|| Date: 18-12-20 || Back to index ||
|| Tag: book-summary ||
|| Author: Jeffrey Burton Russell ||

Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages

Book cover

Life of Lucifer

Let’s start with a story:

The brutal murder that made today Judy’s last day to live occurred around 8 A.M. on a Saturday, April 28, 1979. Terry Lee Chasteen, 23, was taking her three children to the babysitter en route to her job at a supermarket in Indianapolis when she flagged to the side of the interstate highway by a man indicating there was a problem with her car. It was Judy, just five days out of jail after posting $750 bail bond on an armed robbery charge. While he pretended to help her with her car issues, he covertly disabled her car completely and then offered the family for a ride in his car. The ride ended in White lick creek just off a roadway where he raped the woman, repeatedly, and then strangled her with torn bits of her clothing. The 8-year-old daughter was next. It ended with them being silenced, one by one, in the river. – W.C. Rempel, Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1981

Another one right here:

The Norris-Bittaker trial included some of the most shocking testimony in the American criminal court annals. From June to October 1979, the two convicted men prowled in a sound-proofed van they called “Murder Mack”. The five known victims ranged from 13 to 18. The young victims were forced to submit to repeated rapes and other sexual outrages, which in two cases lasted for two days. Some were forced to carry air mattresses and torture paraphernalia from the van to grassy knolls in the mountains above Glendora, where four of the victims were slain. The killers ripped the girls with pliers, beat them with a sledgehammer, drove icepicks into their skulls, and strangled them with wire coathangers. In the case of the first victim, Lucinda (Cindy) Schaefer, 16, who was kidnapped as she walked from church to her home, Norris and Bittaker rejected her plea to be allowed to pray before they killed her. They immediately began throttling her with a wire coat hanger. – R. West, Los Angeles Times, April 29, 1981

Evil is real and immediate and demands the attention of all of us. We avoid examining it at our own grave peril. And on no account may we trivialize it.

In our times, I believe, there exists two current modes of belief: a vague egalitarian approach where there is no right or wrong and everything falls under either personal preference or power– take your pick of words. The other mode is a temptation and allure towards darkness and, for lack of a better word, evil.

How can one understand evil? It’s definitely not an academic problem, although many have tried to make it as such (Read: Scholasticism).

I think a good way to go forward in answering this question is to look into what has already been written and discussed in terms of the Devil– the personification of evil. For better or worse, this problem had an answer and a story to go with it in most belief structures, so we have a pretty good range on where to move forward.

Now we come to the main issue in each and every belief system: the assumed monopoly on objective, absolute truth. I believe, however, that the best way to define the Devil is through his own tradition and when the tradition becomes too intricate, incoherent, and off-track, we have the privilege of taking what we understood and move forward.

What other ways do we have to understand this creature? Empirical observation will fail us. The democratic scholarly consensus is always shifting. Reliance upon Scripture, which was written in different periods by different people with different backgrounds, is reliable only in understanding the big picture. Ecclesiastical authority is unreliable and the dialectic method– the Scholastic method– will reach a natural dead-end, as we’ll see.

The Devil in Byzantium

The Byzantine church was characterized by monasticism and mystic thinking. One of the leading scholars of the period, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, brought forth one of the first mystic thoughts in Christian theology in 500 A.D. His idea followed Apophatic theology– negative theology– in which God is understood not by what can be attributed and understood but by a negation of everything surrounding him and having individual kinship with him.

We know nothing about God, who is completely outside the realm of our understanding but encompasses every part of it. Partly because our reason is restricted and incomprehensive, but mostly because he is beyond all reason

The diabology of Dionysius’s thought was that any evilness is not attributed to a dualistic nature, but it is purely represented as a lack of goodness. So, the Devil and demons are not evil, they are just so far away from God and so close to the Void that their actions take the shape they take.

If we grasp the full state of our unknowing, we will struggle against “pathe” (conflicting emotions and impressions) and move toward “apatheia” (spiritual calmness) which leads to eirene (peace) and selfless love of God. In this way, our lives become imitation to God.

The early Christian diabology revolved around the idea that the Devil is “nothing else than a lack of good”. This idea crystallized with John of Damascus (675 - 750). His idea was that if two cosmic powers did exist, they would either be in total, equal opposition and power, or that one of them would have a feature that makes them the better one, which in turn would make them God.

Later on, at the turn of the turn of the 10th century, the ideas of Neoplatonism got overwhelming popularity and a hierarchical taxonomy for the devil and demons was established by Michael Psellos (1018 - 1078). It is deeply rooted in the natural demonology of the pagan Neoplatonists, who supposed the demons to be morally ambivalent entities between gods and men rather than fallen angels. Psellos recast these natural demons as Christian fallen angels and made rather halfhearted attempts to fit them into Christian demonology. The highest demons are the lelioria, the shining or glowing ones, who come into aeria, demons of the air below the moon; the chthonia, who inhabit the land; the hydraia who dwell in the waters; the hypo-cthonia who live beneath the earth, and the lowest ones are the misophaes, those who hate the light and dwell blind and almost senseless in the lowest depths of hell. Those demons attack God’s plans using the powers. The lowest ones hunt down the humans. The misophaes would render the persons they posses blind, mute and deaf. The invocation of the saints, the reading of the Gospels, holy oil and the invocation of the Lord’s name, would repel those demons and drive them screaming with pain.

Psellos’ bizarre schemes were inconsistent and crude. A combination of pagan philosophical ideas mixed with Christian demonology. His material, however, is gold for the horror movie genre and cult fanatics.

The idea of a duality did reach maturation no matter how much it was swatted left and right by the Orthodox Church and by insane schemes such as Psellos. Medieval dualist heresies appeared first in the East. From the tenth century to the Turkish conquest in the fifteenth, the Byzantine church was faced with the Bulgarian Heresy: a dualist view that was both vocal and persistent. The Bulgarian Heresy stipulates that Creator God of the Old Testament was Satanel, a perverse entity that made this world with all its misery, hatred, pain and suffering. Satanel proceded to make a sentient being, Adam, which he fashioned out of earth and water. But when he stood the thing upright, Satanel was annoyed to find it defective. Life was trickling out of Adam. Satanel was obliged to turn to his old enemy, the Lord, for assistance, begging him to help create mankind and promising him that if he cooperated he would be allowed to share the governance of this world. The Lord, wishing to fill up the ranks of the angels depleted by the ancient rebellion in heaven, agreed and he created Adam. The story goes on that Satanel got jealous and impregnated Eve to make Cain. Later, in a natural union with Adam, Eve conceived Abel, whom Cain slew, introducing murder into the world and disrupting the ranks of the Lord.

Unfortunately, most of those legends and beliefs do not address the issue of Evil directly. They get lost in the details and end up destroying the point. No use for the student other than entertainment can come from treading too deeply into their narratives.

The Muslim Devil

Islam is a mixture of its Judaeo-Christian breatherens, early Paganic myths and a bit of politics in the mix. The Quran has no doctrine of the Original Sin, yet the “Soul of Man” is condemned to be “truly evil”.

And I do not acquit myself. Indeed, the soul is a persistent enjoiner of evil, except those upon which my Lord has mercy. Indeed, my Lord is Forgiving and Merciful. – Quran 12:53

Iblis was not a fallen angel, however, but he was one of the Jinn– morally ambivalent creatures that exist in another realm in our current world. They are very much equivalent to Daimones in the Greco-Roman tradition. The pre-Islamic Arabs associated Jinn with graveyards, filth, and darkness.

The movement of the character of the Muslim Devil was taken over literally by most believing Muslims, even today. This was mainly due to Hasan al-Basri, a very renowned eighth-century Muslim scholar, the associated all the evil in the cosmos to the work of the Devil and his “fallen” human followers.

The Mystics of the Islamic tradition, the Mutazilites, went in the same Apophatic direction as did Dionysius of the Byzantine times. They found that the intricate difficulties in trying to square justice with mercy, goodness, and omnipotence of a singular God was too much to be logically understood. This can be illustrated by the following story:

Let us imagine a child and a grown-up person in heaven who both died in the True Fauth. The grown-up one, however, has a higher place in Heaven than the child. The child asks God: “Why did you give that man a higher place than me?”. “He has done more good works than you,” God answers. “I knew that you would grow up into a sinner, therefore, it was better than you should die a child”. Thereupon a cry shall erupt from those condemned to the depths of Hell, “Why, O Lord!, did You not let us die before we became sinners?”

Early Medieval Diabology

I’ll restrict this section to John Eriugena, an Irish theologian from the 9th century, who was tasked to translate the Greek mystical writers, including Dionysius. John’s epistemology was very much ascetic in nature: God is absolutely incomprehensible both to us and to himself. To know something is to define it but God cannot be defined.

John also borrows a few thoughts from the Stoic epistemology and mentions that God and Nature are virtually equivalent. The following translated (by the author) piece of poetry by John should make his Apophatic position clear:

Every creature lives in God And God is himself created in every creature In a way that we cannot grasp Unreachable, he offers himself to us Unseeable, he shows himself Unthinkable, he enters our minds Hidden, he uncovers himself Unknown, he makes himself known, The unutterable Name utters the Word in which each thing is Infinite and finite, complex and simple He is nature above nature, being above being Maker of all, he is made in all Unmoving, he enters the world Timeless in time, unlimited in limited space And he who is nothing becomes all things

The Devil and the Scholars

At the turn of the 10th century, the growth of intellectual life and easy access to education enhanced the quality of the collective self-conscious and this movement penetrated the Catholic church. A result of this was Scholasticism, the application of reason to theology, scripture, and law. Scholasticism sharpened the edge of scripture to make a very clear distinction between truth and error, heresy and orthodoxy. Thomas Aquinas was one of the early scholastics.

Before the advent of Scholasticism, the pillars of Christianity was characterized by Tradition and Scripture. Scholasticism added another pillar without touching the other two: Reason. The result was a detailed, but insecure, diabology.

On Nominalism

The Nominalists movement started with William of Ocham around the 14th century. Mr. Ocham’s belief is that universal, abstract values are inaccurate and miss the target when one wants to reach to God. Ockham’s razor (the simplest explanation consonant with the evidence is usually the best) slashed away the abstract “realities” that earlier theologians had invented. We know that Socrates is a man because our intuition tells us he is a man. We don’t need the notion of “Whale-ness” for one to understand a blue whale. People were able to tell a whale from a human long before Plato invented realism.

Needless to say, Ockham’s view influenced Kant heavily, who in turn influenced modern phenomenology. When we say we know abstractions, we, in fact, know only the human conceptions and cannot assume they correspond to an “absolute reality”.

Nicholas of Cusa, a mystic and a nominalist, brought forth a very interesting idea which Carl Jung continued 5 centuries later. His idea was “Coincidence of Opposites”. God is the “maximum” of everything. He is the greatest and the smallest. He is the brightest and the darkest. He is close and he is far. It is not possible to use relative measurements that we humans use to measure him since he is among everything and out of everything.

It follows then that Evil should be in God since he is basically everything. Here, the Neoplatonistic view comes into play: Evil does not exist in God since evil is really nothing.

The play on words continues.

We can, however, see why the question of evil was not answered properly for a very long time by tradition: Nicholas of Cusa was the closest one to be able to answer something useful about evil, but then he evaded the issue since you cannot say that “Evil exists in God”. We would not call a human ruler who permitted a tyranny in his country “good”, just as we would not call a God that allowed evil to exist as “good”. This was what most of the theologians feared.

Historical and Psychological Development

Too many poets, theologians, authors, and lay-theologians tried to tell the story of the devil and many people followed them afterward. The only sure fact about the devil one can make is his historical development and the simple highlights that the devil story has gone through throughout the ages. One can call these distilled highlights a “myth” - The Devil was an angel, a cleric or a creature who is high in the pantheon of God - He was thrown out of grace - Whoever follows him is going against the order of God - He will be slain at one point, from which humanity will prosper and order will be restored

Fall of Lucifer

How you have fallen, O’ Lucifer Morningstar, son of the dawn. You have been cast down to earth. You who once laid low the nations – Isaiah 14:12

The way poets and religions told the story of the Devil are oddly reminiscent of the stages of human development which was laid out by Carl Jung: - Stage one represented most monist religions and early Hebrew thought, which was characterized by a lack of distinction between the good and evil. This is analogous to the early stages of human development when good and evil are not fully differentiated - Stage two represented by Iranian, Gnostic and Manichean dualism, was characterized that good and evil are wholly different and opposites and unconnected. This stage is analogous to individual development in youth when things are seen in terms of black and white. - Stage three, which was noted by Nicholas of Cusa, Carl Jung, and partial thought of Dionysius, represents the understanding of the idea of the Devil and the focus on overcoming it.


The Devil is a metaphor. Even as such he is not to be dismissed, for we have no access to absolute reality and must always rely upon the metaphors that our minds manufacture from sense observations, reason and unconscious elements. The idea of the Devil is a metaphor; so is the idea of God, in the sense that anyone’s idea of God– Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and else– is a metaphor to what has not been understood or that which passes understanding altogether.

There was a sentence the author mentioned: The Devil is not unscientific, he is “Ascientific”; transcending the realm of answers that science can provide since the question does not lay in its domain. The single greatest mistake that Christianity did, in my opinion, is that it was in the best place to answer something about the nature of evil and people like Bittaker and Steven Judy, but it did shy away from it and did not dare to tread, lest it steps on Tradition or Scripture’s toes. Starting from Psellos, theologians and scholars were lost in the useless details.

The job of understanding evil was left to the historians and psychologists that can lay out the facts without fear of tradition and scripture. It is still early for us to say whether we reached a point where we can say that we know anything useful about evil, and, as the author wrote in the introduction, we avoid examining it at our own grave peril.