History · Nonfiction · Queer

Feminist Friday Review: Satanic Feminism by Per Faxneld

One more post on Satanism and then I’m done for a while, I swear! Probably. Anyway, to recap: Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism by Ruben van Luijk is an excellent, thorough, readable history of Lucifer and Satanism from the earliest possible manifestations through to the present. After that, I read a bunch of other history and art-history books on Satan, Lucifer, hell, and the Hellfire Clubs. The one I was most looking forward to, and the one which turned out to be the most relevant, was Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Woman in Nineteenth-Century Culture by Per Faxneld.

Van Luijk and Faxneld were correspondents and both published around 2016 through Oxford University Press (although I believe at least Satanic Feminism was published earlier in Europe). They even have the same page layouts; they can reasonably be considered companion books. I suggest reading Children of Lucifer first if you’re interested, then following up with Satanic Feminism if you still are, even if feminism is your primary interest. They make the most sense in this order, not because women are an afterthought in Satanism, but because Faxneld doesn’t provide the same background or level of explanation as van Luijk. He goes deeper into some areas and has a more specific time period, but also wanders more broadly, and it’s much easier to follow his thread when you already have the basics down.

So, Satanic Feminism. The first four chapters are more generally historical, encompassing the introduction, a summary of recurring motifs, Romantic and Socialist Satanism, and Theosophy. (The discussion of Romantic Satanism is initially familiar, but extends further into its aftereffects and inheritors, namely Socialist Satanism, so that chapter is worth a look if the Romantics are your point of interest.) Chapters 5 and 6 address Gothic literature first in a too-short overview of vampires and werewolves as possible symbols of Satanic feminism, and then the idea of the witch. That chapter was the most interesting to me, the most new, because it showed how Satan was seen as a patron of medicine, especially women’s medicine in the form of the “witch” or wise woman. When the church called sickness “the merited scourge of God” and allowed women no control over their bodies at all, Satan and his witches cared and offered help.

"We are the granddaughters of the witches you could not burn."
Found on Etsy

Chapter 7 brings us to Decadence, a movement of the late 1800s in which writers and artists became preoccupied with high culture, extreme refinement, and controversy. (Those might not seem to go together, but the idea is that you’re so refined and high-class that you’re terribly bored and daring. Think Oscar Wilde.) The Decadents liked to use Satanic themes and imagery for shock value, but tend to be ambivalent about whether or not they actually want to embrace Satanism. The overall vibe is often throwing shocking material in front of the reader but then justifying it with moralizing at the end, and it’s often unclear which position the author actually held, if they held one at all. This material makes for a more clear transition between the Romantics and modern might-makes-right shock-value Satanism than I’d found elsewhere, so that’s important.

The final four chapters stay in this Decadent time period and give examples of increasing specificity: lesbian trends, “rebellious roleplay” in the form of celebrity personae and jewelry, Mary MacLane’s diary of how much she wanted to marry Satan, and the book Lolly Willowes which most obviously demonstrates Satan as a liberatory symbol. These very detailed case studies and anecdotes were the least interesting to me, I’m always more interested in theory, but of course they may be the most engaging and memorable for other readers.

"To be good is to be forgotten. I'm going to be so bad I'll always be remembered." -Theda Bara
Actress Theda Bara was a symbol of vampy Satanism-inflected womanhood as well as female freedom through revenge.

Essentially the topic of Satanic feminism breaks down into five elements: Eve’s reinterpretation as a Promethean figure, Lilith as feminist symbol, the witch as an alternative to patriarchy, the demon lover as an outside liberator, and feminine portrayals of Satan (which are more common than you might think; even in the early art the figure is regularly presented as having breasts). As for takeaways, I have basically the same complaint as I did with Children of Lucifer: it starts feeling like an endless litany of people who weren’t technically Satanists. I would argue that if they’re important enough to include, and your book largely consists of similar examples, you should just frame the whole book as an exploration of the theme rather than constantly reiterating that the person you just spent thirty pages on probably isn’t a Satanist per se but sort of is.

However, as with Children of Lucifer, that’s really a minor complaint. Satanic Feminism is just as readable and thorough, and the two books together give a really interesting and coherent view of Satanism from its earliest appearances in the historical record up to now. It’s a topic far too many people shy away from because they don’t want to be labeled as Satanists, I got a lot of funny looks just for reading books with these titles, but it’s fascinating. People seem to think Satanism will be a dark underbelly of crime and perversity, but actually it’s a long history of ideological resistance. Highly recommended reading.

Satanic Feminism on Goodreads | on Amazon

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7 thoughts on “Feminist Friday Review: Satanic Feminism by Per Faxneld

  1. These sound intriguing. I e-mailed this to my girlfriend, since both of these books are in her field of interest.

    I find it fascinating that Satanism has been embraced by so many because it is perceived as an alternative to the oppressive iron-fisted corrupt dogma of Christianity, a rebellion against an oppressive establishment, because that is exactly what Christianity itself was originally supposed to be. Jesus was a rebel fighting against the greed and hypocrisy of religion, but his message was co-opted and twisted by others into yet another system for controlling people, for utilizing the name of God as a means of seizing political & economic power.

    Personally speaking, I am skeptical of all forms of organized religion. I very much believe that faith is an individual matter.

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