Halloween, as we know it, is a weird twist on All Saints’ Day, itself a calculated conspiracy hatched by the Catholic Church centuries ago to divert Celts and their high priests, the druids, from celebrating their end-of-harvest holiday. Those on the lookout for satanic influences have long insinuated an association between the druids and some form of devil worship. Still, how that morphed into a mass drunken bacchanalia in which hordes of otherwise uptight males who rigidly embrace their assigned gender roles dress up as big-bosomed French maids looking for some hay in which to frolic remains a great mystery.
To shed light on this curious phenomenon, I contacted retired UCSB professor Jeffrey Russell, who has written five scholarly books outlining the history of the Devil from pre-Christian times to the present. Sadly, Russell was at a loss to explain the transformation of a Celtic harvest festival into a collective exhibition of cross-dressing naughtiness. “I haven’t any idea,” he said. That, however, is about the only thing on which Russell found himself flummoxed during a recent email exchange regarding the Devil and evil.
What’s the origin of the present-day rendition of the Devil? The horns and the trident are very old, as are the cloven hoofs. The hoofs and horns are ancient symbols of animal power. The trident can be taken as the symbol of Neptune’s undersea powers, but actually the instrument was traditionally a two-pronged pitchfork. Also, the horns are associated with the moon, which at some phases looks like horns, and the moon is an ancient symbol of power (especially dark power). The cape and Van Dyke beard are from the 19th century, when writers/artists began taking the Devil less as brutal and more as a cunning con man. Goethe’s Faust is a main example of the shift.
Now that we’re a more secular society, has belief in the Devil changed? It’s hard to be a secularist denying the existence of anything beyond the physical and still believe in the Devil. However, isn’t it curious that so many contemporary novels and, especially, movies portray thoroughly evil supernatural characters? It almost seems that if the Devil didn’t exist we would have to invent him.
If the Devil didn’t exist, would we have to create him? (Ha, just what I said above! Excellent!) Well, because the reality is that evil does exist, which should be plain to everyone not living in a happy-dreams world, so we need either to create a Devil figure or face the even less-comfortable explanation that evil is a purely human phenomenon, i.e., “The Devil didn’t make me do it; I did it.” That’s a powerful ouch.
How did you get into studying the Devil? From my college days on, I’ve always been interested in the problem of evil: Why are we so hate-filled and destructive? I actually began to write a “history of evil” but obviously found that infinitely too big to handle, so I did a history of the main symbol of evil instead and got at the problem of evil in a more manageable way.
How did becoming a man of faith affect your scholarship? Everybody’s a man or woman of faith. Physicalists are people of deep faith that nothing beyond the physical can exist, whereas the evidence points to the contrary. But you deserve a personal answer: the more I learned about the world the more I became convinced of realities beyond the physical, and that led to deep interest in philosophy and theology. My underlying concern about the problem of evil then ended up in my writing the Devil books.
Is the devil irrelevant in a mass media world? Does the media provide this basic function—to scare people into being good by providing a model for the opposite of good? Well, that’s two questions. One: as I mentioned, the mass media present a lot of figures natural and supernatural that might as well be called the Devil. Two: I don’t think that’s the basic function of the Devil at all. He has been used that way, certainly, but that’s not the origin or essence. The essence is as an explanation for radical evil. Either evil comes from a supernatural figure, or it comes from humans. Also, in fiction and movies it can come from extraterrestrials, such as in the Alien series. But of course that only pushes the explanation back one, for why are the alleged aliens evil?
What’s the scariest devil figure you’ve come across? As for visual representations, I’d have to opt for the aliens. In reality the scariest I’ve come across are the two people whom I’ve known who positively radiate evil. And evil not in its brutal form but in its manipulative, deviously cruel form. One of my oldest friends is a psychoanalyst; he says, “You call ‘em evil, I call ‘em psychopaths, and those are two names for the same phenomenon.” And that does, by the way, offer one solution to the problem of evil in humans: psychopathology or sociopathology: something lacking in the human brain. But I don’t think psychoanalysis has got to the heart of the problem.
In all your years studying the devil, what was the most surprising finding you stumbled onto? How many people trivialize radical evil.
One of the functions of the devil is to “demonize” people, parties, forces with which we don’t agree. How do you draw the line between the violence caused by the inevitable clash of conflicting interests and genuine evil? Demonization is a terrible problem. It may be the scariest thing about the current culture wars. For example, it’s hard for “pro-choice” and “pro-life” people not to consider each other essentially wicked. There have been many books on demonization. The Nazi demonization of Jews is the worst, but any book on demonization during the world wars shows that all sides used them crudely.
In your studies of good and evil, is it fair to say that the worst violence on the planet has been inflicted by people who were sure they were doing good, if not the lord’s work? Not having attended a religious school nor having been raised in a religious family, I don’t have these prejudices. I guess one could say that evil comes in small personal packages and big ideological packages. The idea of Hitchens and others that religions cause most violence is clearly and demonstrably false, given the violence conducted by atheists such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. However, big ideological packages whether religious or atheist have done the most damage.
Why is the devil always so much more interesting and narrativly compelling figure than god? Yes, the old phrase is “The Devil always gets the best lines.” Why are news stories usually about something bad happening? Somehow be basically expect things to go right and so are more interesting when they don’t.
Why is the devil always a man? Theologically the devil is a fallen angel and so neither male nor female. However, he is almost always (there are a few exceptions) portrayed as male. And that is true of Christianity, Islam, Orthodox Judaism, and some varieties of Buddhism. I’ve never known the answer to this simple question. One guess, but guess only, is that most civilizations tend to see the male as more powerful than the female.
Why aren’t there organized religions that worship the devil? There’s at least one: Satanism. Some of them seem to take it seriously.
What are some of your favorite words for the devil? Satan’s the obvious one. Lucifer and Mephistopheles are also common.
Are there lots of origin stories for how the devil got that way? In Buddhism, Mara is the spirit that tempts Buddha. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the devil is a powerful spirit who became evil by preferring himself to God. In some religions, notably in many ancient ones, gods are seen as BOTH good and evil. In one religion, Zoroastriaism, there are two gods, an evil one and a good one.
Any depictions of the devil in pop culture that you find especially powerful/disturbing—the joker as portrayed by Heath Ledger in Batman comes to mind. The most convincing and therefore disturbing to me is Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate.
Why is it that on Halloween more people dress up as big breasted women of loose morals than they do the devil? What does that say about our culture? I haven’t any idea :-)
What are you doing this Halloween. and what did you dress up as the last year you dressed up for anything on halloween? The last time I dressed up for Halloween was about 40 years ago when I went to a party dressed as Mao Zedong.
Do all societies have a devil figure? Most do. Muslims have Iblis, Buddhists Mara, and so on. (In the current culture wars, maybe Fox and MSNBC play the role, depending on which side you’re on.)