Right around 10:30 pm on a spring night, Teddy* walked into a popular local bar.
“It was finals period—I think I was working on some sort of paper—but I was pretty excited to finally take a break from my work and go to this thing.”
He showed his ID to the bouncer and headed upstairs to the club, where about 50-100 people were gathered. He was a little bit late, so they had already started when he got there. Thanks to his Catholic upbringing, though, Teddy recognized what he was hearing as the ‘Gloria’ of the Latin Mass and was able to follow along, although this was a little different from other services he had attended.
“There was a funny part where [the celebrant] messed up the words, and it was really clear that he had stumbled, and he was like, ‘Forgive me, Satan!’ and then he kept going.”
It definitely didn’t seem very sinister.
Back in May, I published a post here about the Black Mass controversy at Harvard. Writing that story left me frustrated with the media coverage of the event, because I found almost no information on what the actual ceremony consisted of, or what the beliefs and goals of the organizers and participants were. So I decided to ask them myself.
Let’s start with what actually happened in the Kong that night. There were about 50-100 people present in the club portion on the second floor. The festivities began with a twenty-some-minute lecture by a member of the Satanic Temple on the history of the Black Mass. (More on that history later.) Jex Blackmore, one of the performers of the ceremony, describes the audience to me as “very respectful when we began, and really quiet and interested. I think there was a really amazing energy that wouldn’t have been there if there hadn’t been so much chaos [surrounding the event].”
After the lecture, the Black Mass itself began. The cast included six characters: a celebrant, who read most of the ceremony; a deacon, a subdeacon, a nun, and an illuminator, who played supporting roles; and the woman who played perhaps the most supportive role of all as the actual altar, and who impressively remained in a backbend for nearly an hour. The performers held scripts, and the text was taken from a description of a (fictional) Black Mass in a nineteenth-century (fictional) French novel called Là-Bas. The whole thing seemed to me, more than anything else, like a production of Macbeth.
According to Teddy—who, remember, was raised Catholic, though he is now an atheist—the text of the ceremony closely mirrored that of the standard Catholic Latin Mass, “just substituting Satan for God.” There were a few other twists, of course. The celebrant wore horns on his head, and he faced away from the congregation (which was actually how Catholics did it too until Vatican II). The Communion wafer—which, by the way, was emphatically not consecrated—was thrown upon the ground and stepped on. When the performers got to the Lord’s Prayer, they said it in English, but backward: “evil from us deliver but” and so on through “heaven in art who Father Our.” And, naturally, “there was a part where they yelled ‘Hail Satan!’”
And that’s about it. No babies were murdered. Nobody was naked. No demonic possessions have been reported in the aftermath. All in all, “it was pretty benign,” says Quinn,* a leader of the student club that organized the event. “It definitely didn’t seem very sinister,” Teddy confirms. After all the extreme accusations and panicked protests, even Quinn was surprised by “how tame it was.” He admits, laughing, that he “kind of didn’t want that to get out” and deflate the mystique that had built up around his group.
The Black Mass as it eventually happened at Hong Kong was a scaled-back version of the original plans, which Quinn outlines for me:
“It was [supposed] to open with a lecture by Kennedy School professor Christopher Robichaud, who was going to be talking about the challenges associated with religious liberty and free speech and tolerance in a pluralistic democracy. That lecture was to be followed by an academic history of the Black Mass, explaining […] how it started as an idea that was actually created by the Church itself as a means of persecuting and going after undesirables. And then the final stage was a performance of the Black Mass, which was basically taken almost verbatim from Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Là-Bas. It was a staged reading, essentially.”
And to wrap up the night, the students had arranged live music. “It’s a local band from Cambridge,” Quinn tells me wistfully. “It’s too bad they didn’t get to play.”
The Black Mass is completely fictional, and that’s part of why we did it.
So if these people weren’t actually summoning the Devil into a dive bar, what was this all about?
The Cultural Studies Club, the Harvard Extension School student group that organized the event, is pretty much what it sounds like: it’s a club for learning about different cultural practices many students might not otherwise encounter, from a Satanic Black Mass to a Shinto tea ceremony. Or at least, that was what they would have done; this was their first event, and Quinn isn’t sure if they’ll recover from the debacle. They’re even considering changing the group’s name to clean the slate and start fresh in the fall.
Hearing Quinn talk about the value of learning from other people’s traditions, I am reminded of my own experience as an interfaith organizer. Even if you don’t share somebody’s whole belief system, he says, you can still find “something attractive, meaningful, and substantive” in their worldview that might resonate with you; you “can at least create a bridge of understanding.”
That’s why Quinn, who is not a Satanist, was excited to host the Satanic Temple at his school for an educational event. Such an extremely fringe group might seem like an odd choice for the club’s debut—until you learn that Quinn knew one of its leaders, Lucien Greaves, from school. So when he started his club, he asked Lucien if the Temple had any kind of cultural practice they would like to come demonstrate.
“The Black Mass isn’t something we really do,” Lucien explains to me. “I don’t like to engage in regular ritual. Our anti-authoritarian foundation is rather against it […]. But I liked the idea of doing something academic, something that could really give a background on the idea of Satanism, and the idea of a Black Mass is a great focal point for that.”
The weird thing about the Black Mass is that it isn’t something anybody ever really did, or at least not before it was claimed that they did. As far as I can tell without wading into primary sources in languages I don’t speak, it originated in the imaginations of people who wanted to accuse outsiders of something horrible. “It actually started as propaganda from the Catholic Church itself to justify killing dissenters,” Lucien tells me. “It’s completely fictional,” says Jex, “and that’s part of why we did it—it’s a way of taking back those stereotypes of the outsider.”
Lucien confirms what everybody else has told me about the event: “We weren’t trying to raise the devil. We don’t even believe in a personal devil.”
That’s right: these Satanists don’t believe in Satan.
You need to judge people for their real actions in the real world rather than dismissing them wholesale because of some idiotic label you’ve placed upon them.
“We live at the intersection between religion and science,” Lucien says, “because our drive is to understand the material world, and we feel the scientific method is the best to do that, but we don’t feel that excludes us from having a religion. We think that the important qualities of a religion can exist [… without] supernaturalism. We have a culture, a community, a symbolic body; we have a narrative structure that contextualizes our work and goals; and we think those are the important aspects.” This description makes all the fuss about whether or not Satanism counts as a real religion seem narrow and misguided to me. “We can get pretty postmodern about ‘What is a religion?’ and that kind of thing,” Lucien acknowledges, “but I think the important thing to realize is that what we have here does embody our deeply held beliefs.”
Those beliefs, as outlined on their website, include that “one should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures,” “the freedom of others should be respected,” and “beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world.” These are not the kinds of beliefs that keep parents up at night wondering if their children are involved with them. These beliefs should not frighten the Catholic Church into protests and marches and exorcisms. This is pretty much a list of the basic requirements for civil human interaction.
Satan comes into it not as a literal deity, but as more of a literary character who embodies those values. Lucien describes Satan as “symbolic of the ultimate rebel against the ultimate autocrat.” For Jex, Satan serves as a “philosophical or metaphorical construct of the individual, of the things that we can’t possibly escape that are part of our true human nature.” This appealed to her after growing up in a Lutheran church and becoming frustrated with the concept of “sin as being something you can’t escape” in a “rigged” divine justice system.
Adopting the Satanic label can also serve a political function. “You’re embracing that outsider status,” Lucien says when I ask how aligning oneself with Satan could ever be a valid PR strategy for a group whose goals are the opposite of demonic. He tells me what it was like growing up during the original Satanic Panic, in which stories materialized apparently out of thin air about Satanic cults ritually abusing children; jobs were lost and lives were ruined by groundless hysteria. Those Satanists, like the Salem witches and the Black Mass itself, existed only in the imaginations of the accusers. Lucien was horrified by the way a mere label could do such damage in the absence of any evidence—and that’s exactly why he’s now taken on that label for himself.
The Satanic Temple can’t honestly call itself anything but Satanic because embracing the taboo is the whole point of what they’re doing. When I ask him if it’s counterproductive to use such a misunderstood word, Lucien pushes back: “I don’t think that people’s ideas of what Satanism is supposed to be should be preserved in any way whatsoever. It’s dangerous, it’s destructive, it’s counterproductive itself, and it’s been so harmful throughout our history […]. You need to judge people for their real actions in the real world rather than dismissing them wholesale because of some idiotic label you’ve placed upon them.”
Satanism is a challenge to society: a challenge to do better than our ancestors; to listen instead of yelling; to suppress knee-jerk reactions; to choose compassion over fear; to treat each other with respect. Satanism challenges us to be decent humans.
Last May, we failed that challenge.
Chelsea Link is an Editor at Large for Cosmologics and an alumna of Harvard College, where she studied History and Science.
*I have used pseudonyms for some of the people interviewed for this story to ensure their privacy and safety.
Image from Wikimedia Commons via Glabb.