To Make a Hell of Heaven. The Influence of Pre-Christian Deities on Medieval European Devil Folklore

Essay, 2020

13 Pages, Grade: 1,5


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“To Make a Hell of Heaven” The Influence of Pre- Christian Deities on Medieval European Devil Folklore

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“To Make a Hell of Heaven” The Influence of Pre-Christian Deities on Medieval European Devil Folklore

In this essay I am going to argue that the medieval perception of the Devil incor­porated iconography previously associated with the deities of pre-Christian Europe as part of their demonization under the interpretatio Christiana. While numerous literary portrayals of Satan from that period draw from “heathen” imagery, they do not always exemplify the larger trend of demonizing pagan gods. Although Satan's tricephalic form in Dante's Divina Commedia (34.38) is likely to have been at least partially inspired by the Greek goddess Hecate,1 2 for instance, there do not seem to have been enough depictions of the Devil as having three faces to use this as an example of how Hecate was demonized. It is the more prevalent, folkloric portrayals of the Devil with hooves, horns, a forked tongue and carrying a pitch­fork, bearing little resemblance to his theological counterpart (cf. Russell, Luci­fer 63; 66), that highlight the interpretatio Christiana of the Germanic .Tsir and the Greco-Roman pantheon. As Richard Kiekhefer states in Magic in the Middle Ages (1989), “orthodox opinion” in early medieval Europe “held that pagan re­ligion was no true religion but mere demon-worship” (45). Thus, while figures such as Loki were imbued with Satanic qualities in later retellings of Norse myths, reinterpreting his shapeshifting and gender-fluidness as a sign of evil, iconography associated with Norse and Greco-Roman gods, such as goat legs, dogs, snakes and tridents, was incorporated into medieval Christian Devil folklore.

Like other monsters, demons are not only a manifestation of cultural anxie­ties, but also serve to discourage from certain behaviors. In his 1486 oration De Hom­inis Dignitate, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (*1463 - f1494) argues that the most admirable thing about man is how he “fabricat et transformat” (10), emulating not only other animals, but also God and His angels (24). Although Mirandola does not mention fallen angels outside of how one form of magic relies on their power (62), it stands to reason that if God and His angels represent an ideal to strive towards, Satan and his demons would serve as a bad example to avoid. A monster's very ex­istence, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues in the fifth of his seven monster theses, serves to police human behavior (14). Possibly overlapping with his fourth theory, according to which all monsters represent “cultural, political, racial, economic, [or] sexual” difference (7), one could make the argument that by adopting traits associated with pagan gods, demons were meant to discourage from non-Christian worship.

The necessity for demonizing the old gods suggests they were still fresh in the minds of medieval Europeans (cf. Russell, Lucifer 64; Tolkien 72). The 11th century “.Lcerbot Charm” seems to address Gaia or a similar figure with its appeal to a “[m]other of earth” (qtd. in Bradley 547), while one English charm against fever invokes, along with the Christian God, the .Lsir Odin and Loki:

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Nail the devil to this post. With this mell I thrice do knock, One for God, And one for Wod, And one for Lok. (qtd. in Cawley 319; Guiley 56)

Due to the apparent endurance of pagan gods it proved difficult to simply deny they had ever been real (cf. Russell, Lucifer 64), as Snorri Sturluson (*1179 - f1241) tries to do in his Prose Edda (c. 1220), where the Norse gods are explained away as my­thologized kings from Troy (6 ff.). Demonizing these figures, on the other hand, at least acknowledged their existence. In chapter 17 of the Vita Columbani, Jonas of Bobbio (*c. 600 - f after 659) recounts how the Irish missionary Columbanus (*540 - f615) had explained to the Alamanni that their worship of “Woden” had actually been done in service of Satan (qtd. in Maier 178). Similarly, the narrator of Beowulf dismissed the Danes' religion as “hs^enra hyht” (179) and clarifies that their sacrifi­cial rites were actually in service of “gastbona” (177) - presumably a kenning for the Devil. However, as J. R. R. Tolkien writes in his 1936 essay “The Monsters and the Critics,” the process of Christianization “is not complete in Beowulf” (73): While Grendel is descended from the Biblical Cain (Beowulf 1265 f.), Tolkien argues that he and the other monsters in the story are distinctly non-Christian in how they are a physical threat, rather than the shapeless and manipulative demons of Christianity (76 ff.).

As established in the Bible, the Devil is not bound to a specific shape: “And no wonder: for Satan himself transforms into an angel of light” (Improved Edition 2 Cor. 11.14). This would come to define how the Europeans' perception of shapeshifting changed after Christianization. Despite rendering Loki mortal in 2 the Prose Edda, Sturluson imbues the shapeshifting trickster figure with Satanic qualities. The father of several monsters (cf. Lindow 216 f.; Russell, Lucifer 65; Sturluson 42) and enemy of the messianic (cf. Russell, Lucifer 65) Baldr (Sturlu­son 72), this version of Loki is called the “father of falsehoods” (Sturluson 41), a title Satan is also called by in the Gospel of John (ImprovedEdition Jn. 8.44). Although it is unlikely that Loki was ever worshipped per se (cf. Lindow 219), he was originally “the helper and benefactor of gods and men” (Cawley 315) until he was demonized during the Christianization of Iceland (cf. Cawley 315; 317; Russell, Lucifer 64 f.). Not only did his shapeshifting come to be an evil trait, but so did his fluidness of gender. Several pagan deities including Loki, who at one point turned into a mare to conceive the eight-legged horse Sleipnir, and Odin, who practiced the feminine form of magic known as “seid” (cf. Lindow 219), as well as Greco-Roman figures like Agditis and Hermaphroditus (cf. Bolich 219­223) were arguably genderqueer. Christian doctrine has traditionally treated such gender-non-conformity as sinful (cf. Bolich 135). As Gregory G. Bolich writes in Transgender and Religion (2008): “Since God has established two sexes with corresponding genders, any change in this arrangement is a rebellion” (139). Thus, medieval stories often had the Devil not only employ succubi to tempt men, but also shapeshift into women himself to do so (cf. Russell, Devil 254).

The Devil's hybridity can also be seen in how he is sometimes portrayed as a mixture of man, goat and snake, not only personifying some of his qualities, but also incorporating traits of animals associated with pagan worship. Such a depic­tion can be found in the Codex Gigas or “Devil's Bible,” where Satan is drawn with a green, scaly head, horns, sharp teeth and a forked tongue (577). In medieval Devil lore, goats and snakes were two of the most recurring animal motifs (cf. Hut­ton 48; Russell, Devil 126; 246; 254; Lucifer 65; 67; 212). Though by no means a positive symbol in any of the pre-Christian religions of Europe, the snake did not have as bad of a reputation as it would have in the Middle Ages. Snakes did not just appear as dangerous monsters like the Hydra, the Midgard Serpent, or the snake used to punish Loki (cf. Lindow 83), but were also the animal Zeus and Odin would turn into at different points (cf. Braarvig 148; Kerényi 199; cf. Lindow 156). The animal was even used in the rites of the proto-Christlike (cf. Braarvig 148) Diony­sus (cf. Dahlquist 31 f.; Plut. Alex. 2,6). It is more likely, though, that rather than the subversion of positive symbolism, the Devil's association with snakes stems from his transformation into a great serpent or dragon in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 12. 3). Goats being a symbol of Satan, on the other hand, has no precedent in the Bible. To Christians, lechery was a sin,3 and due to the goat being seen as “lust personified” in the Middle Ages (Becker 140), Satan was often associated with the animal. “Between 1100 and 1700, both artistic representation and the confessions extracted from alleged witches certainly portray Satan at times as half-goat, and often with horns” (Hutton 48). His often satyr-like legs and horns gave the me­dieval Devil a strong resemblance to the Greek god Pan (Russell, Lucifer 63). Though not a fully benign figure4, it was primarily the god's sexualized nature, mixed with his role as a chthonic deity, why many artistic renditions of Satan were modelled after him in Christianized Europe (cf. Russell, Devil 126).

Due to the Devil's dominion over both death and sexuality, medieval story­tellers also frequently had him turn into a dog or a wolf (cf. Hutton 48; Russell, Lucifer 67; Russell, Devil 254; Woods 230). As Leslie Dunton-Downer states in her 2000 essay on werewolves, the transformation into a literal predator can be read as a metaphor for sexually predatory behavior (214). Beyond coding Satan as sexually deviant, though, his connection to dogs draws from a tradition of associating the animal with death: Besides “hellhounds” such as Cerberus and Garmr (the guard dog of Hel), the Egyptian god Anubis was imagined to have a dog's head and at least one Roman statue of Isis, a goddess of the afterlife, has her riding a dog5 (cf. Becker 84; Woods 230). It was probably the fact that “Hades” was used to translate the Hebrew “sheoF in the Septuagint (cf. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church 730) or the etymological link between “hell” and “Hel” (cf. Russell, Lucifer 64) that led to stories of these chthonic dogs influencing medieval perceptions of Satan.

The use of “Hades” as a synonym for hell is arguably as close as the interpretatio Christiana of pagan figures gets to making “a hell of heaven”, as John Milton (*1608 - f1674) put it in Paradise Lost (1667) (1.255). While there was a subsection of Hades preserved for “those who have committed many and great sacrileges” called “Tartarus” (Pl. Phd. 114), the Hellenic afterlife, incon­sistent and vague as it was according to Robert Garland (51), was for the most part a morally neutral zone. At worst, the name “Hades” denoted an idea of dreariness to believers (cf. Kerényi 197). The dead who dwell there are described by Homer as passive “oKrat” that lack sentience (Od. 10.495). For the most part, it was the living whom the gods punished or rewarded for their deeds (cf. Garland 48). The belief in a hereafter where the dead were judged according to their actions in life, like the version of Hades outlined by Plato in Phaedo (108; 114), “was by no means fundamental to the spirit of paganism and represented only a relatively late stage in its development” (Garland 48). The English word “hell,” meanwhile, derives from Hel, (cf. Russell, Lucifer 64) the Norse goddess who, like Satan, became ruler of a bleak and decaying underworld after being banished there (cf. Sturluson 42).


1 Given how Dante claims to owe much of his poetic prowess to having studied Virgil (1.85 ff.), he can be as­sumed to have been familiar with the latter's description of the goddess as “tergemina[-]” in the Aeneid (4.511).

2 The degree to which this was the case becomes especially apparent if one compares the Devil in medieval Christian folklore to his characterization in medieval Jewish folklore. Rather than a sexualized figure, Kabbalistic texts from the thirteenth century portray Satan as castrated and contrast him with the idealized “virile” Jew (Wolfson 153).

3 The degree to which this was the case becomes especially apparent if one compares the Devil in medieval Christian folklore to his characterization in medieval Jewish folklore. Rather than a sex­ualized figure, Kabbalistic texts from the thirteenth century portray Satan as castrated and contrast him with the idealized “virile” Jew (Wolfson 153).

4 The term “naviKog,” from which the English “panic” derives, is based on Pan's name and his ability to instill terror in mortals (cf. Cavarero 5).

5 Said statue, found in the Iseum Campense, (cf. Vörös 47) and once described by Cassius Dio as mirac­ulously moving its head (Dio 80.10.1), appears to be one of the few instances when the Egyptian goddess was associated with dogs. This appears to stem from a conflation with the often canine goddess Hec­ate: In Apuleius' The Golden Ass, Isis appears in front of a mortal, claiming that only the Egyptians call her by her “true name, Queen Isis”, while other peoples call her either “Proserpine,” “Ceres,” “Juno,” or “Hecate” (Apul. Met. 6.5). A possible explanation for this may be that Hecate and Isis were both goddesses of magic (cf. Witt 27; 188 f.).

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To Make a Hell of Heaven. The Influence of Pre-Christian Deities on Medieval European Devil Folklore
Ruhr-University of Bochum
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Devil, Lucifer, Satan, Christianity, Paganism, Middle Ages, Folklore, Mythology, Religion, Symbolism, Pan, Poseidon, Demons, Baal, Witchcraft, Witches
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Dimitri Dikhel (Author), 2020, To Make a Hell of Heaven. The Influence of Pre-Christian Deities on Medieval European Devil Folklore, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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