Viewpoint: Lucifer: What's in a Name
Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2001 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Algeo, John. "Viewpoint: Lucifer: What's in a Name." Quest 89.5 ( September-October 2001): 162-163.
By John Algeo, National President
Questions on many subjects come across the desk of the National President of theTheosophical Society in America. Indeed, every question that no one else at the national center knows how to respond to sooner or later finds its way to my in-box. Of course, some of them, I don’t know how to respond to either, but many questions that are puzzling at first will give way to answers with a bit of poking and persistence. An example is the following.
Question: Why is Lucifer the only angel whose name does not end in -el?
Answer: Most of the angelic names are from Hebrew. The element -el in Hebrew means “God” and is widely used in names, both angelic and human: Gabriel “God is my warrior, ” Immanuel “God is with us,” Joel “Yah(weh) is God,” Michael, “Who is like God?” Raphael “God has healed, ”Uriel “Light of God,” and so on. Because the angels were especially near to God, their Hebrew names often include the element -el. But Lucifer is a Latin name meaning literally “light bringer” or “light bearer” (lux, luci- “light” and-fer “bear” or “carry,” as also in Christopher “He who carries Christ,” the saint of that name often being depicted in religious paintings as carrying an infant Jesus on his shoulder).
How Lucifer got to be used as a name for a devil is a complicated story. In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (chapter 14), there is a passage talking about the King of Babylon, who was not a favorite of Isaiah’s. Verse 12 of that chapter runs (in the oldest known version of the Bible): “How you are fallen from heaven, O day-star, son of the morning! How you have been cut down to the ground-you who laid low the nation” (Dead Sea Scrolls Bible 292).
The King of Babylon had apparently been given (or perhaps himself assumed) the title “Day-Star,” which is a name for the planet Venus, the first planet or star seen in the morning just before the sun rises, hence the King was also called “son of the morning.” The identification of important monarchs with heavenly bodies has always been common, as for example King Louis XIV of France was called the “Sun King.” Now, the word Lucifer “light bearer” was the Latin term for the “day-star” or Morning Star because it brought in (or bore) the light of the day.
So when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Latin, the word lucifer was used in this verse, rendered into Latin as Quomodo cecidistide cælo, lucifer, qui mane oriebaris? That is literally, “How have you fallen from heaven, light bearer, who are born in the morning?” The reference to falling from heaven was doubtless Isaiah’s way of putting the Babylonian king in his place by sarcastically observing in effect: “OK, you call yourself the Day Star of Heaven, you who think you’re so high and mighty, but look at you now--you, the so-called Day Star, have fallen from your place in the heavens and have yourself been cut down to the ground.”
However, the early Christian interpreters misunderstood the expression “fallen from heaven” and, instead of recognizing it as a figure of speech playing on the destruction of the wicked King of Babylon, who called himself the Day Star, they thought it was a literal statement about a fall from heaven and identified the event with the legendary fall of Satan. So they thought that the term “Day Star,” or “Lucifer” in Latin, referred to Satan. And thus a term for the planet Venus became one of the names of a devil. It was a mistake caused by misunderstanding figurative language as a literal statement, a common problem among fundamentalists.
The story does not end there, however, at least not for Theosophists. When Helena Blavatsky moved to London in 1887, she decided to start a new magazine, and she chose to name it Lucifer, against the advice of some of her friends. The choice of that name was surely due, at least in part, to Blavatsky’s wicked sense of humor. She knew very well that the literal-minded and unimaginative ofher day would associate the name with the devil. She was saying in effect: Very well, you think I’m a devil well, here’s another little tidbit for you to chew on. That is, she used the name to tweak the noses of the literalists.
The very first article in the first issue of the magazine was “What’s in a Name?” and was by Blavatsky herself. In it she explained what the name really means and how it came to be misunderstood and misapplied. She also explained why it was the right name for her magazine, which was intended (as St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 4.5) to bring “to light the hidden things of darkness.” She wrote that the purpose of her new magazine was “to fight prejudice, hypocrisy and shams in every nation, in every class of Society, as in every department of life.” To top it off, the illustration on the cover of the magazine depicted a brilliant youth holding aloft a blazing star that he is bringing to earth.
Blavatsky furthermore pointed out that in the Book of Revelation, Christ referred to himself as “the bright and morning star,” that is, Lucifer. And the Gospel of St. John (1.4) says, “In him . . . was the light of men.” Blavatsky identified Christ with Prometheus, who brought fire and thus light to humanity and who was thus etymologically a Lucifer or Light-bearer. Christ, Prometheus,and Lucifer were all symbolic bringers of light to the world and consequently savior figures.
Blavatsky certainly did not believe in the existence of any literal devil, under whatever name. And she doubtless thought that ideas about the devil were a mixture of legends and misunderstandings of metaphorical and symbolic language, of which the name Lucifer is a prime example. For that reason also, it was a good name for her magazine.
The answer to the question we started with, then, is that Lucifer was not originally an angel at all (good or bad), but the planet Venus as the morningstar. The morning star or light bringer Lucifer was associated with Christ and Prometheus as mythic figures who brought light to humanity.
Abegg, Martin, Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich. The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible: The Oldest Known Bible Translated for the First Time into English. New York: Harper Collins, Harper San Francisco, 1999.
Blavatsky, Helena P. “What’s in a Name? Why the Magazine is called ‘Lucifer.’ ”Lucifer 1 (September 1887): 1 -7. Reprint Collected Writings 8:5 -13. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1960.
“Lucifer.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. on Compact Disc. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992