IN EASTERN ICONS, such as the traditional representation of the Gergasene demoniacs, demons are often portrayed as little winged black men. In the medieval art of the West the horned, bat-winged and fork-tailed red giant was the most popular representation of the devil. What is the origin of these images and what do they actually represent?
Any representation of a demon in iconography, whether Western or Eastern, is an attempt to interpret Scriptural teaching. The imagery itself is not found in Scripture but strives to graphically depict a Biblical doctrine. Physical depictions of non-physical realities, however, are always doomed to fail. This is why in our Tradition depicting the Father or the Holy Spirit in human form is considered inappropriate since they were not incarnate. Icons of Christ, on the other hand, are considered so important because they point to the truth of His incarnation: that he actually became human to join His nature to ours.
One artistic convention frequently employed in images of demons is the use of wings. This device “interprets” the Scriptural image of Satan as a fallen angel. As the Lord Himself said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Since “everyone knows” that angels have wings, artists assumed that fallen angels have wings too.
Does Size Matter?
The size of demons in icons or other images is a commentary on the power of Satan as understood by the artist and, ultimately by his Church. Medieval artists in the West often depicted Satan as larger than other figures in their paintings. They were interpreting Christ’s description of Satan as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31) and St Paul’s characterization of him as “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). A being of such power was in their eyes larger than life.
But Christ had said that, as a result of His passion, “the ruler of this world will be cast out” (John 12:31). Thus in the Eastern icon of Pascha Satan is not depicted as a superman but as a colorless corpse bound in chains, defeated by the sacrifice of Christ. This image illustrates the teaching on Christ’s victory on the cross, “that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” (Hebrews 2:14). This is also why our Great Saturday liturgy puts these words in Satan’s mouth: “My power has been swallowed up! … Death’s power has lost its strength.”
In Eastern icons Satan and demons are regularly depicted as insignificant pests: tiny black creatures futilely attacking man. This illustrates the term for Satan used in all the Gospels, Beelzebub (see Matthew 12:24, Mark 3:22 and Luke 11:18). This is a satiric parody of the Canaanite title for their god meaning “Lord of the princes.” The Jewish parody used in the Gospels, “Lord of the flies,” points to the trivial nature of Satan before Christ’s power – little more than a gnat.
Demons in the Scriptures
The Old Testament presents Satan or the devil as “the Accuser” (in Hebrew, ha satan; Greek, ho diabolos) who accuses or slanders people and thus incites them to sin. He is depicted as a tempter, a persuader who convinces people to choose other than godly ways to live. When his influence spreads among the influential figures in society, an entire culture can be perverted. But Satan cannot force anyone to comply with his ways; we can always reject his temptations.
Old Testament-era Jews also came to speak of other diabolical figures in addition to Satan. The devil had his minions, angels who fell with him and who sought to drag people down with them. As the New Testament Book of Revelation describes it: “So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (Revelation 12:9).
By the first and second centuries bc belief in demons active in Israel had become common in popular Judaism. Deliverance from demons was an important part of the ministry of Christ in the Gospels and of the apostles in Acts. It is assumed today that many of the people in the Gospel accounts believed to have a demon were actually afflicted with some form of psychosis. This does not explain the absence of demonic possession in Jewish writings before Christ. Could it be that the coming of the Messiah prompted a last ditch effort of Satan and his angels to assert power?
Jesus became quickly known as a healer and exorcist, confronting physical maladies and the assault of demons: “Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them” (Matthew 4:24).
Jesus sent His disciples out to preach the kingdom of God and gave them authority over demons: “He gave them power over
unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease” (Matthew 10:1). They continued to exercise this power even after Pentecost (see Acts 8:7; 16:16ff.).
The Church has continued to exercise this power over unclean spirits. The second- century apologist St Justin the Philosopher told a Jewish acquaintance named Trypho that “now we, who believe in our Lord Jesus, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, when we exorcise all demons and evil spirits, have them subjected to us” (Dialogue with Trypho, 76.6).
By the third century it was common that people entering the Church through baptism first be freed from the power of any unclean spirits. In our Byzantine ritual today four prayers of exorcism are part of the reception of a catechumen, calling on Satan to “Depart, and admit the vanity of your power which could not even control the swine.” When blessing water, oil or sacred vessels or when consecrating churches, the bishop or priest first prays that the influence of unclean spirits be averted from this place or object.
Our sacramental books also include prayers to deliver people from unclean spirits. In many places use of these prayers is on the increase as a result of people becoming involved with occult practices, thus opening themselves to influence by unclean spirits. A Coptic priest, Fr Sama’an Ibrahim, conducts prayers of deliverance weekly in his church carved into the rock of Moqattam Mountain, home of Cairo’s garbage collectors. Most of those who fill the 2000-seat church seeking deliverance are Muslims, says Father Ibrahim. “Christians rarely get possessed, because they are baptized young.”
First Exorcism of St. Basil the Great
O God of gods and Lord of lords, Creator of the fiery spirits and Artificer of the invisible powers, of all things heavenly and earthly: You whom no man has seen nor is able to see; You whom all creation fears and before whom it trembles; You who cast into the darkness of the abyss of Tartaros the angels who fell away with him who once was commander of the angelic host, who disobeyed You and haughtily refused to serve You: now expel by Your awesome name the evil one and his legions loose upon the earth, Lucifer and those with him who fell from above. Set him to flight and command him and his demons to depart completely. Let no harm come to them who are sealed in Your image and let those who are sealed receive power “to tread on serpents and scorpions and all the power of the enemy.” For You do we praise and magnify, and with every breath do we glorify Your all-holy name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.