Why does the devil have bat wings?
As we approach Halloween, images of devils and demons abound. We all know what the devil is supposed to look like, but those images don’t appear in the Bible when referencing Satan.
Yes, there is one vibrant image in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. Here the devil referred to as a red dragon with seven heads, 10 horns and seven crowns, with its angels, is thrown out of heaven by the Archangel Michael (Rv 12: 3-9).
Yet, we don’t usually see Satan portrayed as a dragon, though he does sometimes show up with snakes. And serpents and dragons are sometimes grouped together, as happens in Revelation. Then there’s Genesis and the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
The horns on the dragon might have helped add to the image of Satan with horns.
However, showing the devil with horns seems to have developed from images of pagan gods with horns. For example, many Egyptian deities had horns, such as Hathor the cow-headed goddess. Ba’al of the pagan tribes the Hebrews encountered in their journey from Egypt was often associated with a bull. And the same was true of the image of the Canaanite god Moloch, which the ancient Hebrews would have encountered in the Promised Land, also had horns.
But probably the pagan god most resembling our image of Satan is the goat-horned and cloven hoofed Greek god of nature, Pan. Pan also had pointed ears and a goatee, as the devil is often depicted.
Pan is often represented as a satyr, half-goat and half man — with cloven hooves and a goat’s tail. Pan was known to Jews of Jesus’ day. In fact, there was a shrine to Pan, called Banias, located on the slopes of Mount Hermon in northern Israel. A spring there is considered to be the headwaters of the River Jordan. Jesus and his disciples were travelling near there when they approached Caesarea Philippi as Peter was rebuked by Jesus after learning of the death Jesus was to suffer. “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mk 8:33).
Then there is the sheep and goats parable in Matthew’s Gospel, that separates the sheep for reward and the goats for condemnation “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41).
The wings of Satan were a medieval addition. At that time, angels, like Michael, were portrayed with feathered wings resembling those of birds, creatures of the day. Satan and the fallen angels were portrayed with bat wings. Dante’s 14th century classic, “Inferno,” portrays Satan in the center of hell complete with bat wings. By the 17th century and the 1667 publication of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the familiar satanic features were all in place. The 1688 engravings by John Baptist Medina in Milton’s book show Satan with bat wings and goat horns.
Bat Conservation International notes that medieval Europe was not the only civilization to use bat wings on evil gods. They note that the Mayan god, Cama-Zotz, was depicted with bat wings and lived in the darkness through which the dead had to pass.
Again, we have gods of ancient religions to thank for this image. The Greek god, Poseidon (called Neptune by the Romans), was depicted with a trident — which is more commonly what Satan is shown with rather than a four-tined pitchfork. Poseidon was the god of earthquakes and the sea. Ancient Hebrews viewed the sea as a place of monsters, such as the Leviathan mentioned in the Book of Job (40:25).
Also the Hindu god, Shiva the Destroyer, carries a trident. Hinduism dates to at least the second century before Christ, but has even more ancient roots.
RED COLOR / FIRE
The red color often shown on devil’s skin could come from the above reference to a red dragon in Revelation. Then again, it could depict the fire of hell — or Gehenna. When Jesus mentioned Gehenna, it was an actual place people could go and see. Gehenna was a garbage area in the Valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. The fire there burned constantly. When Jesus referred to Gehenna “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mk 9:48), he knew people would bring this fiery image to their mind’s eye.
However, no matter how gruesome Satan may appear and how awful the evil that exists in our world, we do well to remember what the catechism says: “The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building of God’s reign” (n. 395).
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Encyclopedia Britannica”; batcon.org; bibleplaces.com; Catechism of the Catholic Church