Mixing in Diabolical Circles

On Language

By Philologos

Published October 06, 2010, issue of October 15, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Jack Rosenthal of Mamaroneck, N.Y., writes to me about the Satanic image of the Jew in medieval Christian culture and, specifically, about the words “Mephistopheles” and “Satan.” “Satan,” of course, comes from the Bible, most familiarly from the Book of Job, and Mr. Rosenthal proposes a Hebrew etymology for “Mephistopheles,” as well. This he does by linking it to the words mefitz-tofel, “spreader-smearer [of lies].”

Sulphur and Spandex: Sir Henry Irving dressed as Mephistopheles in 1885
Sulphur and Spandex: Sir Henry Irving dressed as Mephistopheles in 1885

This is not a very supportable theory. Not only does the combination mefitz-tofel occur in no known Hebrew text, but the real derivation of “Mephistopheles” is hardly a mystery. True, the standard dictionaries treat it as one, telling us only that the name first appears in the anonymously authored late 16th-century German Faustbuch, an early version of the story of the man who sold his soul to the devil that is better known from Goethe’s “Faust.” Yet the actual etymology of Mephistopheles is staring the reader of these same dictionaries in the face — quite literally so, because in any good dictionary, the word directly following Mephistopheles is “mephitic,” defined as “noxious” or “offensive to the smell.”

“Mephitic” comes from the name of the ancient Samnite goddess Mephitis. The Samnites, or inhabitants of Samnium, were neighbors of the early Romans, and Mephitis was believed by them to preside over the underworld and over the foul exhalations erupting from it in bogs and lakes. There were temples built in her honor, and she is mentioned in classical literature. The author of the Faustbuch, guided by the common association of the devil with the underworld and sulfurous smells, clearly changed her name to Mephisto and added to it a suffix echoing Greek philos, “friend [of].” (It is Mephitis, incidentally, who has also given us the scientific name of the common striped skunk, mephitis mephitis.)

As for Hebrew satan, there have been two different explanations of its origins. The generally accepted one — correctly so, in my opinion — traces it to the Hebrew verbal root s-t-n, meaning “to oppose” or be adversarial and closely related to the root s-t-m, to hate. This is how the ancient rabbis understood it and how it was understood by the Bible’s first translators, those of the Greek Septuagint, who rendered satan as diabolos, “slanderer” or “accuser,” from the Greek verb diabalein, “to speak evil of someone.” It is from here, via Latin, that we get the English word “devil.”

At the same time, a minority opinion has preferred to connect satan with the root sh-u-t, meaning “to roam,” a word found in the devil’s answer to God’s query of “Whence comest thou?” in Job’s opening chapter — viz., “From roaming [mi’shut] the earth and roving about it.” The first to advance this view was apparently the 18th-century Dutch scholar Albert Schultens, who thought that the satan or “roamer” was an angel commissioned by God to circulate among men and report on their misdeeds. Though I myself find little to recommend it, Schultens’s etymology has been taken seriously by two of modern Hebrew’s leading lexicographers, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Avraham Even-Shoshan, both of whom propose it as a possibility in their dictionaries.

What is less clear, I think, is whether the word satan in the Book of Job is a proper name or an ordinary noun — that is, whether the book’s author conceived of Job’s accuser as a unique figure named Satan or as an anonymous spirit, one of many, whose job it was to keep God informed of suspicious happenings on earth. This is not a question that can be answered by biblical grammar. On the one hand, this figure is referred to by the Book of Job not as satan, but as ha-satan, “the satan,” and Hebrew is not a language like Greek or German, in which proper names can take the definite article. On the other hand, however, if we interpret satan not as a given name but as an epithet or nickname, like “the Terrible [One]” in “Ivan the Terrible,” there is no reason for ha- not to precede it. Hebrew does not have capital letters, but if it did, we might rephrase the question as follows: Is Job’s accuser “the slanderer,” an unfriendly or envious angel who has taken on himself the task of denouncing Job, or “the Slanderer,” a high personage whose title that is?

The translators of the Septuagint, who rendered ha-satan as ho (the) diabolos with a small delta (Greek does have capital letters), preferred the former interpretation. Yet in the Greek New Testament, where ho diabolos is sometimes found, we frequently encounter ho Satanas with a capital sigma, indicating that Satan is the proper name of the chief of all devils. It is from here that the concept of “the Devil” — the personified ruler of a kingdom of evil semi-independent of God — enters Western thought, since while the Greeks certainly believed in evil spirits, they did not, prior to Christianity, assign to them a single leader. To return to Mr. Rosenthal’s letter, Christianity not only associated the Jews with the devil, but also took the idea of the devil from them and developed it to far greater lengths than Judaism ever did.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.