Devil's Advocate; Night & Day

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), July 14, 1996 | Go to article overview

Devil's Advocate; Night & Day


Byline: BRIAN MASTERS

The Devil: A Biography by Peter

Stanford, Heinemann, [pounds sterling]20

The title is a mistake, and gives rise to such contrived sentences as, `The Devil was undoubtedly showing signs of ageing at the end of the 19th Century', when what is meant is that the concept of diabolic influence upon human affairs had weakened. But as a history of that concept, and the damage it has wrought by giving muscle to superstition, this book is very useful.

Peter Stanford shows how the Christian notion of the Devil evolved from fairly innocuous beginnings to the monstrosity which permitted the torments of the Inquisition and the burning of witches. The Old Testament laid the burden for evil squarely upon humankind, with the doctrine that men deserved the punishment inflicted upon them by all-powerful Yahweh. But the Christians found it awkward to reconcile a God of love with a vengeful maniac, so they developed the Hebrew satan (an opponent or obstructor) into the Satan of the New Testament, which is the story of Jesus' battle with and triumph over him. By gradually absorbing images from ancient and local folklores, the early missionaries rescued him from mere abstraction and gave him a face and form.

In France there exists a cave painting some 9,000 years old depicting a horned being - half man, half beast - which is clearly a prototype for the hybrid confection which came to dominate Christian iconography. With his horns, his lust, his seductiveness and his selfishness, Satan represented the dark urges which men would not admit to as their own and which they could thereby blame upon an exteriorised power which was not God.

The medieval mystery plays further identified him by depicting him as flesh and blood and actually turning him into a popular figure, both derided and feared. …

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