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So, biblically, Satan comes as "an angel of light." and yet, in the popular imagitation, he is usually wearing a red costume with a pointy tail, a sharp beard, and a pitchfork.

When and how did this characterization develop?

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3 Answers 3

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These attributes are a bizarre combination of images, some inherited from classical mythology, that don't particularly belong together (though there is a reason behind all of them, and even a smidgen of Scriptural support). Our modern image is a blend between:

  1. Satyrs, the lust-filled tempters (goat legs, horns, beard)
  2. Pluto, ruler of the Underworld (pitchfork)
  3. Fairly generic colour imagery (red and black)
  4. The mediaeval bestiary (bat wings)

In more detail:

  • Cloven hooves, horns, tail, shaggy legs and pointed beard - These are the attributes of fauns or satyrs. Compare - though perhaps not if at work, due to goat penis - this image from Wikipedia, a plate from c.520-500 BC. Satyrs are generally associated with lust, barbarity, and bad behaviour, more or less because goats are randy, willful, and eat all your food.. Thomas Boys (1792-1880), writing in Notes and queries, 5 November 1859, suggests the link is with the Hebrew se'irim (hairy wild beasts, probably the object of pagan worship) in Isaiah 13:21, 34:14, etc. In the Septuagint these are daimonia (demons!) and English translations like the KJV often use "satyrs". There may also be some sheep-and-goats connection going on.

  • Pitchfork - This comes from Pluto/Hades, the Greek god of the underworld. While his usual attribute is a sceptre, indicating his sovereignty, this was sometimes depicted as a bident or two-pronged pitchfork (for reasons that we're not really sure about). His brothers Poseidon and Zeus also used forked weapons - in some sense they mirror one another, as rulers of their respective realms. In the post-classical era, the bident became part of the standard representation. Satan got the same tool because he was put in the same role as Pluto.

  • For the colour, the devil is not invariably red in mediaeval imagery - in Chaucer, he's green! - and the most common colour is black. Grimm (Deutsche Mythologie) attributes this to the association of the devil with darkness in general, as God is associated with light (most famously in John 1). The night also suggests hiding and secrecy. This has classical precedent - Pluto again - but the notion is pretty generic. Meanwhile, red means blood, violence, and passion. Red-haired people were unfortunately often considered "evil" because of this connection, and Judas was usually shown with red hair. It is also the colour of fire and the New Testament considers hell to be fiery. There's the red dragon in Revelation 12:3 just to cement it further.

  • Bat wings, at least, are not classical. In the Middle Ages, the devil was depicted with a wide variety of monstrous attributes, indicating that he was unnatural and cursed. Bat wings are one example, and of course bats are pretty inherently spooky, since they are scary-looking creatures of the night. Jeffrey Burton Russell (Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages, Cornell University Press, 1984) says that these wings first appear in the twelfth century, as a corrupted version of (feathered) angel wings. Russell's general chronology has the 'monstrous' devil image appearing first, thanks to the third-century Desert Fathers. After a fad for 'humanoid' devils (ie, Satan disguising himself as a normal-looking human) from the sixth to eleven centuries, these dominated for the rest of the Middle Ages. They have not wholly disappeared, as a glance at the nearest death metal album cover will confirm, though the wings are the only monstrous feature to be really ubiquitous now.

This particular combination has become more and more "standard". Of course, it is helpful for the viewer to have some standardization, so that we can instantly recognize who in the painting is meant to be Satan. But even this collection of attributes allows for some diversity in interpretation: one can draw a caricatured or cartoon Satan, or an imp, or a Miltonic anti-hero.

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I wonder whether Chaucer's green devil has any combination with the Green Man and nature worship? Though I do know that a lot of our understanding of mediaeval nature-worship is filtered through Victorian romanticism and modern Neopaganism, so I could be imagining things here. –  TRiG Nov 18 '12 at 0:20
    
@TRiG, it's possible. Russell links green with hunting - the devil is a hunter of souls and his appearance in the Friar's Tale matches that ("A bow he bare, and arrows bright and keen / He had upon a courtepy of green"). But the pagan connection is another possibility which some scholars have raised. –  James T Nov 18 '12 at 0:33

In the belief that Satan's greatest weakness was his pride, believers in the Middle Ages created imagery of him like you describe in order to mock him.

As detailed on Ligonier's blog.

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That's a very interesting explanation, but the author doesn't cite any sources, unfortunately. :( –  Mason Wheeler Nov 1 '12 at 20:35
    
R.C.Sproul is a pretty good source :) I'm going to +1 for now, and see if there are other answers that come in. –  Affable Geek Nov 1 '12 at 20:56

Lucifer doesn't hold a pitchfork, its a trident. Tridents were common among indo-european gods, like Poseiden and Shiva. The name Lucifer, is Latin, and was the name of a minor Roman and Greek god. Lucifer was an epithet for Bacchus: the reborn god and succesor to Jupiter. Bacchus is also conflated with Neptune and Prometheus. Prometheus brought the gift of fire to humankind, and was punished for eternity by the titans (until Hericles saved him). Red and Black were sacred colors in Egypt. Horns were a symbol of power, such as the Mesopotamian sun-god Utu/Shamash, had horns + a hola(Which the halo represents the sun and enlightenment through self empowerment.) It is said that 'Satan' is hebrew for enemy; but this is inaccurate. 'Satan' comes from the Sanskrit word Satanama. -Sa means infinity; -Ta means life; -Na means death; and -Ma means rebirth. Devil comes from Devi, the Sanskrit word for a goddess.

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Welcome to the site. This is a pretty good answer, but could you add references to improve it? Also, as a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following two posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": help page and How we are different than other sites? –  David Stratton Sep 8 '13 at 15:43
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This is a good answer, but the derivation of Satan from Sanskrit is, I believe, inaccurate. Ha-Satan in Hebrew means accuser, not enemy. –  Affable Geek Sep 9 '13 at 12:36
    
The derivation from Sanskrit given here, including the alleged meanings of the "words" sa, ta, na, ma is nonsensical. Those four sounds are either not words, or don't have those meanings, in Sanskrit. So is the etymology of "devil". –  ShreevatsaR Sep 29 '13 at 0:50
    
The correct etymologies: Satan: Old English Satan, from Late Latin Satan [...], from Greek Satanas, from Hebrew satan "adversary, one who plots against another," from satan "to show enmity to, oppose, plot against," from root s-t-n "one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as an adversary." And devil: Old English deofol [...] from Late Latin diabolus (also the source of Italian diavolo, French diable, Spanish diablo; German Teufel is Old High German tiufal, from Latin via Gothic diabaulus). –  ShreevatsaR Sep 29 '13 at 0:58

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