Ignorant and bigoted people persist in accusing witches and other pagans of being Devil-worshippers. Here’s a fascinating book we can use to answer them.
Messadié, a French author, asks, Who is the Devil? Where does he come from? To find answers, he conducts an exhaustive historical survey of cultures around the world and through time. Beginning with the islands of Oceania, he crosses Asia (India, China, Japan, the Middle East), Europe, Africa, and North and South America. He revisits the cultures of the Celts, North American Indians, pre-Columbian empires in Central and South America, classical and Hellenistic Greece and Rome, and ancient Mesopotamia. What does he find in most of these cultures? There have always been spirits, some helpful to people, some nasty. Sometimes they’re called gods, but they are neither Good nor Evil as we understand the terms today. Their temperaments are situational. In classical Greece, home of our favorite pantheon, the gods were basically big people and the true Greek god, Messadié says, was the polis, or city-state. Likewise, in Rome, the true gods were those of family, clan, and state, and while the Romans enjoyed their various festivals, Messadié says that what they truly worshipped was “common sense.”
The Devil, it turns out, was invented in ancient Iran by Zoroaster (628–551 B.C.E.). In a chapter titled “The First Ayatollahs and the True Birth of the Devil,” he describes an Aryan society where individualism was strictly verboten, where the rulers wanted total control of the population. Zoroaster, a disgruntled poet and malcontent, drew his god, Ahura Mazda, from older sources. Ahura Mazda was the Good God; he was also patriarchal and misogynistic. So was the Evil God, Ahriman. “In the standard dream of every religious hierarchy,” Messadié writes, “any breach of religious law would have been punished by the secular authorities…. It was politics that gave birth to the Devil, and the Devil is indeed a political invention” (p. 87).
Judaism learned about these two political gods—which were equally powerful—during the Babylonian Exile (sixth century, B.C.E.), and in the two centuries before the birth of Jesus it was the Essenes who popularized them. “The borrowing of the Devil … was at root politically motivated…” (p. 248). Thanks to “Saul-Paul” and the fighting Fathers of the early Christian church, the Devil next found a comfortable home in Christianity. Stories were told of demonic possession; “this gibberish went on for centuries and everyone from popes to peasants spouted it” (p. 276). During the Dark Ages, the Late Middle Ages, and the Renaissance,
… at the highest levels of decision-making, the Devil was considered a propagandistic fiction that served the [both religious and civil] princes’ shadowy and, frankly, base designs. Had any king or pope actually believed in the Devil at the time, he would … have been terrified by his own actions. Yet the Devil was a tool to be used against the populace; the bitter paradox is that the fiction of the ‘prince of this world’ was in fact exploited to conquer the world … [R]eligion had become a political instrument, and the papacy, it should be remembered, was simultaneously a temporal power (p. 278).
When you read this book, you need to remember that the author is a French intellectual. French intellectuals have always been rationalistic, anticlerical, and skeptical nearly to the point of atheism. Massadié is not a defender of neopagans or witches. But he’s done his homework and he has a wicked sense of humor. When you read this book, which is still in print, you’ll learn more about the main highways and dark alleys of the history of religion than you’ll find on any “map” in any of the standard mythologies, histories, or popular neo-pagan apologias and Goddess-books.
~review by Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.
Author: Gerald Messadié, trans. by Mare Romano
Kodansha America, 1996