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.

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
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.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits