Thursday 8 March 2012

Samael vs. Ashmedai

So while we're between sections of Radiance, I was giving some thought to bigger narrative issues, and in particular the question of the main villain.

You see, when I started I wanted a major villainous figure for Asher to fight in the first chapter. I didn't want to have one of those stories where the villains are incompetent, and send useless minions to kill the hero, leading to escalating threats for the hero to defeat. No! I thought. The sitra achra should send their most powerful ally to get the job done - and who better than Ashmedai, king of the demons?

But then I came to chapter 5 and the reveal of Samael as the anti-Tiferet figure, corresponding to Virgo of the Seven, a raging figure of flames and stone.

But along with the rest of the Sitra Achra (Lillith, Naamah, Ov and the nameless one), as well as other creatures we've met and will meet, like the golem, the watchers and Leviathan, I'm worried that there are simply too many villains. The other problem is that Ashmedai (a demon) and Samael (a satanic angel) seem to have rather similar forms. So what are our options?

1] Ashmedai should be the central villain.
Ashmedai (or Asmodeus), the king of the demons, is well-known from Talmudic and later medieval Jewish lore. Gittin 68a-68b describes how Solomon required an amazing worm, called the Shamir, in order to build the temple - for he was forbidden from using any kind of metal tools to shape the stones, and the Shamir could cut through any rock. But he couldn't find the Shamir, until his servant Benaiahu captured Ashmedai, who revealed the secret. However, after the construction of the temple, Solomon was tricked into giving the demon his sceptre and ring, whereupon Ashmedai flung him 400 parasangs and took his place as king in Jerusalem.

This story shows that Ashmedai has some kind of shape-changing powers that I have attempted to use already in the section of Malchut, and intend to dwell more on this in future chapters.

PROS: Ashmedai's legend in the talmud is tantalising, suggesting a weakness for alcohol, powers of shape-changing and feats of strength that make him an interesting character for a fantasy novel.

CONS: Ashmedai in Jewish tradition isn't such a bad guy. Even in the Gittin story, he is forced to obey when the name of God is used. He certainly doesn't seem intent on death and destruction. While this might make him an interesting, more nuanced villain, it doesn't quite fit with the evil scheme I have in mind for the Sitra Achra.

2] Samael is the central villain.
 Samael is a strange figure in the rabbinic literature, varying between the angel of death, working for God, and behaving as a force of evil, opposed to God's will.

The Bahir, along with other Jewish texts, describes Samael in much the same way as Christians might describe Lucifer. He was an angel opposed to the creation of man. Samael inhabited the snake and tempted Eve to sin, in response to which God threw him down from heaven:

"She replied to Him, “Master of all worlds: The serpent enticed me to sin before You.” [God] took the three of them, and decreed upon them a sentence of nine curses and death. He then cast the wicked Samael and his group from their holy place in heaven." -The Bahir, Section V (trans. by Aryeh Kaplan).

PROS: Samael is probably the main force of evil in the Zohar, the main personification of the Sitra Achra. Married to the four angels of prostitution, he represents all the forces of evil and death.

CONS: Samael seems both less nuanced and harder to pin down in appearance and abilities, which makes him a little less inspiring.

3] Both remain in the story as is.
Ashmedai remains outside of the Sitra Achra, summoned to do their bidding but basically his own guy. Meanwhile Samael is the driving force behind the Sitra Achra.

PROS: it allows Ashmedai to remain as a threatening force, even after the end of the story when the Sitra Achra's power will be broken. Keeps the more ambiguous nature of Ashmedai while having a clear-cut evil villain.

CONS: With so many villains and threats, including the mysterious Boss who is communicating with the Sitra Achra, it seems that it's all just a bit busy. Having only one of these two might make the story more focussed and potentially more personal.

So, what do you think?


  1. I think that the character nuance possibilities of Asmodeus are tantalizing and that you should keep him in, outside Sitra Achra, at least for now. (You can write him and/or Samael out later - easier to do that than write one of them *in* later.)

    Maybe you can simplify Sitra Achra, though. When I think of Harry Potter, as an example, I know that Voldemort is the main bad guy, and I can remember two other "lieutenants" (Beatrix Lestrange and Lucius Malfoy). I know there were more, but only two of them had personalities that I remember. So maybe your council of evil can likewise have a couple memorable personalities filled in with other less important characters?


    1. I think you make some good points, and maybe we'll just have to see how it all plays out. I had a manga/superhero-esque vision of each hero fighting their counterpart, which maybe I'll write and see how it goes.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  2. Ashmodai is not a bad guy. As you say, he is totally subservient to God (though I suppose some Jewish thought would probably put Samael into that camp as well). Ashmodai should appear to be a horrible villain from the get-go, but actually turn out to not really be involved or particularly care about the Sitra Achra.

    Samael is a much more compelling villain to me. He's an angel: he doesn't need the sort of specific powers that Ashmodai has. Angels do whatever is required of them to fulfil their function. Plus he has associations with fire and serpents—what else could you want? ;)

    Where does Lilith figure in these ideas? I wonder if Lilith is not in fact an even better villain. Or perhaps it looks like Samael is the main villain, but it turns out to really be Lilith that is pulling the strings.