Lecture 6: Into what Pit thou seest

14516588_10153772981665974_2840536135504589659_nSatan, in Dante’s Inferno, by Gustav Dore

As I intimated earlier, Satan is not a discrete, singular entity that has a discrete, singular tradition associated with it, whether broken or unbroken. There is more than likely no historical Satan — that is to say, there was no god called Satan that happy Satanists worshipped in peace before their lives were interrupted by their conquerers. Some people would gladly pretend this was a part of their heritage, but the role of the Modern Magickian is to subvert even the subversive, so there is no place in this lecture for deluded fantasies or historical revisionism.

That is not to say there were historically no deities that served as the objects of veneration for now-long-dead religions, gods who were no longer worshipped but whose grotesque and primordial likeness lead to them being recategorized as demons once their people were conquered by people with a bigger army and a god with a bigger dick. Sure, there have been people who saw hegemony and said fuck that, I side with everything against you, because everything you stand for is bullshit and I see through it.

The fact of the matter was that there existed a cluster of gods that were collectively called Satan later on, with many more entities being added to the infernal pantheon as time progressed.

Satan and Hell co-evolved. If it shocks you that our notions of the divine happen to change over time, then I don’t know what to tell you. If gods (or our conception of the divine) did not change over time, this class wouldn’t be necessary and would likely consist of a few grunts.

A long time ago, death just meant you get thrown in a pit in the edge of town. If you were an Israelite, this became personified into the entity known as Abaddon. If you were Greek, this was Hades.

Now, this is where things become interesting, at least to me.

Some blasphemies make such bold claims that they become accepted doctrine.

For example, Hell. A 13th century Italian man invented Hell in order to diss all the people who fucked with him in his life.

Durante degli Alighieri, more popularly known as Dante, was exiled from Florence at the turn of the 14th century. It took about 700 years for the city of Florence to actually pardon him, partly due to his vitriolic writing that followed this exile. He began his most well known work, The Divine Comedy, shortly after his exile, and completed it shortly before dying. It is a three-part story told from his own point of view as he visits Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. The characters he encounters in all three places come from history as well as his own life. People nice to him were found in Heaven, as was Beatrice, an early love interest of Dante’s who no one knows much else about. Hell is littered with people from Florentine society who wronged Dante. In other words, Hell was created by an Italian man as a massive diss-track.

The Roman, and pagan, poet Virgil meets Dante and leads him through Hell and Purgatory: thus indicating that even a righteous and brilliant person will never go to Heaven; but is this really the theological claim at stake?

I claim that it is something slightly more nuanced. Specifically, that before the concept of salvation was added by Christian doctrine, all people went to the same place. So in other words, Dante sees the afterlife of the pagans, both good and bad, as the same place that bad or otherwise not good Christians go to. It is important to remember that in early Christianity, before Hell and Heaven were structured in this way, if one accepted Jesus as their saviour, they died and were unified with him, or became a part of him (this latter notion explicitly mirrors the Egyptian afterlife, where one dies and becomes Osiris).

It is here I will note that the myth of Christian martyrdom at the hands of the Romans was actually a sociological phenomenon where-by criminals who were already sentenced to death became Christians in order to secure a better future, and Christians wishing to get to their promised afterlife sooner, committed crimes on purpose. Historians have found little-to-no evidence of being Christian as a crime in itself, as Christianity was viewed as one of many competing Pagan Mystery Cults at the time. The take-away from this is to remember that Christianity came about in a historical backdrop of Grecian, Jewish, Roman, Egyptian (via the Greeks), and Persian influences (particularly Mithraism). How one prioritized each of these influences is in no small part a factor behind the formation of different early and mediaeval theological platforms.

So in this vein, Dante basically takes the Greco-Roman (Tartarus or Dis, ruled by Hades or Pluto) and Jewish (Shaol, associated with Abaddon who is either an angel who rules it, or the actual entrance to Shaol) versions of the afterlife, a dark underworld where everyone, good and bad goes, and makes it a punishment for both non-believers as well as bad Christians. Purgatory is thrown in the mix for the hard cases, mainly those who did not fully accept church doctrine, or converted/confessed much later in life.

Another innovation Dante makes, but did not originate, is the fusion of Satan and Lucifer as “The Devil”. In the present day, all of us have a clearer picture of scripture as well as access to apocryphal works, and seeing that these three entities bear distinguishing characteristics in addition to syncretizing redundancies allows us a great deal of freedom.

Dante did not merge these. This comes from a cluster of Catholic philosophers and theologians (as one may cynically assume, these two were one and the same in this time in history and geographical location) known as the Scholastics. The most famous of which was (Saint) Thomas Aquinas. Of all figures in the history of Catholicism, besides the historical Jesus and the four or more writers of the Gospels, he bears the most influence on church doctrine.

Aquinas’ platform can simply be put in terms of its neo-Aristotlean basis: Aristotle wrote that the guiding principle of the universe, and the foundation of an ethical life, comes down to how close on gets to “The Good.” Aquinas’ philosophy consists in no small part of changing “The Good” to “God.” So the fall of Satan-Lucifer, and further question of how The Devil (it is transparent to see that this is a stand-in for mankind, but to question the perfection of man is to insult God), is answered by the Scholastics and Aquinas in terms of a movement away from “The Good”/”God”.

The main notion to take away from is that this point in the history of Satan reflects a humanization of the figure; Satan is no longer the nebulous and formless “adversary” but is a creation of a Good God, who had free will, and turned away from God anyways. The philosophical quandary that Aquinas et al struggled with was how could an all-powerful, totally-good, all-knowing God give something free will, and know it would turn evil anyways? Again, it is fairly straight-forward to see that this version of Satan resembles mankind, who has a penchant for doing nasty, ugly things.

Some may ask why Lucifer has suddenly entered into the conversation. Lucifer is a much more convoluted figure than Satan. The Catholic theologian-philosophers felt the easiest way to explain them was to merge the two. But I think the fact of the matter requires a more detailed and delicate approach. As such, the topic of Lucifer will receive its own lecture later in the course.