Hello, Satan


“Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils” by William Blake, circa 1826. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Early this morning

     when you knocked upon my door

And I said “Hello, Satan

     I believe it’s time to go.”

Robert Johnson, “Me and the Devil Blues”

I’ve been walking with my friend the Satan for a spell. I’d like to tell you some of what I’ve learned, if you care to listen.

Allow me to introduce him. He’s not a man, but yes a spirit of wealth and taste. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, he walked up and down the earth before the Lord allowed him to torture Job. In José Zorrilla’s Romantic play Don Juan Tenorio, Doña Inés—a novice in a Christian convent—confesses as she is seduced by the Don Juan of Spanish legend:

Perhaps Satan gave thee

the fascination in his eyes

his seductive word

and the love he denied God.[1]


Representation of Spanish actress María Guerrero (1867-1928) in the role of Doña Inés, who is the female protagonist of the work of Don Juan Tenorio, by José de Zorrilla. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

According to Robert Louis Stevenson, “the radiance of a foul soul” that transfigured the “clay continent” of Mr. Hyde revealed “Satan’s signature” upon his face.[2]


Movie poster for American film “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1920). (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

American blues singers know the story of Robert Johnson going to a Mississippi crossroads to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for a satanic talent to sing and play the blues.


Robert Johnson. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The scholarship of Elaine Pagels taught me to see the Satan in a different way. “As he first appears in the Hebrew Bible,” she writes, “Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God.” In the 6th century B.C.E., Hebrew storytellers often introduced a spiritual character called the satan into their sacred narratives:

What they meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity.… (The Greek term diabolos, later translated “devil,” literally means “one who throws something across one’s path.”)

The satan helps to account for “unexpected obstacles or reversals of fortune,” and with God’s license, can oppose directions of human activity:

God sends him, like the angel of death, to perform a specific task, although one that human beings may not appreciate…. The satan may simply have been sent by the Lord to protect a person from worse harm.[3]

Two paintings by Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1573-1610) eminently illustrate this function of the satan. The first one, The Sacrifice of Isaac (1603), portrays the moment in the Book of Genesis when Abraham is about to sacrifice his son Isaac. The angel/satan does not simply announce God’s reversal; he grabs Abraham by the arm, preventing the beheading by the knife, and singles Abraham out as if to say, “What would you do, old man?” At that moment, Abraham changes his god. From then on, he will worship a deity that will not demand human sacrifices (KJV, Gen 22: 1-24).


“The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Caravaggio, 1590-1610, oil on canvas. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The second painting, Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1601), depicts the scene in the Acts of the Apostles when “a light from heaven” surrounds Saul on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians and bring them to Jerusalem. Saul falls to the earth and is blinded by the Satan for three days. The Lord then speaks: “He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (KJV, Acts 9:1-19).


“The Conversion on the Way to Damascus” by Caravaggio, oil on canvas, 1600. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The blow of the Satan is always powerful and unexpected, but always brings about illumination.


(to be continued)

[1] José Zorrilla, Don Juan Tenorio (Madrid: Cásicos Castalia, 1994), 174. English translation by Giner.

“Tal vez Satán puso en vos

su vista fascinadora,

su palabra seductora

y el amor que negó a Dios.” (2240-2243)

[2] Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886; New York: Bantam Books, 1985), 18.

[3] Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Random House, 1995), 39-40.

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