The “Folkloric Devil” is a term applied to the figure who appears in folk-tales and legends and who is often called “the devil”, but it’s obvious that he emerges from a different source than the theological background of Christianity.
Old divinities or diminished Gods that maintained a presence in the minds or cultures of European peoples are suggested (often enough, and for good reasons) as a source of this figure; but beyond that, the pre-Christian societies had spiritual forces and persons that they related to in the sense of “outsider” powers that could be shady or tricky or dangerous at times, but who often had kinds of relationships nonetheless with human beings. These are the main source of the “folkloric” Devil/Devils.
The Folkloric devil isn’t concerned with damning souls, primarily, but he always wants to make deals or pacts to help humans who need things, but so that he can gain, too- a sign of his origin in the older world of spirit-relationship and spiritual ecology. In Christian gloss, he begins more and more to want “souls” for his help, but he is always able to be tricked, himself- and this is very important. Human heroes or protagonists can outwit him. This is something that would be impossible to do to the Theological Devil, who is far beyond humans in power, and second only to God himself in power.
Modern Pop Culture produces surprising emergences of the old Folkloric Devil- Charlie Daniel’s song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is an appearance of a Folkloric Devil, who can be out-played by the intrepid and arrogant local boy, on the fiddle. There is the Christian conceit of the Devil seeking souls in that song, but that’s just a minor detail, more suited to a Christian audience and born from the imagination of a low Protestant folk singer.
The Folkloric Devil is a being- and a representative of a whole class of beings- who can be engaged with by humans, for gains. They can be harmful, they can be helpful, and they can be outwitted or outdone at times. Sometimes, they become protagonists themselves.
Theological Elites in the Pre-Modern period of Europe saw no distinction between their Theological Devil and the various emergences of the Folkloric Devil. The “Devil” of witch cults and covenants and of individual sorcerers or witches was of the Folkloric variety, though in their own personal understandings, even they may have believed that he was the same as the theological devil, such was the nature of their times. It’s not like there was a neat chart that spelled all this stuff out to earlier people, and folk in Pre-Modern times heard Christian ministers ranting alongside fire-side bards telling folktales, and so the Folkloric Devil/Devils could take on Christian gloss and attributes at times, and the Theological devil could appear in decidedly “folkish” ways.
What’s important to remember is that the Theological Devil doesn’t exist except as the shadow of Christian psychology. He is born from the idealistic Christian imagination, as the necessary counter-ideal or counter-force to their idealistic notion of good, the warped good, the fallen good, born in their continuation of earlier dualistic religious tropes that posited a cosmic war between good and evil cosmological forces.
The Folkloric Devil, on the other hand, very much exists, both in the form of a powerful former divinity worshiped by practically every human culture known previous to Christianity, and as a folk-memory of certain spirit-entities (very much tied to this world) that people have always engaged in relationships with, though they are a group of entities who are, in ways, challenging, dangerous at points, and ambiguous.
The Theological Devil is a remnant of idealism and the diseased imagination of absolutists and idealists. The Folkloric Devil is a remnant of ancient spiritual ecology and human relationships to the wilder, stranger Otherworld.
- Robin Artisson