Dante had his Virgil. St. Louisans who enter Satan's realm must take as their guide the Grotto Master, a pompous chap who calls himself Merlinus Ambrosius, speaks in silvery polysyllables and complains that his schedule is just "hellish." Ambrosius does not speak publicly, yet he is eager for the local Church of Satan to become "the Jesuits of the Age of Fire," teaching and spreading satanic ways. He will, therefore, arrange contact with a member of his grotto, the Legion of Loki (coupling the ancient Romans, who sought order above all else, with a Norse god of chaos and mischief).
The chosen Legionnaire -- or is he really Ambrosius? -- requests a pseudonym, lest he send his 9-to-5 coworkers into cardiac arrest. Joking about meeting after dark, he says he, "Greg Nasty," and a friend, "Selene," will "scout an appropriate location."
Days pass. Images of ritual sacrifice rise unbidden. You recharge your cell phone, stash Mace in your briefcase and wait. Finally, with something of a flourish, Nasty announces that they've found the perfect place:
Two Nice Guys, a pizzeria in quaint old Webster Groves.
At this point you decide to look for a couple in cable-knit sweaters and khakis. Instead, the tables spin again: A man and woman clad in solid black wait side by side in the last booth. Nasty, a grizzled middle-aged guy in a bandanna and leather jacket, looks like he misses his Harley, yet speaks with Old World courtesy. Selene stands 6 feet tall and jokes about her fierce outspokenness, yet she sounds more like the heroine in a Gothic romance. She's even bothered by Greg's pseudonym -- why "Nasty," when he's really so sweet? He stares down at the tiny plastic cream cup that was empty when he ripped the top off, then scans the room for the faraway waitress. "Aw, I don't know," he mutters. "I had to have a name real quick, and I was thinking about Johnny Rotten."
They both apologize for taking so long to choose a location; mainly, they wanted to find a place that wouldn't be crowded, so they could talk comfortably -- and the food here is great. Alas, they can't enjoy much of it; they're both on the Atkins diet. Satanism might emphasize the pleasure principle, but it also demands a reckoning with the consequences.
Most people don't realize that. They're convinced that all Satanists worship the devil, rather than an abstraction of the self, and that they kill, rape, defile and indulge to excess. Nasty's so used to disabusing such fears and misconceptions that he rattles off an automatic introduction: "Hi, hello, we are Satanists, we don't kill children or animals."
"Some people are seriously disappointed," chimes in Selene. "They still see Fluffy being hung from a tree." Nasty says he gets e-mails that boil down to "Where are the wild women, and how many dead cats do I need?" and the last prospective member "seemed slightly crestfallen when we told him there were no orgies."
"Orgies are fine too," Selene adds hastily, "if that's what you want. But you have to take responsibility for what can happen." Satanists worship the powers of the self (lust chief among them) and define evil as any obstacle to their desires. "It's just a total joy in being alive," remarks Selene. "Sex. Not holding back, not worrying. Saying what you think. Lying by a lake, sleeping in the sun like a dog or a cat, understanding what they feel." Far from torturing animals, one of the Church of Satan's main precepts is that humans are animals, completely carnal, without a whisper of the spiritual. Nasty talks earnestly about the importance of protecting your territory, waiting for the mating signal, running with the pack. The third Satanic Rule says, "When in another's lair, show him respect"; the fourth says, "If a guest in your lair annoys you, treat him cruelly and without mercy." Recognizing and honoring these carnal impulses can be a comfort, he adds: "You don't say, "Oh, I'm going crazy'; you say, "That's the Fido in me wanting to come up and play.' Everybody has the beast inside. Take it for walks occasionally, scratch it behind the ears -- or, when it does bust out of its cage, it's gonna eat you alive."
He remembers being a teenager, full of rage, bouncing with testosterone, convinced he'd burn in hell because he'd committed every one of the seven deadly sins. The only one he didn't feel bad about was sloth, because it kept him from repeating the others. "How do I not feel these things, besides being dead?" he asked himself. Trapped in a timid family, in a town as airless as a sealed envelope, he clawed free by reading. One day, he says, he happened across a 95-cent copy of Anton LaVey's bestseller The Satanic Bible, marched it past his Catholic parents, closed his bedroom door and turned the pages, saying, "Damn! Damn! This is just what I was thinking!' LaVey was pointing a finger at the elephant in the middle of the living room, saying the whole Judeo-Christian moral system is bankrupt; it doesn't work."
Nasty traded God for Satan, but before he could explain to his parents that he wasn't worshiping Satan, that Satan was just an archetype of nature's power, a symbol of unashamed self-interest, they'd sent him to a psychiatrist. When that didn't work, they simply forgot his conversion. Now he wears khakis and button-down shirts when he goes home to visit, and everybody ignores the elephant.
"My closet's full of costumes," he says, shrugging. "I was a nattily dressed little child; I used to wear clip-on ties to school even when it wasn't picture day. Now I prefer old Beatnik stuff -- powers of darkness. Most Satanists do pay attention to their wardrobe. It's not important to have good looks, but you need to have a look, a style. Remember, appearances are everything."
Outside the restaurant's glass window, the theists stroll by, their elbows weighted with bags of wrapped, beribboned presents. Ramadan, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa -- seems like a tough time of year for a Satanist. "It's the solstice," corrects Selene. "Besides, so much of what's become Christmas is not Christian anyway." Do they ... er ... exchange presents? "I plan to this year," says Nasty, glancing at Selene. "Oh?" she asks, meeting his eyes and blushing. "One of our Satanist friends gave us presents wrapped in Christmas paper," she says in a rush, "with a little pentagram on top."
"Now, Halloween is very important to us," inserts Nasty, describing a party that weekend at which they were "very naughty, put in all our fake fangs and just basically celebrated the dark side." Returning with the cream, the waitress sets it down very carefully on Nasty's saucer and backs away. Nasty adds that on the actual Eve, he and Selene just held a small private ritual, using magic for some personal goals. "There are satanic ceremonies, which are basically pageants," he says, "with a lot of pomp and circumstance but no tangible goals sought. Then there are rituals by one or two people for very specific goals: I want my son healed, I want that promotion, I want that bitch dead.'
"The meek will inherit the earth -- about 6 feet of it," he quips, stressing that Satanism isn't humanitarian. Then he talks urgently about repairing the environment and building a world where no one need fear or want. "It's not altruism," he insists. "We live on this planet. If there is a whole underclass of diseased, infected, ignorant, unemployable people, how does that benefit us?" Selflessness is a cowardly abdication of personal responsibility, he adds. Christians condemn the self as evil; they want to die to the self, lose it, kill it. "If you're trying to shed the self, how better to do that than to do things you wouldn't do for yourself?" asks Nasty. "Sacrificing everything in this life for the next ... keeps the crowds controlling themselves."
Forget transcendence, he advises, and forget turning the other cheek. Satanists are big on vengeance, although it's usually played out in a court of law -- or with a whoopee cushion. What matters is getting your own back. "Psychiatrists are finally beginning to see that this whole thing about forgiveness is not so good," adds Selene, "because it's not real."
And Christ? "He's a symbol. None of us went to school with him." Nasty's chuckling, trying to keep things friendly, but his next litany is bitter as cyanide: "If you obey the Father, you are nothing but a child. 'Give yourself over, stop thinking. Let go, let God. Don't analyze, just believe.' And this whole concept of original sin, that you are born dirty, born wrong and broken -- in Satanism, a child is born perfect. They get fucked up, excuse my expression, as they learn shame, fear, terror and guilt. But they start off magical."
Nasty and Selene met only last year -- "We both forgot to breed," Selene volunteers cheerfully -- but they've watched Satanists with children struggle. "The few I've known homeschool and try to take the time to give their kids a different perspective," says Nasty. "One of the ideas we've kicked around in the Legion of Loki is a charter school, an incubator for Satanic culture and values, a place where they are taught to think for themselves. We've even talked about a Satanic daycare, so parents would have a place where their children's personhood is respected, where they are not going to be molested or warehoused, and the play is not designed to break their spirit.
"We have an incredible ability to fool ourselves," he adds suddenly. "We say, "He was an altar boy, or a priest -- how could he possibly do all that stuff?' Or the noises you're hearing from behind the door: "Well, of course they can't be that.'" Conventional churchgoers accuse Satanists of mirror-imaging Christianity, flattering by spiteful imitation. But Satanists worship no anthropomorphized deity, not even Satan himself. Dante's three-headed Lucifer lived in an icy lake at the center of the Earth, past a pool of boiling blood and fiery rings of sand, but Nasty calls Satan "an allegorical figure, kind of like Santa or the Easter Bunny: Very real and yet never has been; both an aspect of ourselves and a greater ideal." The Satanic priesthood, he notes, cannot be entered. It must be conferred -- as it was on Jayne Mansfield and rocker Marilyn Manson. The writings of Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw and Ayn Rand also resonate with Satanists. Any current figures they'd be willing to embrace? "Jesse Ventura," Selene offers. "He says it like it is."
Bored with our misperceptions, Satanists play with them, ending letters with "Beast wishes" or "Hail Satan!" and indulging in an occasional game of "shock-the-sheep." Fear "can be used to an advantage," observes Nasty. "It's like letting people know John Gotti's your uncle. If you have no teeth and one of your paws is broken and the other one has no claws, they knock you out of the way and you starve to death." To survive, they cultivate our terror, and "the legend grows because it's just too good a story."
Nasty's black T-shirt, for example, announces, "Our name is Legion, for we are many" -- but they're probably not. Past attendees remember a ceremony held in an auditorium at Rainbow Village, a decidedly unsatanic residence for people with developmental disabilities in Creve Coeur, and say there seemed to be only a dozen or so "core" members, plus 50 or so curiosity-seekers. Satanists are "born not made," they say -- anyone plagued by cowardice, self-loathing, stupidity or unconditional niceness need not apply. They also screen out "drugged-out devil-worshiping metalheads with a penchant for feline slaughter." But they do want to start a newsletter and a Café Satan at a local coffeehouse.
Like other Satanists, the Legion mocks weak, "herd-dependent" individuals. Isn't it a bit odd, then, for unabashed worshipers of the self to band together in such clubby fashion? "The wolf pack can feed itself on smaller acreage than can a lone wolf," Nasty counters dryly. "There are economies of scale. Besides, while a wolf pack has a certain structure, it also has a certain feral quality. We live in a world of contradictions. Paradox abounds."
They thank the waitress and go out into the cold black night. "Are you parked far?" asks Selene worriedly. "We could walk you to your car, make sure you're safe."
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