Neo-Paganism and Satanism

Cernunnos depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron

Cernunnos depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron

Do Neo-Pagans worship the Devil?

The simple answer is “No”. In a way, this question whether Neo-Pagans worship the Devil or Satan is nonsensical, because Neo-Pagans don’t believe in the Devil or Satan. Satan is a figure from Christian mythology, where he is identified with ultimate evil in same sense that God is identified with ultimate good. Neo-Pagans do not worship the Christian Devil or any evil being or power. In fact, Neo-Pagans don’t believe in cosmic good and evil in the way Christians do.

Christianity posits a world where evil, like good, exists as a metaphysical force. Neo-Pagans do not see the universe in this way. While they are aware of the destructive consequences of many human choices and actions, Neo-Pagans do not blame any metaphysical being for this, neither the Devil nor God. Neo-Pagans do perceive the universe as consisting of opposition, an interplay between light and dark, life and death, and natural forces which are sometimes supportive and sometimes destructive of human life. However, Neo-Pagans do not see the darkness, death, or destructive natural forces as evil. They do see patriarchy, the rape of the environment, and harming others as morally reprehensible. However, these evils are the result of human choices.

What is Satanism?

It is helpful when talking about Satanism to make clear just what we are talking about. The words “Satanist” or “Devil worship” often conjure up images of child-sacrificing cults. Obviously, Neo-Paganism has nothing to do with the such cults, the stories of which are mostly fictional anyway.

There are people who call themselves Satanists, though. Many of these people are associated with the Church of Satan founded by Anton LaVey in the 1960s. LaVey’s Church of Satan is a kind “cathartic” Satanism which melds Ayn Rand’s philosophical individualism with traditional Satanic imagery. For the most part, LaVeyan Satanism does not involve a literal belief in or the worship of Satan as a deity. Many LaVeyan Satanists are atheists, and not really religious at all. Rather Satan is regarded by them as symbols of individualism and rational hedonism, values that Christianity traditionally associated with evil, but many modern people do not. As Christopher Partridge explains,

“Satan is understood more in terms of a useful icon which encourages self-interest and individualism, and promotes opposition to institutional religion and the dominant culture. Again, in this sense, Satanism is essentially a self-religion or human potential spirituality which utilizes the rebellious, offensive, and provocative symbolism the figure of Satan provides.”

The “worship” of these Satanists is often done in an ironic spirit and may involve ritual acts of blasphemy.

Neo-Paganism does share some similarities with LaVeyan Satanism. Both valorize physical reality and our animal instincts, but LaVeyan Satanists differ sharply from Neo-Pagans in terms of ethics. While LaVeyan Satanists are committed to a radical individualism, Neo-Pagans follow an ethic of non-harm and responsibility to others.

"Baphomet" by Elphias Levi

“Baphomet” by Eliphas Levi

Wicca and Occultism

Christopher Partridge points out that there are good reasons for the confusion of Neo-Paganism with Satanism. To begin with, Neo-Paganism was strongly influenced by Wicca, and Wicca grew out of “Western occulture”, and much of the symbolism of occultism has been conflated with Satanism in the popular imagination. Eliphas Levi’s (the founder of 19th century occultism) depiction of “Baphomet” is a good example of this. This depiction came to be associated with the Christian Devil in the popular mind, but this was not Levi’s intention.

Gerald Gardner’s Wicca was strongly influenced by the descriptions of witchcraft in Margaret Murray’s The Witch Cult in Western Europe and God of the Witches. Murray describes witches worshiping a “horned god” that Christians confused as Satan. Gardner was also inspired by Aleister Crowley, the self-professed “most wicked man in the world”, who could himself have been described “cathartic” Satanist. As a result of these and other influences, much of the imagery employed by Wiccans reflects the Christian stereotype of Satanism, including nude rituals, the ritual circle, magic, sexual imagery, the use of the pentagram, a horned god, and the terms “sabbats” and “witches”. In spite of this, Wicca has nothing to do with Satanism.

The Horned God

The relationship between the Neo-Pagan Horned God and the Christian Devil is a complex one. Nowadays, the Horned God is more often depicted with antlers, not horns, but the name (borrowed from Margaret Murray) has stuck. Neo-Pagans often claim that the Christian devil is a caricature of pagan horned gods. In actuality, medieval Christian devil imagery was only partly inspired by pagan imagery of horned gods. The medieval Satan more often resembled a dragon than a goat, with bat wings and clawed, not cloven, feet. The Neo-Pagan Horned God is a composite of many pre-Christian deities, mostly Pan and the Celtic Cernunnos. But it was also influenced by Margaret Murray’s interpretation of medieval Christian devil imagery. In this sense, the Neo-Pagan Horned God is a modern “paganization” of the Christian Devil.

There is an important sense in which the Neo-Pagan Horned God is related to the Christian Devil. The Christian Devil, with his various animal characteristics, represents the animal nature of humankind. Likewise, the Neo-Pagan Horned God represents, in part, a sacralization of our animal natures, especially our sexual natures. Thus, the Neo-Pagan Horned God would be confused by some Christians as their Devil. But while Neo-Pagans see this figure as positive and life-affirming, some Christians would view it as negative and the embodiment of sinfulness. While Christians view it as evil, Neo-Pagans view it as divine.

Revised 5/13/14

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One thought on “Neo-Paganism and Satanism

  1. “Satan is a figure Christian mythology,”
    figure from Christian ???
    Also in Jewish tradition, to me “Satan” appears to be a job titile for whichever angel is currently assigned to destruction-test the faith and loyalty of any particular Jew to its boss.

    “Many of these people are associated the Church of Satan”
    “with” after ‘associated’

    “But it also influenced by Margaret Murray’s”
    a “was” either before or after the “also” ?

    “valorization” in the last ¶
    perhaps “sanctification” or “sacralization” or ???

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