From a fallen angel to a bearded, red-hued man with horns, the Prince of Darkness’ has been depicted in many different forms over the years. The satanic figure as understood today is the result of centuries of art, literature and theater.
To find out what the devil really looks like, All About History (opens in new tab) magazine spoke with Marina Montesano, professor of Medieval History at the University of Messina in Italy, and Jan Machielsen, senior lecturer in Early Modern History at Cardiff University in the U.K.. Both of these scholars are experts in the history of Satan and the occult.
Here are eight ways that people have pictured Satan through history.
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1. Ancient Hebrew: The serpent
In the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis, the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve with the forbidden fruit in Eden, is commonly associated with Satan. In the original Hebrew text, though, no such name is given to the creature who convinces them to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. According to Marina Montesano, the only references to “Satàn” in the Hebrew Bible mean “adversary,” “obstacle” or “enemy” and can refer either to human antagonists or supernatural entities. It is only later, in the New Testament, that Satan is referred to explicitly as a serpent. Despite this, serpents and snakes remain commonly associated with the devil.
2. Early medieval: The fallen angel
In the Bible, the Book of Isaiah 14:12 reads: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations.” This is a direct reference to God casting out Satan from heaven. “Lucifer, the ‘morning star’ is the expression with which Isaiah defines a future king of Babylon,” Montesano said. “The fathers of the early medieval church, however, elaborated the figure of Lucifer far beyond the biblical text, making him the rebel angel and transforming him into the paradigm of pride as the capital sin.”
The earliest known suggested depiction of Satan is in a sixth-century mosaic, in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. The image “shows the devil as an ethereal blue angel, [but this was] ultimately shed in favor of a more demonic appearance with animalistic traits,” Montesano said.
3. Late medieval: Satan as the beast
Depictions of the devil during the Medieval period were commonly dragon-like, Montesano said. For example, an early pope known as Saint Sylvester reportedly slayed a devilish dragon, impressing a group of pagan priests and confirming the Christian faith of the Roman emperor Constantine, as Hans A. Pohlsander, a professor of classics, explained in “The Emperor Constantine (opens in new tab)” (Routledge, 2004).
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However, while mythical creatures were often associated with the devil during the medieval period, so too were real animals. According to the British Library (opens in new tab), many medieval portrayals of the devil have animalistic features, including the iconic cloven hooves, tails, talons and even webbed hands.
Illustrations from a 14th-century French manuscript called the Smithfield Decretals (opens in new tab) show the devil with animal body parts, and depict him as a humongous beast. “We find [depictions of] foxes, bears, lions and many others having connotations that can signify those attributed to the devil,” Montesano said.
4. Dante’s Inferno: The winged devil
The 14th-century poem “Inferno,” written by Dante Alighieri as part of his “Divine Comedy (opens in new tab)“, recounts a fictional journey through the seven circles that make up hell before the protagonist comes face to face with Satan himself. Dante describes Satan with “two mighty wings, such as befitting were so great a bird; sails of the sea I never saw so large. No feathers had they, but as of a bat.” (Canto 34: 49-51 (opens in new tab)).
According to Montesano, Satan’s wings may originate in Babylonian mythology, due to the devil’s association with the figure of Lilith. “Lilith comes from the ancient Babylonian Lilitu demons: Winged females who flew through the night, seducing men and attacking pregnant women and infants,” she said.
Dante also introduces elements from Greco-Roman mythology into his traditional Christian lore. He refers to the devil as “Dis” and to a “City of Dis”, which comes from Dis Pater, the Roman god of the underworld according to “The Dante Encyclopedia (opens in new tab)” (Routledge, 2000) by Richard Lansing, professor of Italian studies and comparative literature at Brandeis University. In “Inferno” Dante writes: “Hence in the smallest circle, where the point is Of the Universe, upon which Dis is seated, Whoe’er betrays for ever is consumed.” (Canto 11:64-65 (opens in new tab)).
5. Satan with horns
A clear early link between Satan and goats is found in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo mosaic, constructed in the late 6th century in Italy. In the mosaic, the blue angel to Jesus‘ left stands behind three goats, while the angel to Jesus’ right is joined by three sheep.
The artwork represents a parable in Matthew 25:31-46: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” In the story, the goat is associated with those not entering heaven. Some art historians, like Alastair Sooke of the BBC (opens in new tab), claim that this is where the devil and his minions got their horns.
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Other experts disagree. “The goat, which until the Middle Ages was barely linked to demonology, assumed a new role [around this time].” Montesano said. “According to some scholars, this new role comes mainly from its association with Nordic myths. Others say it might derive from the pagan god Pan, while British historian Ronald Hutton thinks it has more to do with neo-pagan revival of modern — not Medieval — times.”
In his book, “The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity (opens in new tab)” (Cornell University Press, 1987), Jeffrey Burton Russell claims the link between Satan and the goat derives from the devil’s association with underworld fertility deities, who Christians rejected as demons. Along with other pagan gods, these horned idols were particularly feared “because of their association with the wilderness and with sexual frenzy.”
6. Paradise Lost: The devil as an Adonis
Many modern audiences are used to seeing Satan as a chiseled, handsome man, such as in the 2016 Netflix series “Lucifer”. This incarnation of the devil first appeared in the 17th century. In 1667, John Milton published his epic poem “Paradise Lost (opens in new tab),” which tells the story of Satan’s expulsion from heaven and his temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. According to Nancy Rosenfield’s book “The Human Satan in Seventeenth-Century Literature (opens in new tab)” (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013), Milton shows Satan as “a heroic military leader,” who is “the most attractive of the satanic characters of 17th century literature.”
In the 18th and early 19th century, there was a revival of interest in “Paradise Lost.” Artist William Blake found Milton’s character of Satan so compelling that he produced several illustrations (opens in new tab) to accompany a version of “Paradise Lost” in which a nude Satan is shown as a handsome, god-like figure, with entirely human features.
7. A devil dressed in red
During the 19th and early 20th century the image of the devil was used in advertisements and satirical cartoons. In one 1900 cartoon, he is being chased away by a women’s suffrage campaigner. Along with his horns, he is also entirely red, with a pointed beard, and carrying a pitchfork.
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The devil’s red tights actually originate in theatre productions. In 1859, composer Charles Gounod adopted the folktale “Faust,” which had also inspired Marlowe’s earlier play, “Dr. Faustus,” into an opera, in which the devilish character of Mephistopheles wears a Renaissance-era costume, including red tights, also known as hose.
In his book “A History of Opera: Milestones and Metamorphoses (opens in new tab)” (Opera Journeys Publishing, 2003), Burton Fisher wrote: “Marcel Journet sang Faust’s Mephistopheles over a thousand times, providing the stereotyped image of opera characters as devils in red tights.” Different interpretations of this theatrical clothing have endured and remain popular Halloween costumes today.
8. The 20th century devil
During the 20th century, the devil continued to be re-invented by writers and filmmakers, placing him in the guise of mysterious strangers, smart businessmen and even children, as in the 1976 horror movie “The Omen”.
In Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and Margarita (opens in new tab)” (first published in Moskva magazine, 1966), the devil appears as a smart but secretive stranger, who is accompanied by a talking cat. Similarly, in the 1987 film “Angel Heart” Robert de Niro plays Louis Cyphre (Lucifer), a well-dressed but cryptic businessman.
In 1936, the American writer Stephen Vincent Benet wrote “The Devil and Daniel Webster (opens in new tab)” in which the character Mr. Scratch (Satan) fights for his right to a man’s soul in a court of law. In a similar vein, the 1997 film “Devil’s Advocate” sees Al Pacino play Lucifer as the head of a shady New York City law firm.
But even these modern depictions of Lucifer as a lawyer have their origins in the Middle Ages. In an article from the journal la Revue de l’histoire des religions, (opens in new tab) Karl Shoemaker, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, described a medieval court drama in which “the devil and his hellish council selected a demon learned in the law and sent him to the court of heaven in order to sue for a legal title to the human race.”
This article was adapted from a previous version published in All About History magazine, a Future Ltd. publication. To learn more about some of history’s most incredible stories, subscribe to All About History (opens in new tab) magazine.