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Icongraphic Necromancy

Dark Eden, The Sixth International Conference on Trandisciplinary Imaging at the Intersection between Art, Science and Culture, Sydney, 2020



Lucien Greaves founded The Satanic Temple in the USA as a non-theistic religion, using demonic iconography to stage advocacy programs. Most of their campaigns seek to separate state and religion, in ways that are also provocative and designed for controversy—such as their initiative After School Satan, where they promote alternative education in children. They do not practice worship, or believe in magic, even though they are organised as a religious group (one presumes for tax exempt status). Their Satanism is uniquely contemporary, for it is a linguistic antic without mysticism, reanimating the corpse of piety on a grammatical plane, void of belief. Their manipulation of pre-existent and maligned semantics, in engagement with juridical systems, makes them a unique case of post-evil media. This text discusses their propensity to recycle and repurpose symbols as a form of semiotic necromancy that, while working outside the realm of contem- porary art, speaks to the field of remediation.



The Satanic Temple’s most famous advocacy campaign is their attempt to erect a Statue of Baphomet in Oklahoma State Capitol in 2014, next to a monument of the Ten Commandments (that they successfully removed). Baphomet is a demonic icon from the 19th century, an image that bears the head of a goat to invoke a pagan devil. The government of Oklahoma lives in State Capitol, where the Ten Commandments monument used to lie, the Satanic Temple argued that this is a violation of the US Constitution; for the first amendment of the Constitution prohibits preferential treatment of one religion above others. The presence of the Ten Commandments is unconstitutional, they say, because it is situated in government grounds, elevating the importance of Christianity as an official religion. The Satanic Temple exploited this rhetoric to introduce the Statue of Baphomet, and claim that it should be able to stand side by side with the Ten Commandments, to advocate for a secular society. This created a moral outrage reminiscent of American media in the 80s and 90s, and while their application of the law is interesting, their media literacy regarding satanic cyphers and their circulation, is outstanding.


The image of Baphomet, alongside the religion’s title, The Satanic Temple, holds a deep cultural resonance because it invokes the Church of Satan, and their official emblem, known as the Sigil of Baphomet. Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan in the 60s, as an organised religion dedicated to Satan, who is a figure of heroic individualism for them. LaVey chose to depict this religion with the Sigil of Baphomet, an inverted pentagram shaped by the head of a goat, famously printed on the cover of the Satanic Bible. The Church of Satan is synonymous with the Satanic Panic of the 80s and 90s in the USA, when mass media and the public engaged in false accusation of ritualistic abuse against children; leading to incarcerations without evidence, reversed at times by the courts decades later1. This is the underlying framework for The Satanic Temple’s manipulation of Christian fears, revealing how bizarrely the law interacts with demonic content, and showing how quickly the masses spiral into hallucinogenic paranoia. They are a parody in some regards, by embrac- ing the campiness and hilarious theatricality of Satanism, and recodifying it with self-awareness, self-refer- entiality, humour and irony.

In terms of a belief system, The Satanic Temple samples the Church of Satan’s doctrine of individualism, and adapts it to contemporary times, to colour it with shades of social justice. They frame the demonic as the other, standing for those who sits outside structures of power, and inhabit the margins. This follows the Luciferian tradition of Paradise Lost (1674), where the fall from Heaven is an uprising to God’s tyranny, rather than a capricious act of slander and defilement, as constructed within Judeo-Christianity. This under- standing of the devil as the subaltern, understandably speaks to peripheral communities, who sit outside the ideal subject promoted by the American State—a cis, white, heterosexual, male. On the surface, this makes the movement compatible with the social justice zeitgeist, appealing to queer, feminist and decolonising missions. In fact, it seems to have been part of their branding, attracting members interested in identity discourses that collide with occult imagery. However, the identity politics of The Satanic Temple are a cheap marketing campaign designed to appeal to millennials stupefied by social media, concealing a more hollow and toxic pattern of behaviour. Their founder Lucien Greaves, for instance, has associated at times with alt- right and white supremacist figures, such as far right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos and Marc Randazza, a lawyer who has handled cases for neo-Nazi sites. This has divided the religion, causing the Los Angeles chapter, for instance, to withdraw from the Satanic Temple in 2018.2 Despite these incidents, which are not innocent or ‘edgy’ today, when white supremacism is on the rise, the group promotes the Statue of Baphomet with gothic optics of diversity.



Sculptor Marc Porter made The Statue of Baphomet, which stands 2.6 metres. Baphomet is a strange case because it is a false deity fabricated to accuse the Knight Templars of blasphemy but Victorian occultists began to worship it later in history, as a real entity.3 The witch Èliphas Lèvi belongs to this second wave, and cemented the morphology of Baphomet as a Sabbatic Goat, in a famous illustration published in the cover of Dogmas and Rituals of High Magic (1854), where he draws Baphomet as a hermaphroditic and chimeric goat with angel wings. The Satanic Temple remediates this drawing into bronze, to create a sculpture that epitomises public perceptions of satanic imagery. Their new Statue of Baphomet shows the icon sitting on its throne with a pentagram behind it, gesturing an occult hand symbol, as two children stand beside it, expressing their adoration. While the original image of Baphomet has naked breasts, The Satanic Temple decided to use a male chest to ease its entrance into government grounds. It is a monstrous and caustic image, embodying archaic Christian fears for pagan worship, haunting the recesses of the contem- porary imagination. It is everything that would scare a believer.


Once Mark Porter finished the sculpture, The Satanic Temple donated it legally to the Oklahoma State Capitol, proposing to install it next to the statue of the Ten Commandments—bestowed to Oklahoma City also as a gift by a State Representative.4 The documentary Hail Satan? (2019) by Penny Lane shows the legal intricacies that ensued, when the State tried to prevent The Satanic Temple from erecting their monu- ment to Baphomet. While this text eschews many of the tedious nuances of this dry process, it suffices to say that the Oklahoma State Capitol was unable to reject the Statue of Baphomet, for it would mean they are privileging Christianity over other religions, since they already have accepted the Ten Commandments statue. This dispute settled when the Oklahoma City Supreme Court ordered the removal of the monument to the Ten Commandments, seeing the law prevents religious promotion on state property. The Satanic Temple withdrew their donation after this order, and bestowed their satanic monolith to the Arkansas Capitol instead, where there is another monument to the Ten Commandments in place, unleashing a similar legal process (still pending trial). While these actions may appear vacuous or juvenile, they have gained increase relevant since the erosion of church and state has continue to accelerate. A recent example is the image event of Donald Trump holding a bible in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church in 2020, after threatening to deploy the military to supress the mass protests for the death of George Floyd, who is a black man killed by the police. 5 This led to a famous photograph where the ex-President is embodying a warlike idolatry, connoting the executive branch of the government obeys divine law. This state of Christendom fortifies the semiosis of the Statue of Baphomet as a necromantic effigy for a dystopian present, where the symbolic union of Church and State is accelerating.

The Satanic Temple troubles this phenomenon by resuscitating the iconographic corpse of a frightful idol, while leaving its ‘spirit’, or theistic content, behind. It is like they are reanimating the cadaver of an image, without evoking its spirit, in a semiotic act of necromancy, where the past is Hades and contemporary culture, is the land of the living. In other words, The Statue of Baphomet is necromantic for it resuscitates the dead body, or medium, of a spiritual image without conjuring the magical entity it originally mediates. Baphomet is a defunct icon brought back to ‘life’ through Satanic activism, effecting legislation, to an extent unlikely to happen within the confines of ritual, from a sceptical perspective. It is an active monument, circulating with vitality across media channels, protests, and court rooms. However, like a reawakened corpse traversing the cemetery under a sorcerer’s spell, it does so vacantly, without its own presence, for it is a symbol, not a mimetic icon, with an arbitrary meaning—signposting to secularism, due to its relationship with the Ten Commandments, rather than the pagan entity it imitates. The Satan Temple succeeds in making this vapid and bankrupt image, exhausted by witches, and utterly drained from meaning, signify again with liveliness, in a way that is uniquely contemporary.



In Anthropology of Images, Hans Belting separates the anatomy of images into a signified image, signifier medium and receptive body, the latter being the reader meeting an object.6 Considering the separation of image and medium, mirrors the split between soul and body, the Statue of Baphomet strikes as a semiotic cadaver, a dead icon passing as a living symbol; same as the reanimated body is a vampire, and not the person it once was. This ‘undead iconism’, a dead image with a living medium, is the darkness of the con- temporary, where the post- prefix has devoured itself, in the gruesome rites of necromantic magic.

Necromancy comes from the Greek nekrós or dead body, and manteía, which means divination. While this practice at once evokes the gory reanimation of bodies, for Frankensteinian monsters, and ghouls shape the contemporary imagination, it began as a mantic ritual performed with ghosts. In the Odyssey, Odysseus sacrifices a ram to find the path to Hades, by consulting the dead, becoming the earliest reference to necro- mancy as such, in the West.7 The idea of body reanimation, where an enchanter deploys ritual with the help of technology to raise a corpse, and perform a deed, comes later with works such as Lucan’s Pharsalia; where the witch Erichtho brings back dead bodies from the grave with instruments of dark magic. Daniel Ogden sees how Lucan precedes the famous scene in Nosferatu (1922), where the vampire stiffly raises from the tomb with phantasmagorical inertia, by depicting the reanimated cadaver in Pharsalia as ‘magically bound to its feet without moving its limbs’, to symbolise a ‘return to life’.8 The act of erecting a statue, where the object turns upright from a horizontal or dormant position, invokes this scene of necromancy, where the corpse is ‘magically bound to its feet’. (Unfortunately, The Satanic Temple has not installed the monument like this on record, to the best of my knowledge, even though such an act would create a poetic sight.)


Later in the Enlightenment, Astrologer Ebenezer Sibly made an engraving of John Dee and Edward Kelly for New and Complete Illustration Of The Occult Sciences, Book 4 (1784), to show these occultists speaking to a reanimated corpse, in a graveyard field. John Dee is a disgraced advisor to Elizabeth I, mathematician, and an alchemist, best known for coining the term ‘British Empire’ (and using the pseudonym 007); while Edward Kelly is a spirit medium, who helped Dee communicate with angels across many scrying sessions. In his drawing, the Astrologer Sibly depicts Dee and Kelly within a magic circle, holding a flame, baton, and scripture. They are speaking to a corpse, who stands stiffly, like a statue wearing a white gaunt, surrounded by tombstones under the crescent moon. The reanimated body seems to be responding to Dee and Kelly’s commands, even though the illustration shows no dialogue. Considering Dee is a decadent erudite figure, owner of one of the largest libraries of his time, this engraving shows how Ebenezer Sibly sees necromancy as a quest for secret knowledge, with the purpose of extracting occult information from the dead.

The Statue of Baphomet, like the catatonic figure in the spectral image of John Dee and Edward Kelly, reveals with some clairvoyance the fallacies of secularism in the United States, a country that symbolically intertwines Church and State. The Satanic Temple’s morbid attempt to erect the Statue of Baphomet in Oklahoma State Capitol in 2014, shows the increasing anxiety over the separation of Church and State plaguing the nation, which have worsened since Trump’s campaign and presidency. The image of Donald Trump holding a bible in front of a church in June 2020, after threatening to mobilise the military to supress the mass protests for the death of George Floyd, epitomises this state of cultural Christendom. The Statue of Baphomet returns from the underworld with a message on the accelerated erosion of secularism, like a reanimated body speaking secret knowledge from Hades. It is an undead icon, with a dead image and a living medium, that stands for the re-Christianisation of politics, rather than the demon it imitates. This necromantic making of images typifies the darkness of Western contemporary culture, where empty signs of piety return from the grave without mimesis, or worship.




Notes

1 Aja Romano, ‘Why Satanic Panic never really ended’, Vox, 31 Mach 2021, https://www.vox.com/culture/22358153/satanic-panic-ritual-abuse-history-conspiracy-theories-explained, accessed 6 April 2021

2 Tara Isabella Burton, ‘The Satanic Temple is divided over its leader’s decision to hire Alex Jones’ lawyer’, Vox, 9 August 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/8/9/17669894/satanic-temple-alt-right-marc- randazza-lawyer-lucien-greaves, accessed 26 January 2021

3 Patricia Bauer, ‘Baphomet’, Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Baphomet, accessed 26 January 2021

4 The Satanic Temple, ‘Current and Past Campaigns’, The Satanic Temple, https://thesatanictemple.com/pages/campaigns, accessed 26 January 2021

5 Steve Taylor, ‘Is that your Bible?’, ABC, 8 June 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/donald-trump-is- that-your-bible/12332586, accessed 26 January 2021

6 Hans Belting, An Anthropology of Images, Princeton University Press, 2014, pp.15
7 Andrej Kapcár, ‘The Origins of Necromancy or Howe We Learned to Speak to the Dead’, Sacra, vol. 13,

no.2, 2015, pp. 33
8 Daniel Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy, Princeton University Press, 2001, pp.205

Ramirez acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the Land where he lives and works, the Wurundjeri people. He pays his respects to Elders past, present and emerging of the Kulin Nation.