The primitive dualist view of gods and spirits

The evil deity known as the Devil is not universal, but certain characteristics of his can be found in the gods of every religion. Some of these are iconographic similarities, others relate to the god’s function within the mythos.

To understand the emergence of the Devil as the personification of evil, it is necessary to consider the divine personages in world religions who prefigured him.

In general, a demon may be defined as a malicious spirit who does harm to human beings. In this sense, demons have been recognized since the time of the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians.

Most gods in so-called “primitive” religions are morally neutral manifestations of Ultimate Reality. In polytheistic systems, even the most powerful, “king” gods are subordinate to the single, impersonal divine principle.

There is often little or no differentiation among the gods along the lines of good and evil; better, each divinity is capable of either good or bad, as the mood takes him. This moral ambivalence explains the existence of good and evil without resorting to a heavenly schism, in which each individual god takes a character of good or evil.

Belief in supernatural spirits has not been limited to the major Western religions. In the preliterate societies of Africa, Oceania, Asia, and the Americas, spirits were thought to inhabit the whole natural world. These spirits could act either for good or for evil, and so there was no division between them as there has been between angels and demons.

When these lines of demarcation were made, they were usually the result of political upheaval, as Margaret Murray explains:

“The idea of dividing the Power Beyond into two, one good and one evil, belongs to an advanced and sophisticated religion. In the more primitive cults the deity is in himself the author of all, whether good or bad. The monotheism of early religions is very marked, each little settlement or group of settlements having its one deity, male or female, whose power was co-terminous with that of its worshippers. Polytheism appears to have arisen with the amalgamation of tribes, each with its own deity. When a tribe whose deity was male coalesced with a tribe whose deity was female, the union of the peoples was symbolized by the marriage of their gods. When by peaceful infiltration a new god ousted an old one, he was said to be the son of his predecessor. But when the invasion was warlike the conquering deity was invested with all good attributes while the god of the vanquished took a lower place and was regarded by the conquerors as the producer of evil, and was consequently often more feared than their own legitimate deity. In ancient Egypt the fall from the position of a high god to that of a “devil” is well exemplified in the god Setekh [Seth or Set], who in early times was as much a giver of all good as Osiris, but later was so execrated that, except in the city of his special cult, his name and image were rigorously destroyed.*”

* As the peoples of the arid Upper Egypt, worshippers of Seth, were united with the Nile-dwelling adherents to Osiris and Horus, it was necessary for some resolution of the religious conflict to take place. In some places, the divine twins Horus and Seth were worshipped together as one god with two heads. However, Seth eventually came to be regarded as inferior and evil but remained a representation of the monistic divine principle. The latter solution better explained the continual conflict between the forces of good and evil, and so foreshadowed later dualistic religious systems.