Old Stories About the Devil


When the devil appeared to Cuvier, the great man looked at him nonchalantly and asked curtly: “What do you wish of me?” “I’ve come to eat you !” said the devil. But the great anatomist’s shrewd eye had already examined him. “Horns and hoofs !” he retorted, “granivorous. You can’t do it!” Whereupon, outfaced by science, Satan departed.


Plinius Secundus remembers a house at Athens which Athenodorus, the philosopher, hired, and which no man durst inhabit, for fear of the haunting devils. Hesperius, the tribune’s house, at Zubeda, near the city of Hippos, was also thus haunted; and he was so much vexed with these demons and ghosts that he could not rest.


Vasari, the Italian painter and biographer (d. 1574), tells the following strange tale of Spinello of Arezzo. When this artist had painted, in his famous fresco of the fall of the rebellious angels, the devil as a hideous demon and with seven heads about his body, the fiend came to him in the very bodily form he had conceived him, and asked the artist where he had seen him so, and why he had portrayed him in such a manner and put such a shame upon him? When Spinello came out of the vision, he was in a state of terror, and falling into a melancholy, soon died.


A mythical personage who originated in German folklore, was Friar Rusk. He was a fiendish looking creature who was really a devil, and kept monks and friars from leading a religious life. He was probably at one time a good natured imp like Robin Goodfellow, but under the influence of Christian superstition, he became the typical emissary from Satan who played tricks among men calculated to set them by the ears, and who sought by various devices, always amusing, to fit them for residence in his master’s dominions. (Tuckerman, “History of Prose Fiction.”)


Freischiitz, the free shooter, is a name given to a legendary huntsman who, by entering into a compact with the devil, procures balls six of which infallibly hit, however great the distance, while the seventh, or according to some of the versions, one of the seven, belongs to the devil, who directs it at his pleasure. Legends of this nature were rife among the troopers of Germany in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and during the Thirty Years’ War. The story first appeared in Apel’s “Ghost Book,” and was made known to all civilized countries by Weber’s opera in 1821.


Edward Alleyn, a famous actor of the times of Elizabeth and James I., was the founder of Dulwich college in 1619. The reason he left the stage and became religious, was because, one night when he was taking the part of the devil on the stage and dressed for it, he saw with his own eyes the devil himself appear before him and mock him. He soon after totally quitted his profession, and devoted the remainder of his life to religious exercises.


Once upon a time—tradition is never encumbered by dates—there lived at Mathafarn a person who went to law about some property. Not having heard any particulars as to the result of the case, which was tried in one of the supreme courts, he got so anxious that he sent his servant to London to make inquiries.

The servant left for the metropolis, and in four days he was seen coming back towards the house. His master, believing it to be impossible that he could travel the distance of about four hundred miles in such a short time, was very angry; so angry that he determined to shoot him for fooling him. However, he was persuaded to hear first what the man had to say.

The servant then came forward, and produced the papers belonging to the lawsuit and the money—his master had won the case. The latter now became more pleased than he was angry before, and presented his servant with a farm, called Cocshed, now rented at about £40 per annum. This story has been handed down by tradition as an instance of the friendly feeling which was supposed to have existed between the devil and some favored individuals.


It is told in the South Mountains, Pa., that the devil tried to get possession of a girl in this way: He had assumed the form of an old man, and when the girl came to the house of her granny, to be “made into a witch,” as in her silly head she fancied she wished to be, an old man came in and said: “So you wish to make a trade with me?” “Yes.”

“Then,” said he, “sit down on the floor, put one hand on the top of your head and the other under the soles of your feet and say, ‘All that is between my two hands belongs to the devil.’ ”

So the girl sat on the floor, did as she was bid, and said: “All that is between my two hands belongs to God!” At this unexpected termination, the old man gave a hideous howl and vanished.


There are two places on the Rhine where the father of lies still retains occupation. He has a devil’s house, in which he may be seen at night, drinking hot spiced wine with a long since deceased prince. This proper pair often issues forth at night after their orgies, and, disguised as monks, play tricks on the ferrymen and their boats on the river, so that when morning comes, there is no man at his right station, and every boat is drifting off to sea.


Following is a description of the chief of the evil spirits in Arabian legend, by Beckford, in his “Vathek.” Eblis seemed in person that of a young man whose noble and regular features seemed to have been tarnished by malignant vapors. In his large eyes appeared both pride and despair; his flowing hair retained some semblance to that of an angel of light. In his hand, which thunder had blasted, he swayed the iron scepter that caused monsters, afrits, and all the powers of the abyss to tremble.


In Arabia, the prince of the apostate angels is called Eblis, which means “despair,” and he was exiled to the infernal regions because he would not worship Adam at the command of the Almighty. He gave as his excuse that he was formed out of ethereal fire, while Adam was formed out of common clay; why then should not Adam worship him, and not he Adam? The Mohammedans say that at the birth of their prophet, the throne of Eblis was precipitated to the bottom of hell, and the idols of the Gentiles were overturned.


In the Basque legends collected by Rev. W. Webster, we find the following: A wealthy man once promised to give a poor gentleman and his wife a large sum of money if they would tell him the devil’s age. When the time came, the gentleman, at his wife’s suggestion, plunged first into a barrel of honey and then into a barrel of feathers. He then walked on all fours.

Presently up came his Satanic majesty and exclaimed: “X and x years have I lived,” naming the exact number, “yet I never saw an animal like this!” The gentleman had heard enough, and was able to answer the question without difficulty.


Ariel had his birth before Shakespeare made him an airy and tricksy spirit in the “Tempest,” for in the demonology of the Calaba he was a water-spirit, and in the fables of the Middle Ages a spirit of the air. Shakespeare represents him as having been a servant to Sycora, who, for some acts of disobedience, imprisoned him in the cleft of a pine tree, where he remained for twelve years, until released by Prospero. In gratitude for his deliverance, he became the willing messenger of Prospero, assuming any shape, or rendering himself invisible, in order to execute the commands of his master.


Authors distinguished for sense and talent record with great seriousness that the devil once delivered a course of lectures on magic at Salamanca, habited in a professor’s gown and wig; and that another time he took up house at Milan, lived there in great style, and assumed, rather imprudently one would say, the suspicious yet appropriate title of the “Duke of Mammon.”

Even Luther entertained similar notions about the fiend, and, in fact, thought so meanly of him as to believe that he could come by night and steal nuts, and that he cracked them against the bedposts, for the solacement of his monkey-like appetite. In the Wartburg, there is to this day shown a black mark in Luther’s room, which, as the guide will tell you, has been caused by Luther throwing his inkstand at the devil, when he ventured to annoy him while he was translating the Bible.


The powers ascribed to this debased demon were exceedingly great. The general belief was that, through his agency, storms at sea and land could at all seasons be raised; that crops could be blight«d and cattle injured; that bodily illness could be inflicted on any person who was the object of secret malice; that the dead could be raised to life.


Asmodeus, “the destroyer,” is a well known mythical character, the demon of vanity and dress. He is called in the Talmud the king of the devils. In the book of Tobit, Asmodeus falls in love with Sara, daughter of Raguel, and causes the death of seven successive husbands on the bridal night. Sara at last married Tobit, and Asmodeus was banished to Egypt by a charm made of the heart and liver of a fish burned on perfumed ashes.

It is said that Asmodeus gives the power to travel invisibly at night, and to go through stone walls, if need be, to see what the inhabitants of the world are doing. Such was the popularity of Lesage’s work about him, entitled “Le Diable Boiteux,” that two gallants fought a duel in a bookseller’s shop to see which should have the only copy left, an incident worthy to be recorded by Asmodeus himself!


In 1689, it was believed that men made contracts with the devil, in which he marked them with a mole on the body, and gave them the power to be rich, invulnerable to pain or death until a certain time, and full of magic powers. “The devil was accustomed to give to the breath of those in compact with him, a magic power that no maiden could resist. They became mad with love of him who possessed this gift, as soon as his breath had touched their nostrils.”

This practice seems to have been discovered in France, and was more particularly in vogue there. The faith in such practices and compacts of a base nature were firmly believed in during the seventeenth century. How widely diffused witchcraft then was, is evinced by the account of Raynald, who says: “In Germany and Italy especially, such numbers of men were reduced to sorcery that the whole earth was overflowed with it, and would have been laid waste by the devil had they not, in both countries, burnt some thirty thousand heretics.”


Cardan relates of his father, Facius Cardan, that after the accustomed solemnities on the 13th of August, 1491, “he conjured up seven devils in Greek apparel, about forty years of age, some ruddy of complexion and some pale, as he thought.

He asked them many questions, and they made ready answer that they were aerial devils, that they lived and died as men did, save that they were far longer lived, from seven hundred to eight hundred years. They did as much excel men in dignity as we do apes, and were as far excelled again by those who were above them. Our governors and keepers they are, moreover (which Plato in Critias delivered of old), and they rule themselves as well as us; and the spirits of the meaner sort had usually such offices as we give to our servants.

They knew all things, and we can no more apprehend their nature and functions than a horse can apprehend ours. The best kings among us and the most generous natures were not comparable to the meanest among them. Sometimes they did instruct men and communicate their skill, reward and cherish, and sometimes punish and terrify them to keep them in awe.”


Burton speaks, in his “Anatomy of Melancholy,” of subterranean devils being as common as the rest and doing as much harm. Munster says: “They are commonly seen about mines and metals, and there are six kinds of them. The metal men, in many places, account it good luck to see them, as it is a sign of good ore and treasure.

Georgius Agricola, in his book, reckons two more kinds, which he calls Getuli and Cobali, both are clothed after the manner of metal men and will many times imitate their works. Their office, as Pictorius and Paracelsus think, is to keep treasure in the earth, that it be not all at once revealed; and besides, Cicogana avers that they are the frequent cause of those horrible earthquakes, which often swallow up not only houses, but whole islands and cities.

The last are conversant about the center of the earth to torture souls of damned men to the day of judgment; the egress and regress are through Aetna, Lipari, Mons Hecla in Ice land, Vesuvius, and it is known by the many shrieks and fearful cries that are continually heard thereabouts, and familiar apparitions of dead men, ghosts and goblins.”


At a festival, called the Sitsubun, the Japanese have a curious ceremony of casting out devils. The caster out of devils wanders at night through the streets, crying: “Devils out, good fortune in!” and for a trifling fee, he performs his little exorcism in any house to which he is called. After that, dried peas are scattered about the house in four directions, and as devils hate dried peas, they fly away. Devils are also afraid of fishes’ heads and holly leaves. People carrying these cannot be possessed by them. (Lafcadio Hearn, “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.”)


Saint Epiphanius, a dogmatical bishop who lived in the fourth century, and who wrote a treatise against heresies, gives the following as an illustration of the cleverness of the devil, attributing the miracle to his power: “Among the Gnostics, an ancient Christian sect, in the celebration of their eucharist, the communion, three large vases of the finest and clearest crystal were brought among the congregation and filled with white wine. While the ceremony was going on in full view of everybody, this wine was instantaneously changed to blood-red, then to purple, and then to azure-blue.

When that was done, the priest handed one of the vases to a woman in the congregation and requested her to bless it. She did so, and the priest offered up the following prayer, at the same time pouring it into a very much larger vase than the one that contained it: ‘May the grace of God, which is above all inconceivable, inexplicable, fill thy inner man and augment the knowledge of Him within thee, sowing the grain of mustard seed in good ground.’ Whereupon the wine in the larger vase swelled and swelled until it ran over the brim!”


Pope John XXII. complains bitterly, in a bull of 1317, that a number of his own courtiers, and even his own physicians, had given themselves over to the devil and had conjured evil spirits into rings, looking-glasses, and circles, in order to influence men both at a distance and near at hand, as the sorcerers had little pictures in amulets and mirrors.

These crimes, resulting in many instances in various forms of devil-worship, terrible orgies, and human sacrifices, rose to such an ascendency that the excellent Chancellor Gerson in the year 1398, published twenty-seven articles against sorcery, superstition, and pictures in glasses and stones of demons and spirits. Somewhat later, the persecution of the supposed sorcerers and witches resulted in wholesale burnings at the stake.

One of the most notorious sorcerers of that time was the fiendish “were-wolf” Gilles de Retz, Marshal of France, who boasted, in his confession prior to his execution in Nantes (1440), that he had destroyed one hundred and sixty children, and as many expectant mothers with their unborn.

He had kidnapped or enticed them to one or the other of his castles, where he sacrificed them as victims to his unnatural lust and sorceries, indulging in the most infamous orgies, which he held in connection with devil-worship. Gilles de Retz has been made the subject of many romances, such as A. Dumas’ “Les Louves de Machecoul”; S. R. Crockett’s “The Black Douglas,” etc.

“Were-wolves” are, according to mediaeval superstition, persons who became voluntarily or unvoluntarily wolves, and in that form practiced cannibalism. BaringGould has made this the study of a very interesting volume, entitled, “Book of the Were-Wolves.”


During the seventeenth century, the belief in witchcraft, fairies, apparitions, charms, and every other species of supernatural agency, was universal in Britain, both among high and low, clergy as well as laity. So ill instructed were the people in the art of tracing events to simple causes, that there appears to have been a continual liability to ascribe occurrences to the direct influence of good or evil spirits, but particularly to the devil.

“Give me leave,” says a respectable writer of that age, “here to relate a passage which I received from a person of quality, namely, it was believed, and that not without good cause, that Cromwell, the same morning that he defeated the king’s army at Worcester fight, had conference personally with the devil, with whom he made a. contract, that to have his will then, and in all things else for seven years after that time (being the 3rd of September, 1651), he should, at the expiration of the said years, have him at his command, to do at his pleasure both with his soul and body.

Now, if anyone will please to reckon from the 3rd of September, 1651, till the 3rd of September, 1658, he shall find it to a day just seven years, and no more, at the end whereof he died; but with such extremity of tempestuous weather that was by all men judged to be prodigious.” Such is a specimen of the egregious fallacies which passed for sound argument among our ancestors.


In Scotland, where religion assumed the garb of gloom and fanaticism, a belief in the personal appearance of devils was universal in the seventeenth century, and continued among the vulgar till within the last fifty years. The narrations of Satan’s mean pranks, in assaulting ministers, waylaying travelers, and disturbing families while at worship, would fill a large volume. In the Rev. Mr. Robert Law’s “Memorials of Memorable Things, from 1638 to 1684,” we find the following entry:


“October, 1670.—There was a devil that troubled a house in Keppoch, within a mile of Glasgow, for the matter of eight days tyme (but disappeared again), in casting pots, and droping stones from the roof, yet not hurting any, like that which appeared in the west, in a weaver’s house, a good man, about fourteen years agoe, which did the lyke, and spoke to them audibly.”

The tricks of the devil here referred to, as having taken place in a weaver’s house in the west, about the year 1656, and which were implicitly believed by the most learned clergy of the time, are related at great length by Mr. George Sinclair, professor of philosophy in the College of Glasgow, in his work, “Satan’s Invisible World Discovered.”

The alleged events occurred at Glenluce, in Wigtonshire, and would be too contemptible for quotation if it were not desirable to show what paltry tricks were played off, and believed to be supernatural in those days. The family of the weaver, being vexed with noises and appearances, send for the neighboring clergyman to allay the devil, between whom and the worthy man a dialogue takes place, from which we extract a few passages:

“The minister returned back a little, and standing upon the floor, the devil said, ‘I knew not these scriptures till my father taught me them.’ Then the minister conjured him to tell whence he was. The foul fiend replied, ‘That he was an evil spirit come from the bottomless pit of hell to vex this house, and that Satan was his father.’

And presently there appeared a naked hand, and an arm from the elbow down, beating upon the floor till the house did shake again, and also he uttered a most fearful and loud cry, saying, ‘Come up, my father—come up. I will send my father among you; see, there he is behind your backs !’

Then the minister said, ‘I saw, indeed, a hand and an arm, when the stroke was given and heard.’ The devil said to him, ‘Saw you that? It was not my hand, it was my father’s; my hand is more black in the loof (palm). Would you see me,’ says the foul thief, ‘put out the candle, and I shall come butt the house (into the outer room) among you like fire-balls,'” etc.

The visit of the minister was unavailing.

About this time the devil began with new assaults; and taking the ready meat which was in the house, did sometimes hide it in holes by the door-posts, and at other times hid it under the beds, and sometimes among the bed-clothes and under the linens, and at last did carry it quite away, till nothing was left there save bread and water.

The good wife, one morning making porridge for the children’s breakfast, had the wooden plate, wherein the meal lay, snatched from her quickly. ‘Well !’ says she, ‘let me have my plate again.’ Whereupon it came flying at her, without any skaith done.” Any further extract from this ridiculous, though at one time universally believed, narrative, would be unnecessary. A modern police officer would have effectually relieved “the afflicted family” by instantly discovering the performer of the tricks and taking him into custody. (Chambers’ Information for the People.)

Found in:
Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences

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