The Book of Death: The Satanic Catharism of Stanislaw Przybyszewski

Stanislaw Przybyszewski (1868-1927) was a decadent, a socialist turned anarchist, a bohemian, a poet, a novelist, a playwright, an essayist, and one of the earliest (known) self-declared satanists. There had been artists and authors before Przybyszewski who had used the Devil as an artistic symbol, of course. The Romantic-Satanists used Lucifer as an archetype for rebellion and free thought, as did certain anarchists and revolutionaries, such as Mikhail Bakhunin. Part of what separated Przybyszewski from his earlier counterparts, however, was that his historical predecessors didn’t take on the label of satanist, at least not publicly. They used the Satan as symbol, to be sure, and as such clearly had some (if not a lot) of sympathy for the devil, but it was always their enemies who referred to them as being of “the Devil’s party,” and typically not the artists themselves.

Przybyszewski was different. He not only openly and publicly identified as a satanist, he was also one of the first to attempt to outline a satanic philosophy. His satanic system of thought can be seen in a number of his works, but is most explicit in his 1897 essay The Synagogue of Satan. It is here, using a mixture of history and fantasy similar to Jules Michelet’s The Witch, Przybyszewski outlines the faith, practice, and (largely fictitious) history of satanism, which he claims has existed, hidden and biding its time in the shadows, since the days of Christ.

There’s a lot we could analyze in The Synagogue of Satan (Przybyszewski’s social Darwinism, his intellectual debt to Nietzsche, his inversion of values) but it is his dualistic cosmogony, which he openly links to the Manichean influenced theology of the Cathars, that I wish to explore in detail here, for it is the ground the rest of the tree stands upon. Like the Manicheans and Cathars before him, Przybyszewski’s satanism assumes that there are two divine forces at war in this world. In his essay “Witches, Anarchism, and Evolutionism,” religious historian Per Faxneld writes:

Przybyszewski postulates two eternal gods of equal strength. One is the God of Christianity, who wishes to keep mankind in a childlike state and wants to extinguish its free will. The other God, Satan, embodies lawlessness, curiosity, and titanic defiance…Satan is the ‘father of life, reproduction, progression, and the eternal return’, while God and goodness is ‘is the negation of life, since all life is evil’.

Przybyszewski’s explicitly links his dualist cosmology to medieval Catharism. The Cathars, sometimes known as Albigensians, were active primarily in France between the 12th and 14th centuries. The Cathars were Christian dualists. They believed the material world was made by Satan, whom they identified with the god of the Old Testament. The good god, the Father Christ spoke of in the New Testament, was pure spirit. The Cathars described this good god as “good, holy, just, wise, and true.” He is “pure goodness and is above all praise,” meaning no amount of exaltation on the part of humans could ever come close to capturing his magnificence. This good god was considered incapable of error or evil, and since the material earth was full of both the Cathars argued he could not be the maker of this world. Rather, it was Satan who created the not only earth but humanity as well, a fact which is discussed in detail in the Cathar text known as The Secret Supper.

Then Satan took his seat above the firmament and gave command to the angel who was over the air and the angel who was over the waters, so that they raised two thirds of the waters high into the air. Of the remaining third they formed wide seas. The division of the waters was by command of the Father invisible. Again Satan bade the angel who was over the waters, ‘Take a stand upon the two fish.’ And the angel raised the earth upward with his head, and dry land appeared and was. . . . When he took a crown from the angel who was over the air, from half of it he made himself a throne; and when he took a crown from the angel who was over the waters, from half he made the light of the moon and from half the light of day. From precious stones he made fire, and from fire he made all the host of heaven and the stars, and from them he made angels, his ministering spirits, according to the plan of the Governor Most High. He also made thunder, rain, hail, and snow, and over these he set his ministering angels.

He commanded the earth to bring forth all living things —animals, trees, and herbs. The sea he commanded to bring forth fish; and the air, birds of the heavens. And he pondered on making man to serve him; he took clay of the earth and made man like unto himself. And he then bade an angel of the second heaven to enter the body of clay. Of this body he took a part and made another body in the form of a woman” and bade an angel of the first heaven to enter into it. And the angels grieved deeply that they thus had a mortal form imposed upon them and that they now existed in different forms.

The task of the Cathar faithful was to disentangle themselves from the darkness and evil of physical existence, so that they might return to the good god and spend eternity in heaven, reborn as angels. The Cathars who genuinely dedicated themselves to renouncing their material selves were know as the Perfecti, or the Perfected Ones. They lived lives that sound a lot like Buddhist monks. The Perfecti renounced war and violence of any sort, as protecting the body was not only clearly a failure to renounce the fleshly life, but also a failure to live up to Christ’s commandments against violence. They lived lives of simplicity and poverty, for what value were this things of this world when compared to the riches of heaven? They abstained from sex, as it not only glorified the flesh but also condemned new life to this sinful world. Likewise, they abstained from the consumption of meat, as animals were a by-product of sex and killing them required participating in acts of violence.

Przybyszewski agrees with the Cathar assertion that there are two, eternally warring divinities:

There are two gods, equally powerful, equally mighty and eternally opposing each other. The invisible god of “good”, who is enthroned in heaven, who does not trouble himself over the earth and only lives for the perfection of his chosen ones–

Then there is another god, the god of sins, who rules over the earth. But sins are not really sins because they came from the from this god like the virtues that came from the other god, the indolent god who said, “Don’t exert yourselves, just follow me.”

Indeed, Przybyszewski begins his The Synagogue of Satan describing all creation as if it were the battlefield of an invisible war. “There are two gods,” Przybyszewski writes, “two creators and two rulers without beginning and without end.” He describes the “good” god as being the creator of all things spiritual and immutable and perfect, that is, neither knowing flux or pain. This god commands his followers to be poor in both body and spirit, and to follow his decrees with the unquestioning obedience of children.

The “evil” god he describes as being the creator of all that is physical and passionate. This evil god is:

[T]he curiosity that seeks after the most hidden mysteries…He is the highest wisdom and the deepest depravity. He is the wildest pride and speechless humility…He teaches man that there is no crime except that of going against one’s own nature.

It is to this god, Przybyszewski says, that the satanist is to look for inspiration and example. What is perhaps unexpected, however, is that Przybyszewski’s battle with the forces that would negate life and material existence is ambivalent at best. If anything, the second half of his essay, largely concerned with the Medieval witch cult and supposed occurrences of the Black Mass, takes a rather Pessimistic turn.

In his description of the witches’ sabbath, Przybyszewski writes that there is a moment in the chaos of the festivities when the celebrant loses their identity in the person of Satan. The promise of riches and power and earthly delights may have been what initially drew the witch or warlock to seek a coven out, but at some point these desires fall away and become meaningless. To truly experience Satan, Przybyszewski writes, is to experience the very force of negation, wherein “all gold was made to appear to be worthless dust and all power to be stupid vanity.”

Przybyszewski’s satanism is not so much an anti-Catharism as it is a dark inversion of it. Both in a weird way share the same goal, escaping the horror of existence, it is largely the methods which differ. All life for Przybyszewski is evil because all existence is grounded in change and suffering. In this sense his satanism is reminiscent of the initial Noble Truths of the Buddha (it perhaps will not surprise the reader that Catharism, with its other worldliness and emphasis on reincarnation, had been called by some the Buddhism of the West). Where Przybyszewski takes a different turn from the Buddha, however, is that rather than escaping suffering by cessation of desire, he sees the pursuit of desire to be a means of accomplishing the cessation of a sense of self. To go back to the dualist theme, The Synagogue of Satan distinguishes between two sects of Catharism. One preferring the god of light and day (wherein one is always aware of the pain of continued existence), and the other the god of darkness and night (who is dissolution and forgetfulness). The latter sect  “celebrated their, dark carnal mysteries in forests, caves and on top of mountains” and allegedly became the witch cult of the late Middle Ages. Przybyszewski writes of the satanic witch:

Desperate humans have only one way out: by intoxicating themselves. And they have intoxicated themselves. They have intoxicated themselves with poison, intoxicated themselves with filth, and all of this intoxication climaxed in sexual ecstasy. The nerves ripped, the individual split in two, he suffered the most cruel and horrible tortures, but at least he forgot the most terrible thing of all, that which exceeds the filth and horror of his disgusting ointments, his herds of toads, his loathsome sacraments of urine and menstrual blood mixed together—he forgot life.

The Synagogue of Satan’s yes to life is also a yes to death. Przybyszewski’s insistence that one dive head first into life is ultimately a means by which the very pain of existence can be escaped. It is perhaps fitting that, in the end, the final kernel of wisdom his Satan has to offer is simply to “get drunk.”

*I’ve used Joe Bandel’s translation of The Synagogue of Satan for quotation. The book is available here.

**Image of the Codex Gigas via Wikipedia.

 

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Articles of Interest: 11/17/17

  • Reader’s of this blog might be interested in Kieran Fisher’s article “The Devil’s Roots: Romantic Satanism in Metal” which examines the influence the Romantic Satanists, like Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, have had and continue to have on heavy metal music. “Romantic Satanism,” Fisher writes, “by principle, is the transgression of conventional authoritarian values, and rock and metal was built on such foundations, being the antithesis of the those who try to preach or impose a way of thinking or a set of beliefs on the masses.”
  • For those of you who don’t find metal their particular cup of tea, the dark synth artist GosT’s “Arise” is a great example of a 21st century artist being influenced by the Miltonic Satan. It’s the 7th track on an entire dark synthwave album’s reimagining of Paradise Lost.

Satan as Light-bringer

Nature shall not be ruled, the sceptre of the Universe shall not be grasped, Godhead shall not be won, save by knowledge alone…It is not blind courage…which will win the courts of Heaven; but rather study and reflection. In these silent realms where we are fallen, let us meditate, seeking the hidden causes of things; let us observe the course of Nature; let us pursue her with compelling ardour and all-conquering desire; let us strive to penetrate her infinite granduer, her infinite minuteness. Let us seek to know when she is barren and when she brings forth fruit; how she makes cold and heat, joy and sorrow, life and death; how she assembles and disperses her elements, how she produces both the light air we breathe and the rocks of diamond and sapphire whence we have been precipitated, the divine fire wherewith we have been scarred and the soaring thought which stirs our minds…It is through pain that, suffering a first experience of Nature, we have been roused to know her and subdue her. When she obeys us we shall be as gods. – Anatole France Revolt of the Angels

Satan’s role as a bearer of light stretches back to the Roman name Lucifer itself, which in Latin means “light-bringer.” Lucifer was associated in Roman mythology with the morning star (the planet Venus) and as such was herald of the dawn. While the Romans seemed to have used Lucifer as a personification of a literal heavenly body, other legend and myth associates the Devil with a more metaphoric light. More than a harbinger of the sun’s daily rising, Satan is often portrayed as a figure of revelation illuminating the darkness with the torch of knowledge she valiantly bears.

Satan as revealer is a trope nearly as ancient as the original Lucifer, going back to some of the early Gnostic sects who interpreted the serpent of Garden of Eden fame not as an interloper that caused humanity’s downfall, but as a Promethean liberator who set humanity on a path of discovery and liberation. Consider the following as translated by Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer from “The Hypostasis of the Archons,” one of the texts of the Nag Hammadi library:

Then the female spiritual presence came in the form of the snake, the instructor, and it taught them, saying, “What did he say to you? Was it, ‘From every tree in the garden shall you eat, but from the tree of recognizing evil and good do not eat’?”

The woman of flesh said, “Not only did he say ‘Don’t eat,’ but even ‘Don’t touch it. For the day you eat from it, you will surely die.’”

The snake, the instructor, said, “It is not the case that you will surely die, for out of jealousy he said this to you. Rather, your eyes will open and you will be like gods, recognizing evil and good.” And the female instructing power was taken away from the snake, and she left it behind, merely a thing of the earth.

And the woman of flesh took from the tree and ate, and she gave to her husband as well as herself, and those beings, who possessed only a soul, ate. And their imperfection became apparent in their lack of knowledge. They recognized that they were naked of the spiritual, and they took fig leaves and bound them around themselves.

Readers familiar with the biblical account of the story that “The Hypostasis of the Archons” is riffing on will recognize that not much has been changed in terms of the overall shape of the narrative. What has changed is that the serpent, rather than simply being clever and mischievous, has been transformed into a teacher who educates Adam and Eve on the poverty of their present condition. But the end result for the Gnostic serpent is the same as his orthodox counterpart.

[When asked why she ate of the fruit] The woman said, “The snake led me astray and I ate.” They [the creator gods] turned to the snake and cursed its shadowy reflection, so it was powerless, and they did not comprehend that it was a form they themselves had modeled. From that day, the snake came to be under the curse of the authorities. Until the perfect human was to come, that curse fell on the snake.

Or consider this account of the Ophites, a gnostic sect said to worship the serpent of the Bible, whose eucharist Ephinaius writes of in his Panarion:

It is said that Ialdabaoth [the Demiurge, the creator god of the Old Testament] did not want men to remember the Mother on high and the Father. But the serpent persuaded them and gave them knowledge, and taught man and woman all the mysteries of the heavens. His Father Ialdabaoth, angered the knowledge of had been imparted to humankind hurled him down from heaven. For this reason, those who possess the serpent’s part, and nothing else, call the serpent “king of heaven.” Therefore they glorify him for his knowledge, they say, and offer him bread.

The punishment of an enlightening figure by the powers that be calls to mind the ancient Greek Prometheus, who I alluded to earlier in describing the Devil as being Promethean. If you take into account the Gnostic reconfiguration of the serpent as an instructor, it’s not difficult to see why the myths of Satan and Prometheus became intertwined over time. Most readers are no doubt familiar with the myth of Prometheus, but just in case it can be boiled down to this: Prometheus, a member of the godlike race of the Titans, sees the wretched lot of humanity on the earth and, in spite of Zeus’ commandments to the contrary, brings humanity the technology of fire. For his disobedience, Zeus condemns Prometheus to be chained to a rock (where an eagle eats his liver daily) for all eternity. Of Prometheus the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley writes:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory. – “Prometheus Unbound”

Hopefully it is apparent why most of what Shelley writes with regard to Prometheus chained to his rock could just as easily be applied to Satan in her corrosive, fiery hell.

Satan as teacher draws in another Middle Eastern mythological motif, that of technology being bequeathed to humankind by rebel angels. Perhaps the most famous example of this, and certainly for our purposes the most relevant, can be found in 1 Enoch. Chapters 1-36 of 1 Enoch are often referred to as The Book of the Watchers. It’s focus is a band of fallen angels led by the satanic Samyaza, which means “he sees the name.” The Book of the Watchers expands on a verse in Genesis, which tells of angels taking human women as wives and producing giant, mutant offspring in the process. Of specific interest to us, however, is chapter 8 of 1 Enoch, which lists the various skills and technologies these rebel angels eventually teach humanity, including the making of swords and mirrors, cosmetics, sorcery, the dying of cloth, and astronomy.

As I’ve said in other posts, the tapestry that makes up the Satanic mythos is rich and varied.  Not only do we have the Devil as revealer of humanity’s existential condition in the world, but also as a source of knowledge with regard to toolmaking and technological advance. For those of us who seek inspiration and wisdom in the character of Satan, there is a clear case for strongly supporting scientific research. The so-called Romantic Satanists were of this opinion as well. In his essay, “Sex, Science, and Liberty,” scholar of Satanism Ruben Van Luijk writes:

Ever since Satan’s identification with the serpent in Genesis, the lure of forbidden knowledge has been one of his classic attributes in Christian cosmology. In a nineteenth century that would see the birth of a scientism with sometimes plainly religious overtones, the seeking of knowledge became a thing that could hardly be thought evil any longer. ‘Knowledge is good, And life is good, and how can both be evil?’ wonders Byron’s Cain; and it is Lucifer who discloses to him the knowledge of the stars and of other worlds past and present…Thus Satan, in his aspect of Lucifer the light-bringer, becomes a paragon of those pursuing scientific enquiry regardless of the boundaries set by faith or tradition.

Research and scientific endeavor are not only a lightening of the figurative darkness, penetrating the mysteries of the universe and our existence in it, but are in a very real sense an open rebellion against the forces of fate and ignorance that would otherwise chain us down. When we expose the hypocrisy, contradiction, and error of this or that scripture; when we examine the effects and roots of our actions, policies, and biases rather than blindly following received tradition; or when we set out to cure disease and reach the stars, we are doing battle with the very forces that limit our existence. If the Genesis account is correct that it is a lack of knowledge that separates us from the gods, then it is science which best affords us the means by which to bridge that gap.

The pursuit of knowledge is not without its share of risks, however. Just as the serpent and Prometheus paid the price for sharing freely, so Adam and Eve and all humanity paid a price for receiving what these teachers had to give. The light Lucifer brings is in many ways an ambivalent gift. What it reveals may or may not be to our liking and, like Frankenstein’s monster, what is uncovered by the rays of Satan’s torch could very well prove our undoing.

I don’t mean to suggest by this that we should artificially curb our curiosity and innate drive for innovation, but rather post it as a warning lest anyone seek knowledge with anything less than eyes wide open. Our intentions notwithstanding, the pursuit and dispersal of knowledge can have real and unforeseen consequences. A message meant to inform a friend of something previously unknown, whether it be as serious as a lover’s indiscretions or as innocuous an unconscious habit, can alter a friendship permanently. Research intended to cure disease can end up engineering a biological terror. Robots meant to ease humanity’s lot on this earth may very well render our entire species obsolete. The list goes on. My point is that, once the safety of the paradise named ignorance is left behind, there are no guarantees with regard to what horrors or beauties one may find.

But we’re not asking how best way to play it safe, but “what would the Devil do?” And the answer to that is clear. When Milton’s fallen angels awoke to find themselves in Hell, with a seemingly endless void of hemming them about, the questions was posed of who to send in search of new worlds. Who would dare risk the dark uncertainty that lay before them. “Whom shall we find sufficient? Who shall tempt with wandering feet the dark unbottom’d infinite Abyss?” Satan answered by unfurling her wings and setting forth.

*Image via Blaz Porenta

Satanic Rebelliousness

In a previous post I discussed one of Satan’s most recognizable attributes: pride. This post I want to focus on a close second: Satan’s rebelliousness.

While it may have been pride that lead to her later actions, it was the Devil’s rebellion against the forces of god that directly resulted in her being cast from heaven. While we see the beginnings of what would later become the rebellion myth in biblical works such as Isaiah and Revelation, it is in John Milton’s Paradise Lost that the story has its most definitive treatment. Milton’s version of Lucifer would forever change the literary character of the Devil and would provide the basis for later, more positive interpretations of the character.

It is beyond the scope of this post to treat Milton’s most famous work fully. For our purposes it is enough to understand that Lucifer’s rebellion is instigated by god the father handing over rule of all existence to his unproven and untested son, Christ. Satan, who thinks rule should be determined by merit rather than heredity, is appalled and disillusioned with regard to god’s infallibility. It is this state of affairs that sets the stage for the conflict to come.

Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers—
If these magnific titles yet remain
Not merely titular, since by decree
Another now hath to himself ingrossed        
All power, and us eclipsed under the name
Of King Anointed; for whom all this haste
Of midnight march, and hurried meeting here,
This only to consult, how we may best,
With what may be devised of honours new,        
Receive him coming to receive from us
Knee-tribute yet unpaid, prostration vile!
Too much to one! but double how endured—
To one and to his image now proclaimed?
But what if better counsels might erect        
Our minds, and teach us to cast off this yoke!
Will ye submit your necks, and choose to bend
The supple knee? Ye will not, if I trust
To know ye right, or if ye know yourselves
Natives and Sons of Heaven possessed before        
By none, and, if not equal all, yet free,
Equally free; for orders and degrees
Jar not with liberty, but well consist.
Who can in reason, then, or right, assume
Monarchy over such as live by right        
His equals—if in power and splendour less,
In freedom equal? or can introduce
Law and edict on us, who without law
Err not? much less for this to be our Lord,
And look for adoration, to the abuse        
Of those imperial titles which assert
Our being ordained to govern, not to serve! – Paradise Lost 5.772-802

To understand Milton’s Lucifer it is important to understand the context in which Paradise Lost was written. Milton wasn’t just writing a Christian fantasy, but was drawing from his own political beliefs and experiences. In 1649 the reigning monarch of England, Charles I, was beheaded by republican insurrectionists and a commonwealth was formed, which would rule England for the next eleven years with Oliver Cromwell at its head for eight. Milton was a supporter of the Commonwealth, serving as its Secretary to Foreign Tongues. Part of his duties were to write propaganda for the anti-monarchical government, including making an explicit defense of the regicide of Charles I. In 1658, however, Cromwell died, and the commonwealth fell into disarray. Monarchy was restored a mere two years later.   

It is lawful and hath been held so in all ages, for any who have the power, to call to account a Tyrant or wicked King, and, after due conviction, to depose and put him to death. – John Milton The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates.

Milton, lucky to escape with his life, went into hiding. It was in the shadow of all this that he wrote Paradise Lost, whose protagonist, Satan, is himself another failed and exiled revolutionary. There’s much debate amidst literary circles as how best to interpret Paradise Lost, but for many revolutionaries and poets it was clear: Satan was a tragic hero and champion of liberty. Mikhail Bakunin writes in God and the State:

Jehovah, who of all the good gods adored by men was certainly the most jealous, the most vain, the most ferocious, the most unjust, the most bloodthirsty, the most despotic, and the most hostile to human dignity and liberty – Jehovah had just created Adam and Eve…He generously placed at their disposal the whole earth, with all its fruits and animals, and set but a single limit to this complete enjoyment. He expressly forbade them from touching the fruit of the tree of knowledge. He wished, therefore, that man, destitute of all understanding of himself, should remain an eternal beast, ever on all-fours before the eternal God, his creator and his master. But here steps in Satan, the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds. He makes man ashamed of his bestial ignorance and obedience; he emancipates him, stamps upon his brow the seal of liberty and humanity, in urging him to disobey and eat of the fruit of knowledge.

It is Lucifer’s outrage at injustice and overbearing authority, and her struggle against it, that forms the basis of her moral superiority. Better to struggle in vain than to bend the knee to oppression and tyranny, Lucifer says.

This isn’t rebellion as a pose or to fulfill an emotional need to be perceived as different, nor is it an adolescent need to rebel for rebellion’s sake. It is insurrection with a purpose. We are participating in satanic rebellion when we look upon our reality and—deeming what we find there unacceptable, unjust, and absurd—go forth in battle to change it. 

That Satan’s rebellion is doomed from the start makes it no less heroic, only tragic. But life is tragic. We westerners move amidst a popular culture that often strives to escape that fact, but it’s there, staring us in the face if we care to look. The best and brightest and most fair and just and most deserving don’t always win. Quite the opposite, in fact. We all play a hand in creating our own futures, however, and while the forces that oppose us may seem and in fact be insurmountable they will most certainly never be defeated by acquiescence. Like the Devil, who is defined by her opposition to heaven—the original meaning of Satan is “adversary” after all—we too are shaped by what we choose or fail to struggle against. Resignation is, as Nietzsche says, the happiness of the weakling after all.

Image: “Battle of the Angels” by Alexey Steele 

Satanic Pride

[Lucifer] was the most beautiful of all the Seraphim. He shone with intelligence and daring. His great heart was big with all the virtues born of pride: frankness, courage, constancy in trial, indomitable hope. – Anatole France Revolt of the Angels

Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. – John Milton Paradise Lost

 

If there is a single sin most readily associated with Satan it is the sin of pride. After all, it was precisely his ill-advised pride that got him cast from the heights of heaven, or so the story goes. The very verse from which Lucifer derives his name is about his ambitious hubris specifically.

How you are fallen from heaven,
O Lucifer, son of the morning!
How you are cut down to the ground,
You who weakened the nations!
For you have said in your heart:
‘I will ascend into heaven,
I will exalt my throne above the stars of God;
I will also sit on the mount of the congregation
On the farthest sides of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds,
I will be like the Most High.’ – Isaiah 14:12-14 NKJV

The passage from Isaiah hints at what would become more fully developed in later versions of the Lucifer legend. That Lucifer was a beautiful and powerful archangel who, on account of his pride, refused to bow the knee to god, as was fitting and proper. Rather, he rebelled against the throne in an attempt to assert his dominance over the universe, getting himself and his comrades tossed from heaven in the process.

In Islam, where Satan is known as Iblis, the story is similar, though different at crucial points. Here it is still Satan’s pride which is the cause of his downfall, but what he balks at is not bowing to god, but to Adam! In the Quran, when god asks Satan why he refuses to do as he is told, Satan replies that is unthinkable to expect him to bow to something so clearly inferior to himself. “I was made of fire,” Satan says. “He of clay.”

Though the details may vary, both traditions agree that Lucifer is the example of pride par excellence. In Christianity, Satan’s pride is not only the first sin ever committed, but the root of all others to follow. “Inordinate self-love,” medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote, “is the cause of every sin.” Or as Augustine put it:

Pride is the commencement of all sin because it was this which overthrew the devil, from whom arose the origin of sin; and afterwards, when his malice and envy pursued man, who was yet standing in his uprightness, it subverted him in the same way in which he himself fell. For the serpent, in fact, only sought for the door of pride whereby to enter when he said, ‘Ye shall be as gods.’

But while Christianity sees pride as the true original sin, and makes no distinction between it and hubris, ancient Greek philosophy takes a different tack. Aristotle not only distinguished between pride and hubris, but considered the former to be the capstone of virtue.

Pride, then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them more powerful, and it is not found without them. Therefore it is hard to be truly proud; for it is impossible without nobility and goodness of character. – Nicomachean Ethics

This seems to be Anatole France’s estimation of pride as evidenced by the quote above Revolt of the Angels. Lucifer’s pride is said to be the source of his “frankness, courage, constancy in trial, indomitable hope,” because, presumably, he knows their opposites—equivocation, cowardice, vacillation, and vulnerability to despair—are beneath him.

Notice that, like all virtues, pride sits between two polar opposites. On the one end is hubris, which is excessive, ungrounded, and over confident. On the other is a lack of self-esteem, which is meek and lowly. Both are errors of judgment about who one is and what you are capable of.

What lesson is there to learn from satanic pride? Know what is beyond and what is below you, but, when in doubt, better to err on the side of arrogance than meekness.

The problem with excessive humility is that it becomes an excuse to not live as vital and full life as one could. It is the attitude that it is better to resign yourself to a lesser station in life, rather than taking on the work and risk of stretching yourself beyond what is possible. It is this kind of meekness that leads people to endure loveless marriages and stay in demeaning jobs, because complacency feels safer than the unknown. Yes, you may fail and make a fool of yourself falling flat on your face or worse. But with the folly of hubris you can at least take pride that the roots of your failings were in your vigor, rather than your impotence.

*”Pride” image via FCC Shelbyville.

Giving the Devil Her Due

Myths and stories are powerful cultural forces. We turn to them for personal meaning. We organize our worldviews around their narratives (or is it perhaps the other way around?). We tell and retell our stories to make sense of a universe and existence that would otherwise seem horrifyingly senseless and absurd. Our myths make sense of our tragedies. They reinforce our loathing of our enemies. They color our lives with a sense of destiny and uniqueness. In short, if it is science that supplies us with the how of our universe, it is our myths which provide us with the why.

Of course not all myths are created equal, and not every story appeals to everyone in the same way or with the same strength. Part of this is matter of circumstance. Someone who grows up in a predominantly Christian society, for instance, will likely find the myths of the Judeo-Christian Bible uniquely resonating with (or haunting) them for duration of their lives, at least more so than mythologies that are completely alien to their upbringing.

A number of myths and mythological figures—from Batman to Odin—have touched me for different reasons and in different seasons of my life. But none have fascinated me for as long and as consistently the fallen angel known as Lucifer. I am hardly alone in this fascination. If you were to gather together every book, movie, poem, short-story, essay, music album, painting, television show, comic book, sculpture, and play with the devil as its subject, you would possess the diabolical equivalent of the library of Alexandria.

Satan. The Great Beast. Beelzebub. Belial. Samael. Baphomet. Leviathan. He is known by a hundred names, largely because he is an amalgamation of many different sources. The story of Satan as we know it today does not come directly or even mostly from biblical sources. Turn to the Bible for details about the devil and, I promise you, you will find frustratingly little. The Satan myth incorporates biblical elements, to be sure, but also Zoroastrianism; the Greek myths of Prometheus, Icarus, and Pan; Gnostic revisions of Judaism and Christianity; medieval folk legend; and the poetry of John Milton and the later writers inspired by him.

The result of all this character evolution and multi-faceted inspiration is a myth that is as evocative as it is rich. To give the devil his due is to recognize the strengths and accomplishments of an adversary, no matter how begrudging that recognition is. The aim of this site is precisely that. To mine Lucifer’s story for everything of value we can possibly find. What can we learn from his pride? His rebelliousness? His demand for justice? His lust? His carnality? His fall?

Let us find out together.