Book review / Playing the best tunes: in B-movies

THE DEVIL: A Biography by Peter Stanford, Heinemann pounds 20

BIOGRAPHIES of living subjects are a risky undertaking. There's the danger of hagiography; of indulging the subject's whims; of playing down the less estimable moments in a life. To judge from the printers' gremlins splattered through the text, Peter Stanford's biography has been written with the full co-operation of its subject, who will surely welcome the argument that he (or He, if you're of his party) has been a considerable power in the world for many years. What he, or He, will not appreciate is the other, very different conclusion which the book, almost in spite of itself, invites: that the Devil is now a nonentity, a spent force, an un-person - a pitiable old fraud we can safely forget.

Satan's life began in obscurity. Though Christians claim to have discovered him, some say he was born in Egypt (a relation of the red god Seth), or Mesopotamia (where he was known as Huwawa - "his mouth is fire, his breath is death"), or even Greece (the goat-like Pan). His appearances in the Old Testament are fleeting: he turns up playing Devil's Advocate, against Yahweh, in the Book of Job, but it is not until the New Testament that his early career, and its most notorious episodes, are properly documented.

The stories are Apocryphal, and improve with the telling (Blake, Milton, Goethe), but every schoolchild knows how Satan and his Rebel Angels told God to stuff it, abandoned their posts in heaven, fell like lightning, and set about corrupting mankind. Why did they come here? One theory is that they lusted after the daughters of earth, and made love to them while they were making love to their husbands - a three-in-a-bed scandal. Whatever his motives, Satan got out from under the boss's shadow, and the old monist order was finished.

Once set on a career in crime, Satan (unlike Lot's wife) never looked back. He taunted, tempted, fought, fornicated, told lies, blasphemed and practised black arts. Gluttony and alcoholism were meat and drink to him. God had been his first great adversary, Adam was the next (easily defeated, thanks to Eve), and the son of God was the last. It's hard to say whether he genuinely wanted Jesus to join his gang, or merely delighted in goading him, but there's no doubt Jesus had his work cut out exorcising his influence. "Get thee behind me, Satan," he said, but the old slyhooves with the forked tail and number 666 on his shirt wasn't so easily dismissed.

After Christ's death (Satan's part in which remains in dispute), the Church of Rome continued to find him a wily opponent. Tertullian (circa 200AD) felt his mark on such activities as astrology, necromancy, horse- racing, bathing, theatre-going, and dressing up in fancy clothes. Augustine, 200 years later, introduced another idea: that the Devil's great weakness, coming before his fall, was pride. The next few centuries were his heyday. He sat for his first portrait in the year 520, in Ravenna, and thereafter artists clamoured to paint him in horns, tails, wings and even fur. Christian leaders saw him everywhere: in Islam, in Judaism, among their own worshippers. Crusades were launched to eradicate him, holy wars fought in which tens of thousands died. He escaped, his power undiminished, still playing the best tunes.

Satan had a good Dark Ages. Peter Stanford passes more quickly over his Middle Ages, recounting the tussles with Martin Luther, then moving on to witchcraft. Smitten by his dalliance with Eve, Satan had always been a womaniser, but by now his need to possess women had become excessive, and many alleged witches died through love of him. Growing older and more reflective, he sought the company of writers and intellectuals (dealt with rather perfunctorily here in a "literary interlude"), one of whom, Milton, revived his flagging reputation by emphasising his mighty stature and unconquerable will.

It was too late. By the Enlightenment, Satan was in decline, and Voltaire, Marx and Freud virtually killed him off. Peter Stanford thinks it too soon for obituaries, and devotes the last section of his book to fundamentalists like Billy Graham who have tried to raise Satan's stock. It's true that the lazy and deluded still believe in him. Whenever a disturbed man walks down a street or into a room, and blows innocent lives away, there Satan and Evil will be, in the next day's headlines. Such superstition and hot air are enough to make you feel sorry for the old devil, who's always taking the rap for human failings.

The Devil: A Biography is jauntily written but lopsided in structure and full of misprints. Freud becomes Fraud, "averse to" (on the first page) "adverse to", and we learn of "pantomine" and "the rightous". As a quick general skim through history, the book is readable enough. But satanic iconography is more interestingly dealt with in Marina Warner's From the Beast to the Blonde, and to understand the part that Satan plays in Jewish history - as a focus of internal dispute, an intimate enemy, not a stranger - it's better to turn to Elaine Pagels's recently published The Origin of Satan (Chatto pounds 20), a rather dry, academic book by comparison, but one which shows how the writers of the four gospels, among others, used the devil to demonise alleged pagans, heretics, Pharisees and other opponents.

"The devil's deepest wile is to persuade us that he does not exist," wrote Baudelaire. Au contraire, the devil's deepest wile has been to persuade us that he does exist. Last heard of, he was auditioning for a bit part in a horror B-movie. That's how low he has sunk.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?