How The Devil Won Popular Culture

The devil, or whichever of his many names and aliases you want to refer to him by, has taken many forms over the years. He has slithered his way into our everyday lives and we, helpless mortals that we are, have been complicit in that. We do, perhaps alas, know him better than we know God, or the God of the Abrahamic religions at any rate. I’m sure, if you did a survey, you’d find that more people today believe in the devil than they do in God and no doubt the reason for that is popular culture, because of that which entertains us. The devil, in popular culture, is much more of a mainstay than God can ever dream of being.  For centuries the devil has given us succour as the ultimate foe and has provided a ready made villain for almost every writer from Dante Alighieri to George Bernard Shaw. He’s been used as everything from a terrifying warning to the wicked, a caution to the good and from the greatest evil to an excuse for satire. Chaucer, for instance, used him a commentary on priestly corruption by having monastic friars flying out of his backside. But how is this? How can the devil, the embodiment of ultimate evil, have become so prevalent in our imaginations and in popular culture whilst his opponent, God, has not?

To find an answer, we must first look directly at God. When compared to the gods of other religions, who despite their religions no longer being practised maintain a presence in the cultural imagination, (and I apologise if this offends anyone) the Abrahamic God is incredibly vanilla. Other gods have distinct personalities, they have flaws and are imbued with unambiguously human traits. To see an example of this we need look no further than the Greco-Roman gods, Zeus and Aries and Apollo etc. Whilst still being all-powerful gods, they display obviously human emotions. They get angry and jealous and sometimes they play jokes on each other and on humanity. Many was the time when Hera, jealous because of Zeus’ infidelities, attempted to off his bastard off-spring, the likes of Herakles to cite one. Zeus actually had one hundred and sixty five of them and was a serial womaniser. These gods could be cruel or kind, depending on their mood. Sometimes they could be merciful, at others unforgivably brutal. Hephaestus was thrown from the heavens after Zeus caught him freeing Hera from punishment, Hera having been strung up by her ankles after a fit of jealousy over Zeus’ infidelities. Hephaestus is the only one who comes out of that story in any kind of good light.

Picture by Louis Huard (Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia)

Also, despite being gods, they are not all-powerful. They have their limitations. They can’t see everything that is going on all the time. Had Apollo been omniscient, he would not have given his mortal son Phaeton chance to steal his sun carriage. Hephaestus would not have needed to trap Aries and Aphrodite in the midst of an extra-marital rendezvous. Aries and Aphrodite could have avoided the trap. Then there are the Norse gods, the Aesir, who have all the faults of the Greco-Roman gods and more. They are certainly not all-powerful. They can be wounded, hurt, even killed. Tyr loses a hand to the wolf Fenrir. Baldr, whose thing is that he can’t be hurt by anything but mistletoe, is killed when Loki tricks blind god Hodr into throwing mistletoe at him. Hodr is killed as a direct result of this and Baldr’s wife, Nanna, either dies of grief or throws herself onto the funeral pyre. Loki is eventually (after the others get sick of him) tied to a rock and has a snake drip poison onto his chest. Even Odin, the all-father and the most powerful of the Aesir is known to suffer. He gouges his own eye out in exchange for wisdom and hangs himself from Ygdrassil in order to get the Runes.

The Abrahamic God, meanwhile, is said to be perfect. He is all-knowing and all-powerful. He is flawless, without fault. He sees all and knows everything and never makes a mistake, or so we are told. Such an omniscient, perfect being does not generally make for good character fodder, either to watch, read or write. For a character in popular culture, perfection is boring. There isn’t a great deal you can do with a perfect character. You can have them guide and mentor, give out a few orders and show others the error of their ways but that is about all. If you do practically anything else then you risk undermining the very idea of perfection. You can’t have a perfect character do bad things or make mistakes or even change their mind because then that character isn’t perfect any more. This makes it incredibly difficult to depict a being such as the Abrahamic God. It can be argued, and quite successfully, that even the bible doesn’t manage to successfully depict God without undermining his perfection. There are moments, such as when he has a group of children be mauled by bears, when he comes across as absolutely petty and vindictive and far from perfect.

Whenever we see God in popular culture it is usually only ever in small roles, as a mentor, as a guide, as someone sitting in a white room and explaining things. Because of the whole ‘perfection’ thing there is little room for anything other than broad strokes. More often than not, as well, it’s usually in more comedic fare that God actually appears in person, The Simpsons for instance. In completely serious works he’s conspicuous by his absence, sending angels and others to do his bidding, or he’s just doing exactly as he does in the bible, like in Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example. Even then he doesn’t properly appear except as a beam of light.

This gives us our first reason as to why the devil has been able to pervade into popular culture to such an extent. The devil is, naturally, the antithesis of God and therefore the antithesis of perfect. This makes him malleable, every writer’s dream. You can do whatever you want with him, depict him in whatever way you see fit, and people often have. He’s been a sympathetic anti-hero (like in Milton) and a straight up personification of pure evil. He’s been both comic and serious and he’s had more guises than perhaps any other figure in the history of popular culture. Yet, so long as the basics are there (Satan, lord of hell, not exactly a guy you want to be best friends with) he remains instantly recognisable.

Satan descends (From Paradise Lost, illustration by Gustav Dore, public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia)

As a character for use in popular culture and entertainment, the devil is so much more versatile and that means, in the tradition of all the best characters from popular culture, that he can be moulded and altered to suit the needs of each generation. In the sixties he was sarcastic, tricky and anti-establishment (as played by Peter Cook) whilst in the seventies he took on a more occultist persona, usually assuming the form of a glowing eyed demon who throws people out of windows (as in various horror movies.) Today he’s more likely to be an ordinary man, probably attractive to women but hardly standing out from the crowd. Evil deeds are no longer something to passively throw about but to be planned, calculated. It now isn’t even uncommon to see Satan portrayed as a misunderstood good guy (various comedies.) Because, with God, there isn’t so much room to manoeuvre, it makes it more difficult to create a socially relevant depiction. He has to be as he is and there always unchanging (except in the broadest of broad terms.)

The second reason the devil wins out in the pop culture stakes is because of the world around us, and especially the modern world. It is all too easy to see the bad things in the world and overlook the good as is, but it is also easier to attribute blame for those bad things than it is to attribute responsibility for the good. We can so easily say that the likes of Donald Trump, ongoing and never ending troubles in the Middle East, and Mrs Brown’s Boys are the work of the devil whereas saying that something good, and I really can’t think of anything right now, is the work of God is a lot harder both to do and to justify. This is, in fact, something that is getting harder thanks to the increasing secularisation of society. We’re now even more likely than we were in the past to attribute a terrestrial cause to something good than we are to attribute it to God.

There is, finally, a historical and religious reason why the devil is so much more prevalent. In the past, and still in some cases, it was considered blasphemy to depict God in any form. In a world where most entertainments were of a spiritual bent, this was a major obstacle that needed to be overcome. How do you show the might and the glory of God without actually showing God? The answer people came up with, in mystery plays and saints day entertainments and the likes, was to use the devil. As the natural antithesis to God he not only fulfilled his role as ultimate villain number one, his inevitable defeat could be used to reinforce the idea that God is mighty, powerful and above all, in the right. Because of this, the devil had a massive head-start and was thus given the room and the time to properly seed himself in the human imagination. For a good number of centuries God, because of issues surrounding blasphemy and heresy, was effectively an in-name only presence and so the devil was given an easy ride. There was no foil, no contender for his place in popular culture.

It is a position he has never yielded. Even now that we live in an age where depicting God is more acceptable, the devil is still far more predominant. The idea that good triumphs over evil (though it isn’t necessarily attributed to God) is still very much a given in storytelling and, in nine cases out of ten, when the devil appears his wicked schemes will (somehow) be defeated. The position is not one which the devil will give up easily. Being, as he is supposed to be, perfect, it is not something which the Abrahamic God can challenge without undermining his own perfection in some way. Whether we like it or not, the devil has seeded himself in our collective imaginations, a place where I feel he would almost certainly want to be, where he can cause the most mischief, and though we are becoming increasingly secular as a society he is going to be there for an awfully long time to come.


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