Angel & Devil on Your Shoulder 6

Sandy Hobbs | Letters to Ambrose Merton # 20, 1999

In my first note on this topic, I mentioned a film Angel on my shoulder which at that time I had not seen. It was shown recently on BBC television, which has allowed me to clarify how the concept is employed in this context. The film, released by United Artists in 1946, concerns a dead gangster, played by Paul Muni, who is released from Hell by Mephistopheles, whose aim is to discredit a crusading judge by allowing the gangester to take over the judge’s body. The gangster is attracted to the judge’s fiancee and begins to move away from “bad” to “good” behaviour. They go to a clergyman’s home to ask him to marry them. The clergyman’s is interrupted while composing a sermon. In conversation, he says, in a way which suggests that he is quoting:

“Heed not Mephistopheles, my children, lest you suffer eternal damnation. When he whispers in your ear, turn away your head, and harken instead to the angel on your shoulder.”

The gangster asks: “What if you ain’t got no angel on you shoulder?” To this, the clergyman replies: “You have, if you live right, son”.

Can any reader suggest a source for this quotation?

Note that only the angel is explicitly said to be on the shoulder. Note too that it is Mephistopheles himself, not simple a devil, who is pictured as whispering in the ear. This could be done while sitting on the shoulder, but obviously equally well by a human sized figure standing beside you. Left and right does not appear as a feature in this case.

(The film, which was directed by Archie Mayo, was written by Harry Segall and Roland Kibbee, from an original story by Harry Segall.)

Angel & Devil on Your Shoulder 5

Jean-Bruno Renard | Letters to Ambrose Merton # 20, 1999

Herge, the celebrated Belgian comic strip artist, has made use of the motif of the Good Angel and Bad Angel which stand on either side of every human being (and even of animals!)

A strip featuring the characters Quick and Flupke, which first appeared in the 1930s, was republished in Archives Herge: Quick et Flupke (Paris – Tournai: Casterman, 1978). When Flupke sees a poster for a Colonial Lottery, A devil appears and expresses the hope that he will buy a ticket. However, an angel reminds him that in his reading book it says that “Money doesn’t bring happiness”. The devil counters by pointing to the lottery slogan “Get money without working”. The angel reminds him of the ennobling power of work. The devil has the last word showing Flupke what work might be – carrying an advertising placard in the pouring rain.

Note that the devil and the angel both ressemble Flupke and are around his height. The devil stands on his left; the angel on his right.

In Tintin au Tibet (Casterman, 1958) the dog Milou (renamed “Snowy ” in English translations) is shown accompanied by a angel and a devil, each of which is portayed as standing on two legs like a human being but having a dog’s head just like Milou.

Angel & Devil on Your Shoulder 4

Jacqueline Simpson | Letters to Ambrose Merton # 20, 1999

A supplement to my note on angel and devil at one’s right and left shoulder. Will Ryan’s The Bakehouse at Midnight: Magic in Russia (Sutton, 1999) mentions on page 55 the association of left with damnation on the basis of Matthew 25:33:

And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left.

This is followed in 25:41 by:

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.

Ryan goes on:

“Perhaps for this reason one of the euphemisms for the Devil in some parts of Russia is simply levyi, ‘the left one’… There was a common dualist belief in Russia that a child at birth was allocated not only a guardian angel, who always hovered on the right, but also an attendant devil, who took up his position on the left. Consequently many Russians would never spit to the right and would always sleep on their left side so as to be facing the angel and not see the devil in nightmares. This belief in a good and bad guardian spirit has analogues in Greek and Jewish popular belief.”

Ryan gives as references for the Greek belief, Charles Stewart, Demons and the Devil, Princeton 1991, p. 178, and for the Jewish, Stanley Coren, The Left -Hander Syndrome, London 1992, pp. 12-13.

I suspect that the earlier examples of the belief will all turn out to say “at” one’s shoulder, or “at” one’s side, and that “on” is part of the modern tendency to miniaturize supernatural beings, especially fairies, but sometimes angels too. In Disney’s Pinocchio, does Jiminy Cricket perch on Pinocchio’s shoulder?

I have just been re-reading Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and was surprised to notice that the innocent and persecuted brother always sees his demonic brother standing to his right (not his left) glaring at him. However, I think this is due to the influence of the terrible Psalm 109 (“the cursing psalm”), a metrical version of which is quoted in the story.

This Psalm contains the lines:

Set thou the wicked over him; and upon his right hand
Give thou his greatest enemy, ev’n Satan, leave to stand.

Postscript: The reference to Everyman in my previous note on this subject was wrong. I was probably confusing it in my mind with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus , where a bad angel and a good angel appear on stage from time to time, to argue with Faustus.

Angel & Devil on Your Shoulder 3

Sandy Hobbs | Letters to Ambrose Merton # 19, 1999

Since writing my first piece on this subject, I have come across another example in popular art of the angel and imagery. Part of the interest is that jokes are built on the assumption that the audience will be familiar with concept. Family Guy is a cartoon series aimed at adults, made by Fuzzy Door Productions for Twentieth Century Fox. The episode in question, copyright 1999, has the identfying code 1ACX01.

The central characters are Peter and Lois, a married couple. Peter has lost his job, but Lois doesn’t yet know.

Peter: Ah, geez, how the hell am I going t tell this to Lois? If she finds out I got fired for drinking, she’s going to blame ME.

A Devil (red clothes, horns, carrying a trident) appears over his right shoulder:

Devil: Lie to her. It’s OK to lie to women. They’re not PEOPLE like us.

Peter: Aw, I don’t know… (Looks over his shoulder) Where’s the other guy?

Cut to an Angel (dressed in white, with a halo) stuck in a traffic jam.

Later, Lois who is getting suspicious, says to Peter:

You know, if there’s something wrong you can tell me.

Peter’s Angel appears. He says:

Heh, sorry man, am I late? What did I miss?
Peter: Oh, thank God you’re here. What do I do?

A Devil appears over the Angel’s right shoulder.

Devil: Tell him to keep lying. He’s in too deep.
Angel: Oh. I don’t know… (Looks over his other shoulder) Hey where’s the other guy?

Angel & Devil on Your Shoulder 2

Jacqueline Simpson | Letters to Ambrose Merton # 19, 1999

It was quite a common medieval notion that we all have not only one Good Angel (+ Guardian Angel) but also a Bas Angel (= Demon) assigned by Satan to be our own individual tempter. An early-ish literary use of this idea is in the 15th century morality play, Everyman. The hero is accompanied through life by an angel and a demon who both try to influence him. A very clever modern version is C. S. Lewis’s Screwtop Letters, though there the focus is on the demon.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144 exploits the theme:

Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still;
The better angel is a man right fair.
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.
To win me soon the hell my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side…

I think there is a convention in art that an angel would stand on the right of the human being, a devil on the left, and that this is the origin of the stage convention, still observed in pantomime, that the Demon King witches, etc. enter on the left. I’m afraid I can’t precisely document this, though I do note that Philippe Aries in The Hour of Our Death (Part 1, section 3, “Hour of Death: Final Reckoning, p 195 in te paperback edition ) describes an illustrated treatise of 1736, where at the deathbed of a sinner, “to the left we see the devil presenting him with a book which contains the history of his evil life”. The ultimate source would obviously be the Last Judgement sheep-and-goats imagery from the gospels.

Also, when we throw spilled salt over the left shoulder, we are told this is to blind the devil who lurks there.

Angel & Devil on Your Shoulder 1

Sandy Hobbs | Letters to Ambrose Morten # 17, 1999

My four year old grandson, Owen McLaughlin, recently told me that it is the devil who makes you do bad things. He sits on one of your shoulders, while an angel sits on the other. What are the origins of this concept? Biblical devils and angels seem to me to be human size. Biblical devils may be inside people (and hence can be cast out) but I can find no reference to one sitting on a shoulder.

Yet, the concept is a fairly familiar one to me. It can be found in popular culture. In the film, National Lampoon’s Animal House (directed by John Landis, 1978), Larry Kroger (Thomas Hulce) is in a bedroom with a girl who passes out drunk. A small devil figure (red, carrying a trident) appears on one side of the screen, encouraging him to have sex with her. An angel (with halo and harp) appears on the other side of the screen encouraging him to stop. Neither is strictly speaking “on his shoulder” but both could be said to be at his shoulder.

In the Oor Wullie comic strip annual (published by D.. C. Thomson, 1976) there is a story in which the schoolboy hero, Wullie, finds the answers to a forthcoming exam. His “Bad Self” and “Better Self” appear hovering in “clouds”, respectively inducing him to use and not use the answers. Although not called a devil and an angel, these figures are protrayed as such. “Bad Self” has horns, pointed ears and horns. “Better Self” has wings and a halo. As in the previous example, they are not actually on the hero’s shoulders.

There is film called Angel On My Shoulder (directed by Archie Mayo, 1946) which I have not seen. Although the title suggests a link with the concept Owen mentioned, this may be misleading. Synopses in reference books indicate that the story concerns a dead gangster given a “second life” on earth by the Devil.

Is there a connection with lines which occur near the end of Shakespeare’s Othello? Gratiano, seeing the body of the murdered Desdemona, expresses his satisfaction that her father is already dead. If the father had seen her, he would have cursed “his better Angel from his side” and committed suicide. If he had a “better Angel” by his side, does that imply he also had a “worse Angel”?

Can any reader more familiar with religious lore provide more background?