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Satanism: An Introduction
Many people use the term “Satanism” to refer to very different religions and practices. In America, some evangelical and fundamentalist Christian organizations have used the term to define as "satanic" any practice other than their own particular versions of Christianity. A more common cultural definition includes any religious practice that some consider part of the occult, including Wicca, Vodun, Santeria, and other Neopagan traditions. All of these, however, have completely different beliefs, practices, and social structures, and none of them are “Satanic.” In order to better understand the term “Satanism,” one must first examine the roots of the word.
The Oxford English Dictionary offers three definitions of the word “Satanism”:
1. A Satanic or diabolical disposition, doctrine, spirit, or contrivance. 2. The characteristics of the ‘Satanic school.’ 3. The worship of Satan, alleged to have been practised in France in the latter part of the 19th century; the principles and rites of the Satanists.
This first definition originated from An Apologie of the Church of England written by Thomas Harding (1565). During the 16th century, the word Satanism referred to both Protestants and Catholics, depending on which Christian group was using the term. The second definition refers to any writings or teachings of authors and poets such as Lord Byron. And, the third definition refers to the actual worship of Satan as a god. For a more detailed look at these three definitions, and a discussion of 19th-century “Satanism,” see Gareth J. Medway, Lure of the Sinister: The Unnatural History of Satanism (2001).
While these definitions are useful in understanding the roots of the word “Satanism,” none provide solid characteristics of what Satanism actually incorporates. As well, none of them explain modern Satanic practices such as those of the Church of Satan or the Temple of Set. For the purpose of this web site, the following is offered as a working definition of Modern Satanism.
Most modern Satanists are atheistic. They do not believe in or worship any specific deity, Satan or otherwise. Instead, they honor what they consider the spirit of Satan. Modern Satanists tend to follow what they believe are the ideals of Satan, and present him as an ideal whose traits are to be emulated. Satan is often represented as a symbol of resistance to dominant religious traditions (e.g., Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu). Some examples of organizations that follow this practice are the Church of Satan, the First Church of Satan, and the Temple of Set. This form of Satanism is generally referred to as “philosophical Satanism.”
While they are in the minority, some modern Satanists are theistic. They believe in Satan as a real entity. The Order of Nine Angels, for example, believes that Satan, as well as other “dark forces,” are individual entities beyond human control. Members of this group strive to become “one” with these sinister beings, and seek “to create new, more highly evolved individuals” through the practice of what they call “traditional Satanism” (Long 1994). This form of Satanism is generally referred to as “religious Satanism.”
As with any other religion, there are divisions of belief within modern Satanism, both between different groups and between members of the same group.
Definition | Modern Satanism | History | Modern Panics | Links | Bibliography
Like many other religious traditions, Satanism has a long and involved history. The following is a brief outline of the history and roots of Satanism.
While some groups claim that one of the earliest roots of modern Satanism began with the ancient Egyptian god Set (ca. 3200-700 BCE), historian Jeffrey Burton Russell disagrees. Russell writes that all Egyptian gods were ambivalent (Russell 1977: 77-78), and “there is no etymological connection between Set and Satan” (Russell 1986: 255). He goes on to explain that “the human concept of Satan was developed in Mazdaism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam precisely for the purpose of personifying radical evil” (Russell 1986: 255).
The period from the 15th to the 17th centuries marks the richest history in the development of what is now termed Satanism. In 1486, two Dominican friars, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, wrote the Malleus Maleficarium, or The Hammer of Witches, which purported to detail the various activities of “Satanic witchcraft.” These included such acts as flying on broomsticks, having wild sexual orgies, eating children, and inducing plagues. According to Russell, the idea of diabolical witchcraft originated “under the influence of Aristotelian scholasticism, [when] it was believed that natural magic did not exist and that magic could be effective only through the aid of Lucifer and his minions”(Russell 1988: 164).
The black arts and various occult practices resurfaced in the late 19th century. In France, it was believed that Freemasons were involved in Satan worship. Satan also became a symbol for the French revolution through writers such as Eliphas Lévi (Russell 1986: 201). In 19th-century French culture, Satan was often depicted as a political figure, though whose side he was on changed constantly depending on who made the charges.
In 1875, the Theosophical Society was founded by Madame Helena Blavatsky, and another occult organization, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, twelve years later. One of the most prominent members in the later years of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was Aleister Crowley, a name that has come to be synonymous with popular understandings of Satanism in the 20th century. Although Crowley was not a technically a Satanist, he did claim to be "the Beast 666" from the book of Revelation, and some of his ideas and practices would later be incorporated into modern Satanism. In 1930s Paris, a Luciferian temple was established by Maria de Naglowska, and it is believed that her organization is still active in France (Medway 2001: 11-21).
In 1966, the Church of Satan was created by Anton LaVey, and has become arguably the most well known branch of the Satanic movement. in 1969, LaVey published The Satanic Bible. The Order of Nine Angels, a group of theistic Satanists, was also created in the 1960s. The Temple of Set broke away from LaVey’s Church of Satan, and in 1975 was granted non-profit church status in California. In 1994, another splinter group, the First Church of Satan, was created by John Allee, a former member of LaVey’s group.
While some sources claim that the number of Satanists worldwide numbers in the millions, there are currently no accurate membership numbers available and these estimates are almost certainly high.
The 1980s saw a wave of satanic panics
that spread through America. "Satan mongers," often conservative Christians,
alleged that a huge underground satanic conspiracy was responsible for
any number of horrific crimes. Some of these estimated the number of satanists
nationwide in the millions (
A number of different people have sought
to verify the existence of such satanic cults. In 1980, Michelle Smith
published Michelle Remembers, which told gruesome stories being
abused at the hands of an organized satanic cult (Smith and Pazdor 1980).
Nearly a decade later, Lauren Stratford gained national attention with
her book, Satan's Undergroud, in which she claimed to have been
used as a "baby breeder" to provide satanic cults with sacrificial victims
(Stratford 1988; see Rivera 1988)
This all sounds quite dreadful, but the plain fact is that no solid evidence indicating the presence of an organized satanic underground has ever been discovered. How, then, has all this testimonial evidence surfaced?
While some has obviously been simply invented,
other so-called evidence can be explained through a process known as Recovered
Memory Therapy (RMT)
Much of what the patients had "remembered"
had been proven to be either unlikely, impossible, or outright false (Alxenader
Yet in the 1980s, these methods were widely accepted and panics about satanic cults flourished. This may have been enhanced by the rise of the Religious Right early in the decade, many of whose members actively promoted the idea. This group tended to characterize as immoral (and thus satanic) such things as heavy metal music, role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, increasing violence on TV, in movies, and through other types of popular culture such as videogames.
sociologist Jeffrey S. Victor puts it, however, studies of "satanic
panics" have found that, put it, "the fear of 'satanic cults' is
a manifestation of social paranoia in times of uncertainty" (Victor 1989;
see also Victor 1993)
Distortion of evidence, whether willful or accidental, contributed much to these panics. Occasionally a group of pets or livestock would be found mutilated, but most of these cases were found to be caused by wild animals such as wolves or coyotes. Instances would occur where a ghastly crime was committed and accompanied by satanic symbolism; yet there was no cause for believing these were committed by anyone more than a deranged individual who dabbled in Satanism, but who did not belong to any formal Satanic organization. Where there was even the potential for support for a case of satanic cult behavior, facts simply became blown out of proportion.
The sheer numerical estimates for a large
satanic underground are clearly incompatible with the almost complete
lack of evidence. The claim that tens of thousands of babies are ritually
murdered each year has not been supported in any way. No one has been
proven to be a "baby breeder" for a satanic cult. There are not enough
children kidnapped to allow for these ritual infanticides. However disturbing,
the majority of child kidnappings are simply parents fighting over custody:
the number of child kidnappings committed by strangers has been documented
at well under 100 per year. Of those, half are recovered within 5 years
This site examines differences between unique types of satanism, and has several links to web sites dealing with satanic traditions.
This site tells about all the different forms of witchcraft and Satanism. It discredits popular myths and describes the philosophies of various satanic traditions.
to the Devil
This is an interactive web site with chat options and a message board.
Guide to Allegations of "Ritual" Child Abuse
This is a copy of an official FBI document on the myths and realities of "ritual child abuse," written by Kenneth V. Lanning of the Behavioral Science Unit.
Church of Satan
The First Church of Satan
The Order of Nine Angels
Temple of Set
Bromley, David G., and Susan G. Ainsley. (1995). "Satanism and Satanic Churches: The Contemporary Incarnations." In America's Alternative Religions, ed. Timothy Miller, 401-409. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press
Medway, Gareth J. (2001). Lure of the Sinister: An Unnatural History of Satanism. New York: New York University Press.
Pagels, Elaine. (1996). The Origin of Satan. New York: Vintage.
Rivera, Geraldo. (1988). "Satanic Breeders: Babies for Sacrifice." Geraldo (transcript #288; 24 October). New York: Journal Graphics, Inc.
Russell, Jeffrey Burton. (1977). The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
_____. (1981). Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
_____. (1984). Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
_____. (1986). Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
_____. (1988). The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Shupe, Anson. (1990). "Pitchmen of the Satan Scare." Wall Street Journal (9 March): A12.
Smith, Michelle, and Lawrence Pazder. (1980). Michelle Remembers. New York: Congdon and Lattes Inc.
Stratford, Lauren. (1988). Satan's Underground. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers.
Victor, Jeffrey S. (1989). "A Rumor-Panic About a Dangerous Satanic Cult in Western New York." New York Folklore 15 (1-2): 23-48.
_____. (1993). Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend. Chicago: Open Court Publishing
by Joe Abrams,
for Sociology 257: New Religious Movements