- Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History
Many scholars of witchcraft and demonology have at times alluded to the seemingly transhistorical and transcultural nature of at least some aspects of their studies. To give only one example, the hearings of the McCarthy era are often held up as modern “witch hunts.” More recently, scholars have also recognized certain dynamics akin to witch-hunting in major panics concerning the supposed satanic ritual abuse of children in the United States and to a lesser extent Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. In this book, David Frankfurter, whose previous work has focused on religion in late antiquity, considers these apparent connections at length. While he admits that any given incident will be contingent on immediate historical and cultural factors, he asserts the striking constancy, from antiquity to the present, of what he terms the “myth of evil,” that is, the belief that a widespread demonic conspiracy exists within society, the members of which are responsible for horrifically wicked acts. Such conspiracies have never existed, or at least there has never been any real evidence of their existence, but they have shaped the way societies have conceived of evil. From Roman depictions of immoral Christian orgies, to the medieval stereotype of ritual murders committed by Jews, to the early modern witch hunts, to modern SRA (satanic ritual abuse) panics, societies have always been ready to believe in a clandestine minority driven by supernatural entities to commit monstrous evil that will, inevitably, subvert society if it is not exposed and extirpated. [End Page 84]
Frankfurter begins by asserting two worlds of “demonology” (that is, roughly, the “religious” belief in supernatural entities that either commit evil or inspire humans to evil). The first of these is the “local” world of small communities, in which demons or spirits are typically associated with aspects of the natural world, must frequently be interacted with, and, while often capricious or antagonistic, are not necessarily fully evil. A more universal view of the demonic is then imposed on these local worlds by religious institutions. In order to assert their own power and authority, “ritual experts” (temple priests, prophets, official exorcists) set relatively unstructured local demonic beliefs into vast cosmic structures of good versus evil. The only way to oppose evil is to adhere to the official cult and the experts who represent and direct it. Frankfurter’s main example here is the late-antique phenomenon of the early Christian holy man exercising power by his assertion of control over demons, presented not as ambivalent nature-spirits but as resolutely evil fallen angels. The model works equally well, however, for the intrusion of Christian missionaries into the “local” spiritual worlds of precolonial Africa and America, or the assertion of social workers or psychologists that they alone hold the key to understanding and opposing rampant satanic child abuse in the modern West.
Since such “religious” experts (Frankfurter argues that even secular authorities who operate in this fashion draw on religious models of good vs. evil and of the demonic) attain power by casting themselves as the opponents of and only hope against demons, it makes sense that they construct the demonic as the inverse of themselves. The perverted rituals and monstrous ceremonies attributed to agents of demonic conspiracies are, quite clearly, the inverse of established religious and social rituals. People then accept these inventions because they are such a clear and easy way of conceptualizing the “Other.” People support the construction of these stereotypes by what Frankfurter labels either direct or indirect mimesis. Direct mimesis entails individuals asserting that they have been participants in the supposed conspiracy—those who confess, either before or after judicial torture, that they are witches, or who claim to have been members of satanic ritual abuse cults, for example. Indirect mimesis entails people asserting that they have witnessed or otherwise experienced the supposed conspiracy—for example, cases of demonic possession or the recovered memories of supposed SRA victims.
This is a sweeping book that provides numerous...