I awake with Lucifer waving an aspergillum in my face.
“Say what?” I exclaim. His huge, black, furry wings wave in what may be a response.
“I need you, Lo,” Lucifer, my Father, replies, using the name I was once called long ago, Loki, when I had been a genially subversive god of the Norse.
I blink, confused, absurdly sleepy, and generally pissed off.
“What do you mean, Father?” (I almost call my Father, Lu,
but think better of it. Not that He lacks a sense of humor but why take the risk?)
“I require your special talents,” Lucifer says, raising himself to His full height, three times mine or any other devil’s. That’s why we call Him “Father.”
Still groggy, I ask, “Yeah, and those are?”
“Deviousness and an ability to get along with humans.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, My Lord and Master, what the hell is going on? What happened to me?”
Lucifer smiles, if a horrible rictus grin can be called a smile, and winks at me, if a huge flapping of a lizardly eyelid can be called a wink.
“I had to put you under, my boy, after you scared the holy living padoodie out of poor old Martin Luther.”
“Yeah, I made him throw an inkwell at me. So what?”
“He was integral to our plans, so it didn’t help that you frightened him. I had to do a lot of backup work. Sacrifice a few thousand peasants and so on.”
I try to take this in as calmly as I can under the circumstances, the putrid scent of the aspergillum still wafting in my nostrils.
Father can do whatever He likes, of course. Maybe (none of us really knows) He can actually dispose of us rebel angels, although we have always been led to believe that we are essentially immortal. Suspension otherwise known as freezing in time) happens now and again when one of us contravenes Lucifer’s will. But it is always a guessing game and He invariably outguesses us.
“So what’s the deal?” I ask.
“You’ve been frozen for five hundred years. Much has happened. Humans are becoming a real pain in the ass so I have come up with an assignment for you.”
“The last I remember,” I am shaking my beak in confusion, “the year as the Christians calculated it was 1536. You mean to tell me. . .?”
“Among other things humans have finally invented science.”
I don’t understand. “Scientia? Knowledge? But they did that a long time ago.”
“Technology, too,” says Lucifer.
“Techne? Also old hat.”
“No time to explain now. You have a lot to catch up on. I’ll have Flauros give you an update. But it’s serious. The humans now threaten us.”
I take a moment to think about what Lucifer, my Father, had said.
Flauros is the Grand General of Hell. He is noted for his prescience, persuasiveness, and peccancy. If Flauros is involved, we must be facing a crisis.
I am beginning to emerge from my stupor, no small feat when you have been frozen for five hundred years. I glance down and see that I had assumed my usual form, the body of an ape and, I can tell from the way my eyes focus so sharply, the head of an owl. I regard Lucifer warily.
As our Father, He wields almost total power but usually chooses not to use it.
Physically He is undeniably impressive, standing more than fifty feet tall.
His wings alone weigh at least twenty tons.
No being was ever so perfectly formed.
He brachiates like crazy, sports a unicorn’s horn and a tail (we all rather absurdly pride ourselves on our tails) that is nine times more multicolored than that of a peacock and twelve times sturdier than a giant mastodon’s muzzle.
And his twelve testes are universally regarded as abjectly august.
Oddly, Father is the only devil who insists on strict retromingency.
He never ages but He is far older than we.
As one of the youngest of our race, I have lived more than 40,000 years. Flauros, an elder, is around a million years old. But no one knows Lucifer’s age. As far as we are concerned, He has existed since time began, whenever that was.
He created us, of course, directly from His forehead, although no one understands how that worked. All we know is that our creation was somehow related to rebellion against the Unknowable Being.
We junior devils are here to do Lucifer’s bidding, although occasionally that fact slips some of our minds. Mine especially.
Father created me to be what human mythologists mistakenly call a Trickster god, initially for the tribes that roamed the great steppes of central Asia but later also for indigenous Americans as well as the Greeks and the Norse.
I have been Coyote, who created the horse and stole the sun. I have been Rabbit, who created fire and Raven, who stole the moon and Chitimacha, who invented medicine and love-making and bewildered humans by wandering the Earth draped in buzzard dung.
I have also been Hermes, the winged messenger, god of eloquence and thieves, music and gambling.
But my favorite apotheosis was as Loki, the great betrayer, the supposed slayer of Baldur and the inventor of magic.
I was created to be crafty and double-dealing, although only with humans, not with my fellow devils.
“Devil” is what we call ourselves, although we are usually called “gods” by humans. Some humans have referred to us as “demons” but that is a misnomer. Demons are the devils’ offspring, the sterile mule-like progeny that emerges from our mating with humans.
Like humans, demons are mortal, although their lifespan is longer
by at least a hundred years or so. We have always found demons quite useful in manipulating mankind, though sometimes they can veer out of control. Still, demons are far handier than not and devils generally tolerate their excesses.
I fly off to the Great Chamber to meet with Flauros.
The Chamber is as I remember it, a giant cavern with iridescent and irregularly formed stalagtites hanging perilously from a vast ceiling. Flauros awaits me impatiently, his yellow leopard eyes filled with contempt, and his huge, ragged saber teeth flashing with disdain
“Grand General,” I bow respectfully.
“No titles, we are a democracy now.”
I am offended. “What is this nonsense about a democracy, Grand General?”
“No titles!” he roars, quite frightening me.* “And no former names of gods. Lucifer is not to be referred to as Zeus or Wotan, for example.”
“But Father just called me Loki,” I object.
“He is Lucifer. That is His privilege. In His infinite wisdom, He has decided to exempt you from the rules. Now, can we move along? We are a democracy because that’s what the most regressive human societies have become. You know how our Father loves a good joke.”
I nod. It makes little difference what we call our polity. Under any rubric, Lucifer is in charge.
“I have much to show you. Look.” Flauros points towards the far wall of the Great Chamber where images are beginning to form. “The last five hundred years,” he intones somberly. “Just an overview for now. You will spend several minutes in Indoctrination, mastering the details.”
“Indoctrination?” I say, surprised. “So soon after awakening?”
“Watch and listen,” says Flauros in a tone of voice that suggests he is having difficulty controlling his anger and which I find more unsettling even than his roar.
I gaze at the wall in fascination as the human history of the last half millennium unfolds before my eyes.
Nothing here of the dry texts that humans call history. This is the collective memory of 9,997 devils (excluding me, of course, since I’d been asleep and Lucifer, who rarely shares His recollections with anyone).
The centuries pass, war succeeding revolution followed by more war, genocide, terror, all of the things that pundits like to call inhuman but which we devils know to be all too human. And throughout this sorry tale of slaughter and woe, the inexorable progress of new and more deadly forms of technology, the means of communication, transport, and destruction accelerating until they reach absurd proportions.
Most disturbing to me is the fact that despite mankind’s best efforts to exterminate itself, the number of humans has multiplied exponentially.
In my day, there were perhaps five hundred million humans. Now there are more than seven billion. They have spread all over the place, polluting the great mountain peaks, swarming over the rainforests, crowding the sea lanes, burrowing into the earth.
Clearly mankind has gotten way out of control. And this proliferation of people has radically reduced the traditional freedoms of us poor devils. Previously able to soar over vast distances of ocean, tundra, forest and mountain, undisturbed by humanity’s noxious gaze, we can now hardly venture from our underground palaces without fear of being spotted by some sophisticated surveillance technique. Of course, we can be invisible if necessary, but you can imagine what an inconvenience that is.
Most unsettling are the horrible new weapons that humans have developed, especially those that involve irradiating large expanses of land, the revolting byproducts of which these fools actually bury deep in the Earth, threatening our sacred domain. Not that any of this could kill us but destroying our habitat would be supremely inconvenient.
The strange new diseases that have evolved over the past five hundred years, some of them transformed into weapons by homicidal humans, do not concern me. We are impervious to disease and, if any plague should wipe out the human race, the rest of us would doubtless be the better for it.
It is above all the premeditated predation of the human species that disgusts me. Other mortals, what men call animals, hunt and kill but they do so instinctively and to survive. Only humans prey upon themselves as well as on all other species.
Humans are the criminals of creation.
Yet ever since we noticed humans evolving, we have tried to guide their actions, make them less violent, less careless, less cruel. We gave them religion, attempting to create a moral structure for their actions but all to little avail. Consistently do they evade or ignore their own rules; ruthlessly do they continue carnage and glorify murder in legend and song.
That old fraud Homer (who, for the record, was a woman and not in the slightest blind or even nearsighted) sought to blame us for the Trojan War when, in fact, we did all we could to prevent it. We kept intervening on one side or the other as Apollo or Athena but those moronic thugs, the Achaeans and the Trojans, kept right on slugging it out for a decade.
Finally we decided to end the whole debacle through a quick hint to Odysseus.
Humans, we know, could never have invented religion on their own. They would just have continued raiding one another until everyone ended up dead.
So Lucifer decided to give mankind a reason for living, hinting of afterlives, metempsychoses, reincarnations, the whole ball of waxworks.
We got humans to bury their dead, dress up important occasions like marriage and birth with a bit of ceremony, and act more decently towards one another. Much of this had good effects and certainly we devils enjoyed a splendid time roaming the earth, appearing as apparitions to all and sundry, laying down laws of all kinds. (The Ten Commandments was ours, for example, although it was originally Nine Commandments because we like things in multiples of three but that pesky Moses added one of his own, I forget which one now).
But in fact, religion turned out to be our most destructive gift to mankind. Sometimes religions are more or less OK, as with Buddhism. Sometimes just so-so. Witness Judaism and Islam, monotonously monotheistic.
But Hinduism was our chef d’oeuvre. It was even more fun for us than the Greek stuff. Talk about your Vedas and your Upanishads.
The really wonderful thing about Hinduism, though, is that it has more gods than you can shake a stipoo stick at. Last time I counted, there were more than thirty million.
Lucifer literally went mad with mirth as He successively impersonated Lord Krishna, later an elephant, Ganeesha, I think his name was, and so on.
Not only did it keep Lucifer busy but the rest of us were going all out too.
I remember a coadunate decade in which I incarnated myself as two thousand six hundred and seventy-seven gods. Boy, did I feel like indulging in gormless solecisms after that.
The Hindus wore us out eventually and instituted the caste system and other villainies so we abandoned them to their own charettes.
But our most unmitigated disaster has clearly been Christianity. And that wasn’t really our fault.
The way it all started, Lucifer decided that what the brutal Roman world needed was a truly gentle religion. So he scoured all over the Empire and came upon Jesus, an itinerant Jewish preacher in Galilee.
Jesus was a wonderful man, humorous, devout and above all, loving. And that’s what he preached. Love of God. Love of your fellow man (and woman). Speaking of women, his most loyal disciple was the woman later known as Mary Magdalene. They were not lovers but true friends who always looked out for one another. Their correspondence, which I have carefully preserved, is both poignant and charming.
Jesus was amazingly gentle and astoundingly charismatic. I spent months following him and the crowds that flocked to hear him preach and I never saw him out of sorts. He treated everyone with great kindness from the poorest beggar to the proudest centurion.
The canard later circulated by medieval Christians that Jesus never laughed has always made me angry. Jesus laughed all the time. Notwithstanding the sincerity of his message, he was never solemn. Witty, profound, downright funny. The so-called gospels have captured only a fraction of this.
And Jesus never claimed to be God or a son of God or anything along those lines. He never thought of himself as a Messiah. In short, Jesus never pretended to be Christ.
So after his tragic death (which did not occur on the cross, by the way; he was stabbed by a Roman soldier while at prayer), what happened? Beginning with Paul, Jesus was transformed into a savior God, who died for man’s sins. (Incidentally, couldn’t there have been a more efficient way of redeeming humanity?). The ethic to which he had devoted his life, an ethic of love, gentleness, charity, and peace was utterly eclipsed by a focus on his death and imaginary resurrection.
As Oscar Wilde said, “The first and last Christian was Christ.”*
Early on the Church devalued Jesus’ moral teaching, claiming that it was meant only for his apostles (“Give away all that you have and follow me;” “Love thy neighbor as thyself;” “Resist not evil.“) since ordinary humans could not possibly abide by such radical principles. In fact, one of my chief problems with Martin Luther and why I kept scaring his wits out, causing him to throw inkwells at me was because of an essay he wrote on why those in authority, Princes and the like, could not possibly be expected to follow Christ’s rules of conduct, since it was their Christian duty to keep order and kill unruly peasants and rebellious artisans whenever they got uppity.
So humans have subverted all religion and none more than Christianity.
I am brought back from my reveries by a low growl from Flauros.
“Got the picture?”
“Yes. It’s downright depressing.”
“That it is. Now go immediately to Indoctrination. Melchom is waiting for you.
I fly off, glad to be gone from Flauros, although Melchom is no picnic either.
As Hell’s paymaster, he supervises all special missions to the realm of the mortals. He’s a beardless little bald guy with the arms of an octopus and a voice as deep as death.
Indoctrination is housed in a tiny little alcove seventeen caverns down from the Great Hall. Melchom smiles as I fly in.
“I envy you, Loki.”
“And why is that?”
“Yours is a really plum assignment. You are to investigate the most dangerous nation on Earth.”
Flashes of my recent history lesson run through my mind. Nazi Germany? No, that was already dust. The Soviet Union? Dissolved.
Melchom smiles even more widely at this display of naiveté. “No, my friend. The United States of America.”
Startled, I ask, “But aren’t they supposed to be the good guys?”
I have implanted memories of doughboys and then GIs liberating Europe, Woodrow Wilson and the Fourteen Points, FDR and the New Deal, Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, Ronald Reagan overcoming the Evil Empire, and George W. Bush putting a kibosh on the regime of Saddam Hussein.
“Americans certainly think so. But there is a brumal worm at the heart of American society. Several in fact. No people in history have so combined overwhelming military might with overweening ignorance. None has been more self-righteous and self-centered. Few have been as complacent or as cruel. It is time that you receive a more thorough briefing on the good old U.S. of A.”
Displayed on the small far wall of the cave is another series of moving tableaux, again the collective observations of 9,997 devils, but this time focusing on the history of the United States. All four hundred years of it from colonial times to contemporary superduperpowerdom.
An odd and troubling history it is, too. A desire for religious freedom combined with intolerance for the religions of others. A love of liberty and a penchant for slavery. A passion for the frontier spurred on by hatred of the frontier’s occupants. A fierce pride of country unalloyed by any regard for the people of other countries.
Admiration of technology, disdain for intellect. The list of antinomies appears endless. Still, I’m not prepared to condemn all things American and tell Melchom so.
“That’s why our Father chose you, dear boy. You’ve been blissfully asleep during the entire history of America and are therefore in a better position to be objective than any of us. Father is considering the destruction of the United States but hasn’t quite made up his mind. Your mission will shift the balance one way or the other. As you know, Father considers you our cleverest investigator. ”
“So what exactly is my mission?”
“To go among the Americans, observe their ways, read their minds when, talk to their leaders, infiltrate their culture, get to know them more thoroughly than any devil ever has and then come up with a plan of action.”
“Or inaction,” I say.
“Or inaction,” Melchom agrees.
“What special powers will I be allowed?” Interacting with humans is a tricky business. Not physically dangerous but fraught with potential peril, chiefly that I be revealed as a devil and my mission hopelessly compromised. It is therefore customary to provide an agent with a variety of powers designed to elude detection.
“The whole gamut, I am happy to say,” Melchom grins. “Teleportation, invisibility, telepathy (limited, as you know, except with Nulls Five and Six), the strength of ten, and great physical beauty.”
Impressed, I say, “I’ve never heard of all of them being granted at once except to Apollo. . .”
A frown flashes across Melchom’s cherubic face. “You mean Melchizedek. No gods’ names, remember.”
“Right,” I say hastily. “Sorry.”
The classification of Nulls is straightforward. Null Ones are inaccessible to our telepathy. We can read the surface thoughts of Nulls Two and Three and can access and control most of the thoughts and actions of Null Fours and Fives. Null Sixes we can control body and soul in a New York minute. What this means to me, going into a mission, is that for purposes of possession I know I will be hooked up with a Four, Five or Six, thus granting me powers that few devils ever experience.
We can communicate telepathically with one another and with the human Nulls Two through Six but we normally block communications among ourselves, except when mutually agreed upon. It’s a simple matter of etiquette. Of course, our Father can read our minds whenever He wishes but rarely chooses to do so, knowing that we are His obedient servants always and under any circumstance.
And we can only possess Nulls Four through Six. We have tried, at various times, to possess important humans lower on the Null scale like Alexander and Caesar but succeeded only in giving them fits which fortunately were mistaken for epilepsy.
Incarnation and aloondrum round out the ways we act on the human world. We can incarnate as anything (including imaginary beings like unicorns). And we can aloondrum into anything, This is primarily useful for surveillance.
We are almost exclusively intuitive. We rarely operate by rules of logic. We do not clearly understand what those are.
Which is why we do not understand science. Biology is a mystery to us.
After all, Lucifer created us and He’s not telling. The rest of science, cause and effect and all that makes little sense to us.
On the other hand, we are devoted to art. We continually create our own, for example music. Which is always different, never even a phrase repeating, or poetry which is sung in all languages, continually improvised upon and never lacking in beauty or power.
But it would be false to assume that we have powers that enable us to understand the universe (remember our incomprehension of science) or, especially, the future.
Even Lucifer has admitted that He doesn’t know quite what’s going on. But since He created us and seems like a pretty shrewd guy we give Him a break.
One problem is translating from a universal language into a merely human one. That’s one of the other things I should mention. We invented language just to confuse you humans.
That Tower of Babel story. It’s all true, except for the details.
So one of our gifts is understanding language, even Basque, which we threw in as a ringer to confuse the anthropologists.
So you get something of the idea. We are not all powerful but we do have abilities that are beyond human comprehension.
Oh, the existence of Evil? Nothing to do with us. Entirely a human invention. But more of that later.
That pusillanimous poet, Dante, was absurd in denoting nine circles of Hell. There are only six. And humans don’t exist in any of them. We wouldn’t allow them in. It would ruin the neighborhood. (The notion of humans having immortal souls is, in the view of all good devils, meretricious persiflage.)
Hell is pretty much buried under Yellowstone Park. (What they call it now, aeons after Lucifer switched the poles, though how he did that is anybody’s guess.)
It is a beautiful place, only about two hundred thousand square miles to accommodate capaciously the 9999 of us devils. With its own interior illumination, Hell does not require sunlight or anything else to keep it going. Concentrically configured, there are 366 caverns, all leading through illumined tunnels to the Great Chamber. Our 9998 ice castles lie beneath the Great Chamber, followed, below that, by Lucifer’s Palace, which we may visit only by our Father’s explicit invitation.
Six molten rivers, gleaming in vermilion and gold, thread through our lovely land, forming, at crucial junctures, nine resplendent lakes that provide our castles with dozens of delightful prospects. Rising from misty depths, Father created hundreds of islands replete with the residue of ruined cities that He rescued ages ago from the grave robber’s greed and the archaeologist’s axe, allowing His children to contemplate the spires of Atlantis, the towers of Babylon, and the faded glories of Cibola, Sardis and Samarkand.
Now, ipse dixit, to the very essence of Hell (we have called it all kinds of things - Valhalla, Hades, Myr, Gehenna, Standido, Universitas, etc. but we like Hell because it is one syllable and easy to pronounce.)
Hell is a state of mind.
We devils like to think of it as a blessed state because in Hell there are few conflicts, fears, phobias, anxieties, neuroses, psychoses or other oddities that might prevent us from doing what we enjoy most, which is playing.
You know about the Puritan work ethic (actually, I just heard about it during my America Indoctrination.)
We subscribe to the devils’ play ethic. Why work when you can play? I mean, think about it. What possible good does work do? Produces more things that more beings consume. So what? I mean, give me recess anytime.
That most pontifical of poets, Milton, described Lucifer as saying that He would rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Well, Lucifer does reign in Hell but that is because there is no Heaven in which to serve.
And what did Milton know? He really wasn’t of the devil’s party, despite Blake’s comment. (Blake, without knowing it, of course, was of our party, just not registered.)
But let me mention Lucian, a guy I knew, almost as well as I knew Epictetus.
Now there was a man after my own heart (figuratively speaking - devils don’t actually have hearts). Talk about someone with his head screwed on straight, Lucian knocked Hesiod and Homer for the knotheads they were. No Sextus Empiricus he. Lucian at least knew that we exist.
Not so Philo. What a mélange of melliloquence he wrote. All kinds of nonsense about a divine godhead. Philo is Plato puniized. I once went on a mission to bring him to his senses but it turned out that he didn’t have any. (Oddly, he was one of the teachers of Jesus but fortunately that good man paid little attention to Philo’s mad mutterings and went on his own merry and misunderstood way.)
But I digress.
It fully strikes me only at this moment, my dearest Margarita, that I have just been appointed as the new American Devil. Delivering an uncharacteristically cheery farewell, Melchom says that I am to receive my final instructions from Father Himself.