Otherwise Known As: Demons, Fiends, Imps, Hellions
Minions of: Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, etc.
Commonly Featured In: Film, TV, & Cartoons
Out of all my reviews past and future, this one will likely be the most opinionated of the bunch. Devils, as I have come to know them in modern media and in classical storytelling, are an entirely different species from that of The Devil. That is to say that devils may have a remarkable likeness to the one whom is often entitled as The Devil (most commonly either Lucifer or Satan) they are akin to comparing a common housecat to a lion. There are similarities to be sure but only one of them can truly spell your doom whilst another needs an entire pack.
Or is it a cabal of devils… Flock perhaps? Blast, that’s going to bug me for weeks now….
Anyway, devils, as I believe them to be, are more akin to the likes of such creatures as imps, fiends, and even hellions. There was a story I had read where an interesting comparison was made between devils and demons. It stated that devils were the lesser evil, devious instead of outright malicious, mischievous instead outright harmful, and tolerable instead of outright blasphemous.
They are at the very bottom of the totem pole of demonic prowess and prestige, minions and lackeys to the demons and lords whom rule over them. They do not commit the same evils as demons but whisper, trick, and outright entice humans to do so. A devil may bestow luck and fortune to whomever may manage to best them but there is almost always a catch to it, by the person’s own folly or by the dues owed to the devil in turn.
This actually got me to thinking of the few though not exceptionally rare instances in fiction, televised media or the written word, where devils were featured instead of The Devil. One of the most fitting examples I’ve ever found of devils that does not portray them as being nearly human save for demonic powers and attributes was in a production done by the master puppeteer himself Jim Henson.
In the late 1980’s there was an Emmy award winning program that Jim Henson served on as executive producer called The StoryTeller, which, as the name might imply, was a series which focused on European folk tales. However, rather than following the trend of using the most popular and well recognized stories, Jim Henson opted to use the most obscure ones he could find and boy did he deliver in the premiere episode of the series based on a Russian folktale, “The Soldier and Death.”
While I’ve supplied the link to watch the episode for yourself, I will still speak briefly on the part the devils play in the overall story. A soldier, returning home from a two decade long war with nothing but a sack and three biscuits, meets with three beggars to whom he gives the biscuits.
Each beggar in return gives him a gift of their own, giving the soldier a ruby whistle, as in literally whistling to a near gemlike quality, the ability to dance the jolliest of dances, and the last man gives him a magical pack of playing and a sack that has the power to trap anything that is ordered into it.
The soldier eventually arrives in a town where he hears that devils have overrun an abandoned castle. He goes to the castle and awaits for their arrival upon the stroke of midnight and the devils arrive in hellish glee. He offers them a game of cards to which the devils may take what they want from him should they win, be it his immortal soul, his whistling, or even his teeth. The devils in turn offer up forty barrels of gold should he win.
Of course, with the magical deck of cards, the soldier easily wins against the devils despite most of them cheating “to High Heaven and Low Hell to no avail” and watching him for similar tricks. Angered at their loss, they attempt to kill the soldier who bids them to enter the sack. Having captured them, the soldier takes the sack outside and, I kid you not, proceeds to beat the hell right out of the devils until he demands the end of their mischief and their return back to Hell. The devils agree and hastily fly back to the Black Gates but for one whom the soldier grabs by the cloven hoof.
The devil begs for the soldier to release him but the soldier refuses until the devil swears to serve him faithfully and the devil does so. Upon replying that the soldier will hold the devil to his promise, the devil’s foot pops off and remains in the grip of the soldier to hold as leverage until he has need of the devil.
Years pass by and the soldier has made a fortune and a name for himself and it isn’t until the soldier’s young son falls deathly ill that he has need of the devil he caught in a promise of servitude. Upon being promised the return of his foot and freedom from his servitude, the devil gives the soldier a small glass goblet that allows him to see Death.
If Death is at the foot of a person’s bed, they will recover if sprinkled with water from the goblet. If Death is at the head of the bed, nothing can be done. Fortunately for the soldier, Death sits at the foot of his son’s bed. Unfortunately, such is not the case for the ruling Tzar who hears the tales of the soldier who can stave the hands of Death.
The soldier, ever the patriot, bargains his life for that of the Tzar with Death who takes the Tzar’s illness and places it upon the soldier. However, the soldier is not so ready to succumb to Death as he takes up the sack and captures Death. This however has the consequence of stopping death across the entirety of the world and as time goes on, more and more people who are waiting for death that will not come to them gather outside the grounds of the soldier whom captured Death in a sack.
The soldier, realizing the horrors of his crimes, offers his life first to Death before freeing him and setting the world right again. Death, in his imprisonment, had become afraid of the soldier and his sack to such a degree that he flees from the soldier and refuses to take him. He had become condemned with immortality, to watch as others, including his own family, aged and died in front of him.
Being unable to stand the torture of everlasting life, the soldier traveled to the edge of the world and down to the Black Gates of Hell itself where he was met by the gatekeepers, the very devils whom he had won fortune and fame from and though they don’t recognize the soldier, they do recognize the sack he’s carrying and they refuse to allow him to enter Hell. They demand that he leaves but he refuses to go until he is given a map to Heaven and two hundred souls that Hell has no further use for.
Upon arriving at the Pearled Gates of Heaven, the soldier is met by a lone gatekeeper who allows the entry of the souls but not of the soldier. In desperation, the soldier gives one of the souls the sack that had captured Death and asks for the soul to command he enter the sack once the soul passes to Heaven proper.
Unfortunately for the soldier, there is no memory in Heaven, souls forget the agonies they’ve endured in life and such a formerly damned soul had much to forget and so the soldier wanders still to this day, to find an end to a long and cursed existence.
From this and many other tales, I’ve come to surmise that devils are dealmakers and mischief-makers. Oh yes, they are damnable creatures but it is not they who revel in the seven sins of mankind but they do not force or coerce us into committing them. They trick, they lure, and they even unwittingly lead an innocent soul to damnation. Take a look at the soldier for example.
He won gold from them fair and square and though they tried to kill them, he merely captured and beat them before setting all but one of them free. Even that one lone devil treated him with a surprising level of respect, calling him “sir” and “excellency.” That lone devil gave the soldier the means of seeing and staying Death’s hand but it was the soldier himself who used it with his sack to capture Death.
In more recent times, it is far more common to think of The Devil rather than devils, but it is still a popular costume choice for the holidays. There is a vast variety of speculation and reasoning behind this. As for me, I like to think of it as a way to truly disguise our selves whilst being the most revealing of our true selves. For most if not the entirety of the year, we act and behave as we dictated to act by society and generally a good conscience but on one night of the year, we can don a mask and be as we imagine ourselves to be.
To let the devils inside loose for one, lone night…