The Devil We Know

A lot of people believe the Devil is real.

Louis Cypher. Mr. B. L. Z. Bubb. Old Scratch. Greenjack. Pegleg. The Man of Wealth and Taste.

Big Red is no joke. The Phoenix City Council just this year discontinued a long standing tradition of an opening prayer rather than let the Tuscon Satanic Temple have their turn at the morning invocation. In 2013 Pat Robertson on the 700 Club attributed all the woes of Haiti on an alleged archaic deal between the Haiti people and Sammael, Lord of the Bottomless Pit supposedly to oust the colonial French. Mr. Robertson was, at the time, trying to explain the 2010 Haiti Earthquake and the relief effort failures into 2013 (Tropical Storm Sandy didn’t help). Regarding this alleged deal, no one is clear what event Mr. Robertson was interpreting or if he was spinning a yarn from whole cloth.

In my own experience on an Amtrak train to Oregon, a casual conversation heated up unexpectedly when I expressed an opinion that Old Nick was a proverbial figure (and that no I don’t believe He controls the Vatican). I found myself suddenly confronted by several people telling me that either I should change my mind, or get the heck off the train, and no, they weren’t going to let me wait until the next stop. This is why I should never talk to strangers.

Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself

Of course, the Devil does show up in fiction. A lot. More than God and Death and Father Time and Mother Nature combined. It’s not because the Devil is that much more personable, but as a foe who knows our hero’s weaknesses, He makes for an exciting adversary or an interesting patron.

In modern stories Old Scratch challenges young men to music contests and sells silver bullets to hapless hunters and gets Himself exiled from New Hampshire often in what are tales of heroes in sticky-wicket situations looking for an easy out. Heroes who find their courage beat out the Devil by leaping (in faith) into the fight and finding opportunity and cleverness and surges of talent, whereas cowards get suckered by His infinite wiles and trickery and only too late do they understand how badly they were suckered. Usually the coward’s end is death by his own hand, though a life ruined can be plenty cautionary, especially if he’s the one telling the tale.

Here’s the catch: The Devil isn’t really the Devil. He’s not there at all. Instead, Abbadon the Angel of the Abyss is merely a narrative device.

Say we tell the tale of Miss Jones encountering the Devil. She’s living life, and gets into a fix. And behold, the Devil meets her in a café. This is not a story of Miss Jones against a rival. Miss Jones isn’t fighting a giant boss monster. Rather, she is fighting against Miss Jones. Herself. Miss Jones contends with fear, or rage, or greed or pride (Generally fear and rage: Fight and flight) compelling Miss Jones to consider desperate measures. The nuclear option to make things all better. And the Vassago, Master of Serpents only represents the means and opportunity, and that Miss Jones is still considering them. Sure, the story might feature magic devices that allow Miss Jones to seduce men or play guitar or shoot straight, but that’s just flash and fluff. Take away the Devil and replace the magic charm offered with a Cluedo murder weapon, and you have the same story, only on Alfred Hitchcock Presents rather than The Twilight Zone.

This is why the Devil for all his power has to leave it in the hands of the mortal protagonist to make the final choice. Miss Jones has to turn the nuclear keys on her own. The devil in Miss Jones is: Miss Jones.

The Nature Of My Game

Of course, the moral of this story (e.g. It’s all on you) is lost once we decide Mephistopheles the Deceiver is a real figure like Niccolò Machiavelli or Livia Drusilla or Augustine of Hippo or Eleanor of Aquitaine. The assumption of a real Devil changes the rules of engagement, since then He has actual agency and can seize power over mortals.

The Devil made me do it.

We see this interpretation sometimes. The Exorcist (1973) was based on the alleged Excorcism of an anonymous boy (Roland Doe), who, at five years old, exhibited aggressive behaviors and an epidemic of conflicting witness testimony , which lead to an attempt at exorcism by agents of the Roman Catholic Church with no clear results, except that a troubled toddler was put through a lot more trouble. Media based on this single event, including an upcoming FOX serial drama, continues unabated. In the 2010s the exorcism business under the Holy See continues to boom in Italy, and within the US many a church minister has brought injury or even accidental death to children and adolescents in efforts to cast out their alleged demons.

When a society can come to the conclusion that there is an ultimate evil, and that this evil is a threat and must be fought, it is a short, easy step to justify any action against agents of Apollyon, the Prince of Darkness, even when those agents are unwitting, or are only suspect, and evidence is only hearsay.

Every Cop Is a Criminal and All the Sinners, Saints

The War on Terror has shown us, with a palpable enemy that we can assume is evil by definition, how quickly human society will resort to massacre and torture and infighting. (Our symptoms are very similar to those of Sodom and Gomorrah.)

This isn’t new. Astaroth, Husbander of Forsaken Children made a more direct appearance in late middle ages witch hunts. These days, the Devil is removed from official pronouncements, but those in the know eagerly recognize His signature. Why wouldn’t they? When it’s license to commit atrocity, it’s license to do anything less.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing us He existed.


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