Satanic Feminism

Lucifer as the Liberator of Women in Nineteenth-Century Culture

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Per Faxneld
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2017.
     592 pages.
     $39.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190664473.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Per Faxneld’s Satanic Feminism examines the association of women with Satan and the reinterpretation of this originally negative trope as a positive symbol of feminist empowerment. The author aims to “map, contextualize and discuss the discourse of Satanic feminism” (3), principally through the study of literature along with visual art and cinema. The book demonstrates ways in which subordinated groups—in this case women—reinterpret negative stereotypes that have traditionally been used to denigrate and oppress them, transforming these into positive and empowering icons. The study covers the period from the late 18th century up to the years before World War II and focuses mainly on Western European and North American evidence.

Although they attributed positive qualities to the figure of Satan, the subjects examined in this book were not satanists as commonly imagined; that is, they were not believers in a supernatural being called Satan and did not perform rituals dedicated to him. Rather, as Faxneld explains, they were satanists sensu lato (in the broad sense); they used Satan as a symbol to critique Christianity, its accompanying conservative social mores, and patriarchy. Theistic and ritualizing satanism, on the other hand, is termed here sensu stricto (in the strict sense). Thus, the book is not about satanism as a religious practice but as a “discursive strategy” (2).

Nevertheless, religion is at the heart of the study, as shown in chapter 2, because of the primary importance of Genesis 3 and its reception, which involved a misogynistic reading of Eve and associated women with ideas of supernatural evil. As shown in chapter 3, the figure of Satan received a makeover into a noble, heroic, and benevolent figure in John Milton’s 1667 poem Paradise Lost (Samuel Simmons) (although this was not the intention of the author) and was enthusiastically taken up in this guise by the Romantic poets and socialist writers as a symbol of individuality and freedom from Christian morality. The reversal of the evil Satan subsequently had positive implications for women, with the biblical episode regarding Eve and the serpent in the garden of Eden reenvisioned as an admirable and progressive event.

Chapter 4 examines this positive reception of Satan as a liberator rather than a negative figure in the writings of the founder of theosophy, Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), and the influence this had on feminist readers of her work. The relationship between women and Satan is then examined in Gothic literature in chapter 5, although the genre is deemed to be expressive of ambivalence rather than explicitly positive about Satan or female emancipation.

One of the most prominent examples of the negative association between women and Satan was the figure of the witch. In chapter 6, Faxneld investigates works such as Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière (E. Dentu Libraire-Editeur, 1862), arguably “the single most influential text presenting a sort of feminist version of witches” (198). Relevant to new religious movements today, Michelet’s ideas about witches influenced authors who in turn were used as sources in the construction of modern pagan witchcraft. Feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage interpreted witches as satanic rebels against the injustices of patriarchy; and amateur folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland’s work Aradia; or, the Gospel of the Witches (1899), which presented witches as proto-feminist rebels against social oppression, continues to hold an authoritative position within the contemporary pagan witchcraft movement.

Chapter 7 focuses on Decadent literature and art, a genre that featured strong female subjects in the guise of demonic women and femmes fatales. Although influenced by the positive image of Satan transmitted by the Romantics, Decadence was not necessarily feminist. Analysis of art and literature by figures such as Felicien Rops and Joris-Karl Huysmans shows that although such works were often quite misogynistic, the female figures portrayed could be received positively by women as strong, liberated female role models.

The book turns in chapter 8 to the use of the figure of Satan as a deity for lesbians and gay men, primarily focusing on the oeuvre of poetess Renée Vivien (1877–1909), who promoted Satan as the god of femininity and patron of same-sex lovers. Chapter 9 looks at prominent women who adopted a demonic aesthetic for their public persona, such as actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Theda Bara and wealthy socialite Luisa Casati, whose choice to employ satanic motifs was rejection of conventional Christian morality as well as a way to court attention. While personally liberating, their satanic aesthetic was not part of a wider program of feminist empowerment for all women.

Chapter 10 is a case study of American-Canadian writer Mary MacLane (1881–1929), whose use of the figure of Satan as a shock tactic had implicit feminist potential. Chapter 11 focuses on writer Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893–1978) and her novel Lolly Willowes; or, The Loving Huntsman (Chatto & Windus, 1926), about a woman who becomes a witch in order to escape familial and societal demands. Here Satan is characterized as “a benign and compassionate liberator … one of the least ambiguous positive portrayals of him ever” (494).

Spanning ancient texts such as the biblical book of Genesis at one end and the modernist feminist novel at the other, at 566 pages Satanic Feminism unleashes an almost overwhelming avalanche of information. Its panoptic gaze is coupled with an impressive depth of research; the book is highly detailed from start to finish, seemingly leaving no stone unturned. Such is the sheer volume of fascinating content; each chapter could be an entire book in itself. For this reason it will surely become the go-to resource for understanding the origins of the relationship between women and the devil within Christian culture, the Romantic reinterpretation of Satan as a good guy, and the subsequent feminist reworking of an originally misogynistic myth.

Faxneld’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in biblical reception, the history of Christianity, Western esotericism, literature, the history of feminism, and history of art. It is also highly recommended for contemporary satanists, witches, and pagans—and those who want to understand them—as a clear exposition of the history of Satan that consequently sheds light on his relationship to these new religious movements.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Caroline Tully is an honorary fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Date of Review: 
April 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Per Faxneld was a visiting scholar at Cambridge University in 2015, and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Mid-Sweden University. He is the author of two monographs on the history of Satanism and has published more than 30 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on various matters related to Western esotericism.

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