Despite being the literal embodiment of evil, Satan is a surprisingly likeable character. Often charming and always compelling, people’s fascination with the unholy one isn’t going away any time soon.
Being the sole cause and root of all evil allows that evil to be interpreted in so many different ways and many have put their own spin on the big red guy.
Literary Lucifers have changed drastically over the centuries. From classic tomes to graphic novels, here are 9 of the most iconic devil portrayals in literature.
Paradise Lost – John Milton
Satan is unequivocally the most interesting and dynamic character in Paradise Lost. In this epic retelling of the biblical events, Milton devotes an incredible amount of lines to the devil himself, to the point where many readers view him as the story’s hero.
This is perhaps the first depiction of the devil as someone you can empathise with. He’s a pitiable character, especially towards the end, as we see how far he falls. Once the highest ranking angel with the ambition to challenge God himself, by the end he’s reduced to skulking around Adam and Eve like a stalker, consumed with jealousy that they have God’s love.
It’s difficult to see him as irredeemably evil because of how human he feels. He’s a multidimensional character and surprisingly rational. At the same time, he clearly revels in being evil. He’s constantly manipulating anyone he can, including his fellow fallen angels. He knows he’s beyond redemption and embraces his own damnation.
Inferno – Dante Alighieri
The Lucifer in Inferno is called Dis, in reference to the Roman god of the underworld. Trapped waist-deep in a frozen lake at the very bottom of the ninth circle of Hell, this version shows him being as much of a victim of Hell as the other damned souls. Far from running the show, he’s just another prisoner.
In contrast with some of the more human portrayals on the list, Dis’ true form is colossal and beast-like. His appearance is monstrous, with great tufts of fur and six huge, bat-like wings. He has three faces (thought by many to be a mockery of the holy trinity), each of which are eternally gnawing on the souls of Judas, Brutus and Cassius. He’s also constantly weeping from his six eyes.
Unlike most depictions of the devil, Dis is associated with extreme cold instead of fire. His lake is frozen and the beating of his wings creates an icy wind that is felt throughout all the other circles of hell.
Doctor Faustus – Christopher Marlowe
In this retelling of the classic German legend Faust, the curious scholar Faustus first tries his hand at magic, only to end up summoning the demon Mephistopheles, a servant and representative of Satan.
He’s surprisingly matter of fact about the subject of selling one’s soul, laying out the terms and conditions like it’s a contract. He promises his servitude, untold knowledge and unlimited wealth on the condition that, after 24 years, Faustus’ soul will belong to his master.
Rather than terrifying people into submission, as the devil usually did around this time period, Mephistopheles instead persuades and cajoles. Whenever Faustus thinks about going back on his deal and seeking redemption from God, Mephistopheles is there to threaten or deftly distract him with shiny new powers.
Mephistopheles is a complex character, whose motives seem conflicted. Although he clearly wants to get his hands on Faustus’ soul, he makes no secret of the horrors of Hell and is open about his own misery and how much he suffers as a damned spirit.
The Mysterious Stranger – Mark Twain
The Mysterious Stranger was pieced together from several unfinished drafts that Twain left behind after his death. Much darker than his previous works, the novel is a weird, bleak tale of the futility of humanity.
In this story, Satan (sometimes called No. 44 for some reason) appears as a teenage boy, claiming to be Satan’s nephew and an angel. While at first he and his magical powers seem fairly benign, we soon see a more sinister side to him.
This Satan is cold and callous and demonstrates nothing but contempt for human life. In an attempt to show the protagonists that life is futile and convert them to his own nihilistic world view, he magically transports them around the world, showing them crime, disease, witch burnings and mass hysteria.
There was also a creepy claymation version of the story, which is seriously disturbing for a kid’s show. Check it out if you don’t plan on sleeping ever again.
The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
Set in 1920s Moscow, this novel has Satan take the guise of the mysterious foreigner Professor Woland. While human in form, his appearance changes depending on who’s seeing him. Supposedly a professor of theatre, he’s accompanied by a fantastical troupe of satanic performers, including a vampiric hitman, a naked witch and a giant talking cat named Behemoth.
Their arrival in the city sees him and his cohorts turn the soviet bureaucracy upside down, specifically targeting the corrupt literary and theatrical elite. What starts as a magic show soon reveals the material greed within society, whilst also satirising the suppression and hypocrisy entrenched in soviet life.
Later in the novel, Woland preys on the titular Margarita, mistress to the Master. He forces her to host a lavish midnight ball and, in a very Faustian exchange, offers her the chance to become a witch in exchange for her lover’s freedom.
The Sandman – Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel The Sandman shows us a devil who has grown bored of running hell and is sick of all the stereotypes about his job – so he ups and takes a lengthy retirement on Earth. With Hell officially closed down, Lucifer decides to hang out in LA as the owner of a piano bar.
Inspired by the Satan of Paradise Lost, Lucifer Morningstar is arrogant yet tragic. His rebellion and expulsion from heaven stems from a yearning for independence, as he views God as a tyrannical dictator.
A modern-day twist on the concept of the devil, this Lucifer is cool, seductive and sophisticated. Gaiman insisted on him resembling a late-80s David Bowie and he’s often depicted with blonde hair, a sharp suit and a martini in one hand.
Even though he was only a side character in The Sandman, his character stole the show, spawning his own solo series Lucifer.
The Wicked + The Divine – Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
The premise of this graphic novel is pretty high concept: every 90 years, a pantheon of 12 gods are awoken in human bodies. This time around, the gods take the form of pop stars who perform to adoring fans.
Female interpretations of the devil are quite hard to come by and this is sadly the only one on the list. A rebellious teenager, Lucifer (or Luci, as she likes to be known) loves causing destruction and has an affinity for all things fiery, particularly cigarettes and explosions. She has a strong desire to be the centre of attention and relishes performing on stage.
The whole graphic novel’s style is beautiful, but her character’s design is particularly striking. With shorn platinum hair and a white suit, Luci’s appearance is decidedly androgynous and was also inspired by David Bowie in his Thin White Duke era (what is it with Bowie and Satan?).
Spanky – Christopher Fowler
A miserable young man in a dead-end job, Martyn is unsatisfied with his life until one day in a nightclub he meets Spanky. Claiming to be a demon, Spanky is a swaggering mixture of cheeky charm and sleaze who immediately befriends Martyn and sets about improving his life in every way. From new clothes and hairstyle to better confidence and a new girlfriend, Spanky insists he wants nothing in return for it. However, as he gradually takes over his life, Martyn finally becomes aware of the true price of happiness.
In this comedic, tongue-in-cheek take on the Faustian pact, Spanky is definitely the true star of the novel, and it’s hard not to root for him to win as he takes advantage of Martyn’s naivety. He’s cunning, bloodthirsty and charming enough to get away with it.
The History of the Devil – Clive Barker
In this play, Satan is depressed. He’s lovesick, he misses his wings, his beauty, and even misses God. He asks for a trial, and appeals to Heaven in the hopes of them letting him back. What follows is a court case that moves through time and space, with a jury of ghosts considering the question, “Has the devil been the instigator of misery and depredation in human history, or merely a passive observer and collector?”
The jury is shown dozens of tragic events throughout time and must decide whether they think Satan engineered them or if they were the fault of humanity’s free will. It doesn’t take long for Satan to get up to his old tricks though, even in court. He attempts to rig the jury through persuasion, seduction and even murder, to the point where you wonder if he even wants to get back into Heaven. Despite this, he’s still portrayed as an oddly sympathetic character who simply can’t help himself.