BOOK REVIEW / Light on Prince of Darkness: The Chatto Book of the Devil - ed Francis Spufford, pounds 15.99; A History of God - Karen Armstrong: Heinemann, pounds 16.99

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YOU CAN'T miss the Devil. Those horns, for example. The hooves give him away, too. Some say he wears green sunglasses (Edgar Allan Poe) or has three faces (Dante); his flesh is made of 'condensed air' (St Augustine) and, if it is pierced with a sword, out gushes a blood substitute (Milton). Theologians have spent many a happy hour working out how many fallen angels could dance on the point of a pin.

He has always had a bad press: 'Old Nick', we have called him, 'Foul Fiend', 'Prince of Darkness'. Satan means 'plotter'; even Lucifer, which literally means 'light-bearer' after his original job in Heaven, became a term of abuse. Is there no equivalent of Carter-Ruck in the Infernal Regions to put a stop to these diabolical libels?

Fortunately not. Paradise Lost without the Prince of Darkness would be as pointless as Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. The Devil Rides Out would not have sold so well as 'The Ethically Challenged Spiritual Being Gets On His Horse'. The devil has not just the best tunes but the best tomes.

The Chatto Book of the Devil is not a how-to-spot-the-Satanist-next-door sort of book, but a literary anthology, taken from authors who give His Satanic Majesty anything from a leading role to a walk-on part. There are extracts from the raw material, the Bible; from dramatists such as Christopher Marlowe who have used the Devil to divine effect; and from moderns like Shaw and Mark Twain who have played him for laughs. They all demonstrate how much more convenient it is to blame the demon with the pitchfork than to own up to one's own errors.

But exactly how devilish is the devil? Austen Layard, a 19th-century traveller, wrote of a sect which, holding that Satan would eventually make a comeback, worshipped him in the hope that he would remember his friends when he returned to power. Others, not going that far, claim the treatment handed out to Lucifer as an angel was a scandal - Heavengate, you might say - and that his rebellion was quite understandable. In La Revolte des Anges, Anatole France tells the story of this, the Mother and Holy Father of all Battles, from Satan's point of view.

This was one of the few extracts in the anthology which made me hunt out the complete work. For a start, it was translated from the French. Other extracts were left in the original; four and half pages of raw Verlaine are a daunting prospect. It wouldn't have hurt to update the Middle English, either, and yards of Milton is not my idea of Paradise. There's much interesting material here but it's a devil of a job to find it.

Two of the duller quotations in the book come from a 3rd-century theologian named Origen. In A History of God, Karen Armstrong adds lustre to the worthy divine by revealing that he became a DIY eunuch, castrating himself as compensation for failing in a bid to be, like his father, martyred in the arena. In a previous book Ms Armstrong wrote vividly about her experience of leaving a nunnery and coming to grips with the irreligious outside world. She now turns to the Big One: 4,000 years of the Supreme Being. Just in case this is being read by the Creator himself, it must be said that the book does not claim to be the history of God as such, since He, being outside time, no more has chronology than He has a postal code.

What the book traces is four millennia of mankind's interest in Him (or Her) from the early Patriarchs to post-modern mystics, from before Abraham to after Zoroaster. It could have been a sort of Decline and Fall of the Roman Catholic Empire but instead ranges tolerantly far beyond the Bible, casting its net over Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Here are atheists and Greek philosophers, Ranters and whirling dervishes.

Despite Karen Armstrong's clarity of style, some of the material - particularly the Jewish chapters - makes for heavy going. It feels more like an encyclopaedia than a free-flowing story.

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