Music for the (Satanic) Ritual Chamber: Sensorial Sound

This post belongs to a series of posts on media and religion, related to my dissertation on the Church of Satan. 

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Catherine Bell, in her book, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, focuses on underlying concerns that are addressed in the study of religion and media; she challenges the dichotomy that separates thought and action. First, she discusses a history of how ritual has been studied, and then second, she critiques how ritual has been isolated from theory and social activity. She proposes instead, “a focus on ‘ritualization’ as a strategic way of acting” (1992, 7). That is, that ritual is a thought-action, that communicates ways of being in the world through socially constructed symbols and meanings. It is, most importantly, not separate from theory. Ritual action is thought-action, and their ostensible division is a product of western history, tracing as far back as Plato, that denounces material culture over an exalted spiritual dimension.

The bipolar division of the world has contemporary repercussions in scholarship. Allow David Morgan to elaborate on the problem within his commentary on studies in visual culture:

As the set of practices, attitudes, and ideas invested in images that structure the experience of the sacred, visual piety cancels the dualistic separation of mind and matter, thought and behavior, that plagues a great deal of work on art and religion. (Morgan 1998, 2-3)

He promotes a dissolution of the dualistic approach, and instead examines material culture in terms of how people construct ways of meaning by their interaction with images.

A similar critique to the ostensible duality of human existence can be found in the Satanic worldview. Anton Szandor LaVey (1938-1997), the founder of the Church of Satan (1966), writes in his foundational text, The Satanic Bible:

ALL religions of a spiritual nature are inventions of man. He has created an entire system of gods with nothing more than his carnal brain. Just because he has an ego, and cannot accept it, he has to externalize it into some great spiritual device which he calls “God.” (2005, 44)

LaVey claims that humans worshipping gods are instead worshipping the humans that made those gods; he advocates eliminating the “middle man” and worshipping the self directly. He writes: “Man needs ritual and dogma, but no law states that an externalized god is necessary in order to engage in ritual and ceremony” (ibid). That is, that humankind, as solely carnal beings, can engage in ritual behaviour and ceremony that fulfills an innate desire for ritualization and meaning-making. They are meant as rites of communion with the self, as magical rites of autonomy. They define magic as a manifestation of the will; Satanic magical rituals are actions that effect desired transformations.

The Satanic Bible and other literature from the Church of Satan contains suggestive, not prescriptive, scripts for magical rituals, which employ scent, sight, sound, and touch to enhance the sensorial aspects of the rites. Individual members, however, alter the scripts to enact highly particular magical performances. These customized ceremonies are designed to arouse the senses of the participants; a highly emotional and stimulating rite is considered potent and successful magic. Though members of the Church of Satan adopt a firm secular worldview, with a strong atheistic foundation, their understanding of ritual is a hybridist carnal-magical practice that boosts the senses for a heightened and cathartic bodily experience.

Bell and Morgan promote similar notions to that of Lavey (though, obviously, with different intents and audiences): that ritual, practice, and materiality are paramount to constructing meaningful individual and social lives.

Given that I currently framing my research into Satanic Magic in terms of the sensorial media used within rituals, I am prompted to think about the emotive quality of sound. Isaac Weiner claims: “Perhaps it might be more appropriate to think of sound as a property or characteristic of a discrete material object” (2011, 110). That is, Weiner states that though you could consider the objects that create sound as material culture, he is more interested in the materiality of sound itself. He writes:

[To] focus on sound merely as a secondary characteristic of discrete material objects ignores how a sound’s material properties change as it emanates from its source. It ignores how particular sounds are affected by other aspects of the physical world, including weather patterns, the built environment, and the geographic landscape. And it ignores the vibrating of air on the eardrum that makes hearing itself a physiological process. (110)

Weiner is promoting the idea that sound, simply because it cannot be seen and is transitory in nature, should not be denounced as immaterial; it is, in fact, directly affecting its environment, and altering that which it encounters.

LaVey, a lifelong musician, would likely agree with Weiner’s statement, as he discussed the evocative effects of music (both in terms of physiological sound waves and emotive qualities) and how to use them for ritual magic. He notes: “Anything which serves to intensify the emotions during a ritual will contribute to its success. Any drawing, painting, sculpture, writing, photograph, article of clothing, scent, sound, music, tableau, or contrived situation that can be incorporated into the ceremony will serve the sorcerer well” (2005, 124). The point of a Satanic ritual is to have a heightened emotional experience for cathartic ends. Music, then, plays an important role.

Essays from LaVey’s book Satan Speak’s, “UR-Song, or Why There Are No More Volume Pedals,” and “Stereo, Scam of the Century,” describe how musicians should make music that compels people to “listen, rather than merely hear” (1998, 60). LaVey emphasizes tempo and dynamism, while lambasting stereo for eliminating musical nuance. He notes that music heard from one source is still binaural, as two ears act as “range finders for sound” (56). Too much focus is on the emitter of sound, and not the receptor of sound.

For Satanic magical rituals, he lists a range of classical music that he finds particularly evocative, such as:

Puccini’s Turandot, climax of first act:

Handel’s Largo from Xerxes:

Berlioz’ Funeral and Triumphal Symphony:

As Satanic rituals are highly idiosyncratic, many Satanists also use LaVey’s own Hymn of the Satanic Empire:

(Sheet music available on the Church of Satan website.)

The succeeding and current High Priest of the Church of Satan, Peter H. Gilmore—who holds a degree in music composition from New York University—offers some of his own downloadable classical music compositions. Gilmore has written about his love of bombastic symphony music, and how it creates “grand emotional expression” (2007, 112).

Gilmore attests that Satanic rituals are “self-transformative psychodrama” (2007, 223). One of the ways in which the transformation occurs is through the sound of music, but also through the proclaimed word. Performative utterances in ritual are proclamations of fact, not simply word references. When a marriage ceremony is conducted, a judge’s statement “I now pronounce you man and wife” legally changes the civil status of that couple. Similarly, when proclaiming “So it is done” in Satanic ritual, it does not merely describe the action, it is the action. It is another form of willfully engaging in suspension of disbelief; you act as if your desire has already been fulfilled. The sounded out words shifts the understanding of reality.

There are correlations to be made between sound in Satanic ritual and how Weiner advances his discussion on sound. He states:

Studying sound should direct our attention…not to discrete physical objects, but to the space—and relationship—between them. Studying sound implies a theory of religion that is inherently communal and intersubjective. To study sounds as material culture, then, is to attend both to their physical properties and to the historically specific processes through which broadcasters and receivers invest sounds with significance. (2011, 109)

This intersubjectivity can be applied to the emotionally cathartic goal of Satanic ritual. It is meant as a sensorial manipulation of one’s own psyche.

References

Bell, Catherine. 1992. Ritual Theory: Ritual Practice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gilmore, Peter H. 2007. The Satanic Scriptures. Scapegoat Publishing.

LaVey, Anton Szandor. 2005 [1969]. The Satanic Bible. New York, NY: Avon Books.
—–. 1998. Satan Speaks. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House.

Morgan, David. 2008. Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture. New York, NY: Routeledge.
—–. 1998. Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Weiner, Isaac. 2013. Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism. New York: NYU Press.
—–. 2011. “Sound,” Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art & Belief 7.1: 108–15.
—–. 2009. “Sound and American Religions,” Religion Compass 3.5: 897–908.

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