The Devil in the Details

In History, Theology
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O Furcifer- no, Lucifer I mean-
How art thou fall’n! fall’n from the starry sphere!
Kick’d from the presence of the King and Queen-
From Burgundy, from Claret, to small beer.[1. Peter Pindar, Out at Last!]

I stumbled upon this verse from Peter Pindar, (the pen name of the 18th century satirist John Wolcot) concerning the resignation of William Pitt as Prime Minister of Great Britain, occasioned by the former’s disagreement with King George III over Catholic Emancipation following the unification of Great Britain and Ireland.

Wolcot was not inclined to mince words, and in this particular passage he makes a tremendously witty play-on.

Furcifer in Latin refers to scoundrel or a rogue, and as Wolcot had no love for Pitt, such an appellation has its obvious appeal. (Furcifer is also the genus name for chameleons from furcafork– referring to their forked feet. One wonders if a double meaning is meant here? Politicians are often quite chameleon-like…)

Not content to leave it at that, Wolcot rises even higher, employing the rhyme to compare Pitt to Lucifer. Not simply a rogue, Pitt (who had a streaking rise to power) is nefarious as the devil, his fall from office parallels the expulsion from Heaven of Satan and his angels, relegated to the trivialities of the lower realms. (small beer indeed!)

Lucifer gets a bad rap. The word/name conjures up the foul demon, attended by the sulphuric emanations of the netherworld. In popular conception Lucifer is simply an alternate name for Satan, interchangeable for all intents and purposes. After all, not many parents name their kids after the Prince of Darkness.

Well, at least not any more.

During the Arian controversies of the 4th century St. Athansius found a defender in one Lucifer, bishop of Cagliari. Like Wolcot, he was not ever faulted for conciliatory language. His writings in defense of Athanasius were so full of invective that he brought exile upon himself. Later he and Athanasius would butt heads when he did not agree with Athanasius’ propensity for allowing Arians who repented to be restored to communion. (the nerve!)

Despite his fiery tongue, he was locally renowned for his piety and holiness. (Although St. Jerome was not one of his biggest fans…)

Much of the English speaking world owes its idea of Lucifer as a no-good, very bad name at least partially to the Bible, more specifically the King James Version. In Isaiah 14:12 we read:

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning ! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!

The rendering here (which is sometimes followed by later English editions, sometimes not) is the result of a sort of long and complicated etymological/theological history.

Into which, naturally, I will descend with spectacular aplomb.


Lucifer is a Latin word that essentially means light-bearer. (Lux being Latin for light and ferre Latin for to carry.) In the ancient world the lucifer was the morning star, more specifically the planet Venus. Of course, Venus was also prominent as a figure in mythology, sometimes the more familiar female, but also male. Poets such as Ovid describe Venus/Lucifer as beautiful, the brightest of the host of heaven, but shrouded in a gloomy aspect and melancholy.

So Ovid:

His father was unequalled Lucifer, star of the Morning, who at dawn brings forth Aurora, and withdraws the last of all the shining stars of heaven.

Lucifer was dim past recognition when the dawn appeared and, since he never could depart from heaven, soon hid his grieving countenance in clouds.[2.Ovid, Metamophoses Book 11]

As such, for Christians within the Greco-Roman world of the first few centuries A.D., the term lucifer was not necessarily impregnated with the idea of Satan. It was a cosmological phenomenon, a god/goddess, or an idiom for the brightest of the stars.

It is therefore not entirely surprising that the term lucifer is used as an appellation of Jesus. In 2 Peter 1:19 we read:

And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

In the Vulgate morning star rises is rendered lucifer oriatur. (The whole notion of orientum I have looked at here.) As such, lucifer is used both of a prideful fall of a morning star in Isaiah and of Jesus as the morning star in 2 Peter.

Of course, the Latin is from whence we get lucifer, but what about the Greek and Hebrew from which the Latin is translated?

Lucifer is the Latin rendering of the Hebrew helel ben Shahar, (helel) which essentially means son of the morning and was used of the morning star. (planet Venus) Lucifer is also the rendering of the Greek phosphorus, which means essentially the same as helel. Heosphorus (essentially synonymous with phosphorus) was used in the Septuagint for helel and both are rendered as lucifer by St. Jerome in the Vulgate.

Thus, in reference to the fallen morning star in Isaiah 14:12 Jerome uses lucifer and does the same in 2 Peter 1:19, idiomatically referring to Christ. Of course, phosphorus was not the only way of referring to the morning star; in Revelation 22:16 the phrase aster lampro o proino is used for the morning star, which Jerome translates as stella splendida et matutina. (bright and morning star)

Circumlocution for circumlocution!

Early Interpretation

Interestingly, the identification of Satan with the figure in Isaiah 14 had begun at least a century before Jerome’s time. Tertullian, writing in the late 2nd century, says this:

A simpler answer I shall find ready to hand in interpreting “the god of this world” of the devil, who once said, as the prophet describes him: “I will be like the Most High; I will exalt my throne in the clouds.” The whole superstition, indeed, of this world has got into his hands, so that he blinds effectually the hearts of unbelievers, and of none more than the apostate Marcion’s.

It is important to note that Tertullian does not say or even imply that the devil’s name is Lucifer. In fact, for Tertullian- being a Roman and eloquent Latinist- such a misunderstanding would be impossible. Amusingly enough, in another work concerning the meanings of the names of the Aeons he says this:

Here I really must bring in a relevant story since these names deserve it. There was once in the schools at Carthage a cer-tain dull Latin orator named Phosphorus. When he was de-claiming the role of a military man he said, “I have returned to you noble citizens from battle accompanied by my Lady Vic-tory, by your Lady Joy, along with Nobility, Glory, Luck, Heroism, and Triumph.” Immediately the students shouted Hooray! to Phosphorus’ family. [3. Mark T. Riley, Q. S. FL. TERTULLIANI ADVERSUS VALENTINIANOS TEXT, TRANSLATION, AND COMMENTARY]

His point being, of course, that the names are referring to abstractions rather than existent beings like Aeons. (It is also a barbed shot at his previous teacher whose empty rhetoric was devoid of the light of dialectic that should characterize good rhetoric. Ah, satirists everywhere!)

Nevertheless, Tertullian is the first extant example of linking the figure of the devil with the passage in Isaiah 14. The idea of the fall of the devil and his angels was a biblical concept preceding this, (Revelation 12:7-9) and St. Paul goes so far as to say the devil masquerades as an angel of light. (2 Corinthians 11:14)

Now, the grammatical-historical approach to Isaiah 14 (and its likeness in Ezekiel 28) in and of itself does not suggest any relation to the devil. We read:

How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, (lucifer) son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
You said in your heart,
I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
to the depths of the pit.

While the language over-reaches that of which mortals are capable, humans have nothing if not a propensity for over-reaching. Additionally, the poetic and hyperbolic nature of the texts is not uncommon in reference to kings. However, there is another layer at play here.

In the ancient near east the Babylonians had deities based upon astral phenomenon. Like most gods of this period, these deities were considered to be manifested in the objects that signified them. The terms used in this passage are names of Babylonian deities- Helel (the morning star) and Shahar. (the dawn)[4. Dennis Bratcher, “Lucifer” in Isaiah 14:12-17] I’m not entirely convinced both deities are intended here, since this could just as easily be a manifestation (ha!) of parallelism, the fundamental characteristic of Hebrew poetry.

It is also worth noting that in the same way that Tertullian centuries later recognized that deities/aeons were represented by the names of their manifestations, (e.g., Nous/Mind) so the writers and readers of this period did the same. Kings in the ancient near east were often closely identified with the deities, so a prophetic refrain against a pagan king was as much against the deity he represented.

As far as I have been able to gather, it is impossible to know how much of this connotation survived into the Christian period. However, even in the Greco-Roman society the morning star was closely related to deity, as we have seen. (Phosphorus/Lucifer = Morning Star)

However, within the Christian conception of the world the gods no longer existed; if they did, they were more considered to be demons. The ultimate understanding, however it got parsed, was that God was the sole ground of divinity, all lesser beings (including the gods/demons) were finally created beings along with all of creation, no matter how powerful they may be.

As the spiritual world was understood as having a hierarchy of sorts, (see Colossians 1:16 and later Dionysius the Areopagite) even the fallen angels had a pecking order. The devil- Satan- was seen as the head of the fallen angels. (per Revelation 12:7-9)

Since the early church did not have the same grammatical-historical approach that characterizes much of biblical scholarship in the past couple centuries, biblical passages were not understood to be exhausted by their grammatical-historical content. Rather, the idea (already employed in the New Testament as well as by the earlier Jewish commentators) continued to be developed that the scriptures were polyvalent, having different levels and senses of meaning.

As such, the passage in Isaiah was literally about a Babylonian king, but its meaning could be deeper and more extensive. Indeed, knowing what we do about the relation of ancient kings to their national deities, such a meaning is more than warranted.

In this way the church could see in this king a sort of archetype of rebellion against God, the personification of a heart/will unwilling to submit to God’s will. Given both the temptation of Adam and Eve to pride, (in their attempt at being independent of God) the devil masking himself as an angel of light and the passage in Wisdom 2:24-25 about the onset of sin in the world, (But by the envy of the devil, death came into the world: And they follow him that are of his side.) it is hardly inconceivable that the early church would have seen this passage as preeminently describing the pride and fall of Satan.

English Usage

Yet for all that the name Lucifer had not yet stuck. Had it done so, it would have been nigh inconceivable that St. Jerome would have used lucifer to describe the morning star rising in the hearts of believers.

Later Christian commentators would follow Tertullian in associating lucifer in Isaiah 14 with Satan, with the caveat that lucifer is not a proper name but rather a reference to a state from which he has fallen. [5. Petavius, De Angelis, III, iii, 4]

As late as the 8th century the understanding of lucifer as the name of the devil was not still yet clear. We find in the Exultet (which is the hymn of praise sung during the Easter Vigil) this line:

May the Morning Star which never sets
find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star,
who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all mankind,
your Son, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

In the Latin of the text Morning Star is, of course, rendered as lucifer. Clearly the meaning of morning star had the priority, since that is all it meant in Latin. Even today the Exultet is still used, thus lucifer is still used in reference to Christ.

It seems that the linking of lucifer to Satan as a proper name (even though Satan itself isn’t even a proper name) is a relatively recent phenomenon, perhaps unique to English.

In Old English (c. 1000 AD) the term lucifer essentially retained its Latin meaning as morning star, specifically referring to Venus. It retained this meaning through Middle English and even into the Modern English period. Of course, using Lucifer as a proper name of Satan started to pop up in the Middle English period as well- Wycliffe is known to have used it in both senses.

The Geneva Bible of 1560 (which influenced the KJV) essentially transliterated lucifer into the English text, with a marginal note that indicates the morning starre, that goeth before the sun, is called lucifer.

The King James Version translators followed the Geneva Bible both in using lucifer and in noting in the margin that it could be alternately rendered O day-starre.

Even as late as the writing of Paradise Lost in 1667 Milton was quite clearly using Lucifer as a play-on. The name-title Lucifer isn’t even employed until Book V where we read:

So spake the Son; but Satan, with his powers,
Far was advanced on winged speed; an host
Innumerable as the stars of night,
Or stars of morning, dew-drops, which the sun
Impearls on every leaf and every flower…

…At length into the limits of the north
They came; and Satan to his royal seat
High on a hill, far blazing, as a mount
Raised on a mount, with pyramids and towers
From diamond quarries hewn, and rocks of gold;
The palace of great Lucifer, (so call
That structure in the dialect of men
Interpreted,)[6. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book V]

Clearly Milton intends to connect the fallen angels (host innumerable as the stars of morning) with the royal seat blazing in gold and reflected light, the palace of great Lucifer… The parenthetical even goes on to describe this use of Lucifer.

In Book VII Milton gets even more explicit:

Know then, that, after Lucifer from Heaven
(So call him, brighter once amidst the host
Of angels, than that star the stars among,)
Fell with his flaming legions through the deep
Into his place…[7. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book VII]

Finally in Book X we find:

Through the gate,
Wide open and unguarded, Satan passed,
And all about found desolate; for those,
Appointed to sit there, had left their charge,
Flown to the upper world; the rest were all
Far to the inland retired, about the walls
Of Pandemonium; city and proud seat
Of Lucifer, so by allusion called
Of that bright star to Satan paragoned;[8. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book X]

Even in the 19th century the term lucifer was still used to refer to bringing light rather than the devil; friction matches developed in 1827 by John Walker were often sold in 1830 under the name of Lucifers. In what has to be one of the most delicious ironies of linguistic history, these lucifers contained no phosphorus.[9. M.F. Crass, A History of the Match Industry]


So we wind our way back to the beginning. As an accident of history and linguistics no one names their children Lucifer any more, even though they may wish them to shine as bright as the morning star.

In the end a lucifer can blaze spectacularly bright and can fall with just as much spectacle. I suppose it’s ultimately not about how radiantly you shine, but whether you stay that way. A lucifer can light up the world, but it can also blind you into darkness. Milton’s Lucifer should have the final say:

Fall’n Cherube, to be weak is miserable
Doing or Suffering: but of this be sure,
To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from their destin’d aim.[10. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I]


That’s the real devil in the details.




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