The Horny Devil

Medieval society regarded the devil as a constant threat waiting to exploit the smallest of human weaknesses, offering temptations of wealth, power, and sexual gratification to those who lacking them, further urging every imaginable type of crime to be committed. The devil was believed an immediate presence, apt to appear instantly whenever his name was mentioned. Feared by everyone, people were reluctant to mention the devil’s name, referring to him instead as Old Nick, not to provoke dark and evil forces. The adjective ‘old’ stemmed from a time when referring to someone as old denoted great respect for their maturity. Thus, by speaking of Old Nick, or the closely related term, Old Harry, it was sincerely hoped that the devil was favourably humoured.

In the expression, ‘there’ll be the dickens to pay’, the devil is cleverly referred to with a euphemism by only using his initial. Shakespeare alluded to the devil in this way in his Merry Wives of Windsor when Mrs. Page says: ‘I cannot tell, what the dickens his name is’.88 The saying that someone will have ‘the devil to pay’ derives from a time when it was believed that to gain wealth or enjoy earthly pleasures meant that a bargain first had to be made with the devil.

In folk tales and fairy tales, the devil is often depicted as rather stupid and easily outwitted by clever tricks. In medieval art, literature, and philosophy, the devil was a familiar figure, depicted as ugly, evil-smelling, and often with goatish attributes such as horns, tail, and cloven hooves. Although it was thought he could partly transform himself into various shapes, he could not change his cloven hooves, which always identified him and singled him out at every appearance. These characteristics were derived from the first theological definition of the devil, composed in graphic detail by the early church fathers. It dates to the Council of Toledo in 447 CE. Here, the devil was described as a black, monstrous apparition with horns on his head, cloven hooves, an immense phallus, and an unpleasant sulphurous smell surrounding him.

The typical features of the devil, with cloven hooves, tail, and horns, come from the most ancient descriptions of a demon. An ancient Syrian mythological text, stemming from Ugarit, tells how the god El was once terrified by the appearance of a demon with ‘two horns and a tail’. In Hindu, Buddhist, and Persian mythology, evil powers are also frequently represented as horned. 

Another explanation for the representation of the devil with cloven hooves might have originated from rabbinical writings in which the devil was called seirizzim, meaning ‘goat’. The Jewish scapegoat ritual also tended to connect the goat with evil. This association is strengthened in the Matthew Gospel,89 which relates Jesus likening the righteous to sheep and the wicked to goats that will be condemned to ‘everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels’.

The descriptive definition of the devil by Christian church fathers at the Council of Toledo was probably influenced, not only by the scriptures, but also by the various pagan cults prevalent in the Roman Empire at the time. Greek and Roman horned gods might have become prototypes for the later conception of the Christian devil, surviving through the principle of henotheism in which the old gods became demonised in the new religion. 

Judging from the confessions of those accused of witchcraft and subsequent pictures drawn by artists, the devil often looked remarkably like the half-man, half-goat, Greek god, Pan, depicted with cloven hooves, goat’s horns, and a beard. Christianity represented the devil as a creature as lascivious as the goat. In ancient Greece, Pan was worshipped with great reverence as the god of flocks, herds, and pastures, in charge of reproduction. The horned Pan was an amorous god linked with fruitfulness, as his chief function was to make flocks fertile, a function of great importance when livestock formed the basis of subsistence. The goat’s love of copulation explains why sexually aroused people are often referred to as being horny. Interestingly, the association of horns with fertility accounts for the metaphoric use of ‘horn’ for phallus found in the Old Testament,90 as well as the worldwide consumption of powdered horn as an aphrodisiac. Therefore, the half-man, half-goat devil of European folklore is often still referred to as ‘Old Horny’.


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