Pagans are frequently asked if we worship the Devil, and it’s not unusual for more hostile and fundamentalist followers of monotheism to assume that’s what we are about. There is that whole business with the Goat Footed God, after all. A lot of Pagans will tell you that the Devil has nothing to do with Paganism. Some will tell you that the Christians appropriated nature gods like Pan and Herne to make their hate figure – mostly to put the old Pagans out of business. For most Pagans, the Devil is part of a Christian pantheon, and doesn’t have much to do with us.
Nature worshipers know that good and evil are relative concepts. Good for the hound is evil for the hare. Good for the growing fox cubs is evil for the diminished duck family they feed on. Actions have consequences for well or woe, and a lot of what we get is informed by what we think it means in the first place.
Then, as that great natural philosopher Eddie Izzard observed, how can nature be evil? There’s a lovely sketch of his imagining the actions of an evil giraffe. The whole idea of evil is nonsense once we step away from humans.
Creatures do what they must to survive and thrive. They fight and kill, they hunt to eat, but even when the nastiest predator is chewing the leg off the cutest prey creature, we aren’t tempted to call that evil.
Evil is a human condition. It’s not about survival selfishness or short term stupidity (I’m not a fan of those, but the rest of nature does this stuff too). Evil is, to my mind, what we’re doing when we deliberately cause pain and suffering to others, for our own amusement. Evil is taking joy in acts of cruelty. It is making other living, feeling things suffer just to please you. Dog fights and testing cosmetics on animals would be on my list. Rape. Abusing others for financial gain. Human trafficking. Child abuse. Things that serve no needful purpose, just gratify the perpetrator, or whoever pays the perpetrator. There’s plenty of it out there.
In the Christian tradition, the Devil is there to provide temptation. Most stories I’ve run into seem to be more about self-indulgence, sex, wealth, breaking ‘God’s Laws’ and the like. War, burning heretics, using slave labour – these have often been part of the accepted face of civilization and not laid at the Devil’s door at all. There are Pagan Gods who go around doing things that are hardly exemplary, especially Greek Gods raping their victims. There are however no Pagan deities I know of who personify evil, or, for that matter, good. Pagan deities may be chaotic, destructive, and challenging, but we recognise that as just part of how the world works. It’s not evil, any more than a wolf eating a cute bunny rabbit is evil. It’s just not a lot of fun for the rabbit.
I don’t personally believe in the Devil as a deity-like figure. He’s not part of my pantheon. I think he’s a way of putting outside of us all the things we don’t want to admit are part of being human. We kill and torture, rape and abuse. We are cruel for our own amusement, and far too many of us get our jollies by using and reducing others. It might be more useful to ascribe all those horrors to aspects of the human condition and tackle it within ourselves, rather than imagining we were tempted, or that doing evil was suggested to us, or that we are in any way less than totally responsible for the wrongs we perpetrate. Once we admit that the monsters are on the inside, that evil wears human faces, then we stand a better chance of dealing with it and not becoming a manifestation of it ourselves.
The Devil is us.
This post is part of the Patheos-wide series What Do I Really Believe?