One question that inevitably comes up in discussions with people who are unfamiliar with Paganism is “Do Neo-Pagans worship the Devil?” The simple answer is “No.”
In a way, the question whether Neo-Pagans worship the Devil or Satan is nonsensical, because Neo-Pagans don’t believe in the Devil or Satan. Satan is a figure from Christian mythology, where he is identified with ultimate evil. Neo-Pagans do not worship the Christian Devil or any evil being or power.
In fact, Neo-Pagans do not believe in cosmic good and evil in the way Christians do. Christianity posits a world where evil, like good, exists as a metaphysical force. Neo-Pagans do not see the universe in this way. While they are aware of the destructive consequences of many human choices and actions, Neo-Pagans do not blame any metaphysical being for this, neither the Devil nor God. Neo-Pagans do perceive the universe as consisting of opposition, the interplay between light and dark, life and death, and natural forces that are sometimes supportive and sometimes destructive of human life. However, Neo-Pagans do not see the darkness, death, or destructive natural forces as evil. They do see patriarchy, racism, the rape of the environment, and harming others (human and other-than-human) as morally reprehensible. However, these evils are the result of human choices, not any metaphysical evil.
What is Satanism?
It is helpful, when talking about Satanism, to make clear just what we are talking about. The words “Satanist” or “Devil worship” often conjure up images of child-sacrifice and sex cults from bad movies. Obviously, Neo-Paganism has nothing to do with such cults, the stories of which are mostly fictional anyway.
There are people today who call themselves “Satanists,” though. Many of these people are associated with the Church of Satan founded by Anton LaVey in the 1960s. LaVey’s Church of Satan is a kind of “cathartic” Satanism* that melds Ayn Rand’s philosophical individualism with traditional Satanic imagery. LaVeyan Satanism does not involve a literal belief in or the worship of Satan as a deity. In fact, many LaVeyan Satanists are atheists. Rather, Satan is regarded by them as a symbol of individualism and rational hedonism, values that Christianity has associated with evil, but that many modern people embrace. As scholar of popular culture, Christopher Partridge, explains:
“Satan is understood more in terms of a useful icon that encourages self-interest and individualism, and promotes opposition to institutional religion and the dominant culture. Again, in this sense, Satanism is essentially a self-religion or human potential spirituality that utilizes the rebellious, offensive, and provocative symbolism the figure of Satan provides.”
The “worship” practiced by these Satanists is often done in an ironic spirit and may involve ritual acts of blasphemy.
Neo-Paganism does share some similarities with LaVeyan Satanism. Both valorize physical reality and our animal instincts, but LaVeyan Satanists differ sharply from Neo-Pagans in terms of ethics. While LaVeyan Satanists are committed to radical individualism, Neo-Pagans follow an ethic of non-harm and responsibility to others.
Wicca and Occultism
Christopher Partridge points out that there are good reasons for the confusion of Neo-Paganism with Satanism. To begin with, Neo-Paganism was strongly influenced by Wicca, and Wicca grew out of “Western occulture” (occult culture). Much of the symbolism of occultism has been conflated with Satanism in the popular imagination.
Eliphas Levi’s depiction of “Baphomet” is a good example of this. Levi, who was the founder of 19th century occultism, included in one of his books an image, which he himself had drawn, of a humanoid figure with a goat’s head and feet, black wings, and a human torso with female breasts exposed. Though this image can to be popularly associated with the Christian Devil, for Levi, the image represented the union of all metaphysical opposites—good and evil, human and animal, masculine and feminine—in one figure.
Gerald Gardner’s Wicca was strongly influenced by the descriptions of witchcraft in anthropologist, Margaret Murray’s, Witch Cult in Western Europe and God of the Witches (1921). Murray describes witches worshiping a “horned god” that Christians confused as Satan. Gardner was also inspired by Aleister Crowley, the self-professed “most wicked man in the world,” who could himself have been described as a cathartic Satanist. As a result of these and other influences, much of the imagery employed by Wiccans reflects the Christian stereotype of Satanism, including ritual nudity, a ritual circle, magic, sexual imagery, the use of the pentagram, a horned god, and the terms “sabbats” and “witches.” In spite of this, Wicca has nothing to do with Satanism, as it is understood by most Christians.
The Horned God
The relationship between the Neo-Pagan Horned God and the Christian Devil is a complex one. Nowadays, the “Horned God” is more often depicted with antlers, not horns, but the name (borrowed from Margaret Murray) has stuck. Neo-Pagans often claim that the Christian Devil is a caricature of pagan horned gods. In actuality, medieval Christian Devil imagery was only partly inspired by pagan imagery of horned gods. The medieval Satan more often resembled a dragon than a goat, with bat wings and clawed, not cloven, feet.
The Neo-Pagan Horned God is a composite of many pre-Christian deities, mostly Greek Pan and the Celtic Cernunnos. But it was also influenced by the Margaret Murray’s interpretation of medieval Christian Devil imagery. Ironically, then, the Neo-Pagan Horned God is a modern “paganization” of the Christian Devil.
There is another sense in which the Neo-Pagan Horned God is related to the Christian Devil. The Devil, with his various animal characteristics, represents the animal nature of humankind. Likewise, the Neo-Pagan Horned God represents a sacralization of our animal natures, especially our sexuality. Thus, the Neo-Pagan Horned God could be confused by some Christians with their Devil. But while many Christians would view it as negative and the embodiment of sinfulness, Neo-Pagans see this figure as positive and life-affirming.
* Cathartic Satanism uses symbolic and ritual blasphemy to help individuals heal from the psychological harm caused by Christian indoctrination and spiritual abuse.