Thursday, September 13, 2012

Why the Devil is Lucifer always portrayed as a goat man?

What do you get if you cross Darth Maul with Mr Tumnus?

Apparently, you get the Devil.

Some students asked me the other day why the Devil is so often represented with goat legs.  They told me that they were watching some horror movie, which was quite frightening, until the evil being revealed itself, and it was goat legged and a little ridiculous.

First off, the Bible does not tell you what the Devil looks like, and neither does the Catholic Church.  I think a lot of times the reason people reject the belief in something like the Devil is because when we were kids we saw him in Bugs Bunny, and we assume that how he is portrayed in Bugs Bunny is how he actually looks and what Christians believe in.  We know that he is a fallen angel, and that he was called "Lucifer", meaning "Bearer of light".  In the Bible he is portrayed as a talking serpent at one point and as a dragon at another point.  It's possible that before he was made to crawl on his belly, the serpent was a dragon.  Whatever the case, I don't think anyone believes that the Devil is literally a talking snake. People who think he has goat legs probably don't know much about Christianity either!

The reason that he is portrayed the way that he is is actually because he is a form of the Greek god Pan.  Pan was a pagan God of the Shepherds, who was usually worshipped in caves.  He could inspire 'panic', and so his name is the root of the word.  In Jesus' day, people worshipped Pan at Caesaria Philippi, which is where in Matt 16 Jesus makes Peter the first Pope, and he refers to the cave where they worshipped Pan as the "Gates of Hades". 

When Christianity spread to pagan places, it was not unusual for them to incorporate pagan ideas to better illustrate their points. So Paul told the people in Athens that the unknown god they worshipped was actually the true God, and Christmas was originally the celebration of the Winter Solstice, and was made Christian when we said "You celebrate that light is increasing in the world (Days are getting longer), well the light of the world is Jesus, so let's celebrate his birth."

So pagan symbols would become associated with the Devil, in some cases the pagan Gods would even be seen as demons. Jesus himself seems to have started the trend by referring to Satan as Beelzebub (Matt 12:25-28), who was actually a Philistine god. Interestingly, though, portraying Satan as being like Pan or a Faun dates back only to the 19th century, when Neo-Paganism was all the rage.

All of this begs a question, though.  Most people will have no difficulty accepting that our view of what Satan looks like is probably inaccurate and informed by paganism.  But I wonder if the same thing can be extended to our idea of Heaven, or of Hell?  When we picture Heaven, are we picturing the same thing that Jesus pictured?  I suspect that it would be a fascinating study to try to figure out what Jesus, and the Church, actually means by those words, and how much of it is just our presupposed notions.