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Does Satanism pre-date Christianity?

12 August 2018

Someone asked this on Quora — Does Satanism predate Christianity?

And my reply on Quora:

Probably not.

According to the Christian mythos, Satan is the villain of the piece (the “piece” being life, the universe and everything). It was only after Satan had been established as the villain that some people decided they wanted to follow him.

And as far as I am aware Satanism only appeared as a phenomenon at the time of the Renaissance, about 1500 years after Christianity started, and that was because of certain changes in Christian theology in Western Europe in the preceding centuries.

These changes had to do with the notion of witchcraft.

When Christianity began, people in the surrounding pagan world feared witchcraft (as do many people in Africa today). Christians thought it was wrong to fear witchcraft (maleficium), because they thought Christ had more power than human malice. Therefore for Christians to believe that witches had any real power to harm was superstition. Christians often put an end to the pagan practice of burning suspected witches, and discouraged accusations of witchcraft.

But around the 11th or 12th centuries this began to change. Witchcraft accusations began to appear in Western Europe, and eventually were encouraged instead of being punished as in earlier centuries. An elaborate conspiracy theory grew up, to the effect that witches had made a pact with the devil and were out to destroy the Christian faith, and the Great European Witch Hunt got under way. People often speak of witch hunts as “medieval” but they weren’t, they were Early Modern and were a product of modernity. Witch hunts are increasing in frequency in Africa as Africa modernises.

The notion that witches had made a pact with the devil was a new one in Christianity, and a false one — most of the suspected “witches” had done no such thing. But the thought that one could make a pact with the devil was what gave rise to Satanism, which was sometimes linked to other Renaissance phenomena like ritual magic and alchemy, though not identical with them.

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More comments
I thought this was an interesting question and worth discussing, and hoped to share it with the Missiology group on Facebook, but Facebook blocked it, perhaps because it didn’t have a picture of cats in it, so I’ll add the obligatory cat picture here in the hope that Facebook might let it be shared..

This picture has nothing to do with the notion that witches had black cats. It’s here because having a picture of a cat might make is shareable on Facebook. When I tried to post a link to this stuff without a cat picture, Facebook censored it.

I think the question whether Satanism predated Christianity might be linked to another peculiar Christian view — that good and evil are not equal and opposite forces. In the Christian view, God created the world and said that it was good. Evil came along afterwards.

In the Christian view evil has no independent existence. Evil can only exist by twisting a pre-existing good. You cannot have counterfeit money without good money. You cannot have forged cheques without a system of good cheques. Evil is always subsequent to good and is parasitic on it. So Satanism cannot precede Christianity.

The process I described — of how Christian doctrine got so twisted that whereas before accusations of witchcraft were punished as much as the act, by the 15th century in Western Europe accusations were being encouraged.

The Great Witch Hunt in Europe was essentially satanic (it is important to distinguish between what is satanic and what is satanistic). Satan means “accuser”. The satan was the prosecutor in the heavenly court, and there was rejoicing there when “the accuser of our brethren was cast down” (Rev 12:10). There is nothing more satanic than the making of accusations, and the Great European Witch Hunt encouraged and rewarded the making of accusations,

As Charles Williams describes it, the 16th-century witch trials ordered by the Malleus Maleficarum differed from earlier ones in that they did not punish false accusations. “The secular governments of centuries earlier had been wiser; they had penalized the talk as much as the act. The new effort did not do so; it encouraged the talk against the act.” And they even, in some cases, punished those who failed to accuse their neighbours. Thus the accusers were far more satanic than the accused.

I mentioned above that ritual magic was associated with Satanism at the time of the Renaissance, and even though Satanism did not predate Christianity, magic did predate Christianity. As Charles Williams says in his history of witchcraft,

Before Christendom began, magic, with its lower accompaniment of witchcraft, preoccupied the whole Roman Empire; we have forgotten the darkness out of which we came. It was as popular as it was perilous. It was certainly regarded by the authorities as a public danger, but, on the whole, action against it was taken only by private persons in lawsuits or by the government in suspicion of treason (Williams 1959:305).

So though there is no necessary link between Satanism and witchcraft, in the sense that Satanists are not necessarily witches (and vice versa), it was the peculiar inversion and twisting of Christian theology that popularised the notion that it was possible to make a pact with the devil. Many were falsely accused of doing such a thing, but Satanists were the ones who came to think that it was a good thing to do.

.In the 20th century a bloke called Anton LaVey started the “Church of Satan”, perhaps as a kind of joke, but he certainly didn’t invent Satanism. The Church of Satan is something that Satanism did predate.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 August 2018 10:13 am

    I’d say probably not as well. The Jewish scriptures are a lot vaguer about Satan than the Christian ones. Some might try and link it’s origins back to pre-Christian gnostic texts but I think that would be drawing a long bow.

  2. 13 August 2018 11:01 pm

    If you equate the Egyptian god Set with Satan, and if people worshipped Set as the overthrower of the rightful order, then yes.

    In the way you have framed it here, the answer is indeed No.

    This is an excellent post.

    • 14 August 2018 6:48 pm

      I suspect that the linking of Satan with Set was also a product of Renaissance times, and somehow emerged from the intersection of ideas about Satan and witchcraft and ritual magic.

      For the Jews the satan was not much more than a public prosecutor in the heavenly court as in Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3, and “the satan” was a noun not a name. . Early Christians seem to have extended that with the notion that he was a prosecutor who tried to take over the judge’s job because he thought the judge was being too soft on criminals. It’s quite a long way from that to Set, I think.

      • 14 August 2018 7:29 pm

        Ah that is a good point. The similarity of the names could be a coincidence.

  3. 17 August 2018 9:08 am

    Satan is the planet Venus ck your ancient syriac languages. God called the light and he(Male pronoun) called darkness. So who is satan,you.

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