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
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.