Goats for Azazel


While there are many different ways of depicting the Devil, it’s quite common to show him with the features of a goat. Why a goat? After all, the Bible says that Satan appears as an angel of light, not a nibbler of tin cans. And not only can goats be used for milk, meat, and the pulling of carts; but you can feed them from vending machines at petting zoos. How did such a cute and useful animal come to be associated with the ultimate evil?

Well, part of it, as I indicated in my last post, had to do with Pan. The two of them look quite similar in modern depictions, although I understand the Devil prefers the fiddle to the pipes.

Most of the speculation I’ve seen for the association has to do with Pan’s rampant sexuality. The guy was horny, in multiple senses of the word. Of course, Zeus was also obsessed with sex, but he looked more human and wasn’t generally depicted with an erect phallus.

There’s probably more to the goat association, however. One odd Biblical reference that’s gotten some attention is in Leviticus 16, describing the Day of Atonement. On this day, the high priest would bring two goats to the Temple, and cast lots as to which would be for Yahweh and which for Azazel. The one for Yahweh would be sacrificed in the typical manner, while the other would be sent out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people. This was where the term “scapegoat” originated, and that’s the word used in the King James Version instead of “Azazel.” It’s also been suggested that “Azazel,” which means “who God strengthens,” could have referred to a mountain cliff, or might have actually meant “sent away.” The name Azazel does sound like that of an angel, however, and in the Book of Enoch he’s described as the leader of a group of rebellious angels. They came to Earth and taught people the arts of metal-working, warfare, and cosmetics. (Interesting combination, no?) For this, Azazel was bound inside a cave in the desert, never to see the light of day. There’s likely some influence here from the myth of Prometheus, and as the head of the fallen angels he inevitably became associated with Satan. It’s apparently common in Islam for Azazel to be regarded as the original name of Iblis. That still doesn’t tell us what the original reference to Azazel means, but it does strengthen the connection between fallen angels and goats.

Jesus was apparently not too keen on goats, or at least saw them as a convenient symbol for those who weren’t his kind of people, as seen in Matthew 25:31-33: “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.”

We’re told that the sheep were the ones who helped their fellow man, and the goats those who did not, although I’m not sure sheep have a reputation of being more generous than goats. The reputation they do have is, quite frankly, that of being much dumber. I’m reminded of a quote from Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods. In the Discworld series, gods are fueled by human belief, and the god Om’s first worshipper was a shepherd. Pratchett writes, “Only a mile away from the shepherd and his flock was a goatherd and his herd. The merest accident of microgeography had meant that the first man to hear the voice of Om, and who gave Om his view of humans, was a shepherd and not a goatherd. They have quite different ways of looking at the world, and the whole of history might have been different. For sheep are stupid, and have to be driven. But goats are intelligent, and need to be led.” Basically, Christian symbolism talks up sheep over goats because the latter are more self-willed, and not as eager to follow. As with most stuff in the Bible, I’m sure there are plenty of passages that offer an opposing view, but it remains a very common metaphor. I don’t know how much influence this had on artists who drew the Devil, but it could easily have been floating around somewhere in their minds. This brings us back to the idea that Satan was the one who tempted the first humans into eating the fruit of knowledge, thereby making them more like goats than sheep.

This entry was posted in Animals, Authors, Christianity, Discworld, Greek Mythology, Islam, Judaism, Mythology, Religion, Terry Pratchett and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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