by Aaron Ross
The Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Sorcery
Instructor: Marilyn Houlberg
Throughout history, humanity has been faced with the problem of evil. The manifest presence of suffering in the lives of all is a fact which cannot be ignored nor denied. As the search for meaning in existence inevitably develops, explanatory systems emerge to cope with fundamental existential questions. Among the most pressing of these is the question of evil.
Whence comes evil, and what is its purpose, if any? Is it a necessary precondition of the cosmos, or merely an undesirable by-product of an imperfect creation? Is what we call "evil" a subjective perception in a morally neutral universe, or could it be an absolute principle existing independent of human judgment? Perhaps closest to home, how is evil to be dealt with by society and by the individual?
One response to these conundrums is the postulation of the existence of a being or beings who create and/or personify evil. While the figure of the Christian Devil, Satan, most clearly exemplifies the anthropomorphic concept of evil, there are numerous examples of gods or spirits from widely divergent cultures who share some of his most prominent characteristics. This shows that the concept of "the Devil," far from being a phenomenon with origins specific to Christianity, can be found in various forms throughout history, regardless of time and place. The Judeo-Christian-Muslim "Satan" is simply a crystallization of these forms into a single being who is considered the source of all iniquity.
The subject of the Devil may be approached in many different ways, among them historical, theological, and psychological. It is my intention to examine the topic as a manifestation of the psyche, both individual and collective. This approach seeks to provide a psychological interpretation of the social phenomenon of "the Devil" in its most familiar forms. The study is based on historical information regarding the mythology of the Devil, theological speculations which contributed to or were derived from that mythology, and psychological investigations of the past century relevant to the illumination of the meaning of the phenomenon.
However, all metaphysical considerations regarding the objective existence of Satan as traditionally defined must fall outside the scope of this particular investigation. Such knowledge is not currently in my possession; therefore I do not feel personally qualified to take a stand. Yet I must emphasize that "the Devil" is a problem which must be dealt with, inasmuch as it has an impact on society. Ideas are as "real" as material objects; they participate in the scheme of things just as surely as do matter and energy.
The evil deity known as the Devil is not universal, but certain characteristics of his can be found in the gods of every religion. Some of these are iconographic similarities, others relate to the god's function within the mythos. To understand the emergence of the Devil as the personification of evil, it is necessary to consider the divine personages in world religions who prefigured him.
Most gods in so-called "primitive" religions are morally neutral manifestations of Ultimate Reality. In polytheistic systems, even the most powerful, "king" gods are subordinate to the single, impersonal divine principle. There is often little or no differentiation among the gods along the lines of good and evil; rather, each divinity is capable of either good or bad, as the moods takes him. This moral ambivalence explains the existence of good and evil without resorting to a heavenly schism, in which each individual god takes a character of good or evil. When these lines of demarcation were made, they were usually the result of political upheaval, as Margaret Murray explains:
The idea of dividing the Power Beyond into two, one good and one evil, belongs to an advanced and sophisticated religion. In the more primitive cults the deity is in himself the author of all, whether good or bad. The monotheism of early religions is very marked, each little settlement or group of settlements having its one deity, male or female, whose power was co-terminous with that of its worshippers. Polytheism appears to have arisen with the amalgamation of tribes, each with its own deity. When a tribe whose deity was male coalesced with a tribe whose deity was female, the union of the peoples was symbolized by the marriage of their gods. When by peaceful infiltration a new god ousted an old one, he was said to be the son of his predecessor. But when the invasion was warlike the conquering deity was invested with all good attributes while the god of the vanquished took a lower place and was regarded by the conquerors as the producer of evil, and was consequently often more feared than their own legitimate deity. In ancient Egypt the fall from the position of a high god to that of a "devil" is well exemplified in the god Setekh [Seth or Set], who in early times was as much a giver of all good as Osiris, but later was so execrated that, except in the city of his special cult, his name and image were rigorously destroyed.(1)
Even as Seth became identified with evil, he remained a representation of the monistic divine principle. As the peoples of the arid Upper Egypt, worshippers of Seth, were united with the Nile-dwelling adherents to Osiris and Horus, it was necessary for some resolution of the religious conflict to take place. In some places, the divine twins Horus and Seth were worshipped together as one god with two heads. However, Seth eventually came to be regarded as inferior and evil. The latter solution better explained the continual conflict between the forces of good and evil, and so foreshadowed later dualistic religious systems.
The principles of good and evil were brought into full-blown opposition with the revolutionary theology of Zoroaster, the Persian prophet who lived in the 7th century before Christ. It was he who first introduced a clearly-defined Devil as the sole author of evil. His mythological system was based on the Iranian worship of the ahuras, good deities eternally at war with the evil daevas. This faith was a fine example of a socio-political schism in heaven. It is interesting to note that, in Hindu religion, the devas (daevas) became the good gods, while the asuras (ahuras) became demons. Both religions sprang from a common source.
True religious dualism posits the existence of two absolute cosmic principles, wholly independent of one another. They are nearly always antithetical, and are often of separate or unknown origin. Neither can be omnipotent, since they must by definition limit one another. In absolute dualism, there can be no single, ultimate divine principle.
The novelty of Zoroaster's system is that it does away with the morally indefinable conception of the single divine principle in favor of a cosmic struggle between the good Lord, Ahura Mazda (or Ormzad) and the inferior Devil, Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman). Zoroaster preached devotion to the absolute good, and prophecied that, in the fullness of time, evil would be utterly destroyed by the Lord.
While Zoroaster and his Mazdaist followers are the first to have embodied the principle of evil within one personality, the concept of the Devil as it has been commonly known is of definite Hebrew origin. As always, the Devil is a figure who actively creates suffering and pursues wholesale destruction for its own sake. The persecution of the Jews confronted them with evil in a new, more powerful way, and the existence of the Devil made their suffering more explicable.
Early Judaism was, of course, utterly monistic. The god Yahweh encompassed both good and evil, mercy and justice, yet could not be assigned a specific moral character. As in Zoroastrianism, however, the evil in the god's nature was eventually differentiated from him and ascribed to a malignant spirit. Unfortunately, the implicit dualism of this alternative could never be reconciled with monotheism. The Lord was infinitely good; evil had its source outside of him. Yet he was the author of all things, and ultimately responsible for the cosmos. How could he permit evil to exist?
The position of the Devil in Jewish theology was not central; in time, he would come to be regarded as as mere metaphor for the evil inclination in the human soul. In essence, the Hebrew conception of evil reverted to the earlier Yahwistic doctrine of God as an ambivalent, mysterious unity. This was not so with orthodox Christianity. On the contrary, the opposition between Lord and Devil became a main focus for the Christian faith.
The saving mission of Jesus was at the core of the Christian religion. From what was humanity to be saved? None other than the Prince of Darkness. Without the threat of Satan, no Redeemer would be necessary. Christ's mission was to deliver the world from evil -- evil personified in the figure of Lucifer, source of all sin.
Thus the Devil was thrust into a position of extreme importance. His fall from Heaven was one of the key moments in the history of creation, for it was then that discord entered the cosmos. He fell of his own "free will" by committing the sins of pride and envy. Yet this "uncaused" act occured in the presence of the omnipotent Lord -- who knew in all eternity the actions of even so-called "free" beings. The blatant contradictions between free will and predetermination, and between the omnipotence and benevolence of God were never resolved.
Many attempts were made to isolate the good Lord from the evil present in his creation. Both philosophical and mythological approaches were taken; neither could produce a coherent picture of an all-powerful, all-good creator in a world filled with suffering.
The orthodox tactic regarding the problem of evil was the privatio boni. Responsibility for this philosophical monstrosity lay with Plato. He argued that evil was merely the privation of good, that it had no ontological status of its own. While he of course acknowledged the existence of moral evils in the form of wars, lies, et cetera, he conveniently explained them away as a mere lack of peace or lack of truth.
Christian theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas were quick to accept Plato's position regarding evil, and lay spurious claim to his beliefs as if they were inherent in Christian theology. They did not recognize the incompatibility of the privatio boni with the concepts of active evil, and, again, the omnipotence of God. For if evil has no being, how can it have a principle such as that incarnated in the Devil? Worse still, the dismissal of evil as an "accidental lack of perfection" flew in the face of both reason and intuition. In a world created by an omniscient Lord, there can be no accidents!
The mainstream tack regarding the problem of evil did not do the question justice, and only complicated the matter. For centuries afterward, Catholic scholars would debate the subtleties of the Devil's origin, fall and subsequent status in the creation, without ever facing the basic contradiction of divine benevolence with the presence of evil. The solution had, in fact, been provided in the first two centuries after Christ, but was declared heretical and suppressed by the Church. This was the mythological sytem of Christian Gnosticism.
The Gnostics dispensed with the infamous contradictions in mainstream Christian theodicy by dropping the assumption that the Ultimate God must also be the Ultimate Good. Essentially, the Gnostics returned to polytheistic monism, but retained certain aspects of Christian doctrine, such as the perfection of Jesus as the Savior of mankind. The Lord was no longer connected with evil; in fact, he was not even the creator of the material world. Both of these unpleasant duties fell to inferior spiritual beings -- the ignorant Demi Orgos or the evil archon (prince), Cosmocrator. In the following passage, Iranaeus, bishop of Lyons in the late second century, describes part of the complex mythology of Valentinus the Gnostic:
They teach that the spirits of wickedness derive their origin from grief. Herein the devil, whom they also call Cosmocrator [ruler of the world], and the demons, and the angels, and every wicked spiritual being that exists found the source of their existence. They represent the Demiurge as being the son of that mother of theirs [Achamoth], and Cosmocrator as creature of the Demiurge. Cosmocrator has knowledge of what is above him, because he is a spirit of wickedness; but the Demiurge is ignorant of such things, inasmuch as he is merely animal.(2)
The main thrust of Gnostic teaching was that the individual soul must attain gnosis, self-knowledge, and to transcend the evil material world and commune with the Lord. Influenced by Buddhist missionaries to the Nile delta city of Alexandria, Gnosticism was ruthlessly condemned and stamped out by the apostolic successors. Its mythological extravagances were perhaps cumbersome from a philosophical point of view, but they did breathe new life into an already monotonous faith.
The Gnostics were obsessed with the problem of evil, and their greatest mystery, the God above the Lord, confronted it head-on. Like Yahweh, the Gnostic Abraxas was an ambivalent unity. The difference between the two gods was in how they related to human morality. The Hebrew God was not subject to the same laws that man was; he could break his own commandments at will, but was never considered evil in the same way that people were. Abraxas, however, was a true coincidence of opposites -- truly good, and yet evil. Both the Lord Christ and the Devil were his creatures, manifestations of his paradoxical unity. He was an object of veneration, for he was feared, but the Gnostic's worship was directed toward the loving Christ, who offered deliverence from the evil world of the Cosmocrator.
Although nearly wiped out by Catholicism, the Gnostic system has exerted a strong influence on Western religion well into the 20th century. Driven underground, it disguised itself as alchemy, Kabbalistic mysticism, Rosicrucianism, and a host of other alternative spiritualities. Gnostic thought eventually resurfaced in the writings of the eminent depth psychologist, Dr. Carl Jung. In his famous poetic treatise of 1917, The Seven Sermons to the Dead, Jung outlined the figures of rooster-headed Abraxas, the good Lord, and the Devil:
Abraxas is the Sun and also the eternally gaping abyss of emptiness, of the diminisher and dissembler, the Devil.
The power of Abraxas is twofold. You cannot see it, because in your eyes the opposition of this power appears to cancel it out.
That which is spoken by God-the-Sun is life;
That which is spoken by the Devil is death.
Abraxas, however, speaks the venerable and also accursed word, which is life and death at once.
Abraxas generates truth and falsehood, good and evil, light and darkness with the same word and in the same deed. Therefore Abraxas is truly the terrible one.(3)
In the Gnostic system, the Devil plays an indispensible role as destroyer, an organic part of the One, necessary to a polymorphous cosmos. There is no "accidental lack of perfection," no flaw in his being. He does not defy the Divine Law, he is part of it. In this instance, as in many others, Gnosticism is a much more coherent explanatory system than either Judaism or orthodox Christianity. Ironically, the ability of the Gnostic fathers to consciously address the inherent contradictions of contemporary theologies is what caused them to be persecuted and burned as heretics. If they had been given the freedom to express their views, perhaps the violent excesses of later Christianity could have been avoided. Unfortunately, the Church, in its notorious tyranny, would not allow it. Jehovah is indeed a jealous god.
While true metaphysical questions must fall in the domain of philosophy, certain aspects of these questions can be illuminated by approaching them from the standpoint of depth psychology. In particular, concept of the Devil acquires considerably more meaning when viewed in the context of psychological study. This is not, of course, to reduce the transcendent potentialities of the divine to mere psychological constructs. However, human conceptions of the divine can be addressed in psychological terms. Indeed, this is the most effective way to do so, for it presumes nothing outside the realm of ordinary experience, and makes no claims to Absolute Truth.
To draw the relationship between psychology and the history of religion, two main assumptions must be made. The first is the existence of the unconscious, a part of the human psyche which exerts an imperceptible force over consciousness. This has been empirically demonstrated time and again by psychologists, but must remain theoretical due to its inherent inaccessiblity.
The second assumption is the direct relationship between the individual psyche and that of the collective.(4) They are mutually dependent, logically equivalent concepts. Society is composed of individuals; individuals are created by society. This does not prove that principles which pertain to the personal unconscious also apply to the collective, but it is suggestive that a close interrelationship exists. With this assumption in mind, one can employ the findings of analytical psychology to illuminate the history of religion.
According to Jung, mythology is best understood in terms of metaphors. The divine is a reflection of the whole self. How can humanity conceive of God? Only in terms of human experience. Man makes his idea of God in his own image. "True believers" would vehemently deny that their views of God are merely projections of what they want to see -- and they would be right. Rather, human ideas about the Infinite are limited by what they are able to see.
When faced with unprecedented hardship, the Hebrews blamed the Devil, creator of evil. This in itself posed no problem. The pathological aspects of Judaism and Christianity did not come from the figure of the Devil himself. Rather, they were the result of unconscious denial. The undesirable aspects of Yahweh were differentiated from him and assigned to his inferior, Satan. Yet Yahweh's ultimate responsibility for evil was conveniently forgotten. While assertively preaching monotheism, the Jews moved unconsciously toward dualism. This created a rift in the collective psyche of an entire culture which has yet to heal.
With the coming of Christ, the perfect man, the tension between Lord and Devil increased. The pious Christian was taught to love all things good (God's Kingdom) and to revile Satan, his minions, and his works. The fact that Lucifer had his source in God was acknowledged, but the Father could not be seen as the creator of evil. Furthermore, no reconciliation between Christ and Satan, both sons of God, could ever be made. The entire mess of contradictions was never addressed with clarity.
These were the symptoms of a diseased society. The inability of the culture to deal with the evil elements within itself led to a sort of mass insanity, in which evil was at first denied altogether, then projected on marginal members of the community. The result of this was further persecution and senseless bloodshed.
The Christian community found itself at war with the army of Satan. The world was divided into two camps: the good Christians and the evil others. Thus the brutal Crusades were justified as "Holy Wars," and unbelievers were slaughtered in the name of Christ. But the most striking distortion of the message of Jesus came when innocent people were tortured and executed as witches. This was a textbook example of negative projection -- placing one's own inferior qualities on another. The evil that the pious Christian could not see within himself was projected on the pagan, the nonconformist, the female, the witch.
The admission of evil as a part of one's nature and the commission of evil deeds are in no way the same. On the contrary, the act of facing oneself and owning up to those evils serves to neutralize them. The healthy individual (and the healthy society) suppresses evil consciously; the unhealthy one represses it unconsciously, and ends up acting it out in a perverse manner. And, as more and more unpleasant thoughts are repressed, the unconscious receptacle of evil -- the shadow -- grows to monstrous proportions. This is the fall of Lucifer.
The presence of evil in the cosmos is a fact that must be dealt with in order to make sense of the experience of life. One method of explanation is to ascribe the responsibility for evil to a single, malevolent being: the Devil. This point of view adequately accounts for the active character of iniquity, and affirms its apparent cosmic influence. However, the figure of Satan as progenitor of sin poses logical and ethical contradictions within a monotheistic religious system that denies the ambivalence of the creator god.
Denial of the paradoxical nature of divinity is a serious matter, because it reflects a synonymous tendency to deny the irrational part of the human psyche. This results in a pathological state of disassociation from one's own being -- a self-destructive process in which the mind loses touch with its own roots. All undesirable qualities (evils) are thought to come from outside the self, outside the community, from enemies such as pagans, Jews, witches... servants of the Devil.
In the present age, scientific rationalism is both God and Devil. With the advent of post-Renaissance materialism, the living presence of religion was suddenly undermined. Belief in the Devil, evil spirits, and eventually God himself was seen as superstitious, having no place in the Age of Enlightenment.
The witch-craze abruptly ended. It seemed that Occidental society was finally on the mend. However, this was merely a surface appearance, for the problem which manifested itself in the witch-hunts was far from resolved. In fact, the problem of evil was repressed even further.
The new, rationalistic worldview brought with it an indispensible asset to the human race, the scientific method. However, it could not possibly hope to answer fundamental questions such as the problem of evil, which were by definition metaphysical and beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. The great fallacious conceit of science was its intrusion into the realm of the irrational, where it simply had no relevance.
This, of course, was patently ridiculous. Yet the traditional model of the universe could no longer withstand the onslaughts of rational materialism, and so was destroyed. The problem of evil was not solved, it was merely "explained away." The only method known to the West for dealing with existential questions was abandoned. God and Devil were dead.
This grand-scale repression of basic human qualities led to even greater insanity than during the previous age. Despite a marked increase in the quality of life in Western society, this life was largely devoid of meaning. Vain attempts to return to previous worldviews ensued. Many new religions and subcultures surfaced, offering illusory escape from the pressures of modernity. The most extreme evasion of the problem was 20th century Satanism, which resurrected the Romantic conception of Lucifer, who, in his own inimical style, represented the principle of individuality in the face of oppression. The obvious contradiction inherent in a Devil as a principle of good was a sure sign of confusion. And, even as the Satanists pilloried Christ, they belied their own professed independence by operating within the structure of dogmatic Christian belief.
Most prevalent of the religion-substitutes were political ideologies of every variety. They ranged from Marxism to Nazism, from consumerism to the hippie counterculture. None of them could supply true spiritual sustenance in a world bereft of meaning, but merely supplied a kind of placebo. Even the traditional religions of the West, drained of vigor, became little more than political bodies. Prime examples included Islamic terrorist groups in the Middle East and the militant Christian fundamentalists and "right-to-lifers" in the United States.
It seems that the human race has reached a nodal point in its development. The traditional view of the world is no longer remotely viable; the new rationalism is irresponsible and blind, especially regarding the environment and the conflicts of war. No acceptable alternatives can be found which provide what was once freely given by God -- assurance of meaning and order in the universe.
To obtain real freedom and security, the society must finally come to grips with its own problems, its own antithetical impulses once embodied in the Devil. Only by realizing that evil comes from within -- within the individual, within the state -- can an end to suffering be achieved. The imperceptible slowness of this process makes it nearly impossible to verify, but I believe that the human race is indeed engaged in it. The recent collapse of Leninism and the gradual expansion of civil liberties in the Eastern bloc is a sign of greater self-awareness on a global scale; it amounts to an admission of the desire for unity. This is the only goal worthy of pursuit: conscious unity with all things and all beings -- even the Devil.
I daresay, especially the Devil.
(1) Murray, Margaret A., The God of the Witches. Oxford University Press, New York, 1970 (first published 1931), pp. 14-15.
(2) Kelley, Henry Angsar, The Devil at Baptism. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1985, p. 67.
(3) Hoeller, Stephan A., The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead. Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1982, p. 51.
(4) Jung postulated his famous concept of the collective unconscious from the experience of the universality of particular psychic constructs, the archetypes. By contrast, my position regarding the psychopathology of history does not require a transcendent part of the psyche, nor the ubiquity of certain psychic images. However, it does require a certain faith in the congruence of the individual with the mass mind.
HOELLER, Stephan A., The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead. Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1982.
JUNG, Carl Gustav, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Bollingen Series XX, Collected Works Volume 9, Part II. Princeton University Press, 1959.
KELLY, Henry Ansgar, The Devil at Baptism. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1985.
MARWICK, Max (ed.), Witchcraft and Sorcery. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1970.
MURRAY, Margaret A., The God of the Witches. Oxford University Press, New York, 1970.
RUSSELL, Jeffrey Burton, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1977.
RUSSELL, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Cornell, 1981.
RUSSELL, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. Cornell, 1984.
RUSSELL, Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World. Cornell, 1986.
RUSSELL, The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History. Cornell, 1988.