The Rise of Satanism in the Middle Ages

Black mass

In 1966, when Anton Szandor LaVey (1930–1997), high priest of the Satanic Church of America, joined socialite Judith Case and freelance writer John Raymond in the bonds of matrimony, he performed the rites over the naked body of Lois Murgenstrumm, who served as the living altar. Later, when LaVey explained the ritual significance of the living altar to reporters, he remarked that an altar shouldn't be a cold, unyielding slab of sterile stone or wood. It should be a symbol of unrestrained lust and indulgence.

All in all, it was quite a wedding for the first public marriage ceremony ever held in the United States by a devil-worshipping cult. The bride shunned the traditional white gown to appear in a bright red dress. The groom wore a black turtleneck sweater and coat. The satanic high priest stole the show, however, in a black cape lined with scarlet silk and a close-fitting blood-red hood from which two white horns protruded.

The cynical might point out that LaVey's San Francisco-based church headquarters was once a brothel; the purists among the Satanists might grumble about how LaVey's showbiz approach has demeaned the esoteric allure of their secret rituals; but it is difficult to be dogmatic about the precise rites and liturgies of the Black Mass.

Most authorities agree that the early Sabbats were held well away from the cities and villages on large areas of flat ground. Many covens preferred hilly ground, even mountain-sides; but wherever the rituals were held, it was essential that one end of the worship area be wooded. This grove, according to tradition, served as the choir and sanctuary. The open area served as the equivalent of the nave in an orthodox church. At the far end of the wooded grove, the worshippers erected an altar of stones. Upon the altar was placed a large, wooden image of Satan, which many contemporary scholars agree was quite likely intended to be a representation of the nature god Pan, rather than the Prince of Darkness.

Even in its most polished form, this effigy did not resemble the sleek, mustachioed popular conception of a long-tailed devil in red tights. The idol's torso was human, but its bottom half was that of a goat. Its head, too, was more often goat-like than that of a clearly discernible human physiognomy. The entire image was stained black, and in some locales, bore a small torch between its horns. The central feature of all such idols was said to be a prominent penis of exaggerated proportions, emphasizing the rites of fertility in which the ancient rituals originated.

The tortures of the Inquisition brought forth all manner of obscene versions of the Black Sabbat, and perhaps the great majority of such testimony is suspect. It must be pointed out that descriptions of the Black Mass were derived from confessions achieved by torture, as well as from accounts of medieval Christians who observed pagan celebrations of the solstices, midsummer, and so forth and who collectively designated the participants as "satan-worshippers." However, numerous scholars of witchcraft, sorcery, and Satanism generally agree on the following order of service for the observance.

The Sabbat began with the ceremonial entrance of the participants, led by the high priest or high priestess of the coven. (A coven is traditionally comprised of no more than 12 members.) Christian observers of the Sabbat were quick to compare this ceremonial entrance to the orthodox introit, but there is no evidence that the witches referred to the procession by this name or even intended a comparison to the Christian order of service. According to contemporary reports of Sabbat gatherings in the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500), several hundred, and in some cases, several thousand, people attended the ritual observances.

The chief officiant was called "The Ancient One," a purely symbolic title, as in many Sabbats, the priestess might be an adolescent girl. At the priestess' signal, the celebrants touched their torches to the flame burning between the dark image's horns and received the transference of Lucifer's light. The office was opened with the priestess chanting: "I will come to the altar. Save me my Holy Lord Satan from the treacherous and the violent." The ceremonial procession and opening prayer completed, the priestess next delivered the ceremonial kiss to the hindquarters of the image.

The only real steadfast rule of the Sabbat was that there must be an equal number of both sexes. Each participant must have a mate. Under torture, many witches told their confessors that Satan would conjure up demons to take the place of either sex if human company should run short.

Each initiate and each member in attendance was required to bring food and drink for the banquet. In the state of poverty and deprivation in which so many peasants lived, it is easy to see why they looked forward to these smorgasbords during the Sabbats. Wine, beer, and cider were all known by the twelfth century, and attendees were encouraged to drink as well as eat their fill.

It seems, in the opinion of many scholars, that the celebrants may have sprinkled liberal dosages of trance-inducing herbs into the communal brew. Undoubtedly, such an action was designed to break down the last vestiges of inhibitions that some newcomers might maintain. It was most important that everyone be congenial by the hour when it was time for the Sabbat Dance, or, as it is commonly known, the Witches' Round.

The round was performed with the dancers in a back-to-back position with their hands clasped and their heads turned so that they might see each other. A lively dance such as this, which was essentially circular in movement, would need little help from drugged drinks to bring about a condition of vertigo in the most hearty of dancers. In his The Satanic Mass (1965), H. T. F. Rhodes writes: "The result of the dance was an ecstatic condition wherein, as the movement progressed, officiants and congregation were united as if in one body."

In the sixteenth century, Florin de Raemond described the rites of the Sabbat then extant (translation from Rhodes, The Satanic Mass): "The presiding deity is a black goat with two horns. A man dressed as a priest is attended by two women servers. A young initiate is presented to the goat who makes the sign of the cross with the left hand and commands those present to salute him with…the kiss upon the hind-quarters. Between his horns the creature carries a black lighted candle from which the worshippers' tapers are lighted. As each one adores the goat, money is dropped into a silver dish." De Raemond goes on to state that the new witch is initiated by giving Satan a lock of her hair, and by "going apart with him into a wood." Then, according to de Raemond, "The Sabbat dance follows in the familiar back-to-back positions and the Mass proper then begins. A plain black cape is worn by the celebrant. A segment of turnip, dyed black, is used in place of the Host for the elevation. On seeing it above the priest's head, the congregation cry, 'Master, save us!' Water replaces wine in the chalice. Offensive material is used as a substitute for holy water."

The simplest ring dance practiced by witches is that of a plain circle with men and women alternating with joined hands. Sometimes the men face in and the women face out. In certain cases, upright poles may be placed on the perimeter of the dance circle so that the dancers might weave their way through the staves. As the witches become more accomplished, the dance patterns may become more sophisticated, but most authorities feel that nearly all of the dances may be traced from ancient designs, such as the swastika, which represents the horns of four beasts turning a mill or a wheel.

Perhaps the climax of the traditional Witches Round came with the priestess becoming the living altar and lying there, naked, to receive the material offerings of the group. Token gifts of wheat, fruit, and in some cases, small animals, may have been offered on the human altar. This part of the Sabbat seems to have been a most important facet of the fertility rites, which, in primitive times, was probably the primary motivation for the observance.

By the time of the Middle Ages with its grim repression of pleasure and sex, it appears to be a point of general agreement that a mass sexual communion was followed by wild and ecstatic dancing. Such accounts must always be evaluated by considering the source: women and men under torture and death at the stake. It seems certain from the perspective in the twenty-first century, that the old mystery religions took on a completely different interpretation when observed by Christian witnesses.

It was during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the mold became set for the ritual patterns which many today commonly think of as Satanism. It was then that the practitioners of the Old Religion went completely underground with their worship ceremonies while the decadent aristocracy seized upon the Black Mass as a kind of hedonistic parlor game in which one might express his sexual fantasies on living altars and cavort about in the nude. Unrestrained immorality was the order of the day as Parisians followed the example of their Sun King, Louis XIV (1638–1715). Satanism was perhaps developed to its highest estate, as the jaded aristocrats began to adapt the witchcraft rituals to suit their own sexual fantasies. The enlightened sophisticate's mockery of the primitive customs had been converted to a serious interest by the tension and insecurity of the times. Although the Inquisition still consumed its quota of witches, the France of King Louis XIV was a high-living, low-principled era, and lords and ladies began to pray in earnest to Satan to grant them high office and wealth. Whether or not their wishes for elevation in the society of their day was granted, it would seem that the majority of these high-born Satanists paid cursory homage to the Horned God only as a means of indulging their baser passions.

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