21 September 2017


Ruben van Luijk. Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism. Oxford University Press, 2016.

This book begins where some people would suppose that a history of Satan worship might end, that is, the decline of witch-hunting in Europe. “Initial criticism of the witchcraft trials, most [historians] assert, was not motivated by a stance of rational criticism vis-à-vis the reality of the supernatural.
Rather, most authors objecting to the persecution of witches criticized the faulty judicial procedure involved or argued for the non-existence of diabolical witchcraft with recourse to older theological notions that denied Satan as a spiritual being, the ability to exert direct influence on physical reality.” 

 If people had really been concerned about the fairness of witch trials, then polemical writing would have argued, on the one side, that there were miscarriages of justice, and on the other, for the need to stamp out evil. But, in fact, writing on the subject from the second half of the seventeenth century was almost entirely concerned with the reality, or lack of it, of the supernatural.

Van Luijk himself gives the example of Balthasar Bekker’s The Enchanted World, 1691, which argued “that it was logically impossible for a spiritual entity like the angel of evil to exert any tangible influence on the kingdom of this world.” A work that is often cited as upholding witch persecution is Joseph Glanvil, Sadducismus Triumphatus, 1681: by the ‘reality of witchcraft’ he meant the existence of occult forces; he did give some examples from witch trials, but most of his evidence was in the form of ghost stories. In the eighteenth century, not only did books on witchcraft cease to appear, but also those on other occult subjects such as astrology, as can be confirmed by consulting any good bibliography of the subject.

Though the witch-craze is often regarded as having ended with the execution of the last witch in Scotland in 1727, as late as the final decades of the eighteenth century “hundreds of people died at the stake and the scaffold” in the Dutch and Belgian Limburg, because they were believed to be Bockerijders (‘Riders of the Goat’), who were still supposed to do the things elsewhere relegated to the past, swearing loyalty to Satan and working for the overthrow of church and state, and “only the arrival of the French revolutionary forces put an end to the executions.” Though it is not relevant to his main theme, I wish he had said more about this, as it is so little known: the primary sources are all in Dutch, and even these are unobtainable in Britain.

This is all a preliminary to his main theme, which begins with the partial rehabilitation of Satan by poets and artists, at the start of the nineteenth century, for instance by Shelley, Byron and Blake. In ‘counterculture’, Satan could represent any deviation from the accepted order, and was taken among other things as a political metaphor; for Proudhon, Satan was “nothing more or less than Liberty.” Jules Michelet was a historian, but the account of the Witches’ Sabbath in his La Sorcière was a fantasy loosely based upon the ravings of the witch-hunter Pierre de Lancre, depicted as a kind of feminist peasant revolt against the establishment.

The romantic pinnacle came with Huysmans’ novel Là-Bas, ‘Down There’. Since this was obviously part-autobiographical, people wondered if he had really attended a Black Mass like the one in the book. Van Luijk effectively answers this question with the observation that, whilst writing the book, Huysmans kept several correspondents informed about what he was doing: “Yet to no one did he send any enthusiastic reports of a visit to a Satanist congregation. Even to Arij Prins he did not utter one word about this, although Huysmans kept his Dutch friend informed about every stage of the composition of Là-Bas and wrote to him about virtually every occurrence in his life, including venereal disease and brothel adventures. It is unlikely that Huysmans would not have told Prins immediately if he had actually witnessed a Black Mass.”

Around this time there was widespread, even international, concern about a Satanist-Masonic conspiracy exposed by Léo Taxil and others. This was actually an elaborate hoax, carried on over a period of a dozen years, that was ultimately intended to show how gullible the Catholic Church could be. Rather cleverly, he mixed up genuine facts with his spurious inventions. His Are There Women in Freemasonry?, gave details about a number of real and basically innocuous Lodges of Adoption, that is, lodges for the wives of Freemasons who carried on similar rites without their menfolk, and included engraved portraits of their leaders. These were followed by a completely fictional description of the ‘Palladium’, and a ritual where among other things a ‘Templar Mistress’ pierced a consecrated host with a ceremonial dagger, crying “Nekam, Adonai, Nekam” – “Vengeance, Adonai, Vengeance”. Though he eventually boasted that all this was made up, it has proved long-lived: Aleister Crowley wrote a poem entitled ‘Nekam Adonai’ which may have been inspired by this, and a completely false document on the worship of Lucifer, attributed to the American Masonic writer Albert Pike, is still quoted by Christian opponents of Freemasonry.

It is not until the twentieth century that we find genuine examples of Devil-worship. In 1930 Maria de Naglowska, a Russian noblewoman, founded in Paris a feminist ‘Order of the Knights of the Golden Arrow’ in which she herself was ‘Priestess of Satan’. Nevertheless “Satanism was only one component of her religious system”, that particularly focused on sex magic, which “involved the banishment of Satan to the underworld (i.e. the male genitals)”. In 1936 she abruptly left Paris, and there were wild rumours about her fate, but van Luijk is able to report that in fact she died peacefully in Zurich.

In the writings of Aleister Crowley, “Satanist elements are far from striking”. Instead, one has a “multifaceted and at times seemingly contradicting system of religious thought”. The foundations of his creed were the Golden Dawn, which was Judaeo-Christian, and Buddhism (he had spent some time in a monastery in Ceylon). In a syncretistic system there was room for some Satanism, as evidenced by a footnote to

“Satan is described as the great initiator who stands for life, love and liberty” and similar ideas were expressed in his “Hymn to Lucifer” and “Hymn to Satan”. He seems also to have originated the bad etymology that linked the name of Satan to those of the Egyptian Set and the Roman Saturn. But “Labelling this system Satanism would be as appropriate as calling it Buddhism or Jewish mysticism.”

In addition to the syncretists – The Process is another example – there seem to be people who often change their religion, being Satanists only at a certain point in their lives. Some years ago, a (Thelemite) woman mentioned to me that her husband was a Christian. When I objected that she had previously described him as a Muslim, she explained that he regularly switched faiths, because he wanted to try out different ‘paradigms’. Before being a Muslim he had been a Satanist. In a similar way, I once knew a theology student who had a tattoo of 666 between her breasts. She was not ashamed of it, and showed it to me, describing it as ‘A previous path’.

Montague Summers was one of those who wrote on such subjects with an air of disgust which barely masked an underlying fascination. Van Luijk comments that “when the Reverend referred to the “lewd pages” and “revolting pictures” of the Marquis de Sade, he did not fail to supply detailed bibliophilic advice on said works in an accompanying note.” One may add to this that in The Restoration Theatre Summers began a sentence with the words “It may be remembered that in Justine …” apparently assuming that anyone interested in the Restoration theatre would necessarily be familiar with the works of de Sade.

All of this is, inevitably, a build-up to Anton LaVey with his Church of Satan and Satanic Bible, which now seem distinctive of the Sixties. Though it was of course easy for it to get publicity, there never seems to have been all that much substance to it. “LaVey was in many ways indebted to Crowley’s theories”, though he was disparaging about the man personally.

It is hardly surprising that it spawned breakaway movements, which in any case happens to most religious movements. Thee Satanic Orthodox Church of Nethilum Rite was “one of the earlier schismatic split-offs”. The best-known was Michael Aquino’s Temple of Set, which I believe is still active.

The end was a whimper. “After LaVey’s death, the Church of Satan became a marginal organization, even in the already marginal milieu of Satanism. Squabbling arose almost immediately over who would succeed him as High Priest. Karla LaVey, who had remained aloof from the Church for years and had spent much of her time undergoing plastic surgery in Brazil, presented herself as her father’s lawful heir and let herself be photographed in a somewhat awkward pose with a statue of LaVey borrowed from a waxwork museum. When she lost the battle for the throne to Blanche Barton, she founded the First Satanic Church, a Satanist organization that seems to exist mainly as a web page.” 

The Black House, which was never very impressive, had already fallen into disrepair, and was torn down by a real estate investor in 2001 to make way for a ‘rather bland’ condominium. “Thus the birthplace of one of the world’s most remarkable religions disappeared under the gray concrete of mass-produced conformism.” – Gareth J. Medway

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