Children of Lucifer

The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism

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Ruben van Luijk
Oxford Studies in Western Esotericism
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     2016.
     632 pages.
     $39.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190275105.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Reuben van Luijk’s Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism is a comprehensive examination of the precursors to contemporary Satanist religions. By taking the long view, van Luijk ties together the broad historical threads that culminate with the Church of Satan, its schisms, and the various persons with religious Satanist dispositions by asking, “how did it come about that individuals and groups in modern Western society came to venerate a former symbol of evil?” (13). Van Luijk answers this central question by evaluating the discourse on Satanism, and dividing this discourse into two main categories: attribution, which is imposing a Satanist accusation or label unto another; and identification or appropriation, which are self-adopting labels for either a practicing or sympathizing Satanist. Van Luijk claims that the cumulative history of attributing Satanism as a devalued, marginalized “other” has directly, if slowly, lead to modern Satanist self-identification, and the religious practice of Satanism. Van Luijk presents the seemingly disjointed historical mentions of “Satanist” and “Satanism” and their “inherent ambiguities” to trace a trajectory towards the modern era and its contemporary concerns, reflecting cultural shifts and tensions along the way.

The Introduction offers the subheading “Mostly for Academic Readers” (1), but it would be a mistake to skip the preamble, as van Luijk outlines how this book fits into the growing academic studies that focus on contemporary religious Satanism. As it is quite a marginal area of study with relatively few contributors, scholarly concepts related to the field are still being worked out for their feasibility and appropriateness: accurate nomenclature, cross-disciplinary theoretical approaches, and definitions of terms. Fortunately, van Luijk explains his terms and how he applies them throughout his text, which helps novice readers and also contributes to the advancing academic discourse on religious Satanism.

Van Luijk begins with brief mentions of the biblical Job and ancient Zoroastrianism in order to demonstrate that, although Christianity effectively invented and then amplified the rhetoric of the figure of Satan, notions of an oppositional character of cosmic significance have precedents. He then discusses the attribution of “Satanist” by Christian theologians, which was used to denote pagans, Jews, dissenters, and heretics—all of whom are seen as undermining Christianity. Van Luijk covers a wide range of sources to illustrate that the Satanist attribution as a polemical tool frames larger political, social, and religious conflicts. Complicating the imposed accusation of Satanism to marginal “others” is the development of an obsession with demonology and occult powers—and their sensationalist lure—as they generated legitimate interest. Van Luijk states, “it was the stereotype of the Satanist that would prove to be the most important contribution to the later development of an actually practiced Satanism” (62).

As Europe moved into the modern era, Romantic Satanist authors (as van Luijk names them) depicted the figure of Satan in sympathetic terms. Artists and authors such as William Blake, George Gordon Byron, Henry Fuseli, and Percy Bysshe Shelly,  rehabilitated Satan into a symbol of liberty, antinomianism, and intellectual advancement. This newly reinvented literary rebel–hero inspired a markedly different narrative than the Christian theological stereotype from which it emerged. Here, Satanist storylines represent Enlightenment ideals and carry political overtures, discarding the shackles of the Dark Ages, and displaying “positive identification with Satan.” It is interesting to note van Luijk’s claim that, while these authors were not self-identifying Satanists in the modern sense, their “works present moments of religious Satanism” (111) because “literature was a matter of religion for the Romantic Satanists, the place where they gave symbolic form to their deepest convictions” (109). These literary Satanist narratives then informed what is now known as Western esoteric discourse (arguably began by writers such as éliphas Lévi, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, etc.), which further advanced the figure of Satan (or Lucifer) as a symbol of philosophical inquiry and occult ideas.

Perhaps the most edifying chapters (Intermezzo 2) are the ones that examine fictional works and their possible basis in reality. For example, Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel Là-bas (Down There or The Damned, Tresse & Stock, 1891), wherein the antagonist discovers a secret Satanist cult in France, describes a black mass. Van Luijk evaluates popular claims that Huysmans was aware of and had direct experience with practicing Satanists, including this knowledge in his fictionalized account. After an extensive investigation, van Luijk concludes that Huysmans and other authors are not depicting “real” Satanists, but there is certainly a preoccupation with the Satanist narrative. Themes in these fictional works are folded into conspiracy theories and notions of secret societies that include “sacrilegious initiation rites” and “wild festivities” (241). Van Luijk presents details that have become part of the widespread idea of Satanism (secret cults, black magic, and ritual blasphemy). Here he builds towards the overall thesis that all of these instances converge on how modern Satanists identify and practice, as they engage with this popular discourse and adopt or reject aspects of this Satanist history, real or imagined.

The final chapters address the merging of all highlighted portrayals, narratives, popular obsessions, and theological framings of Satan and Satanism thus far, by presenting these past depictions in their newest manifestation, the Church of Satan (founded in 1966), which van Luijk claims is arguably the beginning of religious Satanism. He states that it is a “child of the 1960s counterculture” in America, and that its founder, Anton Szandor LaVey, co-opted popular Satanist ideas during the so-called occult revival and sexual revolution in order to present Satanism as a religion of self-deification, as radical “others” that reject “herd conformity” and champion individuality (374-75). The remaining chapters describe other modern religious Satanists, focusing on how Satanism “evolved as a compliment to the process of secularization and Western Revolution, which proved to be defining for modern Western society” (405).

Van Luijk’s book is a welcome addition to the emerging field of studies of religious Satanism. Children of Lucifer successfully argues that rhetoric around the figure of Satan marginalizes political enemies and reflects social concerns—and modern religious Satanism is yet another example of this—as it promotes a radical marginality as an empowering identity. By drawing the discursive line from Romantic literary Satanist narratives as the birth of ideas informing modern religious Satanism as an actual practice, van Luijk is emphasizing that no ideas are born in a vacuum, but are instead a continually shifting process of social conflicts. Satanism is, and has always been, a mirror to this process.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cimminnee Holt is a Ph.D. candidate and part-time lecturer in Religious Studies at Concordia University, Montreal.

Date of Review: 
October 4, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ruben van Luijk was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Children of Lucifer is based on his research as a PhD student at the Faculty of Catholic Theology, Tilburg University and as a research fellow at Radboud University, Nijmegen. Van Luijk is also active as a photographer, novelist and artist.

Keywords: 

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