“The Black Mass” by William Lindsay Gresham

I will be away for a few days to give a talk in Detroit. I hope to see some of you there.

I plan on having it recorded and then edited and up on YouTube, but I cannot say how long it will take.

I thought I’d post something I found archived away in some dark subfolder on an old hard drive, to entertain you while I’m gone. I will be tweeting some, I’m sure, and you can follow me there.

The date stamp on the text file for this shows 3/12/2005. I don’t know where it came from…. I’ve fixed a few typos, but there may be more.

The Black Mass

The whys and wherefores of the most abominable of all sexual rites. Where Satnism began and where it leads.
by William Lindsay Gresham

“And thou, thou whom, in my quality of priest, I force, whether thou wilt or no, to descend into this host, to incarnate thyself in this bread, Jesus, Artisan of Hoaxes, Bandit of Homage, Robber of Affection, hear! Since the day when thou didst issue from the complaisant bowels of a Virgin, thou hast failed all thine engagements, belied all thy promises. Centuries have wept, awaiting thee, fugitive God, mute God! Thou wast to redeem man and thou hast not, thou wast to appear in thy glory, and thou steepest. Go, lie, say to the wretch who appeals to thee, ‘Hope, be patient, suffer; the hospital of souls will receive thee; the angels will assist thee; Heaven opens to thee.’ Imposter! thou knowest well that the angels, disgusted at thine inertness, abandon thee! Thou wast to be the Interpreter of our plaints, the Chamberlain of our tears; thou wast to convey them to the Father and thou hast not done so, for this intercession would disturb thine eternal sleep of happy satiety. Thou hast forgotten the poverty thou didst preach, Vassal enamoured of Banquets! Thou hast seen the weak crushed beneath the press of profit; thou hast heard the death rattle of the timid, paralyzedby famine, of women disemboweled for a bit of bread, and thou has caused . . . thy commercial representatives, thy Popes, to answer by dilatory promises and evasive excuses, sacristy shyster, huckster God! Master, whose inconceivable ferocity engenders life and inflicts it on the innocent whom thou Barest damn-in the name of what original sin?-whom thou Barest punish-by the virtue of what covenants? -we would have thee confess thine impudent cheats, thine inexpiable crimes! We would drive deeper the nails into thy hands, press down the crown of thorns upon thy brow, bring blood and water from the dry wounds of thy sides. And that we can and will do by violating the quietude of thy body, Profaner of ample vices, Abstractor of stupid purities, cursed Nazarene, do-nothing King, coward God!” This diatribe, nothing if not eloquent, is more than a passage at the climax of one of the world’s most hair-raising novels. It represents the unconscious content of the minds of millions of the faithful, when driven to utter desperation by the “bludgeonings of chance.” The scene in the book is a Black Mass, devoted to the adoration of Satan and the blaspheming of God, being said by an infamous unfrocked priest, Canon Docre. The hero, a writer named Durtal, who is working on a biography of Gilles de Rais, has been taken to the Satanic mass by his mistress, the languorous Mme. Hyacinthe Chantelouve. Disgusted by the obscenities in the violation of the Host, the agnostic Durtal drags his entranced mistress away and into a shabby wineshop for a drink to clear his head. But the publican suggests that they take a room upstairs since they are obviously gentlefolk and the tavern is patronized by riffraff. The room contains a rickety bed, a cracked chamber pot and two chairs. When they are alone Hyacinthe, still in the grip of the Satanic mass, turns to her lover:
“Her eyes were sombre, mad. She enlaced Durtal. `No!’ he shouted, furious at having fallen into this trap. `I’ve had enough of that. It’s late. Your husband is waiting for you. It’s time for you to go back to him-‘
“She did not even hear him. `I want you,’ she said, and she took him treacherously and obliged him to desire her. She disrobed, threw her skirts on the floor, opened wide the abominable couch. A look of swooning ecstasy was in her eyes and a smile of joy on her lips. She seized him, and, with ghoulish fury, dragged him into obscenities of whose existence he had never dreamed. Suddenly, when he was able to escape, he shuddered, for he perceived that the bed was strewn with fragments of Hosts . . . he was not absolutely convinced of Transubstantiation-he did not believe very firmly that the Savior resided in that soiled bread-but-in spite of himself, the sacrilege he had involuntarily participated in saddened him.”
The novel ends with the realization of Durtal that Mme. Chantelouve is bad medicine and he had better split fast, which he does. This leaves him (or Huysmans, who is always the
hero of his books) in his chronic state of disgust at the idiocy of human beings. The book was strong meat in 1891. The Victorians loved it.
Joris-Karl Huysmans was the author of “La Bas,” was a desperate little guy-a wary-eyed, quiet, buttoned-up sort of character who spent his life as a clerk in a government office and wrote his novels on the taxpayers’ time. This and the toadying and intrigue necessary to keep his sinecure, probably set up in his unconscious such an operation of self-loathing that he had to project it onto mankind.
He was tormented by the age-old Riddle of Evil or, as it is squeamishly titled by philosophers, “The Ethical Problem.” He finally died reconciled to the Faith of his Fathers but to the last he was hag-ridden by fears and anxieties and could not retire for the night without drawing a magic circle with an imaginary fiery sword about his bed and sealing the doors and windows with holy water.
And he had good cause for anxiety, for he was one of those hypersensitive souls who had thought long and hard about man’s suffering and could not quiet his doubts and indignations by superficial panaceas of radical politics.
He was hooked on the dilemma of Dualism. Unless a person is by nature tough-minded, or has come to terms with Pain and Evil through religion or philosophy, it is better not to dig too deeply into the history of the human race. But in choosing for the subject of his greatest book the Black Mass, Huysmans was able to blow off a lot of steam through the lips of the detestable Canon Docre. This device has probably saved many writers from the foolish farm, or at least helped; the raging aggressions of the unconscious, too horrible to be given conscious expression by our proper selves, can always be foisted on fictional villains.

MY FAVORITE VERSION in English of “La Bas” is a translation with the title “Down There,” made many years ago by my old friend from Greenwich Village days, the poet Keene Wallis. In it, the passages of Durtal’s fictional book on Gilles de Rais and his sodomic slaughter of peasant’s children in his tower set off a chain-reaction of nightmare in my psyche which had farreaching effects. It led, in time, to a study of Satanism, its theological derivations and the folk-ways out of which it grew.
If there is one word which describes the background of the Black Mass it is “confusion.” But some fairly clear points emerge:
The “natural” or folk religion of mankind is a polytheism of good and bad forces or gods, angels and demons. As the tribes grow more complex in their culture and found cities, thinkers emerge. They postulate a First Cause. This cannot, as a creator, be considered Bad or Destructive, else it would be licked before it started in the creation business. The next thought is that out of the original creative force there develop two forces-dark and light, good and bad. How the original Unity manages to bust up into warring factions is just a sample of the natural anthropomorphic tendency of man to make God in his own image and the universe a macrocosm of human society.
While monotheism was not an invention of the Jews, theirs was the first and boldest statement of it in the Western world on a mass level. Christianity, deriving from Judaism, was faced from the first by an embarrassing need to reconcile the God of Love, as preached by the prophets and by Jesus, with the earliest form of Yahweh, the God of Vengeance, found in the older books of the Old Testament.
When one people are conquered by another the gods of the vanquished become demons to the victors. And when Christianity finally overran Europe the old gods fled in all directions. Some became identified in the folk mind with Christian saints, and their worship-or veneration-went on practically without intermission. But there was one of the old order which was banished to outer darkness by the fathers of the Church. This was the Thracian god Dionysus-or Panby Zeus out of Semele, the earth-goddess; his symbol was the black goat or simply the phallus. He was in charge of fertility and of the vine. And a festival in his honor was quite a whing-ding, with animal sacrifices, generous drinking and you-know-what.
The Church found that you can take the peasant out of paganism-by decree-a lot easier than you can take the paganism out of the peasant. And for centuries, side by side with Christian worship, were held Sabbats, attended by thousands of the country people, in which a “priestess” or officiating witch approached the black statue of the goat-man, the old god Dionysus, now re-named Satan by the Church. She lit a torch from the blazing brand set between his horns, and went into a liturgy which began: “Save us, Lord Satan, from treachery and violence.” She then kissed the phallus of the image, and on occasion lowered herself upon it in ritual coitus.
Being saved from “treachery and violence” took on a very specific meaning as the ages passed in Europe and the feudal lords became ever more grasping, gold-hungry and brutal. The Sabbat became a folk-ceremony, invoking the Old Power against the God of the cathedrals-and the rich barons who had taken Him over, according to the tillers of the soil. The French historian, Jules Michelet, author of the classic book, “Satanism and Witchcraft,” works himself up into a fine lather of rage at the enormities perpetrated on the common people by the barons. From our more sophisticated age we can argue that they were probably no worse than a bad case of the Third Reich.
The workings of the peasant mindare obvious-“God helps the baron and his soldiers rob us and rape our daughters. God is the enemy of Satan.Therefore Satan is on our side; let us pray to him.”
Thus the ancient Sabbat is one tributary of the Black Mass. There is another, and again, it derives from the reaction of men under unbearable conditions.
There is an important fact about the development of Christianity which we are hardly likely to learn in Sunday school and this is what it was really like to live as a Christian in Rome between A.D. 30 and A.D. 400. It must have been like trying to live, raise your children, worship God and transact your business, in a town where a lynching is going on constantly. For this mass lynching was the spirit of the “games” which politicians put on to keep the mob quiet and buy themselves into office. The Emperor Trajan, in 107 A.D., to celebrate his conquest of Dacia, sponsored a series of “games” which went on for 122 days; in addition to the chariot races and other events, the crowd was sent into screaming ecstasies by the slaughter of 10,000 animals and 11,000 people.

A HERESY started early in the days of the Church, and I think it did not have to be imported from the Balkans or anywhere else. I think it grew out of such a scene as this:
A young Christian merchant, on returning to Rome from a business voyage, finds that his wife and children have been scooped in by one of the periodic round-ups of Christians to provide victims for the games. He wishes to die with them, but is dissuaded by his friends since he holds an important position in the church. All efforts to spring his family by bribery fail, or else he simply cannot raise the money. He is drawn to the arena on the fateful day by an impulse he cannot deny, hoping that his prayers can shorten their torments. After an elaborate program of bear-baiting, setting foxes afire after their tails are drenched with oil, and gladiatorial combats, the Christians are brought out, the women naked, their hands tied behind them. They are fixed to stakes driven in the sand. Then their children are paraded before them; the girls are raped by specially trained leopards, the boys torn to pieces by mastiffs. Our young Christian’s wife is hung head-down while a pack of half-starved hyenas tear off her face and breasts. Still alive, she is lowered, again tied to the post, her abdomen sliced open and her viscera drawn out and given to dogs to worry and fight over. Finally, to speed up the show for the other events, one of the arena attendants runs his short sword up her body and she is dragged out the Gate of Death. The attendants have a Good Thing Going for Them-selling the bodies to relatives so they can be given Christian burial.
Our young husband does not try to reclaim the body-other members of the church do it for him. The elders try to console him, pointing out that the rewards of Heaven are in store for those who die as martyrs for the Faith. The man sits in a catalepsy, unmoving, uncaring. Eventually he seems to recover enough to take care of his shop and attend the secret services of his church but something has changed in him. Finally he is approached by another Christian who hints that the Church fathers have got it all wrong -this world is hell, the creation of Satan. Sex is sin in any form-look at the way the mob howls at the sextorture events in the circus. Only by denying the flesh, mortifying it and eventually leaving it, can true life be found. This doctrine was supposed to have begun with a Persian sage named Mani in the second century A.D. and to have infected the Western churches under the name of Manichaeism, but I don’t think we have to look for an import. I think it is a return to the “natural” religion of opposites and their eternal struggle-bad against good, night against day, winter against summer; the origin of it is in the very dualism of man’s perceptive apparatus which early in life tells him that there is a difference between “I” and “that.”
The Persian dualistic doctrines held that there would be an eventual triumph of the light or good forces over darkness and evil but there were doubters.
The tenet that marriage itself is a sin got stern reproof from the Church, but the idea took hold. If God is good, why did he create Evil? This was the big question. And the answers men demanded had to be answers which would satisfy their mode of thinking, which was bound by dualism.
There arose in the Church, like a viper in its bosom, the secret sect of the Cathars, who denied all the sacraments of the Church because they were administered with Matter, and Matter was of this world and of the Devil. They rejected the Virgin Mary because God was much too holy to have entered anything so vile as a woman’s body. Leaders of this heresy were called the Perfect and were initiated into its innermost secrets after incredible austerities. A Cathar priest, saying an ordinary mass, would say certain phrases backwards in symbolism of the Catharistic reversal of the basic tenets of Christianity. This woman-sex-flesh-despising cult grew and flourished like the green bay tree, subject to various additions and perversions wrought in it by time. At last it infected the powerful order of warrior-monks, the Templars.

THIS ORDER had been founded with the best of intentions in Jerusalem in 1119 A.D. by nine knights; its purpose was to defend the Holy Sepulchure and the pilgrims visiting it. For 140 years the order grew and flourished, conducting a perpetual Crusade against the Saracens. When the Moslems finally captured the Holy Land, the order retired to its island of Cyprus and its many castles throughout Europe. It had become a powerful, rich and autonomous organization, answerable only to the Pope. Its members swore personal poverty, chastity and obedience. As the order grew in riches, poverty didn’t mean much: they lived like kings. And at first they had eschewed women, but when you keep a bunch of soldiers cooped up in a castle long enough something’s got to give, and there were rumors that the Templars preferred each other to women. Nature, it seemed, had triumphed in the end. In any order with 9,000 castles and manors, it is obvious that there must have been a few gay boys in the crowd. And there is no doubt that many of its members were secret Cathars. But that the entire order was officially Catharistic, there is evidence to the contrary.
Anyhow, King Philip IV of France, called the Fair, wanted to destroy the order for the best of all possible 14th century reasons-robbery. On the night of October 13, 1307, he ordered the arrest of the grand master and the other high ranking officers of the order. In Paris 138 Templars were “examined” for a month during which time 36 expired at the hands of the examiners and the others confessed anything the king wanted confessed, chiefly to denying Christ and spitting on the cross.
Philip had built better than he knew. He had invented a brand new racket-accusing people of heresy and witchcraft so as to confiscate their property or pay off old grudges. The essential evidence against the accused was “The Queen of Proofs”-his own confession in court. The brain-washing went on around the clock. This attack on the Templars set in motion what has come to be known as the great Witch Mania which terrorized Europe for three centuries before it finally gave way to commonsense and common decency.
The witch hunters all unknowingly obeyed one of the maxims of modern merchandising-“Find a need and fill it.” The Church was now definitely on the side of the strongest armies and the richest nobles; the poverty-stricken serfs needed little urging to revert to the old god of the phallus, so abhorred by the mitred bishops of the rich. The witch Sabbats began to be held in secret but more devotedly: the more heat was put on the more conversions there were to the worship of Satan. In the popular mind the terms “God” and “Devil” had simply been transposed, only “God” was not allied with the folk, was not in favor of liberty, equality and fraternity.
And still the tormenting paradox of Evil in a world designed and created by a good God, tortured the sensitive intellects. Many gave up and in regard to Evil followed the maxim, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” And this included a great many parish priests who sat up all night with dying parishioners and hardly had enough to eat in payment for their devotion to their jobs. Word began to get around that if you said a mass in a certain way, with certain objects under the altar cloth, it would cause the death of an unwanted landlord or husband. Wealthy men-or their wives-were willing to pay for such services.
Some of the more threadbare gentlemen of the cloth began trying to find buried treasures by means of magical changes in the mass. Between 1673 and 1680 in France alone some 50 priests were executed for sacrilege.
King Louis XIV, the Sun King, was occupying the splendid and bankrupt throne of France. Adultery in court circles was all the rage and a man in love with and faithful to his own wife would have been laughed out of court as a hopeless “square.”
Religious ideas had changed a great deal since the ruin of the Templars. Now the cognoscenti began experimenting with atheism, or occultism, in which the powers of the Devil were now assigned to elemental forces which could be controlled by the proper rituals. There was a great casting of horoscopes to find out what the King would do next. And at this point there arose one of the most infamous women of history, Catherine Deshayes, known as “La Voisin.”
La Voisin, from an old house in the suburbs of Paris, operated a racket right across the board; she dealt in poisons easy to administer and hard to detect called “powders of inheritance” for doing away with people
who had left you their estates in their wills. She sold abortifacients, performed abortions on the premises, cast horoscopes, read the Tarot cards for her customers and, for a staggering fee, would arrange a special Black Mass with genuine consecrated hosts and a real priest, using the body of a naked woman as an altar, a magical operation guaranteed to produce results. The king’s mistress, the Marchioness of Montespan, took part in one of these, occupying the place of dishonor on the altar and “receiving” the host in proper Satanic fashion. At least this time the Host, when violated, was violated in a place reserved for royalty. The purpose of the operation was, of course, to insure Montespan’s continued hold over the King.
La Voisin and her gang-which included her lover, Nicholas Levasseur, the executioner of Paris, who provided fat from the bodies of executed murderers to make Black Mass candleswere finally caught, tried and executed in 1679. But La Voisin was made of tough stuff. Never once did she let slip the name of a single customer.

THE ROUGH and tumble 17th century was drawing to a close and for another hundred years nothing much was heard of the Black Mass in Francealways a center of its activities.
In the 18th century in England some young rakes, led by the notorious bully and seducer, Sir Francis Dashwood, founded a Hell Fire club and a mock order of “monks” with “nuns” to match but the morale of laity and clergy had gone so to pot that nc one of importance minded.
It was not until the great upsurge of occultism in the 1880’s that the Black Mass came into its own again, sometimes an actual Satanist mass by sincere worshipers of the goat-headed god, more often a fraud for the extraction of money from tourists. In the latter category it formed part of the entertainment of the gay French capital up to World War II, in company with exhibitions usually involving one woman and three men, or liaisons between a woman and a Great Dane, a Shetland pony or even a small python. It was to one of the peep-show-type Black Masses, without a doubt, that the nervous novelist, Huysmans, was conducted by one of his occultist lady friends while he was writing “La Bas.” For he was nothing if not thorough.
Today, the Black Mass seems to have died down for a time. A few years ago the Vicar of the parish of Yarcombe in Devonshire, reported that the church had been disarranged one rainy night when it had been left open to serve as a refuge for benighted wayfarers. The candles had burned to their sockets, one candlestick held the paw of a white kitten which had been hacked off. A prayer book lay face open on the floor and when recovered it was observed that the lines “Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness,” had been crossed out with diagonal lines of black-grease pencil. But such resurgences are sporadic.
There remains, of the elementals which tormented Joris-Karl Huysmans, only the philosophical Problem of Evil. And it has two viable antagonists in the modern world.
In the early 19th century the biggest double-dome in Europe belonged to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Heidelberg. Beginning with the idea of Pure Being, derived from Lao Tsu of China, he worked out a theory of reality as Absolute Idea, best exemplified in the Prussian State. To him good and evil were necessary opposites as war was necessary for eventual social progress. His theories struck fire in the brain of young Karl Marx who, as he put it, “turned Hegelian Idealism right-side up” with his “dialectical materialism,” which has gone on to dubious glory as the religion of Communism. Marx said, “The philosophers have only described the world; the point, however, is to change it.” If, in this process of change, the individual loses his life, it is of no consequence. This takes care of the paradox of Good and Evil by making the triumph of the toiling masses, led by their self-appointed vanguard, the Communist Party, the only Good-and keeping the Party members so busy they don’t have time to think of bourgeois philosophical nonsense.
But there is another solution to Huysman’s horror.
Out of the mysterious East in the 1930’s there began to come rumors of a psychological-religious method or discipline which, once achieved, answered, or more properly dissolved, all doubts and dilemmas. It captured the imagination and curiosity of psychologists, scientists and avant garde intellectuals; in the 17 years since Hiroshima enough of its results have become known to widen the circle of interest, as yet still among the intelligentsia. It consists of a discipline which makes the U. S. Marine Corps boot camp training seem like the first day in kindergarten. But for those who perservere, it is claimed, the shell of dualism which imprisons the human mind splits like an abscess and the divine certainty beyond all opposites comes flooding in. The name of this discipline-religion in Japanese is, of course, Zen.