Satanism is a modern, largely non-theistic religion based on literary, artistic and philosophical interpretations of the central figure of evil. It wasn’t until the 1960s that an official Satanic church was formed by Anton LaVey.
Prior to the 20th Century, Satanism did not exist as a real organized religion but was commonly claimed as real by Christian churches. These claims surfaced particularly when persecuting other religious groups during events like the Inquisition, various witch hysterias in Europe and Colonial America and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.
Who is Satan?
The popular image of Satan is a horned, red, demonic human figure with a pointy tail and sometimes hooves. To Christians, sinners are sent to his domain—hell—after death. Hell is described as an underground world dominated by fire and Sadistic demons under Satan’s command.
Satan’s first appearance wasn’t in Christianity. He began as the Zoroastrian Devil figure of Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, which opposed the Zoroastrian creator god and tempted humans. Satan is later portrayed in Jewish Kabbalism, which presents him as a demon who lives in a demonic realm.
The name “Satan” first appeared in the Book of Numbers in the Bible, used as a term describing defiance. The character of Satan is featured in the Book of Job as an accusing angel. In the apocryphal Book of Enoch, written in the first century B.C., Satan is a member of the Watchers, a group of fallen angels.
Later established as a nemesis of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, the final book of the Bible, Revelations, depicts him as the ultimate evil. It’s the Christian figure of Satan that Satanism directly references.
Satan as Anti-Hero
In his 14th-century poem “Inferno,” Dante captured centuries of Christian belief by portraying Satan as an evil monster. But the Romantics of the 17th century recast him as an admirable and magnetic rebel, an anti-hero defying God’s authoritarianism. John Milton’s epic 1667 poem “Paradise Lost” is the pivotal text for establishing this interpretation in creative works. William Godwin’s 1793 treatise “An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice” later gave Milton’s depiction political legitimacy.
The most enduring Satanic symbol was created by occult author Éliphas Lévi. Lévi describes him as the horned goat deity Baphomet, in his 1854 book Dogme et Rituel, which linked Baphomet with Satan.
Probably a French misinterpretation of “Muhammed,” Baphomet was the deity the Knights Templar were accused of worshipping in trials in the 14th century.
Satan in the 19th Century
The last half of the 19th century saw a resurgence in the view of Satan as anti-hero. This was thanks to works like Italian poet Giosuè Carducci’s anti-papal “Hymn To Satan” and William Blake’s illustrations for Paradise Lost in 1888.
In his own book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake presented Satan as a messiah. Around the same time, Theosophical Society founder Madame Blavatsky wrote about Satan as a commendable insurgent offering humans wisdom.
Artists in the Decadent movement like Félicien Rops placed Satanic imagery in paintings, influenced by writers like Baudelaire and Poe. Satan was also employed in writings from socialist leaders like Mikhail Bakunin and Karl Marx.
Polish author Stanisław Przybyszewski wrote two books about Satan in 1897, one fiction and one non-fiction. Przybyszewski’s Satan was an anarchist with a comprehensive philosophy that was similar to modern Satanism. Przybyszewski’s young acolytes called themselves Satan’s Kinder.
Legendary occultist Aleister Crowley viewed Satan symbolically. His 1913 poem “A Hymn to Lucifer” celebrated the Devil as the provider of soul and rebellion to the universe. Crowley’s ideas were influential in Satanism.
One offshoot from Crowley’s crowd was the German group Fraternitas Saturni in 1926. Its founder Gregor A. Gregorius wrote Satanische Magie, which borrowed heavily from the Romantics and adopted Satan within the group’s astrological system. Fraternitas Saturni still exists and Gregorius’ writing has been used in Satanist practice.
Sometime between 1957 and 1960, Anton Lavey, a former carnival worker and musician, held night classes in the occult. Regular attendees eventually formed the Church of Satan.
These sessions were mostly discussion-based but on April 30, 1966, the group formalized as the Church of Satan and the meetings became more ritual-based, incorporating theatrics, costuming and music. Lavey became known as the Black Pope.
The Church’s early recruiting efforts included the short-lived Topless Witches Revue nightclub show, featuring Susan Atkins, who would later join the Manson Family.
The Satanic Bible
Lavey’s Satanic Bible was published in 1969, bringing together Lavey’s personal mix of black magic and occult concepts, secular philosophy and rationalism and anti-Christian ridicule into essays stressing human autonomy and self-determination in the face of an indifferent universe. The Satanic Bible gave the church a national reputation and served as a strong vehicle for its significant growth.
Ohio barber and part-time spiritual medium Herbert Sloan claimed in 1969 that he started the first Satanist organization, the Our Lady of Endor Coven of the Ophite Cultus Sathanas, in 1948. Sloane described his group as focused on the metaphysical aspects of Satan and offered service, communion and coffee and donuts socializing afterward. To compete with Lavey’s offerings, he added naked women to the meetings.
Order of the Nine Angles
As the Church of Satan grew in size, internal rifts developed, leading some members split off to start their own branches.
One expelled church member, Wayne West, formed the First Occultic Church of Man in 1971. Newsletter editor Michael Aquino left to form the Temple of Set in 1975, and plenty others followed. As proof of Satanism’s growth, the U.S. Army included the faith in its manual for chaplains “Religious Requirements and Practices” beginning in 1978.
The next decade brought in newer denominations like the Luciferian Children of Satan, founded by Marco Dimitri in Italy in 1982. Dimitri was convicted of child abuse but was later cleared.
Later Satanic groups include the Order of the Left-Hand Path, a New Zealand group founded in1990 that mixed Satanism with Nietzschean philosophy, and the Satanic Reds. The Satanic Reds formed in 1997 in New York, and combined Satanism with socialism and Lovecraftian concepts—a subgenre of horror fiction.
The 1980s Satanic Panic saw Christian fundamentalists push the idea that Satanic cults were systematically abusing children in rituals and committing widespread murder, and successfully convince the general public through sensational news coverage. Christian groups typically misrepresented the Church’s beliefs and practices in order to fabricate a real-world villain behind the conspiracy for the media.
Serial killer Richard Ramirez, when finally captured in 1985, claimed to be a Satanist, employing Satanic symbolism to his look and claiming to know Lavey, adding fuel to the fire of the panic. Lavey claimed they had briefly met in the streets in the 1970s, but Ramirez had never set foot in the church.
The panic escalated, with Satanic Ritual Abuse becoming a standard aspect of high profile cases like the McMartin School in California. These criminal cases featured a consistent lack of evidence and alleged coercion on the part of child psychologists pushing the conspiracy theory. The zeal of the fundamentalists led to few if any investigations or prosecutions of actual Satanists. Most of the victims of the frenzy were other Christians.
Post-Lavey Church of Satan
The Church of Satan weathered the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and ‘90s, with Lavey keeping a calm and low profile despite media attention. But the group faced challenges after Lavey’s death in 1997. Leadership went to Lavey’s partner Blanche Barton after a legal battle with his children. In 2001 Barton appointed author and Church member Peter H. Gilmore as high priest and his wife, church administrator Peggy Nadramia, as high priestess. Gilmore’s controversial claims that Church of Satan members were the only true Satanists led to a new wave of exoduses that saw departing church members creating their own offshoots.
Former Order of the Nine Angles member and heavy metal musician Michael Ford formed the Greater Church of Lucifer in 2013, opening the first public Satanic Temple in Houston two years later. The GCL follows many LaVeyan principles with touches of the occult and has chapters in other countries.
The Satanic Temple
The most successful result of church divisions is The Satanic Temple. It first gained attention in 2013 with a satirical rally against Florida Governor Rick Scott, but grew into a more organized group quickly.
Cofounders Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry characterized the Temple’s creation as a reaction to the Church of Satan’s inability to “manifest itself into a real-world relevant organization.”
Calling itself a non-theistic religion embracing the Devil as a symbolic form of rebellion in the tradition of Milton, the Temple devoted itself to political action focused on the separation of church and state, religious equality and reproductive rights.
The Satanic Temple gained notoriety through two attempts to have a statue of Baphomet legally placed on two state capitol grounds—Oklahoma in 2015 and in Arkansas in 2018—in reaction to government-sanctioned 10 Commandments monuments.
The Temple launched a physical location in Salem, Massachusetts, in 2016 and was recognized as a religion by the U.S. government in 2019, receiving tax-free status. It has grown to include about 20 temples across North America and was the focus of Penny Lane’s acclaimed 2019 documentary, “Hail Satan?” which is credited for giving Satanism its highest profile yet.
The Invention of Satanism by Asbjorn Dyrendal, James R. Lewis and Jesper Aa. Petersen, published by Oxford University Press, 2016.
Satanism: A Social History by Massimo Introvigne, published by Brill, 2016.
“The New Satanism: Less Lucifer, More Politics” by Josh Sanburn, Time Magazine, Dec. 10, 2013.
“A satanic idol goes to the Arkansas Capitol building” by Avi Selk, Washington Post, August 17, 2018.