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Old 03-01-2024, 05:55 PM   #21 (permalink)
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II: Script for a Devil’s Tale: Satan in early literature

So now we’ve got a pretty decent idea of how the Devil was portrayed in art, as in, the visual interpretation of him, usually taken from the Bible, or in some cases, works like Paradise Lost and Inferno. While he doesn’t really feature at all in the most famous book of all time, and is in fact almost reduced to a bit-player in it, his real major role little more than a voiceover in the desert as he tries to tempt Jesus, he was certainly destined for greater things. God may have had the Old Testament more or less to himself, Jesus the New, but other than that book, that’s pretty much the sum total of their appearances in literature. Other than theological stuff, illuminations, prayer books, Books of Hours and so on, and later religious discussions, nobody really cared. Nobody, so far as I can see, ever sat down and wrote a poem, play, novel or other work in which Jesus was the hero (well, Anne Rice did, but that’s one of the exceptions). And, as the Carpenters (no relation) once wrote, the reason for this is clear: both God and his son are pretty boring figures.

I mean, who wants to hear about God being praised by the angels? The story of Creation is interesting, yes, but there is, as network executives would no doubt say, no mileage in it. It’s been done to death, mostly in film, and let’s be honest here: it’s the same story every time. It might have slight deviations here and there, but overall it’s not going to attract big audiences. Been there, done that. The story of Jesus’s life, certainly, has spawned some movies and TV series but again the story is known, and there’s not too much you can add to it. Some certainly tried, but then, this is not a history of Jesus, so we’ll leave that there.

The point I’m making is that, if there was a real star here, it was Satan. So much untapped potential. So many ways he could be used in stories. Temptation? Lust? Evil? Betrayal? Check, check, check and check. And so by his very nature of not following the rules, of being the rebel, Satan becomes a far more intriguing character, someone we want to hear, and read, more about. Everyone loves a bad boy, and Satan is the original wild one. Nobody tells him what to do, and he forges his own path through life, corrupting, using and discarding as he goes. Fertile ground for writers, and, assuming that he was placed in the worst possible light at all times, not really something the Church would have an issue with.


Title: Christ and Satan
Author(s): Unknown; once believed to be a monk called Caedmon, but this is now disputed as scholars seem to believe there were several authors who worked on it.
Nationality: Unknown, but as it’s in Old English, either English or German
Year written/published: Possibly as early as the 7th century, though this is doubtful
Format: Poem
Setting(s): Heaven/Hell
Characterisation:* Negative but with a caveat (see below)
Have I read it? Oh yeah. I read stuff like this all the time.
Impact: Unknown

* in other words, how is Satan portrayed? Is it in a good light, a bad light, or even a neutral one? Is he the hero, the villain, the disinterested narrator?

Said to be one of the most complete - and first, after the Bible, if we give certain sources credit - account of Satan’s Fall, Christ and Satan is singled out as being very different to other, later accounts, as in this Satan goes not to God with his grievances, but to Christ. In the Bible (I mean, come on, this is Christianity, one of the most contradictory religions in history!) Christ is not born yet, as such, although Milton would later have him sitting at God’s right hand, and only born, as it were, into the flesh as part of God’s great plan. Oh my head hurts. Anyway, whether or not Christ was around in the Bible version doesn’t really matter, as like I say this part of the story ain’t in it. But other versions do seem to have Satan railing against God, so, you know.

Anyway, other than that, as I say above there may or may not be a caveat to the treatment of Satan in this, as he is described as “bringing his grievances to Christ”, which would, to my completely untrained and probably well out of its depth and wrong mind, suggest that the writer, or poet, is giving him some credit. Whereas Christian dogma and scripture tells us that Satan rebelled out of pride, without any explanation, as if he challenged God for the throne of Heaven, this may possibly give a little more insight into why he did that, what his motives were. Hell, maybe he just wanted better hours for angels doing the night shift, who knows? That lock on the door of the toilets you promised to fix and have still not got around to? Better quality wing-grooming?

So that’s why I qualify the characterisation of Satan above as perhaps not being one hundred percent negative. Though it may have been. What do I know? Anyhoo, Christ and Satan doesn’t just leave it there, oh no. It’s split into three parts, the first being the War in Heaven, the second then being the rematch, as it were, when Christ, newly crucified and feeling a bit miffed maybe, made his way down to Hell and kicked Satan’s arse in his own crib, in the event known to Christians as The Harrowing of Hell. Hey, this time it’s personal, huh? The final part sees another rematch, this time as Christ faces Satan in the desert and is tempted by him as he waits to begin his ministry. No, notof Sound, smartass!

You’d think that should be the other way round though, wouldn’t you? I mean, in terms of order, narrative structure and so on, it should be Fall of Satan, temptation in the desert and then the Harrowing of Hell. Well I guess whoever wrote this wasn’t too bothered about literary criticism or editing. Still, for such an early text it certainly seems to feature the most Satan of any work, well outstripping the Bible, and could almost make the claim “All Satan, all the time!” That would make some blurb, huh? Both this and the following works, Genesis A and B, are held together in the Junius Manuscript, a codex in two volumes.

Texts like this will of course always be self-serving, or at least, heavily weighted and biased in favour of the Church, the old “history is written by the victors” idea. Then again, of course, we are talking - if you’re not a believer - about mythical beings, so I suppose in essence you could say things like the Prose Edda are written to favour the Norse Gods, or the Illiad in favour of the Greek ones. Nevertheless, Satan has no voice here, other than that which the author gives him, and invariably this is one that suits his religious dogma. There is nothing, to quote Otto from The Simpsons, written from the vampire’s point of view. Later, much later, Satan would speak in his own voice, given eloquence by more, shall we say, free-thinking or open-minded writers - always of course in fiction - and we would hear what could very well be his side of the story. Hell, I've even done it myself, but you don't want to hear about that. Leave it to, I don't know, Neil Gaiman maybe? We'll hear from him later obviously.

But here we only hear God’s side, and as if to underline this, Satan is made to regret and recognise his mistake in challenging God. I don’t know what the actual lines are, but he is apparently heard confessing and seeming to be almost contrite. Well, too late now, my lad! You go to your room, and stay there for eternity! Maybe that will teach you to respect your betters! Yeah, right. And he absolutely is not plotting to overthrow God’s greatest creation in a spiteful fit of revenge.

As an aside, I don’t know if it’s the only place, but it’s the first and only time I’ve heard the phrase “middle earth” be used outside of Tolkien’s works. I do wonder if he read this, or knew of it? He was, after all, a student of languages, so Old English would not have been any obstacle to him, nor indeed Latin. Might be coincidence, but it is at the very least intriguing.

Another fascinating thing here is that the poet assumes that Satan’s followers do not worship him, but scorn him. I find that a little hard to believe (hey, it’s Christianity: I find any of it hard to believe! But this just does not gell with me) - they follow their rebel lord out of Heaven, having lost the war, a war they can’t have had much hope of winning anyway, and then turn on him? Can’t see it. Also, isn’t Satan supposed to be all-powerful in Hell? Could he not reduce those who oppose or even look sideways at him to ashes? And would he not, as a new ruler, need to set down a marker and stamp his authority on Hell double-quick? Surely one way of doing so would be to, well, incinerate any opposition to him, or any dissenting voices, or indeed anyone who makes him look bad, and especially anyone who challenges him?

Title: (Old Saxon) Genesis A
Author(s): Unknown
Nationality: English I guess
Year written/published: Around 9th century
Format: Poem
Setting(s): Heaven/Hell
Characterisation:* Negative
Have I read it? No
Impact: n/a

To my own considerable surprise I find that though Satan is not, as I mentioned, spoken of much in the Bible - and there is no record of his war against God and eventual defeat and Fall - that event is covered in some detail in this poem. The Old Saxon Bible takes as its template the Book of Genesis (hence the title) but expands on it, I suppose to retrospectively fill in, as it were, the missing parts of the story we’re all used to. Not quite revisionist history (as this isn’t history but a narrative of something that may or may not have happened, and is religious so very much open to interpretation) but I imagine possibly a sort of unabridged edition? Anyway, the important point is that it relates the Fall, which we’re all familiar with, but this would have been the first time the story was written down. Everyone would have known about it from their religious teachings, but might have been surprised and disappointed to find, had they tried to find it in the original Bible, that it was not there.

Eight hundred years or so later, Milton must surely have looked to this as at least part inspiration for his own work; unlike the Bible, Genesis A begins in Heaven, before the creation of the world and recounts the dispute between Satan and his angels and their final Fall, although to be honest I can’t read Saxon English and wouldn’t attempt to try, so all I can tell you is what I read about the summary, which seems to be basically what you would expect. A starring role, mostly, for Satan, but a doomed one as well. Interestingly, though the Fall of Satan takes place in Genesis A, the corresponding volume, Genesis B, which concerns itself with the Fall of Man, i.e., Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, characterises Satan not as a serpent but as an angel. More than that, it seems to indicate that the tempter was not Satan himself, but one of his followers/fallen angels, a kind of case of “Look I’d do it myself but I’m all chained up here as you can see. Be a love and go tempt that bitch for me, yeah? We both want the same thing, don’t we? To get back at God. Well this will drive him fucking crazy. Good man, good man.” Or words to that effect.

Another difference in Genesis A is that (apparently) it also features a sort of soliloquy by Satan, at this point more or less still Lucifer, as he surveys his new kingdom and grumps about how he doesn’t like the decor, it’s cold and he’ll need to heat it up, needs some furniture to brighten the place up, and stuff like that. Probably. But whether what he actually says is a lament for his prideful attitude (according to Biblical interpretation of course) and Fall, or just basic grumbling and a vow of revenge, I don’t know. I’m told the piece does also contain his intention to get back at God by warping his creation, us. Also, Genesis A tells us (again, apparently, as I’ve never read it, nor ever will) that Man was created as a direct result of Satan’s fall, right after it, as a kind of replacement for God losing his favourite. Hmm. Kind of makes you feel a little bit used, does it not?

Title: Solomon and Saturn
Author(s): Unknown
Nationality: Old English so I guess English or German
Year written/published: Either late ninth or early tenth century
Format: Poem
Setting(s): Unsure
Characterisation:* Negative
Have I read it? Yeah, right
Impact: Unknown

As you’ll see from the above, the most I know about this is that I know absolutely bugger-all about it. I’m reading a treatise though that seems to believe it contains a record of the Fall of Satan, so I’m including it here. Mostly I think it’s some sort of conversation (real or imagined, again, I don’t know) between King Solomon and the Roman god Saturn. Right.

Title: Elene or Saint Helena Seeks the True Cross
Author(s): Cynewulf
Nationality: English (Saxon)
Year written/published: Ninth to tenth century
Format: Poem
Setting(s): Various
Characterisation:* Negative
Have I read it? Oh, sure.
Impact: Shrug

Notably the first of these texts, codices, tracts, sagas, call them what you will, to which we can actually ascribe an author. All the others have been anonymous, or search me, or some guy, but this one gives us a name. Mind you, who Cynewolf was I have not the slightest - sounds like a film company run by chaps of the lupine variety, does it not? Chances are - since they were pretty much the only bods able to write around the first ten or so centuries - that it was a monk. Bloody monks, always hogging the limelight, writing everything down for posterity. Swots.

This is another of those Old Saxon poems which covers many topics, and as you can see from the title, is primarily concerned with the search of Saint Helena for the True Cross, in other words, the actual one Jesus was supposed to have been crucified on. But there is room for the Devil to feature, and he gets pretty miffed when Judas steals one of his souls from Hell. I believe the exact translation from the Saxon runs like this: “Oi! You! What the fuck do you think you’re doing? That’s mine, that is! Give it back right now! Oh, you won’t, will you? Fuck you then! I’ll raise a king that will root you up the arse so hard, just see if I don’t.” Then, I believe the literal passage says “He fucketh off back to the stygian depths of Hell, most pissed off.” You know, that might all have been a dream.

Seriously though, yeah, Satan is in this but really only as a special guest star. Quickly perusing the summary, it is interesting to see that the poem relates one of the monumental events in Christian (and Roman) belief, where the Emperor Constantine sees a crucifix in the sky on the eve of battle, and thinks, you know, that’s pretty bitchin’. I think I’ll have my lads wear it on their armour, couldn’t hurt. Well as we all know, or should do, the story goes that His Emperorness saw the sign in the sky, and heard God’s voice telling him that if he wore the symbol and had his men do the same, he would be triumphant. The upshot of all this was that a) he was and b) he was so chuffed that he thought to himself “if this God fella is so cool then maybe his people are too. You know what? Fuck previous emperors. I’m for being a - a - what do they call it? Oh yeah: a Christian. And if I convert, fucking everyone converts!”

Meaning, of course, that Constantine became the first Christian Emperor of Rome, and that Christianity was then accepted as a legitimate, in fact the legitimate religion. So thousands of years of persecution was over, and a lot of lions probably wondered where their dinner had gone. But the Helena spoken of in the title is Constantine’s mother, and therefore the Queen, and when she went to force Judas to tell her where they nailed Christ up - how he’s supposed to have known this, or indeed be alive, when he was supposed to have hanged himself after collecting his thirty pieces of silver, I don’t know, but that’s poetic licence for you I guess - the big girl’s blouse gave in after only seven days in the dark without food. Wuss.

There was a problem though. In concert with Biblical canon, Christ was crucified with two others, two thieves, and so not one but three crosses were dug up, and Judas shrugged, saying hey I got you a cross, in fact I got you three for the price of one. You figure it out. She did. Luckily she happened to have a handy corpse lying around, and by a process of elimination she worked out which cross brought the guy back to life, so then she could slap a sticky label on it that said TRUE CROSS. Sorted. It’s not recorded what happened to the recently-dead guy, but he must have been something like a guy coming out of a coma for twenty years and hearing about Trump, Covid and the fall of communism. “Wait - us Christians are legal now? No more colosseum? No more gladiators? The emperor is a what? You’re pulling my leg, right? Oh. Careful. It does come off quite easily. No, no: my fault, should have warned you.”
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Old 03-01-2024, 08:04 PM   #22 (permalink)
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A lot of information in this thread!
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Old 03-02-2024, 11:03 AM   #23 (permalink)
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Title: Inferno (Part of the Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia))
Author(s): Dante Alighieri
Nationality: Italian
Year written/published: 1302 - 1320/ Unsure, but first print edition 1472
Format: Long form poem
Setting(s): Hell
Characterisation:* Negative
Have I read it? No
Impact: 10


The first author to really take on Satan, then, was the Italian Dante Alighieri, usually just known as Dante, when he - to quote Douglas Adams - used him as the central theme for his blockbusting three-volume epic, The Divine Comedy (Divine Commedia), or at least the first part, called Inferno. I have a vague memory of trying to read it when younger, and giving up. There’s no doubt it’s one of the most pre-eminent works, not only of Italian literature, but of world literature, but I found it hard going. Essentially it ruminates on the journey of the soul after death, focusing on evil and Hell in the first part, where Dante envisions himself guided by the Roman poet Virgil down into the very depths of Hell itself, which he imagines as being divided into nine sections, or circles.

The work was begun in 1308 and took almost twelve years to complete, literally his life’s work, as he died one year after completing it, in 1321. With no original manuscript surviving, it’s hard to tie down when it was first published, but the first printed copy came out in 1472, only thirty-two years after Gutenberg had invented his printing press, the first in the world. The narrative is more concerned with Hell than Satan, who only makes an appearance at the end, in the Ninth Circle, so much of what goes on in the poem doesn’t necessarily concern us, at least not for the purposes of this journal. However it is worth noting that from this work we get the famous slogan “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”, which is on a sign over the entrance to Hell. Well, I suppose “Welcome” would be redundant, would it not? And as for “Arbeit macht frei”, well, that wouldn’t show its ugly face for another six hundred years.

Without going through all the Circles of Hell, it’s in the Ninth that we meet Satan, and Virgil has an odd idea of him, expressed through some of the paintings and works of that and the next century. First, he has three heads, or I should say, three faces, each one a different colour. One is red (duh), one is a kind of pale yellow and the other is black. The mouth in each head is munching on a traitor - Brutus, Cassius, and the man seen by Christianity as the arch-traitor, Judas Iscariot - but the Devil is not enjoying himself. He weeps tears of blood, and is trapped up to his waist in a lake of ice, while his huge bat wings beat the air above him and fan the wind to keep the water frozen, forever imprisoning him there. We've seen this painting earlier.

I suppose it’s no real surprise that Dante sees Satan as a pathetic, pitiable figure while still managing to maintain the innate evil and fear of the Devil. His Fall has been complete, and rather than, as Milton later observes, ruling in Hell, he is trapped there, almost as much a prisoner as the souls of the damned. He doesn’t sit on a throne, he doesn’t walk around inspecting the inhabitants or organising or overseeing inventive tortures - that’s all left to his lieutenants, as it were, who patrol and work in each Circle. He hasn’t got a plush red office with a picture of the wife on his desk and a sign on the wall declaring this to be Hell, Sweet Hell, nor has he, it would seem, the respect of or even fear of the other demons, who all seem to ignore him (though I do admit I’ve not managed to read it, so I could be wrong there).

In the end, Satan is seen as being punished as much as the damned, if not more so, and there’s actually no confirmation that I can see that he is the one pulling the strings here. As far as his own punishment is concerned, that has to be taken to be God who’s responsible, forever proving his superiority over his prideful angel, Lucifer, the one who dared stand up to and oppose him, and who paid the most awful price imaginable.


Title: King Edgar’s Privilege to New Minster
Author(s): King Edgar
Nationality: English (Saxon)
Year written/published: Tenth century
Format: Charter
Setting(s): n/a
Characterisation:* Negative
Have I read it? Duh
Impact: n/a

As David Frame Johnson says in his treatise, Studies in the Careers of the Fallen Angels: The Devil and his Body in Old English Literature, a royal charter written by one of the early Saxon kings of England is not really the sort of place you would expect to be looking for mentions of the Devil, but given that this was, and is, so far as I can make out, a royal charter allowing the building of a new cathedral (or minster), the language is pretty flowery and takes plenty of diversions along Biblical and religious paths, and one of those it moseys on down for a looksee is, yes you guessed it, the Fall of Satan. It also agrees with (or filches from) the contention of Genesis A that Man was created as a sort of replacement for Satan and his angels.

What all three manuscripts (another charter included, but not really worthy of investigating separately, as it more or less regurgitates what Edgar says above) make clear, and which is quite new to me, is that God’s original plan, once Satan had been shown the door - mind that step! - was for Man to replace him, basically be angels, which is I guess why he made Adam and Eve immortal. Now that raises some pertinent questions, such as, how would immortals beings multiply (no account ever speaks of angel babies) and more importantly, why? If the real purpose of procreation is to ensure your line is carried on after you die, and you don’t die, then why bother? Carry the line on yourself. So why God expected or intended these, if you will, Angels v2.0 to do so is beyond me, however it’s also beyond the remit of this journal, as we’re principally here concerned with the Devil.

But still, the idea that God did intend humans to be angels and “fill the empty thrones in Heaven” makes Satan’s successful corruption of man (yeah yeah woman, but who believes that?) even the more frustrating for God, as he basically ballsed up his plans bigtime. Now humans would die - procreate yes, but what would come forth would be nothing like his angels - and have to work to attain a place in Heaven. Even if or when they did, they weren’t going to be accorded the status of angels. So the plan went totally tits-up, and Satan no doubt was one very happy boy. God fumed impotently, maybe, since his perhaps rash gift of free will to humanity meant he couldn’t order them not to sin, and once they had sinned, he had to start casting worrying sidelong glances at his son, who for some reason began hearing the sound of nails and hammers.
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