How Satanism Works

Member of the Melbourne Church of Satan, Drew Sinton, poses with a crucifix. Fairfax Media/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Satanism is shrouded in secrecy, fear and superstition. Does Satan lurk in the shadows, luring people into lives of evil and degradation? Maybe he's an evil, supernatural force that enacts vile and horrific deeds. He could be a scapegoat, a remnant of an earlier religious tradition demonized to clear a path for the spread of Christianity. Or he's just a symbol of free thinking and opposition, a necessary antagonistic force to the dominant values and norms of society.

Modern Satanists venerate Satan in different ways. A surprising number of them don't even believe that Satan, as an entity, exists. They may perform Satanic rituals based on the doctrines of the Church of Satan, or they may simply endorse and follow Satanic philosophies. Others worship Satan as a deity and believe he directly affects the world with vast powers. Then there are the Satanists so consumed by alienation and nihilism that they perform heinous acts like torture, murder, rape and mutilation in the name of a dark force. Are they really influenced by Satan, or is the impetus more psychological than supernatural?


Questions and rumors about the enigmatic religion abound. Have there actually been Satan-worshipping cults throughout history, working to bring Satan to power with gory sacrificial rituals and wicked pacts? Are there Satanists in positions of power who use their influence to cover up Satanic crimes?

Viewing Satanism from a sociological perspective can help us understand where our modern ideas about Satan come from, why some people choose to worship Satan and the role Satanism plays in society. Once showmanship is separated from philosophy, and legend from reality, Satanism becomes as intriguing as it is mysterious.


The Origins of Satan

The image, character and definition of Satan has evolved a lot over the years. Fine Art Photographic/Corbis via Getty Images

To understand Satanists, we must first understand Satan. Just like the fictional characters Dr. Strange or Lex Luthor, Satan has an origin story.

The first mentions of Satan appear in the Hebrew Bible, from which much of the Christian Old Testament is derived. However, there's a lot of uncertainty among religious scholars regarding what the authors meant when the word "Satan" appears in the Old Testament. The definition can vary depending on how the Biblical Hebrew term for Satan (שָּׂטָן‎‎) is translated and interpreted. In some cases, the term simply means "opponent" or "adversary" and clearly indicates a human figure, not a supernatural one. In other cases, it suggests Satan is "the accuser," or part of a heavenly legal system. There is no consensus on which references to Satan indicate human adversaries and which ones indicate a supernatural enemy of God [source: Stokes]. While the concept took many forms over the centuries, the idea of Satan representing an outsider who opposes established values is the common thread woven through all his incarnations.


The Christian New Testament contains a much clearer evolution of Satan as a single, supernatural evil being in opposition to God. He often appears at God's behest, to test humans so they display their true faith [source: Farrar and Williams]. This version of Satan is sometimes referred to as "the Satan of the Scriptures."

However, even in the New Testament there is a great deal of confusion about who Satan is. Scholars must look closely at different translations of the Hebrew and Aramaic words for "evil one" or the proper names of certain demons, like Abaddon, Beelzebub or Belial, and try to guess whether they refer to Satan or a more generic evil in context. When referencing the Bible solely, it's difficult to determine what Satan looks like, where he came from or what his goals might be.

So, where did the version of Satan with the horns, pitchfork and unbreakable contract come from? That Satan is the result of early Christianity's effort to surpass the popularity of earlier religions, plus some epic mythology created by a famous poem.


The Birth of Modern Satan

This Satan's characteristics, red with hooves and horns, partially evolved out of other religions' deities. DeAgostini/Getty Images

The vaguely defined Satan of the Old Testament gradually transformed during the early Christian period, Middle Ages and Renaissance into the demonic arch-fiend that rules over hell. This Satan is familiar in the modern era — a vengeful, prideful fallen angel who embraces sin and seduces mortals, destined to battle God for the fate of mortal souls. A variety of factors and writings created this mythological Satan:

  • The creation of the English-language King James Bible in 1611 transformed "Lucifer," the Latin term for "morning star," into a proper name and associated it with a Satanic figure. This helped personify Satan as an individual being.
  • When Christianity displaced existing religions, other religions' gods were often denounced as demons. As the ruler of all demons, Satan then began to take on aspects of these demonized deities. Satan assumed the cloven hooves and horns of the Greek god Pan, and the insatiable decadence of the Roman god Bacchus.
  • Writers and religious authorities in the Middle Ages and Renaissance expanded Christian mythology, creating stories that became crucial to Christian thought and identity despite not appearing in the Bible. John Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost" and Dante Alighieri's "The Divine Comedy" are among the landmark works of this type. "Paradise Lost" in particular wove an elaborate mythology involving angelic rebellion, and the powerful imagery of Lucifer being cast out of heaven for his pride and refusal to obey God he elaborated on has had a long-lasting effect on the popular perception of Satan.

But there's one more step in the evolution of Satan. During the Enlightenment, circa the 18th century, scientific and rational thought took on a more prominent role in European society. Satan transformed from a force of pure evil into a more symbolic being who even had positive attributes. He became a flawed, proud figure unwilling to submit to tyranny and capable of free thought. This Satan is sometimes known as the literary, or philosophical, Satan.


But how did Satanism evolve out of these mythical iterations of Satan?


Satanism and Witchcraft in the Middle Ages

Witches burned in the Middle Ages were often accused of Satanism or devil-worshiping. Bettmann/Getty Images

Two types of people were accused of worshipping Satan during the Middle Ages and Renaissance: witches and Western esoterics. The late 15th-century treatise on witchcraft "Malleus Maleficarum," aka "Witches' Hammer," followed the contemporary culture's lead of labeling everything in opposition to orthodox Christianity as Satan worship. It contained sections condemning witches for disbelief in demonology and having sexual relationships with devils. And groups like the Cathars were considered heretics and persecuted by the Church for revering Satanic figures.

Despite the accusations, there's no hard evidence of organized groups worshipping Satan as an evil deity in the Middle Ages or Renaissance. And the existence of some supposedly devil-worshipping groups, like the Luciferians, is debated and often discredited as a smear tactic. Were there really organizations, covens or cults that regularly worshipped Satan at the time? The short answer is almost certainly not.


For the long answer, let's start with witches. During the 16th and 17th centuries, a widespread witch panic in Europe hit its peak. An estimated 60,000 people in Europe and the American Colonies were sentenced to death for the crime of witchcraft, almost all of them women [source: Bailey]. That witchcraft hysteria was famously exported to the U.S. via Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The overwhelming majority of these cases were the result of petty grudges, childish accusations or social punishments. Some of the "witches" involved were practitioners of older pagan traditions or folk magic, or were simply insufficiently pious in the eyes of the local community [source: Goodheart]. In her 1978 journal article on witch hysteria in medieval Europe, author Mary Ann Campbell explains, "the negative image of the witch as evil, as deviant, was created by the Christian Church with the help of the secular ruling class. The 'One True Church' had to eliminate the competition."

Then there are esoteric orders, or groups that subscribed to nonmainstream Christian ideas or adopted occult practices from other religions. These included groups that practiced gnosticism, kabbalah, Christian theosophy and Rosicrucianism. What they all had in common is the idea that there are hidden (occult) truths to be found in the world or in sacred texts, and members could learn rituals that unlocked secret powers.

Esoteric orders were not overtly Satanic. However, the mainstream church depicted them as evil and Satanic to undermine them and reduce their appeal, much as they'd done with displaced religions in earlier eras. For example, in the 14th century power struggle between church authorities and the Christian military order Knights Templar, the leaders of the Knights were arrested and accused of spitting on the cross and worshipping an idol called Baphomet.

The inherent secrecy of these groups left them vulnerable to accusations of blasphemy and Satan worship. The members of these orders may have been branded as wicked heretics and blaspheming devil worshippers, but it is unlikely that there were any long-term organized groups of Satanists actively worshipping Satan as an evil entity in any historical era. Even today, secret societies and esoteric orders like the Illuminati and Freemasons are at the heart of many sinister conspiracy theories. There's a plot twist, though: Modern Satanist groups have adopted many supposedly Satanic symbols, like the inverted pentagram and image of the deity Baphomet, used by esoteric orders.

That said, it's time to meet Anton LaVey, the father of modern Satanism.


The Founding of the Church of Satan

Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, is pictured here in costume. Bettmann/Getty Images

Anton LaVey was born Howard Stanton Levey in 1930. There are conflicting accounts of his early years — LaVey's authorized biographies paint a wildly colorful life in which he worked at a circus, as a police photographer and as an organist at a burlesque show. LaVey's detractors suggest none of these things is true, and that he lived a fairly normal post-war suburban life near San Francisco.

What is not disputed is the fact that LaVey had a growing interest in the occult, both ritual and fictional. He was a fan of pulp horror and adventure stories and read the pulp magazine Weird Tales. He was also interested in the beliefs of Western esoteric groups, including modern ones like occultist Aleister Crowley's Thelema. In the 1960s, LaVey began hosting lectures on the paranormal and occult beliefs. This philosophical zeal and keen eye for publicity led him to create the Church of Satan in 1966 and reinvigorate interest in Satanism in the United States.


"The Satanic Bible," the Church of Satan's central text written by LaVey and published in 1969, is split into four books: The Book of Satan, The Book of Lucifer, The Book of Belial and The Book of Leviathan. It addresses the church's philosophies on love, religion, magic and destruction, among other topics, and has been widely influential in spreading the contemporary Satanist credo.

When LaVey set out to relay his belief system in "The Satanic Bible," he drew heavily from the Enlightenment idea of a symbolic Satan who stands in opposition to established authorities and values. He also took inspiration from the Objectivist ideas of writer and philosopher Ayn Rand and from the occult stories of his favorite pulp writers, like H.P. Lovecraft and E. Robert Howard. The result was a stew of darkly ominous rituals and "don't tread on me" libertarian philosophy, which we'll explore next.


The Philosophy of the Church of Satan

An inverted pentagram with the head of a goat inside, encircled by the word "Leviathan" in Hebrew (similar to this image), is the official logo of the Church of Satan. itskatjas/iStock/Thinkstock

The Church of Satan's philosophy is outlined in lists of rules, tenets and other writings, but they boil down to:

  • No one should be able to tell you what to do, especially with your own body.
  • Indulge in the things you desire, give in to temptation and enjoy the things other religions consider sins.
  • You don't owe anyone anything, and you can do what you want to other people if you judge that they deserve it.

There are nine Satanic Sins: stupidity, pretentiousness, solipsism, self-deceit, herd conformity, lack of perspective, forgetfulness of past orthodoxies, counterproductive pride and lack of aesthetics.


LaVeyan Satanism is staunchly atheistic and anti-Christian, due to what it considers the Church's authoritarianism and repression of humans' animal nature. To LaVeyan Satanists, Satan is a pre-Christian symbol of self-interest and rejection of control, not an entity. It's dark force of nature that represents the mundane and earthly, while the Satanists themselves are their own "God." The church emphasizes indulgence, vengeance, autonomy, self-responsibility and exalting life.

The occult rituals LaVey described in "The Satanic Bible" were intended to be psychodramas that lead to self-awareness, embrace of carnality or psychological manipulation of the ritual's "target," although the text leaves open the possibility that there are forces beyond human explanation. LaVey expressly rejected the idea that blood sacrifice should be used in any ritual, and the church rejects harming animals and children. But it has faced criticism for its advocacy of social Darwinism and elitism.

The church remained active after LaVey's death in 1997, and members have released new texts on the philosophy of Satanism. The current high priest (the top administrative title, along with high priestess) of the Church of Satan, Peter H. Gilmore, wrote the 2007 book "The Satanic Scriptures," a collection of essays and rituals that the church considers an important text. As of April 2017, Peggy Nadramia is the high priestess of the Church of Satan.

The church doesn't host any official services or gatherings — today, most Satanists stay in touch online. You can register with the Church of Satan by sending $200 to a P.O. box, but this requires no responsibilities and confers no benefits other than a membership card. The church emphasizes that registration isn't required for someone to practice Satanism or follow LaVey's teachings, although there is a hierarchy that advances from a registered member (with no degree) to a maga or magus (of the fifth degree).

Despite the Church of Satan's focus on liberty and individualism rather than devil worship, the stigma of Satanists as evil remains. Of the many self-identifying Satanists interviewed, even those who practice Satanism openly are selective about the people with whom they share their beliefs. "I am not fully able to express myself in public for fear of retaliation by people in the part of the world that I live in," one Satanist, who wished to remain anonymous, said via email. "The effect the stigma has had on me has been a loss of friends who did not wish to understand my atheistic, individualist point of view compared to their theistic one."

The Church of Satan claims it has members worldwide and is continuously growing, but it isn't the only active modern Satanist movement [source: Church of Satan].


The Satanic Temple and Other Satanist Practices

Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves stands in front of a statue of Baphomet. The church is known for its outspokenness on social and political issues. The Washington Post/Getty Images

The Satanic Temple is a loosely organized group of Satanists similar to the Church of Satan, but that does not endorse a rigid version of Satanism. The Temple is also home to atheistic, philosophical Satanists. However, it rejects the social Darwinism and libertarian views of the Church of Satan. The beliefs of Satanic Temple adherents are like those of secular humanists, who value critical, scientific reasoning and individualism.

The Temple is politically and socially progressive and uses its notoriety to pursue progressive causes. To the Satanic Temple, the shock value of Satanic imagery is useful as a media and political tool, and the organization regularly uses it to balance what it sees as religious intrusions into public life. For instance, the Temple requested that a statue of Baphomet be placed next to a monument of the Ten Commandments on Oklahoma State Capitol grounds in 2015.


Alse Young, a San Francisco Satanist and member of the Satanic Temple (although not an official representative), described his interest in the Temple as a conscious rejection of LaVeyan Satanism. "I learned about the Satanic Temple through the public flap about the Baphomet monument in Oklahoma, like most people, and I found their example refreshing," Young said via email. "Instead of a dead man and a 50-year-old book they were invested in current events, people's real lives, and things that affect the average person."

There are a few lesser-known Satanic groups. The First Satanic Church, founded by Anton LaVey's daughter Karla LaVey, is an offshoot of the Church of Satan. The Order of the Serpent is another group that follows "the left-hand path" — one of free thought, self-power and moral relativism — of Satanism. Modern esoteric and occult groups, like the Temple of Set, are sometimes confused with Satanic organizations. A handful of Satanic groups primarily in Europe, like the Order of Nine Angles, are associated with far-right nationalist ideologies.

Finally, there are the theistic Satanists, or those who worship Satan as a deity rather than symbolically. Theistic Satanists don't have widespread organizations, and some atheistic Satanists disapprove of their Satanist label. Of the few self-identifying theistic Satanists we spoke with, none of them worship a literal, supernatural Satan as a god the way Satanists do in movies. Some of them worship Satan as a pagan deity, but not as the epitome of evil. Vinicius Turkmenow, a Satanist from São Paulo, Brazil, considers Satan a deity but describes beliefs very similar to philosophical Satanism. "I think about Satan more as an impersonal force than anything; it's also a creative force, because it acts as a point to get different views about our society and its relationship with religions and faith, overall speaking," he said via email. "It's not about hate, but being on the other side of the fence, trying to understand how the rest works."

So far, Satanists don't seem to be the demonic, blood sacrificing monsters they've often been portrayed as. Do these so-called "evil" Satanists exist?


Satanism as a Vehicle for Crime

A Star reporter examines a pentagram painted on the floor of a barn loft, 1964, after rumors of a Satanic cult erupted in an Ontario town. Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

There are criminals who use Satanism to justify their deeds, but they're few and far between. Murders have been committed in the name of Satan. Some criminals have latched onto the idea of Satan spurring them to kill and approving of their actions. And mental illnesses like schizophrenia have caused some people to hear voices that they attribute to Satan.

Richard Ramirez, the so-called "Night Stalker" who terrorized California in the mid-1980s, scrawled Satanic symbols and yelled Satanic slogans while committing his murders and during court appearances. David Berkowitz, aka the Son of Sam, claimed a demon (though not literally Satan) commanded him to kill people. Germans Manuela and Daniel Ruda, American teen Ricky Kasso and a heavy metal group called Hatred all committed gruesome murders while invoking the name of Satan.


There is one disturbing case in which a small cult named the Chicago Ripper Crew carried out a series of murders as part of Satanic rituals. In the early 1980s, four men kidnapped women and took them to their Satanic chamber (a rented hotel room), where they raped and murdered the women, and amputated one of their breasts. Their ringleader, Robin Gecht, was reportedly an avid reader of "The Satanic Bible." But these murders stopped once the perpetrators were arrested, and the perpetrators didn't seem to be connected to any kind of broad Satanist hierarchy that would continue the work [source: Johnson].

Members of black metal bands, like Varg Vikernes and Euronymous, burned down churches and committed at least one murder in the 1980s and 1990s. These crimes are often associated with Satanism, and the bands involved used Satanic imagery in their image and lyrics. However, it's more accurate to say that these crimes were specifically anti-Christian, and more closely connected to neo-pagan and far-right nationalist beliefs than ritualized, theistic Satanism [source: Sigel].

Almost every murder case with a reported Satanic influence was an isolated case of mental illness or an impulsive act intended to terrorize victims. These isolated "Satanic" murders are certainly terrifying, though, so it's understandable that America was swept into the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. And it's no surprise that movies and novels about murderous Satanists have been popular.


Satanism in Pop Culture

Satan was a hot topic in movies in the 1960s and '70s. In the film "The Exorcist," Regan (seen here, played by actress Linda Blair) is demonically possessed. Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1973, "The Exorcist" was a massive box office success, only one of a wave of '60s and '70s Satan-themed movies that included "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Omen." "The Devil's Rain," a horror film released in 1975, credited Anton LaVey himself as a technical advisor. LaVey's claims to have served the same role on the set of "Rosemary's Baby" and to have portrayed Satan in a key scene are difficult to confirm and may have been the product of his talent for self-promotion. Yet he did have contact with several prominent actors, including Jayne Mansfield, and entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. joined the Church of Satan in 1968. The Satanist movie trend never faded away completely, and today there are enough demonic possession and Satanic cult films to constitute their own horror subgenres.

Musicians, too, have long flirted with dark imagery. Bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden used occult or vaguely Satanic imagery to create a sense of mystery and dark allure. In the 1980s and '90s, death metal, black metal and other subgenres emerged, with bands using far more explicit and direct references to Satanic imagery. Deicide, Mayhem, Morbid Angel and countless other bands crafted their images around devotion to Satan and depicted brutal, grotesque horrors in their lyrics and album covers. Thomas Thorn, front man of the industrial metal band The Electric Hellfire Club, claims to be an ordained priest in the Church of Satan, and the lead singer of the heavy metal band Ghost performs in a skull mask and Satanic pope outfit.


The popularity of Satanism as a topic in music and movies along with the isolated but widely publicized Satanic murders combined in the 1980s and '90s to create an infamous era: the Satanic Panic. The belief that hundreds of Satanic cults were running rampant in the U.S. led to the condemnation of heavy metal music and the game Dungeons & Dragons. But it also resulted in many people — many of whom ran day cares in the U.S. and England — being convicted of crimes that they were innocent of.

The Satanic Panic grew partly out of certain Christian fundamentalist groups who fostered Satanist conspiracy theories. Children testified in court that the most outlandish, bizarre things had occurred: graveyard rituals, murders, a pool full of sharks eating babies, babies being dismembered, child sex rings, cannibalism and secret flights to other countries. The list of crimes purportedly perpetrated by Satanic cults grew, though much of it seemed impossible. How could dozens of babies go missing with no one noticing?

Ultimately, the Satanic Panic era faded. It became apparent that recovered memories were unreliable at best, and that suggestible children often had false memories implanted in their minds by the very therapists who were supposedly helping them. Widespread reviews of the ritual abuse cases turned up no evidence of organized Satanic cult activity (although there were a few cases of actual child abuse), and there is no evidence of widespread Satanic conspiracies infiltrating high levels of American government and law enforcement [source: Frankfurter].

Satanists are a diverse group. A few of them are so inspired by the concept of an all-consuming evil that they actually commit murder, but most are just adherents to a carnal moral philosophy, or followers of unconventional beliefs that earn them the label "adversary."


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