A Polytheistic Look at the Devil

A Polytheistic Look at the Devil June 13, 2013
Satan from The Temptation of Christ by Master L. Cz (ca. 1500). Image via Wikimedia Commons

Patheos has a feature called “What Do I Really Believe?” It’s a series of common religious questions and all bloggers from all channels are invited to offer their thoughts. The questions are mostly posed with monotheistic assumptions, but they can still be of value to Pagans and others.

Yesterday, Druid Nimue Brown tackled the question “Is There Really a Devil?” I encourage you to read her essay – it’s clear and concise. Here’s the key quote:

I don’t personally believe in the Devil as a deity-like figure … 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.

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.

I think Nimue’s answer is very good. But I’d like to explore this question from a different perspective.

As a polytheist, I find it amusing that Pagans who will worship every god and demigod ever known to humanity turn into atheists when Satan is brought up. To a certain extent that’s understandable. As Nimue points out, we’ve long been accused of worshipping the devil by Christians who incorrectly assume that if we don’t worship their god we must be worshipping their anti-god. But thanks to Paganism coming out of the shadows, most people – including most Christians – now understand that’s not correct.

Let me be clear: I don’t believe a God of Evil exists. That idea is a product of dualistic thinking and isn’t supported by observation or reason. I don’t believe in a tempter. Temptation is the internal conflict of ancient evolutionary instincts with the mostly-beneficial norms of civilization and modern life. I don’t believe in an adversarial deity. We have plenty of mortal adversaries in our competitive world, and we ourselves are adversaries to many others, including those of other species.

But what are we to make of this entity called Satan, the devil?

If we accept the existence of the gods of our own pantheons, we have little justification for rejecting the existence of the gods of other pantheons. So my answer to Patheos’ question “is there really a devil?” must be “yes.”

What difference does it make? To Pagans, not a bit. I am pledged to Cernunnos and Danu, I have a complex and busy relationship with Morrigan, and I occasionally honor and work with various other deities in the Celtic, Greek, Roman, Norse and Egyptian pantheons. I have neither the time nor the interest for Satan, and I suspect virtually all Pagans would say the same.

Why do some gods grow in acclaim and influence while others diminish? That’s a complicated question that does not have a definitive answer, but a look at history shows a clear relationship between the amount of attention we humans give to gods and the impact those gods have on our lives. Greeks like Iamblichus thought the idea that worship and sacrifices “fed” a god was absurd. Perhaps they were wrong. Or perhaps gods who are ignored simply find something else to do with their time. We don’t know and we have no way of knowing. But the relationship between the attention we give to gods and their influence on us is clear.

So, who’s been feeding Satan? It’s certainly not Pagans – we’re busy with our own gods. It’s not Satanists, either – there aren’t enough of them to make a difference. In all my years exploring alternative religions and other subcultures, I’ve come across exactly two Satanists.

But for the past thousand years, millions of Christians and Muslims have been obsessed with the devil (even though Satan has his origins in the Hebrew scriptures, I don’t lump Jews in with their Abrahamic brethren here because I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read Jews talking about the devil). Their fear of the devil – for many of the reasons Nimue outlined in her post – led to witch hunts, the Inquisition, and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.

Teresa of Ávila by Peter Paul Rubens (1615). Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Catholic Saint Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) said it best: “I am more afraid of those who are terrified of the devil than I am of the devil himself.”

The New Testament says “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Experience says that scripture is wrong. The more you resist the devil, the more you will fear him, the more obsessed with him you will become, and the more he will control your life.

If you would be rid of the devil, understand that people choose to do evil for reasons that are entirely naturalistic. Accept that you have the capacity to do evil and choose to do good instead. Worship your god or gods and leave no room in your life for entities who would do you harm.

If you would be rid of the devil, ignore him.

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  • I love this piece, John, and I can’t agree with you more. I’m often baffled when Pagans adamantly state they don’t believe in Satan, but as you said, are willing to believe in every deity and spirit out there.

  • I like this piece, but I have a question. You’ve said you believe the devil exists, but you haven’t really said *what* you believe the devil *is* other than a general statement about the gods of other pantheons. Are you saying you believe the devil/Satan is actually a god of the Christian pantheon, even though they don’t recognize him as such? Perhaps that’s a different piece, but I do think knowing exactly what you believe the devil *is* is important to really understanding this piece.

    Or maybe I’m just overthinking things again. ^_^* I do that.

    • “the devil/Satan is actually a god of the Christian pantheon, even though they don’t recognize him as such” – yes, exactly. But a god in the Pagan / polytheistic sense, not in the omniscient / omnipotent sense that Christians usually attribute to Yahweh.

  • Hilary

    That was interesting, and thanks for recognizing that Judaism doesn’t focus on Satan/Lucifer/the Devil the same way as Christianity. But have you come across the Jewish mythology of Ashmodai, the king of the demons? There is an entire world of Jewish folklore about demons, check out the book “Lilith’s Cave” for starters. It’s folklore and mythology now, but it was believed once.

    I wonder what the Jewish pantheon would look like through Pagan eyes. Not the Canaanite pantheon of the Torah, but the modern ‘pantheon’ of all the different versions of God we feed, so to speak. For starters, I’d place the Old Testament Yahwey as part of the Christian pantheon, we never talk about Yahwey, but Adonai, Adonai Eloheinu, HaShem, Ribbono Shel Olam (heavy on the Yiddish accent for that one) the Shechinah, which is the feminine aspect of God who is considered in exile with us. Lilith, who’s had a feminist transformation from demon temptress and killer of small children to the first Woman created who would not compromise her equality with Adam, before Eve.

    There is the God Abraham argued back with, the one Moses had to negotiate with on behalf of the Israelites and plays politics with Pharaoh. In my Torah studies I’m kind of coming to appreciate the Adonai who doesn’t always know what to do with us, that is not so beyond our comprehension and omnipotent, but recognizing that life is so complicated that even God has a trial and error learning curve. Maybe it’s silly, but the thought that God struggles at times is a relief for me; I mean if even Adonai struggles at times, how much more so is it ok for me to struggle as well? Yet despite our mutual struggles and frustration with each other, the god that absolutely loves the children of Israel, Isra-el the God Wrestler, is still a part of us.

    Across our denominations, there is the fierce, uncompromising tribal warrior of the haredi fundamentalists, the more-than-somewhat OCD god of traditional observance, the equally fierce god of social justice that Reform like myself worship, the feminist reclaiming of every scrap we can get out of the patriarchal traditions, and flat out creating what we need sometimes. For all that tribal conquest is a major part of the Torah, for the most part we don’t worship that god since we haven’t been able to engage in tribal warfare for hundreds of years, although the fierce devotion to our tribal land has definitely come back. The barbeque god of burnt offerings is long gone and not coming back, but the god of text study and commentary is well fed every week and has a real boost online.

    Sorry, this is way off topic. I’m not trying to hijack your post, it’s just I’ve been thinking about this a lot after reading a post on the pagan channel about the Christian pantheon. I hope you don’t mind, I enjoy reading your work overall. I have a lot of respect for modern Paganism even though it’s not my path.

    “Accept that you have the capacity to do evil and choose to do good instead” – Yes. This reminds me of a traditional teaching that we are created with the capacity for both good and evil, and we need to be aware of and use both.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Hilary. That wasn’t hijacking – it was all very relevant to the conversation that’s been going on in the Pagan / polytheist community lately.

      I’m familiar with the gods and demons you mention, but only casually so. I tend to think that given the way Judaism is practiced across all its denominations, a soft polytheistic model (“all gods are aspects of one God”) is probably more helpful than the hard polytheistic model (“all gods are unique, individual beings”) I follow.

      Ultimately, it’s a mystery. When we think we know exactly what the gods are, we lose the mystery, and the magic starts to die.

      • Hilary

        I agree that the soft polytheistic model does match up best with how Judaism understands the divine. There’s a lot I’d enjoy talking to you about regarding our traditions, maybe over a beer and some good bread and food, but I’ve got to finish remodeling my bathroom before having guests over tonight.
        Take care!

  • Rylin Mariel

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here, John! Thank you!