Devas and devils

lusthaus at lusthaus at
Mon May 6 07:39:20 UTC 1996

Martin Gansten writes:
>I'm sorry, but I still fail to see the evidence of connection between the
>two sets of words. I know about the ambiguity of "deva" and "asura", of
>course, but how can it be shown that "deva" is related to "diabolos" -- and
>what about the "l" element? "Deva" *is* generally considered to have Greek
>relations, e.g. "dios" = "divine", but I never heard "diabolos" suggested

You are asking for the moment of conversion or conflation between daiwa
(Iranian devils) and diabolos? For that matter, when did Greek daemons
(nice, wholesome spiritual beings or conditions) become demons? The
evidence for daiva => devil, if there is any, lies, I would think, in the
semantic sphere. It is the Iranian gift to world religions to envision the
entire cosmos as a battleground between two nearly equally matched forces,
one side of light and goodness, and the other of darkness and evil. While
the early Church sometimes labeled the more blatant borrowings of this
theme by Christians as a Manichean heresy, any visit to a
fire-and-brimstone preacher in the US Bible Belt indicates that this heresy
has hardly disappeared.

The Greek daemons were not devils, and the Greeks certainly had nothing
comparable to THE devil. Neither did the Hebrews (more on that in a
second). The Greek gods themselves could be capricious (hence rarely purely
good or purely evil), and for the Greeks even the Gods were subject to
moira (lit. "partitions", fate), which impersonally meted out misfortune
(or good fortune) with a sense of justice (though the Greeks seemed more
drawn toward the tragic aspects of moira). The source for the idea of THE
devil, along with his band of devils, seems to be clearly of Iranian
origin. The word, I submit, traveled with the idea. If it was hellenized
with a play on a false cognate that resonated with Greek speakers, so much
the more potent.

> Of course, if there is evidence of use of this word [diabolos] in
>pre-(Judeo)Christian Greek, there would seem to be a case for the "deva"

I don't know if it appears prior to Hellenistic writings, nor if it appears
in the Septuagint (does anyone have a Septuagint or Septuagint concordance
to check?), or where it first appears. Philo (De somn. 141-142; De gigant.
6-9) equates the Greek Daemons with Jewish angels [which themselves seem to
be of Iranian origin], and Plutarch (1st-2nd century CE) explicitly cites
the "orient" as a key source for his demonology.

I think we can agree that the idea of devils came West from Iran. The issue
we are disputing is whether the term came with it.

>As for Hebrew scriptures, to my knowledge "diabolos" is supposed to be a
>Greek translation of Hebrew "satan" (or whatever the correct transliteration
>may be), meaning "adversary, enemy, prosecutor" and mentioned at least in
>the book of Job.

Since this is an Indology list, and not Biblical_Scripture-L, allow me to
respond briefly.

The word SaTan (letters: sin + tet + nun) and derivatives are found in the
Hebrew Scriptures, but most often as a verb meaning "to challenge, to
impede the progress of, to turn aside, deviate from one's course." In most
of those instances the Western language translations leave unremarked and
unnoticeable the fact that SaTaN is the term being used. Its root is SaT
[Hebrew is not related to Sanskrit!] meaning "to go astray, deviate, rebel"
[that last meaning being derivative of later theological developments], and
it is related to such words as SaTaN (identical spelling) meaning "hatred,
animosity", ShaTaT "rover, ranger, wanderer", and ShaTYaH "fool".

An examination of the Biblical passages where it occurs suggests the
meanings of the term SaTaN developed something like this:

1. to try to force something to deviate from its course; God uses the verb
re: Himself and the angel he sends to "deviate" or "block" Balaam and his
ass (Deut. 22.22 and 22.32).

2. any sort of misfortune or bad luck, at some point related to stellar
events, such as the morning star (e.g., Lucifer - who also is not
originally a "devil", in Heb. Ko.HaV NoNaH 'bright star' and later AYeLeth
HaSha.HaR 'leader of the darkness').

3. Anyone who verbally challenges, speaks ill of good things (leading to
misfortune), or leads people away from God by slandering Him. Acting as an

4. the personification of the maker of bad luck [who is still not THE Devil].

The Hebrew term SaTan occurs only in these passages: Deut. (see above);
Samuel I 29:4; Sam II 19:23; Kings I 5:18; 11:14, 23, 25; Chronicles I
11:1; Psalms 38:21, 71:13, 109:4, 6, 20, 29; Zechariah 3:1; and 6 times in
Job. If you check these passages, most will not (at least in the English
versions) indicate that Satan is the word in use. Cf. Ezra 4:6 and Gen.

Exposition of these passages must await another time and occasion. Once you
check them you'll see that only in the post-Exilic writings (e.g.
Zachariah) do we have even the slightest foreshadowing of what Satan comes
to mean for Christians, i.e., it's an idea gradually imported from Iran
during the post-exilic period.

If the "devilization" of daemons and Satan qua diabolos is my own idea, so
be it, though I don't believe it is.

Dan Lusthaus
Macalester College

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