Satanic Panic has returned, or so we’re told. It certainly feels that way when we consider the extent to which hardcore American conservatives and the far-right in general are leveraging the same essential moral panic, and all its inherently fascistic undertones, as part of the gradual consolidation of fascism across the world. Indeed, long-time readers of this blog may have noticed that this past year has so far has seen me cover new iterations of Satanic Panic. This includes the conservative outrage against Lil Nas X, conspiracy theories about the Astroworld disaster, Jordan Peterson’s transphobic rant in which he compares trans people to Satanic Panic, and the whole industry of conspiracy theories that cast Ukraine as a Satanic fascist nation in opposition to Christian Russia. Just hold that last thought for later, because it will be important to cover that in more detail. Indeed, the Russian state to whom the Western far-right is allied has played a unique role in thrusting Satanic Panic back into focus by making it part of the ideological basis for their ongoing invasion of Ukraine. But while a lot of commentary on the subject seems to present this as a revival of 1980s moral panic, the reality is that Satanic Panic never actually died out. The basic tropes still persist to this day and are a fundamental part of the core of hardcore right-wing ideology and the conspiracy theories that build themselves upon it. We laugh rightly about the fact that there was a time where some people seriously believed that heavy metal was indoctrinating people into some sort of violent Satanism, no matter the actual religious affiliations (or often the lack thereof) of the bands in question, but that basic idea still has its adherents in this very decade! In this setting, I hope to demonstrate not only the way that Satanic Panic has been brought back into focus, but also the way in which Satanic Panic has always been present in Western societies.
Contemporary Satanic Panic
But first of all, let’s bring focus to perhaps the most recent discourse of Satanic Panic that jumped onto my radar, and in all truth is my impetus for writing this article to start with. Last week, a Twitter user going by the name Rob (or @.houellebecq_2) has gone semi-viral for suggesting that the Satanic Panic of the 1980s was actually “justified”. To re-state the basic facts of our subject, this Satanic Panic was based around a number of right-wing conspiracy theories. One of those conspiracy theories asserted that schools and daycare centers across America were secretly controlled by devil-worshipping paedophiles who (we’re told) carted their victims off through underground tunnels and into their ritual chambers to abuse or kill them. Another popular Satanic Panic idea that sort of connected with that is the belief that heavy metal (not to mention its more “extreme” varieties), Dungeons and Dragons, video games, horror movies and more were portals through which children and teenagers would be brainwashed into becoming Satanists and start ritualistically murdering people or committing other crimes as a result. Rob’s argument is that these beliefs are all justified because “there actually was widespread abuse in the 80s”. When he was called out for this, Rob asserted that his critics were simply weaponizing some alleged experience of gaslighting, then argued that people don’t accept his claims because of media hyperfocus on the occult aspects, an alleged overcharging of cases, and supposed outgroup anxieties about suburban Christians (which, if anything, is probably what is actually justified for reasons I plan to elaborate). He then suggested that people read The Witch-Hunt Narrative by Ross E. Cheit, which ostensibly argues against the idea that the McMartin accusations constituted a witch hunt, while rather suspiciously refusing to link to any court documents to support his case. Forgetting the obvious problem with trying to bat away decades of disconfirmation (not to mention explicit repudiation by children involved) with a single source coupled with the refusal to present any relevant legal evidence that just might refute Rob’s case, a quick search for Cheit’s book The Witch-Hunt Narrative gives us no indication that he actually endorses the idea of Satanic Ritual Abuse – even though he argues that widespread abuse was real, he does not seem to support the idea that this was ritualistic or “Satanic” in nature.
With this established, let’s emphasize exactly what’s wrong here. First of all, the argument that Satanic Ritual Abuse was a real, widespread phenomenon, and that Satanic Panic is therefore justified, is a fundamentally fallacious argument; one which, I suspect, has applications for other fascist conspiracy theories. Why, with this peculiarly shoddy reasoning, someone may as well argue that the fact that the USS Liberty was mistakenly attacked by Israeli military forces off the Sinai peninsula, for which the government of Israel had apologized and given restitution, was proof of some broader nefarious Jewish conspiracy against white people. I don’t bring up this example by accident. Not only is the logic the same, many of the same people who still believe that Satanists are secretly abusing and killing your kids also tend to hold some really toxic and bigoted beliefs about Jews – sometimes coded (see the way the Right has been talking about “globalists” for decades or even close to century), and other times overt. That’s not a coincidence either, because the basic premise of Satanic Ritual Abuse conspiracy theories is itself evolved from a much older tradition of blood libel in which Jews were frequently and maliciously accused of abducting people as victims of blood sacrifice, and these ideas are both pillars of a far-right/fascist ideology whose aim is to preserve a traditionalist notion of “the natural order” applicable to human civil society by oppressing or exterminating any designated Other seen as defying this order. I must stress for the record: this is what Rob thinks is somehow “justified”, and on such an appallingly weak standard of evidence.
I’m sorry to say this, but there’s more. Rob is not the only person trying to argue that the old Satanic Panic was justified. Anna Biller, the same woman who gave us The Love Witch, also recently endorsed the idea that Satanic Panic was justified based on the supposed reality of the McMartin preschool abuses. In fact, Biller even went so far as to claim that the “tunnels” where children were taken through to be abused were actually real, that the McMartin case was only debunked because no one at the time could prove that the tunnels existed, and that they were supposedly later found and the media wouldn’t cover it. How does she claim to know all of this? By going down a “Satanic Panic rabbit hole”…by which she means she went to some message boards and saw people claim that the tunnels were real and that they were covered up. Well, that and her other source is a website run by a man named Neil Brick, who incidentally has apparently also claimed that he was brainwashed by the CIA to be some sort of super soldier to go and kill people in Eastern Europe. His organisation, S.M.A.R.T., repeatedly claims the existence of large scale CIA mind control programs, and Brick himself repeatedly claims that the CIA financed various mass brainwashing programs. But there’s more. On S.M.A.R.T.’s website, you’ll find an article about Michelle Remembers, Lawrence Padzer’s infamous and discredited book that was taken up as the basis of the whole Satanic Panic nonsense, written by a retired psychologist named Alison Miller, in which Miller argues that the claims presented in Michelle Remembers are almost literally true and praises Padzer’s credentials. The website also seems to defend the work of Bennett Braun, a doctor who planted false memories of ritual abuse and demonic possession into the head of Pat Burgus – a charge that, surprise surprise, S.M.A.R.T. categorically denies. So Anna Biller is basing her “expertise” about Satanic Panic on conspiracy theories concocted from SRA theorists/apologists and probably also 4chan for all I know!
Of course, Biller has other arguments at her disposal. She claims not only that the ritual abuse cases were all real, but also that they were part of a massive international criminal trafficking operation, which she claims was, like Donald Trump’s abuse cases, too big to prosecute because they involved rich, powerful men at the centre. This new spin on the old Satanic Panic is fundamentally indistinguishable from the basic claim made by the QAnon movement, which claims the existence of an elite conspiracy to traffic minors in order to ritually abuse and sacrifice them, but is also if anything slightly more ridiculous (even if still less lurid) simply because it would have us assume that the richest of the rich and the highest echelons of US state power are somehow almost entirely invested in the fates of some random preschools daycare centers, and their faculty members, to the point of assassinating (or “Epsteining”) witnesses. Truly, I can hardly think of anything more absurd than this. But as ludicrous as this all is, it seems that we should make note her precise point of comparison – Jeffrey Epstein – as it seems to be a part of not only Biller’s Satanic Panic narrative but also other narratives from the last four or five years.
Biller claims that rich men abused children in the McMartin case and dressed it up in “Satanic trappings”. It seems that she never actually specifies what “Satanic trappings” she’s meant to be referring to. What is true is that all sorts of claims of ritualistic behaviours have been made about Little Saint James Island, and while we know that the human trafficking was real, the ritualistic behaviour probably wasn’t. One thing I do remember seeing from the Epstein cycle is a photograph of a bizarre mask via Getty Images, apparently found at Ghislaine Maxwell’s house in New York City. The mask is strange, it seems to resemble an old man with a long forked beard, some red eye-shadow on his face, a headdress seemingly meant to recall ancient Chinese royalty, and a mysterious triangle symbol on his head and on the cloth flowing downward. There’s almost certainly nothing “Satanic” about the mask, in fact as far as I can tell no one seems to really know what, if anything, it actually represents, but the usual conspiracy theorists took it up as evidence of “Satanic” inclinations on the part of Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell, and their clique of haute-bourgeois paedophiles. It is repeatedly claimed that the triangle on the mask is meant to be the symbol of NAMBLA, that notorious pro-paedophilia activist group, and the conspiracy theorist more or less expects you to connect the dots to Satanic Ritual Abuse from there somehow; you may remember PizzaGate adherents trying to tie the same symbol to Comet Ping Pong Pizza and cast it as a nod to Baphomet despite there not actually being a link.
And it’s not just QAnon types who peddle certain theories about the Ghislaine Maxwell mask. Some leftists have also joined in, and I don’t just mean Anna Biller. Matt Christman, on an episode of the Grubstakers podcast, speculated about the nature of the Ghislaine Maxwell mask and linked it to PizzaGate, though ultimately admitted that he cannot know what it actually means. Fans of the TrueAnon podcast are much less cautious, actively labelling the mask “demonic”. That whole “dirtbag” scene has a bizarre relationship to QAnon, where they outwardly mock and deny QAnon, but some figures, like Christman, at the same time describe QAnon as “half-right”, agreeing with them that the world is ruled by “a cabal of cannibalistic psychotic sexual abusers” (which, to be honest, sounds an awful lot like the way that the Polish far-right ideologue Andrzej Lobaczewski talks about “pathocrats”) while disagreeing principally with the idea that Donald Trump is going to arrest them all. It is curious that this way of discussing QAnon makes no mention of the fact that the concept of Satanic Ritual Abuse is a central part of QAnon ideology or the fact that anti-semitism, both overt and coded, is also so fundamental to QAnon beliefs. I wonder what could explain such oversight.
In this setting, we can’t escape the impression that a generalized mode of conspiracism, and from there various degrees of Satanic Panic, are really everywhere, spread out across much of the political spectrum. In fact, S.M.A.R.T. has sometimes enjoyed mainstream media credibility. In 2020, Associated Press (yes, the same Associated Press that was recently partially responsible for legitimising the idea that Monkeypox is a “gay disease”) ran an article titled “SMART Founder Neil Brick Speaks at Child Abuse Conference in Dundee, Scotland“, whose content, if you look closely, is a word for word copy-paste job of an article from S.M.A.R.T.’s website titled “THE ORGANISED AND RITUALISED ABUSE OF CHILDREN: THE CURRENT INTERNATIONAL SITUATION”, published as a paid press release by S.M.A.R.T. with no editorial involvement from Associated Press. Think about that for a moment or two: an SRA conspiracy theorist group paid Associated Press to publish one of their articles as a press release to basically promote their cause, and by implication Associated Press didn’t do much research into S.M.A.R.T. before agreeing to run a paid press release from them. This is not even the only press release from them that AP has run. In the same year AP also ran an article titled “SMART Newsletter Celebrates Twenty-Five Years of Publishing – Neil Brick Editor“, which is another paid press release from S.M.A.R.T., and towards the end of that year they published yet another article titled “SMART announces the 24th yearly Child/Ritual Abuse and Mind Control Conference“, which is unsurprisingly another paid press release, this time ran via a company called PR Newswire. There’s another article like that from last year too. PR Newswire, in turn, has published multiple articles from S.M.A.R.T. promoting their conferences as press releases. These articles also end up reproduced wholesale on other mainstream media outlets such as Yahoo News.
The American media seems to be normalizing S.M.A.R.T. by running articles from them without any critical considerations, without any research into the organisation, their work, or who its participants include, let alone challenge Neil Brick, the head of S.M.A.R.T., for his claims that he was brainwashed by the CIA to be their super soldier. That’s not necessarily a surprise considering that the media still has a habit of contributing to Satanic Panic discourse. Stop and wonder why, for a time, the only outlet that would cover The Satanic Temple’s lack of financial transparency or their litigation against Queer Satanic was Newsweek, and even Newsweek couldn’t cover it without including weird reporting about “Satanic” orgies. Stop and wonder why, to this day, news outlets will report instances of murder committed by apparent Satanists as connected to Satanism without ever doing the same thing when it comes to murders committed by Christians who openly say that God or their faith told them to do it. Even in cases of writing about the real threat posed by groups like the Order of Nine Angles or Tempel ov Blood, writers such as Matthew Feldman cannot help but disingenuously construct their own broader anti-Satanist moral panic. In this setting, Satanic Panic definitely has not gone away, and the mainstream media are surprisingly and alarmingly complicit in its perpetuation. No wonder, then, that even people like Anna Biller eventually fall for it.
But make no mistake: the lion’s share of Satanic Panic comes from hardcore right-wingers. In the run-up to the destruction of the Georgia Guidestones, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Kandiss Taylor proclaimed that she was “the ONLY candidate bold enough to stand up to the Luciferian Cabal”. The moral panic directed against Lil Nas X was manufactured by Republican politicians running on a Christian Nationalist culture war. As I pointed out earlier, QAnon itself is built upon an ideology that starts from the premise that “the elites” (mostly referring to Democrats) are secretly abducting, abusing, and killing children as part of a “Satanic” cult, a premise that itself evolved from the earlier PizzaGate movement. Right-wing conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones have done much to cultivate the mythology of Satanic Panic in casting prominent Democratic politicians and others he doesn’t like as demons and Satanists. Many have observed that the increasing right-wing emphasis on what they call “grooming” – a term meant to refer to emotional manipulation for the purpose of sexual exploitation that the Right now uses to refer to things like promoting gender affirming care – has taken the form of Satanic Panic in that it retains basic tropes thereof, such as the basic idea that children are being manipulated in order to be exploited by the same people that the far-right already thinks are Satanists. American culture is in a peculiar place now where people are reckoning with the nature of moral panic through media such as Stranger Things and at the same time a chunk of the country believes in and will reproduce the same panic.
America is not even the only part of the world where Satanic Panic continues to persist. In the United Kingdom, in 2015 there was a Satanic Panic centered around the Christ Church Primary School in Hampstead, where several faculty members and parents were accused of the ritualistic abuse and murder of children, and even after the accusations were debunked there is still a movement of conspiracy theorists, or “Satan Hunters”, based around that conspiracy theory to this day. In Switzerland, within the last year, it was found that a number of psychiatric professionals have employed Satanic Ritual Abuse conspiracy theories as the basis of their therapeutic practice. The German Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth seems to have actually produced a report featuring Satanic Ritual Abuse terminology. In South Africa, an actual “ritual murder task force” called the Occult Related Crimes Unit, which was originally established in 1992, was re-established in 2012 and apparently still exists.
I haven’t even gotten around yet to discussing Russia, and as war in Ukraine rages on so too does the Satanic Panic narrative. Since I wrote about Russian Satanic Panic narratives back in March, I have seen more examples of just such a narrative. For one thing, it is the explicit and official argument of the Russian armed forces that the Russian army is “the last bastion against the satanic new world order”. This was ascertained from an official Russian Officer’s Handbook, which was obtained by the Ukrainian GRU. It is suggested that related texts have been circulating in Russian military forums for a maximum of six years, which could mean that Russian soldiers have already primed themselves to regard their enemies as “the satanic new world order”. This would be consistent with the fact that the idea of Russia as the “last bastion of the world of faith” has itself circulated in the Kremlin and Russian media for years. Then, in April, Russian forces had supposedly uncovered Satanic paraphernalia in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol; Channel One claimed that there was evidence of a “satanic organisation of gays and lesbians” that was supposedly funded by the United States in order to destroy Russia. In May, some strange and practically indecipherable graffiti was discovered in a Ukrainian village called Trekhizbenka, which RIA Novosti interpreted as a “Satanic seal” and on this basis accused Ukrainian soldiers of practicing”black magic”. Sometimes this is paired with narratives that Ukraine is under the thrall of some sort of nationalistic neo-pagan religion based in neo-Nazi ideology. Stranger still, in May and June it was reported that Russian “shamans” were performing rituals, blessing Russian troops, and calling upon “the spirits of the earth” to protect Russia from Ukraine and its allies. One might recall Gerald Gardner performing a group ritual to try and protect Britain from Nazi invasion back in World War 2. If nothing else it shows that Russia not only regards their struggle with Ukraine as a holy war, they also seem to see it as having some sort of “occult” significance, and they take that very seriously.
The Russian establishment has, over the course of the war, aggressively denounced Ukraine and its people as “Satanists”. Alexander Novopashin, an Archpriest who was also a “corresponding member” of the European Federation of Centers of Research and Information on Cults and Sects, recently expressed his support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which he described as “anti-terrorist”, and claimed among other things that “the West” is conspiring with “cults” (which he later says are “Satanic”) in Ukraine in order to spread Nazism and undermine supposed Ukrainian unity with Russia, that Ukrainian schools teach Nazism and cannibalism to children, and that all Ukrainian Nazis are also Satanists. Russian state media, especially Rossiya One, constantly stresses the idea that Ukrainians are Satanists as part of their coverage of Ukraine. In one segment, Rossiya One pundits claim the existence of a joint “satanic plot” by Ukraine, America, Britain, and the European Union to destroy Russia in a “hybrid World War 3”. In another segment, Vladimir Soloviev portrays Ukrainians as “Satanic Nazis” and claims that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is “not a Jew” – both are apparently standard-issue Kremlin talking points. In a more recent segment, Apti Alaudinov, commander of the Chechen Akhmat forces, argued that the Russian war in Ukraine is a holy war against “Satanism” and “the armies of the Antichrist/al-Dajjal” – by which he means Ukraine, America, NATO, and LGBTQ people. Tsargrad TV, owned by arch-conservative Kremlin ally Konstantin Malofeev, supported the war in Ukraine by arguing that Russia is fighting against “the enslavement of the once brotherly Ukraine” by “the Global anti-Christian system”, and claimed that LGBTQ pride rallies (which they call “Gay Marches”) are the symbol of that system as well as a larger “Satanic ideology”. Aleksandr Dugin, of course, continues to support the campaign against Ukraine, continues to present it as a battle against “the Antichrist”, and has argued that the war is not really a war but instead a “geopolitical exorcism” of Ukraine.
As I’ve outlined in my original article about Russian Satanic Panic, these narratives all align with similar conspiracy theories promoted by the American far-right, which also emphasize the idea of “satanic” bio-laboratories, and as I have shown in that article American and Russian right-wing conspiracy theories are connected in the same network of right-wing propaganda warfare. Moreover, Satanic Panic is not new to Russia. Russian fascists sometimes depicted their Bolshevik enemies in a sort of diabolical fashion. One example is a poster created by the fascist White Army in 1919, which depicts Leon Trotsky, then the commander of the Soviet Red Army, as a red devil wearing nothing but a pentacle, reclining upon the Kremlin wall and presiding over extra-judicial killings. In Poland, Nazis depicted Trotsky in a similar manner in a poster called “Bolshevik Freedom” (or “Wolnosc Bolszewicka”) in which a devilish Trotsky sits naked on top of a pile of human skulls. Given the atheistic nature of Soviet state life and the abundance of Soviet anti-religious/anti-theist propaganda, it seems unlikely that the Soviets would have contributed to Satanic Panic mythology. However, there were instances where the Soviet Union did echo aspects of the Satanic Panic found in their Western rivals.
In 1985, a Komsomol (youth wing of the “Communist” Party of the Soviet Union) in Soviet-controlled Ukraine produced a list of bands that were to be banned from Soviet radio stations on the grounds of “containing ideologically harmful compositions”. There’s no mention of Satanism on this list, but the general formula is very consistent with American Satanic Panic directed at heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons and the like. I suppose the closest thing on the Komsomol’s list of transgresssions would be “religious obscurantism”, a rather enigmatic charge specifically levelled against Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. Given that Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden were frequently accused of being “Satanic” simply because of their imagery and references to Satan despite not actually having any sort of Satanist message, I suspect that “religious obscurantism” may have just been how the Soviets interpreted artistic references to the Devil. The Komsomol also seems to have hated basically all punk music with a passion, so bands like The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Madness, the B-52s, the Stranglers, Depeche Mode and more were all denounced (although that said I can probably think of one punk band the Soviet Union did like). They also seemed to genuinely think that AC/DC, KISS, 10cc, Sparks, and even Julio Iglesias were all promoting “neofascism” somehow. Van Halen, Pink Floyd, Judas Priest, Talking Heads, and Dschinghis Khan were all denounced as “anti-communist propaganda”. And of course, several bands and artists were denounced on charges of “violence” and “eroticism” that feel very familiar to the way that certain video games and movies, not to mention some bands even, were frantically denounced in America and parts of Europe. Apart from the relative absence of discussions of Satanism, virtually every aspect of this seems to mirror similar moral panics against popular media in the Western countries that opposed the Soviet Union.
Of course, the modern Russian state is not the only nation to manufacture Satanic Panic for political purposes. From 1972 to 1974, British intelligence concocted stories of black masses, devil worship, witchcraft, and ritual killings in Northern Ireland in order to present to a public narrative which asserted that Irish paramilitary groups, in addition to threatening Britain politically, were also Satanic black magicians who were unleashing the forces of evil to destroy Christianity in Britain. British agents would go and plant all sorts of ritual artefacts and occult paraphernalia in abandoned buildings across Northern Ireland, as well as parts of the Republic of Ireland, in order to manufacture stories about Satanic rituals to local newspapers that were then passed onto local newspapers who would turn them into sensationalist front page scoops. According to Colin Wallace, a former British army intelligence officer who spoke about this scheme with Professor Richard Jenkins in the book Black Magic and Bogeymen, the idea was to discredit paramilitary organisations not only in the eyes of the public but also in the eyes of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, both of which were seen to be influential over the paramilitary movements. By having the media cast paramilitary groups as Satanic magicians through fake stories about black masses and ritual killings, it was hoped that a devout Christian population and local religious leaders would be convinced that paramilitary groups were responsible for somehow unleashing supernatural evil into the world and thus turn against them. British forces also hoped to keep young people indoors at night and within view of army observation posts, thus effectively monitoring the local population.
However, it seems the campaign never panned out. Coverage was ultimately confined to certain newspapers, with next to no corresponding national television news coverage. Meanwhile, in Ireland, the stories were treated with widespread skepticism to the point that some Irish news outlets and citizens suspected that it was all a hoax created by the British army as a counter-insurgency tactic. In fact, Irish republicans at the time theorized that rumours of black magic and “Satanic” ritual killings were a black propaganda campaign carried out by British intelligence in order to cast the “freedom struggle” as “diabolical”, with the ultimate aim of manufacturing consent for a curfew to be imposed upon the population. Given the facts of the matter, I would suppose that these republicans were not off the mark in their guesses, and that in the end they were at least correct to assume it was an intelligence operation. In 1990, Colin Wallace spoke out about it in Paul Foot’s book Who Framed Colin Wallace?, where he confessed that the aim of the “Information Policy” section he worked for was to demonize paramilitary groups and keep young people indoors through horrific rumours of ritual brutality.
According to Wallace, the operation played on and took influence from Northern Irish media coverage of horror films such as The Exorcist and The Devil Rides Out, not to mention the actual films themselves, as well as Dennis Wheatley’s books (such as The Devil Rides Out, The Satanist, and To The Devil, A Daughter), Rosemary’s Baby, and possibly a right-wing evangelical text called The Back Side of Satan (which was apparently an early text of new Christian right of the 1970s and 80s). This all gels very well with the context of what was dubbed the “occult revival”, a period of widespread popular fascination with occultism during the late 1960s and 1970s which saw the spread and growth of many occult and alternative religious movements and, naturally, also came with a lot of fear and religious panic directed towards the occult. This, of course, was reflected in horror movies, some forms of popular music (in fact, it’s part of the very birth of heavy metal as we know it), and reactionary Christian backlash towards occultism and alternative religions. There’s a sense in which the Satanic Panic that became infamous in America largely developed from the already-existing Christian anxieties towards the broader occult revival, its reception or representation in popular culture, and its bouts of media prominence. And of course, during the British witchcraft craze in view of the overall occult revival, there were certainly many sensationalist scare stories about witches involving their supposed worship of the Devil. Even some occultists, such as Charles Matthew Pace, sought to opportunistically exploit this climate by passing on their own self-made legends as tell-all exposes to a tabloid media eager for sensational stories to fill their pages.
The Evolution of Satanic Panic
For all that, though, Satanic Panic in its modern sense, or at least its central thesis, is essentially an ideology – one whose tropes are incredibly old and equally persistent. Many iterations of Satanic Panic centre around the idea of a secret society of “Satanists”, “Luciferians”, “devil-worshippers”, “Illuminati”, whatever the preferred term may be (in conspiracy theories their use is completely interchangeable), who somehow control all the major institutions and whose mission it is to subvert the order of the country by destroying its religion and traditional values, presumably in order to turn it into a totalitarian dictatorship. Putting aside the actual nature of totalitarianism, the basic idea is an outgrowth of conservative reaction in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The French Revolution, with its overthrow of the French monarchy, its equally violent rejection of Christianity, and its support for new doctrines of rationalism in the form of civic cults, no doubt shocked traditional Christians in both France and elsewhere. Such a seismic rejection of the traditional order of civil society, they reasoned, could only be explained by way of conspiracy, and so they blamed the “Illuminati” among other scapegoats. Like many lasting conspiracy theories, this one had a little kernel of truth to it: there was a secret society by that was called Illuminati, founded in Germany by Adam Weishaupt in 1776, whose aim was to promote rationalist philosophy and undermine the influence of religion and superstition in both public life and government. But they did not last long: in the 1780s, the Illuminati and all other secret societies were banned by Charles Theodor, the Elector of Bavaria.
It was Augustin Barruel and John Robison who, in the late 1790s, first set out the argument that the Illuminati had survived criminalisation and that it had somehow organised the French Revolution from behind the scenes. Their ideas soon spread to the United States, where they inspired religious sermons directed against the Illuminati and a wave of anti-Illuminati authorship. Barruel himself was a conservative and traditionalist Jesuit priest, whose main political concern was the preservation of the dominance of Roman Catholicism over public life. The French Revolution, naturally, was deemed a threat to that order, and so he weaved a conspiracy theory in which the Illuminati used the French Revolution to destroy the French monarchy with the ultimate aim of overthrowing Roman Catholicism, and in service of this idea he posited a broad connection between the Enlightenment, Freemasonry, occultism, and “Paganism”. After receiving a letter from a man identified as Jean Baptiste Simonini in 1806, Barruel also began to consider the idea that Jews may have been involved in his imagined conspiracy. Simonini’s letter argued that both the Illuminati and the Freemasons were created by a Jewish organisation based in Piedmont, and claimed that he himself had been initiated by these Jews and that they had revealed this to him. Barruel himself had insisted that he did not consider Jews to be primary conspirators and not principally responsible for the French Revolution, and had originally refused to publicize the letter, ostensibly to prevent anti-semitic violence from breaking out as a result. However, in 1820, Barruel confessed on his deathbed to a priest named Grivel that he had written a new manuscript which posited the existence of a centuries-old anti-Christian conspiracy that he believed was started by the prophet Mani, involved the Knights Templar, and whose council was partially led by Jews. Barruel had apparently destroyed this new manuscript two days before his death, but the manuscript itself goes to show how Barruel’s basic idea ultimately evolved into an anti-semitic canard.
If you look at modern conspiracy theories surrounding the “Illuminati”, many of them inevitably incorporate familiar anti-semitic tropes, depicting Jews as part of a dangerous secret society plotting some sort of evil agenda. In the 19th century, Simonini’s anti-semitic letter was spread throughout influential conservative circles and was eventually published in a conservative magazine called Le Contemporain in 1878, despite Barruel’s intentions to the contrary. In fact, Barruel’s basic idea about how the French Revolution was created and organised by the Freemasons formed part of the premise of the notorious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, which argues that Jews were at the head of Freemasonry and to this day is part of the canon of anti-semitic bigotry. Then, as now, right-wing conspiracy theories about some anti-Christian cult or secret society plotting to destroy Christian civilization tend involve anti-semitism. That is not by accident, because these conspiracy theories, and the general idea of widespread Satanic Ritual Abuse, all evolved from a much older trope known as blood libel.
Blood libel is the name given to a whole genre of anti-semitism in which Jews were accused of abducting non-Jewish children in order to sacrifice them and use their blood to make matzos. The entire idea is just grotesquely and absurdly wrong on all levels and remains a classical example of xenophobia, but it’s an idea that has been trafficked in order to justify anti-semitic persecutions or pogroms for centuries – particularly by Christians. The Christian church fathers repeatedly denounced Jews and accused them of all manner of brutal crimes against Christians. Martin Luther repeatedly and notoriously attacked Jews, regarded them as being possessed by the Devil, and accused them of plotting against Christians. Such ideas continued to proliferate and evolve throughout the Middle Ages, during which time Jews were ruthlessly persecuted across Europe. So widespread was the idea of blood libel in the Middle Ages that you can find an example of it in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, specifically The Prioress’ Tale, in which Jews are depicted as being incited by Satan to murder a young boy for singing “Alma Redemptoris Mater” through a Jewish ghetto. Incidences of children who disappeared and later died were blamed on Jews by people who accused Jews of killing them as part of a ritual sacrifice, resulting in trials and executions of innocent Jews, rafts of anti-semitic legislation, and the emergence of whole popular anti-semitic cults centered around celebrating these children as Christian martyrs while reviling Jews as the agents of Satan. Blood libel as a trope continues to persist in anti-semitic circles to this day, and in fact the Nazis made it part of their own anti-semitic mythology in papers such as Der Sturmer, a 1934 “special issue” of which depicted Jews as murderers of Christians and Christian children while denouncing them as “the devil’s brood” and accusing them of shedding blood in accordance with “the secret rite” (I have to stress the emphasis that Der Sturmer placed on Christianity in this issue, which suits their nature as a Christian fascist movement). Far-right conspiracy theorists naturally follow suit in this trend; this includes Alex Jones, who at one point blamed what he called a “Jewish mafia” for America’s problems and elsewhere publicly threatened CNN’s Brian Stelter while referring to him as “drunk on our children’s blood”.
It is also worth noting the extent to which anti-semitism formed an important part of the horrors we rightly associate with the Middle Ages. The Spanish Inquisition itself was originally created for the purpose of rounding up Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to Catholicism, who were targeted by Catholic monarchs who feared “Jewish influence” for the apparent purpose of coercively and tortuously ensuring the loyalty of local Jewish communities to the Catholic state and monarchy. Furthermore, the Inquisition viciously persecuted Judaism by burning Jews on the stake for refusing to convert to Catholicism, as well as burning copies of the Talmud, and they were also involved in deporting Jews from Spain and Portugal.
The blood libel trope can also be found in the medieval moral panic against witchcraft. One of the beliefs that people developed about witchcraft concerns a so-called “witches’ salve” or “flying ointment”. According to Francis Bacon, one of the ingredients of this ointment was human fat, specifically the fat of children or infants who were killed or exhumed. In the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that witches would kill newborn infants and suck their blood through their navels. It was frequently believed that witches abducted children for the purpose of collecting their blood and fat in order to consume or use to make ointments that granted them the magical power of flight. In one 17th century account, witches were accused of not only killing an infant but also digging up its buried corpse and later boiling and then roasting it for consumption and also to extract fat for their ointments. In many ways this idea is somewhat identical to the old blood libel directed against Jews. There is also an obvious line of progression between these stories about witchcraft and the broader mythology of Satanic Ritual Abuse.
A notorious 17th century French moral panic is perhaps illustrative in this regard. In 1677, a fortune teller named Magdelaine de La Grange was arrested on charges of forgery and murder, and La Grange’s claims to know about other crimes, particularly poisonings, being committed in the court of Louis XIV opened up an extensive investigation by French authorities into what was dubbed “The Affair of the Poisons” – a scandal involving mysterious deaths that were suspected to have been caused by poison. Numerous members of the aristocracy were implicated on charges of murder and witchcraft, fortune tellers and alchemists were rounded up and arrested on suspicion of providing various “illicit” services, and the king himself feared that he might have been poisoned by someone. Among the royal court, a major suspect was none of other than Madame de Montespan, Louis XIV’s mistress, who was widely believed (though never confirmed) to have been involved in the Affair of the Poisons. It was claimed that Madame de Montsepan consulted a “witch” named Catherine Monvoisin, with whom she supposedly performed rituals and prayed to the Devil in order to craft a love potion meant for Louis XIV, and that they ritually sacrificed and crushed newborn infants in order to drain the blood and mashed bones for their concoctions. It was thought that 2,500 infants were killed and buried in Monvoisin’s garden, but no evidence of infant remains was ever found and there is no evidence that the garden was ever actually searched. It was also claimed that Madame de Montespan allowed both Monvoisin and a priest named Etienne Guibourg to perform a “black mass” for her, in which Guibourg supposedly sacrificed an infant by slitting its throat over de Montespan’s body, had its blood pour into a chalice placed on her navel, and then used the blood and a consecrated host to create a potion or communion wine. It’s not clear if any of that ever actually happened.
The resemblance between this account and the blood libel trope should be somewhat clear: a religious renegade takes children (in this case supposedly purchased from prostitutes) to be ritually murdered in order for their blood to be consumed in some mixture or another. Instead of matzos or flying ointments, it’s wine or potions, but you can see the basic formula. Moreover, Satanic Panic continued to develop in France in tandem with the growth of the French occult underground. French occultists would sometimes accuse each other of being “Satanists” almost as a matter of course. “Satanists” (insofar as they were said to exist back then) were accused of holding black masses and engaging in various “immoral” activities. Eugene Vintras, a heterodox Catholic mystic who proclaimed “The Work of Mercy” was accused by Eliphas Levi and Stanislas de Guaita of being a Satanist who received “bloody hosts”. Joseph-Antoine Boullan, despite being a Christian, was often accused of being a prolific Satanist and of celebrating “black masses, particularly by Stanislas de Guaita”, possibly because of his apparent association with sex magic and his supposed encyclopedic knowledge of Satanism. Boullan himself claimed that it was de Guaita that actually performed the “black masses”. Jules Bois, in turn, accused Stanislas de Guaita of killing Boullan using black magick. French occultists alongside traditional Catholics also tended to accuse Freemasons of worshipping Satan or Lucifer. Jules Doinel, writing under the alias “Jean Kostka”, claimed in the book Lucifer Unmasked that Lucifer was the “secret god” of both the Freemasons and the “Gnostics”. Jules Bois claimed the existence of a “satanic temple” in which Lucifer was venerated as the “master builder”, suggesting a link between Luciferianism or Satanism and Freemasonry.
One event that marked perhaps the most lasting influence on modern Satanic Panic was the Taxil Hoax, which fooled the Catholic establishment by convincing them of the existence of a “Satanic sect” within Freemasonry. In 1885, a man named Marie Joseph Gabriel Antoine Jogand-Pagès, better known as Léo Taxil, publicly professed his apparent conversion to Roman Catholicism while denouncing his earlier anti-clerical works, and over the course of the 1890s he began writing a series of tracts denouncing Freemasonry. A year prior to this, Pope Leo XIII published an encyclical in which he accused the Freemasons of organising the “partisans of evil” against the Catholic Church and of “rising up against God himself”. Taxil claimed that the Freemasons practiced Satanic rituals and murder and worshipped the Devil, and that members of the upper ranks of Freemasonry were members of a sect called the Palladium Rite, which worshipped Lucifer as the God of Light and Good, denounced God (or rather Adonai) as the God of Darkness and Evil, and practiced sexual congress with demons. Taxil further claimed that the Palladium Rite was based in South Carolina in the United States. Later on he introduced a character named Diana Vaughan, the supposed High Priestess of the Palladium Rite, and later proclaimed that she had converted to Catholicism. Of course, “Diana Vaughan” never made any public appearances to corroborate his story. Then, in 1897, Taxil called a press conference in which he promised to reveal “Diana Vaughan” to the public and deliver other revelations about Freemasonry. But when the conference took place, Taxil instead revealed that there was no Palladium Rite, that “Diana Vaughan” was a fictional character played by his secretary, and that everything he had said about the Freemasons, and even his conversion to Catholicism, was all an elaborate hoax played on the Catholic Church, by which he meant to expose the fanaticism and gullibility of Catholics who denounced Freemasonry.
But far from extinguishing this anti-Masonic fanaticism, Léo Taxil may have ended up furnishing it for generations. Despite the fact that all of Taxil’s claims about Freemasonry and Satanism were exposed by Taxil himself as being completely false, the same claims continue to be repeated by right-wing Christian conspiracy theorists against Freemasonry to this day. Taxil’s work, including an infamous fake quote attributed to Albert Pike that was made up well after he died, has been continuously cited in both right-wing tracts against Freemasonry and in Satanic Ritual Abuse conspiracy theories. In fact, the idea that the Freemasons were some kind of diabolical religious sect who either led or were part of the forces seeking to destroy the Catholic Church is one of the classical elements of fascist politics, where just as before this idea is almost invariably connected to anti-semitic beliefs about Jews.
In France, the proto-fascist Charles Maurras attacked Freemasons alongside Jews, Protestants, and “foreigners” as threats to the French nation, blaming them for its supposed “decline”. This idea formed part of the ideology of Action Francaise, a far-right movement which he co-founded, and in 1940 the Vichy regime organized an anti-Masonic exhibition based on these ideas. The Vichy government oppressed Freemasons and applied its statutes against Jews to the Freemasons and other groups, and the Nazi propaganda ministry within Vichy France commissioned the production of an anti-Masonic (and anti-semitic) movie titled Forces occultes (“Occult Forces”), which depicted the Freemasons as conspiring with Jews and the Allied nations to push France into going to war against Germany. In Spain, Freemasonry was already periodically regarded as the source of all crimes and regularly persecuted by Spanish monarchs and the Inquisition, fascist propaganda depicted a “Judeo-Masonic” plot, and when fascists took power Freemasonry was banned and Freemasons were killed. Francisco Franco believed that the Freemasons were part of a communist plot to destroy Spain and frequently ranted about how Freemasons were supposedly behind everything from the British Broadcasting Corporation to the assassination of Carrero Blanco. After the establishment of democracy in Spain, right-wingers similarly blamed “Jewish-Masonic-Communist” propaganda for the fact that voters didn’t elect them. In fascist Italy, Freemasonry was deemed incompatible with fascism and banned by Benito Mussolini, despite the fact that many prominent Italian Freemasons at the time actually supported Mussolini’s fascism. In Britain, fascists such as Barry Domvile advanced the idea that a small section of Masons were plotting to impose a global system of financial control at the behest of a section of Jewish elites. In Nazi Germany and its occupied territories, Freemasonry was banned, Masonic lodges were forcibly disbanded, Freemasons were sent to concentration camps where they were marked as political prisoners, and anti-Masonic exhibitions were created to depict Freemasonry as part of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy Germany. Adolf Hitler himself believed that Freemasons were responsible for “paralyzing” Germany’s “instinct for self-preservation” and otherwise regarded them as an instrument of the Jews. The Empire of Japan also enlisted Freemasonry as a scapegoat for their own purposes, as is at least evidenced by a Japanese delegate to the Welt-Dienst in 1938 stating his belief that “Judeo-Masonry” had somehow forced China to attack Japan; the delegate also denounced both Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Shek as Freemasons. In the United States, hardcore right-wing televangelists and other reactionary ideologues are typically inclined to attack Freemasonry as a form of Satanism and for its supposed association with the Rothschilds.
Of course, it should be noted that not all attacks on Freemasonry came from fascists, and the attacks that didn’t did not necessarily come from the same place, though authoritarians of various stripes tended to view the Freemasons as a threat in some way or another, often as a source of opposition. That might be why Masonry seems to have been criminalized or denounced throughout the old “Communist” bloc. The Soviet Union banned Freemasonry and condemned it as bourgeois, and so did China, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary – post-war Marxist-Leninist Hungary in particular seemed to regard Masonic lodges as places where capitalists, imperialists, and enemies of the “people’s democratic republic” all gathered to oppose socialism. Even Fidel Castro, who was relatively tolerant to the Freemasons, still seemed to regard Freemasonry as potentially subversive, and Masonic lodges were sometimes assumed to be places of refuge for possible political dissidents. Masons often attribute this consistent authoritarian mistrust of Freemasonry to their own equally consistent moral support for liberal-democracy and its attendant values, which in theory would be repellent for any dictator. But I think that it is probably all the more the case that the secrecy of Freemasonry was always the primary source of authoritarian anxiety, that is to say the idea that there is a domain possibly outside of the control of state power whose liberty is guarded by secrecy. I intend to establish this as an important theme in the older roots of Satanic Panic, but for now let us establish that, even with all of this in mind, most anti-Masonic tendencies are fascist in nature, typically incorporating anti-semitic talking points and stemming not so much out of contempt for all things “bourgeois” but more out of a long line of Catholic traditionalist reactionary ideology which is itself nourished by a legacy of medieval bigotry.
You might wonder, though, how Freemasonry comes into it at all. What was so scary about Masonry that it might inspire generations of moral panic? Not much, it would seem. Freemasonry as we understand it is not a religious organisation as such. Masons were frequently accused by religious groups, particularly certain Christian and Islamic groups, of setting up their own religious group in competition with traditional religion(s), but there doesn’t seem to any set of distinct holy books, theology, religious philosophy, or the like that can together be described as “Masonic religion”. Yes, admission to Masonic lodges typically requires that you believe in some kind of supreme being, but there is no distinct “Masonic God”, and people of many different religions, believing in different gods or concepts of God, can be a Freemason. In fact, despite widespread Christian mistrust of or hostility to Masonry, several Freemasons are also Christians. Freemasonry can best be thought of as fraternal society based in a series of rituals, allegories, and mysteries that are, from their perspective at least, meant to develop the integrity of their members. For all the secrecy, there doesn’t seem to be much more to it than that. But again, secrecy is part of core of anti-Masonic mistrust. There is of course the general religious pluralism of Freemasonry, and the tendency among Masons to support rationalist ideas, but secrecy is the element on which reactionaries base the idea of the Masons as some sort of “Satanic cult”.
The “Origin” of Satanic Panic?
I said before that I would establish the reason why Satanic Panic has always been with us, and in the idea of a secretive cult that threatens to destroy the order of things was not invented as a reaction to the Enlightenment. Satanic Panic in its modern sense is a direct descendant of conspiracy theories that emerged in the Enlightenment as a sort of reactionary narrative in defense of a traditionalist society, but there are much older forms of the same idea that have recurred before modernity, and well before the Middle Ages.
Returning to the subject of anti-semitism among the church fathers, we can establish that they laid the ground work for the medieval blood libel that evolved into Satanic Ritual Abuse conspiracy theories and their antecedents. Tertullian regarded Jews as the source of heresy, claiming that they guided heretics in discussing ideas contrary to Christian orthodoxy, and argued against Marcion’s doctrine by saying that Jews were an inferior people whose sufferings were caused by their lack of belief in the Christian God. John Chrysostom accused Jews of murdering Jesus and claimed that Jewish synagogues were brothels and places of criminality and demonic possession. St. Ambrose accused Jews of tempting Christians into heresy and justified the burning of synagogues by Christian mobs. Jews were considered “anathema to Christ” by Christian Councils, which prohibited Christians from sharing feasts with Jews and regarded Christians who violated these edicts as Jews themselves. When Christianity took over the Roman Empire, Roman imperial law regarded Jews as a detested category of Roman citizen – officially legally protected, but religiously reviled and politically marginalized – based on Church doctrine that Jews were not only inferior to Christians but also supernaturally evil.
Whenever people discuss Christianity as a supposedly “progressive” world-historic force or even “egalitarian” belief system, it’s often forgotten that, although Judaism as a religion was never outlawed, discrimination against Judaism as a religion as well as Jews as a people was extensive in the Roman Empire during the Christian era. Jews were forbidden from receiving any honors or offices equivalent to their non-Jewish counterparts, Jews were not allowed to become attorneys, sue Christians, or testify in court, Jews who performed circumcision were punished with death, Jews were banned from serving in the military until they received Catholic baptism, Jewish synagogues were officially referred to as “conciliabulum” (which, in Roman slang, often meant “brothel”), and if a Jew “violated the rights of a Christian” he was punished more severely than a Christian would be for the same offense against a Jew. Conversely, Christians who converted to Judaism or agreed to be circumcised were exiled from Rome on the grounds of having “contaminated themselves with the Jewish disease”. From the beginning, Christian power tended to involve authoritarian anti-semitism.
Blood libel, of course, was also ancient. A Greek Christian historian named Socrates Scholasticus accused Jews of mocking the death of Jesus by binding a young Christian boy to a cross and scourging him to death. And yet it was not only Christians who made blood libel accusations against Jews. In pre-Christian Greece, there were people who accused Jews of abducting Greeks and fattening them up to be sacrificed to their god, then going to groves to eat their flesh, burn their bodies, and swear eternal hatred to Greeks. Such anti-semitic accusations were advanced by figures such as Apion (who claimed that the king Antiochus Epiphanes discovered a Greek captive being prepared for temple sacrifice), Posidonius, Apollonius Molon, and Diodorus Siculus. According to the Suda, a Greek historian named Damocritus in the 1st century BCE claimed that Jews captured a non-Jew every seven years in order to sacrifice them to their god, which he claimed was the head of a golden ass. Hellenistic anti-semitism typically stressed the belief that Jews were superstitious and misanthropic, claiming that Jewish people were impious, hated all people of all other nations, refused to share table with them, and because of this were hated by the gods. Some argue that these accusations originally emerged as justifications for Antiochus’ persecution and criminalization of Judaism. Of course, it is worth noting that, according to Louis Feldman in Studies in Hellenistic Judaism, anti-semitism was not a dominant strand of pre-Christian writings about Jews, and, by his count, many pre-Christian writers had an either neutral or positive opinion of Jews. In fact, polytheistic philosophers such as Aristotle, Theophrastus, Hecataeus of Abdera, Varro, and Numenius all praised Jewish theology. It is possible that Judaism was so influential on or shares so many similarities to ancient Greek philosophy that it was even claimed by Philo that Heraclitus “stole” from Moses. Then again, even anti-semitic writers such as Apollonius Molon reserved some positive remarks for Jewish patriarchs such as Noah and Abraham, and even some people who praised Jewish theology, such as Hecataeus, still nonetheless regarded Judaism as “unsocial” or “hostile to foreigners”.
The Hellenistic anti-semitic trope of Jews abducting Greeks in order to sacrifice them to their deity is obviously absurd, both from the standpoint of Jewish religious law and Greek and Roman law. But it is also worth noting just how close we come to modern images of devil worshippers sacrificing people to the Devil. Medieval Christian blood libel itself cast Jews as performing sacrifices and committing murders on behalf of Satan, and so we can map out an obvious line of developmental progression from medieval blood libel to Satanic Panic. With the Hellenistic version, instead of venerating the head of a goat, the imaginary cult of misanthropic human sacrifice venerates the head of an ass. One can easily imagine the idea of a sect that hates all other sects and is charged with abducting people outside of its cult for sacrifice as a very antique form of what would become the Satanic Ritual Abuse canard, and the line of progression between Hellenistic blood libel and Christian blood libel is not hard to notice.
Hellenistic anti-semitism can probably be analysed in the context of a period of interaction between Hellenistic polytheism and Judaism, which took place against the backdrop of the colonization of much of Asia by Alexander the Great and the attendant birth of that very construct we call the Hellenistic age. In this same setting, a syncretic tendency emerged in which Judaism merged with aspects of Hellenistic Greek culture and philosophy; this came to be known as Hellenistic Judaism. One product of this contact is the occasional identification of the God of Judaism with the Greek god Zeus, or, perhaps more frequently, the god Dionysus. Plutarch claimed, via interpretatio graecia, that the Jews worshipped a form of Dionysus or Bacchus, arguing that they represented themselves with symbols similar to those of Dionysus and hailed their god with ritual words similar to those uttered by worshippers of the god Sabazios, and similar ideas were expressed by many authors in antiquity. This likely emerged from confusion on the part of Greeks and Romans who may not have entirely understood Judaism or Hebrew, and here we arrive at one of the results, through which we link to another ancient conspiracism, this one involving the cults of Sabazios and Dionysus.
In 139 BCE, the Roman praetor Cornelius Scipio Hispalus ordered the deportation of the first Jews who settled in Rome. Cornelius accused the Jews of trying to subvert Roman religion by promoting the “corrupting” cult of a god called “Jupiter Sabazius”. Sabazius (the Roman name for Sabazios), of course, was not the God of Judaism but rather a Phrygian sky god who was worshipped with ecstatic rites and in mystery traditions in Anatolia and Thrace and was repeatedly identified with either Zeus/Jupiter or Dionysus (the Suda, for instance, regards Sabazios and Dionysus as the same god). The name Jupiter Sabazius may well have been, by way of interpretatio graeca, in reference to the name YHWH Tzevaot (or Sabaoth), one of the names of the God of Judaism, thus interpreting YHWH as a foreign version of Jupiter and again confusing the name Sabaoth as Sabazius. We typically understand that Roman society was happy enough to incorporate non-Roman gods into its own religious life; examples include Isis (from Egypt), Mithras (originally Mithra from Iran), Apollo (from Greece), Cybele (from Anatolia), and Serapis (from Hellenistic Egypt). But, as we can see, this inclusivity was not always consistent.
Sabazios in general has a strange reputation in both Rome and Greece. In Rome, he was of course identified with the God of Judaism and hence reviled by Roman authorities who regarded him as a threat to Roman religion in a manner out of step with their attitude towards many other foreign gods. Once again, there’s an obvious sign of Roman anti-semitism. But perhaps there is also a connection to the Roman attitude towards the cult of Dionysus or Liber, which was also frequently regarded as a subversion of Roman society. We will return to this theme momentarily. For now, let us note that, in Athens, the worship of Sabazios was mocked as superstitious and, because they were practiced largely by women, seemingly effeminate. Demosthenes tarnished his opponent Aeschines in a debate for allegedly joining his mother’s practice of worshipping Sabazios, while Aristophanes mocked Sabazios as one of an entourage of foreign deities being kicked out of Athens. However, despite such mockery, Sabazios did come to be worshipped in Athens over time. Yet the idea, for instance, that women worshipped Sabazios with sexual orgies points us in direction of the prolific Roman moral panic against the cult of Dionysus.
In 186 BCE, the Roman Senate issued a decree which placed restrictions and prohibitions against the Bacchanalia, a series of festivities dedicated to the god Dionysus and based around the Dionysian Mysteries. The decree ruled that no one could form a Bacchanalia or observe the sacred rites anywhere without the approval of the Senate, no man or Roman citizen or Roman ally could participate without, again, the approval of the Senate, men were not allowed to be priests of the Bacchanalia, no more than five people could observe the sacred rites, and all revelries that were not approved and regulated by the Senate were to be disbanded. This decree, which effectively bans the Bacchanalia in most cases, was issued amidst a period of moral panic directed against the Bacchanalia, which was regarded by the Senate and others as a threat to the Roman state. Roman authors such as Livy represented the Bacchanalia as a seditious conspiracy whose participants, coming from all classed and gendered backgrounds, gathered at night to get drunk, have orgiastic and promiscuous sex, and under the cover of darkness and religious veneer break all moral, social, religious, and civic laws and commit ritual and political murders in complete secrecy.
Where might we begin? We can look at how, in Livy’s narrative, the Bacchanalia was popular and appealed especially to women (who then outnumber men), plebeians, “men most like women” (possibly referring to “sexually passive men” by Roman standards, or perhaps more broadly to non-cishet males), the young, and the “uneducated and fickle”. In essence, the marginalized elements of Roman society. This would be much in line with the Greek cult of Dionysus, the god who was also worshipped by marginalized communities in ancient Greece, and who Euripides’ Bacchae presents as fighting against a king trying to oppress his worship. In Rome, a popular plebeian cult dedicated to Liber (Dionysus) was often regarded as subversive due to its association with cultic civil disobedience. Livy also presents the Greek origins of the Bacchanalia and its excesses as part of its untrustworthy and immoral character, suggesting that the Bacchanalia, from the standpoint of Livy’s narrative, is dangerous partly because it is “too Greek”, and thus entirely foreign and distinctly un-Roman. This, of course, is in some ways out of step with the inclusivity usually found in pre-Christian Roman polytheism, and can arguably be explained in the context of a reactionary fear that gripped the Roman Republic at the time.
But think about it: the whole idea of a religious movement holding orgies at night, worshipping a rebellious and subversive god, in whose name his believers break all social norms and laws and, supposedly, commit ritual murders in secret, fits a lot of the modern tropes by which we define Satanic Panic. Livy’s proposal that the Bacchanlia had the Roman masses and even some of the Roman elite in its sway implicitly suggests that the cult of Dionysus had a dangerous and insidious broad power over society, which can in some ways dovetail with the kind of power that Satanism is supposed to possess in the imagination of anti-Satanist conspiracy theories. In fact, as much as Dionysus has been compared to YHWH, there are many other ways in which you can compare Dionysus to the Devil. The whole rebellious vengeance that the Bacchae presents is one such way, but perhaps another is the darksome personage found in his incarnation as Dionysus Melanaigis (Melanaigis is an epithet meaning “black goatskin”), to say nothing of the fact that he was sometimes depicted with horns and has been shown with an entourage of satyrs. All this on its own doesn’t make Dionysus into a pre-Christian incarnation of the Devil any more than the comparisons given by Plutarch and the Suda among others might establish him as a pre-Christian precursor of YHWH. What it does point to, however, is a prefiguring of the assemblage of tropes that comes to form what we came to develop over the centuries until we see the Satanic Panic of modernity. We might even think about modern self-conscious representations of Satanism: the “sabbat” depicted by Stanislaw Przybyszewski in The Synagogue of Satan is arguably none other than the Bacchanalia in certain regards, albeit dedicated to Satan.
But, of course, being that this is pre-Christian Rome, we can’t quite call it a Satanic Panic. Yet, this is no trouble, for Satanic Panic itself is a type of moral panic, as was the anti-Bacchanalia panic, and both panics are in themselves also representations of an ideology at work in their respective societies. Within the context of ancient Rome, there is a clear conservative nationalist undertone to it all: the idea is that there is this massive foreign cult acting in conspiracy against the Roman state and working to destroy the social foundations of Roman society and, therefore, attacking everything about what it meant to be Roman.
This reactionary conservative ideology is fairly clearly expressed in Livy himself, who seems to have believed that Greek mystery cults were a source of “degeneracy” in Roman society to be blamed for its supposed decline in his time. In this regard Livy was perhaps a pre-modern exponent of social degeneration theory, complete with its attendant xenophobia. Of course, not everyone in Rome hated foreign mysteries, and not every foreign mystery was reviled, but the Dionysian Mysteries were not the only mysteries subject to conservative mistrust, even under official state tolerance. The mysteries of Cybele or its priesthood were treated with disgust by Roman men and in Roman literature, since the rites of self-castration performed by the galli were seen as an affront to Roman masculinity, and the Roman Senate even tried to enact legislation to prevent men from becoming galli. However, the Roman state still accepted a regulated version of the cult of Cybele. We might arguably count the cult of Sabazius among the mysteries that were despised in Rome, since Roman authorities presented the worship of Sabazius as a corrupt religion.
An important thing to remember about mystery traditions in both Greece and Rome is that, whereas traditional religion emphasized communal and social bands reinforced through ritual, mystery cults tended to encourage individual religious expression, which traditional civic society and its representatives would always have seen as divisive. It doesn’t take that much imagine for the Greek and Roman conservative to go from “this isn’t like our religion, that’s divisive” to “this is a threat to our social order and national identity”.
The Social Significance of Satanic Panic
A clear ideology and social function emerges from the moral panics of antiquity and thus inherited by the Satanic Panic of modernity. The social function is the function of marginalization, arrayed against basically anything that either state society or reactionary forces typically in support of it deem to be an insidious threat. The narrative of this function is that there is a sinister and secretive religious conspiracy whose goal is to corrupt the population, take over the institutions, overthrow the state, abduct and ritually kill people (often children), and/or destroy the identity of a given nation or society. The ideology implicit in this is very often as follows: there is a natural order that is apparent in human societies, expressed in nations and/or states, which humans must observe and obey and indeed do so by natural inclination, and anything that changes, supercedes, destroys, or simply turns away from this order, or simply does not figure in that order to start with, must be ontologically evil and the work of a murderous conspiracy.
In antiquity, the main object of this would be ecstatic worshippers of Dionysus, and in Rome’s case the participants of Bacchanalia and the cult of Liber. For a time, early Christians also experienced a similar marginalization. The Romans also had their own anti-Christian version of the blood libel trope: they sometimes accused Christians of killing and eating human babies, and of literally drinking human blood and eating human flesh based on a misunderstanding of the Eucharist. When Christians took power, the targets were very often Jews, and then magicians, occultists, Freemasons, “Satanists”, and, to be quite frank, anyone who challenged theocratic authority and often the ruling classes it supported. Consider, for instance, that in 1233, when the peasants of Stedingen revolted against local authorities over excessive taxation and stopped paying tithes to the archbishop, Pope Gregory IX accused the peasants of practicing “satanic rites” and declared a crusade against them. Similarly, in 17th century France, the Catholic priest Urbain Grandier, who also defended the autonomy of Loudon and opposed both the centralised authority of the French state and church orthodoxy, was accused of signing a pact with Lucifer and seducing nuns with black magic, blamed for a supposed outbreak of demonic possession, and ultimately burned at the stake over it.
I would also point out that this type of moral panic is not necessarily confined to the West, and that there are examples of similar panics with a different central subject that I can point to in Asia. In India, the practice of Tantra came to be demonized by orthodox/conservative Hindus, especially after the British Empire colonized India. Religious “reformers” blamed Tantra, particularly the “left hand path” of it, for weakening the moral fibre of the Indian nation – this is an expression of social degeneration theory similar to the kind espoused by Livy – and thus Tantra was blamed for the conquest of India by the British. In Japan, Tendai Buddhism was accused of partaking in illicit sexual rituals and “wicked teachings” over the worship of Matarajin, a syncretic Japanese Buddhist deity who happened to be (among other things) a patron deity of marginalized communities and social classes. Similarly, a somewhat popular Shingon sect called Tachikawa-ryu was similarly vilified by Shingon orthodoxy, accused of promoting black magic and illicit sexual rituals, its apparent “founder” Ninkan in turn was accused of cursing the emperor and conspiring against the Japanese nation, and ultimately the sect was outlawed and purged.
It may be worth stressing, though, that Satanic Panic as we understand it is fairly distinctly a Western phenomenon, in terms of its general setting and composition, while also pointing to the existence of similar panics wherever else they are found. In view of such a global perspective, we can make the following observation: Satanic Panic is a type of social/moral panic that is instrumented for the purpose of broad social marginalization. Moral panics in general tend to pervade organised human societies over the centuries, no matter how rational or enlightened they may see themselves as, and even some of the more “libertarian” or even “progressive” of us can end up falling into some moral panics for the simple reason that we do not even recognize them as moral panics. And the uncomfortable truth about human societies, or at least the societies we seem to create, contain within themselves the logic of marginalization, which it employs to preserve social authority through the marginalization of a given social or religious minority. Satanic Panic forms a conservative ideology of marginalization whose aim is to preserve a traditionalist order of society by attacking what it perceives as a sinister conspiracy against itself, with such a conspiracy inevitably constructed on anti-semitic tropes, whether directly or by conceptual lineage.
I would also point out that this does not mean that ritualistic abuse is a thing that never happens, but the extent to which it does has barely anything to do with the overall claim and ideological purpose of Satanic Panic. In my article on E. A. Koetting, I pointed out that the activities of the Order of Nine Angles and Tempel ov Blood could as well constitute an actual active fascist conspiracy, and that the same people who believe in QAnon or the like would never talk about it. That’s not for no reason. Satanic Panic as an ideological device does not concern itself with esoteric white nationalists, particularly not when they, despite their apparent opposition to Christianity, share the same reactionary Christian ideology that was designed to marginalize Jews, just that this time they claim to do it in the name of some fictitious ancient pagan cult. In the end, for Satanic Panic, it’s the ends of ideological marginalization that matter, and it is these parameters by which Satanic Panic determines what constitutes Satanic Ritual Abuse.
The simple summary of all this is that Satanic Panic, as a modern phenomenon, is a reactionary or fascist ideology that evolves from and within the social function of marginalization. That is why Satanic Panic is still a thing, that is why some antecedent of it has always been a thing, and that’s why it will continue to be a thing; not for as long as the light of Enlightenmentarian Reason doesn’t sufficiently shine upon the masses, but for as long as we do not rid ourselves of the structure and logic of marginalization locked into Society that, so long as it still operates, will continue to produce social panics and ideologies of social panic.
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