons bloodless and cold, a legend invoked by women who claimed to have been raped by the devil and to have known their assistant by the coldness of his flesh. In some traditions the devil has a three-pronged penis capable of filling a woman's vagina, anus, and mouth simultaneously; he is not so much a rapist as a superequipped seducer who finds willing partners among women whose desires are beyond the competence of ordinary men. "You are the Devil's doorway," Tertullian said of Eve.(10)

All these bewildering attributes are finally reducible to one: Satan has no essence. He is the torturer and flatterer, the usurer and the bearer of bribes, the satyrlike angel with the giant and multiple phallus, who knows the wantonness of women; but he can also transform himself into a lascivious temptress with silken skin. He is, in effect, a dark counterpart to Christ: an embodied contradiction, a spirit who chooses, at will, the form of his incarnation. As one of his most learned students, the historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, has put it in a nicely oxymoronic phrase, he is "pure--though purely corrupt--spirit."(11)

At the heart of early Christian diabolism, then, is the difficult idea of a devil who is simultaneously corporeal and inessential. He is contemptible and petty, yet if one reads about him in Patristic texts, one is struck above all by how vividly he inhabits the writers' imagination. He is a brilliant presence in the illuminated manuscripts and mosaics and oils--a semi-human creature with the features of a dog, or a half-ape, or some times he is a human figure with tail or horns, or simply an ordinary man with devious eyes. In all these forms he is a living actor in the world, a creature with whom men entered into contracts and pacts. (This notion proved to be a convenient basis for the persecution of Jews and others whose religious practices could be interpreted as satanic covenants.) Satan leaves his mark on the very landscape--in craters left by meteorites, in sandbars upon which ships run aground, even in odd rock formations, canyons, and gorges that seem carved out of benign nature with the purpose of malevolent distortion. One still encounters place names today that derive from a time when the devil was a mischievous wanderer at play in the world-Devil's Peak, Devil's Slide, Devil's Gorge.

When America was founded, Europe had moved to the edge of modernity, and the devil as an imaginable creature was coming under the pressure of a new skepticism. The westward movement of European civilization was, in the first instance, a triumph of empirical science and a blow to a cosmology that held the world to be flat and the oceans untraversible. Distances that could once only have been imagined could now be measured; places that could only have been surmised could now be seen. It was inevitable that this reorganization of reality would reach what Cotton Mather, at the end of the seventeenth century, called "the invisible world," the place from which the devil made his visitations.

Before the invention of the astrolabe and quadrant, by which latitude could be roughly calculated and a coursed plotted out of sight of land, European mariners could any dream of ocean voyages. Before these instruments came aboard Portuguese ships in the early I400S, long-distance trade had been limited to the range of oar-driven galleys that hugged the shore, and sailors had a well-founded horror of the open sea. With their square-rigged ships and navigational cunning, first the Portuguese, then the Spanish broke out of this imprisonment, and eventually forced new continents into the European consciousness. Beyond range of the naked eye from the European mainland there had long been a watery expanse of forbidding legend--an imaginary geography interrupted only by the uninhabitable isles of the Hesperides and the Antipodes, which were thought to balance Africa on the other side of the vast, unknown ocean. There was some unconfirmed evidence of other lands to the west--garbled accounts of the hot springs of Greenland, and the occasional washing ashore of strange tree branches onto beaches in the Canaries, the Azores, and even the Hebrides. Columbus, who took the minority view that a westward voyage would lead him directly to the East Indies, did not fully realize that he had found a new continent until his fourth voyage, in I498. Amerigo Vespucci, who remained in posthumous competition with Columbus until the United States settled on a name ("Columbia" was used interchangeably with "America" even into the nineteenth century), was convinced from the start that he had found a new world. He reported that the "Indians" were cannibals, and, in a double insult to the propriety of their women and the virility of their men, he claimed that the females were so lascivious that they enlarged the penises of their lovers by subjecting them to the bites of venomous insects.[12]

Despite such horrors and titillations, the discovery of the New World constricted the European imagination as much as it enlarged it. Driven by an appetite first for gold, then for salable commodities--fish, fur, skins, timber, spices, slaves--Europeans found that the quasi-magical world which ghosts and devils inhabited was growing smaller as the charted world grew larger; as early as the first decade of the sixteenth century a young geographer at Lorraine had added a plausible map of America to his edition of Ptolemy. The mythic ocean of the tropics-green and boiling--which had existed in the imaginations of sailors who had no means to venture south of the twenty-fifth parallel, soon disappeared, to be replaced by the hospitable South Atlantic of Magellan and da Gama. Though the Spanish and Portuguese were the first to traverse the Atlantic east to west, and to report the wealth and savories of the southern American continent, it was left to the Dutch, English, and French to devise a way to settle the more northern regions, which Jacques Cartier, as he said of Labrador in the I530S, was "inclined to regard . . . as the [land] God gave to Cain."[13] The invention that drove this process was not a navigational instrument or new arrangements of masts and sail; it was the idea of the joint-stock company, by which the risk of outfitting ships for ocean transport could be spread among many investors and the slim chance of gain thereby made alluring.

Not long ago, this story of the rational Western mind bringing order to the dream-chaos of an unknown country was commonly presented as a story of heroism. Now it is more usually told as the upheaving of European hypocrisy onto clean shores--the invasion of a virgin continent by a culture whose record was "deforestation, erosion, siltation, exhaustion, pollution, extermination, cruelty, destruction, and despoliation."[14] As modern historians look back on the volley of events from about 1490 to 1640, they have tended, especially in recent years, to see in them a shriveling of the reverent imagination and the onset of an instrumental attitude toward nature. And it is true that by the end of the sixteenth century the New World was already being regarded less as a wondrous park of God's profusion and more as a storehouse of commodities. If the first discoverers brought back enchanting stories of armless men and fountains of youth, those who followed later (entrepreneurs like Sir Walter Raleigh and Captain John Smith) began to look at the landscape and the natives with the cold eye of the soldier and surveyor. From our distance of time, one way to watch this process is to register the systematic extinction of one fanciful species after another in the European mind. Columbus, at the end of the fifteenth century, came from a world where centaurs, satyrs, cyclopes, and dragons were still believed to inhabit the forests of Europe, and he was sure he had found the tracks of lions and griffins on the island of Jamaica. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Lewis and Clark were dispatched into the Louisiana Territory by President Jefferson, the imaginary bestiary had been almost totally depleted, and their charts and inventories include no animals that we have not seen in the zoo.[15]

We have now reached the point in the career of this story where the "discovery of America" (the very phrase is now rejected as an insult to the people who had lived there before Europeans gave it a European name) is regarded as something of a pornographic joke. One consequence of this has been the discrediting of a national mythology. We have gone from what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has recently called "exculpatory history" to what may be called culpable history. The names of Columbus's ships, for instance, which every schoolchild used to recite as a litany of courage symbolized in three plucky little boats called Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, are now exposed as nicknames for Castilian whores. Columbus, in some recent assessments, has become a semi-crazed charlatan who claimed for himself the 10,000 maravedi and the silk doublet he had posted as a reward for the first man to spy land--even though a sleepless sailor in the crow's nest really deserved them.[16]

There can be no doubt that the European settlement was a violent process whose cost in human blood was concealed in the tropes of contemporary witnesses, not only in the reports of the first voyagers, and later the English and French, but also in erotic metaphors that in due course came from faraway poets, as when John Donne celebrated in the early 1600s his mistress's body--"O My America, my new-found land!"--by likening his palpating hands to roving explorers of the New World. In our own time such charming analogies have been indignantly rebuked. And in a mood that seems the cultural equivalent of deathbed confession, we now prefer to speak of the land as "widowed" rather than virgin; we know that most of its native inhabitants died from smallpox or measles even before the arrival of the main force of Europeans (having been infected by the first scouting parties), and many of the rest from gunfire. Once celebrated as a triumph of the adventurous European spirit, the settlement of North America now seems to us a bloody business enterprise decorated with the language of piety. In this revision of history we seem to take a kind of ghoulish pride.[17]

Despite the discomfort of having a glorious history exposed as a fraud, there is much to recommend the new story. It is, on the whole, less distorted than the old, which, in the version most directly concerned with the settlement of what would eventually become the United States, featured heroic Englishmen huddled in the snow, staying alive by the warmth of their faith and the mercy of a few exceptional Indians. The fact is that the real story, like most human experience, was a mixture of cowardice and decency, and our early historians knew this better than we do. They told it not as a monotone celebration or indictment but as a contrapuntal story, and that remains the best way to tell it. They knew, as one eighteenth-century South Carolinian, David Ramsay, put it, that at its center was "such a crowd of woes, as excites an apprehension, that the evil has outweighed the good." And in some places--such as Puritan New England, where the medieval Christian cosmology had been transported largely intact--they warned against "imputing to the Devil too much of our own sin and guilt."[18] This caution, delivered while the invisible world continued to wane and the measurable world to supplant it, raised pressing questions for early Americans: Where was the devil to be found? Could he survive at all in the New World of rationality? And if so, in what form?

© 1995 Andrew Delbanco

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