The very Devil of a bad idea

The Devil Bridgeman Art Library

Call him what you like - Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Beelzebub (to Christians), Ha-Satan (in Jewish scripture) and Shaitan (in Islamic tradition), the Devil has through the ages and across civilisations been a compelling and charismatic presence.  

Satan: The New Biography by Philip C Almond

- Reviewed by Jonathan Gornall

By the time the reader has reached the final page of Philip Almond's (presumably unauthorised) bio­graphy, one is possessed by a curious and wholly unexpected sensation – that of sympathy for 'the Devil.'

As might be expected of a respected professor of religion at the University of Queensland, Almond plays a straight bat throughout his rigorously academic but nevertheless highly readable appraisal of the Devil's career. He treats his satanic subject as a human concept, developed to serve a cultural need, and resists the temptation to bestow upon him such fanciful notions as thought, motive or any other characteristic of self-determination.

Iblis, the Devil in Islam, is ­noticeable for his almost complete absence. This, Almond explains in an email exchange, is because although the two are distantly related, Iblis and the western Satan soon went their own ways.

In an early chapter dealing with Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, Almond recounts the tale of ­Satan's fall for refusing to worship the image of God in Adam: 'This is essentially the story of the fall of Satan as it occurs around 10 times in the Quran,' he says. 'There, Iblis refuses Allah's order to the angels to prostrate themselves before Adam, in part because he was made from fire and Adam only from clay.

'As punishment, Iblis is sent from Heaven and becomes determined to lead humankind astray. So he is above all, like the Christian Satan, the one who tempts humankind into sin.' But 'from that point of commonality, the ­Islamic story goes its own way,' says Almond.

Satan, Iblis, Beelzebub, Shaytan, Diábolos, Lucifer ... call him what you like, says Almond in his book, but recognise him for what he is – a yin of darkness to the yang of light, without which any theology supportive of an omnipresent, benevolent deity must necessarily implode for want of a logical explanation for all the evil in the world.

Almond presents the reader not with the cloven-hoofed Devil of popular myth, but a convenient scapegoat of human invention, born as a necessary evil in the dark ages of the human mind.

The Devil has evolved over the centuries, not through some ­diabolical shape-shifting ability – though we have always imbued him with such skills of deception – but as a result of human ­manipulation.

Following a reference-strewn paper trail that begins 400 years before the Christian era, what emerges most starkly from Almond's book is the extent to which the Devil, called into being in an era when few had access to the skills of writing and reading, had his profile created, tweaked and altered in accordance with the whims of individual chroniclers whose work had the good fortune to survive down through the ages.

Each iteration of the Devil has both informed and been adapted by the next, according to passing need and the demands of fashionable orthodoxies. The result is that the Devil of modern times bears about as much resemblance to his most distant ancestor as the latest smartphone to Alexander Graham Bell's 1875 acoustic telegraph...

- Jonathan Gornall is a regular contributor to The National

Full review on The National here

From The Telegraph, London: Giving the Devil His Due by Philip C Almond

Extract from a review in The Times, London.

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