What is a Black Mass?

Hieronymus Bosch (via Wikimedia Commons)
Hieronymus Bosch (via Wikimedia Commons) / Hieronymus Bosch (via Wikimedia Commons)

Last Monday, the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club planned to hold a Black Mass on the Massachusetts school's campus as an educational example of the Satanic faith. Unsurprisingly, the largest city in the country’s most heavily Roman Catholic state wasn’t thrilled about the prospect. Cardinal Sean O’Malley called it “repugnant,” 60,000 people signed a petition in protest of the event, and the Archdiocese of Boston held a Eucharistic procession and its own mass Monday to “combat evil.”

Despite the fact that Harvard's higher-ups allowed the Black Mass to go on—while in most cases still voicing their personal opposition to it—the Cultural Studies Club eventually withdrew its support for the event after first moving it off campus. The off-campus Black Mass amounted to, according to an account from the Harvard Crimson, a gathering that included “about 50 people, mostly dressed in black and some wearing face makeup... [plus] Four individuals in hoods and one man in a white suit, a cape, and a horned mask were active in the proceedings, as well as a woman revealed to be wearing only lingerie.”

But is the Black Mass actually "evil"? Depends on who you ask.

“Our purpose is not to denigrate any religion or faith, which would be repugnant to our educational purposes, but instead to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices,” the Club said at the beginning of the controversy.

The idea of a Black Mass draws from the tradition of parody masses that were practiced in the Middle Ages, which included the Drinker’s Mass, the Gambler’s Mass, and the Feast of Fools. These ceremonies, which were dramatic in nature and not intended to be sacrilegious, used the Catholic Mass as a basis for parody. Alas, they were ultimately condemned by the Church and discontinued.

This coincides historically with the spread of witch-hunting manuals like the Malleus Maleficarum, which often featured apocryphal tales of Witches' Sabbaths—ceremonies that involved absurdities like having sex with the Devil and eating babies.

These books were inventions of their authors and often banned by the Church, but they still contributed greatly to the popular imagination of how “witches” behaved, and they played a major role in the witch-hunts and executions of the Middle Ages. Later, in 1862, Jules Michelet wrote a history of witchcraft called Satanism and Witchcraft that conflated witchcraft with a scene from a Black Mass, which he described as a type of Sabbath involving invocations of feminine power and the spirit of populist rebellion.

A wax priestess on display at a 1956 Black Mass exhibit, via Getty Images

His descriptions are, like the ones in the Malleus Maleficarum, ahistorical at best and probably complete fabrications, but he casts the event with the sympathetic enthusiasm of an anthropologist. Along with accounts of the Affair of the Poisons (which allegedly involved love sorcery) and the writings of the Marquis de Sade (who was often accused of being a worshipper of Satan), the literature of Black Mass is mostly comprised of allegations made by the Church calling and loose depictions of nature-worship cast as theistic Satanism.

According to Satanic Temple leader Lucien Greaves, the Black Mass that was to be performed at Harvard was to be based on Joris-Karl Huysman’s 1891 novel La-bas, which translates to Down There or The Damned in English. (Here it is, if you’d like to read it.) The name “Satanic Temple” is misleading; its members don’t worship Satan as he exists in Christian tradition. Instead, as Greaves explained in an interview with Vice, the word “Satan” is a metaphor for supernaturalism and autocracy. These Satanists, as well as the most influential American branch of Satanism—Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan that began in the 1960s—are what’s known as atheistic Satanism.

Huysman’s La-bas claimed to paint a picture of occult worship in decadent French society, and it was a work of fiction, not documentary or history. The “mass” contained therein was a philosophical exercise, although it drew from this society of which Huysman was a part, one which rejected Christianity and Catholicism. And in the tradition of atheistic Satanism—the tradition that the Cultural Studies Club was attempting to pay homage to this week—the Black Mass is meant to represent a satirizing of what Satanists resist in theistic supernaturalism: the idea of “religious freedom” that actually prioritizes one faith over another.

Greaves has spoken at Harvard before without incident, and the history, such as it is, of the Black Mass confirms that the Harvard event would not have involved literal devil worship. In an interview with Religion Dispatches, Greaves described perceptions of the Black Mass as “fantasy promoted by the religious majority to demonize opposition,” which is more or less what came to pass in Boston as well.

But as an act of demonstration, the form of the ceremony parodies Catholicism’s central practice of faith. Although the Cultural Studies Club gave the sense that it believed itself to be accommodating a longstanding and developed tradition, the gulf between these two opinions remains as stark as it was in the Middle Ages.