Exploring the crossroads of religion, culture, and science through a Pagan lens

Harvard’s Black Mass: a sensationalist’s dream

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Naked women, inverted crosses, and perverted sacraments – the Black Mass has them all. The Black Mass made headlines this week when a group of Harvard extension students made plans to stage the ceremony as an educational, cultural event, but backlash from offended Catholics was widespread and unrelenting.

The Black Mass is reputed to go back to medieval times, when the Catholic Church ruled the western world with an iron fist and serfs were stuck in a life of misery under its thumb. Resentful peasants who hated the Church, perceiving it as the main source of their squalor, are said to have held the infamous masses under the guidance of a defrocked priest. The idea was to pervert everything that the oppressor thought holy. If crosses were sacred, Black Masses inverted them. If nudity and sex were sinful, the black mass encouraged both. If the Devil was god’s adversary, the Black Mass invoked him. If the Eucharist was sacred, it became profane.

The Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, in cooperation with the New York based Temple of Satan, was going to stage a Black Mass to educate the public about the history and context of the ceremony. The performance was supposed to include an academic lecture and a narrator explaining the service. Worst of all to Catholics, a properly consecrated host (communion wafer) was going to be used and desecrated as part of the festivities.

But there really is no historical value here. The Black Mass is an invention of the sensationalistic media.  It’s their recurring wet dream because it has the elements a good yellow journalism story needs. In Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton, about the best source you’re going to get on a topic like this, traces the idea of the Black Mass back to 1890’s France. A panic about Satanists secretly operating the Black Mass spread around the country, causing a wave of suspicion and fear. Hutton finds that the original source of the Satanic hysteria was a “self-promoting prankster,” and calls all claims of an actual ceremony “baseless” (p. 258).

And yet, he says, it was enough for the very idea to enter the western consciousness. Once there, it’s hard to remove. Hutton goes on to discuss another wave of Satanic Panic that hit England in the 1960’s, when media reports screamed about desecrated Christian churches and holy sites. Again, he finds no evidence of actual Black Masses going on, just media reports of them. There was desecration of Christian sites, but his research shows that the vandalism began after the media reports surfaced, not before (p. 268). In other words, the bloodthirsty media gave would-be vandals an idea for a fun night out. Hutton adds, “it had become a tradition for the roughest of lads to amuse themselves by counterfeiting devil-worship.”

So much like the false “Satanic Ritual Abuse” of the 80’s, the Black Mass hysteria of the 1890’s was a story without a foundation, one that actually led to more damage than existed before. It gave people ideas and wormed its way into our consciousness.

This is not to say that the Black Mass doesn’t exist. There appears to have been a Catholic priest in the 1600’s named Etienne Guiborg who performed a Black Mass ritual for the noblewoman Madame de Montespan. Other than Guiborg’s confessions, and we all know anyone could confess to anything under the torture common at the time, depictions and descriptions of the Guiborg mass are from hundreds of years later, many from around the time that Hutton’s “prankster” was doing his thing in France.

Guiborg Black Mass

A 1903 depiction of the Guiborg Black Mass

Any time you have a dominant system, there will always be dissenters. Those dissenters will pervert the dominant system’s practices in order to assert their own independence. That’s probably what happened in the middle ages. Small groups of rebellious peasants got together and did some naughty “counterfeit devil-worship.” Or, some nut like Guiborg went out and did these rituals for powerful nobles. There never was any codified “script,” rite, or movement, just “rough lads” with a loose idea of making fun of what is sacred or aristocrats who sought power.

There are modern Black Masses. Anyone with access to the Internet and a few books can find the elements and write one. Those who walk the Left Hand Path practice them as a “psychodrama” to rid themselves of the controls programmed within them by the dominant religion. In Uncle Setnakt’s Essential Guide to the Left Hand Path, practitioner Don Webb calls this inner programming the “forces that oppose the will,” and says that desecration of what a person once considered sacred frees you from “blind obedience” to these oppressive forces and allows you to emerge into whatever you can become (p. 4).

But a formal, scripted Black Mass performed in a way that has any real cultural significance is a modern invention. Like Wicca, it may have some roots in the distant past, but as a formalized ritual it is relatively new. This leads me to wonder exactly what historical and educational purpose the Cultural Education Club at an institution as lofty as Harvard was really thinking when they chose to put on this ritual.

I like to think that their intentions were honest: a formal Black Mass is a counter-cultural invention of the mid-20th century, and that they intended to show how forces from the medieval peasants, through the French Black Mass scare, media sensationalism in the 1920’s, and the anti-establishment ideals of the 60’s led to this type of ritual.

It is possible that the event was intended to simulate what may have taken place, according to the legends, back in the medieval period. If they were trying to present this ritual as historic, I hope that they at least were intending this much honesty. This is a Harvard event, after all.

Another option is that the club was intentionally trying to drum up attention. Their partner, the Temple of Satan, is quite good at that. The organization is also fighting the placement of a 10 Commandments marker at the Oklahoma State Capitol Building with a brilliant campaign to place a smiling and loving statue of Satan right next to the Commandments. Freedom for one religion means freedom for all, right?  What proud, freedom-loving Oklahoman wouldn’t want to celebrate our country’s religious freedom by placing this statue outside their state capitol?


Temple of Satan statue

The Temple of Satan’s proposed statue for the Oklahoma State Capitol Building

I can’t get into the head of the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, but I question the true historical value of publicly staging this ritual. The history of the Black Mass, given that it was a necessarily secretive ritual during the Middle Ages, is prone to misinformation and hyperbole.  However, if they intended to trace the roots from medieval times through the various times nefarious groups of Satanists were feared to be secretly Black Massing all over Europe, through the books, movies, and news reports that gave rise to theo creation of a formal Black Mass, then there is value here. It can show how rumors somehow become fact through gossip, exaggeration, and slander.





Author: Tim

I am a teacher, a theater lover, and a High Priest in the Temple of Witchcraft. I love to point out the places where the everyday world, arts, science, and religion intersect. I stand for interfaith cooperation and the belief that people of all religions, political beliefs, and nationalities have more in common with each other than differences.

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