Religion

The best books on Satanism

recommended by La Carmina

The Little Book of Satanism: A Guide to Satanic History, Culture, and Wisdom by La Carmina

The Little Book of Satanism: A Guide to Satanic History, Culture, and Wisdom
by La Carmina

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Over the centuries, horrible crimes have been committed by Christians accusing others of being followers of the Devil. The label of Satanism was one of the worst imaginable in a religious society. However, from the 17th century onwards, some of the greatest writers began to find in Satan, the fallen angel, a sympathetic character whose opposition to the tyranny of heaven was not entirely unreasonable. Today, modern Satanists embrace the label, pursuing a nontheistic religion that celebrates individualism as well as critical thinking, explains blogger and journalist La Carmina, author of The Little Book of Satanism.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

The Little Book of Satanism: A Guide to Satanic History, Culture, and Wisdom by La Carmina

The Little Book of Satanism: A Guide to Satanic History, Culture, and Wisdom
by La Carmina

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Before we get to the books, can you tell me about your involvement with Satanism? You’ve just written a short book about it which I really enjoyed; it covers the history very nicely. I was wondering whether you wrote it because you’re interested in Satanism as a phenomenon or because you’re a practising Satanist yourself?

I like to say that I’m a friend of Satan. I’ve known many people over the years, especially in Japan, who identify as Satanist. I’ve always been into Gothic and alternative subcultures and there’s a lot of overlap there. I was surprised at how Satanism has nothing to do with the misconceptions that are out there in the mass media. It’s not about evil or devil worship or anything like that. It’s about the fullest fulfilment of the self, individualism, questioning authority, standing up against arbitrary rules and all these positive values.

Over the years, I got more and more interested and was writing more about Satanism for different publications. That’s what led to the book. I approached this as a researched non-fiction work; it’s not a personal book. It hopefully helps people better understand the roots of Satanism, and why people today identify as Satanists and find value in it—just as if it was a book about a lesser-known religion, like Jainism or Daoism.

From your book—and the ones you’ve recommended—I got a bit of a sense of what Satanism is. It stems from the Bible, but there’s not actually an awful lot about Satan in the Bible. It’s mostly been invented since then and it has changed quite a lot over time, is that right?

Yes, exactly. I mean, all religions are invented, right? You can trace their roots and influences. My book begins with predecessors to the Devil in the Bible—the Greek gods, the Egyptian gods that influenced the creation of the character we know as Satan today. If you read through the Bible, Satan is an angel and at first isn’t even an individual character. It’s a general term. It means the opponent or the opposer. Then, later, he becomes this figure named Satan who opposes Christ. But he isn’t fleshed out too much, you don’t get the sense of what he looks like or his backstory.

That comes in the centuries after, through legends and folklore and people reinterpreting passages. That leads to the Devil we know today. At first, Satanism was mainly anti-Satanism. People were calling people that they don’t like Satanists—people from other religions, or other denominations that they thought were wrong. It was used to blame people. Women or other minorities were called Satanists because people didn’t like them or wanted to persecute them in some way.

Then people started taking back the label, especially in the 1960s, with the founding of the Church of Satan. That’s really the start of modern religious Satanism, where some self-identified Satanists began taking back the label and saying, ‘We’re nontheistic. We don’t believe in an actual Satan. Rather, Satanism is a metaphor for standing up to authority. We are these misfits, we are these nonconformists, and we stand behind it.’

Do you think it’s important to have a label? If you don’t believe in a god, isn’t it enough just to be an atheist?

You mentioned you watched the documentary Hail Satan?: there’s a great moment in it where someone says that atheism is about what you’re not whereas Satanism is about what you stand for. It’s a reaction to the values that you grew up with and that are in the dominant society around you. Especially in a place like the US, where there is a lot of fundamentalism, many people who become Satanists grew up in an environment where they’re called sinners or can’t live up to the standards and end up rejecting them. Turning to Satanism is a way to recontextualize it. The symbols aren’t arbitrary. They have meaning for people who grew up under this narrative that was imposed upon them. It’s a way for them to react against it.

What about somewhere like Japan, where there’s not as much Christianity—is Satanism popular there as well?

Popular is not quite the word. It’s a very small community, but it is vibrant. There is a subculture there. It’s so interesting to see how people worldwide associate with the metaphor of the Devil standing up against the tyranny of heaven. In Japan, it’s a different context. It’s not so much standing up against fundamentalism and Christian intrusion into politics. Rather, it’s standing up against the very conformist and conservative society in Japan.

That’s a great introduction, thank you. Let’s go through the books you’re recommending. First up is Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism by Ruben van Luijk. This is an academic work really talking about the historical development of Satanism. Is this the best book to read if somebody wants a long, in-depth yet readable book about Satanism?

Yes, absolutely. There’s this one and also Satanism: A Social History, but that’s a bit harder to get hold of. My book is A Little Book of Satanism. It’s a primer, an introduction for a general audience. As I say in the introduction, I always encourage people to dive deeper into the academic sources if they’re interested in learning more. I know that these academic sources are not for everyone. They’re big. They’re expensive. And they’re very dense. But this is one of the best books out there for the origins of modern religious Satanism.

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It traces where Satanism came from, from the concept of anti-Satanism—where the Christians were trying to use this label to demonize who they considered their enemies, like the Knights Templar, or the women who were accused of being witches in the witch trials—up to the how the label was embraced by people in the West, and how it developed into modern Satanism, like the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple today.

You mentioned the word Satan means adversary, from the Hebrew word to obstruct or oppose. In your book, you have a list of all the names this character has been given over the years. Apparently ‘devil’ is just a translation of Satan?

Yes, from the Greek. My book isn’t only for people who are already knowledgeable about Satanism, so I tried to include some commonly asked questions. I thought people might wonder where these names came from. Who is Mephistopheles? Who is Beelzebub? How does that all fit in?

Speaking of Beelzebub, let’s go on to some literary interpretations of Satan. First up is Paradise Lost by the 17th-century English writer John Milton. This is an epic poem in the style of Homer and Virgil, I guess, and one of the great works of English literature. Tell me your take on it. How does it fit into Satanism?

Paradise Lost had an enormous impact on Satanism. Ironically so, because John Milton was a Christian, and he did not write Paradise Lost in any way to honor the Devil. But because he’s such a tremendous writer, he ends up making Satan, for the first time, a nuanced and compassionate character. Before that, in medieval works, Satan is pretty one-dimensional. He’s just the bad guy and that’s it. But then, in Paradise Lost, you see his motivations. You start to feel sympathy for the Devil. It talks about how he’s cast out of heaven, and you hear about his struggles. You end up rooting for him. There’s the great quote, “Better to reign in Hell than//serve in Heaven.” Milton ended up making the Devil seem like a very appealing character.

Later on, during the Romantic era, writers started reading Paradise Lost again. It was republished and became very popular. Poets were inspired by it and Satan was held up as an antihero. For the first time, Satan was depicted in art as this classical, muscular and beautiful Greek god-type character. Baudelaire and others wrote these tremendous odes to Lucifer and how he was courageous for standing up against tyranny, how he was to be honored for being a rebel who questioned arbitrary dogma. So Paradise Lost really influenced the way Satan is seen today as this rebel, the underdog who stands up, a heroic figure rather than this figure of evil.

In Paradise Lost, Satan and Beelzebub are different characters, aren’t they?

That’s the thing that gets confusing to people. There isn’t one definition of who these characters are and how they relate to each other. It’s very fluid and changes over the centuries. Sometimes Lucifer is seen as the same as the Devil/Satan. Sometimes he’s seen as a separate entity. But, generally, Satan, the Devil and Lucifer are seen as the same—the angel that was cast out of heaven. Then demons like Mephistopheles, Beelzebub and Belial are seen as his demonic agents, his helpers, though sometimes they’re conflated with Satan.

Let’s go on a few centuries to the great German writer, Goethe. It seems like Satan is a good character to write about because Faust is one of the classics of German literature. Can you tell me about this book and what it brings to the table in terms of the history of Satanism?

Faust is a play from the 19th century and it’s not the first variation of the Faust story. It actually began during the Middle Ages, about this possibly real-life magician called Faust, who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil. That led to a lot of stories about him developing over the centuries. It’s so interesting to trace these tropes that we have—like selling your soul to the Devil—and see where they came from. Goethe’s Faust is one of the most important and popular and influential of these works and, again, really humanizes both Faust and Mephistopheles.

So Dr. Faustus is a scholar. He’s not an evil guy; he’s someone who wants to pursue knowledge. That’s another element that’s important in Satanism: seeking scientific knowledge, questioning and trying to find out the facts for yourself rather than believing in superstition. Dr. Faustus is very much that type of scholarly, curious character, who because he wants knowledge signs away his soul, in blood, to Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles then takes him around on these great adventures throughout the world. He has all these incredible experiences.

What’s interesting is that in earlier works about Faust, the Devil ends up dragging Faust to hell at the end. Faust is doomed. But, in Goethe’s version, because it’s later, Faustus actually still ends up in heaven. It’s an interesting take. A person can sign their soul away to the Devil and have all these great adventures and seek knowledge but still end up in heaven. It goes with what we were saying earlier, about how Satan came to be seen as more of a sympathetic character. If you represent someone who rebels and seeks knowledge and questions what’s imposed upon them, it can lead to good things.

Let’s go to your fourth book, which is Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin.

We’ve been discussing works of fiction that had a big impact over time in how people perceived of Satanism and the Devil. Rosemary’s Baby is a bestselling novel from the 1960s, very influential in terms of pop culture and horror movies. It introduced the idea of how your seemingly benign elderly neighbors next door could be Satanic leaders out to get your baby. That’s the plot of Rosemary’s Baby. Rosemary and her husband move into a new apartment and befriend the neighbors who end up impregnating her with the Devil’s baby and the story goes from there.

It became a movie as well, starring Mia Farrow, and it had a huge impact on how people perceived Satanists because of the visuals of these Satanists yelling, “Hail Satan!” and doing rituals on women and getting the baby. It made people have this negative conception of Satanists as engaging in evil behavior and in conspiracy. You could argue that that fed into the Satanic Panic later in the 1980s and 90s, when people were accused of engaging in Satanic practices and abusing children when there was no basis whatsoever in the accusations.

Some innocent people spent more than a decade in jail as a result of those accusations. It’s very sad.

Yes, and it’s ongoing today with QAnon. People’s lives and reputations are still being ruined because of false associations and rumors about them being associated with the Devil.

Generally, the books you’ve recommended are more about the positive aspects of Satanism, rather than the witch trials and some of the horrible things that have happened when people have been accused of Satanism in the past.

Yes, over the centuries and even now, people have been accused of being Satanists and they’ve been put on trial, they’ve been executed or just rubbed out. That’s very much part of the history. That’s why people who adopt the label today are standing up for those persecuted in the past and present

Finally, let’s talk about Speak of the Devil by Joseph Laycock, who is a professor of religious studies at Texas State University. The subtitle is “how the Satanic Temple is changing the way we talk about religion.” You’ve already mentioned them in passing but for people who don’t know, could you say a bit about the two modern Satanic organizations?

So this book takes us up to the present day and today’s take on Satanism. In my book, I do talk about some earlier Satanists, but most scholars think that the Church of Satan, which was founded in 1966, was really the first full-fledged, modern Satanic religion. Then, later on, in 2013, the Satanic Temple was founded. There are also individual Satanists who don’t associate with any particular type of Satanism, they do their own practice, but those are the two main organizations today.

Both are non-theistic and nonviolent. They have similarities in that they stand up for individuality and non-conformity and for scientific, critical thinking. But there are also differences. The Satanic Temple has political and social engagement. That’s quite a new element in Satanism, engaging in activism—campaigns for separation of church and state, advocating for reproductive and LGBTQ rights—or even community good works like clothing drives. That’s all discussed in Speak of the Devil, which is a book that follows the founding of the Satanic Temple and how it led to what they do today.

Do the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple have commandments about how people should behave?

Certainly not commandments, because it’s always about thinking for yourself. But Anton LaVey, who founded the Church of Satan, did release certain—I guess you could call them—central convictions. In his The Satanic Bible (1969) he has Nine Satanic Statements, and there are also the Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth.

The Satanic Temple has Seven Tenets, which I included in my book. They’re quite democratic, humanistic values, there are no ‘thou shalt’ or ‘thou shalt nots.’ When people read them, they often realize, ‘Oh, actually, I agree with this.’ They’re about respecting bodily autonomy and making sure your beliefs conform with the best available science. So this book, Speak of the Devil, goes through that. It’s just so interesting to see how a religion is founded and how it evolves.

It’s fascinating how when some legislators in Oklahoma and then Arkansas were trying to put up Ten Commandments monuments outside their state Capitols the Satanic Temple stepped in and said, ‘Wait a second! Then we should be allowed to put up a statue of Baphomet as well.’ It’s almost like a mirror. Do you think the Satanic Temple is having an impact in how we talk about religion?

Absolutely. They really pointed out the hypocrisy out there. A lot of the times, people don’t even question it. We’re ‘one Nation under God.’ People assume the United States is a Christian nation but that’s not the case. If you look at the Constitution, there should be equal representation in public spaces for all religions. We’re not just talking about Satanists but Hindus, Buddhists, everyone should be able to have their monuments outside in the grounds of courts or Capitols or public memorials. But often it’s the Christians who put up a Ten Commandments tablet or a cross and no other religion can have their own symbols there. The Satanic Temple has succeeded in really pointing out that hypocrisy saying, ‘Well, if you can do this under the law, then so can we.’ Then, when they’re told they can’t, doesn’t that point out that there’s something wrong there?

Beyond political statements, do modern Satanists have ceremonies and rituals? They’re non-theistic, so they’re not worshipping any gods, but what else makes Satanism a religion?

That’s a very important part of it too. There are all these elements that, ironically, you might expect of a Christian organization: there are community gatherings and celebrations of Satanic holidays throughout the year. There’s community good work—people getting together to do beach cleanups or clothing drives. Starting last year there’s SatanCon, an annual conference. There are congregations in different cities where people can gather.

Even if there’s no belief in a deity that doesn’t mean it’s not a religion or there isn’t a community that has shared values and shared missions. The Buddhist community also doesn’t necessarily believe in a deity and could be seen as a non-theistic religion. Those are very much congregations as well.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

October 11, 2022

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La Carmina

La Carmina

La Carmina is an award-winning alternative culture journalist and TV host. A graduate of Columbia University and Yale Law School, she blogs about Goth travel and fashion and is the author of four books.