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Richard Smoley's Blog

Review of Satanism: A Social History

Satanism: A Social History
by Massimo Introvigne
Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016. x + 658 pp., hardcover, $255.

When you talk about Satanism, certain problems immediately arise. With other religions, identification depends on self-identification. Christians are those who call themselves Christians; Muslims are those who call themselves Muslims. With Satanism, it is not so. Many people labeled as Satanists are nothing of the kind—everything from Wiccans and Pagans to people who read Tarot cards. Thus a scholarly study of Satanism—that is, of people who identify themselves as Satanists—is welcome. Nevertheless, this work also dedicates a great deal of space to anti-Satanists, because the picture is not complete without them.

Massimo Introvigne, an Italian scholar who has studied Satanism for decades, begins by defining it as “(1) the worship of the character identified with the name of Satan or Lucifer in the Bible, (2) by organized groups with at least a minimal organization and hierarchy, (3) through ritual or liturgical practices.” Thus Wiccans and Pagans, who as a rule do not worship any being they identify with the Christian Devil, are not Satanists. Nor are people who use Tarot cards, which have no real connection with Satanism at all.

For Introvigne, the history of modern Satanism begins at the court of Louis XIV in the 1670s, centered around a woman named Catherine La Voisin. She had begun as an underground apothecary, becoming rich by supplying useful but forbidden items such as poisons and abortifacients. Her clients included many in Louis’ court. Allegedly she had a chapel at the back of her Paris property which housed many elements that are still familiar from horror movies: a black-draped altar; candles made with human fat; Black Masses performed on a woman’s naked body; sacrifices that included aborted human fetuses. Eventually she fell afoul of the law, and was burned at the stake in 1680. Sifting through the evidence, which is not uniformly reliable, Introvigne writes, “I am inclined to believe that a ritual and an embryonic organization did exist” around La Voisin, and “the Paris incident was a first instance of proto-Satanism.”

Introvigne’s account, spanning La Voisin’s time to the present, offers innumerable odd and fascinating details. French anti-Satanists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became obsessed with farfadets, malign leprechauns characterized as “the elite secret services of Beelzebub.” (One unfortunate magus had a farfadet in the form of a squirrel, which at one point hid under his mattress. Another farfadet threw the magus violently down on the bed, “causing the immediate death of the little creature.”) One bizarre figure from nineteenth-century France, the Abbé Boullan, held that the sovereign remedy for illnesses consisted of the urine and excrement of the righteous, along with the consecrated Host.

Boullan appears in fictionalized form as a Dr. Johannès in possibly the most famous literary works on Satanism of all time: Là-Bas (“Down There”) by J.-K. Huysmans, published in 1891. The centerpiece of this novel is a description of a Black Mass, featuring an image of “a derisive and villainous Christ” and degenerating into such debauchery that the offended protagonist leaves before the rite is finished. As Introvigne says, it is impossible to tell whether Huysmans himself ever attended a Black Mass, but the novel “shaped the image of Satanism for a whole generation, and images are productive of social consequences, whether or not they mirror the reality.”

In the twentieth century, one of Introvigne’s main points of focus is the “contemporary Satanism” of Anton Szandor LaVey, who founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco in 1966—an organization that attracted such celebrities as Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Manson, and Sammy Davis, Jr. In 1969 LaVey published The Satanic Bible,, a best seller that preached a gospel extolling the individual, and the individual’s self-interest, as the supreme value of its creed: “Every man is a God,” LaVey wrote, “if he chooses to become one.”

In yet another strange detail in a long chain of strange details, Introvigne claims that the chief influence on LaVey was the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, who propounded a doctrine of atheistic “man-worship,” an attempt to “see man’s highest potential and actualize it.” Because one of Rand’s protégés was Alan Greenspan, later chairman of the Federal Reserve, it would no doubt fascinate, and possibly delight, conspiracy theorists to see Rand’s sinister presence behind both the American financial order and the Church of Satan. But I have been told that the Playboy Philosophy, expounded by Hugh Hefner in his magazine from 1962 to 1965, was also a great influence on LaVey.

LaVey was not entirely what he seemed. A former carnival barker, he astutely promoted his infernal doctrine, although on a somewhat less grand scale than might be imagined: his famed Satanmobile was in fact a Volkswagen Beetle. Moreover, he was never completely clear about whether he believed in Satan as a real metaphysical entity, and as the years passed sounded less and less as if he did. This, among other complaints, led to rupture in 1975, in which Michael Aquino—again bizarrely, a specialist in psychological warfare for the U.S. Army—split from LaVey to form his own Temple of Set. Aquino equated the Judeo-Christian Satan with the Egyptian god Set, and asserted that he did exist. The Temple of Set was only one of many groups and individuals to separate from LaVey, but was the sole one to survive into the twenty-first century as what Introvigne calls “a small but influential part of a larger occult subculture.” As for the Church of Satan, it underwent a long, slow decline, punctuated by LaVey’s death in 1997. It still seems to be going on; at any rate, it maintains an active website.

Introvigne’s work is, after all, a social history, so he has to include anti-Satanists as well. The anti-Satanist movement reached its peak in the 1980s, with widespread allegations of Satanic abuse that later on were largely debunked. The book also includes a chapter on the influence of Satanism on rock music, particularly those musicians who openly employ Satanic symbols.

Satanism is the work not of years but of decades. It fills 668 pages—few could wish it to be any longer. And yet I think some preliminary observations are missing.

The modern history of Satanism begins in 1486, with the publication of the notorious Malleus maleficarum (“Hammer of Witches”). Equating witchcraft—a well-established part of the folk tradition of Europe—with bondage to the Devil, it launched an age of witch hunts that did not fully end until the eighteenth century. The authors, Jacobus Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, were Dominican priests, and it was the Catholic church that launched the witch hunts and set the tone for them. But as a matter of fact, the Catholic authorities lost interest in witch hunting in a few decades—the Inquisition became very skeptical of such accusations—and the purges reached their peak, around 1600, in territories where the Catholic church was not in control.

But the link between Catholicism and Satanism cannot be effaced. The Black Mass is, of course, an inversion of the rites and paraphernalia of the Catholic mass. Moreover, Catholic priests were long held to be the only ones who could deal with demons. In eighteenth-century England, by then almost completely Protestant, one observer wrote, “The opinion even has reached our days, and it is common for the vulgar to say, none can lay [i.e., exorcise] a spirit but a Popish priest.”

Satanism, at least in its most common forms, is thus inextricably intertwined with Catholicism, and much of this book covers individuals who are Catholics or former Catholics, many of them clerics. Nevertheless, by starting his narrative in the seventeenth century, after the church authorities had long since moved on, Introvigne downplays the church’s role in the early stages of Satanism’s formation. I certainly could not wish for him to write an exhaustive history going back to the fifteenth century on top of what he has done, but it would have been helpful to have an initial chapter that set out more of this context.

This criticism aside, Satanism is an impressive, even titanic book. Its ludicrous price, typical for this publisher, puts it beyond the means of everyone except libraries and rich collectors; nonetheless, I believe that it will be the standard work on the subject for decades to come.

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