From Scripture to Superbook: A History of Lucifer and the War in Heaven

Gustave Doré, Paradise Lost, Book I (1866): "Him the Almighty Power / Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky." (I.44-45)
Gustave Doré, Paradise Lost, Book I (1866): “Him the Almighty Power / Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky.” (I.44-45)

The War in Heaven has proven to be one of the most fascinating tales in the history of Christendom. The story of Lucifer’s celestial revolt has been told many times over, not least by Milton in Book VI of Paradise Lost (1667), a remarkably unique interpretation involving a three-day conflict that sees Heaven war-torn by cannon fire and mountain-hurling, which requires the Son of God—God the Father’s “Second Omnipotence” (VI.684)—to enter the conflict and rout the rebel angels out of Heaven. As surprising as it may be, the familiar story of the heavenly rebellion of the preeminent angelic prince Lucifer is not strictly biblical; indeed, little of what is now common knowledge about the Devil has a solid biblical basis. The Miltonic Satan we all know and the Romantics loved was the product of a lengthy evolution of the Devil’s biography within theology and literature.

Thumbing through the Bible in the hope of finding Milton’s tightly woven narrative of a cosmic conflict between God and Satan will inevitably turn out a time-wasting disappointment. The Devil is an extremely minor biblical figure, his appearances rare, dialogue even rarer. Satan is Hebrew for “adversary,” and in the Hebrew Bible—otherwise known as the Old Testament—the term was not originally a name but denoted a function or a stance,1 assumed by a mere mortal (1 Samuel 29:42) or even an immortal angel of the Lord (Numbers 22:223). The Hebrew Bible’s most fleshed out depiction of adversity personified—Satan as a supernatural person—is found in the first two chapters of the Book of Job, wherein Satan appears in Heaven, but not as an insurrectionist; Satan appears instead among the angels of the Lord, carrying out the role of divinely appointed tester, vetting the faith of God’s human servants,4 as in Zechariah (3:1–25). The Satan of the Old Testament, inasmuch as he exists at all, is an extremely hazy figure, and remarkably miniscule in comparison to Jehovah, who, for good or for ill, indisputably rules the world: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).6

In the New Testament, though its diabology at times hearkens back to the Old Testament use of Satan in its semantic sense of “adversary” (see Mark 8:33; John 6:70–71)—Satan arguably even representative of collective Jewry,7 not least for Jesus effectively Satanizing the nonbelieving Jews (John 8:42–45)—the Devil of Christian Scripture is certainly a much more developed character. The New Testament Satan is presented as a formidable foe, “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience…” (Ephesians 2:2). Although direct references to the Devil are sparse even in the New Testament, Satan is clearly portrayed as a cosmic bogeyman to be feared by all and at every step: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour…” (1 Peter 5:8); “Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11).

Gustave Doré, Paradise Lost, Book I (1866): "So numberless were those bad Angels seen / Hovering on wing under the cope of Hell." (I.344-45)
Gustave Doré, Paradise Lost, Book I (1866): “So numberless were those bad Angels seen / Hovering on wing under the cope of Hell.” (I.344-45)

Satan’s heightened cosmic status in the New Testament was inherited from the apocryphal writings of the Intertestamental Period—the gap between the composition of the Old Testament and New Testament events—when the concept of a genuine Adversary against God began to blossom. The apocryphal books Enoch and Jubilees depict an angelic rebellion—or transgression, at least—incited by earthly desire, these fantastical texts about so-called “Watcher” angels copulating with mortal women and producing a hybrid race of “Nephilim” taking their inspiration from the sixth chapter of the Book of Genesis. These non-canonical stories lent themselves to the burgeoning biography of the Christian Satan,8 and the influence of the Intertestamental Period legends is evident throughout the New Testament: “…God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment…” (2 Peter 2:4); “…the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of that great day” (Jude 1:6). When Judgment Day is envisioned in the Gospel of Matthew, it is foreseen that the Son of God “shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left,” and once the Son has parted the righteous sheep and the ungodly goats, “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:33–41).9 Unlike the imprisoned Watchers of Enoch and Jubilees, however, demons abound in the New Testament world, and demonic possession is so widespread in the Scriptures10 that Jesus not only performs exorcisms himself (Mark 5:1–20; Luke 8:27–39), but empowers his disciples to deal with the world’s demonic infestation, in fact ordering them to exorcize demons as part of their public ministry (Matthew 10:1, 8).

Satan “is decidedly not peripheral to the New Testament message,” explains Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of a five-volume investigation of the Devil in history and literature. “The saving mission of Christ can be understood only in terms of its opposition to the power of the Devil: that is the whole point of the New Testament.”11 Indeed, Christian Scripture is unequivocal on this point: “He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). It was in the most elaborate Scriptural depiction of the opposition between Christ and the Devil that the New Testament Satan was fully fleshed out. By the fourth chapter of the first New Testament Gospel,12 the Devil is introduced into the narrative of Jesus, Satan carrying out three temptations of the Son of God in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1–11). The story serves to both make the Son look good and instruct believers in how to properly face temptation, as the Son easily dismisses Satan’s temptations by appealing to Scripture, his refrain: “it is written…” However, this story—repeated in two other Gospels (Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13) and retold by Milton in Paradise Regained (1671)—is also demonstrative of the heightened cosmic status of Satan. Unlike the Book of Job, wherein Satan is the Adversary of Man while still a servant of the will of God, the Gospels depict a Satan at odds with God’s will, which the Devil attempts to subvert on Earth. The Christian Satan is, as Milton puts it in Paradise Lost, “the Adversary of God and Man” (II.629).

Ary Scheffer, Temptation of Christ (1854)
Ary Scheffer, Temptation of Christ (1854)

What’s more, if in the Old Testament Satan is portrayed as somewhat presumptuous in the overzealous manner in which he carries out his God-given role of testing mortal faith—“And the LORD said unto Satan…thou movedst me against [Job], to destroy him without cause” (Job 2:3); “The LORD rebuke thee, O Satan…is not this [Joshua] a brand plucked out of the fire?” (Zechariah 3:1–2)—in the New Testament Satan is granted true hauteur in his independent attempt at tempting God Himself, incarnate as the Son of God. Also, in the Gospels Christ is tempted by a Devil wielding staggeringly greater power than that of the Hebrew Bible’s Satan: whereas Satan in the Old Testament merely prowls the Earth (Job 1:7; 2:2), in the New Testament Satan is shown in full possession of the planet, for when he shows the Son “all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them” (Matthew 4:8), Satan points out that these glorious kingdoms are at his disposal: “All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine” (Luke 4:6–7; cf. Matthew 4:8–9).

The Devil’s dominance over the world is undisputed in the New Testament. “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), states Jesus, who himself concedes that it is Satan who is “the prince of this world” (John 12:31). Satan is elsewhere referred to as “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) in Christian Scripture, which places all worldliness under the Devil’s aegis: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (1 John 2:15–16). While the New Testament Satan is provided with such worldly preeminence, however, he is still a rather mysterious figure—still but a skeletal outline of the Devil that would be developed by Christian tradition, initially over the course of the first centuries of the Church. Satan’s official biography was the product of the early Church Fathers—namely the second-/third-century patristic writers Origen and Tertullian—who were truly responsible for formulating Satan’s story,13 a process consisting of a great deal of reading between the lines.

The New Testament’s most significant contribution to this Christian biography of Satan—certainly as far as Milton’s Paradise Lost is concerned—was to be found in the Book of Revelation, a cryptic text14 which liberally employs imagery befitting a bizarre fever dream. Revelation, which was very nearly left out of the official New Testament canon,15 envisions Satan inciting a War in Heaven:

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. (Revelation 12:7–9)

Gustave Doré, Paradise Lost, Book VI (1866): "Hell at last / Yawning received them whole." (VI.874-75)
Gustave Doré, Paradise Lost, Book VI (1866): “Hell at last / Yawning received them whole.” (VI.874-75)

Some patristic commentators, and later Luther, interpreted Revelation 12 as an allegory of the early Church, and Michael—a Hebrew name meaning “he who is like God”—as Christ,16 but the prevailing interpretation was that of a literal outbreak of angelic warfare in Heaven, a cataclysmic event predating the Fall in the Garden of Eden. This epic celestial conflict was even thought to have been glimpsed by Jesus, who remarked to his disciples, “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven” (Luke 10:18).17

John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, himself anticipated patristic reinterpretations of biblical texts in equating “the great dragon” he writes of with “that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world…” (Revelation 12:9).18 Previously, the double-talking villain of the Garden of Eden was understood to be a mere serpent, but Christian tradition recast the slimy tempter as a serpentine Satan—or a serpent demonically possessed by Satan, as in Paradise Lost (IX.182–91). The reconceived Eden serpent was the Devil in disguise, who deceives Adam and Eve into forfeiting dominion over the world through their original sin against the Deity. In addition to Satan, the Son of God was also spotted in Eden, the cosmic feud between the two supposedly foretold in the curse God places upon the serpent: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).19

Confident that the Christian Satan, whose official biography was being gradually pieced together, was to be found hidden in the Hebrew Bible, the Church Fathers curiously identified sightings of Satan’s heavenly insurrection in two Old Testament accounts of the fall of earthly tyrants brought low by their hubris: Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28.20 “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” thunders the biblical prophet Isaiah,

How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit. (Isaiah 14:12–15)

Isaiah’s diatribe is directed against the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar, and in its context is clearly referring to “the king of Babylon” (Isaiah 14:4), whose fall will serve as a cautionary tale against overreaching ambition: “They that see thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms; That made the world as a wilderness, and destroyed the cities thereof; that opened not the house of his prisoners?” (Isaiah 14:16–17). The extravagant imagery employed by Isaiah to overstress the overriding pride and commensurate downfall of this tyrant led the Fathers of the Christian Church to conclude that the king himself, rather than the vivid language used to describe his spectacular fall from the seat of power, was figurative—a means to describe the Devil’s fall from grace, and Ezekiel 28:12–19 would be absorbed into the Devil’s biography for the same reasons. For the Church Fathers, Isaiah’s diatribe revealed that Satan became Satan because he in his unbounded pride aspired above his station, Lucifer the angelic rebel having established himself as simia Dei,21 arrogating divine attributes in his ambition to “be like the most High” (Isaiah 14:14), just as he would later tempt Eve and Adam to “be as gods” (Genesis 3:5), thereby mirroring his own sin and suffering like exile from Paradise.

Lucifer, as invoked in Isaiah 14:12, is Latin for “light-bearer,” and the original Hebrew reads Helel ben Shahar, “Day Star, son of the Dawn.” It is a reference to Venus, the Morning Star, which is the “light-bringer,” appearing to herald the light of the rising Sun. “Day Star” transitioned into “Lucifer” in Latin translations of the Bible, such as St. Jerome’s fourth-century Latin Vulgate Bible. The continued use of Lucifer as a proper name contributed a significant element to the traditional biography of Satan: before falling from Heaven and becoming Satan, “the Adversary,” the Devil possessed the name Lucifer, which signified the great celestial status he once possessed and forever lost.22

Cornelis Galle the Elder, after Lodovico Cardi, Lucifer (1595)
Cornelis Galle the Elder, after Lodovico Cardi, Lucifer (1595)

Proud Lucifer’s fall from Heaven would serve as a timeless tale demonstrating the biblical aphorism “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Recreations of Lucifer’s heavenly rebellion on the medieval stage imagined an egomaniacally evil angel, who in a moment of impulsive pride seats himself on the vacant Throne of God and commands the angelic host to adore him, before long instantaneously and ignominiously transported to Hell by the Almighty Himself.23 Fallen from Heaven, the Devil of the Middle Ages was depicted as a hideous creature, and the greatest of these deformed Devils was Dante’s Lucifer, who in the Inferno of the Divine Comedy (1308–21) lies in the ninth and lowest circle of Hell as a gigantic, hairy, three-faced monstrosity frozen below the waist in unbreakable ice (XXXIV.28–67). Dante’s use of the name “Lucifer” is an ironic mockery of the perfidious angelic prince, who “was once as handsome as he now / is ugly,” imprisoned in the icy depths of the treacherous circle of Hell because he “raised his brows / against his Maker” (XXXIV.34–36).

Medievalism’s visual vilifications of Satan carried over into Renaissance art,24 but there were a number of Renaissance literary works which conceded a certain degree of proto-Miltonic majesty in their treatments of Lucifer’s heavenly revolt. Indeed, Stella Purce Revard, in her study of The War in Heaven: Paradise Lost and the Tradition of Satan’s Rebellion, posits that Milton’s epic hero Satan is an installment in a long line of Renaissance Lucifers.25 There are certainly similarities between the Renaissance Devils and Milton’s epic hero Satan, the “great Commander” (I.358) of the “Satanic Host” (VI.392), not least that in these Renaissance works “pride and ambition, long identified as Lucifer’s sins, acquire specific political ramifications.”26 What’s more, these Renaissance depictions of the Devil would invest the character with a complexity which, as Revard observes, is decidedly different from “a motiveless malignancy (which patristic tradition gives us) or a strutting egotist (which the medieval mysteries pose).”27 Indeed, many of these Renaissance rebel angels vocalize the virtue, valor, nobility, and glory of their war with God.28 It was Milton, however, who most infused Satan’s rebellion with evocative political overtones, which was due in no small part to the antimonarchical and regicide-defending Milton’s own extensive experience in the political realm.

In Paradise Lost, Satan lambasts God as a “Tyrant” (X.466), and the archangel’s “ambitious aim / Against the Throne and Monarchy of God” (I.41–42) is saturated with republican sentiment. His rebellion set in motion by God the Father’s exaltation of His Son to cosmic kingship (V.600–15, 657–71), Milton’s Satan asserts himself as the “Antagonist of Heav’n’s Almighty King” (X.387), and it is with great “disdain” that Milton’s archangelic arch-rebel decides “With all his Legions to dislodge, and leave / Unworshipt, unobey’d the Throne supreme, / Contemptuous…” (V.566, 569–71). Protesting that the newly crowned Son “hath to himself ingross’t / All Power, and us eclipst under the name / Of King anointed” (V.775–77), Satan scorns “Knee-tribute” as “prostration vile” (V.782) before the angels beneath his banner, asking,

Who can in reason then or right assume

Monarchy over such as live by right

His equals, if in power and splendor less,

In freedom equal? (V.794–97)

Milton’s Satan incites rebellion among his angels by urging them “to cast off this Yoke” of the Messiah, ordained by God “to be our Lord, / And look[s] for adoration…” (V.786, 799–800).

Paradise Lost follows in the tradition of its Renaissance precursors insofar as it awards the rebel angel with not only a sense of a just cause but great majesty and epic heroism in his pursuit of it as well: when “The banded Powers of Satan” (VI.85) appear on the heavenly battlefield, intent “To win the Mount of God, and on his Throne / To set the envier of his State, the proud / Aspirer” (VI.88–90), Satan appears in boundless majesty:

High in the midst exalted as a God

Th’ Apostate in his Sun-bright Chariot sat

Idol of Majesty Divine, enclos’d

With Flaming Cherubim, and golden Shields;

Then lighted from his gorgeous Throne.…

Satan with vast and haughty strides advanc’d,

Came tow’ring, arm’d in Adamant and Gold… (VI.99–110)

Sir Thomas Lawrence, Satan Summoning His Legions (1796-97)
Sir Thomas Lawrence, Satan Summoning His Legions (1796-97)

Yet Milton goes much farther than his Renaissance forebears by making his fallen archangel incomparably magnificent in Hell, where the reader first encounters him at the start of Paradise Lost. Satan the heavenly rebel angel is described as “Sun-bright” (VI.100), and yet Satan the hellish fallen angel—the so-called “Prince of Darkness” (X.383)—is still likened to the Sun, though as obscured by a misty horizon or eclipsed by the Moon (I.592–99). In short, Milton’s Satan remains in possession of a considerable degree of his “Original brightness” (I.592), as does the fallen rebel host, likened by Milton to a lightning-scorched but nonetheless stately forest (I.612–15). The ruined rebel angels, despite their diminished glory, bear “Godlike shapes and forms / Excelling human, Princely Dignities” (I.358–59), and no one is as princely and godlike as Satan himself, who “above the rest / In shape and gesture proudly eminent / Stood like a Tow’r” (I.589–91), his preeminence signified by his surprising resplendence: “Dark’n’d so, yet shone / Above them all th’ Arch-Angel…” (I.599–600). The prior Renaissance treatments of Satan’s revolt all upheld the medieval tradition of marring the fallen angel’s marvelous face and form,29 and were therefore far more unforgiving when visualizing Satan’s infernal fall than Milton, whose fallen angel cuts a truly dazzling figure.

Satan as the Fallen Angel (ca. 1797)
Sir Thomas Lawrence, Satan as the Fallen Angel (ca. 1797)

The Satan of Paradise Lost bears “Brows / Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride” (I.602–3) and a “mighty Stature” (I.222), and he is much reminiscent of classical heroes as he firmly grips his ponderous shield and mast-like spear (I.284–96). These heroic features are not merely superficial, moreover, for Milton’s Satan is at his most impressive not during the War in Heaven but when in Hell, where even in the midst of damnation he decries “the Tyranny of Heav’n” (I.124) and is found “Hurling defiance toward the Vault of Heav’n” (I.669). In the “Infernal Pit” (I.657), Milton’s Satan boasts of his “unconquerable Will” and “courage never to submit of yield” (I.106, 108), and he indeed exhibits such Promethean pride and endurance in the face of incredible loss and suffering—not unlike Milton himself throughout the Restoration, the oppressive period during which the then blind pariah of a poet composed Paradise Lost. Milton’s curiously sympathetic portrait of the fallen archangel was genuinely unprecedented, and it was quite a godsend that, as Jeffrey Burton Russell notes, Milton’s was “a scenario so coherent and compelling that it became the standard account for all succeeding generations.”30 Paradise Lost was designed as a Christian epic poem meant to “justify the ways of God to men” (I.26), but as Percy Bysshe Shelley aptly put it in his unpublished Essay on the Devil and Devils (ca. 1819–20), “the Devil…owes everything to Milton.”31

An interpretation of Milton’s War in Heaven was nearly brought to the silver screen about a half-decade back. The plug was pulled on the Paradise Lost film at the eleventh hour, however, and so until that project escapes from development hell—or until the recently proposed TV series comes to fruition—the most complete depiction of the War in Heaven belongs to Superbook, amusingly enough. Superbook is an animated series of religious stories made palatable for Christian kids, who are taken on a tour through biblical times with the two young protagonists and their zany robot friend as they make their way through episodes from “the Book.” Superbook’s original 1980s incarnation was an attempt by the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) to reach out to a Japanese audience, and the show, produced in Japan by Tatsunoko Productions under the name Anime Oyako Gekijō (Animated Parent and Child Theatre), was an immense success. The CBN launched a new Superbook series in 2011—when Legendary Pictures’ Paradise Lost film seemed like it was actually going to happen—and the show’s first episode, “In The Beginning,” focused on the fall of Lucifer and his subsequent temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. The impressionable youth watching Superbook are meant to learn the importance of obedience by beholding the rebel Lucifer’s cataclysmic loss, the result of his having “thought he could be like God.” This is not dissimilar to the message conveyed by Milton, who speaks to the reader through Raphael when the archangel, in his education of Adam and Eve, concludes the story of the War in Heaven with the following words of warning:

…let it profit thee to have heard

By terrible Example the reward

Of disobedience; firm they might have stood,

Yet fell; remember, and fear to transgress. (VI.909–12)

Yet of course Milton’s Adam, also like the reader, is rather thrilled when he first learns that “some are fall’n, to disobedience fall’n, / And so from Heav’n to deepest Hell” (V.541–42), the first man absolutely fascinated by the story of the War in Heaven (V.544–60). Also, the angel Abdiel—the sole seditionist among the rebel angels (V.803ff.)—is shocked and horrified when he sees the still-heavenly radiant Satan appear on the battlefield: “O Heav’n! that such resemblance of the Highest / Should yet remain, where faith and realty / Remain not…” (VI.114–16). The Lucifer of Superbook is not Miltonic per se, and Superbook’s retelling of this timeless tale by no stretch of the imagination matches up to Milton’s, but it is not difficult to imagine the show’s visualization of the warring rebel angel inciting reactions similar to those of Milton’s Adam and Abdiel in its young viewership.

Superbook’s Satan is both “motiveless malignancy” and “strutting egotist,” to borrow Revard’s terms. While his dialogue is unsurprisingly nothing special—best described as biblical verse filtered through a Disney villain (“I am God’s greatest work, and I shall ascend above all of Creation!”)—this Lucifer is nevertheless rather impressive in terms of appearance: a bright-eyed, blond-haired, full-armored figure with two sets of massive, luminous angel wings. The image of Lucifer rousing his rebel army, who cheer him on and wave their arms as he directs his steely gaze toward the Kingdom of Heaven in the distance, his long locks of hair swept by the wind, is rather stirring. What’s more, like Milton’s Satan, “who that day / Prodigious power had shown, and met in Arms / No equal” (VI.246–48), the aspiring angel of Superbook holds his own in combat, eliminating a number of angelic combatants in a sulfurous whirlwind attack. Unlike Paradise Lost, wherein the Son of God is required to overcome the resilient rebel army on the third day, Superbook is more traditional inasmuch as it has Lucifer defeated by Michael after a rather short-lived celestial conflict. (Milton does have the archangel Michael best Satan in battle on the first day of the war, but ultimately only omnipotence can overcome the rebel angel and his host).

More significantly, whereas in Paradise Lost the fallen archangel’s “form had yet not lost / All her Original brightness, nor appear’d / Less than Arch-Angel ruin’d” (I.591–93), Superbook instead follows tradition by having Satan transform into a monstrous figure as he falls from Heaven—with the horns, talons, and tail Milton had graciously discarded. (Superbook does however permit the fallen angel to assume his former angelic form—a literal interpretation of the biblical warning that the ever deceitful Devil is capable of “transform[ing] into an angel of light” [2 Corinthians 11:14], which was also Milton’s inspiration for having Satan transform into a “stripling Cherub” [III.636] in order to deceive the archangel Uriel in their encounter on the Sun [III.654ff.].) In any event, as laughably cheesy as Superbook may be, its rather surprising depiction of Lucifer in the War in Heaven is noteworthy, not least for being more impressive than how Milton’s Satan was imagined in the concept art for the Paradise Lost film—especially Satan’s fallen form, which apparently would have been even more monstrous than that of the Satan of Superbook.

That the War in Heaven has been one of the most fixating stories in the history of Christianity and the cartoonish Superbook offers up its only real full-fledged depiction in modern media highlights just how needed an adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost is. While Satan has been beloved by cinema since its inception, motion pictures have hitherto offered but mere glimpses of celestial conflict,32 more often than not resorting to the much cheaper option of the Devil-as-tempter. (D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan [1926] included both the martial rebel angel and the sleek tempter in human form, but the former, which was featured in the film’s prologue, was ultimately left on the cutting room floor.) The War in Heaven is the most cinematic story in Lucifer’s biography, and it is definitely time for the modern day’s most audacious visual medium to give the Devil his due: the regal rebel angel’s defining moment of heroic heavenly revolt.

 

Notes


1. See Jeffrey Burton Russell, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, [1977] 1987), pp. 189–90; Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, [1981] 1987), pp. 25, 27; Neil Forsyth, The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, [1987] 1989), p. 113; Henry Ansgar Kelly, Satan: A Biography (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 2–3.
2. See T. J. Wray and Gregory Mobley, The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 53; Kelly, p. 17.
3. See Forsyth, The Old Enemy, p. 113; Wray and Mobley, pp. 57–58; Kelly, pp. 14–17.
4. See Russell, The Devil, pp. 198–204; Forsyth, The Old Enemy, pp. 110–11, 114; Wray and Mobley, pp. 58–64; Kelly, pp. 21–23, 27, 168–69, 175.
5. See Forsyth, The Old Enemy, pp. 115–18; Wray and Mobley, pp. 64–66; Kelly, pp. 23–25.
6. See Russell, The Devil, pp. 174–83; Forsyth, The Old Enemy, pp. 107–09; Peter Stanford, The Devil: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1996), pp. 36–40.
7. See Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Vintage Books, [1995] 1996), p. 101. In John’s Gospel, Pagels points out, the Jews perform the temptations of Jesus ascribed to Satan in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Mark’s Gospel vaguely mentions Jesus being “tempted of Satan” (Mark 1:13) in the wilderness, but Matthew and Luke expand upon Mark’s account and portray the Satanic temptations of the Son of God, the most significant of which is Satan’s offer of power over all the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:8–9; Luke 4:5–6). In John’s Gospel, however, Jesus refuses this “offer” of worldly power not from Satan but from Jews impressed by his miraculous power: “When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone” (John 6:15). Similarly, just as the first of Satan’s triad of temptations of Jesus is to turn stones into bread to verify that he truly “be the Son of God” (Matthew 4:3; Luke 4:3), in John’s Gospel it is the Jews who question Jesus along these lines: “They said therefore unto him, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat” (John 6:30–31). Jesus’ response is essentially the same he delivers to Satan in Matthew 4:4 and Luke 4:4: “Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world” (John 6:32–33).

8. See Russell, The Devil, pp. 191–94; Stella Purce Revard, The War in Heaven: Paradise Lost and the Tradition of Satan’s Rebellion (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1980), pp. 29–32; Wray and Mobley, pp. 99–105; Kelly, pp. 32–41.
9. In Matthew 25:41—as in other biblical passages, such as “A wise man’s heart is at his right hand; but a fool’s heart at his left” (Ecclesiastes 10:2), and “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matthew 6:3)—the Bible openly expresses a right-handed bias. Abnormal left-handedness has throughout human history been viewed as suspect—or sinister, Latin for “left.” In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Sin is born full-grown from the sinister side of Satan’s head (II.752–58), and Eve is formed from a rib taken from Adam’s sinister side (VIII.460–71). Milton’s Adam comments on this after the Fall, complaining that his wayward wife is “but a Rib / Crooked by nature, bent, as now appears, / More to the part sinister from me drawn” (X.884–86).
10. Ailments such as deafness, dumbness, and blindness are said to be caused by “unclean spirits” in the New Testament (Mark 6:7; Luke 11:14, 13:10–13), whereas in the Old Testament Jehovah had claimed responsibility for these afflictions (Exodus 4:11).
11. Russell, The Devil, p. 249.
12. Mark’s was actually the first Gospel written, though Matthew’s Gospel has been placed first.
13. Origen’s belief in the ultimate salvation of Satan was, however, not to take hold in the tradition. See Russell, Satan, pp. 144–48; The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, [1988] 1992), p. 81.
14. Revelation is fairly straightforward about its allegorical nature: “…I saw seven golden candlesticks; And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man.…And he had in his right hand seven stars.…The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches” (1:12–13, 16, 20).
15. See Jonathan Kirsch, A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book of the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, [2006] 2007), pp. 112–16.
16. See Revard, pp. 109–10.
17. Luke 10:18, when read in context, appears to refer to a future fall of the Devil. In Luke’s Gospel, the seventy disciples of Jesus return to joyously report, “Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name,” and in his response, Jesus appears to express assurance that the miraculous efficacy he has bestowed upon them portends the inevitable overthrow of Satan’s reign over the earth, which will be a lightning-speed plummet from power: “And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you” (Luke 10:17–19). See Forsyth, The Old Enemy, pp. 294–95; Kelly, pp. 97–100.
18. John may have been referring to “Leviathan,” the Old Testament’s “piercing…crooked serpent…the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1), also described as “a king over all the children of pride” (Job 41:34). The connection between the dragon of Revelation 12 and the serpent of Geneses 3 was nonetheless solidified by second-century Christian theologian Justin Martyr. See Russell, The Prince of Darkness, pp. 62–63; Kelly, pp. 151–52.
19. Despite being referenced after the death of Jesus—“the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly” (Romans16:20)—the Genesis 3 passage known within Christian theology as the “protevangelium” anticipates the virgin birth of Jesus by Mary (the “woman’s seed”) and the Passion, which will paradoxically be Satan’s undoing (“it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel”). See Forsyth, The Old Enemy, pp. 271–72.
20. See Russell, The Devil, pp. 195–97; Satan, pp. 130–33; The Prince of Darkness, pp. 78–80; Revard, pp. 32–35, 47–49; Forsyth, The Old Enemy, pp. 134–39, 370–71; The Satanic Epic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), pp. 44–45, 51–54, 80–81; Luther Link, The Devil: A Mask without a Face (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1995), pp. 22–27; Wray and Mobley, pp. 108–12; Kelly, pp. 191–99.
21. See Maximilian Rudwin, The Devil in Legend and Literature (LaSalle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, [1931] 1959), Ch. XII, “Diabolus Simia Dei,” pp. 120–29.
22. See Russell, The Devil, pp. 195–97; The Prince of Darkness, pp. 43–44; Forsyth, The Old Enemy, pp. 134–36; The Satanic Epic, pp. 51–54, 80–81; Link, pp. 22–23; Wray and Mobley, pp. 108–10.
23. See Revard, pp. 201–03; Russell, Lucifer, pp. 250–52.
24. For exceptions, see Roland Mushat Frye, “Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Visual Arts,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 120, No. 4, Symposium on John Milton (Aug. 13, 1976), pp. 233–44.
25. Revard, p. 198: “Satan, proud but magnificent, unyieldingly resolute in battle, emerges in the Renaissance poems wearing the full splendor of epic trappings. To these poems we owe in large measure the hero Satan as he is developed in Paradise Lost. Renaissance poets drew on two traditions to depict Satan or Lucifer: the hexaemeral and the epic. Hexaemera described Lucifer as a prince, glorious and unsurpassed, whose ambition caused him to strive above his sphere; epics described their heroes as superhuman in battle and accorded them, whatever their arrogance or mistakes in judgment, ‘grace’ to offend, even as they are called to account for their offenses. The Lucifer of the Renaissance thus combines Isaiah’s Lucifer with Homer’s Agamemnon, Virgil’s Turnus, and Tasso’s Rinaldo. Milton’s Satan, in turn, follows the Renaissance Lucifer and is both the prince depicted in hexaemera and the classical battle hero.”
26. Ibid., pp. 200–01.
27. Ibid., p. 210.
28. See Watson Kirkconnell, The Celestial Cycle: The Theme of Paradise Lost in World Literature with Translations of the Major Analogues (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1952), pp. 61–62 (Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberate, 1581); 237–38 (Giambattista Andreini’s L’Adamo, 1613); 276 (Phineas Fletcher’s The Locusts, or Apollyonists, 1627); 351 (Joseph Beaumont’s Psyche, or Love’s Majesty, 1648); 360 (Jacobus Masenius’ Sarcotis, 1654); 372, 401, 403, 405 (Joost van den Vondel’s Lucifer, 1654); 422 (Abraham Cowley’s Davideis, 1656); 431 (Samuel Pordage’s Mundorum Explicato, 1661).
29. See ibid., pp. 59–61 (Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberate, 1581); 221 (Giambattista Marini’s La Strage degli Innocenti, 1610); 236 (Giambattista Andreini’s L’Adamo, 1613); 350–51 (Joseph Beaumont’s Psyche, or Love’s Majesty, 1648); 414–15 (Joost van den Vondel’s Lucifer, 1654).
30. Jeffrey Burton Russell, Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, [1986] 1990), p. 95.
31. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Essay on the Devil and Devils, in Shelley’s Prose: or the Trumpet of a Prophecy, ed. David Lee Clark, pref. Harold Bloom (New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1988), p. 268.
32. For a comprehensive catalogue of heavenly conflict in cinema, see Eric C. Brown, Milton on Film (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2015), Ch. 5, “Winged Warriors and the War in Heaven,” pp. 245–81.

 

The Satanic Scholar on Nerds with Words

Nerds With WordsI recently had the pleasure of sitting down with my old friend Adam and his partner Greg of Nerds with Words, a fun podcast that welcomes diverse individuals for free-flowing conversation that always ventures down the rabbit hole. We engaged in an in-depth discussion of The Satanic Scholar, exploring the origins of the site and its aims of preserving the Miltonic-Romantic legacy of Lucifer and drawing attention to signs of this radical tradition’s echoes and influences today. Along the way were various tangents, a number of non sequiturs, and lots of laughs. You can download the episode on iTunes (Episode 46), listen in on Libsyn, or watch on YouTube.

 

— Christopher J. C.

 

 

Christopher Hitchens: Anti-Theism and the Devil’s Party

The late Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011), author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) and editor of The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer (2007), was not only an atheist—and arguably the most formidable of “the Four Horsemen” of New Atheism—but a self-styled “anti-theist.”1 On occasion, this sentiment led Hitchens to voice open sympathy for the Miltonic-Romantic Lucifer, who was listed as one of Hitchens’ favorite heroes of fiction in the author’s memoir.2 In a lecture given on February 23, 2004 at Sewanee: The University of the South, entitled “The Moral Necessity of Atheism”—after Romantic Satanist Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Necessity of Atheism (1811), the pamphlet which saw Shelley ousted from Oxford—Hitchens likened his anti-theist position to the Romantic tradition of being “of the Devil’s party.”

As Hitchens demonstrates in the above, once the character of Almighty God is deemed not only nonexistent but malevolent, praise for Milton’s Satan—who in Paradise Lost (1667) famous asserts in the midst of damnation that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n” (I.263)—tends not to tarry far behind. Having dismissed Heaven as “a celestial North Korea”—“a hideous realm of permanent, total, inescapable unfreedom” as a “system of surveillance, control, supervision, and the compulsory exacting of our thanks”—Hitchens states that he would simply have to strike the same pose of unyielding defiance of the Miltonic Satan if there truly were a God who, as the great religions propose, ruled as dictator of the cosmos. “I would, in that case, take the Miltonian line,” Hitchens explains. “I would be of the Devil’s party: I wouldn’t worship it; I wouldn’t agree to be bound by it; I wouldn’t become one those serfs.”

Hitchens echoes not only Shelley’s Necessity of Atheism but his Declaration of Rights (1812) as well. In the dramatic finish to A Declaration of Rights, Shelley had channeled the spirit of Milton’s Satan summoning his fallen legions—his “Atheist crew” (VI.370) of rebel angels—and later swelling with pride before their reassembled ranks (I.315–23, 522–89), Shelley concluding this clarion call for Man to rise from lowliness and degeneracy to assert his proper worth and attain loftiness and dignity with “Awake!—arise!—or be forever fallen,”3 which is the last line of the fiery speech with which the Satan of Paradise Lost rouses his fallen compatriots from the burning lake of Hell (I.330). Likewise, by deeming theism “the origin of totalitarianism…within our own minds” and determining that “the struggle to throw off this servility is the precondition for any struggle for liberty, whether intellectual or personal or moral,” Hitchens too effectively assumes the position of Milton’s Satan, who scorns “Knee-tribute” to God the Father and the Son as “prostration vile” (V.782) and incites rebellion among the angels by urging them “to cast off this Yoke” of the Messiah, ordained by God “to be our Lord, / And look[s] for adoration…” (V.786, 799–800).

Hitchens, an intellectual titan of godlessness, demonstrated like Shelley before him that, as Maximilian Rudwin observed in his seminal study of The Devil in Legend and Literature, “anti-theism leads to Satanism.”4

 

Notes


1. In his Introduction to The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), p. xxii, Christopher Hitchens provided his most thorough explanation of his “anti-theist” stance: “I myself have tried to formulate a position I call ‘anti-theist.’ There are, after all, atheists who say that they wish the fable were true but are unable to suspend the requisite disbelief, or have relinquished belief only with regret. To this I reply: who wishes that there was a permanent, unalterable celestial despotism that subjected us to continual surveillance and could convict us of thought-crime, and who regarded us as its private property even after we died? How happy we ought to be, at the reflection that there exists not a shred of respectable evidence to support such a horrible hypothesis. And how grateful we should be to those of our predecessors who repudiated this utter negation of human freedom.”
2. See Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir (New York: Twelve, 2010), p. 331.
3. Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Declaration of Rights, in Shelley’s Prose: or the Trumpet of a Prophecy, ed. David Lee Clark, pref. Harold Bloom (New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1988), p. 72.
4. Maximilian Rudwin, The Devil in Legend and Literature (LaSalle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, [1931] 1959), p. 306.

Iconography Update for The Satanic Scholar

The Satanic Scholar’s Iconography page has recently undergone a massive overhaul, and now includes not only Romantic art but proto- and post-Romantic art as well, each subpage featuring a thorough cultural context, extensive biographical information about the artists, and informative commentary on their Miltonic illustrations.

Click here to see the Proto-Romantic Art.

 

Click here to see the Romantic Art.

 

Click here to see the Post-Romantic Art.


Sir Thomas Lawrence, Satan Summoning His Legions (1796-97)
Sir Thomas Lawrence, Satan Summoning His Legions (1796-97)

A review of the Satanic iconography linked to above gives one an appreciation of what Romanticism’s Miltonic illustrators produced, which was nothing less than the pictorial apotheosis of Milton’s fallen archangel Satan—and, it must be said, the most accurate portrayal of the majestic arch-rebel who curiously holds pride of place in Paradise Lost. “As to the Devil he owes everything to Milton,” observed Percy Bysshe Shelley in his unpublished Essay on the Devil and Devils (ca. 1819–20), for “Milton divested him of a sting, hoofs, and horns, clothed him with the sublime grandeur of a graceful but tremendous spirit—and restored him to the society.” This Miltonic makeover of Satan as fallen Lucifer—a magnificent figure whose “form had yet not lost / All her Original brightness, nor appear’d / Less than Arch-Angel ruin’d” (I.591–93)—is precisely what Romantic artists executed as they brought the princely rebel angel to life. The Romantic Satan is heroically human, his form—almost always angel-winged, if not wingless and fully humanized—titanic in stature, his face Apollonian in beauty, with due emphasis on Milton’s description of “Eyes / That sparkling blaz’d” beneath “Brows / Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride…” (I.193–94, 602–3). As Romantic Satanic artwork discards traditional Christian iconography in favor of Milton’s poetry, long gone are the bestial horns and hoofs and general grotesquerie of medievalism; the Miltonic Satan of Romanticism is clothed in a splendor befitting a Grecian god.

The importance of the images of Satan which appear across Romanticism’s Miltonic iconography simply cannot be overstated. Those who never venture to read Paradise Lost’s more than ten thousand lines of verse (“None ever wished it longer,” Samuel Johnson famously remarked) or the Romantics’ extensive critique of Milton’s epic poem, to say nothing of their own Satanic poetry and prose, can still comprehend the Miltonic-Romantic legacy of Lucifer simply by surveying the abundant sketches, paintings, and engravings of Romantic illustrators of Milton. Gazing upon the Romantic Satan is the simplest way to register just how illustrious Lucifer was during Romanticism—but to also understand that, as Shelley duly noted, the Devil is indebted not so much to the Romantics as to Milton, whose Paradise Lost invited—or rather insisted upon—such a reimagining.

 

Christopher J. C.

 

From Big Screen to Small: Paradise Lost as “Biblical Games of Thrones” TV Series

While the Paradise Lost film continues to flounder in development hell, it was announced yesterday that a TV adaptation of John Milton’s seventeenth-century epic poem is in the works, with Dancing Ledge Productions bringing onboard as executive producer Martin Freeman, star of The Hobbit trilogy (2012–14) and the acclaimed British TV series Sherlock (2010–present). That Milton’s Satan may at long last make his debut on the small rather than the big screen is a surprising twist of fate.

Other than the prestigious SFX company Framestore attached for the presumably ambitious visuals, details about the Paradise Lost TV series are scant, but Dancing Ledge CEO Laurence Bowen explained the project as follows: “Paradise Lost is like a biblical Game of Thrones, transporting the reader into an internecine world of political intrigue and incredible violence. At stake? The future of mankind…There’s never been a better time for big, original, bold drama series, and Martin and I both feel incredibly inspired by the material.” As for Freeman himself, his remarks indicate a potential Romantic vision of the Satanic star of Milton’s magnum opus: “Paradise Lost is epic, exciting, and surprisingly modern. And maybe the first time the devil gets all the best tunes!”

Moses Haughton, after Henry Fuseli, Milton Dictating to his Daughter (1806)
Moses Haughton, after Henry Fuseli, Milton Dictating to his Daughter (1806)

The sanguinary political intrigue of Game of Thrones is not only reminiscent of the world of Paradise Lost, but also the world of its author. Milton experienced firsthand the English Civil War (1642–1651), responding to the public execution of Charles I—which shocked and horrified the European monarchies—with his defense of the regicide, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), Milton subsequently serving as Secretary for Foreign Tongues under Oliver Cromwell’s government. For this, he’d be imprisoned for a time during the persecution of the regicides that followed in the wake of the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II having assumed the throne in 1660, two years after the death of Lord Protector Cromwell. His republican dreams of an English Commonwealth dashed, Milton, amidst the shattered remnants of his political vision and the complete loss of his actual vision, composed Paradise Lost, his protesting voice, as Milton writes in the poem, not “hoarse or mute, though fall’n on evil days, / On evil days though fall’n, and evil tongues; / In darkness, and with dangers compast round…” (VII.25–27).

Paradise Lost was undeniably informed by Milton’s political experiences, and the poem does present what Bowen calls “an internecine world of political intrigue and incredible violence”: the “Apostate Angel” (I.125) Satan is imagined as the “Antagonist of Heav’n’s Almighty King” (X.387), responding to the Almighty’s exaltation of His Son to universal kingship (V.600–15, 657–71) with celestial insurrection, leaving “Unworshipt, unobey’d the Throne supreme” (V.570) and scorning “Knee-tribute” as “prostration vile” (V.782); defeated in the cataclysmic War in Heaven and exiled to Hell, the fallen archangel and his rebel hosts raise “Pandæmonium, the high Capitol / Of Satan and his Peers” (I.756–57), and in this infernal Parliament vote to avenge their damnation by ruining the newly created mortals designed to take their emptied seats in Heaven (II.284–389); Satan makes the heroic journey all alone from Hell to Eden for “public reason just, / Honor and Empire with revenge enlarg’d, / By conquering this new World…” (IV.389–91). One could go on with the “biblical Game of Thrones” aspects of the poem.

James Barry, Milton dictating to Ellwood the Quaker (ca. 1804-5)
James Barry, Milton dictating to Ellwood the Quaker (ca. 1804-5)

Many have argued that Milton, unconsciously or otherwise, invested his sympathetic and sublime Satan with much of his own fiery rebelliousness, and of course the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Romantic radicals applauded the republican Milton and championed his heroic Satan in the revolutionary and post-Waterloo periods. Paradise Lost is, as Freeman stresses, “epic, exciting, and surprisingly modern,” and indeed Milton’s epic poem is incredibly relevant in our current political climate. I would argue it is an ideal moment for a Paradise Lost adaptation, but is the small screen preferable to the big screen? I suppose that remains to be seen, but one would imagine the benefit of a TV series is the capacity to do justice to the vastness of the narrative and its events by telling a prolonged, episodic story. Indeed, Scott Derrickson, the original director attached to the Paradise Lost film project, remarked in an interview for MTVNews back in 2008 that “What [the film] encompasses is still a fraction of the poem and has to be, because you could make a 50-hour miniseries out of it if you wanted to.”

If nothing else, perhaps this Paradise Lost TV series will revive the Paradise Lost film, and perhaps at least one of the projects will live up to its poetic counterpart and indeed give the Miltonic Devil, as it were, “all the best tunes.”

 

When Satanism Overshot Romanticism: The Curious Case of Setianism: Part 2 of 2

As demonstrated in part one, Michael Aquino was a Satanist much more in touch with Satanism’s Miltonic-Romantic roots than Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, history’s first ever aboveground Satanic organization. The learned Aquino was in an ideal position—particularly when he set out to form his own irreligious institution upon having apostatized from LaVey’s Church of Satan, which Aquino felt had become, in more ways than one, commercialized—to steer Satanism into more Miltonic-Romantic territory. Curiously, Aquino, the Satanist who found in Milton’s Paradise Lost “one of the most exalted statements of Satanism ever written”1 and who asserted that the “Miltonian Lucifer is, in fact, our Satanic man,”2 swiftly snuffed out any hope of this happening. Aquino’s alternative to LaVey’s Church of Satan was to be the Temple of Set, which overlooked Milton and the Romantic Satanists inspired by the revolutionary genius, Aquino staking his flag in ancient Egypt and adopting the evil Egyptian deity of Set as his organization’s central icon.

Set, ancient Egyptian god of the desert
Set, ancient Egyptian god of the desert

Aquino, not content with merely dismissing LaVey as a crass charlatan and a bloodless opportunist, opted for a mystical narrative in his portrayal of his fallout with the Black Pope.3 Aquino had always believed in a personal Satan, and he insisted that LaVey shared this belief during the Church of Satan’s formative years. With LaVey’s loss of faith in the fallen angel, Aquino claimed, the Church of Satan had degenerated into the “Church of Anton,” and so the Prince of Darkness had stripped LaVey of his “Infernal Mantle.”4 Having departed from the Church of Satan in the summer of 1975, Aquino invoked Satan for guidance, and was apparently instructed by the infernal entity as follows: “Reconsecrate my Temple and my Order in the true name of Set. No longer will I accept the bastard title of a Hebrew fiend.”5 The Hebraic Satan, it turns out, was in actuality a corruption of the older Egyptian desert deity Set. In addition to providing marching orders, Satan/Set dictated to Aquino The Book of Coming Forth by Night (1975), the work to serve as the foundational text for Setianism, which would liberate Satanism from the confines of its Judeo-Christian context—and LaVey’s betrayal. Ironically enough, as Aquino was insisting that Setianism was Satanism having shed its Judeo-Christian skin, his characterization of LaVey was colored by his reading of Milton, as scholars Asbjørn Dyrendal, James R. Lewis, and Jesper Aa. Petersen observe in their study of The Invention of Satanism: “Ever the well-read and poetically inclined academic, Michael Aquino…obliquely has LaVey follow the trajectory of Milton’s Satan, from proud archangel to deluded, hissing snake, ever more caught up by his own ‘sins.’ ”6

LaVey’s version of the proceedings, beginning with his own letter to the Church of Satan members who Aquino reached out to as part of his dramatic departure,7 was far less fanciful. LaVey maintained that the Satanism of the Church of Satan was purely atheistic from the start, all of the rituals and titles—indeed, the very “Church of Satan” moniker—embraced merely for their symbolic significance. To be fair, while LaVey undeniably believed in the power of ritual magic—not merely as cathartic theatrics but the ability to induce change in the physical world through ceremonial spells8—LaVey’s early writings and media appearances do appear to reflect a belief in a Satan that was only ever a team mascot, essentially. Interestingly enough, while Aquino appeared to be more Miltonic-minded than LaVey, the fundamental atheism of LaVeyan Satanism sets it more in the tradition of Romantic Satanism, as the nineteenth-century Romantics did not believe a literal Devil—who had been brought to his deathbed by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—and embraced the Satan of Milton’s epic for his manifest poetic power. In any event, while Aquino’s open belief in a personal Satan was incongruent with the bedrock atheism of LaVeyan Satanism, LaVey was willing to tolerate the supernatural preferences of Aquino and various other early Church of Satan members so as not to thin his ranks as he was trying to get his organization off the ground. As the Church of Satan successfully established itself, however, LaVey felt less and less the need to hold on to such “occultniks,” and after the schism LaVey would go on to claim that Aquino and his cohorts were deliberately driven out of the Church of Satan so that Satanism could evolve.

While LaVey’s reality-based take on Aquino’s break with the Church of Satan is certainly more plausible than Aquino’s version of infernal intervention, the extent to which the once loyal lieutenant’s Satanic exodus impacted LaVey is disputable. While Aquino insisted that the Church of Satan effectively died in 1975, LaVey was dismissive of the Setians, scoffing at the idea that the desertion of these “Egyptoids”9 was of much significance. Superficially at least, LaVey paid Aquino and company little mind, which was quite the opposite of Aquino, who hovered over LaVey for the remainder of his life, even creepily including LaVey’s divorce proceedings as an appendix to his two-volume text, The Church of Satan.10 On the other hand, LaVey clearly became much more cynical, misanthropic, and detached following the events of the summer of ’75. LaVey had already ceased group ritual activities at the Black House in 1972, when the Black Pope decided that it was time to “stop performing Satanism and start practicing it,”11 but after 1975 he dissolved the Church of Satan’s local chapters (“grottoes”) which dotted the U.S. and beyond, and withdrew into the Black House to remain an effective recluse. Whether LaVey did so because he truly desired to evolve Satanism beyond the blasphemous fun-and-games of its first decade or because the Church of Satan turned out to be a disappointing endeavor—or some mixture of the two—remains open to debate.

Ironically, as LaVey sat out the proceedings of the Satanic Panic that gripped the dark decade of the 1980s, the modern-day witch hunt saw Aquino, who stepped into the media spotlight formerly enjoyed by the Black Pope, accused of child abuse as part of an alleged Satanic scandal at the daycare center of the Presidio military base in San Francisco.12 Aquino’s prestigious martial and academic accomplishments surely made him a target for the religious paranoiacs and media opportunists who imagined a vast Satanist network within the government engaging in Satanic ritual abuse, and while Aquino’s name was ultimately cleared as the baseless accusations were demystified, his background—not least his field specialty of “psychological warfare” in the Army—ensured that he would continue to be speculated upon by conspiracy theorists to this day.

Aquino may have certainly removed Satanism—or at least his own Egyptianized version of it—from the Judeo-Christian context of LaVeyan Satanism, but by opting for an anachronistic Egyptian context, Aquino’s Temple of Set was bound to be much more obscure than LaVey’s Church of Satan.13 While Satanists may not like it, Western culture remains predominantly Judeo-Christian, yet that context is precisely why Satanism continues to survive and thrive—even twenty years after LaVey’s death in 1997—for as Satan remains the ultimate antithesis, embracing that infernal figure will continue to provoke outrage and intrigue. Having swapped Satan for Set—to say nothing of the many other esoteric exchanges—Aquino’s organization, which was presented from the start as the successor to the Church of Satan, is unlikely to outlast LaVey’s. On the other hand, perhaps this kind of obscurity was what Aquino desired for the Temple of Set all along, as he took issue with LaVey making Satanism (relatively) “popular,” i.e., accessible to the masses. Aquino yearned for Satanism to be more of an esoterically elite occult order a la nineteenth-century magical fraternities, and this he aspired to achieve by going Egyptian, transforming Satanism into Setianism.

Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)
Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)

Satanism had overshot Romanticism, Aquino having overlooked the entire Miltonic-Romantic tradition. (I believe Ruben van Luijk, the author of Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism, is far too generous when he writes that within “the Temple of Set, one could say, Byron’s Lucifer eventually found its adherents after all, albeit masked as a cult to an Egyptian deity.”14) Then again, it is perhaps more accurate to conclude that Aquino hadn’t overshot but in fact undershot Romanticism, for with the Temple of Set he was not so much guided by the ancient Egyptian deity of Set as he was the infamous early-twentieth-century English occultist Aleister Crowley.15 Crowley reacted to his bleak and oppressive Christian upbringing with diabolical defiance, fancying himself “the Great Beast 666” and taking perverse pleasure in being pilloried in the press as “the wickedest man in the world.” Crowley may have touched on Miltonic-Romantic territory with his “Hymn to Lucifer”—the poem wherein “sun-souled Lucifer” is presented as Eden’s enlightener (“The Key of Joy is disobedience”16)—but the ambitious magician aspired to move beyond simply blaspheming Christianity and enter into a more magical (or “magickal”) context. This landed Crowley—at least for a time—in Egyptian territory. The Book of the Law (1904), Crowley claimed, was dictated to the evil Englishman during his Cairo honeymoon by an entity called Aiwass—a messenger of the ancient Egyptian deity Horus—and this inspired writing was to serve as the foundational text for Crowley’s new religion of Thelema. Aquino’s deliberate emulation of these aspects of “Crowleyanity” are unmistakable, and indeed Aquino presented Thelema, Satanism, and Setianism as a continuum: the ancient Egyptian god Set, Aquino claimed, revealed himself to Crowley as his “Opposite Self” (i.e., Horus), then to LaVey as Satan—a bastardization of Set, the Setians maintain—and finally to Aquino as his true self, Set.17 Whatever is to be made of this bizarre narrative, one thing is certain: there is no room for the Miltonic-Romantic Lucifer within it.

Whether Aquino overshot or undershot Romanticism, what the history of Satanism has in the curious case of Michael Aquino and the Temple of Set is a squandered opportunity to return Satanism to its Miltonic-Romantic roots. In the end, perhaps it was for the best. I have argued that Romantic Satanism was far more impressive than organized Satanism, and not despite but because the Romantic Satanists did not construct some formal Satanic religion with stringent hierarchies and rigid rituals. Romantic Satanism emerged in a remarkably organic fashion: the Romantic Satanists did not work in tandem, and in some cases they were not even familiar with one another, but what their works collectively produced was the most significant rehabilitation of the figure of the fallen angel in the history of Christendom. In this respect, the Romantic Satanists spearheaded the most significant challenge to the status quo in Western history, and the fruits of their labor proved to be cultural treasures. The Satanic literature and artwork of the Romantic era remains of far greater value than anything organized Satanism has produced over its half-century span, with all its continued ritualistic paeans to infernal entities, whether they are believed to be merely symbolic or sentient.

Ironically enough, immersing oneself in the poetry and prose of Milton, Byron, Shelley, Blake and others in this tradition is “occult” insofar as the term means “hidden”; in other words, a thorough understanding of this rich Miltonic-Romantic tradition is fit for an “elite” of sorts insofar as Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Romantic writings inspired by that fascinating seventeenth-century epic poem are profoundly challenging to the modern reader and altogether escape the attention of the average person today. Embracing this kind of challenge strikes me as far more worthwhile and rewarding than reciting Enochian, invoking long dead Egyptian deities, accumulating esoteric degrees,  or amassing shelf loads of mass-market occult bric-a-brac. The philosophical substance to LaVeyan Satanism was arguably always overshadowed by LaVey’s skills as a showman in the ritual chamber,18 but Aquino’s infatuation with esotericism unquestionably pushed Satanism’s occult element to its absolute—and, I would argue, embarrassing—extreme. (LaVey was not wrong to sneer at Aquino for accusing him of authoritarianism while simultaneously claiming supernatural authority from a diabolical deity.19) As ironic as it might have been for the man who in the midst of warfare was inspired by reading Milton’s Paradise Lost as a Satanic epic—like the Romantic Satanists before him—to extinguish rather than cultivate Satanism’s Miltonic-Romantic spark, the occult-obsessed Aquino ultimately helped illustrate the greater value of the literary, artistic, cultural tradition of Miltonic-Romantic Satanism.

 

Notes


1. Michael A. Aquino, The Church of Satan: Volume I: Text & Plates ([8th ed. 1983] San Francisco: N.p., 2013), p. 73.
2. Michael A. Aquino, The Church of Satan: Volume II: Appendices ([8th ed. 1983] San Francisco: N.p., 2013), p. 44.
3. See Gavin Baddeley, Lucifer Rising: Sin, Devil Worship & Rock ‘n’ Roll (London: Plexus Publishing Limited, [1999] 2006), pp. 102–03; Chris Mathews, Modern Satanism: Anatomy of a Radical Subculture (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2009), pp. 83–84; Ruben van Luijk, Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 347–48.
4. See Aquino, Volume II, p. 360.
5. Aquino, quoted in van Luijk, pp. 351–52.
6. Asbjørn Dyrendal, James R. Lewis, and Jesper Aa. Petersen, The Invention of Satanism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 98.
7. See Anton Szandor LaVey, “Hoisted by His Own Patois,” in Aquino, Volume II, pp. 374–75.
8. See, for example, Blanche Barton, The Secret Life of a Satanist: The Authorized Biography of Anton LaVey (Los Angeles: Feral House, [1990] 1992), Ch. 17, “Curses and Coincidences,” pp. 195–98. It’s also worth noting that the original Church of Satan evolved out of LaVey’s “Magic Circle,” the group which met at LaVey’s San Francisco home for lectures on various taboo topics.
9. Anton Szandor LaVey, “The Church of Satan, Cosmic Joy Buzzer,” in The Devil’s Notebook, intro. Adam Parfrey (Los Angeles: Feral House, 1992), p. 29.
10. See Aquino, Volume II, pp. 418–25.
11. LaVey, quoted in Barton, p. 125.
12. See van Luijk, p. 363.
13. There is an interesting parallel with the Paradise Lost and Gods of Egypt films. Alex Proyas entered the director’s chair for Paradise Lost in the fall of 2010, and after the plug was pulled on the project just before production was set to start in early 2012, the film Proyas moved on to was Gods of Egypt. The ill-fated Paradise Lost project and the Gods of Egypt film, which was released in early 2016, overlapped with one another, both on a narrative level—an epic battle between two supernatural beings (Michael and Lucifer vs. Horus and Set) with a patriarchal deity looking on overhead (God vs. Ra), this cosmic conflict grounded by the story of two imperiled mortal lovers (Adam and Eve vs. Bek and Zaya)—and on a technical level (an aesthetic of ancient mythology filtered through science fiction), for which numerous crew members who worked on Paradise Lost with Proyas joined the director for Gods of Egypt. There are a whole host of reasons for Gods of Egypt bombing at the box office, but we can be reasonably sure that if the Paradise Lost film were released—even if it suffered from some of the same shortcomings as Gods of Egypt—it would have been more of an event on account of its greater relevance in this cultural context.
14. Van Luijk, p. 353.
15. See Baddeley, pp. 23–32; Mathews, pp. 36–38; van Luijk, pp. 306–11.
16. Aleister Crowley, “Hymn to Lucifer,” in Flowers From Hell: A Satanic Reader, ed. Nikolas Schreck (Washington, D.C.: Creation Books, 2001), p. 263.
17. See Mathews, pp. 84–85; van Luijk, p. 352.
18. The Satanic Bible (New York: Avon Books, [1969] 2005) would be a case in point: LaVey’s wit is evident in the various essays contained in “The Book of Lucifer” section, but these worldly observations are completely overwhelmed by The Satanic Bible’s extended coverage of Satanic ritual, which dominates a vast majority of the brief book’s pages. The Black Pope’s Satanic Bible may be the foundational text of modern Satanism, but LaVey’s published essay collections—The Devil’s Notebook and the posthumous Satan Speaks! (Los Angeles: Feral House, 1998)—are, it must be said, more worthwhile reads.
19. See LaVey, “Hoisted by His Own Patois,” p. 374.

When Satanism Overshot Romanticism: The Curious Case of Setianism: Part 1 of 2

As I have covered at length, the Miltonic-Romantic tradition has received scant attention within Satanism proper, i.e., organized Satanism, which began with Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, founded in 1966 by San Francisco’s “Black Pope.” Within this quintessential counterculture’s first decade, however, there was an opportunity for Satanism to shift into more of a Miltonic-Romantic direction, courtesy of the Church of Satan’s leading intellectual, Michael A. Aquino. What occurred instead is a curiosity: Satanism overshot Romanticism, landing in ancient Egypt.

Second Lieutenant Michael A. Aquino, 1968

According to The Church of Satan, Aquino’s two-volume critique of LaVey’s endeavor, when Aquino was a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army on leave in his native San Francisco in 1968, the young military officer caught his first glimpse of LaVey in a chance encounter. Walking out of a theater following a showing of Roman Polanski’s Satanic horror classic Rosemary’s Baby, Aquino was met with the peculiar sight of the shaven-headed, Mephistophelean-goateed LaVey and a group of his sable-robed associates, who were being used to promote the demonic-themed film—and who were in turn using the film to promote LaVey’s newly founded Satanic church.1 The controversial group and its sacrilegious ceremonies held at LaVey’s San Francisco “Black House” sparked in Aquino an intense interest that would later on lead to deep involvement. While he felt that LaVey’s carnivalesque presentation of Satanic philosophy and lifestyle was somewhat tawdry, Aquino was very much taken in by the Black Pope. LaVey was likewise much impressed by Aquino, an extremely bright, well-read, and accomplished individual. Indeed, Aquino would go on to become a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and earn a doctorate in political science from the University of California, Santa Barbara. LaVey surely saw in the man someone who lent credence to his characterization of “the Satanist” as “THE HIGHEST EMBODIMENT OF HUMAN LIFE!” as LaVey loudly put it in his Satanic Bible.2 Yet The Satanic Bible, which codified Satanism in the written word and continues to serve as Satanism’s bestseller, would not be published until December of 1969, and so when Aquino was deployed to South Vietnam in June of ’69, he carried Milton’s Paradise Lost in tow:

…I had taken with me a copy of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, which I considered then, as now, one of the most exalted statements of Satanism ever written. Satan is its true hero; its Christian moralisms are so pale and watery in comparison that I am surprised it and its author were not summarily burned upon its appearance in Cromwellian England. That it not only survived Puritan censorship but was actually lauded as a compliment to Christianity is yet another of those titanic ironies which have accompanied the Prince of Darkness on his tortuous journey across the eras of human civilization.3

Milton - Paradise LostThis experience of Aquino’s is generously likened to that of the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Romantic Satanists by Ruben van Luijk in his scholarly tome Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism,4 but the learned Aquino, his erudition notwithstanding, makes several errors in his assessment of John Milton and Paradise Lost’s journey to becoming “one of the most exalted statements of Satanism ever written.” Milton, who had penned The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) in immediate support of the regicide of Charles I, worked for Oliver Cromwell’s government as secretary for foreign tongues, as the Puritan poet enjoyed a vision of Cromwellian England as a new Israel, the English as God’s new “chosen people.” Paradise Lost was composed during the Restoration, which followed the Lord Protector’s demise, and was published in 1667, seven years after Charles II reclaimed the throne. If anything, it is rather remarkable that Milton, who was briefly imprisoned during the persecution of the regicides, was during this oppressive period able to publish Paradise Lost, with all of its embedded antimonarchical imagery and messages. Additionally, the “titanic irony” of Milton’s Paradise Lost is not that it has been “lauded as a compliment to Christianity,” but rather that it became celebrated as a Satanic epic. Paradise Lost was to be a Christian epic poem whereby Milton would “justify the ways of God to men” (I.26) and demonstrate “the better fortitude / Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom” (IX.31–32), as embodied in the Son of God. The reading of Milton’s Satan as the poem’s “hero” is one which evolved since its seventeenth-century inception, and it wasn’t until the advent of Romanticism around the turn of the nineteenth century that Satan was seen as the true hero of the poem.

It was the Romantics who were responsible for recognizing that Milton, inadvertently or otherwise, created the most sympathetic and sublime Satan imaginable—the arch-revolutionary who, though “Hell-doom’d” (II.697), remains nobly defiant in the face of “the Tyranny of Heav’n” (I.124). Milton’s Paradise Lost was the principal inspiration for the Romantic Satanism phenomenon, becoming something of a Bible to the Romantic Satanists. While Aquino may not have been terribly well-versed in the history of the Miltonic-Romantic tradition, his reading of Paradise Lost was nevertheless very much a Romantic reading:

…Satan’s great “sin” was ultimately that of individualism: In order to follow the dictates of his own will, he broke away from the collective will of God, regardless of its “social beneficence.” Even when confronted with the horrors of Hell, Satan valued his individualism above all else. “Better to reign in Hell,” he said in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “than serve in Heaven.”5

As Aquino immersed himself in Milton, however, the officer felt that the Satanic epic had fallen short of what he was searching for:

As much as I admired Paradise Lost, I was annoyed at its ever-present, if pro forma bias. The die was loaded against Satan; he might put up a good fight, but in the end he was doomed to defeat. It was not so much that I wanted to see him triumph. Rather I felt that his power and position were equal to God’s if not more potent, and I wanted to see a contest that would more accurately represent the struggle between the Powers of Darkness and those of Light.6

Aquino proceeds to relate that he took it upon himself—or rather that he was chosen by the Powers of Darkness—to pen a work of demonic cosmology, The Diabolicon (1970), which Aquino believed to be inspired writing, hence the dramatic picture he paints of feeling compelled to continue writing it even in the midst of life-or-death situations in Vietnam. Aquino sent The Diabolicon back to San Francisco, and while the work is by no stretch of the imagination superior to Milton’s Paradise Lost,7 it was apparently well received by LaVey, who proceeded to incorporate portions of the text into at least one Church of Satan ritual held at the Black House.8

Aquino and LaVey with Sammy Davis, Jr., who became involved in the Church of Satan

LaVey expressed to Aquino that he saw in him a rising star, and once stateside Aquino indeed rose swiftly in the ranks of the Church of Satan, becoming LaVey’s right-hand man. The mutual respect was to become mutual contempt, however. In Paradise Lost, “Devil with Devil damn’d / Firm concord holds” (II.496–97), and this concept of infernal camaraderie is best exemplified in the relationship between Milton’s Satan and Beëlzebub, Satan’s trusted second-in-command. The occult world, contrariwise, is notorious for its warring egos, backbiting, and infighting, which the deterioration of the LaVey–Aquino relationship was to serve as the high-profile case of. As mentioned above, Aquino admired LaVey for launching history’s first openly Satanic organization, but he harbored reservations about the ex-carny’s aesthetic, which clashed with his own Miltonic predilections. For instance, Aquino became the editor of the Church of Satan’s official bulletin, The Cloven Hoof, and one of the amusing anecdotes Aquino relates in his mammoth Church of Satan tome is the tension between himself and LaVey over the publication’s cover image. “The first thing the new Hoof Editor needed was a quarter-page masthead,” Aquino explains, “and I turned to [my wife] Janet, who created a bat-winged, Miltonian Satan hurling bolts of fire across the page to form the blazing words ‘Cloven Hoof.’ ” Aquino goes on to explain that LaVey decided to intervene and design the masthead himself, producing “a magnificently hideous Baphomet goat-dæmon, whose most inescapable feature was a hairy, erect phallus.”9

Tensions escalated between Aquino and LaVey, the former wishing to see Satanism become an occult order of esoteric distinction, the latter increasingly stressing Satanism as a down-to-earth, pragmatic philosophy of street-smart selfishness, the validity of which was demonstrated by Satanists’ personal and professional accomplishments “in the real world.” LaVey’s growing emphasis on materialism irked Aquino and various other more occult-oriented Church of Satan higher-ups, who would be needled by LaVey granting his chauffer a Satanic priesthood, which they believed ought to be earned by the accumulation of esoteric knowledge and occult practice. The last straw was LaVey’s move to offer Satanic priesthoods in exchange for donations to the Church of Satan. Things came to a head in June of 1975, when Aquino broke with LaVey and made sure to take a number of Church of Satan members with him, which would lead to the birth of a new Satanic organization.10

The organization Aquino established with a number of disgruntled ex-Church of Satan members who had followed him in Satanic defection could have resorted to a form of Satanism more in touch with its Miltonic-Romantic roots. Such a shift would have even seemed a no-brainer, considering Aquino’s stress on the Satanist being essentially the Miltonic Satan made flesh, or vice versa:

…Lucifer rejects the single condition set upon his Archangelic rank – that he may achieve self-actualization. “Better,” he decides, “to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” The implication is that the rejection of mindless nirvana brings one into abrupt and crushing contact with the almost endless obstacles which must be overcome in the search for pure knowledge. The Miltonian Lucifer is, in fact, our Satanic man.11

Milton’s Satan was obviously far more prominent in the mind of Aquino than LaVey, who in The Satanic Bible made only an oblique reference to Luciferian literature12 and merely mentioned the Satan of Paradise Lost seemingly at random in one of his published essay collections.13 One would expect Aquino to have capitalized on this significant difference as a means of distinguishing his own organization from LaVey’s. Aquino did not, however, decide on this literary and cultural direction. Despite his Romantic reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost as “one of the most exalted statements of Satanism ever written,” despite his preferred iconography of a “Miltonian Satan” (Gustave Doré illustrations for Paradise Lost adorn both volumes of Aquino’s Church of Satan), with Aquino, Satanism overshot Romanticism and landed in ancient Egypt, Aquino and company having adopted the evil Egyptian figure of Set as the central icon for the new, rival Satanic organization: the Temple of Set.

 

Notes


1. See Michael A. Aquino, The Church of Satan: Volume I: Text & Plates ([8th ed. 1983] San Francisco: N.p., 2013), pp. 13–14.
2. Anton Szandor LaVey, The Satanic Bible, intro. Peter H. Gilmore (New York: Avon Books, [1969] 2005), p. 45.
3. Aquino, Volume I, p. 73.
4. See Ruben van Luijk, Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 349–50.
5. Aquino, Volume I, p. 60.
6. Ibid., p. 73.
7. See Michael A. Aquino, The Church of Satan: Volume II: Appendices ([8th ed. 1983] San Francisco: N.p., 2013), pp. 63–73; see also Flowers From Hell: A Satanic Reader, ed. Nikolas Schreck (Washington, D.C.: Creation Books, 2001), pp. 273–85.
8. See Aquino, Volume I, p. 74.
9. Aquino, Volume I, p. 150. To be fair, being an apologist for the Church of Satan’s goatish aesthetic wasn’t beneath Aquino. See “About That Goat,” in Volume II, pp. 121–22.
10. See Gavin Baddeley, Lucifer Rising: Sin, Devil Worship & Rock ‘n’ Roll (London: Plexus Publishing Limited, [1999] 2006), pp. 102–03; Chris Mathews, Modern Satanism: Anatomy of a Radical Subculture (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2009), pp. 83–84; van Luijk, pp. 347–48.
11. Aquino, Volume II, p. 44.
12. “Never has there been an opportunity, short of fiction, for the Dark Prince to speak out in the same manner as the spokesmen of the Lord of the Righteous…” LaVey, The Satanic Bible, p. 29.
13. “…Milton’s heroic Satan steal[s] the show from the Heavenly hosts in Paradise Lost…” Anton Szandor LaVey, “Confessions of a Closet Misogynist,” in The Devil’s Notebook, intro. Adam Parfrey (Los Angeles: Feral House, 1992), p. 90.

Gavin Baddeley on the Importance of Milton’s Satan

When I had the pleasure of sitting down with Gavin Baddeley for a conversation on the subject of Satanism (that exceeded one and a half hours), I was most impressed by the author’s eloquent finish to our extensive discussion: a praiseworthy assessment of the Miltonic Satan as “an icon of the Western cult of the individual.” Gavin’s musings on the importance of the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost were the inspiration for the following video.

 

Christopher J. C.

 

Romanticism: More Satanic than Satanism: Part 3 of 3

“…Milton’s Satan assumes in the Romantic era a prominence seen never before or since, nearly rivaling Prometheus as the most characteristic mythic figure of the age. A more active and ambiguous mythic agent than the bound, suffering forethinker and benefactor of humanity, the reimagined figure of Milton’s Satan embodied for the age the apotheosis of human desire and power.”1
                                                                      — Peter A. Schock, Romantic Satanism (2003)


 

Satan as the Fallen Angel (ca. 1797)
Sir Thomas Lawrence, Satan as the Fallen Angel (ca. 1797)

Satan was not so prominent before Romantic Satanism, to be sure, but modern-day, self-declared Satanists would surely take issue with the idea that Satan has not been so prominent since. Yet an honest comparison of Romantic Satanism on the one hand and modern organized Satanism on the other makes it difficult indeed to disagree with Schock’s assertion. The bestial Satan of LaVeyan Satanism and its offshoots pales in comparison to the titanic Lucifer of Romantic Satanism. While both are symbols or icons of fundamentally human drives, the former is all-too-human—concerned as LaVeyan Satanism is with “man as just another animal”2—whereas the latter is emblematic of the more lofty human drive for transcendence, which differentiates us from our fellow beasts of the field (or so at least the Romantics believed3). In any event, the fallen angel was raised to an unprecedented height by Milton and the Romantic Satanists the poet inspired, and as organizational Satanists have chosen not to embrace but rather distance themselves from this marvelous tradition, the real Satanic trailblazing has been carried out by those contemporary creative individuals who have summoned the sympathetic and sublime Satan of Miltonic-Romantic Satanism in their works, thereby ushering in a movement of neo-Romantic Satanism today.

 

The Romantics: Satanists in All But Name?

What’s in a name? To downplay the monumental significance of the Romantic Satanism phenomenon simply because those involved did not self-identify as “Satanists” is to be overly focused on semantics. If the Romantic Satanists did not term themselves “Satanists,” neither did they term themselves “Romantics,” as that label was applied retrospectively. This of course does not diminish the historical significance of those under the “Romanticism” umbrella: a wide array of creative individuals caught up in a similar current and preoccupied by similar issues, such as revolution, liberty, the sublime, the cult of genius, and so on. Likewise, the Romantic Satanists having been termed “Romantic Satanists” in retrospect does not diminish the fact that they were caught up in a similar current of overall positive reappraisal and implementation of the Miltonic Satan—caught up in “Satan’s cult of himself,”4 as it were.

H. Meyer, after G. H. Harlow, Portrait of George Gordon Byron (Lord Byron) (1816)
H. Meyer, after G. H. Harlow, Portrait of George Gordon Byron (Lord Byron) (1816)

Certainly worth noting is that while the “Romantic” label was applied to the Romantics retrospectively, the “Satanic” label was bandied about during the heyday of Romantic Satanism. Mario Praz may have rechristened Lord Byron “the Satanic Lord”5 in 1933, but the poet’s contemporaries themselves considered “Byronic” interchangeable with “Satanic.” In 1820, the English clergyman Reginald Heber identified in Byron “a strange predilection for the worser half of manicheism,” accusing the wayward peer of having “devoted himself and his genius to the adornment and extension of evil.”6 This, “being interpreted,” reflected Byron himself, “means that I worship the devil…”7 In the following year, the Poet Laureate Robert Southey condemned Byron as the orchestrator of a “Satanic School…characterised by a Satanic spirit of pride and audacious impiety…”8 This condemnation was “the official birth certificate of the Satanic School of Poetry,” as Ruben van Luijk aptly puts it in his scholarly tome Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism, “the original source for the designation ‘Romantic Satanism’ or ‘Literary Satanism,’ still used by scholars of literature today.”9 Simply because Byron ostensibly dismissed the Satanic branding10 and mocked the self-satisfied Southey by turning the accusation back around11 does not alter the fact that Byron indeed spearheaded the Satanic strand of Romanticism. Byron’s bad eminence was manifestly exhibited in his decision to “give…MrSouthey – & others of the crew something that shall occupy their dreams!”12 by penning Cain (1821), wherein a Miltonic Lucifer emerges as a noble, even Promethean opponent of “the Omnipotent tyrant” (I.i.138), urging Adam’s firstborn son to defy the “tyrannous threats to force you into faith / ’Gainst all external sense and inward feeling…” (II.ii.461–62).

Alexander Nasmyth, Portrait of Robert Burns (1787)
Alexander Nasmyth, Portrait of Robert Burns (1787)

There is arguably a better example than “the Satanic Lord” of someone on the border of Satanism proper in the person of Robert Burns, Scottish Poet Laureate and a proto-Romantic figure. “Robert Burns makes several brief references to Satan in letters written in 1787 and 1788,” notes John Leonard in his two-volume Faithful Labourers, which masterfully traces the reception history of Milton’s Satan, from the seventeenth century to contemporary criticism. While Burns’ “tone is hard to pin down,” Leonard observes, “it is clear that he feels sympathy for the Devil.”13 Most significantly, Burns employs Milton’s Satan as a vehicle for self-assertion, holding up the figure of the fallen angel as an exemplar of dauntless defiance in the face of personal adversity: “I know what I may expect from the world, by and by; illiberal abuse and perhaps contemptuous neglect: but I am resolved to study the sentiments of a very respectable Personage, Milton’s Satan—‘Hail horrors! Hail, infernal world!’ ”14 Romanticism scholar Fiona Stafford notes that Burns, not insignificantly, expressed this Satanic sentiment as he alternately dismissed the powerful and their reservations about him: “I set as little by kings, lords, clergy, critics, &c as all these respectable Gentry do by my Bardship.”15 Thus, as Stafford states, Burns’ “admiration of Milton had a political as well as personal significance,” for

To celebrate Satan in the same breath as dismissing those at the top of the contemporary social hierarchy was to reveal the same kind of response to Paradise Lost as that of Blake, Godwin, Byron or Shelley. For Burns as for his radical heirs, Milton’s Satan was the champion of the oppressed and the eloquent opponent of tyranny.16

“Give me a spirit like my favourite hero, Milton’s Satan,” Burns would declare, and he was inclined to keep that dark hero close by so as to continually rekindle the Satanic spirit within himself: “I have bought a pocket Milton which I carry perpetually about with me, in order to study the sentiments—the dauntless magnanimity; the intrepid, unyielding independence; the desperate daring, and noble defiance of hardship, in that great Personage, Satan.”17

Thomas Stothard, Satan Rising from the Burning Lake
Thomas Stothard, Satan Rising from the Burning Lake

Burns was compelled to calm certain brows he had raised due to the diabolical defiance on his own, but when he qualified his admiration for the Satan of Paradise Lost, Burns’ passion for the Satanic sublime burst through: “My favourite feature in Milton’s Satan is, his manly fortitude in supporting what cannot be remedied—in short, the wild broken fragments of a noble, exalted mind in ruins.—I meant no more by saying he was a favourite hero of mine.”18 To mean no more is to mean quite a lot. If enthusiastically embracing Satan as a mythic/poetic figure to cultivate that character’s very own heroically defiant spirit within oneself does not constitute genuine Satanism, I don’t know what does. In his professed admiration for Milton’s Satan and his inclination to emulate that “very respectable Personage,” Burns very much anticipated Romantic Satanism, which deserves the recognition of “real Satanists.”

Romantic Satanism was responsible for restoring a great deal of the tarnished Lucifer’s luster, and it is undeniable that a vast majority of organizational Satanists have paid this grand and groundbreaking movement little more than lip service. However, while contemporary Satanic circles may have missed the Miltonic-Romantic mark with regards to Satan and the Promethean values which the celestial rebel signifies, the twenty-first century has witnessed a cultural resurgence of the spirit of Romantic Satanism. The Miltonic-Romantic Lucifer has reared his refulgent head in the artistic mediums of today, and this nascent neo-Romantic Satanism—a burgeoning phenomenon signifying the influence of Romantic Satanism on our milieu, from faint echoes to modern-day manifestations of its distinguished Devil in the arts and culture at large—appears to be returning Satanism to its Miltonic-Romantic roots. The fallen archangel’s lost grandness may be returned yet.

James Barry, Satan and His Legions Hurling Defiance toward the Vault of Heaven (ca. 1792-95)
James Barry, Satan and His Legions Hurling Defiance toward the Vault of Heaven (ca. 1792-95)

Much like Romantic Satanism, today’s cultural current of neo-Romantic Satanism is not organizational but organic or “in the air,” and the creative individuals who are its contributors, much like the Romantic Satanists themselves, most likely wouldn’t describe themselves as “Satanists”—let alone officially join some Satanic group—or even recognize that they are part of a broader movement giving the Devil a much needed makeover. What does it matter? If self-identifying as a Satanist were really all that key, then over the past five decades organized Satanism has existed “real Satanists” would have written remarkable Satanic literature or even lyrics which put the poetry of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Byron’s Cain to shame, and “real Satanists” would have created artwork much more magnificent than James Barry or Henry Fuseli. Needless to say, this has not been the case. Milton was as pious a man as one could imagine, yet the Puritan poet effectively created a Satanic epic with Paradise Lost; Lord Byron was dismissive of the Satanism brand imposed upon him by his reactionary contemporaries, yet he lived a scandalously Satanic lifestyle, peppered his poetry with grandly Satanic characters, and with Cain crafted Romantic Satanism’s literary apex; Barry was a Roman Catholic and Fuseli an ordained Zwinglian minister, yet these artists created some of the most sublime Satanic iconography in history. Belonging to the Devil’s party is far more important than knowing it,19 and so while today’s “neo-Romantic Satanists,” as noted above, may not self-identify as Satanists, they are proving to be far more significant than organizational Satanists in terms of continuing the Miltonic-Romantic tradition of the laudable Lucifer. Unsurprisingly, these writers and artists I categorize as “neo-Romantic Satanists” often profess to have drawn inspiration from Milton’s Paradise Lost and its Romantic admirers, as opposed to anything organized Satanism has produced over its half-century span. Judging by the fruits, Satanic organizations would do well to return Satanism to its Miltonic-Romantic roots.

Of course, the examples of neo-Romantic Satanism which The Satanic Scholar helps to highlight—Vertigo’s Lucifer comic, Legendary Pictures’ Paradise Lost film, New Atheism’s half-joking sympathy for Satan, and the increasingly frequent usage of Miltonic-Romantic-Satanic imagery and references in the arts, broadly speaking—are not the equivalent of the cultural treasures that are Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost and the Romantic works inspired by that masterpiece of English literature. Then again, poets are no longer the “legislators of the World”—unacknowledged or otherwise—that they were in Shelley’s nineteenth-century vision,20 and the above examples are sure to prove far more effective in moving the collective conscious today. Romantic Satanism was undeniably the most significant historical reevaluation of Satan, and this neo-Romantic Satanism may have similar far-reaching effects, perhaps the likes of which have never been seen. We may be living in a time in which the fallen angel is not only restored to his former Romantic prominence but perhaps exalted to even greater glory than ever before. In any case, one thing is certain: if this day and age truly is the fallen Morningstar’s time to shine, it will have been realized not by “real Satanists” but those who, like Milton and arguably many of the Romantic Satanists, are “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”—a telling reminder just why Romanticism was far more Satanic than Satanism.

 

Notes


1. Peter A. Schock, Romantic Satanism: Myth and the Historical Moment in Blake, Shelley, and Byron (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 3.
2. LaVeyan Satanism’s overemphasis on the animalistic nature of Man is enshrined in the seventh of “The Nine Satanic Statements,” which serve as the philosophical foundation for the Church of Satan: “Satan represents man as just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours, who, because of his ‘divine spiritual and intellectual development,’ has become the most vicious animal of all!” Anton Szandor LaVey, The Satanic Bible, intro. Peter H. Gilmore (New York: Avon Books, [1969] 2005), p. 25.
3. See Ruben van Luijk, Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 115.
4. Schock, p. 39.
5. Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, trans. Angus Davidson (Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, [1933] 1963), p. 81.
6. Quoted in Schock, p. 101.
7. Quoted in ibid., p. 190n. 48.
8. Robert Southey, Preface to A Vision of Judgement (1821), quoted in C. L. Cline, “Byron and Southey: A Suppressed Rejoinder,” Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 3 (Winter, 1954), p. 30.
9. Van Luijk, p. 73.
10. “…[W]hat is the ‘Satanic School?’ who are the Scholars?.…I have no school nor Scholars…” Lord Byron, quoted in Cline, p. 35.
11. “If there exists anywhere, excepting in his imagination, such a school, is he not sufficiently armed against it by his own intense vanity?” Lord Byron, Preface to The Vision of Judgment (1822), in Lord Byron: The Major Works, ed. Jerome J. McGann (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., [1986] 2008), p. 939.
12. Quoted in Schock, p. 101.
13. John Leonard, Faithful Labourers: A Reception History of Paradise Lost, 1667–1970: Volume II: Interpretative Issues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 409.
14. Quoted in ibid.
15. Quoted in Fiona Stafford, “Burns and Romantic Writing,” in The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Burns, ed. Gerard Carruthers (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd., 2009), p. 105.
16. Stafford, p. 105.
17. Quoted in Leonard, p. 410.
18. Quoted in ibid.
19. William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–93), famously theorized that “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it[.]” The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, rev. ed. (New York: Anchor Books, [1965] 1988), p. 35; pl. 6.
20. Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry (1821), in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York [2d rev. ed. 1977]: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002), p. 535.

Romanticism: More Satanic than Satanism: Part 2 of 3

“…Satanism is associated with that hard core of romanticism which can only be called hubris—the will to be God—the will to arrogate to the individual and finite mind those attributes traditionally reserved for God alone: self-sufficiency, creativity, and ultimate freedom from all moral law.”1
                    — Peter L. Thorslev, Jr., “The Romantic Mind Is Its Own Place” (1963)


 

As discussed in part one, Romantic Satanism—the grand and groundbreaking phenomenon within which Lucifer, as reimagined and immortalized by Milton in Paradise Lost (1667), was most lauded—has received little more than lip service within organized Satanism over its half-century span, starting with Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan in 1960s San Francisco. The tellingly insecure insistence of most organizational Satanists that Satanism is entirely unprecedented has led to the snubbing of the Romantic radicals known as “Romantic Satanists.” Yet LaVeyan Satanists are not alone in calling into question the Satanic legitimacy of Romantic Satanism, truth be told, for academics are prone to a similar skepticism. While Satanists have tended to ignore Romantic Satanists in an effort to secure their own Satanic hegemony, academics have demonstrated a predilection for downplaying the significance of the Satanic strand of Romanticism, ironically citing the same reason as Satanists proper: the Romantic Satanists were not real Satanists. These doubting academics, however, invariably end up demonstrating just how Satanic the Romantic Satanists were.

 

Romantic Satanists: The Unacknowledged Legislators of Lucifer’s Legacy

Richard Westall, George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (1813)
Richard Westall, George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (1813)

In his 1968 essay “The ‘Satanism’ of Blake and Shelley Reconsidered,” Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr. argued that Romantic Satanism is a grossly exaggerated phenomenon. When venturing into the etymology of the terms “Satanist” and “Satanism,” however, Wittreich inevitably illustrated the fact that Southey’s “Satanic School” diatribe against Byron and Shelley2 for the first time in history employed the “Satanist” stigma most appositely, i.e., against actual Satan sympathizers.3 For a more recent example, consider Peter A. Schock’s definition for “Satanism” in the Encyclopedia of Romanticism: “The Romantic perspective on Satan is so complicated and qualified that no writer of the age could be considered a true ‘Satanist,’ ” Schock writes, explaining, “No one individual thoroughly idealized Satan or identified this closely with the figure: there was no ‘Devil’s party’ in the Romantic era.”4 This greatly overlooks Romanticism’s many “true Satanist” moments. To say that no Romantic idealized Satan is to overlook, for instance, both Byron and Shelley’s applause for Satan as the Promethean “hero of Paradise Lost,”5 Shelley’s bold assertion that “Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost,”6 or Hazlitt’s celebration of Milton’s Satan as “the most heroic subject that ever was chosen for a poem…”7 To say that no Romantic identified with Satan is to overlook Shelley’s professed longing to be the (Miltonically conceived) Antichrist8 and Byron’s fantasies of himself as a fallen angel.9 There may not have been an actual “Devil’s party” or a “Satanic School” during Romanticism, but the phrases themselves belong to the period, and they could not have been more appropriate.

“Devil’s party” was coined by one of Romanticism’s most important figures, William Blake, who in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–93) famously theorized: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it[.]”10 Blake’s witticism clearly establishes that there is a tradition—reaching back to Milton—into which Blake places himself and his fellow “true Poets,” and it is a tradition of an unbounded artistic genius that can only be considered Satanic. (“…I was walking among the fires of hell,” Blake writes in The Marriage, “delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity.”11) Yet “Devil’s party” also suggests a political aspect to Blake’s conceived tradition: Satanic partisans enlisted in the cause of republicanism, hence Blake’s co-opting the regicide-defender Milton.

Satan Exulting (ca. 1794)
Richard Westall, Satan Exulting (ca. 1794)

Some two decades after Blake’s Marriage, Shelley would quite explicitly forge a Satanic political link in A Declaration of Rights (1812), his own clarion call for Man to assert his proper worth and rise from lowliness and degeneracy to loftiness and dignity. The dramatic finish to Shelley’s exhortation reads, “Awake!—arise!—or be forever fallen,”12 which of course is the concluding line of the impassioned speech with which Satan rouses his fallen compatriots from Hell’s burning lake in Paradise Lost (I.330). Shelley thus imagines oppressed peoples as fallen angels, casting himself as Milton’s Satan, whose “heart / Distends with pride” at the sight of his fallen but reassembled brethren, who are promised, “this Infernal Pit shall never hold / Celestial Spirits in Bondage…” (I.571–72, 657–58).

Lord Byron moved beyond employing the fallen archangel as a symbol of artistic expression and political indignation, taking the idealized Devil into the arena of existential philosophy. In Cain: A Mystery (1821), Byron cast Lucifer as a genuine light-bringer, in the Promethean sense—promoting knowledge as liberation from divine authoritarianism—and the Byronic Lucifer’s enlightenment of Adam’s firstborn son radically reassesses the so-called Fall of Man:

One good gift has the fatal apple given—

Your reason:—let it not be over-sway’d

By tyrannous threats to force you into faith

’Gainst all external sense and inward feeling:

Think and endure,—and form an inner world

In your own bosom—where the outward fails;

So shall you nearer be the spiritual

Nature, and war triumphant with your own. (II.ii.459–66)

Gustave Doré, Paradise Lost, Book IV (1866): "A happy rural seat of various view" (IV.247)
Gustave Doré, Paradise Lost, Book IV (1866): “A happy rural seat of various view” (IV.247)

Lucifer’s parting words of wisdom to Cain “declare a commitment to intellectual freedom that has never been surpassed in English verse,” insists Byron scholar Jerome J. McGann,13 and it is no small thing for such an eloquent expression of mental emancipation to be placed in the mouth of the Prince of Darkness; indeed, it Satanically reevaluates him as a true Light-Bearer, hence Byron’s restoration of his native name, Lucifer.

Satanism permeates the lives and the literature of those Romantic radicals who’ve been rightly referred to as “Romantic Satanists.” One simply cannot overstate the significance of these Romantic titans irreverently upending Christendom’s foundational myths and scandalously celebrating the Satanic with such spirited artistic expression. Much to Schock’s credit, despite his leading qualification of the legitimacy of the Romantic Satanists’ Satanism in his Encyclopedia of Romanticism entry quoted above, Schock immediately proceeds to appropriately stress the significance of the Romantic preoccupation with Satan:

Nevertheless, many Romantic writers and artists were absorbed with the myth of Satan: the persistent fascination with the Devil evident in their work amounts to Romantic myths of Satan. In new or renovated guises, the figure of Satan looms large in the writings of Blake, Byron, and the Shelleys and appears in the work of many other English and continental writers, painters, and popular artists. Nearly rivaling Prometheus as the most characteristic mythical figure of the age, Satan assumes a prominence in the Romantic era never exhibited before or since.14

The momentousness of the Romantics raising the fallen angel to such a prominent position—essentially setting the erstwhile “Adversary of God and Man” (PL, II.629) shoulder-to-shoulder with the champion of Man found in the humanitarian Titan Prometheus—quite simply cannot be overstressed. In Romantic Satanism, the only book-length study of the subject, Schock would go on to thoroughly demonstrate how and why “the reimagined figure of Milton’s Satan embodied for the age the apotheosis of human desire and power.”15

 

Satanic Academics

While real Satanists have failed to give the Miltonic-Romantic Devil his due over the past five decades organized Satanism has enjoyed, and while literary academics have exhibited a tendency to downplay the monumental significance of Romantic Satanism, the past decade or so has proven to be a shifting point in Satanic scholarship. Within the culture at large, Satanism had previously been either dismissively derided as adolescent, and therefore essentially harmless, or—as was the case at the height of the 1980s Satanic Panic launched by doomsday preachers and opportunist media personalities—virulently attacked as a major threat to Western civilization. Either way, academics were for the most part content to ignore the matter altogether, but today Satanism is the subject of increasingly serious academic studies. “Recent works of preponderantly young scholars have given this field of research an important impetus toward maturity,”16 astutely observes Ruben van Luijk in Children of Lucifer, the most recent and most significant of these new Satanic studies. These “young scholars”—namely Jesper Aagaard Petersen, Per Faxneld, Asbjørn Dyrendal, James R. Lewis, and of course van Luijk himself—might best be called “Satanic academics,” for their scholarly work vindicates Satanism as not only a serious study but also an overall positive pursuit. (Van Luijk, for instance, intertwines the historical Satanic tradition with what he collectively refers to as the Western Revolution.17) Most importantly, at least as far as The Satanic Scholar is concerned, by forging important links to Satanism’s literary and cultural heritage—chiefly the Miltonic-Romantic tradition18—these Satanic academics have succeeded where real Satanists have failed.

Gustave Doré, Paradise Lost, Book IX (1866): "O Earth, how like to Heav’n, if not preferr’d / More justly." (IX.99-100)
Gustave Doré, Paradise Lost, Book IX (1866): “O Earth, how like to Heav’n, if not preferr’d / More justly.” (IX.99-100)

A cogent example of the missed opportunity of Satanists to place appropriate stress on Satanism’s rich historical and literary lineage is Chris Mathews’ Modern Satanism: Anatomy of a Radical Subculture, an academic assault on the Satanism movement. While Mathews is extremely critical of Satanism in general (“crypto-fascist ideology…intellectually, scientifically, and morally bankrupt”19) and of LaVey in particular (“a rather poor terminus for the rich literary and philosophical traditions he drew on”20), the first two chapters of Modern Satanism are devoted to noteworthy investigations of Satan’s evolution in religious and literary history, respectively. What’s more, Mathews, when defining Satanism for the reader, makes clear links to the Miltonic-Romantic tradition; for example: “Shorn of all theistic implications, modern Satanism’s use of Satan is firmly in the tradition that John Milton inadvertently engendered—a representation of the noble rebel, the principled challenger of illegitimate power.”21 Something is obviously wrong when Satanism’s detractors are more likely to give due attention to Satanism’s cultural roots—and thereby provide a more satisfying description of Satanism—than real Satanists.

 

Romantic Literature as Satanic Liturgy

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World,” Shelley famously stated in the final line of A Defence of Poetry (1821),22 and this assertion held a considerable degree of truth. This of course is yet another reason why the Romantic Satanists were of far greater importance in redirecting the Devil’s destiny than those involved in modern organized Satanism are willing to give them credit for. Because the Romantic Satanists “strove to express conceptions about ultimate grounds of being and a general order of existence in their major ‘Satanist’ works,” van Luijk observes in Children of Lucifer, and given that they “were also, sometimes quite consciously, staking claims on what had formerly been considered the territory of the church,” Romantic Satanism is definitely nothing to scoff at:

It is inadequate to contest that these appearances of Satan were merely a matter of literature. Literature was a matter of religion for the Romantic Satanists, the place where they gave symbolic form to their deepest convictions. I think thus that we might be justified to describe these utterances as forms of bona fide religious Satanism.23

If poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the World,” then the Romantic Satanists, despite occupying a “relatively narrow literary stratum”24 making for a “slender chain of sympathy for the devil,”25 surely were the unacknowledged legislators of Lucifer’s legacy. Academics are coming around to understanding this, and it is high time real Satanists join them in giving those Romantic devils their due.

 

Notes


1. Peter L. Thorslev, Jr., “The Romantic Mind Is Its Own Place,” Comparative Literature, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Summer, 1963), p. 251.
2. “Men of diseased hearts and depraved imaginations, who, forming a system of opinions to suit their own unhappy course of conduct, have rebelled against the holiest ordinances of human society, and hating that revealed religion which, with all their efforts and bravadoes, they are unable entirely to disbelieve, labour to make others as miserable as themselves, by infecting them with a moral virus that eats into the soul! The school which they have set up may properly be called the Satanic School, for though their productions breathe the spirit of Belial in their lascivious parts, and the spirit of Moloch in those loathsome images of atrocities and horrors which they delight to represent, they are more especially characterised by a Satanic spirit of pride and audacious impiety, which still betrays the wretched feeling of hopelessness wherewith it is allied.” Robert Southey, Preface to A Vision of Judgement (1821), quoted in C. L. Cline, “Byron and Southey: A Suppressed Rejoinder,” Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 3 (Winter, 1954), p. 30.
3. Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr., “The ‘Satanism’ of Blake and Shelley Reconsidered,” Studies in Philology, Vol. 65, No. 5 (Oct., 1968), pp. 817–18: “The terms ‘Satanist’ and ‘Satanism’ have historical liaisons that take us as far back as the Renaissance. During the sixteenth century these terms were used first in reference to the dissenters (1559), then the Arians (1565), and finally the Atheists (1589). By linguistic extension, ‘Satanism’ was broadened in the seventeenth century to include any devil-inspired doctrine or anyone with a diabolical disposition. Robert Southey, however, is the first to link Satanism with the Romantics, specifically Byron.…In our time, through linguistic specialization, ‘Satanism,’ with its full range of historical meanings, has come to refer specifically to the Romantic critics of Paradise Lost and more generally to those critics who evince a strong ethical sympathy for Satan.”
4. Peter A. Schock, “Satanism,” in Encyclopedia of Romanticism: Culture in Britain, 1780s – 1830s, ed. Laura Dabundo (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992), p. 507.
5. Lord Byron, quoted in Jerome J. McGann, Don Juan in Context (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 25; Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface to Prometheus Unbound (1820), in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York [2d rev. ed. 1977]: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002), p. 207.
6. Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry (1821), in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, p. 526.
7. William Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Poets (1818), “Lecture III: On Shakespeare and Milton,” in The Romantics on Milton: Formal Essays and Critical Asides, ed. Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr. (Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1970), p. 384.
8. See Peter A. Schock, Romantic Satanism: Myth and the Historical Moment in Blake, Shelley, and Byron (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 80.
9. See Malcolm Elwin, Lord Byron’s Wife (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1962), pp. 263, 271, 346; Benita Eisler, Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), pp. 13, 299.
10. William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, rev. ed. (New York: Anchor Books, [1965] 1988), p. 35; pl. 6.
11. Ibid.
12. Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Declaration of Rights, in Shelley’s Prose: or the Trumpet of a Prophecy, ed. David Lee Clark, pref. Harold Bloom (New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1988), p. 72.
13. Jerome J. McGann, ed. Byron: The Major Works (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., [1986] 2008), p. 1072n.
14. Schock, “Satanism,” p. 507.
15. Schock, Romantic Satanism, p. 3.
16. Ruben van Luijk, Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 12.
17. See ibid., pp. 76–77, 323, 400–01.
18. See Jesper Aagaard Petersen, ed. Contemporary Religious Satanism: A Critical Anthology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009), pp. 11–13; Per Faxneld and Jesper Aa. Petersen, ed. The Devil’s Party: Satanism in Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), esp. Ch. 2, Ruben van Luijk, “Sex, Science, and Liberty: The Resurrection of Satan in Nineteenth-Century (Counter) Culture,” pp. 41–52; Asbjørn Dyrendal, James R. Lewis, and Jesper Aa. Petersen, ed. The Invention of Satanism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), Ch. 2, “Satanic Precursors,” pp. 27–46; van Luijk, Children of Lucifer, Ch. 2, “The Romantic Rehabilitation of Satan,” pp. 69–112, and Ch. 3, “Satan in Nineteenth-Century Counterculture,” pp. 113–50.
19. Chris Mathews, Modern Satanism: Anatomy of a Radical Subculture (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2009), p. 205.
20. Ibid., p. 59.
21. Ibid., p. 54.
22. Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, p. 535.
23. Van Luijk, Children of Lucifer, p. 109.
24. Schock, Romantic Satanism, p. 2.
25. Van Luijk, Children of Lucifer, p. 74.