EASTER MESS: THE JEWISH HISTORY OF SATANISM
Well it’s Easter again, so let’s talk about Judaism. Jesus was Jewish after all, not that anybody cares to notice.
Satan is not Jewish–as an imagined character, he has no personal ethnic or religious background. But, like most of our other great satirists, he is a product of Jewish culture–but not the way that, ah, certain people would have you believe.
As I said, Satan is not Jewish, but for thousands of years the Stephen Millerites of history have persisted in the belief that Jews are Satan. And, sadly, there’s a word for those people:
In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the fool character (whose own name likely derives from “Job”) suggests, “Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnal” [sic, of course], while another pair of Venetian layabouts warn that “the devil comes in the likeness of a Jew.” I for one will be getting my blinds elsewhere.
The truth is, many of the tropes we take for granted about Satanism have their roots in ancient anti-Jewish bigotries, although like the sometime appeal of George Burns, they can be a little hard to place.
Possibly the whole conceit of the black magician derives from superstitions about Jewish occult rites. Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg wrote in his book The Devil & the Jews (disconcertingly published in 1943), “Medieval dramatic versions of the Passion exhibit Jews, instigated by Satan, mixing a typical witches’ potion, with all of the lurid ceremonial of the well-known witch cults, while the devil solicitously supervises.”
(Mel left that bit out of his Jesus Chainsaw Massacre, at least.)
“What more natural, in these circumstances, than that the Jews should be feared and hated as Europe’s peerless sorcerers?” he continues. And indeed, almost all wicked beliefs about witches had parallels or antecedents in superstitions about devilish Jews, from infanticide to cannibalism to spreading disease.
Oxford dictionaries defines the word “sabbat” both as “a day of religious observance and abstinence from work kept by Jewish people,” but also as “a supposed annual midnight meeting of witches with the devil”–the one of course derived from the other.
During the 19th century particularly, churchgoers and conspiracists (also largely synonyms, although Oxford won’t cop to that one) clutched their rosaries for fear that Satanists had hands in their cookie jars. British poet AE Waite breathlessly described “continuous, systematic, and wholesale robberies of consecrated hosts from Catholic churches.”
This mythconception remains so entrenched that it popped up as recently as 2015, with protesters incensed that the Church of Ahriman meant to use consecrated wafers in a Black Mass. (It later turned out that one of the ritual’s organizers spread the rumor himself in a bid for publicity, thus confirming that he was not born yesterday.)
And of course, this belief too was immaculately conceived in medieval anti-semitism: In the year 1243 in the German city of Beelitz, city records remember that an unidentified Jewish man was burnt to death on charges of destroying the consecrated host, the earliest recorded instance of “host desecration.” (This despite the fact that attack on god is the ultimate victimless crime.)
This theme came up on our most recent episode of Black Mass Appeal, about the influential but somehow still obscure Anatole France book The Revolt of the Angels. Perhaps strangely, anti-semitism is a pronounced theme in the novel: The text labels several characters as anti-semites, and there are many gags at the expense of witless French cultural anti-semitism.
France (the author, not the country) even includes a very uncomfortable caricature of a scheming Jewish banker among the cast, one complete with a “hooked nose,” whose face “reproduced the semitic type.”
And yet France (author, not country) had a reputation as an aggressive critic of political anti-semites–the banker character is actually a satire of the kinds of rich evil Jews that reactionary thinkers believed were behind all subversive politics.
Mind you, just because this is a parody doesn’t mean that it’s responsible satire. But it does speak to how deeply entrenched the shared global culture of anti-Jewish paranoia was.
And still is today–it’s hardly a coincidence that human rounding error Marjorie Taylor Greene assumed that a wealthy Jewish family specifically was behind her belief that satellite-mounted lasers start California wildfires.
(Catholic paranoiac and embarrassing Canadian export William Carr identified the Rothschilds as leaders of the “Illuminati” in his 1958 book Pawns In the Game, the most influential work of conservative political theory this side of Commandant of Auschwitz. In reality, California wildfires are usually started by smaller fires, since that’s how combustion works.)
These beliefs bleed out beyond the bounds of European and American anti-culture: In the folklore of Ethiopia, many believe in the “Buda”, a kind of witch who sometimes assumes the form of a hyena.
“Because of the power of the evil eye, Buda people can change into hyenas and roam the countryside at night. It is convenient for a Buda to attack a victim in this form to conceal his human identity,” missionary Amsalu Geleta writes in his 2000 thesis study.
Unfortunately, as Jewish feminist writer Judith Antonelli recorded in her 1983 article The Plight of the Ethiopian Jews, those most likely to be persecuted as Buda are , yes, Ethiopian Jews, the same folks who have to worry about Adam Sandler hustling them out of rare black opals.
“Ethiopian Jews are Biblical, pre-Rabbinic Jews,” Antonelli writes. “Their leaders are priests (kohanim) rather than rabbis. […] Until recently, Ethiopian Jews practiced animal sacrifice,” just like the ancient priests of the Hebrew scriptures.
So of course they are subject to witch hunts–because why should that ever change if nothing else does? In fact, Doctor of Philosophy Emily Zarka reports that in some jurisdictions it’s actually illegal to accuse someone of witchcraft (Buda), so dangerous remains the power of that stigma.
In America, courts would hold that such an accusation does not rise to the level of criminal defamation because no reasonable person would believe it.
Whether any law articulates what we’re expected to do about all of the unreasonable people I don’t know.