History is stuffed with rumors of strange and secretive Satanic cults. Some of those rumors are nothing more than a load of hot goat's blood, and others are legit Check out the best cults in history, and see if they ever really existed.
Ah, Salem. In 1692, over a period of only a few months, 200 people had been accused of witchcraft and jailed, and 20 had been killed. (One man had been tortured to death. His interrogators had piled stones on his chest until he smothered.) It started out as a few girls - none of them over twelve years old - "having fits." It soon became a storm of accusations that only ended when the governor's wife was accused of witchcraft and he shut the whole thing down. Many people confessed to trafficking with the devil and writing their name in his book. Under torture, they named others who they had seen at black masses. One woman named her own daughter. On paper it looked like a good part of the village was a Satanic cult.
Was it Real?
What's strange about the Salem Witch Trials is not that no one believes it now - it's that no one even believed it then. The village of Salem was known to be a nasty place. Its members quarreled with each other and with their neighbors. The town couldn't keep a minister because the supposedly devout Christians refused to pay ministers their agreed-upon salary. Once the trials began, letters poured in from the surrounding countryside condemning the very idea, and ridiculing the use of incorporeal evidence, like visions and dreams. Executions seemed to be meted to the less popular and the less protected. The woman who named her own daughter as a witch was hanged. The daughter was not. Nor was Tituba, a slave who was one of the first people accused of witchcraft - and the very first to confess. Possibly she lived because, as she had no property and no ability to cause trouble for others, no one stood to gain from her death. After the trials were shut down, the town reversed its stance on witches quickly. The accused were let go. The use of incorporeal evidence was deemed unlawful. Within fifteen years, the verdicts were declared void and restitution was paid to any accused yet living, even if they had confessed. Everyone seemed to know it was a fraud, but during the trials no one spoke up.
Michelle Remembers has entirely sunk from the public consciousness by now, but in 1980, when it was published, it kickstarted a whole movement. The book was about the recovered memories of Michelle Smith. Aided by her psychiatrist, she remembered horrific abuse at the hands of an ancient and international cult of Satanists. Among Michelle's memories were things like 81-day ceremonies in a public graveyard during which the cult raised the devil, only to see him fought back down to hell by angels and the Virgin Mary. The book started a two-decade search for child-abusing satanic cults that supposedly populated America and several other countries. That search ended in some drawn-out trials and a few convictions. The fear of underground Satanic cults was so widespread that it earned the name "The Satanic Panic." Geraldo Rivera claimed that there were over a million satanic cults in the US. In South Africa, they actually trained a supernatural crimes unit to deal the the cases.
Was it Real?
Almost certainly not. Although the book got a good reception when it was first published, the public soured on Smith and her psychiatrist when they divorced their respective spouses, married each other, and went on speaking tours. Eventually reporters and television stations began looking into the book's claims, and found out that Michelle had never been out of school for 81 days, and the site of the two-month-long ritual to raise the devil occurred in a graveyard surrounded on three sides by suburban houses. As for the claim that there there were a million satanic cults in America, if it were true it would mean that, at the time of the claim, one in two-hundred people would have been a Satanist.
Founded in 1948, Our Lady of Endor is an example of gnostic Satanism. The founder, Herbert Sloane, claimed to have seen a horned god in the woods as a child. Later he realized that this was Satan. With that in mind, he re-read the Bible story and saw the serpent not as a tempter, but as someone who showed Eve the true nature of God. The "fall of man" was a good thing, but its meaning was twisted by Christian theists.
Was it Real?
It existed, but when you think Satan is a good guy in the service of God, is what you're practicing satanism or semantics?
So it's the 1600s in France, and some woman tries to poison her family in order to come into her inheritance. She's caught and killed. This is a common enough occurrence, but for some reason this time aristocratic France gets spooked. Possible poisoners are dragged from their houses and questioned, tortured, and killed. One of these poisoners is a midwife at the court of Louis XIV. The interrogators are gentler than most. They get her drunk. She claims that the king's mistress attends black masses and casts spells in order to keep the king's love. Word spreads. Other aristocrats are named as inveterate black massers. It looks like the Sun King's court was just one big satanic cult.
Was it Real?
There were poisoners around during the 1600s, but Satanists were probably still thin on the ground in those days. If the mistress was a satanist, the king didn't seem to bear a grudge, and kept visiting her for some time after the accusation. The "information" gotten by the interrogators about what goes on during a black mass became a kind of template for witch hunters. It was surprisingly tame. Sure there was some sex and some beating up of holy people, but the highlight of the night seemed to be "baptizing" a pig and calling it a carp, so that the satanists could eat meat on Friday. How hardcore a satanist do you have to be before you can just eat a pig on Friday without renaming it first?
Supposedly, at one time, the head of Proctor & Gamble went on television and, with a pleased smile, announced how happy he was that the United States was so open-minded. Why, it was so open-minded, so secular, so liberal, that he didn't mind admitting that his company donated a large portion of their profits to a Satanic cult. In fact, Proctor & Gamble was so committed to Satanism that they had a horned Satan on their logo. He concluded that, sure, people would be mad that he had announced this, but there weren't enough Christians in the country anymore to make any difference. Then he steepled his fingers, said "muahahahahaha," and waded into the audience to pick out a nice juicy child to sacrifice. Following his lead, the head of Liz Claiborne did the same. So clearly, much of corporate America is part of a satanic cult.
Was it Real?
Metaphorically, that's for you to decide. Factually, no. The facts change, in this little story, to fit the circumstances. In one version of the story the confession was said to have happened on the Phil Donahue Show. The story claimed that the appearance was back in 1970, which is why no one has a copy. The Phil Donahue Show didn't even air until much later. More modern versions of the legend have the confession taking place on The Sally Jesse Rafael Show, but again, no one can find a recording of it. Perhaps now, with the advent of DVRs, the rumor can finally stop being updated.
This is probably the most well-known establishment, when it comes to Satanism. Founded in 1966, by Anton LaVey, the Church of Satan maintains offices, not dark pits near graveyards. People can buy a basic membership, but need to become "active" within the Satanic community be considered active members or work their way up to priest or priestess positions. The Satanic Panic actually gave the church a publicity boost, as members were in demand to come on television and either answer and debunk satanic ritual abuse myths. The church itself came out of the panic looking clean. The FBI even stated that the Church of Satan was not involved in any criminal activity.
Was it Real?
It was and is real, but it practices a kind of Satanism known as "atheistic Satanism." The Satanic Bible, written by LaVey, states that deities are projections of the self, not outside influences. There are rituals and spells, but the church is about self-discovery, not shaking hands with the devil.
In Europe, around the mid-19th century, artists began to rebel against the wide eyes, determined naturalism, and apple-cheeked wholesome idealism of the romantic movement. Tired of celebrating "naturally" good humans and unaffected art, they turned to darker themes, heavy symbolism, and a kind of spiritual subversiveness. And they found Satan. These were the people who started toying with Satan as an intriguing, sympathetic, or even heroic figure. Charles Baudelaire was a famous Decadent, and wrote, "The Flowers of Evil," and "Litanies to Satan." That was unsubtle.
Was it Real?
The Decadents celebrated Satan artistically, not religiously. They were worshipping a symbol and a cultural concept, not a deity. Before he died, Baudelaire himself received last rites from the Catholic Church.
This isn't to say that the Decadents didn't leave their mark on France. The flirtation with Satan continued until the 1930s, when two different cults were in full swing. One was led by a defrocked priest. The other, more famous one, was led by a Russian emigre called Maria de Naglowska. She headed The Brotherhood of the Golden Arrow, which worshiped Lucifer, the serpent, with sex magic. De Naglowska was all about sex magic, publishing books and even newspapers on the subject. One ritual had people surrounding her naked body and saying, "I will research with companions the initiatory erotic act, which, by transforming the heat into light arouses Lucifer from the satanic shades of masculinity."
Was it Real?
Yes, this one was real - though some interpret Lucifer as a "light bringing" deity rather than the conventional idea of the devil. This type of Satanism lost some popularity after the thirties, presumably because France had enough problems without Satan getting involved. De Naglowska still practiced, but was more celebrated by surrealist painters than cult members. It seems that, in France, Satanism moved from art, to religion, and back to art.
Jack Parsons was well-known for developing a solid rocket fuel, for co-founding the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and for running a cult out of his California mansion. Members of the cult, including L Ron Hubbard, danced half-naked around bonfires well before the hippies made that sort of thing cool. This particular Satanic group was not the subject of whispered rumors. Parsons and Hubbard themselves documented their rituals. Police reports from neighbors described public ceremonies. The group practiced sex magick, and eventually got so extreme that Aleister Crowley chastised them.
Was it Real?
Parsons claimed to have raised Satan at the age of 13, and much of his rituals were inspired by this early success. That being said, he was not a fan of Satan, and not looking to raise him again. The overall doings of the group could be considered a niche form of neo-paganism, except for the fact that they were trying to raise the Anti-Christ. Parsons was convinced that, with enough rituals, they would raise a red-haired goddess who would give birth to the Anti-Christ. Although a red-haired goddess did come along, in the form of a pretty artist, and although she was interested in sex, she was not nearly as interested as Parsons in raising the Anti-Christ, and said no to motherhood. So it looks like we got lucky there, people.