Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has spent 20 years charting the strange career of a fallen angel.

Not too many people would want to spend 20 years with the Devil, but historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has. And after writing five books on the Evil One, he says he is ready to move on.

An early scholarly interest in the history of heresy led Russell to an interest in medieval witchcraft, which has led him to his most recent preoccupation. Russell, who teaches at the University of California-Santa Barbara, set out to write a single book on the history of the concept of the Devil, but ended up writing five (all published by Cornell University Press). The first four covered the periods from antiquity to the New Testament (The Devil), the early Christian tradition (Satan), the Middle Ages (Lucifer), and the modern world (Mephistopheles). The Prince of Darkness, released in 1988, is a more popular treatment that summarizes and “corrects” the history covered in the preceding four books.

CHRISTIANITY TODAY talked to Russell to get an idea about how the church has formed its ideas about the Devil and how these have changed over the centuries. Russell, who describes himself as a traditional and ecumenical Christian, keeps an open mind about the exact nature of the Devil, but takes him very seriously.

Does the Devil have horns?

The typical iconography of the Devil has him as a tall, saturnine figure dressed in red with horns, cloven feet, and a tail, with a sinister expression on his face, and sometimes holding a trident or a fork. The horns are an ancient symbol of power associated with gods and goddesses throughout the ancient Middle East. They represent power, fertility, and growth, and are associated with fertility cults.

A tail and the ...

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