Devil Worship in the Middle Ages and the Trail of Death

Denise Horton
Denise Horton

The chaos and upheaval that characterised European society in the Middle Ages served as a breeding ground for many peculiar ideas and events. One of the most interesting is undoubtedly the explosion of witch hunts and related activity.

This “witch mania” eventually spread throughout most of the continent leaving behind it a trail of death and distorted ideas that made an impression upon the popular opinion which is still felt in the twentieth-century.

The scope of this subject is so wide that it cannot be satisfactorily discussed in a article this size; therefore, it will be necessary to narrow the area of concentration. Devil worship was a very common element in much of the witchcraft controversy of this period, and it is this topic that we will confine our inquiry.

At this point, it would be helpful to define precisely what is meant by “the devil.”

For our purposes, the concept will be confined to the devil, the “Satan” of Christianity. The reason for this is that it is concerning the Christian idea of a god that the devil became such a symbol of iniquity.

The reasons set forth by scholars for the epidemic of Devil worship are many and varied. One of the most popular is that witchcraft and devil worship could be traced to pre-Christian Europe’s ancient religious practices.

As Christianity spread in the years following the disintegration of Greco-Roman practices, it is thought that it did not fully penetrate outlying areas for some centuries.

In many cases, Christianity was observed simultaneously with the old nature religions. Elements of the two fused, and hybrids such as Dualism (which will be discussed in detail later) emerged which were considered heretical by the Church, and called “Devil worship.”

Another reason for the witch craze and resulting Inquisition has given by some scholars recently is that the whole Devil worship idea was fabricated by the Church in order to control pockets of heretics, and/or to increase Church or state land holdings as a result of confiscating the property of convicted Devil worshippers.

This is an interesting idea, but not very convincing. Why? Because although the Church and state did stand to gain quite a bit from the possessions of such groups as the Templars, this did not hold true in all cases.

Also, that idea discounts the fact that belief in God during this period was extremely intense, and anything seen as contrary to Church doctrine (which, in many places, was the most reliable source of order) was looked upon as a threat to the status quo.

Probably the most reasonable explanation of the Devil worship phenomenon at this time is a combination of both of these hypotheses. Lingering ideas of pre-Christian cults of Diana and the Horned God became entwined with the doctrine of the Catholic Church concerning evil.

Church officials perceived these as both evil and a threat to the tenuous state of order in medieval society. It is from this that the crisis sprang.

According to an expert in the area: “one can perceive that European witchcraft is best viewed as a religious cult of the Devil, built on the foundations of low magic and folk traditions but formed and defined by the Christian society within which it operated.”

The group given credit for initiating the spread of pseudo-Devil worship in the Christian world are Gnostics. Their dualist theory of the universe included reversals of Christian belief, such as the idea that the world is really hell, and that mankind was created by a race of rebel angels known as Archons. (Since the world is evil it could not have been created by a good God.)

The supreme Archon was identified with the God of the Old Testament, whom the Gnostics saw as savage and cruel. Still, other groups of Gnostics believed that seven fallen angels created the world, led again by the Old Testament God.

It is he who inspired the prophets to lead humankind astray. Astray from whom? The Devil, who was a good angel in opposition to the evil God of the Jews. Strangely enough, many of them saw Jesus Christ as a saviour who was to liberate humans from the evil God who had led them astray.

This was not enough to convince Christians that they were not worshipping the Devil, however, and the Church Fathers sought to warn good Christians to steer clear of these heretics. It also did not help the Gnostics to believe, in some cases, in a reversal of Judeo-Christian moral values.

It is the reversal of the Christian concepts of good and evil that make genuine Satanists an anathema to members of the Church. If God in the Christian model is bad and Satan is a good and benevolent deity, it logically follows that denial of the Judeo-Christian moral code and any rules based upon it is almost necessary.

Actions usually condemned as evil are cherished for their mystical effects. It has been said that Devil worshippers get “perverse pleasure in doing things which are felt to be evil combined with a conviction that doing these things is really virtuous.”

In light of these ideas, it is obvious that medieval churchmen and anyone else interested in preserving order would do everything within their power to curb this disintegration of organisation.

Starting with the Gnostics and similar groups in the first few centuries after Christ, the Church was faced repeatedly with what they perceived as threats to Christendom; these came both from outside of Europe by Muslims, and from within by heretics.

It is by surveying various outbreaks of heresy that we are able to see the progressive development of the concept of Devil worship on the part of Europeans in the Middle Ages.

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