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The origins of Satanism: A humanist history?

From religious wars to French poison conspiracies to the counterculture, we look at the origins of Satanism.

Still from D.W. Griffith's 1926 film "The Sorrows of Satan."
  • Pop culture has painted our perceptions of Satanism more than historical facts.
  • For most of its history, the term Satanism was an epithet used against religious enemies, not a movement bound by a shared set of beliefs.
  • Today, the Satanists philosophy has more in common with empiricism or atheism than faith-based religions.


Imagine a Satanist. If you're like most Americans, that mental image comes ripped straight off an Iron Maiden album. Skull goblet filled with a wine-blood highball. Of course. Undulating dagger waved menacingly over a sacrificial infant. Naturally. A love for black robes and eye-catching accoutrements, like some monochromatic Liberace. Joking aside, that last one may check out. (We'll get to why later.)

Point is, popular conceptions of Satanism have as much in common with actual Satanism as a Chick tract does with critical thought. B-movies, rock albums, talk shows, the occasional moral panic, they have all colored our perception of this movement and its history.

Despite the intense amount of worry people have over Satan worship, the religion as we know it today has more in common with the counterculture of the 1960s than the covens and maleficia of the 1660s.

Of schisms and Satanists

A depiction of an English witch being being carried to hell by Satan. This 1555 woodcut was carved around the time "Satanism" entered the English lexicon. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The terms "Satanism" and "Satanist" can be traced back to the 1560s — not as a religious designation one ascribed to oneself, but as a way of describing someone with a "satanic disposition."

In Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism, religious historian Ruben van Luijk notes the term latched onto our cultural lexicon during the European Wars of Religion. During this series of conflicts, Christians fought other Christians for well over a century until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

To valorize their beliefs, Roman Catholics would label Protestants as Satanists. Not that they thought Protestants worshiped the devil, more that their heretical beliefs were align with Satan's plan for the world. Protestants, using the tried-and-true I'm-rubber-and-your-glue defense, lobed it right back at the Catholics for their heretical beliefs and graven images. Both censured the Anabaptists with the moniker.

As such, van Luijk points out, Satanism was originally an epithet, and it wouldn't come to describe the "intentional, religiously motivated veneration of Satan" until the end of the 19th century.

A poisoned dinner at deviant's palace

In time, people borrowed the Satanist label as their own, but it's still difficult to speak to a coherent, comprehensive Satanism until the 20th century. It wasn't a single movement bound by a shared institution or religious text. Satanists were and are highly individualized people with significantly different reasons and views on what their religion entailed. Still, there are themes that create historic trend lines to map out.

At times of hardship and despair, peasants would sometimes turn to Satanism as a means to defy the ruling class. Satan is, after all, the ultimate rebel in Christian mythology. With church and state intertwined for much of European history, Satanism was the ultimate anti-establishment party. Other times, upperclassmen would turn to Satanism as a means to break from society's rules and norms, perhaps wholeheartedly, perhaps for decadence and titillation.

But more often than not, Satanism remained an accusation heaped on others. During the Affair of the Poisons, the French people's imaginations combined anecdotal, yet high-profile, poisoning cases with a fear of witchcraft. The pursuing panic and investigation saw people of all classes denoted as witches and Satanists to be banished, imprisoned, or executed.

Even those close to King Louis XIV were not immune. Athénaïs de Montespan, the King's favorite mistress, was accused of holding "a bloody black mass" where she bewitched the King through demonic rites. She escaped further persecution, but others were not so lucky.

Sympathy for the devil

In modern Satanism, Satan is often seen as a metaphoric figure who opposes tyranny and irrational beliefs. This painting, by Thomas Lawrence, shows a warrior Satan summoning his legions. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Contemporary Satanism took hold with Anton LaVey. In 1966, he founded the Church of Satan in — where else? — San Francisco. He would go on to publish The Satanic Bible in 1969, and it is his brand of Satanism that probably has the farthest reach on modern culture.

LaVey's Satanism is atheistic* and described as a "carnal religion." Followers believe that all gods are fictious and that ultimate importance is found in the self and pursuing self-interests. Like other gods, Satan is not a deity to venerate. He is instead a metaphor for the ultimate adversary of irrationality and religious beliefs. (The name "Satan" comes from the Hebrew for "one who opposes.")

But what about the hierarchies, the accoutrements, the symbols, and black masses? Isn't all that theater more than a little irrational? No, according to Peter Gilmore, high priest of the Church of Satan. In an interview with Point of Inquiry, he explains the reason behind these rituals:

"You can have secular symbolism, ritual, and pageantry, and it's very effective and something that is part of the nature of the human animal. […] The ritual chamber can be a place where you can dramatically perform what I call 'self-transformational psychodrama.' We release the emotions that we find would be injuring us in the regular pursuit of our happiness so that we can then let them go."

But the Church of Satan isn't the only contemporary Satanist institution. The Satanic Temple has become well-known for its extravagant stunts of activism, such as unveiling an 8-foot tall statue of Bephomet at the Arkansas State Capitol building.

While the Church of Satan adds a ritualistic veneer to an Objectivist philosophy, the Satanic Temple sees social engagement and improvement as critical to its beliefs. Rather than evangelizing a devil-may-care attitude, they seek to find a balance between the individual and society. As Lucien Greaves, spokesperson for the Satanic Temple, explained to IndieWire:

It's not that we're just looking for disorder, chaos, and to undermine Western civilization. In fact, we're trying to really endorse for Enlightenment values, bringing reason and respect for science into bettering the human condition.

The Temple's seven tenets speak to this worldview. For example, they ask followers to act with compassion, to respect the freedom of others, and to take care that beliefs don't distort scientific facts. Hardly the creed of a cinematic bogeyman. They also view Satan as a metaphor for the ultimate rebel against tyranny.

For now, that's where we'll place the bookmark in this (short) look at Satanism's history. Satanists are not a group of people worshiping a cosmic villain for evil's sake. Today's Satanists are antiauthoritarian, albeit theatrical, freethinkers who see in Satan a mythical, heroic figure. If we can understand that, maybe we can save ourselves a future moral panic or two.

* However, much like Christianity, Satanism isn't one-size-fits-all. We explore atheistic Satanism here, but there are theistic Satanists, who believe in a spiritual being. And according to van Luijk, they can even worship deities alongside Satan, such as Loki, Set, or Kali.

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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

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Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
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Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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