Stanislaw Przybyszewski (1868-1927) was a decadent, a socialist turned anarchist, a bohemian, a poet, a novelist, a playwright, an essayist, and one of the earliest (known) self-declared satanists. There had been artists and authors before Przybyszewski who had used the Devil as an artistic symbol, of course. The Romantic-Satanists used Lucifer as an archetype for rebellion and free thought, as did certain anarchists and revolutionaries, such as Mikhail Bakhunin. Part of what separated Przybyszewski from his earlier counterparts, however, was that his historical predecessors didn’t take on the label of satanist, at least not publicly. They used the Satan as symbol, to be sure, and as such clearly had some (if not a lot) of sympathy for the devil, but it was always their enemies who referred to them as being of “the Devil’s party,” and typically not the artists themselves.
Przybyszewski was different. He not only openly and publicly identified as a satanist, he was also one of the first to attempt to outline a satanic philosophy. His satanic system of thought can be seen in a number of his works, but is most explicit in his 1897 essay The Synagogue of Satan. It is here, using a mixture of history and fantasy similar to Jules Michelet’s The Witch, Przybyszewski outlines the faith, practice, and (largely fictitious) history of satanism, which he claims has existed, hidden and biding its time in the shadows, since the days of Christ.
There’s a lot we could analyze in The Synagogue of Satan (Przybyszewski’s social Darwinism, his intellectual debt to Nietzsche, his inversion of values) but it is his dualistic cosmogony, which he openly links to the Manichean influenced theology of the Cathars, that I wish to explore in detail here, for it is the ground the rest of the tree stands upon. Like the Manicheans and Cathars before him, Przybyszewski’s satanism assumes that there are two divine forces at war in this world. In his essay “Witches, Anarchism, and Evolutionism,” religious historian Per Faxneld writes:
Przybyszewski postulates two eternal gods of equal strength. One is the God of Christianity, who wishes to keep mankind in a childlike state and wants to extinguish its free will. The other God, Satan, embodies lawlessness, curiosity, and titanic defiance…Satan is the ‘father of life, reproduction, progression, and the eternal return’, while God and goodness is ‘is the negation of life, since all life is evil’.
Przybyszewski’s explicitly links his dualist cosmology to medieval Catharism. The Cathars, sometimes known as Albigensians, were active primarily in France between the 12th and 14th centuries. The Cathars were Christian dualists. They believed the material world was made by Satan, whom they identified with the god of the Old Testament. The good god, the Father Christ spoke of in the New Testament, was pure spirit. The Cathars described this good god as “good, holy, just, wise, and true.” He is “pure goodness and is above all praise,” meaning no amount of exaltation on the part of humans could ever come close to capturing his magnificence. This good god was considered incapable of error or evil, and since the material earth was full of both the Cathars argued he could not be the maker of this world. Rather, it was Satan who created the not only earth but humanity as well, a fact which is discussed in detail in the Cathar text known as The Secret Supper.
Then Satan took his seat above the firmament and gave command to the angel who was over the air and the angel who was over the waters, so that they raised two thirds of the waters high into the air. Of the remaining third they formed wide seas. The division of the waters was by command of the Father invisible. Again Satan bade the angel who was over the waters, ‘Take a stand upon the two fish.’ And the angel raised the earth upward with his head, and dry land appeared and was. . . . When he took a crown from the angel who was over the air, from half of it he made himself a throne; and when he took a crown from the angel who was over the waters, from half he made the light of the moon and from half the light of day. From precious stones he made fire, and from fire he made all the host of heaven and the stars, and from them he made angels, his ministering spirits, according to the plan of the Governor Most High. He also made thunder, rain, hail, and snow, and over these he set his ministering angels.
He commanded the earth to bring forth all living things —animals, trees, and herbs. The sea he commanded to bring forth fish; and the air, birds of the heavens. And he pondered on making man to serve him; he took clay of the earth and made man like unto himself. And he then bade an angel of the second heaven to enter the body of clay. Of this body he took a part and made another body in the form of a woman” and bade an angel of the first heaven to enter into it. And the angels grieved deeply that they thus had a mortal form imposed upon them and that they now existed in different forms.
The task of the Cathar faithful was to disentangle themselves from the darkness and evil of physical existence, so that they might return to the good god and spend eternity in heaven, reborn as angels. The Cathars who genuinely dedicated themselves to renouncing their material selves were know as the Perfecti, or the Perfected Ones. They lived lives that sound a lot like Buddhist monks. The Perfecti renounced war and violence of any sort, as protecting the body was not only clearly a failure to renounce the fleshly life, but also a failure to live up to Christ’s commandments against violence. They lived lives of simplicity and poverty, for what value were this things of this world when compared to the riches of heaven? They abstained from sex, as it not only glorified the flesh but also condemned new life to this sinful world. Likewise, they abstained from the consumption of meat, as animals were a by-product of sex and killing them required participating in acts of violence.
Przybyszewski agrees with the Cathar assertion that there are two, eternally warring divinities:
There are two gods, equally powerful, equally mighty and eternally opposing each other. The invisible god of “good”, who is enthroned in heaven, who does not trouble himself over the earth and only lives for the perfection of his chosen ones–
Then there is another god, the god of sins, who rules over the earth. But sins are not really sins because they came from the from this god like the virtues that came from the other god, the indolent god who said, “Don’t exert yourselves, just follow me.”
Indeed, Przybyszewski begins his The Synagogue of Satan describing all creation as if it were the battlefield of an invisible war. “There are two gods,” Przybyszewski writes, “two creators and two rulers without beginning and without end.” He describes the “good” god as being the creator of all things spiritual and immutable and perfect, that is, neither knowing flux or pain. This god commands his followers to be poor in both body and spirit, and to follow his decrees with the unquestioning obedience of children.
The “evil” god he describes as being the creator of all that is physical and passionate. This evil god is:
[T]he curiosity that seeks after the most hidden mysteries…He is the highest wisdom and the deepest depravity. He is the wildest pride and speechless humility…He teaches man that there is no crime except that of going against one’s own nature.
It is to this god, Przybyszewski says, that the satanist is to look for inspiration and example. What is perhaps unexpected, however, is that Przybyszewski’s battle with the forces that would negate life and material existence is ambivalent at best. If anything, the second half of his essay, largely concerned with the Medieval witch cult and supposed occurrences of the Black Mass, takes a rather Pessimistic turn.
In his description of the witches’ sabbath, Przybyszewski writes that there is a moment in the chaos of the festivities when the celebrant loses their identity in the person of Satan. The promise of riches and power and earthly delights may have been what initially drew the witch or warlock to seek a coven out, but at some point these desires fall away and become meaningless. To truly experience Satan, Przybyszewski writes, is to experience the very force of negation, wherein “all gold was made to appear to be worthless dust and all power to be stupid vanity.”
Przybyszewski’s satanism is not so much an anti-Catharism as it is a dark inversion of it. Both in a weird way share the same goal, escaping the horror of existence, it is largely the methods which differ. All life for Przybyszewski is evil because all existence is grounded in change and suffering. In this sense his satanism is reminiscent of the initial Noble Truths of the Buddha (it perhaps will not surprise the reader that Catharism, with its other worldliness and emphasis on reincarnation, had been called by some the Buddhism of the West). Where Przybyszewski takes a different turn from the Buddha, however, is that rather than escaping suffering by cessation of desire, he sees the pursuit of desire to be a means of accomplishing the cessation of a sense of self. To go back to the dualist theme, The Synagogue of Satan distinguishes between two sects of Catharism. One preferring the god of light and day (wherein one is always aware of the pain of continued existence), and the other the god of darkness and night (who is dissolution and forgetfulness). The latter sect “celebrated their, dark carnal mysteries in forests, caves and on top of mountains” and allegedly became the witch cult of the late Middle Ages. Przybyszewski writes of the satanic witch:
Desperate humans have only one way out: by intoxicating themselves. And they have intoxicated themselves. They have intoxicated themselves with poison, intoxicated themselves with filth, and all of this intoxication climaxed in sexual ecstasy. The nerves ripped, the individual split in two, he suffered the most cruel and horrible tortures, but at least he forgot the most terrible thing of all, that which exceeds the filth and horror of his disgusting ointments, his herds of toads, his loathsome sacraments of urine and menstrual blood mixed together—he forgot life.
The Synagogue of Satan’s yes to life is also a yes to death. Przybyszewski’s insistence that one dive head first into life is ultimately a means by which the very pain of existence can be escaped. It is perhaps fitting that, in the end, the final kernel of wisdom his Satan has to offer is simply to “get drunk.”
*I’ve used Joe Bandel’s translation of The Synagogue of Satan for quotation. The book is available here.
**Image of the Codex Gigas via Wikipedia.