I’ve been interested in Lucifer for a long time. I used to be a Christian, and even then I wanted to know how a few disparate references in the Bible had come to be understood as references to a single entity. How did we come to think of Satan the way we do? He’s a character as recognizable as Santa Claus, with origins just as obscure. I ceased being a Christian quite some time ago — I’m now a committed agnostic — but my interest has only increased. I was never able to find a satisfying treatment of the subject, though. I want history, not religious interpretation or even psychology. It seems no one wanted to be associated with Satanism, even in the academy. Enter Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism by Ruben van Luijk, which just came out from Oxford University Press last year.
Children of Lucifer is everything I hoped it would be. Thorough, intelligent, calm. He makes no claims about subjective religious experience or whether the paranormal exists, he sticks to historical narrative. Speaking as a historian, his writing is magnificent. It’s perfectly clear without ever being dry, and he doesn’t pretend he has no personality or that there’s no humor in the topic. Whether it be queer/sexual history or other fringe topics like this, writers seem bent on making it as boring as possible in a bid for respectability. Luijk maintains professionalism, certainly, but he actually seems interested in his own topic, so it’s interesting for the reader too. That tone means I’m happy to recommend it for academics and a general audience, as long as you’ve got a little time.
The first quarter or so is about early Satanisms, and the recurring theme is that Satanism was an accusation, not an identification. Those we might initially deem “Satanist” by their activities and aesthetic often claimed, and by all appearances believed, that they were either dominating Satan by approved Catholic methods, or were opposing him/evil in general by mystical means. They felt themselves to still be Christians, even if the establishment disowned them. Christians hurled accusations of Satanism left and right, but they meant “Satan is deceiving you about theology” rather than “you are knowingly worshiping Satan.” In the Middle Ages and after, Christians invented the concept of overt Satan-worship and reverse morality (or a reverse-Christian aesthetic) as an outgrowth of this accusatory habit, but as far as we know there were no organized groups actually doing it.
The turn comes at the end of the 18th century, with Romantic poets like Byron and Shelley who used Lucifer in their work. The Romantic Satanists — a thing, not just Luijk’s term — not only presented a sympathetic view of the devil, taking Milton’s Lucifer and reinterpreting him as an intellectual hero in place of the old “slaveringly evil” imagery, but also revived the devil as a relevant symbol after the Enlightenment had buried him as rural superstition. Poets like Byron weren’t exactly participating in religious Satanism, but they created an important wrinkle in ideas about what and who Lucifer meant. Namely, he became a representative of humanity and human rebellion instead of a subhuman terror (or even a god above humans). They associated him with intellect, freedom, and choice, or “sex, science, and liberty” as Luijk puts it. He was particularly linked with the French Revolution (and became less trendy as former proponents of the Revolution distanced themselves from the Reign of Terror).
Lucifer wasn’t just a narrative device for the Romantic Satanists, though. Luijk convincingly shows that they also found poetry and art to be unique expressions of spirituality, an end unto themselves which allowed access to the ultimate. Art is god and god is art in a literal way. I love that this history fully embraces the overlap and treats it with such exacting detail, because too often novels are used purely as examples. This is one clear case where fiction and art didn’t just illustrate or impact the history, they are the history. I also loved reading about this because I’m terribly interested in fictional religions right now — religions of fiction, spirituality of fiction, devotion to literature as a whole or one specific strain like the Endless from Sandman or the Jedi — and it’s even harder to find information about that than it is histories taking literature seriously.
The last quarter of the book makes the transition into the 20th century, and the Satanists we might recognize, specifically Anton LaVey. Arguably the first, but definitely the most successful, Satanist, he appropriated the things Satanists had been accused of previously and started actually doing them. I found the chronology a bit confusing here because Luijk starts with LaVey and then jumps back to show his immediate predecessors such as Aleister Crowley, who weren’t Satanists per se but practiced Satan-friendly mysticisms. Crowley, LaVey, and their contemporaries were indirectly inspired by the new Romantic vision of Satan, but more directly by the Neitzsche/Freud/social-Darwinism ideas of the time, transforming the Luciferianism of the 18th-century leftist progressives into a distinctly authoritarian and right-ist anti-religious religion. (Yeah, it’s weird).
Satanism as such then splintered, mostly between those who believe in Satan as a real entity and those who use him as a metaphor. There’s also some discussion of the Satanism scares of the later 20th century, which had nothing whatever to do with practicing Satanists and everything to do with what Luijk calls “attribution” throughout the book, the tendency of mostly Christians to ascribe Satanism to frightening groups or trends. The conclusion not only summarizes the preceding material, but provides some meaningful takeaways.
If I have one criticism of the book… well, I don’t. My one complaint isn’t strong enough to call a criticism, more of a comment: I think his strict definition of Satanism gives the work a feeling of a history of absence — there are no Satanists, by his definition, documented until the 1960s, so it feels like he doesn’t get to the point until almost the end of the book, when in fact the entire text is full of fascinating and vitally relevant information. It would have felt more satisfying if he’d framed it in a slightly different way, rather than repeating why each group wasn’t really Satanist in each chapter — as he says in the conclusion, “Up to the twentieth century, to sum up, the history of Satanism can adequately be resumed as a continuum of attribution.” So, it could have been framed as an assertion rather than an absence. But that really is a very minor complaint, since every chapter is fundamentally interesting in its own right, and as there are scattered “real” Satanists, maybe he felt this was the most accurate way to present the material. If so I support his professional decision — and I’m already very curious to see what his next work will be.
Further reading, based on mentions in this book and some additional searching:
- Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Woman in Nineteenth-Century Culture by Per Faxneld, a correspondent of van Luijk.
- The Devil’s Party: Satanism in Modernity, an essay collection edited by Per Faxneld.
- Lucifer Ascending: The Occult in Folklore and Popular Culture by Bill Ellis, University Press of Kentucky.
- The Hellfire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies by Evelyn Lord, Yale University Press.
- Romantic Satanism: Myth and the Historical Moment in Blake, Shelley, and Byron by Peter A. Schock, although I may pass on this one if it’s not relevant to my specific interest.