views updated


There are three categories of Satanism—(1) theological depictions of Satan in Christianity; (2) counter-cultural satanic churches; and (3) a 1980s outbreak of satanic cult fear in North America and Europe. The focus here is on the second category, specifically the Church of Satan and the Temple of Set, the two most significant satanic churches that emerged out of the 1960s countercultural movements. Most of the other satanic churches (Universal Church of Man, Our Lady of Endor Coven, Satanic Orthodox Church of Nethilum Rite, Kerk du Satan–Magistralis Grotto and Walpurga Abbey, Church of Satanic Brotherhood, Order of the Black Ram and the Shrine of the Little Mother, and the Temple of Nepthys) were small, ephemeral groups that represented schismatic breakaways from or innovations on the Church of Satan. The various satanic churches flourished primarily during the 1970s; their combined membership never amounted to more than a few thousand, and most now count only a few hundred members. In addition, there is a long-standing Christian tradition of juxtaposing Satanism to Christian belief and practice. The history of identifying and searching out Satan-worshipers traces most directly to the sixteenth-century witch hunts. The Malleus Maleficarum (ca. 1486) and Compendium Maleficarum (ca. 1620) served as the Christian manuals for depicting and combating Satanism. Conservative Christianity has continued to postulate the active, contemporary presence of Satan and to use Satanism to bolster Christian solidarity. Finally, during the 1980s a wave of satanic subversion fear swept North America and Europe, centering around claims of the existence of a massive, international, underground, hierarchically organized satanic network. Satanists putatively were involved in a range of nefarious activity; the most horrific allegations involved the abduction of children, child abuse, commercial production of child pornography, sexual abuse and incest, and ritualistic sacrifices of young children. At the height of the subversion episode ritual abuse victims were estimated at fifty thousand annually, and there were numerous sensational ritual abuse prosecutions. The subversion episode dissipated rapidly as professional associations challenged the validity of repressed-memory evidence offered by claimants, no convincing physical evidence was produced to support allegations, court convictions were reversed, and American and European governmental investigations concluded that conspiracy claims were without foundation. There are no meaningful connections among the three types of Satanism.

Church of Satan

The Church of Satan was founded by Anton Szandor LaVey (1930–1997). The colorful accounts of LaVey's early life (working as a lion tamer, appearing in Rosemary's Baby, having an affair with Marilyn Monroe) are now disputed. After attending City College in San Francisco during the 1950s, his lifelong interest in the occult surfaced publicly during the 1960s. On April 30, 1966, LaVey pronounced himself the black pope. With filmmaker Kenneth Anger, LaVey organized both the Magic Circle, gatherings to discuss occult phenomena, and a topless nightclub act called the "Witches' Sabbath," which promoted his beliefs. LaVey became a media celebrity as a product of the eccentric persona he cultivated (e.g., driving a coroner's van, painting the walls of his home black, acquiring exotic pets, and using a nude woman as an altar in rituals) and the string of Hollywood stars who associated with his church. The church prospered during the 1960s, perhaps reaching a peak membership of a few thousand, but with the decline of the 1960s counterculture suffered a membership decline from which it never recovered. LaVey then went into seclusion until the early 1990s, when he resurfaced briefly before his death in 1997. Prior to his death, one of his daughters renounced him and joined the rival Temple of Set.

The Church of Satan is avowedly hedonistic, anti-establishment, elitist, and individualistic. Satan is conceived as a force of nature, a reservoir of power within each being that permits humans to be their own gods. In the Satanic Bible (1969) LaVey propounds indulgence and gratification over abstinence; vital existence, not spiritual pipe dreams; undefiled wisdom as opposed to hypocritical self-deceit; deserved rather than wasted love; and responsibility only to the responsible. The countercultural orientation is evident in the church's emphasis on free sexual expression and open contempt for Christianity; its elitism is reflected in members' self-designation as the ultimate underground alternative and the Alien Elite. The individualistic stance is reflected in the beliefs that human life is sacred and that individuals are their own redeemers. The church is organized into local units referred to as grottoes; in the mid-1970s grottoes could be found in major cities across the country. Sex magic, healing, and destruction are the major rituals, with the most important holiday being each Satanist's birthday. The church is currently administered by the Council of Nine.

Temple of Set

The Temple of Set was founded by Michael Aquino in 1975. Aquino, at the time an army lieutenant, attended a LaVey lecture in 1969, soon thereafter joined the church, was ordained as a priest in 1971, and quickly rose to a position of leadership just below LaVey. Within a few years the relationship between LaVey and Aquino deteriorated as Aquino charged LaVey with selling priesthoods. Aquino claims to have invoked Set in a ritual on June 21, 1975, during which Set ordained him as the successor to LaVey and the Church of Satan. The conversation is recorded in Aquino's The Book of Coming Forth by Night (1985).

Temple of Set philosophy proclaims that the universe is a nonconscious environment possessed of mechanical consistency. In contrast to the universe and occasionally violating its laws is Set (the Egyptian god of night), a metaphysical being formerly known under the Hebrew misnomer "Satan." Over the period of a millennium, Set has altered the genetic makeup of humans to create a species possessing an enhanced, nonnatural intelligence. The objective of the Temple of Set is to realize that potential through individual empowerment. This means rejecting cultural constraints and enhancing achievement of personally defined goals, developing the discipline requisite to attain those goals, and asserting individual will. The Temple of Set rejects traditional congregational organization in favor of structure involving local chapters called pylons. Pylons are equalitarian, cooperative networks of practicing initiates. The total membership of the pylons has never been more than a few hundred. The Temple of Set was briefly swept up in the 1980s satanic subversion episode when Aquino was accused of sexual abuse of children. Aquino denied the allegations, and no charges were filed following a police investigation.

See alsoLavey, Anton Szandor; Satanic Bible.


Bromley, David, and Susan Ainsely. "Satanism and Satanic Churches: The Contemporary Incarnations." In America's Alternative Religions, edited by Timothy Miller. 1995.

Richardson, James, Joel Best, and David Bromley, eds. The Satanism Scare. 1991.

David G. Bromley