Where did the Angel and Devil arguing on a character's shoulder start?

Question is pretty much as presented? When did the scene found in so many movies and tv shows come from? You know the scene, an action figure sized little angel and devil, often looking like the conflicted character, try to persuade the main characer to do either the right or wrong thing. It seems to hae been around forever. Anyone know where it started?


Don’t know–but would bet that Will Eisner had a lot to do with it.

The angel / devil setup comes from the medieval morality plays, which date back at least as far as the fifteenth century. I’d bet that the image made its way into contemporary pop culture via Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (early 1590s).

That said, obviously none of the early stage versions would have featured an action-figure-sized angel and devil standing on the character’s shoulders, since it’s pretty hard to do that with live actors. I have no idea where that part comes from.

Doctor Faustus received advice from a good angel and a bad angel.

I don’t know, but you can get your own here

I have the sudden urge to take my Angel action figure and my devil girl action figure and have a pretend argument somewhere public.

Animal House.

According to something I ran across on Wikipedia (and file under “Wow, I never knew that”), they derive from Islamic “Kiraman Katibin.”

Wow, much older than I thought. I was going to guess some 1930’s comedy. Learn something new every day.

I’d take the Kiraman Katibin thing with a grain of salt. I don’t see any references on the Wikipedia article to back it up.

but over 1800 Google references, though.

This made me chuckle - I was told the reason you throw spilt salt over your left shoulder was to hit the devil sitting there.

My Latin prof said this literary device was called psychomachia. Wiki cites the poem, but doesn’t mention this use of the word. Anybody else ever heard this?

Even if Islamic tradition is the source, I’d be interested to know how the idea made the transition to Western cartoons.

This site claims its from Lend a Paw, a 1941 Disney cartoon with Pluto being urged by shoulder angels/devils

Here’s Lend a Paw. The mini devil and angel don’t actually appear on Pluto’s shoulders, they just walk/fly around. Interestingly the same mini devil appears in Mickey’s Elephant (1936) without his angel companion.

I’m thinking that the origin isn’t really from the Islamic tradition mentioned above. It looks like Disney cartoonists simply first used the device of a tempting devil from the Christian tradition and from there it was natural to add an angel in the later cartoon. Presumably some later cartoonists put them on someones shoulder (though I’m guessing that innovation happened with a different character then Pluto since 1) The database I found of Disney characters doesn’t have any further appearences of the “Pluto’s devil” character till the '90s and 2) Pluto doesn’t really have shoulders). In anycase, I’d be interesting if someone knows when the mini angel/demon moved up to peoples shoulders.

Of course, that website I linked to might be wrong, and the Disney cartoonists might be drawing on an earlier instance of the device.

ETA: other interesting fact, while googling I found a Time magazine article about Lend a Paw that states the voice of the angel is supposed an imitation of Eleanor Roosevelt.j

Heh, sorry about all the consecutive posts. Googling “angel on my shoulder” is giving me something to do while I fill out tax forms.

This film from '46, both the title and the movie poster shown, are pretty obviously meant to recall the shoulder angel/devil motif. So I’d say that it was well known in the US by then at least, which is making me question the idea of arguing devil/angel first appearing in the 1941 Disney cartoon.

The concept of a person being followed/watched by a good angel and a bad angel pre-dates Islam, there’s a talmudic reference somewhere (perhaps one of our talmud-experts will be more specific.)

The idea of the angels sitting on the shoulders is much more visual, and probably does date from cartoon days.

I just noticed the shoulder angels being used in a 1935 movie called “To Beat The Band”

Was there ever a point where a lot of people thought when they died they became angels?

I think The Littlest Angel scarred me as a child. But old Warner Bros. cartoons also show people going up to heaven with wings on.