Satan’s name is commonly believed to have originated from the term
satan, which connotes the idea of opposition. The traditional account
that Satan was originally an angel but led a revolt against God and
ultimately was banished along with his followers from heaven can be
found in the apocryphal, noncanonical Hebrew, and apocalyptic
books. This is the literature that inspired John Milton’s Paradise Lost
in the seventeenth century.
Originally Satan represented more of an abstract entity than the
personification of evil. When he appeared in the Hebrew Scriptures
(the Old Testament), he represented an adversary, a divine agent who
could assume either human or angelic features. Satan is in charge of
testing humans’ integrity (e.g., Job), although God has the authority
to set limits to Satan’s power to do evil.
It was in the New Testament that Satan became the Devil personified
and was pictured as a dragon or a serpent. Still, while Satan’s
power was acknowledged, he was conceived as only part of creation:
he could not overwhelm God, and was under God’s power. In fact, if
his power could directly confront God’s authority, the underlying principle
of monotheism could not hold. In Judaism and Christianity
there is no space for the dualistic opposition of good and evil. (Dual
ism in antiquity was developed within the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism,
and in Manicheism and Gnosticism.)
In Christianity, Satan is pictured as the tempter, accuser, punisher,
and the leader of the fallen angels, who with the advent of the kingdom
of God will be ultimately defeated.
Islam shares with Christianity a number of concepts about Satan.
He is found in the Koran, as al-Shaytan (the demon), and was conceived
of as tempter. He is also associated with the lower human principles,
the flesh, or the nafs, and has the power to lead humans astray
by disguising his identity and inducing humans to do evil deeds.
In biblical literature, Satan and the serpent are often interchangeable,
particularly in the apocalyptic literature. It was in the third century
A.D., however, that the Christian philosopher Origen fully established
the association between Satan and the snake. In the following
centuries the snake was conceived as either the tool of Satan or his
Satan, however, is not only the symbol of death and evil. In the
folkloric Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, where he is typically
depicted as the “horned one,” he appears in association with fertility
and sexuality cults, and in the practice of witchcraft. Satan was held
responsible for the healing powers of witches practicing the Sabbath
rituals for centuries throughout Europe.
The role of Satan in the world has provided inspiration in literature,
poetry, art, and music throughout history. There are numerous
accounts of imaginary trips to the underground kingdom of Satan, of
pacts with the Devil, possessions, and exorcisms. In these stories the
concept of Satan’s role has evolved as a reflection of philosophical
views of human conditions. While he has been blamed for the evil on
earth that led to massacres and destructions, he has also been responsible
for inspiring the highest artistic creativity.