The Early Notions about Evil

From the Lecture Series: Why Evil Exists

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Since very early times, humans have harbored some notions of what they perceive to be evil. It is these perceptions of the evil that have inspired myths and stories of those days, which have, in turn, substantially influenced the contemporary ideas about what evil is.

An abstract figure in cloak, in muted lights.
In the earliest times, evil was considered to be much larger than human reality. (Image: 80’s Child/Shutterstock)

What Is Evil?

The stories go back many thousands of years, and some of their elements likely stretch back into pre-history. One of the most fundamental and profound convictions that humans have had about evil is the idea that evil is somehow larger than individual human decisions to be bad, and that evil must predate or precede human malice.

They express an idea that is still powerful for many today: the idea that evil has a cosmic metaphysical reality beyond human being.

The Good and the Evil

An abstract image of Satan.
According to linguistic archaeologists, ‘Satan’ means ‘Shatan’ that literally means a ‘rival’. (Image: Magdalena Teterdynko/ Shutterstock)

But it’s an idea that need not have all of the same ethical connotations that we commonly take as “evil” to possess, hence the earliest linguistic precursor we have for the word Satan—the word that we all typically talk about as “the Devil”.

The earliest version of this word, as far as the linguistic archaeologists have been able to discover, is Shatan. It does not fundamentally mean an evil-doer, devil, or a demon. It simply means “rival.” God’s rival is how the Devil was originally conceived of in these cultures and we’ll see today that the rivalry is in some ways at the heart of the entirety of the Ancient Near Eastern mythos of creation, a mythos that begins from the idea that humans are, in some sense, in a world composed of rival powers of good and evil.

Learn more about Greek philosophy-human evil and malice.

The Role of Experience in Judging Evil

The earlier stories also express another fundamental conviction that it’s only experience that can really teach us about evil and its meanings. In the Myth of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is a very wise and brave man, but even he is tormented by the problem of evil and the fact of human suffering in ways that overcome him.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Matrix of Good and Evil

The categories of good and evil are present from the earliest civilizations of the Ancient Near East. These emerged as qualities of actions and of persons. Our earliest stories talk about good deeds and bad deeds, good people and malicious people.

Looking at these Ancient Near Eastern myths, it’s also important to notice that this is the matrix, this is the context, out of which the Hebrew Bible itself emerges.

But, we did not know about this matrix until about 100–150 years ago when clay tablets began to appear at archaeological digs that actually told the stories of these ancient civilizations, and when they did, they made us realize that the way we had been reading texts we thought we knew very well. Like the book of Genesis importantly left stuff out that we couldn’t see was there precisely because they were shadowing the text of Genesis but not visible inside those texts.

Learn more about the Hebrew Bible-human rivalry with God.

What Is a Myth?

Here, by ‘myth’, means the deep structures of the cultural unconscious, the foundational narratives and the frames by which people think in these cultures.

People, today, have myths of similar depth—myths about individual achievement; about the justice and significance of their own nation in the world; the idea of freedom, and how it is a universal desire of all people. These myths orient humans in all times to understand the world in certain ways and make some things obvious to us and some things harder to believe.

The Combat Myth

Central to the Ancient Near Eastern world was what scholars have come to call the mythic pattern called the “combat myth”. The combat myth was a fairly common theme across many of these cultures. Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Canaanite stories all tell the story in similar ways: the story of the cosmos, the universe as a whole, as a site of combat, a battlefield, between good and bad divine powers.

This combat myth gives rise to these cultures’ cosmogonies, that is their stories of how the world and the cosmos came to be (“cosmogony” is a word that comes from “cosmo-genesis”).

An image depicting combat between the Chaos Monster and Sun God.
In the earlier myths, the universe was portrayed as a combat site between the good and the evil forces. (Image: Austen Henry Layard, drawing by L. Gruner/Public domain)

In this myth, the cosmos is the site, or perhaps it’s the consequence, of a titanic struggle between the forces of a good god and the forces of a rival evil god. In fact, this cosmogony includes in it a theogony, a “theo-genesis”, a story of the creation of the gods. The creation of humanity is normally the final act in the drama that begins with the origins of these gods.

In these stories, these chaos-gods—these early chaos-gods—are confronted, defeated, and destroyed by other, often younger, up and coming hero-gods. The earliest known myths are centered around these ideas and concepts.

Common Questions About the Notion of Evil

Q: What is one of the most fundamental convictions that humans have had about evil?

One of the most fundamental convictions that humans have had about evil is the idea that it is somehow larger than individual human decisions to be bad, and that evil must predate or precede human malice.

Q: What is the earliest linguistic precursor for the word ‘evil’?

The earliest linguistic precursor for the word evil‘ is the word ‘Shatan’ which means ‘rival’.

Q: What is a combat myth?

In combat myth, the cosmos is the site, or perhaps it’s the consequence, of a titanic struggle between the forces of a good god and the forces of a rival evil god.

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