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.

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