Ruben van Luijk, Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 632 pp. $ 39.95 Hardcover. ISBN 9780190275105.
I should start by stating that, if not in a situation of conflict of interest, I find myself in a peculiar position in reviewing Ruben van Luijk’s monumental (632 pages) contribution to the growing field of Satanism studies. Van Luijk starts his book by stating that, without my 1997 French book Enquête sur le satanisme (Paris: Dervy), “I could not have written this study, or at least would have faced an immensely more daunting task” and that “Introvigne can be considered the sole conversation partner in this venture (…) the scholarly discussion in this book virtually amounts to a dialogue with Enquête sur le satanisme” (p. 11). I find this dialogue extremely productive and enriching, but at the same time paradoxical. Van Luijk lists several issues where he disagrees with my 1997 conclusions. He had already listed them in the privately published 2013 version of his thesis, Satan Rehabilitated? A Study into Satanism During the Nineteenth Century, which he kindly shared with me, and we debated these issues during a seminar held in June 2013 at the University of Nijmegen.
Unbeknownst to van Luijk, when his Children of Lucifer was published, my own book Satanism: A Social History (Leiden: Brill, 2016) was at the printing stage, and would be released a few weeks later. It is a study of a similar size: 665 pages, although one distinguished reviewer, British sociologist Eileen Barker, insisted in her review in Religion and Society in Central and Eastern Europe (vol. 9, no. 1, 2016, pp. 82–84) that the pages are in fact 666. My book is not a translation of Enquête sur le satanisme. Although the project started as such, during the years I completely rewrote the volume, added new material and, inter alia, discussed the criticism by van Luijk. On more than one issue, I did accept his objections as valid and changed, or at least nuanced, my conclusions. On others, I explained why I chose to maintain my previous point of view. As a result, had Children of Lucifer been published a few months later, some paragraphs would probably have been different. If I really am the “sole conversation partner” of his book, van Luijk would have been able to notice how, thanks precisely to his intelligent, challenging, and stimulating objections, I had refined some of my theses in Satanism: A Social History. This, however, was not to be, and as a result the reader still finds in Children of Lucifer a discussion of positions I expressed twenty years ago in Enquête sur le satanisme that I have modified in Satanism: A Social History.
Although, as van Luijk states, the conversation with my early book is not unimportant for his project, most readers would be less interested in the details of this dialogue than in the general tale the author tells in a masterful and entertaining way. Van Luijk discusses both the ritual practice of Satanists and the romantic, literary Satanism. He argues that “literature was a matter of religion for the Romantic Satanists” and “we might be justified to describe these utterances as forms of bona fide religious Satanism” (p. 109). This is an area of disagreement we maintain, as I consider as Satanism stricto sensu only the activity of groups organized in a form similar to religious movements, but it also offers van Luijk the opportunity to present a gallery of colorful literary characters, whose influence on modern Satanism cannot be denied.
Van Luijk also insists on the role, or the responsibility, of the Catholic Church in creating a threatening image of Satan and, as a consequence, Satanism. He does not believe that a clear-cut distinction can be made between medieval or late modern accusations of Satan worship and modern phenomena such as those emerging around the court of the French king Louis XIV in the Affair of the Poisons. About the latter incident, which many describe as the first instance of Black Masses and Satanism, and others attribute to the wild fantasy of Louis XIV’s policemen and judges, van Luijk’s natural inclination would be towards skepticism. But he is aware of the new documents discussed by Lynn Wood Mollenauer in her 2006 book Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison and Sacrilege in Louis XIV’s France (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), and cautiously concludes that “there is simply too much we do not know, and with the evidence available, we may never be able to resolve this matter with absolute certainty” (p. 56). He admits that something might really have happened, but what exactly it was we do not know. I am more inclined to trust the French 17th-century policemen, but this is precisely one of the instances where, while both I and van Luijk continue to research the issue, our positions grew closer.
This is not the case, however, for another famous instance of Satanism, the one described by French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans in his extremely successful 1891 novel Là-bas. Here, van Luijk believes that Huysmans and his main informant (or accomplice), French journalist Jules Bois, invented everything and there were no real Satanists in France or Belgium in their time. Perhaps van Luijk is right, and in my 2016 book I do nuance my 1997 statements and agree with him that there is no solid evidence for Black Masses in late 19th-century Paris. On the other hand, I believe that the French occult milieu of the Belle Époque was immensely complicated and we cannot exclude that, among hundreds of movements and sub-movements, there were some who worshiped Satan.
At any rate, these Satan worshipers were not to be found among Freemasons. I and van Luijk agree that the idea that Continental European Freemasons worshiped Satan in their lodges at the end of the 19th century was a pure fabrication by paranoid anti-Masonic Catholics and simple scoundrels such as Léo Taxil, whose aim was to sell books and make money by exploiting the fears and gullibility of a large segment of the Catholic public opinion. I find it, however, somewhat curious that van Luijk regards it as important to exclude the possibility that anti-Catholic Freemasons might have used the image of Satan, or sung songs to him, in order to provoke or scandalize the Catholic Church. That this might have occurred, as I believe, certainly does not mean that the Freemasons really worshiped Satan: it was simply a way of expressing their anti-clericalism and of poking fun at Catholic anti-Masonism.
Van Luijk is an eminent specialist of the Belle Époque, and a master storyteller. All the chapters of his book about late 19th-century France are rich in details nobody else (including, of course, myself) found before him, and the story is told in such a vivid prose that even those who have no special interest in esotericism or Satanism would find the book extremely entertaining.
In contrast to this, the parts about Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, which van Luijk, in agreement with many other scholars, regards as the real starting point of modern Satanism, and other manifestations of late 20th-century Satanism, seem to proceed somewhat too quickly. The basic facts are there, together with an astute and, I believe, accurate interpretation connecting Satanism with American counter-culture, but the treatment is not as detailed as the one the book offers for the Belle Époque. The reader interested in the evolution of the Church of Satan, both during the life of Anton LaVey and after his death in 1997, would be well advised to supplement van Luijk’s book with The Invention of Satanism by Asbjørn Dyrendal, James R. Lewis, and Jesper Aagaard Petersen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). And those, like me, who believe that from a part of Black Metal music a whole new brand of Satanism emerged, with significant groups such as the Temple of the Black Light, would be particularly disappointed to see Black Metal Satanism discussed by van Luijk in less than five pages, and largely dismissed as little more than a curiosity.
It is not coincidental that The Invention of Satanism, my own Satanism: A Social History, and van Luijk’s Children of Lucifer were all published in 2016. The year marked the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Church of Satan, LaVey’s “Year One” of Satanism. The three books complement each other. The Invention of Satanism is mandatory reading for those looking for an in-depth and sympathetic treatment of the Church of Satan. I may perhaps be forgiven for arguing that my own book offers the most comprehensive treatment of disparate 20th- and 21st-century phenomena, including Satanism scares and Satanic panics, read in a context that starts in the late 17th century. Van Luijk’s book is, in turn, indispensable for understanding the Belle Époque and the medieval and early modern precursors of modern Satanism. And 2018 comes with the revised book edition of Per Faxneld’s outstanding Ph.D. dissertation, Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as Liberator of Women in Nineteenth-Century Culture (New York: Oxford University Press), the definitive treatment of Romantic Satanism. To paraphrase Mark Twain, judging from the great and indeed unprecedented interest among scholars, rumors of a demise of Satanism in the 21st century have been greatly exaggerated.