The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History

Tim Flight - August 10, 2018

Satan. The Devil. Beelzebub. Lucifer. The Great Deceiver. Old Scratch. Call him what you like, The Devil has equally terrified, tormented, and fascinated mankind for millennia. Surprisingly, given his place in Christian religion and Western culture at large, there is precious little about his dark majesty in the Bible. The Old Testament has only ten references to him, and though there are more in the New Testament, his traditional biography is actually from the Apocrypha (non-canonical religious texts), where the Book of Enoch describes how Satan and his rebel angels angered God through their pride and were thrown from heaven.

This is the story of Satan popularised through Christian teaching, backed by an allusive passage in the Book of Revelation. However, whilst the Bible is not so interested in the fallen angel, mankind has been far more preoccupied with him. People were frightened of The Devil, and many events and landscape features were attributed to him. Many people also claimed to have seen Lucifer in everyday life, generally having a rare old time in pubs or the theatre. So let’s have a look at what he’s been up to since he was last seen tempting Christ in the wilderness.

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
Who else could have done this? Church of St Mary and All Saints, Chesterfield, UK. Daily Express

Satan Bends a Spire in Chesterfield

The Church of St Mary and All Saints, Chesterfield, is a 14th-century church with an eccentrically-crooked spire that one church historian has praised as ‘the most famous architectural distortion north of Pisa’. Its peculiar shape is widely-attributed to Beelzebub. In one version, Satan was sat on the church tower, with his tail twisted round the spire for support. A virtuous bride was getting married that day, and the event was so unusual that Satan turned round, jaw agape, to stare at the marvel. As he did so, the spire twisted with him, and was never the same again.

Another version of the story has The Devil sat in the same position, probably looking for people to trick into sin, whilst a church service was taking place beneath him. Suddenly, a whiff of incense came from the church, making him unleash a thunderous sneeze. The force of Old Nick lurching forward bent the spire into its current form. Another tradition relates how Satan was one day having his hooves re-shod by a blacksmith at nearby Bolow when a misplaced nail made him leap away in pain, kicking out at the unfortunate church spire as he sailed overhead.

Of course, there is a rational explanation for all this spire-bending. It was long-supposed that the spire was built by poor-quality workmen after the Black Death, which severely reduced the labour pool. Whilst there may be some truth in this, the accepted architectural theory is far more prosaic. It is thought that the workmen used unseasoned timber, which buckled and distorted under the weight of the lead cladding. The spire is exposed to sunlight on its south side every day, which has made the 33-tonnes of lead heat up and expand more than the north side, gradually twisting the eminence.

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
The Devil’s Punch Bowl, Hindhead, UK. Wikimedia Commons

Devil’s Punch Bowl

The Devil’s Punch Bowl is a large hollow of sandy heath which forms a natural amphitheatre in Surrey, UK. Such an unusual landscape feature has inspired many folk tales and legends, as people sought to explain how this came to be. Chiefly, they wondered, who could be big enough to make such a large, circular structure? Most naturally suspected Satan. It is said that Satan scooped out large clods of earth with his hands to fling at an enemy, in some versions the Norse God, Thor, and the scale of his excavations left a permanent scar on the landscape.

Another version has Satan so infuriated by the many churches built in Sussex during the Middle Ages that he tried to dig a tunnel from The Channel to flood the area, but was scared by a cock crowing and jumped away, creating the Devil’s Punch Bowl when he landed. The name itself can be explained by the weather. On cold, autumnal mornings, mist often collects in the hollow, and then spills out over the rim, much like the punch bowls seen at dinner parties. Who else but The Devil would need such a large container for all his booze?

Alternatively, Satan had nothing to do with it at all, and the Punch Bowl was created by spring water eroding the local sandstone over thousands of years, making it subside more than the wider area. The locale, however, has a longstanding association with the darker side of life. The road from London to Portsmouth used to run along the rim, and became the haunt of highwaymen in the 18th century. Three men were hanged at nearby Gibbet Hill for the notorious robbery and murder of an unidentified sailor in 1786. Perhaps Lucifer was in the area, after all.

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
The Devil’s Dyke, Sussex, UK. Longman Walks

Devil’s Dyke

In the aforementioned story of Satan trying to build a tunnel to flood Sussex, he succeeded in creating another interesting landscape feature before making the Devil’s Punch Bowl under the weight of his landing. He had vowed to do so in a single night, but was caught in the act by a pious local woman. She prayed for a cock to crow earlier than dawn, and when the Devil heard it, he immediately abandoned his task. However, the towering ridges of earth he had thrown up around him were never moved, and the tunnel became known as the Devil’s Dyke.

Whilst digging the ditch to wash away the churches, The Devil carelessly flung large bits of earth over his shoulder, which became hills in their own right, and one even became the Isle of Wight. Most legends agree on the purpose of the Devil’s Dyke, but there are some variants on precisely why he stopped. In one, he simply stubbed his hoof on a rock, which he kicked away to Hove in fury before abandoning his project altogether (what a diva). Another variation replaces the old woman with St Dunstan, whom we will meet later in this article.

Another legend simply has the Devil’s Dyke as a gigantic hoof-print caused by The Devil appearing in his goat-form and intending to crush Sussex, Godzilla-style. Upon arriving, he smelled the salty sea-breeze, and feared getting his coat wet. His vanity made him abandon the project altogether, notwithstanding a single hoof-print. Again, there is a prosaic explanation of water erosion disintegrating away an area of soft rock, but this need not detract from the Devil’s Dyke’s fascinating history. The site provided a lookout post for pre-Iron Age man, and hill forts were built to protect surrounding settlements and farmland.

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
Title page of a copy of Dr Faustus, London, 1663. Medium

A Cameo in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus

Puritans and other miserable killjoys, such as Adolf Hitler, have long seen the theatre as a den of sin. But did you know that Satan once appeared on stage? Dr. Faustus is a play by the Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe (1564-93). It tells the tale of the titular doctor, a scholar at the University of Wittenburg. Dr. Faustus has an incurable lust for knowledge and power, and one he has mastered every known discipline his research inevitably leads him to become interested in the dark arts. He succeeds in summoning one of Satan’s little helpers, but cannot enslave him.

Faustus thus decides to sell his soul to The Devil, and receives great powers. He soon regrets his pact, however, and the end of the play sees Faustus dragged to hell to fulfil his part of the bargain. We have to remember that this was very controversial for the period. Witchcraft had been made a capital offence in England in 1563, and witch trials took place through the Elizabethan period. People were absolutely terrified of witches and The Devil in general, and so enacting a pact on stage was a bold move that both titillated and petrified in equal measure.

In one staging of Dr. Faustus in the early 17th century, it is reputed that the performance was interrupted by an unexpected guest. In his anti-theatre polemic, Histriomastix, the Puritan William Prynne related that ‘the visible apparition of The Devil [appeared] on the Stage at the Bel-savage Playhouse in Queen Elizabeth’s days (to the great amazement both of the Actors and Spectators) whiles they were there profanely playing the History of Faustus (the truth of which I have heard from many now alive, who well remember it) there being some distracted with that fearful sight’. Bravo, bravo, darling!

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
Robert Johnson, Mississippi, c.1935. Rock Hall

Robert Johnson Buys the Blues

It is not just theatre that The Devil enjoys. As they say, The Devil has all the best tunes, and these next two examples will prove just that. In the late 1920s, a young man worked on the Dockery Plantation, Mississippi. He didn’t want to be a farm labourer all his life, but longed to be able to play the blues. He made no secret of his desire, and his co-workers told him to make his way to a nearby crossroads at midnight. That very night, the blues were born, and the young man, Robert Johnson, became a star.

There were no witnesses to the pact, but another bluesman, Henry Goodman, later had a vision that told the tale. ‘The man stands up, tall, barrel-chested, and black as the forever-closed eyes of Robert Johnson’s stillborn baby… he says, “Stand up, Robert Johnson… [do] you want to play that guitar like nobody ever played it before? Make a sound nobody ever heard before? You want to be the King of the Delta Blues and have all the whiskey and women you want?”‘ The Devil had his mongrel dog let out a plaintive howl to demonstrate the sound of the blues.

‘The dog ain’t for sale, Robert Johnson, but the sound can be yours. That’s the sound of the Delta Blues’, said The Devil. Johnson sold his soul on the spot, and music was changed forever. Johnson later immortalised the encounter in the song, ‘Cross Road Blues’: ‘I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees/asked the Lord above/”have mercy now, save poor Bob if you please”‘. The tale of someone selling their soul to The Devil in exchange for some earthly power recalls Dr. Faustus, testifying both to the power of the folk motif and man’s fear of sin.

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
Le Songe de Tartini by Louis-Léopold Boilly, France, 1824. Wikimedia Commons

Satan writes the World’s Hardest Violin Sonata

Giving the blues to Robert Johnson was far from Satan’s first musical collaboration. For that, we have to travel back to 18th-century Italy, and the violinist and composer, Giuseppe Tartini. Tartini was born in Istria in 1692, and studied law at the University of Padua. Music, however, was his real passion, and he learned the violin in his late teens when hiding from a corrupt Cardinal with designs upon his young wife in a Franciscan monastery. Though he had received some rudimentary musical instruction as a boy, his rapid mastery of the violin seemed nothing short of miraculous. Or diabolic…

Tartini’s best-known composition is Violin Sonata in G minor. The sonata, involving a complex series of double-stop trills, is perhaps the most technically-demanding of all violin pieces. But how did he compose it? Let’s ask Tartini: ‘One night, in the year 1713 I dreamed I had made a pact with The Devil for my soul… I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy.

‘I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and I awoke. I immediately grasped my violin in order to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the “Devil’s Trill”, but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that I would have destroyed my instrument and have said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me’.

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
Gustave Doré’s engraving of Satan cast from heaven for John Milton’s Paradise Lost, France, 1866. Artsy Craftsy

Satan Tells his Side of the Story

Satan is also renowned for his literary endeavours. In 1658, the poet John Milton (1608-74) sat down to write an epic poem in blank verse that came to be known as Paradise Lost. Milton had lived through the terrors of the English Civil War, which saw widespread death and destruction alongside religious schism and the beheading of King Charles I. Milton was deeply saddened by what he saw, and felt that the country was plummeting towards atheism. After all, where was God in all this? The pious Milton thus wrote Paradise Lost to ‘justify the ways of God to men’.

Paradise Lost tells the story of man’s fall from the Garden of Eden across an astonishing 10, 550 lines. To give the full picture, Milton goes back to the creation of the angels, and the Fall of Satan and the rebel angels. In Milton’s narrative, Satan, formerly God’s favourite angel before he rose up against Him, watches the creation of man with envy, and vows to take his revenge. The poem begins in hell, with Satan and his minions lamenting their misfortune and plotting against Adam and Eve. In imitation of Homer and Virgil, Satan becomes a tragic hero.

He has many speeches, and is a bigger character than God in the poem. Whilst this makes for a great poem, many suspected that The Devil had spoken through Milton. As William Blake explained, ‘the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of The Devil’s party without knowing it’. That is, The Devil took the opportunity to tell his side of the story, and did so through the hand of the unwitting John Milton, and subtly through other poets.

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
Satan’s portrait from Codex Gigas, Bohemia, early 13th Century. Flickr

The Devil’s Portrait: Codex Gigas

Codex Gigas (‘the giant book’) is the popular name for Stockholm Royal Library MS A 148. The manuscript was made from 310 calf skins, measures a whopping 89 x 49 x 22cm, and weighs in at around 75 kilos. Beyond its size, it is a fairly unremarkable medieval manuscript. It contains the Bible, Josephus Flavius’s historical works, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, a medical textbook, and the Bohemian Chronicle of Cosmas of Prague, along with a few shorter texts on penitence and evil spirits. Codex Gigas, in the modern world, is notorious for folio 290r: a huge portrait of The Devil.

The portrait (above) has given rise to a legend about the early-13th-century manuscript’s creation. A monk in a Bohemian monastery committed a terrible crime, and was walled-up alive as punishment. However, he would be released if he could create a book containing the sum of human knowledge in a single night. As midnight approached, he realised the task was impossible, and prayed to Lucifer for help. The Devil finished the manuscript in exchange for the monk’s soul, and asked him to take his portrait, resulting in the famous image. The manuscript is consequently also known as ‘The Devil’s Bible’.

In truth, it would have taken 5 years of non-stop writing to complete Codex Gigas. The portrait of The Devil is certainly arresting, but not remarkable. Devils and demons were frequently depicted in medieval art and manuscripts, and fear of damnation was an important part of piety. The portrait is also located on the opposite page to a depiction of heaven, a common technique of binary contrast that simply communicated the need to love and obey God, or else. The Codex Gigas Devil is not even especially skilfully-rendered, paling in comparison to other 13th-century examples. Still, what a story!

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
Black Phillip, the star of the 2015 film, The Witch, had cloven hooves… Bloody Disgusting

Devil’s Hoof-prints

The snow fell thick and the wind chilled in the winter of 1855. But as the people of Devon shivered around their meagre fires and livestock froze to death, something truly diabolical was afoot. For over the night of 8th February, mysterious hoof-prints appeared. ‘Ah!’, you cry. ‘Surely just a horse or a sheep shuffling around to keep warm’. Such an explanation would be all well and good, were it not for the fact that these hoof prints appeared over roofs, haystacks, and barns, travelling in a single direction. Oh, and they stretched for between 40 and 60 miles.

After scratching their heads for a while, the frostbitten Devonians realised what the hoof-prints were: the footsteps of Satan himself! What other ungulate could climb over anything in its path on such a cold night? Still, it was unclear what the devil was doing in Devon, or where he was going with such determination. Suddenly, a solution presented itself: the church had just replaced its common prayer book with a new version. The new modes of devotion were clearly erroneous and had angered God, and The Devil had come to prey on the souls of the unwittingly-sinful congregations.

No completely satisfactory explanation for that cold February night has ever been made. A weather balloon, an escaped kangaroo, mice and, farcically, badgers, have all been blamed for the prints at one point or another. The simplest explanation, if we use Ockham’s Razor (usually a good idea), is mass-hysteria: animal tracks were inevitably found in the snow, and a few unusual ones probably set off a mild panic in which any and all prints were attributed to the same source, to say nothing of mankind’s love of mythologising. However, this was not The Devil’s first visit to Devon… read on.

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
One of the Devil’s Bridges at Kirkby Lonsdale, UK. Britain Express

The Devil’s Bridges

Almost every country has its own Devil’s Bridge (and an obvious rational explanation). Perhaps the explanation for this is that The Devil has fallen for exactly the same trick so many times, for almost all follow the same plot, as in the following example. In the Austrian valley of Montafon, a village’s bridge was washed away in a flood, and the villagers were forced to offer a carpenter a fortune if he could build a new one in three days. He accepted the challenge, but even after a long night’s studying could not work out how he could do it.

Suddenly, a little man in a green hat (guess who?) appeared, offering to do it for him, provided that the first soul to cross the bridge from the carpenter’s house would be his. The carpenter agreed, but when the bridge was finished, he sent a goat across the bridge. The Devil, who had waited for many days, was outraged, but outfoxed. The Devil made the same mistake again and again, becoming a veritable Noah with his cargo of dogs, goats, and chickens to take back with him to hell. So much for Satan being nicknamed ‘the Father of all lies’.

They say that The Devil takes many forms, and this daft bridge-builder is the folkloric image of him. For throughout folklore, Satan is presented as something of a pantomime villain, grandiloquent and dangerous yet easily tricked. Perhaps his nearest modern cognate in this form are the villains (usually with English accents) of Disney films. But behind the folkloric Lucifer lies the innate fear of the Evil One. Mocking The Devil is a way of defeating him, much as children will poke fun at things they fear the most. Fear not – we will get on to The Devil’s less humorous forms.

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
The Devil’s handwriting? Sicily, 1676. Times of Israel

The Devil and the Nun

On the morning of the 11th August 1676, Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione, a 31-year-old nun from the Sicilian convent of Palma di Montechiaro, was found in her cell in some distress. She lay prostrate on the floor, her faced covered in ink, her hand clutching a strange scrap of paper, covered in peculiar symbols (reproduced above). Sister Maria revealed that The Devil had appeared to her in the night, urging her to forsake his old enemy, God, and to follow the Satanic path. To persuade Maria, Satan took over her faculties and wrote the letter with her hand.

For hundreds of years, the mysterious symbols of the letter lay uncracked. However, in 2017, Sicilian scientists used intelligence-grade code-breaking technology to decipher the epistle. Just as the nun had stated back in 1676, The Devil’s letter urged her to forsake her creator, and follow him: ‘Humans are responsible for the creation of God. This system works for no one. God thinks he can free mortals. Perhaps now, Styx [a river in Hades] is certain. God and Jesus are dead weights.’ Even after being cracked, the letter, with its back-story and symbolism, has all the makings of a paranormal mystery.

After all, it took over three centuries to decipher the enigma. So, did The Devil write it? This can be decided at the discretion of the reader, but there is a rational explanation. The code-breakers have suggested that Sister Maria was suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, for she was heard almost every night screaming and doing battle with Lucifer. The code, though impressive, is not beyond the capabilities of a well-educated, bilingual individual. So whichever explanation you favour, one thing is certain: Sister Maria was neither lying about seeing The Devil, nor about the message that the letter contained.

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
Glamis Castle, Scotland. The Castles of Scotland

The Devil Plays Cards at Glamis Castle

Alexander Lyon, 2nd Lord Glamis (c.1430-86), alias Earl Beardie, was a horrible man. He drank heavily, was cruel to everyone, and prone to violence. He was also an unrepentant gambler. One Saturday night, he was enjoying a drunken game of cards at Glamis Castle with his friend, the Earl of Crawford, when his servant interrupted to warn the men that, as midnight approached, it would soon be the Sabbath, when games were forbidden. Furious at this insolent interjection, Earl Beardie roared ‘I will play until doomsday!’, flinging the unfortunate servant from the room. Midnight approached, and still they played on.

At five minutes to midnight, the servant tried once more to stop his master from sinning. This time, Earl Beardie fumed ‘I will play with The Devil himself!’ As the bell tower pealed to announce the arrival of midnight, there came a knock at the chamber door. A tall gentleman dressed all in black asked to join the game. They played through the night, and loud shouting and swearing echoed through the castle’s ancient corridors. The servant was too scared to interrupt again, and spent a restless night interrupted by hellish roars and blasphemous oaths from Earl Beardie’s rooms.

At dawn, the servant returned again to see if Earl Beardie required anything. What he saw in the room made his heart skip a beat. Beardie and Crawford were still sat at the card table, but engulfed in a ball of flame. The mysterious stranger looked on, unharmed, in sneering amusement. As you have probably guessed, the new card player was The Devil, and the two men had foolishly gambled with their own souls. Earl Beardie’s ghost is still seen at Glamis Castle, haplessly trying to win his soul back and to escape from the pit of hell.

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
St Dunstan seizes the devil’s nose with blacksmith’s tongs, Southern France, c.1275-1325. Blogspot

The Devil and St Dunstan

Many monks and hermits over the course of history have been visited by Satan or his minions, whose mission is to tempt them into sin (see The Devil and the Nun, above). What makes the story of The Devil appearing to St Dunstan so interesting is the tale itself, and the popularity of it in folklore. St Dunstan (c.909-988) eventually became the Archbishop of Canterbury, but as a youngster was more inclined towards living independently of the world as a hermit. It was in this eremitical guise that he met The Devil, and went down in secular legend.

Dunstan lived as a hermit in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. As well as prayer and contemplation, Dunstan also filled the lonely hours with metalwork, making implements for the Abbey to use. One day, as dusk approached, an old man appeared at the window of his cell, and asked Dunstan to make him a chalice. He agreed to the request, but as he got to work, he noticed that his visitor kept changing shape, from an old man to a young boy to a sexy lady. Dunstan realised that the chalice-seeker was The Devil, taking many forms rather too literally.

Undaunted, Dunstan silently heated up his iron tongs in the fire. When they were red hot, he rounded on the figure at the window, seizing his nose between the jaws of the tongs. The Devil writhed and cried out in agony, but Dunstan did not let him go until he felt he had learned his lesson. When he finally escaped, poor Beelzebub ran through the town crying ‘Woe is me! What has that bald devil done to me? Look at me, a poor wretch, look how he has tortured me!’ The humorous event became a long-standing staple of folklore.

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
John Dee, London, 16th century. Wikimedia Commons

Satan visits Manchester

John Dee (1527-c.1608) was, by repute, the real-life Dr. Faustus (see above). A phenomenally learned man, he matriculated at St John’s College, Cambridge, aged just 15, and was elected as an original fellow at Henry VIII’s new Trinity College at the same university. He became astrological and scientific advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, and under her patronage amassed the largest library in the country, which contained a staggering 2, 670 manuscripts, more than four times the number owned by Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He also advised Elizabeth on foreign policy, urging colonial expansion and coining the term, ‘British Empire’.

However, as a scientist working at a time when people were terrified of sorcery, he was long-suspected of being a sort of warlock or necromancer. After all, scientists and witches both conducted loud and smelly experiments in considerable secrecy. However, like the fictional Dr. Faustus, he was in fact interested in the Occult, having mastered every other discipline. His attempts to conjure spirits saw him briefly imprisoned for heresy in 1555. Unfortunately, the rumours about him were so damaging that Elizabeth was forced to remove Dee as her advisor and appoint him Warden of the Manchester Collegiate Church in 1596.

Dee quite literally left his mark on Manchester. Publishing books on esoteric numerology and conversations with angels and owning occult books did not help his reputation with his new colleagues, and it is said that one night in Manchester he succeeded in summoning The Devil himself. Satan appeared upon a table, and left a circular burn mark from his cloven hoof which can still be seen today. Despite the unlikelihood of the story, Dee was forced to leave Manchester, and lived out his final impoverished days at home near London. His occult work is still popular with aspiring warlocks today.

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
The Tavistock Inn, Dartmoor, where the devil went for a swift pint before wrecking a church in 1683. Dartmoor Crosses

The Devil Goes for a Pint, Tavistock Inn

We know that The Devil likes a drink, at least if the tale about his gigantic punch bowl (above) is to be believed, but one dark and stormy night he actually went to a pub. Locals at the Tavistock Inn of Poundsgate, Devon, were surprised enough to see a stranger come through the door of their lonely pub on 21st October 1638. But it wasn’t just the man’s unfamiliarity that drew attention. For he not only paid for his pint with solid gold coins, but had cloven hooves! Draining the flagon, he asked for directions to a nearby church.

He left on a black steed (of course), and headed for the church at Widecombe-in-the-Moor. Inside, locals were sheltering from the fierce storm without. One man, Jan Reynolds, was an unrepentant gambler, and played cards as he kept warm. Suddenly, the church was struck by a great ball of fire, and as the roof timbers fell, Jan was thrown against a pillar so hard that his skull was shattered and ‘the brains fell backward, entire and whole, into the seat behind him, and two pieces of his skull’. The Devil entered, and dragged poor Jan off across Dartmoor on horseback.

As they travelled through the storm at a supernatural pace, Jan dropped four aces he had hidden up his sleeve – he was a cheat as well as a gambler – and as they hit the moor, they formed four enclosures, known thereafter as ‘The Devil’s Playing Cards’. The fireball hitting St Pancras church is a true story, for this was part of an event known as The Great Thunderstorm, and was likely ball lightning. The ball lightning killed a few people, and the church bears the scars of being repaired. The four enclosures also exist – but are probably just livestock corrals.

The Devil’s in the Detail: 16 Stories of Satan Sprinkled Throughout the Pages of World History
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, England, 1781. Wikimedia Commons

Satan Possesses George Lukins

We end with another of The Devil’s less savoury interventions in world history, the possession of George Lukins, the Yatton Demoniac. George Lukins was a 44-year-old tailor from the village of Yatton in Somerset, and suffered from what he claimed to be possession by The Devil and six of his demonic assistants. He made strange animal noises, barked and howled like a dog, and had arguments with himself in different voices. He said that he had been fine until he performed in a play and felt ‘a divine slap’, after which The Devil entered him. Doctors failed to cure Lukins.

This had gone on for 18 years, and in 1778 a concerned traveller informed the Reverend Joseph Easterbrook of the case. Easterbrook contacted six other clergymen to perform the exorcism, one for The Devil and the other six demons possessing Lukins: ‘some time ago I had a letter requesting me to make one of the seven ministers to pray over George Lukins… the day before we were to meet, I went to see Lukins, and found such faith, that I could then encounter the seven devils which he said tormented him. I did not doubt but deliverance would come.’

It took an article in a newspaper to convince the other priests to help. During the much-publicised exorcism, Lukins barked like a dog, physically attacked the exorcists, and recited the Te Deum hymn backwards in praise of Satan. The Devil and his minions were eventually persuaded to leave Lukins, and he made a full recovery. Unfortunately, even in 1778 the exorcism was controversial. Lukins was reputed to be a talented mimic and ventriloquist, and others theorised that he was either mad or seriously ill. The pattern of the whole incident and its aftermath has characterised tales of exorcism ever since.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Codex Gigas.

Latham, Alison. The Oxford Dictionary of Musical Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Lorenzi, Rossella. “Satan’s Enigma: ‘Possessed’ Nun’s 17th-Century Letter Deciphered”, Live Science, September 18th 2017.

Marsden, Simon. Phantoms of the Isles: Further Tales from the Haunted Realm. London: Boxtree, 1993.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. by John Leonard. London: Penguin, 2003.

Potts, Rolf. “Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in Rosedale, Mississippi”.

Rice, Colin, ed. Ungodly Delights: Puritan Opposition to the Theatre 1576-1633. Alessandria: Edizioni dell’Orso, 1997.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Westwood, Jennifer, and Jacqueline Simpson. The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys. London: Penguin, 2005.

Wheatley, Dennis. The Devil and All his Works. London: Hutchinson, 1971.