Most of us are familiar with the term “Black Mass,” denoting the supposed rituals of devil worshippers, and broadly used to describe any clandestine or illicit gathering of initiates into any closed community. Yet confirmed histories of the phenomenon are scarce. Some contemporary self-described Satanic groups have promoted their own Black Masses, but these events, held at public venues and celebrating an assortment of secular progressive causes, bear little relation to their models of centuries past. What were Black Masses? Who observed them, and why? And from what kind of societies would they emerge, and how different are such societies from our own?
The most innocuous form of black mass, technically, is just a Catholic service conducted as a requiem for a deceased person, in which participants wear black. There is also the Christmas Eve tradition of midnight mass, annually held in churches of many denominations. But the popular understanding of Black Mass refers to a specifically anti-Christian ceremony that enacts an inverted and often obscene parody of the Catholic liturgy. The Black Mass is distinct from the Black Sabbat or Sabbath, which, according to the Catholic Inquisition’s scholars, involved the participation of Satan or other supernatural beings (just as humans were said to journey to the Sabbath gatherings on flying broomsticks). Codified in the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), a 1486 book describing the activities of witches and advising on their detection and punishment, the Black Sabbat was fundamentally a superstition, or at the very least an alarmist exaggeration of pagan beliefs and practices which had managed to survive in Christian Europe. The Black Mass was something different.
Unlike the alleged Black Sabbaths, Black Masses were said to be conducted not in remote forests or meadows but in private indoor spaces, and they made no pretense of summoning demons or devils in physical form. But like the descriptions in the Malleus Maleficarum, Black Masses were originally accusations by enemies rather than admissions by actual congregants: among the first groups to be charged with holding Black Masses were the Knights Templar, the exclusive religious and military order suppressed in 1312. Ironically, however – and prefiguring the moral panics which have continued to erupt into our own era – the ongoing hunt for imaginary witches, heretics, and Black Masses may have inspired curious or reckless bystanders to try their hand at the real thing.
In 1440, the French nobleman Gilles de Rais was executed after confessing to heresy and the invocation of evil spirits – and, not incidentally, to the abduction, rape and murder of several hundred children from the Brittany region over many years. Though some researchers today suggest de Rais’s courtroom acknowledgement was coerced through torture as part of his rivals’ political and financial intrigues, the details of his testimony were duly transcribed and widely reported. In contrast to the stereotypical modern predator, de Rais was not an alienated loner but a wealthy and outwardly devout landowner, who had fought alongside Joan of Arc against France’s English invaders, and who held domain over the serfs of Nantes and its environs. Accounts of how de Rais defiled local youngsters (fact-based or otherwise) are not pleasant reading, but it’s significant that he and his henchmen began their crimes with alchemy and sorcery, then graduated to human sacrifice. He did not exactly hold Black Masses, yet the documented specifics of his case may have made a perverse template for them.
This template was elaborated on within the court of Louis XIV in the Seventeenth Century, when a clique of Parisian aristocrats, clerics and courtesans were charged with holding orgiastic and literally underground ceremonies in service of the devil. Ritual murder of infants was included in the indictment. Much of this story, too, may have been a calculated embellishment of more prosaic business like jealousy, ambition, abortion, and attempted elimination of romantic rivals (French histories called it l’Affaire des Poisons), but the evidence, such as it was, did introduce elements which would become staples of the Black Mass legend: adoration of Satan, blasphemy against Christian symbols, and particularly the incorporation of nudity and sex into the services. Again, whether such claims can be considered eyewitness descriptions of real activities, or whether they were only what prosecutors and torturers wanted to hear, they implanted scandalous ideas in subsequent generations of the daring and the debauched.
Did someone say the Marquis de Sade? During the Enlightenment, centered in France before the Revolution, the notorious libertine was only an extreme example of the widespread disdain for religion which obtained among the country’s intellectual elites. An early brush with the law in 1763 found de Sade arrested for hiring a prostitute to (along with the usual requests) trample on a crucifix and denounce God. In his writings he also juxtaposed the pornographic with the profane, as in this counsel from his 1795 publication Philosophy in the Boudoir: “In the inebriation of pleasure, it is essential to utter powerful or dirty words, and blasphemous ones are particularly serviceable.” De Sade’s fictional and lived indulgences anticipated the erotic kinks and performative outrages of the Black Mass without the homage to Satan. It was not until the next century that those disparate strands would come together – so to speak.
By la Belle Époque of the late 1800s, France was home to a wide variety of mystical and occult sects, ranging from neo-Christian, proto-New Age Gnostics, Theosophists and Rosicrucians to the darker pursuits of the Decadent art movement and genuine Satanists. A thriving print culture of books and journals documented the internecine feuds and divisions between them all; the aftereffects of the Revolution, Napoleon, and Romanticism were still rippling through French society. Author Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1891 novel Là-Bas (variously translated as The Damned or Down There) included a depiction of a Black Mass that was shocking for its time and which is still pretty nasty today: the relevant chapter featured a semi-naked defrocked priest shouting insults against God, a life-sized, anatomically correct statue of Jesus, and culminated in an orgy among female and male attendants as they act out hysterical lusts with communion wafers and other sacraments. “The place was like the padded cells in a madhouse, a monstrous pandemonium of insanity and prostitution,” Huysmans wrote. Là-Bas also includes a subplot of the protagonist writing a biography of Gilles de Rais, and the novelist based some of his characters on real individuals of the contemporary French occult underworld, among them the former Abbé Joseph Boullan and a Belgian priest, Louis Van Haecke. How accurately Huysmans described the Black Mass – was it a sensationalist exaggeration of already defamatory rumors, or a firsthand report? – remains an open question.
By the 1960s, with the advent of the San Francisco-based Church of Satan, the hedonistic bits of the Black Mass were highlighted above any religious principles, while other cults preached the salacious therapy of “sex magic” as a pathway to enlightenment. In his 1971 bestseller The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty sketched some representations of Black Mass that were more graphic than anything in Là-Bas, and which seemed to serve more as shock value in the era of the sexual revolution than for any pertinence to his main narrative of demonic possession (the blockbuster 1973 movie adaptation nodded to these passages in a brief shot showing a sexually desecrated figure of the Virgin Mary). Stories of yet more depraved Black Masses were later passed around by the credulous, and the ugly fantasies of Michelle Smith’s purportedly true 1980 book Michelle Remembers formed the basis for the wholly specious criminal charges of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) leveled against luckless babysitters or day care workers for several years. From being a rare expression of an obscure faith, the Black Mass has become a standard trope of conspiracy theories, psychobabble, and pop culture generally.
A couple of recurring themes about the actual or alleged Black Masses stand out. One is that they often seemed to be held among members of the upper class, like the feudal lord Gilles de Rais, the social climbers of Louis XIV’s court, and the Marquis de Sade; such people seemed to believe they were above the civil and ecclesiastical laws of their time, and that the women and children of the rabble were fair game for abuse (de Sade) or even murder (de Rais, maybe). On the other hand, during the fin-de-siècle setting of Là-Bas, Satanism appeared to have become a rebellion of average folks against the distant, dominant power of the Church: “Thou has forgotten the poverty Thou didst preach!” Huysmans’s evil priest Docre rails towards Christ. “Thou art the favored vassal of the banks and the financial institutions! Thou hast seen the weak crushed beneath the weight of capital…”
It’s even more apparent that Black Masses were the product of heavily Catholic societies like France, where nearly everyone was steeped in the ornate Catholic routines of devotion and confession – and at the same time, where nearly everyone was aware of priests and nuns who’d broken their vows of celibacy, or of other hypocrisies pervading a familiar and very authoritative institution. When the formalities of worship and piety were ever-present and rationalist dissent had little voice, it was inevitable that some dubious, critical, or just antisocial instincts might take the pathological form of the Black Mass. In rather the same way that contemporary satires are most effective when the audience recognizes the underlying politician or celebrity being mocked, the Black Mass was the ultimate irreverence available to a mostly reverent population; on occasion the mockery might have consisted of no more than reciting Christian prayers in reverse or hanging a cross upside down. Likewise, the creepy sexual displays of Black Masses may have been outlets for desires which had no other sanctioned release under the moral codes of the time. In any case, the weird history of the Black Mass – authentic, invented, or somewhere in between – is a fascinating study of a strange, long-lost subculture whose trappings we might mimic today but whose worldview we can never really revive.
Further reading and listening: