When I was six years old, I woke up to find a large black wolf standing at the side of my bed. The wolf was staring down at me. With a nod of its head, it directed me to get up. Oddly, I felt no fear as it led me out of my bedroom, into the living room, and onto the couch. The wolf spoke in a calm but authoritative voice, explaining that I was part of its tribe—"One of us," it said. Then the wolf led me back to my bedroom window, outside of which was an old stone well. When I looked out, three other wolves surrounded the well. They looked back in my direction. Atop the well, they had presented me the corpse of a slaughtered deer. “This is who you are,” the large black wolf said. Then it disappeared.
To the outsider, it would be easy to dismiss this vision as nothing more than a false memory, either a recent invention or the rumblings of my six-year-old imagination. But it is the most vivid memory I have of childhood. It happened, as surely as every other tangible, provable event in my life. But it really doesn’t matter if anyone believes me—more than anything else, it shaped who I would become. Today, at the age of 48, I describe myself as a traditional Luciferian witch. But to the casual outside observer, or the Bible-beater, I’m a Satanist.
While I was raised nominally Christian, worshipping in the Methodist churches of rural Indiana, the occult has always been a part of me. My father’s family was part of the Northern European migration of the 1700s, the clans that followed Daniel Boone into the Appalachian Mountains and settled as farmers and hunters. With them they carried the folk magic and superstitions of the old world. Before my father’s passing, I asked him to describe the southern Kentucky community he grew up in. They were “Christians, but with very pagan beliefs. Their bible was the Farmer’s Almanac, and you did things by how the stars and the moon were aligned,” he told me. “The doctrine of Christianity yielded to the land, not the other way around.”
Although the industrialization of rural America in the 1950s caused my family to abandon the land for the steel mills, the old ways were passed down and maintained. As a child I was taught to fish, hunt, read the stars, dowse for water, and use pendulums for guidance. Yet compared to my mother’s side of the family, this was nothing.
Her first relative to ever set foot in America came from Hampshire, England in the 1600s to Massachusetts, only before hightailing it back across the Atlantic under the presumption of being a witch. My great-great-grandmother, Cora, who went through men like wine, was known to sit in her parlor with a Ouija board affixed to her lap, scoffing at the notion that one should never use the spirit board alone. This practice was passed onto me through my mother, who used the Ouija board with her children the way more pious families might gather around the family bible.
There were two childhood Oujia board readings in particular that foretold my path. The first was when my mother, sister, and I asked the board what I would be when I grew up. The board said I would be an attorney, something I did not want to be, but became. The other was when my sister dared to ask who was speaking to us. The board carefully spelled out S-A-T-A-N. After freaking the fuck out, as any kids would do, we immediately put the board down. But there was something in me that wanted to continue the conversation.
In the 1980s, the Satanic Panic invaded every living room, with nightly news stories linking Satanism and heavy metal music to a litany of social ills, particularly drug use, child abuse, and murder. I was in middle school at the time when a rather conservative congregation that sat across the street from my grandmother’s house, brought the Satanic Panic to my hometown. Every Wednesday night, a study group focused in on the Devil’s influence in rock’n’roll, something me and my best friend were obsessed with. Of course, their warning backfired. Instead of steering me away from the Devil, I only became more fascinated with the dark arts. I spent my late teens driving around the heavily wooded country roads that surrounded my town, always in search of the best places to either have sex or to park with friends and drink Bud Light, smoke the occasional joint, and blast The Cure, the Dead Kennedys and Metallica. More often than not, the best spots would have some supernatural legend attached to it, be it an abandoned dwelling in the middle of the woods or a local graveyard. I, of course, revelled in the ghost stories surrounding these places.
By the time I attended college at Indiana University in Bloomington, I had settled into paganism and Wicca. Quite literally, the devil was in the details: Much to the horror of my hippy-dippy, white-light coven at the time, I remember making a connection early on between Lucifer and the Horned God of Wicca. Had I simply stayed on this path, things may have been fine. I was happy, even if I appeared aimless. My only worries were what the Tarot and the cycles of nature would have to say.
A girlfriend at the time told me I was like a wildflower, growing along my own path. Except somewhere along the way, I got tired and gave in to what I thought was expected of me. Largely out of economic fear and anxiety (being a wildflower doesn’t pay much), I convinced myself that it was time to put away childish things and become a normal, functioning member of society. I left behind my bell, books, and candles for a more settled life. What I didn’t realize at the time was that these common pursuits were triggering a darker rebellious part of myself that would eventually make itself known in starkly self-destructive terms, following years of suppression and neglect.
Oblivious to this, I turned 30, got married, had two kids, and, after living out-of-state for many years, went back to Indiana for law school. I did all the things that outwardly made of me a productive member of society. Yet inside, I was slowly shutting down, the light inside myself dimming. Having studied philosophy in undergraduate and graduate school, I was used to intellectual freedom of thought and spirited debate in the classroom. I mistakenly thought this skill would help me excel in law school, but I quickly learned that law wasn’t about freedom of thought and intellectual pursuit, but instead fitting your arguments into smaller and smaller boxes of arbitrary and settled legal standards. Just as I was editing and censoring my thoughts to conform with what was appropriate for the courtroom, I was also reducing myself to fit into a role I was not born to play. It didn’t take long to I realize I had made a big mistake, but bills were piling up, and it was too late to back out now without at least getting the degree that would supposedly alleviate that debt. At the end of this ridiculous endeavor awaited divorce, mountains of un-payable student loan debt in the amount of nearly $200,000, life in a city and state I had no desire to be in, and a sense of self that was all but shattered. Normalcy had driven me to spiritual desolation.
In my early 40s, I entered my “dark night of the soul.” I had arrived there as a result of putting my life on cruise control and exchanging the magic within me for dour rationalism and extreme atheism. I took to mindlessly indulging in a variety of excesses to soothe the spiritual void. By the time I finally awoke, my relationships were in shambles, my job as a criminal defense attorney was in jeopardy, and I was facing criminal charges for driving while under the influence of alcohol. I needed a spiritual reset. I needed to go back to zero, but I had no idea how.
A cycle of addictions and two years of regular heavy drinking had rewired my brain. Not knowing where to turn, I checked into a treatment center, and goddamn if it didn’t work. Although I no longer craved the poison physically, spiritually I was fumbling around in the dark. Something was still missing.
My required attendance at one of the many “anonymous” meetings only made it worse. Meeting after meeting, step by step, I found myself surrounded by the beaten-down souls of people who exchanged one form of addiction for another. It soon became clear that my life was on the line. If I was going to survive, I would have to figure out how to do it on my own.
This is what led me to the Left-Hand Path. Throughout history, Satan or Lucifer has been invoked by outsiders, romantics, and anarchists as the patron saint of human liberation, the serpent who tempts with the Forbidden Fruit. He was the one who freed humanity from servitude to God, and God, reacting like the loving patriarch "He" is, cast humanity out from his metaphysical playroom and into the world of matter. If you believe that nature is evil, then certainly this great fall was the result of it. But for a pagan soul like me, beaten down by normative Judeo-Christian values and the world of late-stage capitalism, nature was the only thing still worthy of worship. “Nature is Satan’s church,” says Charlotte Gainsbourg's character in the movie Antichrist—and that’s where I go to pray.
In nature there is no sin, only actions that benefit you or don’t. Unlike Christ on the cross, or Alcoholics Anonymous’s “Bill” and his “big book,” in nature you don't have to self-flagellate over past wrongs to find forgiveness. Back then, I had only to take responsibility and ownership for my behavior. I began to think of my mistakes as evidence of the demon inside me, and it soon became time to embrace that part of myself. To suppress my shadow, rather than to embrace, nurture, and love it, had only given way to self-destruction. The path forward had to be through the expression and integration of the Devil into my spirituality.
The first thing I did was dust off my library. Because of my time spent in academia, as well as my past history with the occult, I already had numerous books for reference sitting on my bookshelf. I carried them with me wherever I went. If it was cardio day, I had Stephen Flowers’s Lords of the Left-Hand Path propped up on my bike at the gym. Between hearings in court, I was poring over the works of historian Jeffrey Burton Russell. Every night at home was spent holed up in my room with books strewn around the bed, as I read and cross-referenced what I found with what was available on the internet.
Stories of the Devil, interpretations of the adversary throughout history, and examinations of the role of the rebel against unjust authority only led me into deeper and wider rabbit holes. Rather than the blood-soaked orgies that may come to mind when one thinks of Satanism, my first steps along the diabolical path came through incessant scholastic asceticism. I found invaluable resources in The Devil’s Party, edited by Per Faxneld and Jesper Aa. Petersen, and Jules Michelet’s classic Satanism and Witchcraft. Ultimately though, this narrative starts in the Holy Bible and finds its culmination in the works of John Milton and William Blake, where Satan is seen sympathetically, in contrast to an authoritarian, violent, and judgmental God. From out of this “just rebel” archetype arose also the more "occult" Luciferian/Promethean archetype, the one that demands people to be their own masters. It was this thirst for knowledge of both myself and the deeper mysteries of the world, unimpeded by others’ dogmas, that drove me.
In my books, I found the strength to remain sober, to remain alive, and the light of Luciferian gnosis showed the way. Friendships fell by the wayside, as did any semblance of trying to fit in. Instead, I wanted to burn it all with fire, with the goal of forging myself anew. I focused inward and what I found was an elemental essence, one as equally capable of destruction as it was creation. A rebellious god of fire, anarchy, and liberation. Satan was the archetype that was already waiting for me.
Immersed in the writings of Anton LaVey and Michael W. Ford, I joined the Satanic Temple, as well as the short-lived Greater Church of Lucifer. I performed rituals of blasphemy like renouncing the Holy Trinity, some of them drawn from LaVey and some from the world of traditional witchcraft. I focused in on divorcing myself from the yoke of a society I no longer wished to be part of, a sort of un-baptism of my soul.
These were all merely starting points, though. I quickly realized that no Satanic organization or grimoire could do anything more than point me in the direction that lay ahead. My own path was always going to be more rooted in paganism and witchcraft than most bastions of modern Satanism, and neither the Satanic Temple nor the Church of Satan made room for that sort of magical thinking. While I do think LaVey’s work is an excellent explication of the human animal, and my own social and political proclivities are aligned with that of the Satanic Temple, after years of atheism, I was slowly but surely headed towards theism, or the belief that there is a transcendental reality and that gods do exist.
At this point, I should probably take a moment to clarify what I mean when I say “Satanist,” because among those who consider themselves as such, there’s a lot of in-fighting as to what is and isn’t Satanism. Personally, I’ve always found this internecine warfare hilarious, given that most of society views even Wiccans as inherently Satanic—and technically, they’re correct. Viewed from an absolutist Christian viewpoint, anything that isn’t Christian is Satanic, since it stands in opposition to Jesus. Try explaining the distinction between a Satanist and a Pagan to an evangelical, and you’ll know what I mean.
But to me, the term “Satanist” is nothing more than an attention-grabbing placeholder for anyone traversing what we call the Left-Hand Path, which is something far greater. What this refers to is any path of self-individuation as an alternative means to achieving mundane or spiritual goals. For most, this means finding a practice that runs in opposition to any prescribed path to salvation. I personally don’t give a damn if someone calls me a Satanist or not. Unlike organized religions with holy books and set practices, the Left-Hand Path forces you to think and act for yourself. It’s highly personalized, and no one person’s practice should look like another's. My own practice is centered around Luciferian witchcraft and incorporates a large amount of Norse paganism. (There is enough congruence between Heathenry and the Left-Hand Path that it is not uncommon to find practitioners who make the Northern mysteries part of their journey.)
The only goal in Luciferianism is the rather amoral goal of gnosis, something I attain through the study of occult theory, ritual meditation, dreamwork, and intuition. Gnosis basically means “knowledge,” but specifically the knowledge of hidden or purposefully corrupted spiritual mysteries including finding the divine within one's self. Much like the concept of enlightenment, no one else can teach it to me. It’s a never-ending quest, and even when I come to understand and assimilate one aspect of the mysteries, another one awaits that may take years to grasp.
On top of forcing the self into places beyond the bounds of socially accepted religious practices—for instance through the use of entheogens (mind-altering substances), sex rituals, and blood magick—it requires rigorous self-examination. I have to know myself so well that I can parse out what is real and what is the byproduct of psychological predispositions, past traumas, fantasies, or undue mental and physical stressors. These could include everything from the time of the year, to what I ate that day, to what a coworker said in passing. And I have to do it all while upholding myself as both the student and the master. Certainly, there are plenty of religions for the faint-of-heart, but the practices that populate the Left-Hand Path are none of them.
Today, I am the taskmaster of my own spiritual practice. I can say honestly that I’ve finally filled the void within my own self, rekindled my soul, and lit my way out of that long, dark night. I’ve taken my place among the tribe alluded to by the black wolf from my childhood. I’ve found peace in following the path set forth by the Devil and his many forms. My demons are my angels, and the restless burning energy within me has a meaning and a purpose. Even if it’s only for myself, it’s enough. Satan saves, Jesus slaves, and I owe my life to the light betwixt the horns.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.