But who prays for Satan? Who in eighteen centuries has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most? —Mark Twain
Whole episodes of history may very well hinge on a letter—a capital letter that completely altered the understanding of the word it began and signaled a theological shift and an attendant cosmological revision. Before we can appreciate the ramifications of this upper-case letter, however, we need a thorough grounding in our subject: the Devil. To start with, Lucifer and Satan are not different names for the same supernatural being; they’re not even related.
Up to and well into the fourth century CE, Lucifer was a perfectly acceptable name for a Latin-speaking Christian boy. In fact, a rather zealous bishop of Cagliari who died in 371 was named Lucifer Calaritanus.
Virgil, writing in the first century BCE, mentions Lucifer in his Georgics [I, 324–5]:
Luciferi primo cum sidere frigida rura
carpamus, dum mane novum, dum gramina canent
Let us hurry when the Morning Star first appears,
To the cool pastures, while the day is new, while the grass is dewy
Lucifer is also mentioned in this passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
Aurora, watcher of the rosy dawn, opened the crimson portals and the courtways all full of roses, and the stars were gone, whom Lucifer, last of all to leave Heaven, marshaled along their way. [2. 112 ff pps. 31–32, Humphries]
Clearly these are not the images we usually associate with the Prince of Darkness. Here Lucifer merely designates the morning star—perfectly acceptable in any pastoral, Roman or otherwise.
The Hollywoodesque plot we’ve all come to know, starring a comely but rebellious archangel, is nowhere to be found in the entire Bible. Instead, what we uncover in the evolution of Lucifer and his conflation with Satan is a good deal of misinterpretation, misinformation, and flat-out fabrication on the part of church fathers, saints, and poets. It’s the story of how an entertaining fiction triumphed over rather sparse “facts”—the facts in this case being the original version of Satan as set down in the Old Testament and to some extent the New.
We can begin with the translation of the Old Testament into Greek around 200 BCE, a version now known as the Septuagint. Jewish scholars assigned to the task came across this phrase in Isaiah 14:12: Helel ben Shahar. Shahar was the Canaanite god of dawn (to this day, the word in Arabic for dawn is sahar) and Helel, the morning star, was his son. In Greek this phrase became Heosphoros ho proi anatellon. Heosphoros, or Dawn-Bringer, is a variant of Phosphorus, Light-Bringer. (If things had fallen out only slightly differently, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a contemporary preacher to exhort his congregation to “Beware the snares and wicked ways of Phosphorus!”) At the writing of the Septuagint, then, nowhere in any Bible on earth could the name Lucifer be found.
Lucifer didn’t put in a biblical appearance until the fourth century CE, when Saint Jerome, translating the Good Book into Latin (a version now known as the Vulgate), had to deal with the same sticky phrase about Dawn and his son. With a copy of the Septuagint to hand, he solved the problem in precisely the same way: while Heosphoros/Phosphorus was a minor Greek god, Lucifer was a minor Roman divinity who was indeed the son of Dawn. A seamless fit.
But here we run into a deeper problem: The passage in Isaiah, which Christians almost uniformly believe is about Satan, actually refers not to a rebellious angel but to a king of Babylon. Scholars don’t much debate this because you don’t really need to be a scholar to figure it out. Isaiah, exulting over the imminent death of the tyrannical king in question (possibly Nebuchadnezzar himself), tells the Israelites in 14:4 “you will take up this proverb against the king of Babylon.” The “proverb” is more of a poem, and Isaiah states quite unambiguously that it is leveled against a human king who had pretensions to godhood. In 14:13 Isaiah says (in the modernized King James version) “For you have said in your heart: I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God.” An angel wouldn’t need to ascend to heaven; he would already be (or have been) there. Nor, a few lines later, do angels become worm food: “the maggot is spread under you, and worms cover you.” [14:11] That’s a fate reserved for mortals.
Admittedly, 14:13 seems to contradict the previous verse: “How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” This, the only sentence in all of Isaiah that can possibly fit in with the much later Christian version of Lucifer, is of course a metaphor. Kings in antiquity were often compared to celestial bodies as well as to gods. In case there’s still doubt, in 14:16 Isaiah writes, “Those who see you will gaze at you … saying: ‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms, who made the world as a wilderness and destroyed its cities …?’” Again, a man, not an angel, is being reproached for what men have done since the Bronze Age: instigate wars and decimate cities.
One more point: Isaiah, rebuking the same king, says, now that you’re gone, the cypress trees rejoice over you, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, “Since you were cut down, no hewer has come against us.” In The Old Enemy, a landmark study of Satan and satanic figures, Neil Forsyth points out that this is precisely what ancient Near Eastern emperors were guilty of—felling forests. Nebuchadnezzar brags about it at length:
I made the Arahtu float down and carry to Marduk, my king, mighty cedars, high and strong, of precious beauty, of excellent dark quality, the abundant yield of Lebanon, as if they were reed stalks carried by the river. [p. 139]
It hardly seems likely, therefore, that Isaiah is scolding the second most powerful being in the universe for cutting down too many trees. Although there are more such arguments to be drawn from Isaiah, this should clinch it. Lucifer/Helel is decidedly not Satan; rather, a king was being compared, in his former glory, to the morning star. This interpretation was borne out hundreds of years later in the Eastern Roman Empire, where emperors were still compared to the morning star. A clear example of this is the coronation in 968 of Emperor Nikephorus II, which was attended by Liutprand, bishop of Cremona. He reported to his master, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, the greeting sung to Nikephorus (“Bringer of Victory,” incidentally) as he arrived in the Cathedral of Saint Sophia:
Behold the morning star approaches, Dawn rises; he reflects in his glances the rays of the sun—he the pale death of the Saracens, Nikephorus the ruler. [Liutprand of Cremona: Report of his Mission to Constantinople, introduction, Henderson translation]
Aside from the passage in Isaiah, there is one other Old Testament passage, Ezekiel 28:12-19, which seems to lend credence to a once-beautiful, now-fallen angel.
You were the seal of perfection […] you were the guardian cherub, you were on the holy mountain of God, you were flawless in your ways from the day you were created until iniquity was found in you [… and] I threw you from the mountain of God.
It sounds like a cozy fit with the common conception of Satan—except that right at the beginning of the chapter, God, speaking through Ezekiel, clearly states that he is talking about the king of Tyre: “Because your heart is lifted up, and you say, ‘I am a god …’ yet you are a man and not a god.”
That’s fairly unequivocal. But God has more to say: “You have gained riches for yourself and gathered gold and silver into your treasuries.” Herein lies the king’s iniquity: “By the abundance of your trading, you became filled with violence within, and you sinned.”
It’s hard to imagine that Satan’s sins boil down to raking in too many shekels on his exports.
So if there was never any Lucifer in the Old Testament, who was Satan?
This is the first installment of a four-part article; the next installment is here.
Vincent Czyz received an MA in comparative literature from Columbia University, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers University. He is the author of the collection Adrift in a Vanishing City and the novel The Christos Mosaic, and is the recipient of the 1994 Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for Short Fiction. His short stories and essays have appeared in Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, New England Review, Boston Review, and many other publications.