The Devil is in the Detail

Over at Common Tansy, Pat Mosley has been tearing it up with his posts about the Devil in witchcraft, A Case for Inviting Satan (Back) to Wicca and Prying Open the Devil’s Broom Closet. And Ian Corrigan has also written on the topic of the Devil and the darker side of Paganism. Jason Mankey has written about the origins of the Horned God of Wicca.

Francisco de Goya's Witches Sabbat (1789), which depicts the Devil flanked by Satanic witches. The Witch Cult hypothesis states that such stories are based upon a real-life pagan cult that revered a horned god

Francisco de Goya’s Witches Sabbat (1789), which depicts the Devil flanked by witches. [CC0 – Public Domain]

The Devil and witchcraft

Some folkloric Craft practitioners have always honoured both Lucifer and Jesus, regarding them as brothers (from the reference in the Book of Job about Samael being among the Sons of God). Cain is also an important figure in their mysteries, and is viewed as the son of Samael and Lilith. And Tubal-Cain is viewed as the earthly vessel of Azazel. They place a lot of importance on the smith-gods such as Prometheus, Tubal-Cain, Hephaestos, Wayland, and Vulcan.

I can understand why some Wiccans completely denied that they even believed in the Devil, as I vividly remember the fear instilled in us by the Satanic Panic of the late 1980s. It is much easier to say “we don’t believe in your mythology at all” than it is to say something more complicated, such as “we don’t accept your dualistic cosmology, but we do believe there is a place for acknowledging the darker aspects of the psyche, and deities associated with them, and rather than demonising them, it would be better to integrate those forces into consciousness and work with their energies”. Some Wiccan and Pagan writers actually did attempt to convey this more complicated message.

Various concepts and images of these entities are lurking about in the basement of the Western psyche – but we are not powerless to change them. Some people will prefer to ignore them altogether; others feel the need to change these images by working with them. That is their prerogative.

However, there is no need to throw Satanists under the bus when stating that Wiccans don’t worship the Devil. There are at least three different flavours of Satanism, the philosophical and anarchist variety allegedly espoused by Mikhail Bakunin, the inversion-of-Christianity variety, and the people who are actually worshipping the Egyptian god Set. Therefore, claiming that Satanism is “just an inversion of Christianity” is an inadequate explanation of what it actually is.

I have not met that many Satanists, and many of the ones I have met have taken considerable pleasure in being self-consciously “dark” and very left-hand-path. Some of the ones I have met were very right-wing. There are nasty people in every group, but that doesn’t mean that all of them are like that. I also know a couple of Setians and some left-wing Satanists.

It is worth pointing out that an acknowledgement of the possible existence of Lucifer, or Samael, or any other such entity, does not mean that we are suddenly Satanists. Some Wiccans have been acknowledging Lilith for years – so why is Samael so taboo?

I think that Wicca and Satanism are two separate and distinct traditions,  but we are not being fair and reasonable if we demonise Satanism in the same way that some Christians have done to us.

Who cleft the Devil’s foot?

From a hard(ish) polytheist point of view, I would argue that Lucifer, Satan, Samael, Asmodeus, Beelzebub, and various other entities are different beings. They may have got lumped together as one by the monotheists, but then I think we would all agree that monotheists have a tin ear when it comes to mythology. One of the Pagan deities whose image fed into the Christian concept of the Devil was Pan, and it is thought that that is how the Devil acquired his cloven hooves (unless it was from the image of Azazel as the scapegoat).

Some people have argued that neither Jesus nor Satan have a place in contemporary Paganisms, because we don’t accept the dualistic and antagonistic world-view of Christianity.  However, I don’t have to accept that monotheism’s assessment of the stature or nature of a being is true in order to accept that the being (or at least, its archetype) exists.  I don’t accept the philosophy of Buddhism, but I am happy to honour Kwan-Yin.  I think Jesus probably exists, but I certainly don’t accept monotheism’s view of who he is. So why not his brother Lucifer? We don’t accept Christianity’s assessment that all our deities are the devil in disguise – so why should we accept their view of Lucifer?

Northern Light 27 points out that the various deities that were some form of adversary (and a necessary source of creative conflict) in the pre-Christian pagan religions all got lumped together to form the Christian version of the devil as the main adversary of Yahweh. What’s more, the Jewish concept of Samael / Satan was quite different, and existed alongside other figures such as Lilith as necessary aspects of the cosmic order.

I think the Christian view was probably influenced either by the two gods of Zoroastrianism (Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu), or by the good and evil entities of Manichaeism. Manichaeism was essentially a Gnostic view of the world that held that matter was created by an evil demiurge, and that the source of all good was the creator, to whom light and spirit seek to return by escaping from matter. Zoroastrians, on the other hand, say that the world was created by Ahura Mazda, the good god. However, both systems have an ultimate force of good pitted against an ultimate force of evil. Contrast this with Judaism, where Samael was essentially under the control of Yahweh – in this view, Samael existed to punish transgressors. If you look at the history of Jewish mythologization of Satan, Samael, Azazel, Asmodeus, and other characters, it is pretty clear that they are much more nuanced than the Christian versions. I really wish people would not conflate Judaism and Christianity, or back-project Christian attitudes onto Judaism, which is a completely different religion that Christianity is a massive distortion of. (And as far as I know, it is a heresy in Christianity to regard the Devil as being of equal power with God.)

As I do not accept monotheism’s view that there is only one god and one adversary, I have room in my concept of deities for some that like to promote conflict for whatever reason they think it necessary (even if they don’t happen to be among the deities with whom I have a personal relationship, because I do not like conflict).  If I acknowledge the existence of  Lilith and Loki and Set and Yahweh and Asherah, then I am prepared to accept that Lucifer, Samael, and Asmodeus also exist. And Baphomet too.

My polytheism consists of acknowledging the existence of many deities, and honouring and/or worshipping those that have called to me. So far, only one of these entities has come knocking at my door, but if one of the others shows up, I think I would make my own assessment of their character. After all, Christianity was very rude about all our other deities – why should I take their word for it about any entity?

As to whether the Wiccan Horned God contains a bit of the Devil in his DNA… I think he probably does. If the Devil is equated in the Christian world-view with prancing about naked by moonlight, joyous love-making, and wild shenanigans – then the God of the Witches does represent these things.

What is interesting is that Pan, who may have informed some of the Christian idea of the Devil (because he represents wildness and wilderness and unbridled sexuality) is one of the few beings involved that was not an adversary figure in ancient mythology. (Though the Devil’s horns and hooves may have come from Azazel the scapegoat rather than from Pan.)

In Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia: the gospel of the witches, Aradia is presented as the consort of Lucifer, and it appears that Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente replaced Lucifer with Cernunnos when they were forming Wicca – in part because they believed Margaret Murray’s theory that the being worshipped by witches was an ancient pagan Horned God (but also because they were well aware of the media furore that would result if they admitted to devil-worship). However, it appears from some research by Sabina Magliocco that the legend of Aradia actually pre-dates the association of witchcraft with devil-worship.

Horned deities in India were possibly associated with shamanism and animism, both of which have been viewed as transgressive by established religions.

It is also worth noting that the word demon (daimon in Greek) originally meant a spirit of place, or the genius of a gifted person, and had no negative connotation in ancient paganism.

My personal theology celebrates the marriage of spirit and matter, and not their separation. I celebrate wildness, and chaos, and the celebration of physical pleasure. I do not think that blind obedience is a virtue. So I think a deity that represents anarchy, and rebellion against absolute authority, is worth looking into.

Adversaries in ancient paganisms

Some ancient paganisms had the concept of a struggle between two groups of deities (in Greek mythology, the clash of the Olympian gods with their rivals, the Titans; and in Norse mythology, the clash of the Aesir and Vanir with the giants) but these were not so much conceived of as a struggle of good and evil, as a struggle between natural forces such as fire and ice, some of which were more inimical to humans than others. But things were complicated in the Greek myths because Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humanity (an impious act, but one for which we can be grateful). And in the Norse myths, the gods were born from the primal giant, Ymir, and then slew him to make the heavens and the Earth.

Some ancient religions of the Near East had powerful beings who were slain by the creator god (for example in Sumerian mythology, Tiamat the serpent goddess was slain by Marduk, who formed the Earth from her body – probably the original of many dragon-slayer stories). We can trace some of the motifs that went into the making of the archetype of the Devil back to some of these figures.

Be careful

I’ve got to admit that the name ‘Satan’ makes me really uncomfortable. I am much more comfortable with ‘Old Nick’, ‘Lucifer’, or even ‘the Devil’. But then I am curious to delve into the depths and find out why it makes me uncomfortable.

However, given the enormous weight of negativity attached to the archetype of the Devil, anyone invoking these entities needs to be really careful to invoke the aspects of the complex that they want (the freedom, anarchy, hedonism, and sex-positive aspects) and avoid the negative associations with it (selfishness, greed, destructive impulses, etc). I find it very interesting that most people work with lesser-known names and beings such as Samael and Lucifer (arguably the bright side of this archetype) and avoid the more negative aspects. So much negativity has been loaded onto the archetype that it may be really difficult to recover the bright aspects of it. If you do invoke or evoke such a being, are you a powerful enough magician to handle it?

Civilisation and its discontents

It is fairly easy to see how gods of the wildwood (symbols of the wilderness and therefore opposed to civilisation, with which Christianity strongly identifies itself) may have fed into the Christian archetype of the Devil. Recently, I read Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and in that book (written in 1926), the god of the witches is unequivocally represented (with considerable glee) as Satan. He is quite kindly, and the freedom of the countryside where he holds sway is contrasted with the stifling atmosphere of middle-class respectability from which the heroine escapes.

Many myths and legends (from ancient times until very recently) are about the struggle to establish civilisation and order, set against the urge to return to a state of nature and chaos. It has not been universally agreed that the imposition of law and order and civilisation is necessarily all good.

If someone was to draw a mindmap or a family tree describing all these entities and their mythological relationship with each other, it would get quite complicated. The massive number of references to the Devil in popular culture add an extra layer of complexity.

So – when you say that you don’t worship the Devil, you might need to be a bit more specific. Do you mean Old Nick, Satan, Asmodeus, Azazel, Beelzebub, Baphomet, Samael, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Angra Mainyu, Iblis, Loki, Set, Apep, Prometheus, or some other adversarial figure? The Devil really is in the details.

Madness, Shamanism, and Wicca

The history of madness and attempts to treat it is long, convoluted, and fascinating. Different theories and treatments have come and gone, depending on the mood of the age. I think it is worth remembering that in many cultures, such episodes are not seen as mental illness, but a blessing from the gods. Many shamans have had similar experiences to what western medicine dismisses as mental illness.

In the Middle Ages, people thought that madness and learning disabilities were of supernatural origin. Holy fools were people who were ‘simple’, and were blessed and protected by God. The mad were either possessed or saintly, depending on the symptoms.

After the Reformation, people sought to control madness, and a medical model developed, and the mad were incarcerated. Various different ‘therapies’ were tried, some quite drastic.

By the twentieth century, various drugs had been developed, and both social and medical models of the causes of mental illness were discussed. The disciplines of psychotherapy (using the ‘talking cure’ to treat the social causes of mental illness) and psychiatry (for treating mental illness with drugs) developed.

In India, mental distress of various kinds was treated by giving the person a story or folk-tale to meditate on. The tale was a form of therapy which would help them to solve the issues which had given rise to the distress.

In the 1960s, the anti-psychiatry movement examined the ways that other cultures (both past and present) have treated mental illness of various kinds. Michel Foucault wrote a history of madness, Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, which was translated into English by R D Laing as Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Some of the key insights of the anti-psychiatry movement were:

  • that madness can be a consequence of the disenchantment of living in a capitalist society;
  • that regulating the mad is a form of social and political control;
  • that seeing visions, hearing voices, and magical thinking are the traditional attributes of shamans and witches;
  • that behaviour which is considered normal in one culture may be classified as ‘mad’ by another culture;
  • and that different societies treat mental illness in different ways.

Several social historians analysed the content of the visions of witches and saints from the Middle Ages, and concluded that these would be regarded as “madness” in the modern context. One member of the anti-psychiatry movement analysed the content of schizophrenics’ visions, and found recurring images of the cosmic axis (the world mountain and the world tree) and the cosmic hero.

"FujiSunriseKawaguchiko2025WP". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FujiSunriseKawaguchiko2025WP.jpg#/media/File:FujiSunriseKawaguchiko2025WP.jpg

Mount Fuji is often seen as a cosmic axis. [“Fuji Sunrise Kawaguchiko“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.]

Mental health and Wicca

Some people have argued that people with mental health issues should not take part in Wicca, because the rituals are highly emotionally charged and involve a lot of shamanic practices which people feel might exacerbate mental health issues. I disagree – I think that the practice of Wicca can help people to integrate the psyche, which would be beneficial.

I think it is important to define terms at this point, as mental health and learning difficulties and learning disabilities are all different. None of them should be regarded as an automatic disqualification for taking part in Pagan or Wiccan rituals.

Learning difficulties such as dyslexia can be an advantage in magic, because dyslexia gives you a different perception of space and awareness of landscape and shape. Autism and Asperger’s may also give you a different perspective (I have less knowledge & experience in that area).

Learning disabilities – again, why not, if people are interested, and as long as they can understand the consequences of magical workings. The ability to understand depends on the level of disability, I guess. People with learning disabilities could certainly enjoy being in Nature and communing with Nature.

Mental health issues – people with depression can and do benefit from being involved in the Craft. Anything involving manic phases or hallucinations might cause difficulties – but again, such conditions should never mean an automatic ban on participation.

I think the best way forward (if it were possible) would be for the coven member, HPs & HP, and psychiatrist or psychotherapist, to sit down together, discuss the kind of activities that happen in circle, and whether or how they might adversely affect the person with the mental health issue. As Wiccan practitioners are generally not professional psychiatrists, I don’t think it is up to us to make these decisions.  The problem is that most psychiatrists would actually just assume you were deluded if you started talking about deities and witchcraft – because they are not educated about Paganism.

Ultimately, the best person to judge in these situations is the person with the mental health issue themselves. They know whether they can cope in a Wiccan circle, and can inform the high priestess or high priest of any warning signs (such as being extra manic) which may mean they can no longer judge their own fitness to be in circle, and may need someone else to make that decision for them. (This last point was actually suggested by someone with bipolar.) If the issue is severe enough to require medication, they do need to keep taking the medication, of course.

In any case, many people develop mental health issues after they have become involved in Wicca (not as a consequence of being involved, more as a consequence of various stresses and strains).

A couple of years ago, I experienced mild depression and anxiety as a result of a bout of seasonal affective disorder. The symptoms did not prevent me from taking part in rituals, and I found Wiccan rituals beneficial. During my “wobble”, Wicca was extremely helpful in keeping me balanced.

So why would we deny these beneficial effects to someone who has been diagnosed with a mental health issue?

Further reading on religion and mental health

Further reading on the history of madness and psychiatry

Support groups