Monster of the Week: The Devil's Backside


'Saint Wolfgang and the Devil' by Michael Pacher De Agostini Picture Library

We've covered demons here before on Monster of the Week, but never the Devil himself. In keeping with this week's episode on Satanic Panic, I thought we should change that. The physical manifestations of the horned one are too many and varied for one post, so let's focus on the above specimen from Michael Pacher's 15th century painting "Saint Wolfgang and the Devil."

The Proof is in the Anus

Other artists may present the devil as more man than beast, but Pacher makes the Prince of Darkness as beastly as possible. This monstrous body boasts horns, fangs, antlers, bat wings, a cow's tail, a frog's head and emaciated limbs. As Walter Stephens points out in "Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and the Crisis of Belief," the depiction follows the trend of depicting demons as "a riot of corporeality."

Stephens argues that the physical existence of demons was an important concept in 15th century Europe, salving that century's crisis of belief while also leading to the torture and death of innocents by the tens of thousands -- most of them women. The witches who admitted (under torture) to carnal knowledge of demons were providing expert testimony to the existence of the supernatural.

Biology of the Devil

So why is there a face on the devil's butt? According to Stephens, there's no rhyme or reason to it here other than to present the devil as corporeal as all get out.

Eyespots.
Wild Horizons/Getty

If we're to take a biological approach, however, we might interpret the face as a mere functioning anus with eyespots to confuse enemies or draw their attention away from its delicate head. You can find eyespots in a wide variety of butterflies and fish, as well as in the wild African serval cat, the killer whale and the Indian cobra. Similarly, humans have been known to wear masks on the back of the heads to ward off tiger attacks.

Or perhaps the devil's rear eyes are functional sight organs. Consider the example of the butterfly Papilio xuthus, which boasts two light-sensing photoreceptors in its rear. These serve the same purpose as the rear view camera in your Prius, except for mating. They allow the male P. xuthus to alignin their genitals when mating back-to-back with females.

So perhaps the devil in Pacher's painting uses its rear eyes during its carnal encounters with witches. After all, the Osculum infame or "ritual kiss" upon a demon's butt was a common component of witchcraft confessions, and therefore 15th-century witchcraft theory and demonology in general. Having an eye on each buttock could, in theory, aid both execution or enjoyment of the infernal rite.

Oh, the physical horrors we imagine and the atrocities we commit in the name of proving God is real...

An Osculum infame from 1608's Compendium Maleficarum.
DeAgostini/Getty

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.