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This article, originally written back in the early 1990's, was last revised in 1994. Click here for subsequent updates.
A Critique of Wiccan and Other Neo-Pagan Disclaimers About Satanism
by Diane Vera
Copyright © 1994 by Diane Vera. All rights reserved.
Nearly every introductory book or article on Wicca contains a "We're Not Satanists!" disclaimer. And it is indeed true that Wicca Is Not Satanism. But the disclaimers are often otherwise inaccurate. Either they misrepresent Satanism, or they make highly-questionable claims about Wicca's own history. And I am quite irritated by the "Please don't persecute US, but it's OK if you go get THEM!" undertone of the typical not-Satanists disclaimer.
Here are some of the more common inaccuracies:
- "We're not Satanists; we don't sacrifice babies."
- "We're not Satanists; we don't worship Evil. We reject Christian-style Good-vs.-Evil dualism."
- "We can't possibly be Satanists, because we're not Christian. Satanism is a form of Christianity. Satanism is a Christian heresy."
- "Wicca is The Old Religion. Christians and Satanists are just johnny-come-latelies."
- "Witchcraft has nothing to do with Satanism," or "Satanism has nothing to do with Witchcraft."
- "The Church has been persecuting Wiccans as 'Devil-worshippers' for centuries. 'The Devil' is a Christian caricature of our Horned God. Satanists are just imitating a Christian caricature of Wicca; and we resent Satanists for stealing the word 'witch' and causing further confusion."
- "Satanism is just upside-down Christianity. It revolves around a travesty of Christian rites. We Pagans would never dream of mocking another religion."
- "Satanism is just rebellion against Christianity."
- "We're not Satanists; we don't sacrifice babies."
Both statements by themselves are accurate. But do they have to be said in the same breath? Satanists don't sacrifice babies either.
There are indeed a handful of nutcases who have committed crimes in the name of "Satan" (vastly outnumbered by the people, not to mention entire governments, that have committed atrocities in the name of Christianity). But to insinuate that Satanists in general do this sort of thing is at least as absurd as judging all Christians by the behavior of the Inquisition. It has been documented that most rumors of "Satanic crime" are unfounded. Moreover, sacrificing babies would be contrary to the spirit of most modern forms of Satanism, for a variety of reasons, some of which are spelled out by Anton LaVey in The Satanic Bible. I'll add another reason: most forms of Satanism emphasize the individual's self-interest; and most Satanists deem it to be not in their interests to commit crimes, especially crimes that serve no rational purpose.
For documentation regarding "Satanic crime" scares, see the following books:
- Satan Wants You by Arthur Lyons (Mysterious Press, 1988).
- In Pursuit of Satan: The Police and the Occult by Robert D. Hicks (Prometheus Books, 1991).
- The Satanism Scare edited by James T. Richardson, Joel Best, and David Bromley (Aldine de Gruyter, 1991).
- Out of Darkness edited by Sakheim and Devine (Lexington Books/ MacMillan, 1992).
- Satanic Panic by Jeffrey S. Victor (Open Court Press, 1993).
"We're not Satanists; we don't worship Evil. We reject Christian-style Good-vs.-Evil dualism."
Most Satanists don't think of themselves as "worshipping Evil" either. "Satan" is associated with a wide range of human traits which Christianity traditionally considers "Evil", but which a non-Christian wouldn't necessarily consider evil, as is aptly satirized by the Church Lady. Most Satanists reject the Christian idea of cosmic "Good" vs. cosmic "Evil," too.
Most Satanists do differ with most Wiccans on ethics, however. Wiccans can correctly say that most Satanists, unlike most Wiccans, do not believe in the "Threefold Law" and do not prohibit destructive magic.
"We can't possibly be Satanists, because we're not Christian. Satanism is a form of Christianity. Satanism is a Christian heresy."
Satanism does, obviously, have roots in Christianity. But this does not make Satanism a form of Christianity, any more than Christianity is a form of Judaism. Satanism is not just a "Christian heresy", any more than Christianity is just a "Jewish heresy." Most Satanists do not believe in Christian theology. Most Satanists have their own interpretations of who/what "Satan" is, and do not believe in the Christian God. (There are many different kinds of Satanism, with a variety of different interpretations of "Satan.") Most forms of Satanism derive ideas from other sources besides just Christianity, just as Christianity derived ideas from other sources besides Judaism.
A more accurate wording of the above disclaimer would be: "Neo-Pagans are into reviving the worship of pre-Christian deities. Satan is not a part of our pantheon."
I should add here that not ALL Wiccans or neo-Pagans completely disown Jewish/Christian/Islamic mythology. Some Wiccans, especially Alexandrian Wiccans, incorporate the Kabbalistic Tree of Life in their worldview; and some even use Golden Dawn rituals like the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, complete with Hebrew God-names and archangels.
And let's not forget the many feminist Witches who venerate Lilith, a Jewish folkloric near-equivalent of the Christian Satan. (Actually, Lilith more closely resembles the Islamic Satan, whose specific initial sin of pride was refusing to bow down before Adam. In any case, in the Middle Ages, Lilith was thought to be the consort of you-know-who.)
It can be argued that a TOTAL exclusion of Jewish/Christian ideas would be, in itself, contrary to the spirit of Paganism. The very idea of a hard-and-fast wall of separation between different religions is itself a Jewish/Christian/Islamic idea, not found in most ancient Pagan religions, which borrowed freely from the religions of their neighbors.
"Wicca is The Old Religion. Christians and Satanists are just johnny-come-latelies."
The idea that Wicca is, in fact, "The Old Religion" is not a proven historical fact. Many Wiccans still believe that Wicca is directly descended from pre-Christian religion, via an alleged medieval underground Pagan "witch-cult." But most scholars of the subject, including the more scholarly Wiccans and neo-Pagans, strongly doubt that the medieval "witch-cult" existed. (See Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon, Chapter 4, "The Wiccan Revival." See also A Razor for a Goat by Elliot Rose, Crafting the Art of Magic by Aidan Kelly, Bluenose Magic by Helen Creighton, and The Night Battles by Carlo Ginzburg.) What we know today as "Wicca" is a modern religion which has drawn inspiration not only from pre-Christian religion, but also from modern sources such as the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley.
The medieval "witch-cult" idea is based on the theories of Margaret Murray, an anthropologist who wrote in the 1920's. According to Jeffrey B. Russell in A History of Witchcraft, one of Murray's main sources of inspiration was La Sorciere by the 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet. Quite a few other 19th- and early 20th-century writers on witchcraft have also drawn inspiration from Michelet, who theorized (1) that medieval witchcraft was a survival of Paganism, and (2) that the aim of the European witchhunts was to wipe out peasant midwives, who were seen as competition by the emerging male medical profession. More recently Michelet's ideas, as paraphrased by feminist writers such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English in their booklet Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: History of Women Healers (Feminist Press, 1973), have played an important role in today's women's health movement. An ironic note: Among neo-Pagans today, Michelet is rarely given the credit he deserves, probably because La Sorciere is a work of literary Satanism.
Some Wiccans remain emotionally attached to the idea that modern Wicca is itself an ancient religion. But, as Margot Adler quotes Ed Fitch in Drawing Down the Moon (p.88, 1986 edition), "The realization has come around to everyone that it doesn't matter whether your tradition is forty thousand years old or whether it was created last week. If there is a proper connection between you and the Goddess and the God in the subconscious, and other such forces, then that's what matters."
"Witchcraft has nothing to do with Satanism," or "Satanism has nothing to do with Witchcraft."
Many Wiccans use the word "Witchcraft" as a name for their own religion, implying that Wiccans are the only true Witches and, therefore, Satanists can't be Witches. But the idea of "Witchcraft" as the name for one specific religion is absurd. There are witches all over the world, in many different cultures. They don't all belong to the same religion, and they don't all worship The Goddess.
According to recent scholars who have researched this topic (e.g. Helen Creighton in BlueNose Magic), the majority of traditional folk witches are at least partially Christian. They regard witchcraft as a "craft," not a religion. My own great-grandfather, who lived on a farm in Iowa, was a "water witch" who told people where to dig wells. He was a devout Christian. Among rural witches in Europe today, one of the most popular grimoires is The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, which is hardly Pagan at all. It makes sense that most European folk witches would be Christian after lo these many centuries of Christianity, especially since most ancient Pagan religions never were into religious purism. Historian Carlo Ginzburg has theorized, in The Night Battles (1966), that IF a medieval "witch-cult" existed, it was not Pagan in a Wicca-like sense. Rather, its adherents considered themselves to be on the "Good" side of a Christianity-like Good-vs.-Evil dualism.
If a Christian can be a witch, then so can a Satanist. A witch can be any religion. There have been both Christians and Satanists calling themselves witches long before today's Wiccans came along. (Regarding some Satanic folk witches, see Ozark Superstition by Vance Randolph.)
It IS accurate to say, "Wicca is not Satanism" and "neo-Pagan Witchcraft is not Satanism." But Wiccans and neo-Pagans are not justified in claiming the word "Witch" as their sole property.
"The Church has been persecuting Wiccans as 'Devil-worshippers' for centuries. 'The Devil' is a Christian caricature of our Horned God. Satanists are just imitating a Christian caricature of Wicca; and we resent Satanists for stealing the word 'witch' and causing further confusion."
These statements assume that the Murrayite hypothesis is true. They assume (1) that the main aim of the medieval and post-Renaissance European witchhunts was to wipe out the remnants of Pagan religion, (2) that said remnants in many different parts of Europe all worshipped a Pagan "Horned God," whom the Church mistook for the Devil, and (3) that modern Wicca is directly descended from this medieval Pagan worship of a "Horned God." All three assumptions are highly questionable.
If Wicca is a modern reconstruction, then Satanists aren't imitating a Christian caricature of Wicca. Rather, Wicca and Satanism both draw some of their inspiration from the records of Christian witchhunts. Satanists did not "steal" the words "witch", "coven", and "sabbat" from Wiccans. Wiccans and Satanists both took that constellation of terms from accusations against alleged diabolical witches. Wiccans use those terms because of the Murrayite interpretation of the witchhunts, or because (in the case of those Wiccans who don't accept the Murrayite interpretation) they otherwise identify with the victims of witchhunts. Modern Wiccans' use of words like "witch", "coven", and "sabbat" is one of the main reasons why Wicca gets confused with Satanism (at least by people other than the type of Christian fundamentalists who would confuse even Buddhism with Satanism). Wicca gets confused with Satanism because Wiccans use those words, not because Satanists have used them. Regardless of the linguistic origin of the words themselves, the constellation of words "witch"/"coven"/"sabbat" originated with the Church's accusations of diabolical witchcraft. Thus, of course they would be associated with Satanism in the popular mind, regardless of whether actual Satanists use them or not.
Furthermore, Wicca itself may have borrowed a few ideas, at least indirectly, from some late 19th- and early 20th-century forms of Satanism, as even some Wiccan scholars are finally starting to admit. (See Crafting the Art of Magic by Aidan Kelly, pp.21-22, 25-26, and 176.) I discuss this further in my article "Satanism and the History of Wicca."
I'll give just one example for now: The Wiccan concept of its Goddess and God isn't really, as far as I can tell, an ancient European concept, although it is based on ancient concepts. Most ancient European religions were polytheistic, regarding their many deities as distinct entities, not aspects of a single Goddess and God, as many modern Wiccans do. The Wiccan Goddess and God are post-Christian composites of the lpre-Christian deities of many cultures. And although the Horned God is not Satan, at least one key aspect of modern Wicca's Horned God concept IS historically derived, in part, from 19th-century literary Satanism. The very idea of a "Horned God" associated with witchcraft is derived from the Christian witchhunters' Devil concept, as re-interpreted by 19th-century literary-Satanic writers like Michelet and later by Murray, and not from any pre-Christian source. The actual ancient horned Gods, like Pan, were not associated with witchcraft. (There were Goddesses associated with witchcraft, like Hekate.)
It isn't necessary to mention, in introductory books or articles on Wicca, that modern Wicca may have borrowed an idea or two from 19th-century literary Satanism. Just don't claim the reverse in a tone of self-righteous indignation.
"Satanism is just upside-down Christianity. It revolves around a travesty of Christian rites. We Pagans would never dream of mocking another religion."
Parodies of Christianity are a part of, but not central to, most forms of Satanism. The Black Mass is NOT the principal rite of most modern forms of Satanism (or at least the more public forms), although many Satanists do perform Black Mass-like ceremonies occasionally, for purposes of catharsis.
Religious parodies are not a part of MOST forms of neo-Paganism, but they are indeed a marginal part of the neo-Pagan scene.
See, for example, Mary Daly's books, which are widely read by feminist Goddess-worshippers. When it comes to inverting and parodying Christian symbolism, Daly's wordplay does it better than a Black Mass.
And there are a few joke "religions," such as the Discordians and the Church of the Subgenius, which specialize in blasphemy to a far greater degree than most forms of Satanism. (They target many religions, not just Christianity.) Although only a tiny minority of neo-Pagans are involved with these groups, and although some neo-Pagans are uncomfortable with them, the Discordians and the Subgenii seem to be a more-or-less accepted part of the neo-Pagan scene.
There are also quite a few more mainstream neo-Pagan groups that began as parodies and eventually included a more serious element, according to Margot Adler in Drawing Down the Moon (Chapter 11, "Religions of Paradox and Play").
"Satanism is just rebellion against Christianity."
This may well be true of young people who dabble in "Satanism" as a way to shock the grownups. But for many of the more serious practitioners, Satanism is not motivated solely or even primarily by rebellion.
Some people are Satanists because they like the highly individualistic philosophy of their chosen form of modern Satanism, e.g. LaVey Satanism, better than the worldviews of most other occult religions.
Other Satanists are motivated by sheer magical practicality. It can be argued, from a standard modern magical point of view, that the name "Satan" is associated with a powerful current of magical energy because we live in a Christian society where so many people fear "Satan." Conversely, it can be argued that the popularity of Christianity, with its Satan conept, reflects a spiritual reality, that there really does exist a powerful "Dark Force in Nature" which has been felt and feared by a lot of people.
Either way, the Satanic magician prefers to work with an already-existing, already-powerful energy current, rather than try to create new currents or revive forgotten ones.
Other people are Satanists because they love dark energy. And, because we happen to live in a Christian culture, the name "Satan" can be the most emotionally effective way of connecting with dark energy.
Most modern Satanists do not believe in Satan as a literal deity, but regard the name "Satan" as a magically-effective symbol for various human traits and magical energies. For some, Satan represents defiance. But for others, Satan is "the Lord of this World"; thus their Satanism means acceptance of certain worldly realities which other religions attempt to defy. Many Satanists are into a combination of both attitudes.
There are some Satanists who do believe in Satan as a literal entity. Some of these are Satanists because they feel personally "called" by this entity. Others are Satanists because they believe that Satan is more powerful than the Christian "God", if the latter exists at all; thus they are not "rebelling," but simply accepting what they regard as spiritual reality.
Among those who do believe in a literal Satan, he is usually re-interpreted in non-Christian terms. Some regard Satan as the Christian-era manifestation of some pre-Christian deity, usually either Set or Pan. Others do not equate Satan with any non-Christian deity, but are polytheistic, regarding Satan and the Christian "God" as just two of the many Gods. Still others are monotheists who regard "the Dark Force in Nature" as the only true God. Others are neo-Gnostics who regard Satan as the "light- bringer" and the Christian "God" as the Demiurge. (This last view, also known as "Luciferianism," is quite different in basic attitude from most other forms of Satanism, in which Satan is regarded, either actually or symbolically, as "the Lord of this world.")
An introductory article on Wicca is not the place to discuss the many varieties of Satanist belief. In my opinion, an introductory article on Wicca should avoid making any statements about Satanist beliefs whatsoever. It's possible to just say that Wicca is not Satanism without attempting to "support" that statement by making stupid comments about Satanism. If an author deems it necessary to explain why Wicca gets confused with Satanism, the reason given should be the real one: that there are a few superficial resemblances between Wicca and Satanism because Wicca and Satanism have both drawn some of their inspiration from the records of European witchhunts.
(Another reason for the confusion, although this doesn't have to be mentioned in introductory literature, is that some Wiccans and other neo-Pagan Witches enjoy acting weird and spooky, as do some Satanists.)
It IS possible to write a clear, concise, comprehensive introductory article on Wicca which includes a brief not-Satanists disclaimer without misrepresenting or otherwise bashing Satanism and without presenting the Murrayite hypothesis as established fact.
February 16, 1994
See also my update to this article.