The Devil is in the Detail

Over at Common Tansy, Pat Mosley has been tearing it up with his posts about the Devil in witchcraft, A Case for Inviting Satan (Back) to Wicca and Prying Open the Devil’s Broom Closet. And Ian Corrigan has also written on the topic of the Devil and the darker side of Paganism. Jason Mankey has written about the origins of the Horned God of Wicca.

Francisco de Goya's Witches Sabbat (1789), which depicts the Devil flanked by Satanic witches. The Witch Cult hypothesis states that such stories are based upon a real-life pagan cult that revered a horned god

Francisco de Goya’s Witches Sabbat (1789), which depicts the Devil flanked by witches. [CC0 – Public Domain]

The Devil and witchcraft

Some folkloric Craft practitioners have always honoured both Lucifer and Jesus, regarding them as brothers (from the reference in the Book of Job about Samael being among the Sons of God). Cain is also an important figure in their mysteries, and is viewed as the son of Samael and Lilith. And Tubal-Cain is viewed as the earthly vessel of Azazel. They place a lot of importance on the smith-gods such as Prometheus, Tubal-Cain, Hephaestos, Wayland, and Vulcan.

I can understand why some Wiccans completely denied that they even believed in the Devil, as I vividly remember the fear instilled in us by the Satanic Panic of the late 1980s. It is much easier to say “we don’t believe in your mythology at all” than it is to say something more complicated, such as “we don’t accept your dualistic cosmology, but we do believe there is a place for acknowledging the darker aspects of the psyche, and deities associated with them, and rather than demonising them, it would be better to integrate those forces into consciousness and work with their energies”. Some Wiccan and Pagan writers actually did attempt to convey this more complicated message.

Various concepts and images of these entities are lurking about in the basement of the Western psyche – but we are not powerless to change them. Some people will prefer to ignore them altogether; others feel the need to change these images by working with them. That is their prerogative.

However, there is no need to throw Satanists under the bus when stating that Wiccans don’t worship the Devil. There are at least three different flavours of Satanism, the philosophical and anarchist variety allegedly espoused by Mikhail Bakunin, the inversion-of-Christianity variety, and the people who are actually worshipping the Egyptian god Set. Therefore, claiming that Satanism is “just an inversion of Christianity” is an inadequate explanation of what it actually is.

I have not met that many Satanists, and many of the ones I have met have taken considerable pleasure in being self-consciously “dark” and very left-hand-path. Some of the ones I have met were very right-wing. There are nasty people in every group, but that doesn’t mean that all of them are like that. I also know a couple of Setians and some left-wing Satanists.

It is worth pointing out that an acknowledgement of the possible existence of Lucifer, or Samael, or any other such entity, does not mean that we are suddenly Satanists. Some Wiccans have been acknowledging Lilith for years – so why is Samael so taboo?

I think that Wicca and Satanism are two separate and distinct traditions,  but we are not being fair and reasonable if we demonise Satanism in the same way that some Christians have done to us.

Who cleft the Devil’s foot?

From a hard(ish) polytheist point of view, I would argue that Lucifer, Satan, Samael, Asmodeus, Beelzebub, and various other entities are different beings. They may have got lumped together as one by the monotheists, but then I think we would all agree that monotheists have a tin ear when it comes to mythology. One of the Pagan deities whose image fed into the Christian concept of the Devil was Pan, and it is thought that that is how the Devil acquired his cloven hooves (unless it was from the image of Azazel as the scapegoat).

Some people have argued that neither Jesus nor Satan have a place in contemporary Paganisms, because we don’t accept the dualistic and antagonistic world-view of Christianity.  However, I don’t have to accept that monotheism’s assessment of the stature or nature of a being is true in order to accept that the being (or at least, its archetype) exists.  I don’t accept the philosophy of Buddhism, but I am happy to honour Kwan-Yin.  I think Jesus probably exists, but I certainly don’t accept monotheism’s view of who he is. So why not his brother Lucifer? We don’t accept Christianity’s assessment that all our deities are the devil in disguise – so why should we accept their view of Lucifer?

Northern Light 27 points out that the various deities that were some form of adversary (and a necessary source of creative conflict) in the pre-Christian pagan religions all got lumped together to form the Christian version of the devil as the main adversary of Yahweh. What’s more, the Jewish concept of Samael / Satan was quite different, and existed alongside other figures such as Lilith as necessary aspects of the cosmic order.

I think the Christian view was probably influenced either by the two gods of Zoroastrianism (Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu), or by the good and evil entities of Manichaeism. Manichaeism was essentially a Gnostic view of the world that held that matter was created by an evil demiurge, and that the source of all good was the creator, to whom light and spirit seek to return by escaping from matter. Zoroastrians, on the other hand, say that the world was created by Ahura Mazda, the good god. However, both systems have an ultimate force of good pitted against an ultimate force of evil. Contrast this with Judaism, where Samael was essentially under the control of Yahweh – in this view, Samael existed to punish transgressors. If you look at the history of Jewish mythologization of Satan, Samael, Azazel, Asmodeus, and other characters, it is pretty clear that they are much more nuanced than the Christian versions. I really wish people would not conflate Judaism and Christianity, or back-project Christian attitudes onto Judaism, which is a completely different religion that Christianity is a massive distortion of. (And as far as I know, it is a heresy in Christianity to regard the Devil as being of equal power with God.)

As I do not accept monotheism’s view that there is only one god and one adversary, I have room in my concept of deities for some that like to promote conflict for whatever reason they think it necessary (even if they don’t happen to be among the deities with whom I have a personal relationship, because I do not like conflict).  If I acknowledge the existence of  Lilith and Loki and Set and Yahweh and Asherah, then I am prepared to accept that Lucifer, Samael, and Asmodeus also exist. And Baphomet too.

My polytheism consists of acknowledging the existence of many deities, and honouring and/or worshipping those that have called to me. So far, only one of these entities has come knocking at my door, but if one of the others shows up, I think I would make my own assessment of their character. After all, Christianity was very rude about all our other deities – why should I take their word for it about any entity?

As to whether the Wiccan Horned God contains a bit of the Devil in his DNA… I think he probably does. If the Devil is equated in the Christian world-view with prancing about naked by moonlight, joyous love-making, and wild shenanigans – then the God of the Witches does represent these things.

What is interesting is that Pan, who may have informed some of the Christian idea of the Devil (because he represents wildness and wilderness and unbridled sexuality) is one of the few beings involved that was not an adversary figure in ancient mythology. (Though the Devil’s horns and hooves may have come from Azazel the scapegoat rather than from Pan.)

In Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia: the gospel of the witches, Aradia is presented as the consort of Lucifer, and it appears that Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente replaced Lucifer with Cernunnos when they were forming Wicca – in part because they believed Margaret Murray’s theory that the being worshipped by witches was an ancient pagan Horned God (but also because they were well aware of the media furore that would result if they admitted to devil-worship). However, it appears from some research by Sabina Magliocco that the legend of Aradia actually pre-dates the association of witchcraft with devil-worship.

Horned deities in India were possibly associated with shamanism and animism, both of which have been viewed as transgressive by established religions.

It is also worth noting that the word demon (daimon in Greek) originally meant a spirit of place, or the genius of a gifted person, and had no negative connotation in ancient paganism.

My personal theology celebrates the marriage of spirit and matter, and not their separation. I celebrate wildness, and chaos, and the celebration of physical pleasure. I do not think that blind obedience is a virtue. So I think a deity that represents anarchy, and rebellion against absolute authority, is worth looking into.

Adversaries in ancient paganisms

Some ancient paganisms had the concept of a struggle between two groups of deities (in Greek mythology, the clash of the Olympian gods with their rivals, the Titans; and in Norse mythology, the clash of the Aesir and Vanir with the giants) but these were not so much conceived of as a struggle of good and evil, as a struggle between natural forces such as fire and ice, some of which were more inimical to humans than others. But things were complicated in the Greek myths because Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humanity (an impious act, but one for which we can be grateful). And in the Norse myths, the gods were born from the primal giant, Ymir, and then slew him to make the heavens and the Earth.

Some ancient religions of the Near East had powerful beings who were slain by the creator god (for example in Sumerian mythology, Tiamat the serpent goddess was slain by Marduk, who formed the Earth from her body – probably the original of many dragon-slayer stories). We can trace some of the motifs that went into the making of the archetype of the Devil back to some of these figures.

Be careful

I’ve got to admit that the name ‘Satan’ makes me really uncomfortable. I am much more comfortable with ‘Old Nick’, ‘Lucifer’, or even ‘the Devil’. But then I am curious to delve into the depths and find out why it makes me uncomfortable.

However, given the enormous weight of negativity attached to the archetype of the Devil, anyone invoking these entities needs to be really careful to invoke the aspects of the complex that they want (the freedom, anarchy, hedonism, and sex-positive aspects) and avoid the negative associations with it (selfishness, greed, destructive impulses, etc). I find it very interesting that most people work with lesser-known names and beings such as Samael and Lucifer (arguably the bright side of this archetype) and avoid the more negative aspects. So much negativity has been loaded onto the archetype that it may be really difficult to recover the bright aspects of it. If you do invoke or evoke such a being, are you a powerful enough magician to handle it?

Civilisation and its discontents

It is fairly easy to see how gods of the wildwood (symbols of the wilderness and therefore opposed to civilisation, with which Christianity strongly identifies itself) may have fed into the Christian archetype of the Devil. Recently, I read Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and in that book (written in 1926), the god of the witches is unequivocally represented (with considerable glee) as Satan. He is quite kindly, and the freedom of the countryside where he holds sway is contrasted with the stifling atmosphere of middle-class respectability from which the heroine escapes.

Many myths and legends (from ancient times until very recently) are about the struggle to establish civilisation and order, set against the urge to return to a state of nature and chaos. It has not been universally agreed that the imposition of law and order and civilisation is necessarily all good.

If someone was to draw a mindmap or a family tree describing all these entities and their mythological relationship with each other, it would get quite complicated. The massive number of references to the Devil in popular culture add an extra layer of complexity.

So – when you say that you don’t worship the Devil, you might need to be a bit more specific. Do you mean Old Nick, Satan, Asmodeus, Azazel, Beelzebub, Baphomet, Samael, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Angra Mainyu, Iblis, Loki, Set, Apep, Prometheus, or some other adversarial figure? The Devil really is in the details.

Being Batty: Polytheism, Experience, and Monistic Reduction

Editor’s note: We are pleased to host this guest essay by Julian Betkowski, who will be presenting on “Polytheism and American Life” at the upcoming Polytheist Leadership Conference.  Readers are invited to approach this essay as part of ongoing conversations about the philosophical implications of Polytheism, which (here at Patheos Pagan) have recently included Gus diZerega’s “Polytheism, Emergence, and the One” and Christopher Scott Thompson’s “Polytheistic Monism.”

Certainly the mind-body problem is difficult enough that we should be suspicious of attempts to solve it with the concepts and methods developed to account for very different kinds of things. (Nagel, 2001, p. 42)

Thomas Nagel is a humanist philosopher specializing in Theory of Mind. His work has not been without controversy, yet he has substantially affected the ongoing conversations regarding consciousness and the experience of being. In his seminal 1974 essay, “What Is It Like to be a Bat?” he explores the difficulties involved in understanding the experiences of different beings, and the problems that arise when attempt to reduce that experience to some other underlying feature. Nagel explains:

 I assume we all believe that bats have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. I have chosen bats instead of wasps or flounders because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. Bats, although more closely related to us than those other species, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours  that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (even though it certainly could be raised with other species). Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat know what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life. (p. 438)

Whatever surface characteristics we share with bats, their way of being in the world is fundamentally different from our own. Their structural, physiological layout informs their relationship with the world in a way that is quite distinct and dissimilar to our own. Yet, it would seem strange to assert that because of these differences that they do not experience. Bats remain relatable enough that we are still capable of recognizing them as individual loci of experience. Nagel continues:

 But bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine. This appears to create difficulties for the notion of what it is like to be a bat. (p. 438)

If we are to consider the experience of a bat, we are faced with a powerful dilemma, while we can understand the bat as an experiencing being, are we really capable of understanding the contents or substance of that experience? The sensory perceptions of the bat, it appears, must be structured in a way that is quite removed from our own perceptual experience. Of course, we are capable of imaginatively reconstructing from our own experiences an idea of what it may be like to experience as we suspect a bat experiences, however:

 In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. (p. 439)

Our imagination is limited in that it can only insert our own point of view, modified, perhaps, through various permutations and expectations or assumptions about the experience of bats, into a hypothetical situation the resemblance of which to the actual situation of a bat remains unknown. The question is not, “What is it like to imagine to be a bat?” but “What is it like to be a bat?” There remains an essential bat experience that is distinct from any imaginary state of battiness. Our own imagination is limited by our experiences, and the materials that it has at hand to manipulate. Whatever permutations we may apply to our own sensory experiences, they will not necessarily tell us anything about the experience of a bat itself. If we are to understand the experience of bats, then:

 The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if only we knew what they were like. (p. 439)

We are only able to get so close to an understanding of the experience of bats before our own imaginative faculties fail us. In order to understand the being of a bat, we would need access to the experiences of a bat, and that data appears to be beyond our grasp.

 Reflection on what it is like to be a bat seems to lead us, therefore, to the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth proposition expressible in a human language. We can be compelled to recognize the existence of such facts without being able to state or comprehend them. (p. 441)

The existence and apparent experiencing of bats informs us that there is, at least, some way of being in the world that remains beyond our comprehension. The experiences of a bat cannot be reduced to scientific data about its sensory apparatus or other details of its embodiment, nor can they be directly equated with our imaginative attempts to insert our own point of views into the experience of a bat. However incisive the nature of our inquisition into the experience of a bat, the bat remains forever distinct and dissimilar: its experience remains utterly its own.

In a more recent work, Mind and Cosmos (2012), Thomas Nagel further explores the dangers of reductionistic approaches to experience and consciousness. Throughout the work, he explores the general thesis that:

 Our existence presents us with the fact that somehow the world generates conscious beings capable of recognizing reasons for action and belief, distinguishing some necessary truths, and evaluating the evidence for alternative hypotheses about the natural order. We don’t know how this happens, but it is hard not to believe that there is some explanation of a systematic kind—an expanded account of the order of the world. (p. 31)

He consistently argues that consciousness cannot be accounted for by traditional physiological reduction, and that regardless of the physiological connections, they tell us nothing about the actual experience of conscious being. We are embedded in and formed out of the material of the world, and so therefore our understanding of the world itself must be capable of accounting for the undeniable presence of our consciousnesses and experiences. Consciousness and experience can be read as necessary qualities of the world itself. Further, even if the exact correlation between the physical state and mental state were uncovered, it would remain insufficient to account for the actual experience itself, without some further explanatory framework:

 Merely to identify a cause is not to provide a significant explanation, without some understanding of why the cause produces the effect. (p. 45)

Indeed, while it is true that we are all formed out of the same general matter as everything else in the universe, this does not tell us anything about the subjective qualities experienced and contained within the various specialized forms which that matter manifests. Any underlying similarity, in fact, tells us shockingly little about the manifold differences and variations that abound in the world around us, nor does it inform us as to the discrete experiences and subjective qualities of diverse beings. Despite our several similarities to bats, the direct knowledge of what it is like to be a bat remains beyond us.

While our consciousnesses and experiences undoubtedly occur within the world, and overlap with a great deal of other features and qualities of that world, we remain ever and always unique and distinct. There are features and elements of the world that remain beyond our grasp simply as a result as our nature as humans, and, it seems, that the inverse is also true, that there are qualities and understandings of human being that are only accessible through human experience. As Nagel observes in his 1974 essay:

 Members of radically different species may both understand the same physical events in objective terms, and this does not require that they understand the phenomenal forms in which those events appear to the sense of member of the other species. Thus it is a condition of their referring to a common reality that their more particular viewpoints are not part of the common reality that they both apprehend. (p. 445) [emphasis mine]

So enters Polytheism. Polytheism seeks to come to terms with a world full of experiencing beings, a world full of beings who are so unique and different that we have no expectation of being able to fully comprehend them or their viewpoints. Polytheism emerges from an innate respect for the uniqueness and profundity of individual experience, and recognizes its fundamental irreducibility not merely to its bare material substrate, but to other experiences in general. Polytheism treats all experience as unique and precious, and deserving of appreciation. Experiencing beings cannot be automatically equated with each other, nor can their experiences be homogenized into one comprehensible whole. There may even, in fact, be discrete elements the experiences of discrete beings that are utterly incompatible, and which cannot be reconciled. In a universe full of experiences, nothing can be reduced to one.

More simply stated, from the viewpoint of Polytheism, any potential oneness of the universe is simply not its most important defining feature, nor does that potential oneness necessarily reveal anything about the lived experience of the various beings that pervade the universe. From the view of Polytheism, it is important to allow experience to maintain its primacy, to speak for itself. The mystery of Polytheism springs from the great expanse of secret experience, from experience that is beyond us, and from our interaction with unique and idiosyncratic beings whose experience we recognize as special and profound. Polytheism is not just about encountering the world, but about the world encountering us, and the richness of that interplay and interaction. Polytheism does not seek to explain the world according to any single diagram, but remains open-ended and expansive, receptive to possibilities and uncertainties. Indeed, from this perspective, monism seems to entail a persistent disregard for experience, and shifts the focus away from the multitudinous variation of the universe toward some projected unity.

In an analyses of the flaws of the Perennial Philosophy, a form of monism popular in many forms of contemporary spiritualities, Transpersonal Theorist Jorge Ferrer employs the following story to illustrate the difficulties inherent in focusing only on similarities:

 The nature of this problem can be illustrated by the popular story of the woman who, observing her neighbor entering into an altered state of consciousness three consecutive days first with rum and water, then through fast breathing and water, and finally with nitrous oxide with water, concludes that the reason for his bizarre behaviors was the ingestion of water. The moral of the story, of course, is that what is essential or more explanatory in a set of phenomena is not necessarily what is most obviously common to them. (2002, p. 91)

The similarities that run through the universe simply may not be the most important defining characteristics of the universe, or the beings that compose it. Ferrer continues:

 Although it is certainly possible to find parallels across religious traditions, the key to the spiritually transforming power of a given tradition may lie in its own distinctive practices and understandings. (2002, p. 91-92)

If we are going to remain open to experience, then we need to be aware of the way that totalizing claims impact and affect our ability to understand and allow for the experiences of others. Even the assertion that everything is one potentially undermines and discounts the understandings of others whose experiences may lead them to differing conclusions. Polytheism seeks to avoid such claims simply by acknowledging the apparent diversity and variation not only in the world around us, but also in the real, lived experiences both of ourselves and other multitudinous others surrounding us.

I assert that we make a profound mistake when we attempt to apologize all points of view, all traditions, and all experiences. The profundity and richness of the universe is a result of the majesty and breadth of our differences. Polytheism seeks to embrace those differences exactly as they are presented to us. This is not to say, however, that under the aegis of Polytheism, anything goes, simply that Polytheism is more concerned with discrete experience, individual identity, and difference than with providing a single, all encompassing, explanatory model of the entire universe. Indeed, such models tend to ignore significant details that may, in fact, dramatically affect and inform our experience and understanding of the world around us.

I suspect that most Monists do not understand Monism as reductionistic, however it has been my intention to demonstrate how Monism can be read as a kind of reduction, particularly with regards to experience. Even if it is understood as structurally compatible with Polytheism, Monism still undermines and contradicts the general ethos of polytheistic thought. To those who would then assert that I am missing the point of Monism, I can only reply, then, that they are missing the point of Polytheism. It is not that I do not understand their position, simply that I do not find it very interesting or useful.



Ferrer, J. (2002). Revisioning transpersonal theory: A participatory vision of human spirituality. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Nagel, T. (2012). Mind & cosmos: Why the materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Nagel, T. (1974). What is it like to be a bat?. The Philosophical Review. 83,4, p. 435-450