Witches Sabbat (1789). Francisco de Goya. Pagan horned god demonized by the Church as the Devil.
Witches Sabbat (1789). Francisco de Goya.
Modern-day Satanism is a term that may refer to a religious, semi-religious, and/or philosophical movement. It does not ultimately mean that an individual worships the Christian Satan or that they are “devil worshippers.” Many modern “Satanists” do not actually believe in a being called “Satan,” and co-opted his name only as a symbolic allusion to certain materialistic and individualistic values.

In the traditional Christian context of Faust, however (though Faust is not a Satanist), it applies to those individuals who worship the entity called “Satan,” and advocate the triumph of evil forces over good in the universe.


The concept of Satan has evolved over the centuries, as has Satanism.

Originally in Judeo-Christian traditions, Satan was seen as a part of creation, embodying the principle that one could choose contrary to God’s wishes, and thus empowering the potential for free will and defiance. (In this context an ancient Jewish commentary notes that only when the potential to contravene God’s will arose, could creation become “very good” as opposed to merely “good”.) Over the centuries this concept of Satan came to embody all that was evil and against God, a change attributable to two main influences:

  • The view that everything had its opposite, and that God, if all-good, must have His opposing deity (many preceding multiple deity religions also had their evil gods as well as good gods, Set of the Ancient Egyptians being one example);
  • Christianity, followed by Islam, placed a high premium on salvation and the afterlife, and Satan grew as an embodiment of all that was trying to undermine God.

As European society evolved from the reformation into the enlightenment onwards (17th and 18th centuries), people began to question the nature of evil, and Satan gradually evolved yet again in response to this, so Satanism came to signify a tradition which denied traditional religious paths in favor of a self-oriented path, rather than a path which favored evil.

In an older sense, Satanism also refers to unorthodox practices within Abrahamic religions deemed by an orthodoxy to be in opposition to the Abrahamic God. The earliest recorded instance of the word is in “An apologie of the Church of England”, by Thomas Harding (1565): ll, ii, 42 b, “Meaning the time when Luther first bringed to Germanie the poisoned cuppe of his heresies, blasphemies, and Satanismes.” As Martin Luther himself would have denied any link between his teachings and Satan, this use of the term Satanism was primarily pejorative.

Satan within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Witches' Sabbath (The Great He-Goat). A coven of witches with Satan as a goat. 1821-1823. One of the Black Paintings of Francisco Goya.
Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat). A coven of witches with Satan as a goat. 1821-1823. One of the Black Paintings of Francisco Goya.
The concept of “Satan” developed with Judaism and was elucidated further by Christians and Muslims. This Judeo-Christian-Islamic view of Satan can be broken up as follows:

  • Jewish: Satan ‏(שטן)‏ in Hebrew, means “adversary” or “accuser”, and is also the name used for the angel who tests believers. Satan is not considered an enemy of God, but a servant whose duties include testing the faith of humanity.
  • Islamic: The Arabic word for Satan, “al-Shaitaan” ‏(الشيطان)‏ means transgressor, or adversary, as in Judaism. It is a title which is generally attributed to a being called Iblis, who is a Jinn that disobeyed God and was condemned consequently by God to serve as a source of misguidance for mankind and the Jinn to test their faith in God. Iblis is said to be the proper name for the devil-like figure named in the Qur’an whereas there are many Shaitan.
  • Christian: In most branches of Christianity, Satan, originally Lucifer before he fell away from Grace, is a spiritual being or angel who was once in God’s service. Satan is said to have fallen from God when he surrendered to his own vanity and refused to take his proper place in creation (In Christianity, the fallen “son of the dawn” of Isaiah 14:12 is identified with the “adversary” of the Book of Job.) It is said to be Satan who whispered to man that he could become as God, which led to man’s original sin and his being cast out of Eden. Satan is also referred to as the Devil from the Greek “diabolos” (Διαβολος), meaning “slanderer” or “one who accuses falsely” (derived from the verb “dia-ballô” (δια-βαλλω) which most literally means “to throw across” or “carry something over”).

Satanic cults

The existence of large networks of organized Satanists involved in illegal activities, murder, and child abuse is occasionally claimed. Those claims have not been substantiated and have often been disproved.

Devil worship

The term “Devil worship” has a wide variety of associated meanings, but in its most objective sense, it simply refers to a religious belief in and worship of a Devil or devils. Devil worship can also be referred to as Diabolatry (from the Greek “diabolos” – devil – and “latreia” – worship), or as theistic Satanism.

Despite some (modern day) non-theistic Satanists’ attempts to distinguish these terms, there is widespread assumption that Devil worshippers, Satanists, and criminals conducting abhorrent acts under the name of either of these terms, are the same. The reasons such a belief is so widely held include:

  • Some Satanists do, in fact, worship the Abrahamic (the religions of Abraham – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) devil; when some such individuals commit violent crimes, their religious beliefs are brought to the forefront of the story due to their normally taboo nature.
  • The media, when reporting on crimes committed by anyone who is even remotely connected with Satanism, frequently fixate on that aspect of the story and make it sound like the criminals are “Satanists” or “Devil worshippers.”
  • Some criminals who commit horrible or abhorrent crimes, claim to do so in the name of “Satan”, or as part of “Satanic rituals” which require such actions. Such claims may come from criminals who truly consider themselves Satanists of some kind, or from criminals who are “dabbling” in what they wrongly believe to be “mainstream” Satanism, or from criminals who are (legitimately or otherwise) claiming mental disabilities to avoid prosecution.
  • Many devout religious groups, particularly fundamentalist Christian groups, classify any non-Abrahamic religious worship as “Satanic.” In this view, there are only two beings powerful enough to warrant worship: God, and the former angel Lucifer. Any worship of beings that are not God is, by default, worshipping Satan. In the most extreme cases, such groups will classify belief systems as “Satanic” that otherwise have no connection to Satanism, including nearly all pagan beliefs, Wicca, other Abrahamic religions, eastern religions, and even non-religious groups such as the Freemasons.
  • For people who are not Satanists (in any sense), the attempt by Satanic groups to define Satanism and devil worship as completely separate concepts is often interpreted as “splitting hairs,” or worse, intentional deception.

Part of the reason why many modern-day non-theistic Satanists demonise the term “Devil worshipper” is because of the LaVeyan teaching that worshipping a deity is a sign of intellectual weakness. It is also commonly claimed that anyone who worships the Devil is necessarily constrained by Christian theology and dogma, whereas Satanism is “freed” from such. In fact, most forms of contemporary Devil worship tend to divorce themselves from strict Christian theology in any event. The Joy of Satan is a good example of Devil worshippers who identify their idea of Satan with Sumerian mythology rather than the Bible, and the Church of Azazel practices a polytheistic form of Devil worship that combines elements of Deism and the African-based Diaspora religions (e.g., Vodou, Santeria, Umbanda) and emphasizes the importance of philosophy and intellectualism to its adherents.

On his website (“Your Friendly Neighborhood Devil Worshipper”), Geifodd ap Pwyll, a self-described Devil worshipper, defines Devil worship as “the expression of ardent love, devotion, and reverence toward a cultural scapegoat figure, and the reclamation of said figure as a slandered divinity.” There is nothing in this definition which necessitates either criminal activity or a strict adherence to Christian theology. Devil worshippers can be monotheist, duotheist, polytheist, or even pantheist. There are various different ideas of just who and what Satan is among Devil worshippers as well.


Other Organizations, Groups, Etc.

In the Ophite sect of early Christianity, the Serpent was praised as the giver of knowledge. Sometimes Satan was also referred to, under the names Lucifer or “the light-bringer”, but others see this as incorrect because they believe that Satan and Lucifer are two sperate entites. Some Gnostics claimed that the being declared God by Christians and Jews was in fact lesser being known as the Demiurge, whose name derives from the creator figure in Plato’s Timaeus; a very few Gnostic sects identified this figure with Satan; others (such as the Valentinians) saw Satan as a subsequent creation of the Demiurge.

Some early Gnostic sects, such as the Borborites and the followers of Carpocrates, were accused of horrific acts, including the eating (in horrific imitation of the sacrament) of semen, menses and aborted fetuses. These acts were committed with the apparent justification of libertinism; given that the material universe was not God’s creation, it could be put to any use with no moral consequences. Accounts of these barbaric acts are not held to be at all credible, as the accusations were rhetorical attacks against these groups by such heresiological writers as Irenaeus.

However, Gnostic sects were commonly more liberal in nature than emergent orthodox groups; for example, in viewing sexual congress as a good, even a potentially spiritual act, and in allowing woman priests and bishops to administer sacraments. There is evidence that Valentinians performed a religious ceremony known as the Bridal Chamber, in which the physical union of a man and woman was viewed as an earthly reenactment of God’s completeness; the Gnostic conception of the divine was as an androgyne, as opposed to the orthodoxy identification of him as male. Such criticisms as Irenaeus’ may be the deliberate exaggeration of these misdeeds (from the point of view of orthodoxy).


  • Bill Ellis, Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions and the Media (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000).
  • Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott, Selling Satan: The Evangelical Media and the Mike Warnke Scandal(Chicago: Cornerstone, 1993).
  • Gareth J. Medway, The Lure of the Sinister: The Unnatural History of Satanism (New York and London: New York University Press, 2001).
  • James T. Richardson, Joel Best and David G. Bromley, The Satanism Scare (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1991).

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
It uses modified material from the Wikipedia article “Satanism“.