Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Devil You Say! A Book Review of “The Prince of Darkness: the Devil in History, Religion and the Human Psyche” by Joan O’Grady.

The devil always seemed to me to be a made up bogeyman, whose rubber mask started to slip as soon as you looked too closely. I never gave much though to Satanism except when some redneck yelled at me for being a Satanist because I carrying a Darth Maul backpack. (No lie, I was dressed conservatively that day when I got bailed up by some weirdo for having a ‘demon’ on my bag – that’s Illinois for you).

I was dimly aware of the various modern Satanist denominations – the Order of Perdition etc… The commonest themes of these are that pleasure is not sinful if it does not harm to others (borrowed from paganism?) and that there is no God or afterlife, only ourselves (unabashed atheism). These groups are a mix of hedonism, religious libertarianism and wry satire – in allowing themselves to be consistently misunderstood. Others worship more literal devils in various black, white and grey shades.

It was with this in mind that I picked up ‘The Prince of Darkness’ to try and take a longer, straighter view of the devil without as much embedded doctrine as is to be found in tomes like the Satanic Bible. What I found made me realise how enduring the image of the Dark Prince is, across cultures and times – and how informed and sophisticated some modern Satanists are in drawing on these enduring beliefs for their own purposes.

O’Grady deals with ancient Satanic beliefs briefly but clearly before taking a fascinating journey from the advent of the New Testament to modern literature and psychology. Each chapter is seeded with insights. For example in Chapter Four, which takes us from the Desert Fathers to the Scholastics, we see that the Devil has a complex role even within the Christian Church. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote “Evil is the price to be paid for a non-static cosmos.” That is just as the ‘death’ tarot card has the real meaning of change and transformation, the ‘devil’ (struggle) is necessary for us to experience change and growth.

The main difference between the message of O’Grady’s book and the message of the modern Satanists is one of perspective. O’Grady describes how Christianity tends to assert that all evil flows from humans (and angels) misusing their free will and valuing themselves (sin and egotism). O’Grady quotes a story told by the ancient Persian poet Farid-Ud-Din Attar, where the devil says to Moses “Remember this one lesson… Never say ‘I’; otherwise you will find yourself in the same condition I am.”

Satanism claims that “I am mine own God” – and that the Devil was “the first individual - the first being to acquire consciousness and perceive itself as something not separate, but unique in the cosmos.” For them hedonism and individuality is the path to growth, not the primrose path to hell. In this age of self-esteem and rugged individualism, it is strange and enlightening to considered that Satanism may indeed by the more ‘modern’ of the two religions…

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