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Won’t You Guess My Name?

Melek_tausI didn’t know I was named for the devil until I studied on an exchange program in Belgium. There, I would be introduced as “Mademoiselle Luci Férriss,” and the people who had begun stretching out their hands would recoil. “Lucifer!” they exclaimed more than once. “Why would your parents have saddled you with such a name?”

The answer, of course, is that my parents hadn’t thought they were naming me after the Prince of Darkness. The origin of my first name is the Latin word for light. The origin of my last name is probably the Latin ferrum, referring to ironmakers somewhere back in the family tree; but it could also be the Latin ferre, “to carry,” which made Lucifer the bringer of light, or the dawn.* In any case, I’ve rather enjoyed being named after a fallen angel, especially when I’ve found people from other cultures also studying the name in puzzlement. This happened not long ago in a Lebanese bakery where I left my name for a later pickup of spinach pies. “You don’t look Lebanese,” the man at the counter said.

“I’m not,” I said. “Anglo-Irish.”

My surname, he told me, was also Lebanese, referring to the one who carries the iron lance at the front of the army. Ah-ha.

But enough about me. I mention my own connection with the devil merely to support my personal interest in the kind of misunderstanding that has led to the tragically displaced Yazidi sect’s being accused of devil worship. The only explanation we get from the media is that “A central figure in the religion is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, whose story of falling out of grace with God resembles that of Satan’s in Islam,” or that “Melek Taus is sometimes referred to as Shaitan by Yazidis, which in Arabic means Satan.”

Well, the Yazidis speak a dialect of Arabic, and the story’s the same, so what’s missing here?

I don’t know much about Zoroastrianism or the development of proto-Indo-European languages. But a little sniffing around and a sense of what happens to oral stories gave me a better idea. It seems that in Yazidi cosmology, as in the Christian Bible and the Qur’an, God created various sorts of beings, among them angels, jinn (according to Islamic tradition), and humans. In both Islamic and Yazidic versions of the story, the one originally named Lucifer or Iblis, who will become known as Shaitan, or Satan, meaning “adversary,” refuses to bow down to the human whom God creates. But here the stories diverge. In the Islamic version, Iblis is the only jinn asked to join the angels in their obeisance to Adam. Like all other jinns and humans (but unlike angels), Iblis has free will; when he exercises that will to refuse, he is forced out of heaven. The Christian version is much the same, except that Lucifer is an angel infected by pride.

But in Yazidism, God’s command to Melek Taus to bow down to Adam was a test. As an emanation of God, it was impossible for him to bow down to this creature made of dust; and yet it was equally impossible that a command of God’s should be disobeyed. After this point in the story, my understanding gets murky. On the one hand, apparently the peacock angel passed the test and became God’s deputy on earth. On the other, apparently he did fall from paradise, but he spent 7,000 years repenting, during which his tears washed away the fires of hell. Either way, rather than an evil-doer, he is a beneficent being caught up in a sort of cognitive dissonance.

But this is a very, very old story. Consider, if you will, the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, which has been around for only a millennium and of which there are already more than a dozen versions. Why should we be surprised that a story about an opposing angel should evolve into different plots with different moral truths while retaining vestiges of the old name? As Elaine Pagels puts it in her book on Satan, “Satan has, after all, made a kind of profession out of being ‘the other’; and so Satan defines negatively what we think of as human.”

Cold comfort, I realize, for the Yazidis still in Iraq. Their adversaries are all too real, and uninterested in stories.

*Update: I am informed by a Latin scholar that the closest approximation in Latin of my actual name, luci ferris, means “who is carried to the light.” I want it on my tombstone.

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