Song Meanings: Sympathy for the Devil

The song’s lyrics draw from historical and cultural references, including the devil’s role in folklore and mythology and the darker aspects of humanity’s history, such as war, violence, and oppression.

“Sympathy for the Devil” is a classic rock song by the legendary British rock band The Rolling Stones. The song was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and was released as a track on their 1968 album, Beggars Banquet. The working title of the song was “The Devil Is My Name”, having earlier been called “Fallen Angels”.

Jagger sings in first person narrative as the Devil, who boasts of his role in each of several historical atrocities and repeatedly asks the listener to “guess my name.” The inspiration for “Sympathy for the Devil” came from a variety of sources. Mick Jagger has stated that he was influenced by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov[1]‘s novel “The Master and Margarita,” which features the devil’s character, and French poet Charles Baudelaire[2]‘s work.

The devil is often referred to by various names and titles in different cultures and religions.
  • Satan
  • Lucifer
  • Beelzebub
  • Mephistopheles
  • The Prince of Darkness
  • The Adversary
  • The Evil One
  • The Father of Lies
  • The Fallen Angel
  • The Tempter
  • The Horned One
  • Old Nick
  • The Deceiver
  • The Wicked One
  • The Morning Star[3]
  • The Lord of the Flies
  • The Demon
  • The Archfiend
  • The Antichrist
  • The Dark Lord

Additionally, the song’s lyrics draw from historical and cultural references, including the devil’s role in folklore and mythology and the darker aspects of humanity’s history, such as war, violence, and oppression. The song’s lyrics explore the idea that the devil is a figure who has witnessed and played a role in these tragic events throughout history.

The song was recorded at London’s Olympic Studios[4] and was produced by Jimmy Miller[5]. The recording process for the song was complex and involved experimentation with various musical styles, including a samba rhythm[6] that gave the song its distinctive groove. It featured Mick Jagger on lead vocals, Keith Richards on guitar, and other members of the band contributing to the arrangement.

Sympathy For The Devil Analysis
Please allow me to introduce myself 
I'm a man of wealth and taste
I've been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man's soul and faith

“Sympathy for the Devil” is a song that presents the devil as a complex and charismatic figure who has been present throughout history during moments of chaos, temptation, and evil. The lyrics are written from the devil’s perspective and suggest that he is often unfairly blamed for humanity’s dark deeds. The refrain, “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name,” highlights the idea that the devil is both a seductive and enigmatic figure.

And I was 'round when Jesus Christ 
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ (ca. 30), sentenced under Pontius Pilatus, the prefect of Judaea. In St. Matthew’s gospel, Pontius Pilate ‘washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person’. This was to show the crowd he did not want Jesus dead but ordered his death because that is what the people wanted. He was washing his hands of the responsibility.

Pleased to meet you 
Hope you guess my name
But what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

Stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the Tzar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

The slaughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, and his entire family is a tragic and historic event that took place on the night of July 16-17, 1918, in the city of Ekaterinburg (Yekaterinburg), during the Russian Revolution. Nicholas II, along with his wife Alexandra and their five children, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Tsarevich Alexei, were brutally executed by Bolshevik revolutionaries, marking the end of the Romanov dynasty.

The circumstances surrounding their deaths remained shrouded in mystery for decades until the discovery of their remains in a mass grave in 1991, confirming the gruesome fate that had befallen the imperial family.

This event symbolizes the tumultuous period of revolution and political upheaval in Russia during the early 20th century, leading to the establishment of the Soviet Union. Anastasia, the youngest daughter, was just seventeen years old. She was killed last. She is said to have screamed so heart-wrenchingly that it was rumored for decades that the more soft-hearted guards may actually have spared her.

I rode a tank, held a general's rank 
When the Blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank

World War II was a global conflict that occurred from 1939 to 1945, involving many nations and alliances, with the primary combatants being the Allies (including the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and others) and the Axis powers (led by Nazi Germany, Japan, and Italy).

Nazism, a far-right ideology led by Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party), played a central role in the war. One of the most horrifying aspects of Nazism was the Holocaust, during which millions of Jews and other minority groups were systematically persecuted,

imprisoned, and murdered in concentration camps. The bodies found in these camps after liberation serve as haunting evidence of the scale of genocide and brutality that occurred during the Holocaust, reminding the world of the importance of remembrance and prevention of such atrocities in the future.

Pleased to meet you 
Hope you guess my name
Oh, yeah
Ah, what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game
Oh, yeah

I watched with glee while your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades for the gods they made

The Hundred Years’ War, which spanned from the late 14th to the 15th century, was not primarily fought over religious intolerance but rather over territorial and dynastic disputes between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of France.

This prolonged conflict had its roots in disputes over the succession to the French throne and conflicting territorial claims in France by English monarchs. The war was marked by a series of battles and campaigns, including the famous Battle of Agincourt. While religion played a role in the broader context of medieval Europe, the Hundred Years’ War was primarily a struggle for power and control rather than a religious conflict.

I shouted out, "Who killed the Kennedys?" 
Well, after all, it was you and me

The murders of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy are two tragic events that had a profound impact on American history. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, during a motorcade.

Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the murder but was himself shot and killed two days later, leaving many questions unanswered. His assassination remains the subject of conspiracy theories and investigations.

Interesting to note that Jagger originally wrote “I shouted out, ‘Who killed Kennedy?’” referring only to John F. Kennedy, assassinated in 1963, but the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy occurred during the time the Stones were developing this track.

Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of John F. Kennedy and a U.S. Senator, was assassinated on June 5, 1968, in Los Angeles, California, shortly after winning the California Democratic primary while campaigning for the presidential election. Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian activist, was arrested for the murder. These tragic events shook the nation, leading to significant changes in U.S. politics and security measures.

Let me please introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste
And I laid traps for troubadours
Who get killed before they reach Bombay

The Thuggee cult, active in India from the 14th to the 19th centuries, was notorious for its criminal activities, which included robbery and murder, all committed in the name of the Hindu goddess Kali, often referred to as the goddess of death and destruction. Members of the cult, known as Thugs, would disguise themselves as travelers to gain the trust of their victims before strangling them to death in a ritualistic manner. The Thuggees’ activities came to widespread attention during British colonial rule in India, leading to concerted efforts to suppress the cult.

The British authorities launched a campaign to eradicate the Thuggees, resulting in the capture and execution of many of their members. The Thuggee cult has since become a subject of historical interest and has been depicted in various books and films.

or possibly this explanation…

Hippies who embarked on the “Hippie Trail” during the 1960s and 1970s were adventurous young travelers seeking an alternative and countercultural lifestyle. This overland journey typically began in Europe and ended in South Asia, with destinations such as Nepal, India, and beyond. While many found enlightenment, cultural exchange, and spiritual experiences along the way, the trail also had its dark side.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, some hippie travelers were indeed targeted by drug peddlers and faced dangers such as drug scams, theft, and violence. This darker aspect of the Hippie Trail highlighted the risks of seeking an unconventional path and served as a cautionary tale within the counterculture movement of that era.

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
Oh, yeah
But what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game
Oh, yeah
A-get down, baby

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
Oh, yeah
But what's confusing you
Is just the nature of my game
Mm, yeah

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails, just call me Lucifer
'Cause I'm in need of some restraint

Lucifer is a figure with complex and multifaceted origins and interpretations. In religious and mythological traditions, Lucifer is often associated with a fallen angel or a rebellious celestial being who defied God’s authority. This characterization primarily stems from Christian theology, where Lucifer is seen as synonymous with Satan, the embodiment of evil and the adversary of God. However, the name “Lucifer” originally comes from the Latin Vulgate Bible, specifically from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Hebrew Bible,

where it refers to the “morning star” or the planet Venus. In this context, the term has a more neutral or positive connotation, symbolizing the herald of the dawn. Throughout history, various interpretations and cultural depictions of Lucifer have emerged, ranging from the devilish archetype in Christianity to symbolic representations of enlightenment and rebellion in literature and philosophy.

So if you meet me, have some courtesy
Have some sympathy and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I'll lay your soul to waste, mm, yeah

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
Mm, yeah
But what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game
Mean it
Get down

Ah, yeah
Get on down
Oh, yeah
Bum, ba-bum, bum, bum, ba-bum
Ba-bum, bum, bum, ba-bum
Bum, ba-bum, bum, bum, ba-bum
Bum, dum, bum, bum, ba-dum, da
Ah, yeah

Tell me, baby, what's my name?
Tell me, honey, can you guess my name?
Tell me, baby, what's my name?
I'll tell you one time, you're to blame
Ooh-hoo, ooh-hoo
Ooh-hoo, alright
Ooh-hoo-hoo, ooh-hoo-hoo
Ooh-hoo-hoo, ah, yeah
Ooh-hoo-hoo, ooh-hoo-hoo
Ah yes, what's my name?
Tell me, baby, what's my name?
Tell me, sweetie, what's my name?

Ooh-hoo-hoo, ooh-hoo-hoo
Ooh-hoo-hoo, ooh-hoo-hoo
Ooh-hoo-hoo, ooh-hoo-hoo
Ooh-hoo-hoo, ah, yeah

It has a very hypnotic groove, a samba, which has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music. It doesn’t speed up or down. It keeps this constant groove. Plus, the actual samba rhythm is a great one to sing on, but it’s also got some other suggestions in it, an undercurrent of being primitive – because it is a primitive African, South American, Afro-whatever-you-call-that rhythm. So to white people, it has a very sinister thing about it. But forgetting the cultural colors, it is a very good vehicle for producing a powerful piece. It becomes less pretentious because it’s a very unpretentious groove. If it had been done as a ballad, it wouldn’t have been as good.

Mick Jagger

I believe the song is saying that people blame the Devil/Lucifer for all the bad stuff in the world, but in reality, it’s the people themselves. Ultimately, “Sympathy for the Devil” can be seen as a commentary on the capacity for evil within human nature and a reflection on the moral ambiguity of historical events.

  1. Mikhail Bulgakov was a renowned Russian author and playwright known for his unique blend of satirical, surreal, and allegorical writing. Born in 1891 in Kyiv, Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire), Bulgakov studied medicine before pursuing a career in literature. His most famous work, “The Master and Margarita,” explores themes of censorship, totalitarianism, and the clash between artistic freedom and oppressive regimes. Bulgakov’s writing often confronted the challenges faced by artists in a repressive Soviet society. His works were often censored, and he struggled with official approval. Today, Mikhail Bulgakov is celebrated as one of the most significant Russian literary figures of the 20th century, known for his inventive and thought-provoking storytelling. [Back]
  2. Charles Baudelaire, born in 1821 in Paris, France, was a highly influential French poet and essayist of the 19th century. He is best known for his collection of poems titled “Les Fleurs du Mal” (The Flowers of Evil), which challenged conventional notions of morality and beauty. Baudelaire’s poetry explored themes of decadence, urban life, and the dark and sensual aspects of human existence. His innovative use of symbolism and the exploration of taboo subjects had a profound impact on French literature and later generations of poets, making him a central figure in the Symbolist movement. Despite facing legal troubles and criticism for his controversial work, Baudelaire’s contributions to poetry and literary criticism continue to be celebrated for their depth and complexity. [Back]
  3. In its original, non-devilish context, “The Morning Star” refers to the planet Venus, particularly when it is visible in the eastern sky shortly before sunrise. This celestial phenomenon has been observed and named by various cultures throughout history. The name “Lucifer” itself is derived from the Latin Vulgate Bible, where it is used to describe the Morning Star. In Latin, “lucifer” means “light-bringer” or “morning star.” The appearance of the Morning Star before dawn has symbolized hope, enlightenment, and the arrival of a new day in many cultures. In mythology and literature, the Morning Star has often been associated with positive and celestial imagery, in contrast to its later association with the devil in Christian theology. [Back]
  4. Olympic Studios, located in London, was a renowned recording and film studio complex that played a pivotal role in the music industry from the 1960s to the early 21st century. It was initially established in the Barnes area of London in 1966 and quickly became a hub for recording some of the most iconic albums in rock history. The studio attracted legendary artists such as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and many others who created classic albums within its walls. Olympic Studios was known for its cutting-edge recording technology and exceptional acoustics. It continued to be a prominent facility for recording and mixing until its closure in 2009. The studio’s rich history and contributions to the music world remain an integral part of London’s musical heritage. [Back]
  5. Jimmy Miller was a highly influential music producer known for his work with some of the most iconic rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s. Born in 1942, Miller is best recognized for his collaborations with The Rolling Stones, producing several of their classic albums including “Beggars Banquet,” “Let It Bleed,” and “Sticky Fingers.” His production style was marked by a keen ear for rhythm, which played a pivotal role in shaping the Stones’ signature sound. Beyond his work with the Stones, Miller also produced albums for other notable artists like Traffic and Blind Faith. His contributions to rock music production have left a lasting legacy, and he is remembered for his role in shaping the sound of an era. [Back]
  6. A samba rhythm is a distinctive and energetic percussion pattern that serves as the foundation for samba music, a vibrant and highly rhythmic genre originating from Brazil. Characterized by its syncopated and infectious beat, the samba rhythm typically features a driving 2/4 time signature with a strong accent on the second and fourth beats. This pattern is brought to life by a variety of traditional Brazilian percussion instruments, including the surdo (a large bass drum), tamborim (a small handheld drum), pandeiro (a tambourine-like instrument), and various types of shakers and bells. The samba rhythm is the heartbeat of Brazilian Carnival celebrations and has become a globally recognized symbol of the country’s rich musical culture. [Back]

Further Reading


Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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