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

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

Tim Flight - August 10, 2018

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.