Abundance and Ownership: Competing Claims on the Complicated Life of Words and Symbols

The Most Abundant Night of the Year

Halloween is a time of such natural abundance. I launch into fits of ecstasy seeing the faces of trick or treaters as I greet them at the door; scare them a little by acting all subtle and creepy one moment and then letting rip a booming, sinister “Happy Halloween!” the next; lower the brimming bowl of candy down to their eye-level and let them get a good look inside; and then offer that they can take whatever they want, as much as they want (or their parents will allow, whichever comes first). In their little faces, I see a rushing cataract of cascading emotions: fear, apprehension, glee, disbelief as an adult offers them as much candy as they want or can carry. I never simply dish out the bonbons myself, but instead get a powerful kick out of watching as their greedy, sticky little hands plunge deep into the crinkling wrappers piled high in the candy bowl, coming up with sweaty fistfuls gripped tight to be dropped into their bags or buckets or pails or whatever they’re carrying to transport the plunder. 

Of course, I wear a large Sigil of Baphomet around my neck because I want them to glimpse the symbol and, even if unconsciously, begin to associate it with the powerful rush of feelings from the unhallowed night: with the greed, the lust, the hunger, the fright, the exhilaration, the powerful sense of truly living, of dressing and acting the beast even if just for a single evening. 

At least one mother eyed me warily last night, me in my black-and-gold cloak and bronze-patinated half-mask sporting coiling serpents and a gem-eyed skull, a get-up somewhat reminiscent of the ritual garb in the 1999 Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut. (Those of you who know me personally can find an image of same on my personal Facebook page.) In the background, the intercom speakers all over the house blared Behemoth’s 2014 masterpiece The Satanist, an album which my friend and fellow Satanist F. Screwtape, the most talented tattoo artist of Deep Ellum, Texas, has rightly called a “spiritual experience.” The rapture (and definitely not in a Left Behind sense) is real!  

The Theme of Abundance

Now that we’ve entered the month of American Thanksgiving (sorry, Canada, whose Thanksgiving was last month: I mean “American” in a very restricted sense here), I’m dedicating the month’s posts to the theme of abundance. 

I want to get the feast kicked off by revisiting yesterday’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek Halloween post about the use and abuse of ancient languages in Satanic and Left-Hand-Path (LHP) writing and ritual. If you will recall, in the piece, I criticized the way that some Satanists and LHPers mess up their use of ancient languages, particularly Latin, inadvertently creating humorous misunderstandings through faulty ancient grammar. Though I assume a superior tone in the essay and even tout my own, less-than-stellar educational credentials, I don’t want to give the impression that my own should be taken the final word in such matters. 

Though none have ever mentioned it, those of you astute enough to notice might have picked up on a pervasive “error” in Latin represented in numerous spots on this very website, for instance in the sign-off of the “About” page! There, as elsewhere on the site, you will find the sentence Ave Satanas. The first-declension Latin noun Satanas represents a calque of the Greek Σατανᾶς, itself of course calqued from the Hebrew term שָׂטָן. The vocative form of that noun needed in the phrase Hail Satan (literally, the Latin formula beginning with the imperative ave means “Fare well, Satan!”) is, in fact, Satana, as can be seen in the fourth-century CE rendering in the Vulgate translation of the Bible of the famous rebuke Jesus utters to his favored disciple Peter in Mark 8:33: “Get behind me, Satan,” which in the Latin is Vade retro me, Satana.    

So why is this problem something I would characterize as an “error” in scare quotes? Well, that’s because there’s a history of using this phrase in the incorrect form Ave Satanas, with nominative case instead of vocative, associated with Satanism specifically. It seems the first occurrences of this version of the address, with the key noun sometimes spelled Sathanas, appeared on the scene in novels and plays from the 1800s. When LaVey fired up his Church of Satan and the key publications that originally undergirded it in the 1960s, he followed suit, always, to my knowledge, using Ave Satanas and never the grammatically correct Ave Satana. So there’s a brief historical tradition of using this incorrect Latin specifically in the context of modern Satanism, which is most likely why other Satanists, many of whom obviously know little-to-no actual Latin, have simply followed along. 

What’s interesting about this particular mistake, though, is that, unlike the errors I discussed in yesterday’s post, it doesn’t fall subject to any possible misunderstandings. The phrase is obviously intended as an invocation of the name and concept of Satan and, though wrong, cannot be parsed in any way so as to obscure the essential message of I, as a self-proclaimed Satanist, am paying homage to the symbol and metaphor at the center of this particular religious practice. Perhaps also, in a way similar to how dictionaries and encyclopedias sometimes include fictitious or erroneous entries in an effort to help protect copyright and prevent someone else from coming along and seizing already published content wholesale to publish it again as yet another, “new” dictionary, the flaw marks those using the phrase as Satanists in the grand tradition of modern Satanism, rather than—say—Latin scholars shallowly playing the part of Satanists. The defect marks the use as peculiar, and in peculiarity lies increased possibility of asserting ownership.    

The Abundance of History

Historical traditions are abundant in the sense that they can be revisited time and again by moderns in an effort to find something to appropriate, renew, reinvigorate, and even reinvent, imbuing it with novel, changed meaning and significance. In the case of Satanism, such moves usually involve a desire to commit blasphemy. Of course, Satanism hardly has the market cornered in this arena; witness, for instance, the transformation of the ancient Greek pagan religious term anathema in early Christian tradition, beginning with the Pauline epistles. Yet perhaps Satanism has perfected the technique. 

I’ve written and lectured before, for example, about St. Peter’s Cross and how it got its start as a religious symbol in the circa 200 CE apocryphal Acts of Peter, which records the apostle’s request to be crucified upside down, not because he felt particularly unworthy of upright crucifixion such as Jesus purportedly endured, but rather as a reflection of his desire to portray a semblance or reminder of the fact that humans are born into the world in a physically (unless you’re a breech baby, that is!) and morally upside-down state and can only be made rightside-up by the upright sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Obviously, as a symbol, the resultant inverted cross has nothing, in its origins, to do with rebellion, blasphemy, or the Devil. Indeed, as Christians gleefully point out, it is rather a particularly potent symbol of Christian doctrine (if not the alleged apostolic humility many Christians take it for). But that fact has not stopped pop-culture and Satanists from appropriating the symbol and latching onto its inverted state as a reminder of the way that Satanism turns so much of Christian culture on its head (think: the supposed “witching hour” of 3am, inverted from the alleged time of Jesus’ death on the Cross at 3 in the afternoon). This self-conscious “misuse” of the symbol again marks the unique territory that Satanism has carved out for its own. 

The Knights Templar, a medieval Catholic military order, was once accused of idol worship directed toward a monument allegedly similar to the now infamous Baphomet (see the excellent essay on the subject entitled “The Baphomet in History and Symbolism,” by an erudite sometime colleague of mine named Forrest Jackson, in this collection). With the help of occultists like 19th-century Alphonse Louis Constant (a.k.a. Eliphas Lévi) and early-20th-century Aleister Crowley, the image took on distinctly diabolical associations that inspired Anton LaVey to adopt the Sigil of Baphomet as a symbol for his new Satanic organization founded in 1966.

Ultimately, symbols are like language: they acquire new and nuanced meanings in novel contexts and can be co-opted and put to whatever use by whomever for their own purposes. This is precisely why “wrong” Latin, or any other ancient (or even modern) language for that mater, used in a particular way in a novel ritual or other context can come to have very real and very “right” or “correct” new meaning, at least for the group so using it. So too the group’s “misuse” of the language or symbol can come to mark its own activities as particular and even proprietary. 

Note, on this score, LaVey’s adoption of the Rabbinic term Shemhamforash as a kind of Satanic hallelujah in his rituals. Perhaps he had first encountered the phrase somewhere along the line as a result of his Jewish heritage. The original Hebrew phrase is correctly parsed as shem ha-mephorash, where shem means ‘name,’ ha- is the definite article ‘the,’ and mephorash is the Pual (read: passive) participle of the verb p-r-š, meaning ‘to make distinct, declare, or explain’ (it pops up in Nehemiah 8:8 in reference to reading the scroll of the Law or Torah distinctly and with correct understanding). The whole thing in Rabbinic and Qabbalistic contexts is usually translated as “explicit name” and is used to refer to some secret, esoteric name of God, as in the so-called Tetragrammaton, the four letter “name” of God, YHWH, used in the Torah and regarded as sacred and unpronounceable by pious Jews, who usually substitute for it the word Adonai, meaning ‘My Lord,’ suggested, at any rate, by the ketiv-qere vocalization written together with the four consonants in standard editions of the Hebrew Bible. All this means that a phrase literally referring to the sacred and ineffable divine name was taken over by LaVey as a blasphemous exclamation for use in rituals like the Black Mass. To this day, use of Shemhamforash in this Satanic sense is attributed to LaVey’s innovation and comprises a unique feature of his personal brand of Satanism. 

When I wrote a script for a Black Mass first performed in October of 2017 and then again in February of 2018, I made a similar move, using as a likewise blasphemous exclamation the famous Hebrew phrase ’ehyeh ’ăšer ’ehyeh from Exodus 3:14, where God answers Moses’ question as to His identity with a wordplay involving the verb h-y-h ‘to be,’ which perhaps lies behind the enigmatic Tetragrammaton letters. The phrase is particularly well suited to Satanic blasphemy because it appears to literally mean ‘I am who or what I am,’ a nice bald declaration of Satanic self-empowerment. This unique inclusion serves to mark the script, over which I no longer have direct control, as, at least at some original point in time, uniquely mine.

Note, too, LaVey’s use of the phrase “Yankee Rose” as the final enigmatic words of his 1969 The Satanic Bible. While theories on the words abound, one clear association is with the tune by that name that LaVey recorded on a 1995 album entitled Satan Takes a Holiday. The song originated in the 1920s (published by the famous Irving Berlin in ’26, though the words were written by one Sidney Holden and the music by Abe Frankl) as a patriotic tribute to the Statue of Liberty. LaVey reportedly often performed the song at the conclusion of his Wurlitzer organ shows at a San Francisco nightclub in the 1950s, and Temple of Set founder Michael Aquino has suggested that he may have included the name of the song in his writing as a kind of inside joke, taking a forgotten pop song and redeploying it as a faux-occult lure for the unsuspecting and unsophisticated. 

Just as the 18th-century Doukhobors could take a name originally leveled against them as a slur and make it their own personal badge of honor; just as 19th-century Europeans and early 20th-century European white nationalists (read: Nazis) could “rediscover” the ancient symbol of the swastika or “hooked cross” and ultimately redeploy it as the Nazi Hakenkreuz; just as later 20th-century queer culture could co-opt the word gay that had earlier referred to happiness, flamboyance, hedonism, and even poetry and use it first as a coded reference to what society at large deemed their inappropriate sexuality and then later as an open and even pridefully preferred term for queerness more generally, words and symbols provide a never-ending source of abundance for the creation and re-creation of meaning in our lives. And the unique ways in which we redevelop and redeploy such words and symbols serve as indelible markers of our own particular identities and signature activities. 

The trick with such appropriation is to do your homework and make yourself aware of the rich history and ample sets of connections that stand behind and beneath favorite or problematic words and symbols before you go blithely on to redeploy them for whatever purposes you have in mind. What seems most to anger those whose words and symbols find themselves under such “hostile” attack is the possibility that the appropriators might not have any earthly idea of the former meanings other communities once attached to them, not to mention the potential for any new use of them to serve as parody or demonization of the original group. If such parody and demonization mean to rally support for denigration of or even outright violence against a group historically oppressed and without particular political clout or capital in the modern world, then not only does your act of appropriation make you an asshole, it also likely constitutes the kind of “cultural appropriation” so often decried in news media and on famously “liberal” college campuses. Even when you’re not acting particularly the asshole when appropriating prior words and symbols, you must always remain mindful of potential pushback in the form of disputed claims of ownership and even copyright.                  

An Abundance of Sense and Nonsense

SO, my point here is simply to say that you shouldn’t pay too much mind to my occasional grammatical mavenism. History contains nothing but lessons of disappointment and disillusionment for those who think they can exercise firm and definitive control over words and symbols they hold dear. Our 20th-century notions of copyright in perpetuity pale beside the unstoppable force of human inventiveness as flesh-and-blood meaning-making machines. Indeed, our ideas of extended copyright have rightly been criticized for clamping down on continued creativity and reinvigoration of old material. Of course, this won’t stop any of us from nonetheless attempting to at least influence others’ use of the symbols and words we value. It always feels at first at least a little bit like theft, even if you can’t advance a legal claim and really prove it. If the concept behind the word or symbols is important to you, you naturally want to try and make sure it doesn’t somehow get effaced or perverted or even outright forgotten through new and different use.

So you want your marred Latin or rightward branching neo-Hebrew to mean something special just to you and yours? You go right on ahead. Wave your banner proudly and say Ave to Satanas or Satana or Santana or any other old thing you can think of. The more unique and outlandish you can make it, the likelier you are to be able to maintain your own particular proprietary hold over it for longer. Hell, maybe one day Satanists will be concluding their Black Masses with the phrases Like a Prayer, Papa don’t Preach, or Lucky Star: long after, of course, but few can even remember (and no one really cares) who Madonna was or what (and why) she sang.       

One thought on “Abundance and Ownership: Competing Claims on the Complicated Life of Words and Symbols

  1. Pingback: An Abundance of Meaning from a relative Paucity of Symbols – The Devil's Fane

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