Everyday Life

Satan: He’s The Devil in Disguise

In medieval times, the concept of the devil held a prominent place in religious beliefs and cultural narratives.

The devil, often portrayed as a malevolent supernatural being, was associated with evil, temptation, and the embodiment of sin.

The medieval understanding of the devil was deeply rooted in Christian theology and shaped by biblical interpretations, folklore, and superstitions. Here, we’ll explore the perception of the devil in medieval times and its impact on society.

Christian Beliefs and Satan

In Christian theology, the devil, also known as Satan, was believed to be a fallen angel who rebelled against God.

The Devil
The Fallen Angel. Better known as the Devil.

According to the Bible, Satan was cast out of heaven and condemned to rule over the earthly realm. He was considered the tempter who enticed humanity to sin and led them away from God’s path. The devil was believed to have the power to influence human thoughts and actions, often exploiting people’s weaknesses and desires.

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He was depicted as a cunning and deceptive figure, capable of assuming different forms to deceive and corrupt individuals. Medieval religious texts, such as the Bible, sermons, and theological treatises, emphasised the constant struggle between the forces of good and evil, with the devil as the primary antagonist.

The Devil in Art and Literature

Medieval art and literature often depicted the devil in various forms, reflecting the fears and anxieties of the time. Illuminated manuscripts, paintings, and sculptures portrayed the devil as a monstrous creature with horns, hooves, and a tail, often depicted tempting individuals or engaged in battle with saints and angels.

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These visual representations served as warnings against the dangers of succumbing to the devil’s temptations.

Satan doing his thing biblical style.

Literary works, such as Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” offered elaborate and imaginative portrayals of the devil. These influential works shaped the popular perception of Satan. They depicted him as a powerful and charismatic figure who lured humans into damnation.

The Role of the Devil in Society

Belief in the devil played a significant role in shaping medieval society. The fear of Satan and eternal damnation motivated individuals to adhere to religious teachings, follow moral codes, and seek salvation. The Church, as the primary authority on matters of faith, actively preached against the temptations of the devil. They pushed the idea against the consequences of sin.

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Satan also played a crucial role in medieval legal proceedings. It was believed that witches, heretics, and individuals accused of engaging in diabolical practices had made pacts with the devil. The Inquisition, established by the Catholic Church, sought out and punished those accused of being in league with Satan. This lead to numerous trials, interrogations, and often brutal executions.

The Catholic Inquisition

The Catholic Inquisition and the devil are intertwined in the historical context of medieval Europe. The Inquisition was a series of ecclesiastical institutions and legal procedures established by the Catholic Church. They began in the 13th century with the aim of combating heresy. During this period, the Church actively sought out and punished those deemed to be heretics. They often linked their beliefs or practices to the influence of Satan.

The artist Pedro Berruguete has painted the Catholic Inquisition torturing the accused. This wasn’t always the case.

The Inquisition viewed heresy as a spiritual and moral threat to the Church and society as a whole. The devil was seen as the ultimate instigator of heresy, tempting individuals away from the true faith and leading them astray. This belief was rooted in the biblical narrative of the devil as a deceiver and adversary of God.

Inquisitors were responsible for investigating and interrogating suspected heretics, employing various methods to extract confessions and uncover evidence of diabolical influence. The accused were often subjected to harsh treatment, including torture, to force them to admit their alleged heretical beliefs or implicate others.

Devilish Superstitions and Folklore

In addition to religious beliefs, medieval society was influenced by superstitions and folklore surrounding Satan. People believed in various supernatural phenomena associated with the devil, including demonic possessions, curses, and witchcraft. Individuals sought protection from the devil through amulets, charms, and rituals.

The devil could take on any form. Here a witch feeds her ‘familiars’.

Devilish creatures, such as demons, imps, and shape-shifters, featured prominently in folklore, perpetuating the fear and fascination with the demonic realm.

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Medieval folklore often portrayed the devil as a shapeshifter, capable of assuming different forms and disguises to deceive unsuspecting individuals. He was believed to possess the power to appear as an attractive figure, enticing people with promises of wealth, power, or pleasure. These portrayals reflected the medieval understanding of the devil’s ability to manipulate human desires and exploit their weaknesses.

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Despite the devil’s association with darkness and evil, medieval folklore also depicted him as a figure of ridicule and mockery. In popular culture he was often portrayed as foolish or comical, the subject of humorous stories and folklore. These portrayals served to diminish the fear associated with the devil and highlight his ultimate defeat by divine forces.

The Exorcist

Exorcisms, performed by priests, were believed to rid individuals of demonic influences and restore their spiritual well-being. The devil’s presence was thought to be particularly strong during the witching hour, midnight, and on specific days, such as All Hallows.

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Exorcism in medieval times were carried out by the Catholic Church. It was seen as a powerful means of combating demonic possession and the influence of the devil. Exorcism was performed by authorised clergy members, known as exorcists, who were trained in the rituals and prayers necessary to expel evil spirits.

Here the devil is portrayed as a seven headed beast.

During the medieval period, belief in the existence of demons and their ability to possess individuals was widespread. The Catholic Church considered demonic possession to be a real and serious threat to the spiritual well-being of individuals and the community at large. Exorcism was seen as the prescribed remedy to rid the afflicted person of the demonic influence and restore their spiritual health.

A Nightmare Time

The process of exorcism typically involved several stages. First, the exorcist would evaluate the person’s condition to determine if their symptoms were indicative of demonic possession. Signs of possession included speaking in strange languages, exhibiting superhuman strength, displaying aversion to sacred objects, and experiencing convulsions or violent behaviour.

Once possession was confirmed, the exorcist would begin the ritual. The exorcism ceremony often took place in a church or other sacred space, with the person being restrained or held down by assistants. The exorcist would then recite specific prayers, invoke the power of God, and command the demon to leave the person’s body.

As it was widely believed the devil could take on any form artists showed him in many different guises .

The prayers and incantations used in exorcism rituals were derived from religious texts, such as the Bible, and were intended to invoke divine intervention and weaken the influence of the devil. The exorcist might also employ sacred objects, such as crucifixes or holy water, as tools to aid in the expulsion of the evil spirit.

Legacy of the Medieval Devil

The medieval perception of the devil has left a lasting impact on Western culture and religious traditions. The imagery and symbolism associated with the devil continue to influence art, literature, and popular culture. Even today, references to the devil, hell, and demonic entities are common in various forms of media, entertainment, and religious discourse.

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While the medieval understanding of the devil may differ from modern interpretations, the legacy of the medieval devil can still be seen in the collective consciousness. The devil remains a powerful symbol representing temptation, evil, and the consequences of straying from virtuous paths.

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Furthermore, the concept of Satan in medieval times had a profound influence on the development of religious and moral frameworks. It reinforced the belief in a cosmic battle between good and evil, encouraging individuals to lead righteous lives and seek redemption. The fear of the devil and the desire to avoid eternal damnation played a crucial role in shaping religious practices, morality, and social norms.


Moreover, the medieval perception of the devil contributed to the rise of witch trials and persecutions. In the late medieval period and the early modern era, countless individuals, mostly women, were accused of witchcraft and consorting with the devil. These accusations often stemmed from societal anxieties, superstitions, and religious fervour, leading to widespread witch hunts and brutal executions.

Paradise Lost
An Illustration of the devil from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

In contemporary times, while belief in the literal existence of the devil may have diminished, the symbolism and imagery associated with the devil still hold significant cultural and artistic value. The devil continues to be portrayed in various forms of media, literature, and artwork, serving as a metaphorical representation of human vices, moral corruption, and the struggle against temptation.

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In conclusion, the devil played a central role in the medieval understanding of good and evil, shaping religious beliefs, cultural narratives, and societal norms. The fear of the devil and the consequences of sin influenced the behaviour of individuals, while superstitions and folklore perpetuated the fascination with demonic entities.

The legacy of the medieval devil can still be seen in modern interpretations, as it continues to inspire artistic works and serve as a symbol of moral struggle and temptation.


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