Athanasius believed all of the traditional ideas regarding the Devil. He accepted Origen’s “Lucifer Hypothesis” entirely, interpreting both Isaiah 14:12-17 and Ezekiel 28:11-19 to be references to the fall of Satan from heaven. He also accepted Origen’s privation theology, and held that evil had no real, substantive existence. It is the result of the abuse of the power of free choice, and resides only in the will. But the non-being of Athanasius differs somewhat from that of Origen. It is a “real” nothingness, ruled over by a crafty and malevolent power.
The Devil of Athanasius and Anthony is literal, real, and palpable, and their theology adds an anthropomorphic dimension heretofore unseen. As the ruler of this present evil world he controls the cosmological comings and goings of the human soul.
“The Devil, the enemy of our race, having fallen from heaven, wanders about our lower atmosphere, and there bearing rule over his fellow spirits, as his peers in disobedience, not only works illusions, but tries to hinder them that are going up …”
Both theologians conceived of him as a huge giant living in the lower atmosphere, where he used his evil power to prevent the ascension of souls to Heaven. Anthony saw this exact scenario in one of his many visions of the Devil.
“He beheld one standing and reaching to the clouds, tall, hideous, and fearful, and others ascending as though they were winged. And the figure stretched forth his hands, and some of those who were ascending were stayed by him, while others … escaped heavenward.”
This acute realism, in which the Devil and his demons can be seen, felt, and communicated with, will dominate Christian theology for centuries. It is important, therefore, for us to understand the source of this new orthodoxy. The life of Anthony, solitary ascetic, provides a perfect example of the development of the new demonology. According to Edward Gibbon, Anthony was an illiterate youth from the lower parts of Thebais. Called by God to the life of the anchorite he “distributed his patrimony, deserted his family and native home, and executed his monastic penance with original and intrepid fanaticism.” Anthony’s faith was based entirely on non-material values. His flight from the materialistic world of Egypt to the desert, the traditional place of burial, symbolized his death to materialism. Here he practiced a rigid asceticism, subjecting himself to prolonged isolation, food and sleep deprivation, and the mortification of the flesh. He wore a garment of hair, and never, never washed.
These dubious practices yielded an increased psychic activity, and produced visions and trances in which Anthony was often confronted by the forces of evil. The Devil, ever the shape-shifter, appeared to him as a lion, a bear, a leopard, a bull, a serpent, a scorpion, and a wolf – all angry and raging and bent on his destruction. He also appeared to Anthony as human/animal composites, “like a man to the thighs but having the legs of an ass.” Sometimes he took the shape of a woman to tempt him. At other times, he took the shape of a giant man.
“Once someone knocked at the door of my cell, and going forth I saw one who seemed of great size and tall …. [he said] I am Satan.”
Sometimes Anthony saw “visions.” Sometimes he saw “real” things. It is said that the other monks often heard these encounters, “as it were crowds within his cave clamoring, dinning, sending forth piteous voices and crying, ‘Go from what is ours.’ As a defense against these Satanic visits Anthony increased the severity of his abstinence, lengthened his night vigils, and slept on the cold ground. This, of course, only increased his psychic sensibilities.
Anthony was firmly persuaded that the very air he breathed was peopled with invisible enemies, innumerable demons who watched every occasion and assumed every form. They, too, are shape- shifters, “taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things, gigantic bodies, and troops of soldiers.” They can also imitate musical instruments and the human voice. They din, laugh madly, and whistle. These creatures often attacked Anthony, and once “so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain.”
Athanasius’ “Life of Anthony” is filled from beginning to end with the grossest superstition, and its’ stories of visions, clairvoyance, and miracles are clearly the product of a fetid imagination deceived by the illusions resulting from a dis-tempered fanaticism. Nevertheless, the fourth century theologians almost universally accepted them as accurate descriptions of the Devil and his demons. After Anthony, the anthropomorphic transformation of the Evil One into a physical entity will become commonplace, and his tales will add detail color, and dimension to the emerging Satanic personality. The addition of this corporeal nature to the Orthodox concept of the Devil will result in an intensely threatening and emotional immediacy hitherto unknown.
These stories of Anthony’s struggles with the demon world fanned the flames of the emerging monastic movement, and the pagan practices of asceticism he so fervently espoused would soon dominate the Christian world. This new theological orthodoxy, coupled with monastic asceticism and pagan magical practices, would produce the Byzantine demonology that would eventually dominate the era.
Conceived in an entirely anthropomorphic manner, these “shape-shifters” were believed to haunt the entire world. Their primary mission is to attack the saints, assaulting them physically and spiritually through dreams, hallucinations, and visions. They caused disease, natural disasters, vice, and sorcery. Only God can protect us, through the sign of the cross and the invocation of the Name. As the reader can readily see, the theology of the Devil has entered another dimension.