SATANISM: WHO ARE THE NATIVES
The current popularity about Satanism and Satanic crimes have led to a number of trials on crimes believed to be of a Satanic nature. This paper examines the question of how we know what we know about Satanism - just who the “natives” are and its effect on law enforcement practices.
Satanism is a complex issue. It has been dealt with extensively in numerous books, articles and T.V. specials. There are clear distinctions to be made between child abuse and ritual abuse. There are complex problems centering on definition and whether an isolated individual committing a homicide or other crime because they felt themselves possessed by Satan constitutes a Satanic crime. Many of these problems are interwoven with problems of definitions which I touch on here.
The purpose of the paper is far narrower however. It is an attempt to explore the problem of deciding who the natives are and what variation there may be in what they think. Native knowledge may be critical in many instances, but identifying the natives and their beliefs may be far more complex than appears on the surface.
In the history of anthropological theory, perspectives have shifted back and forth (among other things) between different concepts of culture: what the natives say they do; what they say they ought to do; and what the natives do. These are clearly distinct in many cases. Trying to explain why people don’t commit incest, when in fact they do, is rather meaningless. On the other hand trying to explain the existence of an incest taboo as a rule which may be widely held is an attempt to explain a rule, not a behavior, and makes far greater sense. Harris has made it explicit that his interests for example lie virtually exclusively with the “what the natives do” point of view and not “what the natives say they do" or “why they say they do something”. Cognitive anthropology which basically argues in part that culture is what one needs to know to act like a native contrasts sharply with Harris’ position that what the natives know is irrelevant. Worse still the natives can be wrong. Native wisdom which postulates diseases like typhoid are caused by ghosts are problematic as are some proverbial statements such as “eats like a bird”.
In symbolic anthropology, there are further questions about how we interpret what things mean. Pike long ago pointed out that different “etics” have different interpretations or “emics”. A given act may symbolize one thing in one culture and have a wildly different meaning in another. Even between individuals in any given culture, more than one interpretation may be possible. Recent conflicts in anthropology between “empirical” anthropologists and symbolic anthropologists can be seen in many ways to circle around these points.
Historically too, there have been shifts, caused in part, by the kinds of questions and interests the researcher has. One of the more dramatic alternations can be seen in those areas where culture is seen as predominantly mental as opposed to those who see it as predominately externalized.
Of course, generally speaking, few researchers are sufficiently dogmatic to hold these positions in the extreme, and when they appear to, it is often a question of one’s definition of culture. Harris, (1979) for example, simply says to start by looking for an explanation in the “real world” before leaping into mental constructs; while no cognitive anthropologist would deny that the physical world imposes some constraints on cultures.
Surely there are activities where belief systems, rather than the physical world hold sway. It is at this level that the questions raised by this paper appear, and in fact, are the core of any investigation into “what natives think”.
In this instance, I want to deal with the concept of Satanism, a powerful cultural construct. We need to know what Satanism means, and to whom it means that. This problem is particularly complex when examining the difficulties of trying to deal with what have come to be known as Satanic or ritual crimes. What different people believe Satanism and its practices to be are the crux of a complex problem in law enforcement. (See especially Hicks, 1990)
Satanism is one of those mental or symbolic constructs that exists in western society, but symbolic constructs may vary widely between both individuals and groups. In any discussion of Satanism, this variation is quite significant and poses questions for us about the nature of the belief system and the person or people whose belief system it is. It has both social and psychological realities not unlike Durkheim’s (1951) analysis of suicide. Increases and decreases in suicide rates are social although committing suicide must be of necessity somewhat psychological. Not everyone commits suicide, even under the conditions Durkheim describes. It is particularly interesting to note that there are similar increases and decreases in Satanic crimes. Its current popularity, along with New Age religions and to some degree post modernism all seem to reflect a kind of disenchantment with the enlightenment, and a rejection of a world that is knowable. The three seem to be a part of a specific cultural pattern, much the way evolution was in the mid 1800’s. That perhaps requires some explanation, but that is not my task at the moment.
Trying to define “Satanism” or “Satanists” is a daunting task. Suppose for a moment we define Satanists as “those who worship Satan”. This only serves to push the problem of definition back a step further. If Satanism and Satanic rituals exist, then we need to know who or what Satan is and what the rituals are, and what form Satanic worship takes. More importantly, we need to know who made the definition and who accepted it. This is a far more weighty problem than who gets to decide what some chemical compound is called. We could easily argue that any chemical which reacts in specific way to another chemical will be called “x”. True there are many ways to make the definition, but there is here a more objective way of making the label than there is for Satan. To argue Satan is the embodiment of evil is too general and generates far more problems than it solves, since evil is as conceptual a category as the devil. Worse still, some self proclaimed Satanists have pointed out that the bible is written by God who is actually evil in order to smear Satan who is really “the good guy”. God, in the bible, according to these people, is evil, since he does not want people to have knowledge. This is countered by those who hold this is a semantic problem. The two groups are simply reversing the terminology: the “good guy” is called “God” by one group and “Satan” by the other. The “bad guy” is called “Satan” by the first and “God” by the second. All of these arguments go round and round in tedious circles as semantics pile on semantics.
The questions I want to examine here are rooted in definitional problems, but at the same time, it is the conflicting definitions, who makes them, who accepts them, and what effect that has, that interest me more than the problem of resolving the definitional issue. It is clear that there are reasons why a belief system or religion such as “Satanism” exists, both in the minds of the practitioners and the non-practitioners. Yet there is considerable variation in the perception of Satanism among both practitioners and non-practitioners.
First of all there is a great deal of variation between the way in which self proclaimed Satan worshipers and non-worshipers perceive Satanists. Secondly, even among “Satanists” there is considerable variation about doctrine. As a result, there are bound to be conflicts between the various groups, - and to some degree this is exactly what happens. People who claim to be Satanists often do nothing that even remotely resembles anything that the popular stereotype of Satanists holds that they do. For example, many Satanists are totally disinterested in killing babies or practicing human sacrifice, although such deeds are often attributed to them. In addition, people who claim to be Satanists often do things apart from their Satanic beliefs, although such acts are attributed to their Satanic worship by others. Many people may kill others and not be Satanists. If a Satanist kills someone, it is virtually automatically attributed to their Satanic belief.
Among people who have been exposed to Satanism or claim to be Satanists, there is a great deal of variation in belief. Some argue, for example, that Satan takes on physical shape (that is to say that Satan is a literal entity and not a metaphor. This same argument can be and has been made about flying saucers, Yeti, Sea Serpents and a variety of other monsters). In other words, Satan is a real entity in the universe. Others claim that Satan is more abstract, and should he actually appear it would have to be a performer playing the part in a ritual; others that Satan simply represents evil and does not appear in corporeal form whether in actuality or impersonation in any ritual. All of this bears a strong resemblance to the arguments made about the nature of God. Some Satanists talk to Satan when they are alone (not unlike an invisible playmate). Others perform complex rituals they have constructed on their own or have learned from others. Even among the members of Anton LaVey’s “Church of Satan” there have been schisms as there have been in Christianity.
In a classic case on Long Island, for example, some of these problems become evident. A self proclaimed Satanist (and drug dealer) practiced a kind of solitary Satanism. He had been unable to find (and to some degree was disinterested in finding) others with whom he could practice his Satanism. At one point he killed a person who had taken drugs from him and failed to pay him for it. The crime was immediately classified as Satanic because of his interest in Satanism. Another drug dealer doing the same would never have been called Satanic.
The killing of Eigil Dag Vesti has been held by Maury Terry, in his book The Ultimate Evil as Satanic although there seems to be little real evidence to connect the murder to any Satanic practices. Terry links the murder to drugs, pornography, homosexuality, bisexuality, sadomasochism and a few other things as well.
This problem of perception is, of course, not restricted to Satanists. The transformation of witches (who are now believed to have been practitioners of Wicca) into broomstick riding magical hags involved in Satanic Sabbats is a classical case. So are the Scottish travelers, some of whom pointed out to me once that they, like other gypsies, have a reputation for “stealing children” which is quite undeserved, and in fact it is the travelers whose children were stolen buy the surrounding population. They point out that their children will never accept candy from the surrounding population because in the past, if the child accepted candy it was considered “proof” that the child was hungry and improperly being cared for and the child could be seized by the government and placed in a foster home. However unrealistic this may appear, there is certainly evidence that similar things happen here in this country using “child abuse” laws. The result however, is that when perceptions of the behavior of different groups of people are conflicted, problems about interaction between the groups are going to abound.
Satanism is felt by many to be a kind of monolithic structure with some core beliefs, but in many cases, the perception of Satanism by outsiders is far more monolithic than it is from the inside, and often, more in the mind of the viewer than in the world itself. A number of writers have suggested that people tend to see Satanism more because of their own beliefs than real evidence from without. It allows for actions they themselves take and then justify on the grounds that they were suppressing Satanic events.
Before we can examine any aspects of Satanism in the context of this panel, it is necessary to inquire just who the natives are. Satanism is an aspect of Christian beliefs and as such, belief in Satan (as opposed to worship of Satan) is an aspect of Christianity. While Christians would never think of themselves as Satanists any more than Satanists would think of themselves as Christians, the two traditions are inexorably linked. Satanism is therefore conceptualized by both those who follow Christian religion and those who follow Satanism. The concept exists in both groups. To a large degree, Satanism is a part of the belief system of two groups, whose conceptions may be radically different. As we shall see, it is not only these two groups that differ in the conceptualizations, but also with both groups there are rather strong differences.
People who get to define Satanism can be seen as falling into three major categories: believers who practice Satanism; believers who do not practice Satanism, but may be victims; and those who believe that Satanists exist but do not believe in the existence of the devil in any form. Obviously, within any of these categories there are many variations.
Just who are the practicing Satanists? Police (generally under the guidance of Dale Griffis and his followers) have tended to classify Satanists into four categories: traditional Satanists, organized Satanists, self styled Satanists and dabblers (Hicks 1990 p. 283). These first are often cited as being covert, numbering in the tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands, are involved in world wide conspiracies to infiltrate and over throw existing “Christian” institutions and are involved with upwards of 50,000 human sacrifices a year - often of babies said to be bred for this purpose (Terry, 1987; Kahaner 1988; Larson 1989; and especially Hicks 1990 for a good summary). Several researchers (Hicks, 1990; Victor 1993, Lyons, 1988) have been forced to wonder how Griffis constructed these categories or acquired the figures on the clandestine Satanists, or how any of these figures were gathered. Guinee (1987) reports that a deputy sheriff who had worked with Griffis managed to see or hear nearly all of the things he had been told to expect to find at a Satanic gathering. Interestingly enough, no other law enforcement officers present saw or heard of such things as blood drinking, eating raw meat or the sacrifice of a goat.
Self proclaimed Satanists such as Anton La Vey (1966, 1972; Burton 1990) or (debatably) Alistair Crowley (1976) are certainly not regarded by all Satanists as being “one of them”. Others have actually been involved in murders and the like, but these often seem unrelated to whatever Satanic beliefs they themselves may hold.
Victims frequently get to define Satanism by describing in detail what happened to them. Many do this as a result of being hypnotized and under hypnosis that they had been Satanically abused. Despite much evidence on the part of scientists to negate the statements made under hypnosis in regression there is a string tendency for people who believe Satan exists to accept this testimony as fact. Similar problems exist with UFO abductions, where people who were hypnotized remember events - many of which demonstrably never happened. None the less, like sightings of the Loch Ness Monster, Yeti and so on, these events are used to bolster the claims of these believing non believers. The MacMartin School trails in California are classic examples of both children under heavy examination producing stories and then the stories strengthening the belief in Satanism.
Two television specials on Satanism have examined the impact that victims’ belief in Satanism can have on families based on “accepted” testimony - (i.e. what the natives or victims say is true). Major television networks like HBO have mounted specials on this topic (Thomas 1993). In one of these the film makers challenged the beliefs held by the victims, who believe they have been used in Satanic rituals. In another segment there is strong evidence that the police failed to exercise even a minimal amount of effort to investigate an allegation of a coming child sacrifice before seizing two children from their parents. In this case in California, a woman undergoing psychological treatment held that her sister and her sister’s husband were about to sacrifice their children in a Satanic ritual. The police, without talking to the parents, broke into the house at 1:30 a.m. on a Sunday and took the children, put them in foster homes and ultimately, after the couple filed bankruptcy, returned the children with no charges pressed. The parents were charged for all the expenses accrued while the children were in “protective custody” in foster homes.
In a second case, a pastor, has determined from testimony from his congregation, that all members of his flock were abused by people in their childhood. Ultimately, they identify the abuser as the father of one of the members. He lives in Idaho and has never left the state. The members of the congregation are from all over the country - many have never been to Idaho, but they all believe that they were molested by this one person! As a result, the daughter is completely estranged from her parents. This is not an isolated case. There are others in which people come to believe that they are in fact guilty of crimes which they never committed (see Wright, 1994 for a good example).
It is commonly held that child sacrifice is a common Satanic practice. Satanists who do not practice this are accused of it anyway - much as was the case with the Jews in medieval times. Anyone who kills a child may be taken to be a Satanist. The book, Michelle Remembers (Smith and Pazder 1980) has been cited in, and has been the basis for many police seminars as a classical text book of Satanism. It is a book resulting from the reports of a woman, regressed under hypnosis to her childhood, where her mother sold her to a Satanic cult. At the book’s climax, Satan actually puts in an appearance. Photographs in the book show a mysterious object in a photograph with the women and her analyst, and as the book closes, the author (the analyst and later the husband of the remembering Michelle) is trying to secure an audience with the Pope.
“Believe the Children” is a cry of many of the people who would see Satanism everywhere. Believe the children is exactly what happened in Salem Massachusetts, and we all know where that led. There is a belief among many Americans that children are pure and blameless (hence there importance in Satanic sacrifices). Children should in fact, be believed because they are “incapable” of lying. Several police I interviewed mentioned that they tend to believe children, since they have no reason to lie. Never the less many people are aware that children sometimes have a great deal of difficulty distinguishing between reality and imagination. To say they are “lying” is in fact something of a misnomer. A person does not lie, if they believe what they are telling you is the truth. This is also a serious concern with UFO abductees and others who believe they have experience some sort of “paranormal” event. They may honestly believe it, whether it is true or not. None the less, the belief in the intrinsic goodness of children, and their incapacity for lying are far more constructs of the culture than the actual evidence would indicate. Here, of course we see a second general cultural belief - that of the innocence of children, emerging. Unlike the rejection of the enlightenment mentioned earlier, this seems to be an older belief, but permeates the thought patterns of both Satanists and non-Satanists alike.
There is a strong desire on the part of believers, but not practitioners, to refute any logical arguments against certain Satanic practices. Lyons (1988 p.156-7) reports that he was approached by a man asking about the significance of lions in Satanism. When he was told there was none, he explained his child had been kidnapped by Satanists who kept the son in a cage in the basement of an apartment house, next to a caged lion. This was clearly to frighten the child.
Lyons suggested that there were certain problems with this. For example, it takes a lot of food to feed a lion, and one would certainly have to clean up after the lion.
The father suspected such things could be handled. When it was suggested that a lion’s roar would certainly have been noticed in a city apartment house, the father suggested that the lion’s vocal cords had been removed.
Lyons finally asked “wouldn’t it be easier to assume the boy was fantasizing than that a Satanist would buy a four hundred pound lion, cage it and feed it thirty pounds of meat a day, clean up its excrement and have its vocal cords removed - all for some ritualistic purpose?” The father, apparently seeing a person who challenged his belief system became irritated.
In a classic case in Idaho, (Siegal 1992) belief in Satanic practices led many people to “Satanic” conclusions when a new born baby’s body was found in garbage dumpster. Some impressive detective work revealed a different story. After the baby’s body had been found rumors circulated that the baby had been sacrificed in a Satanic cult ritual. One child remembered another telling stories about child sacrifice with an extraordinary amount of detail about the event, from the actual cutting of the baby down to the look of the room. (this is, of course, prima facie evidence of Satanism!) The child who had originally told the stories was from a family that was no longer living in the town. A persistent detective finally traced the child and the parents and interviewed them. After a lengthy talk, he discovered that the parents had no idea about Satanic matters, didn’t have a television and were deeply involved in Christianity. At the end of the interview the detective asked if they ever read to the child. They said they did, and gave him a book of bible stories, from which they read. The detective looked in the book and discovered the picture of the “child sacrifice” exactly as the child described it - down to the details of the room. It was a drawing illustrating the Judgment of Solomon showing King Solomon about to cut the baby in half for the two women who claimed to be the child’s mother.
In some instances, it has been the media, rather than the police who have jumped to “Satanic” conclusions. A few years ago, while traveling in the southwest, there was a report that the police had arrested a person involved in a Satanic ritual. Since there are no laws per se about Satanic rituals, this seemed a bit odd. I called the police in the area to talk to them about the case and let them know of my interests. The officers were very friendly and co-operative and told me that the person had been involved in killing animals and recording their death noises and then listening to the tapes. I asked them why they thought the crime was Satanic. I was told they didn’t, but that they had a very sick boy on their hands. It was the newspapers who tagged the crime a “Satanic” one. The papers seem to believe that Satanists are involved in the ritual killing of animals. Hence if you kill animals in the way this person did, then the person must be a Satanist!
Guinee (1987 p.13) has pointed out that some news media people have even printed articles about Satanism in which the information had been revealed to the reporter directly from God!
Like any mass media production about reasonably small minorities, there is always the danger that the dominant population, having no real access to the minority, will begin to believe the media depictions as accurate. The Matamoras killings in Mexico which were dubbed Satanic involved murders that were in some ways inspired by a film, The Believers (Linedecker 1989; Hicks 1990b). Other researchers (Ferguson 1993, ms) have, for example, in Canada, produce evidence of people playing out movie roles of Satanists, although none of them were truly involved in Satan worship or thought themselves to be. Here of course is the basic problem. With no orthodoxy in Satanism, the “correct” way to do Satanic ritual does not exist. (One could, I suspect, cite either Anton LaVey as the head of the Church of Satan (see for example LaVey 1969, 1972; Barton 1990), or Alistair Crowley as orthodoxy (1976), but a lot of self proclaimed Satanists would disagree). The result is that one either falls back on one’s own imagination or looks at the media for guidance.
In some cases, Satanism appears as a ready made scapegoat for certain crimes: a church desecration lead to the thought that Satanists may have had a hand in it. Complicating the matter were words scrawled in an unknown script, which turned out to be runic. Since Satanism can run rampant and write in anything it wants, given the dearth of real rules about ritual, the writing could be Satanic in inspiration. My thought was to associate runes more with Odin and Norse materials, rather than Satanism, and suspected White supremacists, which seems to have been closer to the truth in the end.
In a case in a suburb of a Midwest city, a teenage girl claimed to have been abused by Satanists in a defiling ritual where fifty or more hooded Satanists stood around and chanted. All manner of defiling things were done to her. This seemed not only to mirror a half a dozen films, but additionally there were other problems. A quick investigation revealed that no one (including patrol cars) had seen an unusual number of cars in the area, nor had anyone heard the chanting of fifty people in a basement. It did appear though, that the young woman had recently had her first sexual experience with a young man, and incidentally, it was in the basement of his house that the Satanic ritual was supposed to have taken place.
As Satanic events increase and decrease in numbers, one suspects they are akin to sightings of the Loch Ness Monster, the Susquatch, Yeti and even the Moa in New Zealand. It is not always a question of whether there is any truth the existence of the creature, but rather whether there is a process by which certain psychological problems may manifest themselves as externalized events (Anderson, 1990; Shackley, 1982; Thomas 1983; White, 1978).
We might argue that the surrounding population (i.e. those who claim to know what Satanists are, but do not practice it) are “natives” who also get to decide what Satanism is. Certainly within their own sub-group they do. The problem of insider and outsider perceptions of groups is a well known problem (Beatty, 1977). It is hardly fair, in some ways, to allow a group of people to decide on the classification of another group, although it happens regularly. Groups which have the power to enforce their conceptual categories on others may easily be able to define “the other” in ways that are totally unrealistic (from the “others” point of view and possible even from the point of view of observable data). It does strike me however, that this is like collecting information about the universe from people who have been told what it is like, or see what it is like from the space ships of the aliens who had abducted them.
While I am certainly not denying the possibility that a Satanic group could form and develop actual rituals which involved ritualized murders and the like, I suspect that actual Satanist are less likely to deal with such things (often being involved more with hedonism than murder). In fact, on those few occasions in which actual murders have occurred they tend to have been motivated by other events, and the explanation ultimately becomes Satanic. Even the most current example of so called Satanic killings, those in , seem to have been motivated by a host of reasons that had little or nothing to do with Satanism, and more with feelings of rejection.
But belief in certain Satanic acts by non-Satanist tends to reflect more something in the mind of the beholder rather than the one beheld. As a result, Satanists are more likely scapegoats in many contexts and may in fact produce a red herring which will be dragged across the path of an actual investigation with incredible results. In many instances these may result from the investigating unit being believers, but not practitioners. On occasion severe mental, physical and financial damage may result to innocent parties - including police. In one instance (Wright 1994) a police officer is ultimately accused of Satanic activity and although he has no recollection of it, becomes more and more convinced that such activity must have taken place. He is a believer, whose belief is so strong that he is finally able to convince himself he is a practitioner of Satanism and committed acts which clearly could never have happened.
Satanism, as seen from the point of view of its “victims” (who are, at least one kind of “native”) appears to be not unlike UFO abductions and visions of various monsters. There seems much more projection than reality involved in “sightings”. In this respect, Satanists certainly share a common history with Jews, Communists, Freemasons and others who have been perceived at one time or another as scapegoats for much of the world’s problems, although there are clearly differences as well. It would appear that both Satanists and non Satanists are the “Natives”, since Satanism is clearly a part of the larger culture, but there is severe disagreement between different groups of “Natives” about the nature of Satanism. At the same time it is clear that more general beliefs, held by both groups (i.e. the purity of children) are transformed and/or altered by some additional rule to yield rather different results. In effect, the two groups of “natives” are like dialects, wherein some rules can be found operating which causes radical shifts in meaning between the two groups. Some people see moas, sea serpents, and other animals, while others see Wild Men, Yetis, Susquatches and Bigfoot. Others opt for UFOs and aliens. The peculiarity of the sighting seems to have something to do with the particular condition of the individual making the sighting. Similarly, rejection of the enlightenment might lead to a person heading for New Age Religion, Satanism or post modernism (or possibly all three). Likewise, it would appear that perceptions of Satanism, all by “natives", are functions of basic religious beliefs, specific “quirks” in the individual cause them to lean in one direction or another. Far more non-Satanists have memories of being abused by Satanists than practicing Satanists have of being abused or abusing others. But they are as much natives of the culture which has spawned Satan as the practitioners are.
The final complexity lies in the actual trials of people believed to be involved with Satanism (or witchcraft for that matter. In 1928 in Pennsylvania, John Blymire, John Curry and Wilbert Hess were involved in the murder of Nelson Rehmeyer. All were Pennsylvania Dutch who believed in witchcraft. The three believed that they were being killed by the third through “witching” by the fourth. The trial was apparently well publicized, with the press largely making fun of the idea that these Pennsylvania Dutch were silly enough to believe in witchcraft. The jury contained no believers in witchcraft. As the blurb on the book jacket of Hex (Lewis, 1969) states “The forces of respectability at the trial, however, preferred to dismiss belief in necromancy as a motive for the slaying. And the judge refused to admit any evidence related to the “powwow [witchcraft] business”. One of the men was convicted and executed. If a person believes they are in danger and commits homicide, they are generally not found guilty. Currently, the situation is quite reversed (much like the Catholic Church’s position on witchcraft which in a 200 year period changed from it being a heresy to believe in witches to it being a heresy not to). Today many people believe that Satanic practices are ubiquitous. This basic belief makes it very hard, if not impossible, to convince a jury of something which runs counter to their instincts (see Joans (1997) also in this volume). Her problem rests with juries who “know” that it is best for a child to be raised by a nuclear family, evidence that other ways might be just as valid not withstanding.
The fact that members of juries are also potential non-practicing believers complicates legal matters with Satanic crimes. An attorney may need to overcome an entire set of personal beliefs in order to get a jury to understand what may have actually happened. But the jury’s own belief systems, like those at the witch trials of the past, may prove too strong a force to overcome. The power of Satan may, in the end, wind up stronger in the accusers than in the accused.
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