At the International Conference of the Center for Studies on New Religions, or CESNUR, held in Palermo, Sicily, in early June of 2005, Dutch scholar Reender Kranenborg posed a seemingly simple question to the audience of his presentation: “How ‘Satanic’ is Satanism?” As Kranenborg made clear in the introduction to his paper, by ‘Satanic’ he meant to invoke the feelings of traditional Christians about Satan and Satanism, namely that they are evil, that Satan, as an embodiment, is “the ultimate evil power,” “the devil as Big Evil.” In unpacking what these christian characterizations of Satan and Satanism might mean on the ground, so to speak, Kranenborg eventually settles on the idea that ‘satanic,’ in the sense in which he is asking about it, means having the deliberate intention to damage and do harm, especially to people. Kranenborg notes that the idea of religious adherents cultivating true evil has traditionally enjoyed its greatest currency in connection with what he calls ‘ritual Satanism.’
Anyone who, as I did, grew up as a teenager in the late 1980s and early 90s, will remember well the intense media attention at the national and local levels devoted to “Satanic Ritual Abuse” (SRA). The Panic brought with it a seemingly never-ending flood of allegations involving torture of both humans and animals, sexual abuse and assault, and even outright murder. I still recall, these many years later, one particular article in the newspaper of my hometown of Columbus, GA, that lead with the lurid tale of an alleged victim of SRA flat on her back while a Satanic priest, described as having rancid breath and a large pentagram necklace that pressed painfully into his victim’s flesh, forcibly had sex with her. For reasons most likely prurient and lustful, that image has stuck with me for all these decades since.
Serious subsequent investigation into the SRA scare of that time period has revealed it to have been a largely unsubstantiated moral panic predicated on sensationalism and prejudice and fueled by questionable psychological therapies leading, through suggestion, to the confabulation of false memories . One thinks of the fantastic descriptions of the ritualized method of Viking execution known as the Blood Eagle depicted in various Sagas: a royal victim lying prone, his back opened and ribs severed from the spinal column with an ax or similar weapon, his lungs pulled through his now open back and carefully arranged across his shoulders like a pair of eagle’s wings, whence the name. Horrid stuff. The ritual was even depicted in a particularly gruesome scene in episode seven of the second season of the hit History Channel show Vikings, this despite the fact that not a word of it appeared in Viking writings until several centuries after the Christianization of Scandinavia, at a time when the supposed ritual resembles in its lurid details and glorification of torture the martyrdom tracts that were popular among ancient Christians . Prurient images of blood-drinking daycare workers and sex-crazed psychopaths derive more from Christians needing to see themselves as persecuted and living in an utterly fallen age and world, under constant attack from demonic forces literally hellbent not just on destruction but on reveling in destruction, both doing harm and deriving ultimate pleasure and satisfaction from the damage done.
When Kranenborg casts about for real, and not imagined, groups of the sort he would label both truly ‘satanic’ and ‘satanistic’—that is, having a special focus on some version of the figure, ethos, or mythos of Satan—he settles on racially motivated cults that, at least in theory, advocate and glorify violence against whoever doesn’t make some privileged cut in terms of both racial and personality traits. One such group—not discussed by Kranenborg—is the Order of Nine Angles, often abbreviated O9A or ONA. The group openly advocates terrorism and human sacrifice or “culling” in an effort to destroy modern, especially Western, society and replace it with a more racially and doctrinally pure social structure predicated on strength and cultivation of a system of in-group values known as “kindred honour.” Adherents of the group’s philosophy refer to those outside of the O9A as “mundanes” and seek to cultivate in themselves amoral or immoral behavior toward such mundanes as a show of their commitment to so-called “exeatic” living, that is living in such a way as to transgress or go beyond limits imposed by mundanes and their social and governmental institutions. The neologistic coinage exeatic would appear to derive from the Latin term exeat, given as a name to one of a pair of journals which the O9A claims to publish. The word is actually a verb in Latin, the present active subjunctive form of the third person singular of exire, which means to ‘go out of’ or ‘leave.’ The term is popular in legal parlance in the phrase ne exeat, literally “may he/she not leave.” A writ of ne exeat prohibits a person from leaving or removing property from the jurisdiction of a particular legal entity, usually as a means of ensuring compliance with a court order. The full form of the phrase is either ne exeat regno, ‘may he/she not leave the kingdom,’ or ne exeat republica, ‘may he/she not leave the republic,’ depending on the nature of the political entity the individual is enjoined from leaving. Use of the invented adjective exeatic to describe their ideal way of life thus places devotees of the O9A squarely at odds with modern legal systems and their claims to exercise jurisdiction over people and property. As the name of one of the group’s published journals, exeat would seem to constitute a sort of call to arms to would-be adherents, exhorting them to take their leave of the Western social systems to which their movement opposes itself.
Perhaps worse than groups like the O9A, which at least makes an attempt at systematizing and providing a philosophical basis for its cultivation of evil, there are other practitioners of what prolific theistic Satanic author Diane Vera would term “evilism” who are quite simply criminals or disaffected individuals turning to crime to express their anger and frustration or as a way of exorcising personal demons. The infamous “Black Metal Circle” of early 1990s Norway earns a place of distinction in this crowd, with its praise of totalitarianism and its opposition to happiness, peace, compassion, democracy, and the rule of law. The movement would eventually inspire two murders and a host of church burnings before finally facing justice in 1994. Among these more lawless evilist groups and movements, a general veneration of antinomianism and antipathy for their own sake seems to prevail, a studied opposition to all that other humans hold dear and important, no matter what that may be. You find individuals associated with these groups pushing flat-earth “theories”; opposing all marriage, whether gay or straight; propagating conspiracy theories that hold the United States government responsible for 9/11 and Jews generally for a putative repressive new world order; and so on. The role model for this brand of thoroughly antinomian Satanist is the psychopath intent on pure destruction rather than an open, inquisitive human being who yearns for knowledge and freedom, for the ability to know and express him or herself more openly, without societally enforced hypocrisy. To paraphrase the original 1991 film Point Break, most of these folks “just want to get radical.” Theirs is a “mindless aggression.”
By contrast, in considering Anton LaVey, author of The Satanic Bible and founder of the Church of Satan, Kranenborg determines that, while the movement LaVey birthed is explicitly “satanistic” in that it uses the figure of Satan as a focal point and inspiration for a mission of human betterment and liberation from certain societal restraints, there is nothing ‘satanic’ as the Dutch scholar has defined the term about either it or related movements. In his essay in The Devil’s Notebook entitled “On the importance of being evil,” LaVey appears to praise human agents of “evil,” arguing that evil villains have always proven necessary throughout history to act as catalysts for change, as enemies of boredom, in order to prevent that humanity should ever “die from inertia.” Yet even as he names names of “grandiose” villains who he argues have turned out “beneficent” to society (including Hitler! Yikes!), he also writes:
“The lowest level would-be Satanist who thinks he is justifying his existence by committing ‘evil’ acts is the most deluded of all…The creep whose ‘evil’ deed for the day consists of pulling the wings off a butterfly invariably causes no productive reaction. He cannot rightly be considered evil. Simply moronic.”
LaVey may have been a thoroughgoing misanthrope, but he was a principled misanthrope. His desire was that evil serve “an admirable purpose,” for which “it must have method” and not simply madness.
It is this consideration which brings me to my main focus in this essay: How is Satanism, inspired by LaVey, incompatible with Kranenborgian evil exactly? After all, many, if not most, folks untutored in modern Satanism would likely agree with the idea that “[t]he general public associates blood rituals involving animals with Satanism.” So what then keeps Satanism from devolving into such “simply moronic” behavior?
While Satanism is far from an organized or centralized movement and completely lacks any overarching dogma or single institutional schema to unite “believers,” I would venture that most, if not all, individuals who self-identify as Satanists of one stripe or another would assent to the proposition that at the pinnacle of most every Satanic value system lies the principle of sovereignty of the individual will and the inviolability of the individual physical person or body. The trick to this principle, though—and here’s where things might get a bit more contentious—lies in realizing that it must be applied on a truly universal basis.
To enact such a notion only for an individual or a small group, like many of those whom Vera calls evilists do, is to embrace a pseudo-philosophical doctrine of selfishness which must necessarily, at the very least, justify callousness toward others, as it authorizes the individual holding such a value to ride roughshod over other people’s wills and bodies, if not encouraging outright evil in granting permission to actively nullify others’ wills and intentionally seek to violate their bodies in a manner reminiscent of the O9A’s exeatic living. I too read Ayn Rand as a teenager. Anthem remains near and dear to my heart for its associations with that formative period of my life, and I can still faithfully quote from it:
“It is my will which chooses, and the choice of my will is the only edict I must respect. Many words have been granted me, and some are wise, and some are false, but only three are holy: ‘I will it!’”
As a forty-year-old adult, however, I know that Rand herself never put her ideas to universal service. I have read up on Rand’s life and interpersonal relations (if relation is the right word for what she cultivated). I can see past the writer’s patent self-centeredness and the way in which her so-called philosophy of Objectivism in truth concealed a policy of objectifying others as mere pawns in the pursuit of her own satisfaction, the consequences to those caught up in the middle be damned.
Modern Satanism contains a curious blend to two opposing tendencies in its theories of the worth and potential of humankind. On the one hand, most Satanic philosophies and religions see humanity in a rather positive light, as un-fallen and free from the necessity of apologizing for or covering up our own pursuit of pleasure and fulfillment. The image of Lucifer as “light-bringer” and bestower of knowledge promises to the Satanist an unlimited potential for learning and growth, in keeping with the third of LaVey’s Nine Satanic Statements:
“Satan represents undefiled wisdom, instead of hypocritical self-deceit!”
On the other hand, Satanism since LaVey has also played home to a significant misanthropic element. In LaVey’s seventh Satanic Statement, we find a telling indictment of humanity’s hubristic tendency to allow a sense of self, engorged and inflated on claims to spiritual and intellectual cultivation, to lead us into vicious behavior both toward one another and toward other species:
“Satan represents man as just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours, who, because of his ‘divine spiritual and intellectual development’, has become the most vicious animal of all!”
There is great fun in the transgressive attitude Satanism cultivates to our own kind, in thinking we are just animals, in which case non-Satanists would play the role of docile sheep while the Satanists among us happily don the costumes and mannerisms of ravening wolves. However, these two opposing anthropological tendencies within Satanism must be kept in balance, just as LaVey argues that indulgence in certain traditionally recognized sins must be allowed to balance one another out:
“When you have overeaten to the point of obesity, another sin—pride—will motivate you to regain an appearance that will renew your self-respect.”
Too much viciousness and brutality toward those of our own (and other) species can ultimately nullify the life of indulgence and vitality exalted in the other Satanic Statements.
Reifying and deifying a principle of evil and utter selfishness can only result in philosophical absurdity. If you try to construct a belief system around veneration of a principle of utter evil, defined roughly as Kranenborg defines it, the very basis of your philosophy would contain the seeds of its own dissolution. A total embodiment of harm, damage, and destruction can only work to its own eventual detriment, unless, of course, the principle is restrained selfishly so to work only for the harm, damage, and destruction of others, perhaps because of a subsidiary principle of enjoyment in causing harm to others. This, then, is no absolute veneration of evil, but rather a kind of sadism writ large: a principle that privileges enjoyment of working evil against others for one’s own satisfaction. A being who would embody such a principle must then also be a creative being, so as to continually give rise to new beings whom it can torture and destroy, otherwise the fun would soon—and doubtless prematurely—come to an end. This being who creates other, lesser beings that it can then destroy for its own enjoyment begins to sound uncomfortably similar to the vengeful, jealous god of the Old Testament. And religious movements or philosophies centered on such a being soon resemble so many tribalisms, each with their own violent, ethnocentric agenda. One adopting such ideas must, like the O9A, restrict the working of evil to an out-group, reserving a second, and more positive, set of behavioral standards for the in-group (the so-called “kindred honour”). But once total destruction of “mundanes” and their institutions has been achieved, where’s the pleasure to be had then? Behind what cause would the combatants then unite? Anyone who would found a life on selfishly using and abusing others as a general rule must either face the eventual demise of the victimizing activities and victims that render their behavior possible or else face their own eventual victimization at the hands of another, otherwise similar, group that seeks to use and abuse them. Live by the sword…. Perhaps a third option would be to become forevermore keepers and cultivators of those one would seek to victimize, a kind of life of the jail warden, which would doubtless exact its own devastating psychological, physical, and emotional toll and would certainly prompt reasonable questions as to why anybody would actively seek to surround themselves in perpetuity with that which their philosophy dictates that they should ultimately destroy.
The only possible outcome of adopting such principles and codes of conduct is slavery to the finitude inherent in the beliefs and behaviors themselves, shackling to the hard law of diminishing returns indelibly etched on such ideas. If liberation was ever part of the aim, there is no ultimate liberty here, either for the victims or the victimizers. There’s a good reason LaVey’s Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth enshrine respect for others’ time and patience, for their domiciles and property, and for their right to live free from unwanted sexual advances, while at the same time forbidding the harming of children, killing of animals for any purpose other than self-defense or food, and wanton bothering of other people in the world. Violating these principles would invoke the lex talionis as LaVey understood and recommended it: the law of retribution and vengeance against those who make themselves targets by seeking to target others. As LaVey himself reminds us:
“Satanism advocates unrestricted freedom, but only to the extent that one’s preferences do not impinge upon another’s.”
Millenia of human history should be sufficient to prove that shows of force and violence against others’ wills and autonomous bodies produce nothing but an infinite regress of force and violence. There is nothing radical about deifying naked force or indulging violence to prove the power of that “religion.” The truly radical move is to walk away from such predatory myths and accept that literally every individual is a sovereign unto him- or herself when it comes to will and unfettered autonomy over their own body. There is no higher principle or greater reality that can ever legitimize violation of that sovereignty or autonomy. Celebration and enactment of this belief is the single most subversive, most transgressive action that Satanists can perform, for it flies in the face of all of human history and every family, group, society, and civilization that has ever existed. It even goes against the grain of our vividest imaginings of evil anti-families, anti-groups, anti-societies, and anti-civilizations. This idea makes the Sith, with their Rule of Two, seem positively quaint and old fashioned. All of these conceptions, both positive and negative, have always rested on the idea that some wills, some bodies can legitimately be transgressed and violated for the sake of a higher will, a more perfect or powerful body. Walk away from that, and you become the true revolutionary, truly free.
So there it is. Congratulations. You are a king. You are also your only subject. And your kingdom? Extends just as far as the outer limits of your own mind and body. Some consequences to consider:
- Every other person is a unique foreign country. They have their own language, religion, customs, cuisine, you name it. You don’t know the ways there, because you’ve never been there. That’s because you’re stuck in your own kingdom—forever. Those other potentates may let you make a formal state visit for a night, but don’t presume. You’ll only ever learn their ways by listening and watching closely, and even then you’ll always make mistakes, forever talk with an accent, constantly fail to get the humor. Foreigners can be so strange and unpredictable. Never forget that.
- Every interpersonal interaction is an act of diplomacy. Unless you like messy international incidents—which never fail to top the charts in both news media and popular gossip—tread with care. Nobody likes a rogue nation.
- Mistreating another is always an act of invasion, usurpation, or regicide. If you think anyone ever comes out clearly, cleanly on top in the “game of thrones,” I’ve got a few thousand pages of George R. R. Martin to throw at you. If you would play, remember that you’ll have the Sword of Damocles hanging above your head and the uncomfortable—and treacherous!—Iron Throne poking and pricking beneath your behind. Don’t get cut! Bandaids are of no use against stupid.
So that’s it. That’s the whole of the law. Now go, do what thou wilt, and sin no more! (If you want to, that is!)
1. Jeffrey S. Victor. Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend. Chicago, March 1993. Mary de Young. The Day Care Ritual Abuse Moral Panic. McFarland, 2004. Debbie Nathan. Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt. Basic Books, 1995.
2. Ronald Hutton. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass., reprint edition edition, 1993. David Horspool. King Alfred: Burnt Cakes and Other Legends. Harvard University Press, 2006.