The (Christian) devil has had many faces, some more human than others, and we can look at these depictions to learn about what the people who made them were afraid of. Depictions of the devil and demons inevitably reflect the prejudices of the day and we can see that in descriptions of demons as peasant like, with red hair, with appearance of a Scotsman and so on.
We have had a virtually blank slate when it comes to the appearance of the devil as the bible doesn’t really give any detail, thus making it easy to project fears onto.
“Many kinds of animals have come to symbolize the evil beast, as a force associated with evil or whatever it is we dislike.”
– Lynda Birke
During the middle ages, the devil was depicted as animal like with horns, a tail and sharp teeth – an image I’m sure we’re all familiar with today. This became more human from the 16th century, thus more able to seduce and recruit witches to his cause.
Depicting the devil as an animal may have been a way of reinforcing both the chain of being and the animalistic nature of the devil. Using animals such as male goats and rams could have been to emphasise him as a sexual being – hence wild and uncontrolled and seductive – as horns have long been used to represent fertility and sexuality. Some people have suggested that the goat has been linked with the devil because of their weird, devilish, eyes but I think it’s hard to know which came first – a chicken and egg situation. Admittedly goats have unusual eyes and this may have been enough for people to declare them devil touched. We also have the idea of goats vs sheep – the sheep being the flock of saved souls and the goat being those who are damned.
Pre-Christian thinking and beliefs inevitably have a role to play in how the devil was imagined. In ancient Babylonia there were wicked demons; winged female creatures that flew at night looking for men to seduce and children to attack. Christianity routinely took existing gods and turned them into evil spirits and this may be how the devil acquired wings. We can also see the devil as the ancestor of Pan – a half man, half goat Roman god who was associated with lust and hence could easily be seen as the epitome of temptation. Pan was also the god of nature and casting him as the devil reinforced the divide between man and nature, and emphasised the importance of not worshipping nature.
The devil also appeared as a cat or dog. Greeks and Romans associated dogs with Hecate, a goddess of witchcraft (and by association for Christians, of evil). There has also been a long association of dogs with the underworld and thus it was natural for Christianity to link dogs and the devil. Dogs also roamed freely and uncontrolled in the middle ages, a time when restless souls, or those who didn’t seem to belong anywhere, were seen with suspicion.
Another devilish form is the serpent, specifically, the serpent in the garden of Eden. Again, this highlights the sexual, seductive and tempting nature of the devil as snakes have a long association with fertility and sex.
These different forms fed into the concerns around bestiality. The animal could well be the devil in disguise and thus sex with it would lead to half monster creatures and the devil would have succeeded in creating chaos and disrupting the god given order of the world.
In addition to the devil himself being portrayed as an animal, we see this association between devil and beast in the form of witches familiars. The species varied significantly and included cats, dogs, rats, toads, mice, snails, birds, ferrets, moles and even small insects such as flies and moths. Whilst a witch may find their familiar appears out of nowhere, or is gifted by a fellow witch, one way of acquiring them was through the devil. The devil would give it in exchange for a pledge of allegiance.
We also find witches on the continent riding to sabbats on demons disguised as animals, and were said to be able to shape shift themselves as well as transform others into animals. All of this added to the threat that witches posed.
Something I’ve been pondering as I’ve been writing this is, what would the devil look like today? I can’t help but think of certain politicians…