One of the pitfalls of living in a world with information at our fingertips, is our misplaced trust in the idea that whatever a situation entails, it has Always Been This Way and we have Always Known This. We tend to take images and statements out of context, forget that the person in this picture may have changed his mind about that garment he's wearing, that symbol he's holding; we assume that if a person said something in print, many years ago, perhaps admiring a certain philosopher, that he never learned more, read more, and decided differently. Although we're very well aware of the learning experiences our own lives have encompassed, we tend not to extend this viewpoint to the lives and careers of others.
The Church of Satan, the Satanic philosophy, and The Satanic Bible all evolved together out of what Anton LaVey referred to as his Magic Circle. This statement is repeated relentlessly in all biographical material about LaVey, and early media reports support it. LaVey was making his living as an organist and a psychic investigator in the early 1960's as the world began to heave with unrest and change. After reading and researching among the traditions of non-Judeo-Christian religions, he was also forming his own ideas about the effect of repressive mores on individual happiness and behavior. As a police photographer, he'd witnessed the consequences of misplaced passions, pent-up anger, irresponsible, destructive action as people attempted to deal with their own unresolved emotions. His days playing organ in strip joints and carnivals had reinforced his dim view of religious hypocrisy and phony, puritanical values, and risking his life as a cage boy and lion tamer brought him to respect the strength and intelligence of animals, as well as the vitality and truth of their carnal nature.
Later in life, LaVey considered his privacy and removal from the outside world both a privilege and a necessity; his "ebony tower" insulated him from the influence of the mass media culture he so loathed. But in the Sixties, he was still seeking old secrets and new information; he was listening to the words and ideas of others who were on a similar path. Like-minded individuals, remember? He was watching the repressed Fifties give way to a time when people wanted to explore the universe, and they wanted to begin with themselves.
Hence, the Magic Circle: a group of friends who collected around LaVey, eager to join him in experiments and activities that pushed the boundaries of the religions they'd grown up with, yet incorporated the earthy worldview the charismatic former lion-tamer was espousing. "You should make a religion out of this, Tony," they'd tell him. "Someone's gonna do it sooner or later."
The legendary founding date of the Church of Satan is April 30th, 1966—but Anton LaVey had been dabbling in rituals and psychodrama for months prior. Early photographs show him posing with Thelemic-style accoutrements, his wavy black hair still in place, his ritual robe tattered and obviously jerry-rigged for the photo session. And the very earliest interviews he gave to curious friends and acquaintances detail a thought process, an evolving structure to this non-religious religion he had in mind. What was its purpose?
The first conversations LaVey had about his Church emphasize the therapeutic nature of Satanic ritual. Psychodrama made people feel better; releasing pent-up frustrations and sexual energy was both enjoyable and cathartic. Church should be a place people looked forward to attending, because it balanced their emotions and gave them a lift. From an unpublished interview LaVey gave to a friend in 1967: "The ritual represents the freeing of all intellectual thought and the opportunity to bring out the emotions…It's a chance to be without hangups at all for a time, and really let what you feel inside come out."
Early on, LaVey often referred to one possible future official function of the Church of Satan as a creator and sponsor of "pleasure domes," where Church members could spend time enacting their fantasies and releasing their negative emotions. But it soon became clear that local adherents found the ritual chamber in the Black House sufficient for their needs—they could show up, don a hood and say "Fuck God! And the hell with my mother, she's a goddamn bitch!" And walk away happy about it.
This, LaVey concluded, made people much more effective in their daily lives. It was good for them; it was healthy. Acknowledge how naughty you're being, he says in "Satanis," and enjoy it. "Be the best sinner on the block."
LaVey began to put his religion together based upon his observations of the effect his blasphemous "Black Masses," as he referred to them initially, were having on his Magic Circle. They desired the release these rituals gave them and wanted to learn and participate in more. They already felt they were practicing their own form of witchcraft; who but Satan to represent their symbolic godhead? If "God" represented the impersonal, faceless force in the Universe that kept the wheels of circumstance slowly grinding you into dust, then surely Satan, the ruler of the earth and your time upon it as a pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding carnal being, was your metaphoric Savior. Hail, Satan!
1967 was a year of huge media exposure for LaVey and his new Church. The first Satanic wedding on February 1st catapulted LaVey and his congregants into the spotlight and interested people began attending services at the Black House regularly, as well as writing to the Church and begging for instructions. In addition to the Witches Workshops and twice-weekly lectures on arcane subjects, LaVey hosted a Satanic service every Friday night for Church members. There was a membership fee and additional fees for each service; listings of the activities at the Black House appeared in the SF Chronicle's Datebook every week as well as in the Berkeley Barb and various free newspapers around San Francisco. The city's status as a destination for young folks hoping to become one of the "loving people there," had necessitated many grassroots sources for sharing help and information, and telephone switchboards were one such outlet. The Church of Satan soon became a regular resource point on these switchboards; the curious could just call in and ask, "How do I get to the Satanic ritual?"
Such clamor created a vacuum; a consistent, foundational text was necessary. The Church had mimeographed the basic tenets of Satanism, rules, ritual instructions, but now the members, the media, and the outside world itself wanted more. It was time to write The Satanic Bible before someone less qualified did it, and LaVey began firming up his ideas about ritual magic. He already knew it was therapeutic, but he was also firmly convinced it was transformative as well. He had seen the changes ritualizing had made in its practitioners, and he projected that the expending of such huge amounts of energy could very well be having an effect on the objects of these rituals, upon reality outside the ritual chamber. Satanic magic was purgative, powerful, perhaps even dangerous when used inappropriately. And in December of 1969 he unleashed this information on an unsuspecting world via The Satanic Bible. Yes, the majority of the book's pages are concerned with ritual, because Satanism itself was born from the practices of the Magic Circle. But Anton LaVey's views on ritual magic were just starting to evolve.
In writing The Satanic Bible, LaVey was conveying Satanic magic for the first time to people outside his direct sphere of influence, to strangers, to people who would most likely practice these rituals alone. The weekly group rituals at The Black House had familiarized him with the encounter group effect—“letting it all hang out" in front of their fellow practitioners was one thing, but what was actually going on in the "intellectual decompression chamber" for the solitary Satanist?
In The Satanic Bible, LaVey firmly states that the trappings of ritual are "especially necessary" for intellectuals who need to stop analyzing and simply trust in the power of their magic to harness their emotional energy and direct it outward toward their goals. It was necessary to free oneself of the thoughts and obsessions that led you to the ritual chamber in the first place, by remaining confident that the deed was done. If nothing else was achieved, this alone was surely a benefit to the practitioner.
By 1974, LaVey had witnessed and participated in scores of Satanic rituals. Additionally, he and his Church served as the first contact for the "field notes" coming in from the rapidly-growing readership of The Satanic Bible, from the Church of Satan Grotto members who practiced group rituals far away from "Central," and from the solo adherents of the Satanic philosophy who were taking the ball and running with it. Witches and Warlocks everywhere were reveling in the power of Satanic magic, but how did Greater Magic really work for people who were essentially atheistic hedonists? In an article in The Santa Barbara News-Press entitled "The Black Pope Simmers Down," LaVey explains how he's soft-pedaling the more theatrical aspects of Satanic rituals in favor of what he calls "applied Satanism”: the exploration of new scientific theories that are breaking ground in behavioral analysis, cybernetics, sound frequencies, etc. The membership of the Church of Satan, LaVey asserted, was tending more toward solid citizens who were accomplishing things in the real world and not wearing their Satanism on their sleeves. LaVey himself confessed that his own ritualizing tended to be solitary at this point. He still encouraged Greater Magic, but preferred to leave it to others to be public about it, serving the needs of the media and the population at large. In the following year, a lengthy piece in Argosy quoted LaVey again on the power of magic, and he referred to it as "adrenal energy" that once summoned up and directed, can create change in the atmosphere along the lines of a force field. Again, he mentioned leaving the drama of group rituals to others.
Over ten years later, a lead article in The Washington Post confirms the prime location of LaVey's magic: his keyboards.
"Tonight and most every night, he sits at his organ or his music synthesizers and imbues the atmosphere with magical vibratory frequencies. He believes they are changing the psyche of the world and creating a New Romantic, yet Satanic, Revolution… 'It was a strong Satanic ritual,' LaVey says… 'We had the right people and right moment. We were immersed, swept into another time, another place, another era. Time stood still. At the eye of madness and mystery.'" Clearly, at this point, LaVey is expanding his theories on how magic works.
"Contrived ignorance" is how LaVey describes the ideal mindset of the Satanist as he enters the ritual chamber, and the founder of Satanism didn't expect that he'd have to be concerned about how much of that ignorance would become actual and not contrived. But as the years went on and Satanism drew thousands of adherents, there were pitfalls waiting; they included would-be Satanists who preferred ritual magic to real world effort, and worse, Black Magick occultniks who just couldn't accept the idea that LaVey didn't really believe in the Devil, no matter how many different ways he said it. LaVey became weary of hearing from "Satanists" who couldn't get things done, and consequently, he downplayed the public representation of formal rituals in favor of explaining and celebrating Satanic aesthetics and how they were proliferating in the culture at large. When LaVey invoked Satan in the documentary film "Speak of the Devil" in 1993, he hadn't performed a formal ritual in over two decades.
Anton LaVey had taken the practice of Satanic ritual magic from therapeutic psychodrama, developing his theories of manipulating the minds of others "through the ethers," communing with the projection of the Self that he had determined to be Satan, at last to a form of personal magic that either bypassed the trappings of ritual, or functioned within a new environment altogether, such as his music. Regular, repetitive rituals were no different from "church," LaVey had decided—as participants became too familiar with a routine, their focus wandered, and their emotions failed to engage. To effect change in both the practitioner and in the outside world, rituals had to be fresh, personal and not "by rote." He never stopped believing in his formulation of magic—“Magic," he told one journalist, "is a way of life."
The Church of Satan has developed and expanded on the foundation of the rituals LaVey performed with his Magic Circle, through the end of LaVey's life and on into the present century.
In the late Eighties and early Nineties, the Church of Satan's present High Priest and Magus, Peter H. Gilmore, formed a loose circle of Satanists with whom we were socializing and ritualizing. We performed Die Electrischen Vorspiele in a converted factory space, and we shook the venerable old walls of Hell's Kitchen on many a dark night. Manhattan's Hellfire Club lent its sordid vibes to a large formal ritual, complete with lovely nude altar, that was filmed for a media project. Impromptu workings were often inspired by our surroundings; with our friends in the Northwest, we conspired in the utter darkness of a lava tube and celebrated our Pack with an invocation and hearty group howl.
On the first anniversary of our founder's death, instead of a solemn funerary rite, we decided to celebrate LaVey's life with the same vibratory tool he had used himself when conjuring: music. Pianist and composer Dr. Mark Birnbaum gave a concert in LaVey's memory at the Ten-Ri Gallery in New York City; it was open to the public by ticket sales. Rather than simply imitate LaVey's style or musical choices, Dr. Birnbaum "summoned him up" with themes from "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Hymn to Satan". It was a magical night, with over a hundred attendees. Video of the concert is available on YouTube.
As the 21st century opened up, with a new High Priest and High Priestess of Satan in place, the dreaded (and meaningless, for Satanists) date of 6/6/06 loomed on the horizon. The 2006 Omen remake was using the date as part of their advertising. Kooky fundamentalists began to predict dire consequences; after all, the Y2K bug hadn't destroyed civilization, so they had to get excited about something else. A flurry of media requests came in to Central, along with an invitation to make use of the date via a performance at the Steve Allen Theatre in Los Angeles. A formal public group ritual hadn't been performed by the Church of Satan since the early Seventies, and never anything along the dimensions that the Steve Allen offered, with its professional stage, lighting, sound, and 100-seat capacity. We grabbed the opportunity, our members snatched up the available seats, and the project went into motion. We utilized the talents of a professional stage director, a lighting director, and dark ambient music was composed just for the occasion. Something of this scale required more than one Satanic ritual—it required three, so Gilmore invented the concept of a Satanic High Mass, celebrating lust, compassion and destruction through a three-act working that concluded with an Infernal "Blessing."
Can Greater Magic really function appropriately with a hundred congregants in the room? Wouldn't it be inevitable that attendees thoughts and energies might not be quite as engaged, as they were not officially participating in the staging of the ritual? Church of Satan members who attended this and other large scale rituals have said otherwise, claiming that they found the workings inspiring, joining them in intention and focus with their fellow Satanists. "Large scale rituals are affirmative and catalytic," said Gilmore in a private interview, "but it may be their rarity that gives them power."
A proposal was made in 2008 that we visit a historically Satanic place with other Satanists, explore, enjoy, and experiment with what the atmosphere might evoke in a group working. We arranged a beautiful banquet deep in the Hellfire Caves of West Wycombe, in England, the place where Benjamin Franklin and Francis Dashwood cavorted licentiously with other devilish dudes and a few chippies they brought along for the fun. A special ritual was written, incorporating the historical figures who had once walked there, coming back to "life" to enjoy the party and to be celebrated by their modern day Satanic counterparts. Again, original music was incorporated along with theatrical elements, including a naughty nun who was stripped of her habit and converted to the joys of the flesh. While the ritual went well—even a broken, flying phallus couldn't spoil the night—it was during the hours afterward spent wandering the caves when the transformation occurred. Fifty Satanists enjoyed the freedom to wander together, alone, in couples, in secret, crossing "the River Styx," tossing coins in the underground stream, posing by the Artificial Human Companions who occupied the Caves full-time, whispering, laughing, invoking, and we all experienced a resonance with this magical environment that was truly unforgettable.
Church of Satan members and leaders have participated in scores of private group rituals since then, including a newly composed one to Infernally "consecrate" the new Black House. Most recently, we held a large event with banquet and ritual for the multitude gathered to celebrate our first half-century of existence. We've also gathered for field trips, performances, artistic and business ventures, and these, too, are an important part of the ongoing function of the religion Anton LaVey invented fifty years ago. Magic—and action. Powerful, transformative, therapeutic ritual—and changing the world at large through our inventions, ideas and aesthetics.
Magic is just as important now in the Church of Satan, as it was in 1966. It began with a Magic Circle; that Circle may be said to be much, much wider. Anton LaVey crystallized the concept of the Intellectual Decompression Chamber, wherein sleight of mind aided by formal trappings worked a truly transformational catharsis. His adherents today have created new ways to bring that Chamber with them into their most creative and dynamic activities. How we work our magic is up to us; we can do it individually or in small or large groups. We can follow our traditional guidelines, or we can creatively wing it. Remember that in The Satanic Bible, The Book of Belial is the section depicting rituals, because as LaVey says, "Belial means 'without a master,' and symbolizes true independence, self-sufficiency, and personal accomplishment."
Originally published in DEVIL’S DUE: ESSAYS OF THE ELITE, Dark Moon Press (2016)