Ever since the devil came to embody evil during the transition period between the Old and the New Testament, he has been avidly used as an excuse and a scapegoat. No wonder he is often depicted as half goat, although this is actually related to the Greek god Pan, the horned half goat creature who represented anything to do with fertility, pleasure and nature, not least a rampant sex drive – hence the word ‘horny’. Pan was also a trickster, who’d sneak up behind people and freak them out, so they would pan-ic. Ah, Pan, a god of lust for life more than anything else, he should sue for slander having had his image stolen, spray-painted red and used as the poster boy for evil (click here for an in-depth history of Pan).
The devil was great for pointing a finger at: an excuse not to have to take responsibility for our own actions and weaknesses, and also a way to explain the unexplained. For years devil-based scaremongering kept the church in business, and in that sense the devil has been the church’s best friend – a necessary evil for its popularity and credibility.
While making this documentary, it seemed the idea that the devil is the driving force behind things is still very real.
Example 1: just after I started my research for this documentary, my flatmate’s laptop gave up the ghost. “It’s you! You’ve brought the devil into our home and now he has cursed my computer!”
Example 2: just before filming, I hurt my back and was stuck in bed for a week. “It’s the devil! He’s using your spine as a ladder so he can pick apples in Hell!” someone said. Apples in hell? Are they flame-grilled? I had never heard that one before, but apparently it’s an old saying, and here is an illustration I found that seems related.
Example 3: a fellow student had a nightmare about the devil chasing her with a dead baby, saying she had to get rid of it. She could do it anyway she wanted, but whatever she’d do, he would then tell the whole world about it. When I next saw her the first thing she said was “That’s all your fault! It’s because of your devil documentary!” and got pretty worked up. “It was horrible!”
You could question whether they truly believed this or not, but what’s interesting is the emotional weight of such superstition. The idea that the devil is ‘out there’ doing stuff, or somehow working through us, seems to really strike a chord, which is no surprise after 2000 years of propaganda and portrayal. But if we are all responsible for our own actions, can we ever say that the devil made us do it?
Comedian Flip Wilson shows a light-hearted take on the idea in this clip from the Ed Sullivan show:
On a more serious note, pointing a finger or blaming is one of the easiest ways to identify your own personal demons. The Jungian psychotherapist I interviewed said that looking at where you put the blame for something is really a little confession about yourself and your own (perceived) limitations.
Take the devil away and suddenly life becomes a lot less clear-cut or easy to explain. It also means we need to take a closer look at ourselves, and the less attractive aspects of human nature that may be the real driving force in question, instead of the devil. And that, of course, is one of the main reasons he was invented in the first place – to give a face to something we’d rather not recognise as human, let alone be accountable for.