WHY DO WE HAIL SATAN?
Last week I said I don’t care about the ongoing international Hangman match over how to say “Hail Satan” in a dead language.
Seven days later Latin remains as dead to me as Morrissey, so there’s no need to patch that content. It does however pose a separate quandary about why we say “Hail Satan” to begin with?
Sometimes non-Satanists will pose this question. If (most) Satanists don’t believe in the devil, then what does this phrase even mean? Who are we talking to or about, and what are we saying?
Could be this is an unnecessary question; for those who understand, no explanation is necessary, and for those who don’t, no explanation is possible. I forget who said that, but he’s probably nobody important anyway.
Still, my curiosity is piqued. And it turns out the only way to tamp it back down again is…some Latin. Sigh. Fuck it all to Hell…
In second century Roman historian and original Pliny hipster Suetonius’ book The Lives of the 12 Caesars, slave soldiers enacting a naval battle in front of the Emperor Claudius greet him with the cry, “Ave Imperator”–“Hail Emperor.”
Actually what they said was, “Hail Emperor: We who are about to die salute you.” Claudius didn’t give a shit, which is pretty rough considering this is a guy who became emperor while hiding behind a curtain during a coup, so just imagine not being able to impress him.
Online Etymology Dictionary translates “ave” as both “hail” and “farewell,” from a root meaning “be well” or “fare well.” So in the most literal sense when we say “Hail Satan” (in any damn language) we may be telling Satan hello, or we may be wishing Satan well.
But in the original context of “Hail, Emperor,” “hail” is also somewhat confusingly a command: It’s an order to be well, which I guess if you’re going to roll the dice on ordering emperors is kind of like betting on the Chargers: Technically not the dumbest thing you can do, but how did it even come to this in the first place?
It might be more accurate to translate the sentiment as something like, “Up with Satan.” None of this admittedly makes a lot of sense for Modern Satanists, but hey, some people believe Buddha was a space alien, so on the sliding scale of weird religious shit this barely registers.
In the Latin Vulgate Bible, a similar phrase appears ironically in Mark with the mocking cry, “Hail, King of the Jews” (which is how I unironically address fan letters to Mel brooks), but more influentially in Luke with the phrase, “Hail, Full of Grace,” which unbeknownst to most scholars is actually just a weather report for Heaven.
The actual English phrase “Hail Satan” may have first appeared in the 1808 poem The Monk of Cambray:
“Long had his envious eye beheld the Lord Abbot’s exalted station. When his spells were brought to the pitch he sought and his faith he had set at defiance, ‘Hail, Satan!’ cried he, the Lord Abbot I’ll be, on my bond I demand thy compliance!”
It’s nice to see somebody living their best life.
Although actor Sidney Blackmer was there for the defining “Hail Satan” moment in the 1968 movie adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby, he was apparently squeamish about the line and/or the film’s entire Satanism theme, griping that “No good will come of this ‘Hail Satan’ business.” Scene partner Ruth Gordon went on to win an Oscar for that movie, so apparently the devil knew who really had his back.
Original Satanic rock band Coven’s 1969 debut album Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls (another in the proud tradition of rock albums named for things Dennis Wheatley said in his sleep) marks possibly the first time the phrase appeared in a song.
(Although truthfully the track Satanic Mass is less a song so much as a full dress rehearsal for a Chick tract.)
These days “Hail Satan” often manifests as a sort of meme–in many cases literally a meme–and in fact the use of “Hail Satan” as an ironic stock reference played a pretty big part in our own Simone Lasher becoming a Satanist in earnest. (More on that in last year’s Diviner magazine.)
But what does it mean when we say it sincerely? Around here, this phrase may serve for almost everything. It’s both “hello” and “goodbye.” It may be a way of offering congratulations, or a statement of agreement. In private exchanges it’s a term of endearment, whereas in more public addresses it’s a broad rhetorical intensifier. In correspondence it can even serve as a sign off.
Most often we employ it in the context of Satanic ritual, where it can both underscore an important moment and also provide a natural transition into something else. And generally people seem to love saying it and, perhaps more importantly, hearing it.
Because the thing that all of these contexts have in common is that they’re affirming. When we tell someone “Hail Satan,” the intent is to create the impression of belonging: belonging in this moment, in this company, in this community, or even just in ourselves.
We wish for that person to feel accepted, invited, and comfortable as who they are–particularly in ways they may not be in the outside world. When said to (or in the company of) a stranger, “Hail Satan” may indicate that they’re witnessing a private and authentic moment.
This of course does not mean that “Hail Satan” is always a somber phrase; often we use it quite casually.
But maybe accepting people for who they are is something we should allow ourselves to be more casual about. Certainly bigotry has no trouble adapting itself to any occasion.
Director Penny Lane’s 2019 Satanic Temple documentary Hail Satan? posed the phrase in the form of a question. For all of its sometimes complicated ambiguities, the answer to that question is very simple: