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”Summer a fine time to study Satan”

26 April 2018

Natalie Lantz and Petter Spjut inspect a “demon catcher”, used to drive away Satan with spells. “Items bearing spells of the same type are still sold to this day,” says Natalie Lantz.

The course Satan in the History of Ideas, new this year, is already one of Uppsala University’s most popular summer courses in terms of applicant numbers. But what is the attraction of a course on Satan at the height of the holiday season? To learn more, we talked to Natalie Lantz and Petter Spjut, who initiated the course.

What is the course about?
“As the name suggests, it provides a background in the history of ideas about the Satan figure from the 4th century BCE until the 7th century CE. We think it was during this period that the figure of Satan came to be represented with a great many of the attributes and features we associate with Satan today,” says Petter Spjut, a PhD student in biblical studies.

Another doctoral student in the same subject area, Natalie Lantz, says: “We’re going to focus on the social history of the Satan concept, how the Devil is represented, what guises he adopts and the social contexts where he enters and assumes a particular role.”

Why do you offer this course?
“It’s a tremendously exciting period, and we think studying the Satan figure as such tends to attract a bit of extra attention. It’s an intriguing subject and you can learn a lot about ancient history into the bargain. But it’s also an important course because of the rhetoric we encounter in the ancient sources. For instance, there are stories about the early Christians being accused of engaging in cannibalistic activities (devouring infants), having promiscuous sex and things like that when they meet. It’s very reminiscent a lot of the satanic feasts that other groups were accused of later in history,” says Spjut.

What are your initial sources?
“To see how the Satan figure emerges in antiquity, we start with the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance. A fun example in the Scrolls is the ‘community rule’ explaining the source of evil. God has created a wicked spirit and a good one, and the two battle for domination of humankind. So it’s clear that the battle between good and evil goes on both outside and inside people. Then in Jewish literature, we can follow a consolidation of the theme of the two opposing forces fighting to control us.

“But there are many more stories about Satan in the Scrolls. For example, they mention a cosmic war between the powers of Satan and those of the good angels. There’s quite a lot of action in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Lantz relates.

Do Christian and Jewish writings diverge in their representation of Satan?
“Yes, you could say they do, although there are many similarities. As Christianity emerges and becomes a major religion, there’s a polarisation attempt in Jewish literature to distance itself from the Christian image of Satan. And in Jewish writings Satan doesn’t get the prominent role we see in Christian literature,” says Lantz.

Does Satan’s rhetoric persist today?
“Yes. Spells are one example. They were inscribed on ‘demon catchers’ to capture or ward off Satan and his demons. These are still extant today. [CJ1] For example, amulets with spells corresponding to those on the demon catchers are sold in the Old City of Jerusalem. And in Middle Eastern and North African cultures t’s common to hang up a hamsa (“Hand of Fatimah”) on one’s front door for protection against forces of evil,” says Lantz.

“Satan, par excellence, embodies ‘the other’; and we want to highlight this both to look into the past and because, perhaps, it can teach us something about the present. In particular, the rhetoric and social use of Satan have by no means disappeared. It’s used, for instance, by the Yazidis, a Kurdish religious group that has suffered severe persecution. A similar rhetoric associating the Yazidis with Satan is used today to legitimise the persecution and outlaw them as a religious group,” says Spjut.

But why hold a course about Satan in the summer?
“It’s a great time to study Satan, surely!” Spjut laughs. “But the real reason’s that we consider this Satan course an excellent complement to social science, humanities and certain natural science subjects. So we think having it as a summer course is a good way of reaching a lot of students in various subject areas,” says Spjut.

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Facts

Satan in the History of Ideas
Held in the summer, Satan in the History of Ideas is a part-time distance learning course developed by Natalie Lantz and Petter Spjut, both doctoral students in biblical studies at the Department of Theology.

Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls are manuscripts found in the Qumrān, on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, between 1947 and 1956. The Scrolls date from 250 BCE to 68 CE. They contain both the earliest known manuscripts of biblical texts and writings attributed by the researchers to the Essenes, an ancient Jewish group [CJ2] in Palestine, near the Dead Sea.

Hamsa or Hand of Fatimah
This is a Jewish and Muslim symbol believed to afford good luck and protection against the evil eye. In Judaism, the symbol is often called hamsa (meaning “five”), referring to the palm or five fingers of the hand. In Islam, the symbol is also called the ‘Hand of Fatimah’; Fatimah was the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter.

Yazidis
The Yazidis are a Kurdish religious group of Middle Eastern origin. Traditionally, they follow the religion of Yazidism, which has elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, for example. Many Yazidis have emigrated to Europe because of the oppressive situation in Turkey and Syria.

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