Black Mass

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Black Mass

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The Black Mass was the product of the creative imagination of medieval inquisitors. In the fifteenth century, the Spanish Inquisition turned its attention toward stamping out witchcraft (surviving remnants of pre-Christian Paganism), which was redefined as the worship of Satan (rather than the older Pagan pantheon). At the time, the Inquisition was limited in its task to the suppression of heresy (non-Orthodox forms of Christian belief) and apostasy (rejection of Christianity by former believers). Paganism, as another religion altogether, was outside its purview, hence the redefinition. Satanism, as the worship of the Christian antideity, clearly would qualify as apostasy.

Having created the image of an anti-Christianity, the inquisitors slowly built up a picture of what Satanists would do, centered upon the desecration and parody of Christian worship. The mass, the central act of Roman Catholic worship, would obviously be the target of Satanic abuse. Elements of the “black” or satanic mass might include the desecration of a stolen communion wafer, nudity, sexual acts, the sacrifice of an infant, the saying of the Lord’s Prayer backward, and acknowledgment of Satan. The climax of the mass might be the invocation and appearance of Satan himself. Under torture, a variety of accused witches confessed to participation in such actions. The primary textbook offering a summary of Satanism was The Witches Hammer (Malleus Maleficarum) written by two Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger (1436–1495), and published in 1486.

It is to be noted that there is no acceptable evidence of an actual Black Mass being held until the seventeenth century. During the reign of Louis XIV (1638–1715), a fortune teller named Catherine Deshayes (d. 1680), popularly known as La Voisin, conspired with a libertine priest known as Abbé Guiborg to work magic on behalf of various people in the French court who wished to keep their place close to the king. In the process, Black Masses were conducted (some of which included one of the king’s mistresses as an altar). When these were discovered, the inroads of La Voisin into the court threatened to bring down the government, and the affair was largely hushed up, with trials held in secret and key people being either executed or banished.

Black Masses reappeared at the end of the nineteenth century, again in France, where J. K. Huysmans founded possibly the first of the modern Satanic groups. Huysmans authored a book, La-Bas (Down There), which included a detailed account of a Black Mass and would become a source book for future Satanic groups. However, few appeared to have picked up on the Satanic idea until the 1960s. In 1966, San Franciscan Anton LaVey (1930–1997) announced a new era of Satan and the formation of the Church of Satan. The church espoused LaVey’s ideal of a set of anti-Christian values such as individualism, selfishness, and the expression of human drives suppressed by the church.

In 1969, LaVey published The Satanic Bible, the primary book guiding the Church of Satan. It included guidelines for holding a Black Mass. During the first decade of the church, Black Masses were held to the entertainment of the news media, some being attended by celebrities. LaVey’s masses emphasized the sexual aspects, but given the church’s teachings about being law-abiding, they eschewed any taking of life. The church and its several offshoots continue to practice a Black Mass.

Satanism, both of the LaVey variety or its more informal variety, has been an extremely rare phenomenon. The Church of Satan never had more than 2,000 active members and was largely gutted in the mid-1970s, when a number of leaders left and its groups (called grottos) largely dissolved. With the exception of the Temple of Set, which counts its membership in the hundreds, the groups that have come out of the Church of Satan have been very small and ephemeral.

On very rare occasions, informal Satanic groups have formed and, during their short life, committed one or more homicides. However, the threat from Satanism remains largely an imagined phenomenon propagated by a small number of conservative Christian church leaders. In 2004 an Italian heavy metal rock band called the Beasts of Satan were accused of killing two of its teenage members in an act of human sacrifice. In response, a prominent Roman Catholic University, the Regina Apostolorum, introduced a course on Satanism and the occult into its curriculum.


Cavendish, Richard. The Black Arts. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967.
Huysmans, J. K. Down There (La-Bas) : A Study in Satanism. Trans. Keene Willis. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1958.
LaVey, Anton. The Satanic Bible. New York: Avon Books, 1969.
Rhodes, H. T. F. The Satanic Mass. London: Rider, 1954.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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