BMCR 2006.12.36

Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Ritual Abuse in History

David Frankfurter, Evil incarnate : rumors of demonic conspiracy and ritual abuse in history. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. xvii, 286 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0691113505 $29.95.

Table of Contents

At the end of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, the narrator, who has recently witnessed the death of one of his friends at the hands of a group of power hungry, gnosis-seeking occultists, realizes that soon these same occultists will come after him, because they believe he is in possession of a Map. But there is no Map. The narrator made up the Map in the course of a game he and his editor colleagues devised, a game that drew them into the world of the fanatical occultists. As he is writing his final thoughts on his situation, he reflects on his recent revelation that the true gnosis is that there is no ultimate gnosis, that there is no knowledge or technique that will bring its possessor power, immortality, cosmic insight. In other words, there is no Map. He also knows that the crazed occultists who pursue him will never understand this. They are blind to this revelation. “They of little faith.” And yet they are willing to perform all manner of evil in pursuit of this illusion.

Eco’s ending bears a striking resemblance to the most salient conclusions of David Frankfurter’s most recent book, Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Ritual Abuse in History. In this work, Frankfurter explores the social phenomenon of belief in evil conspiracy throughout Western history from the second century C.E. to the very recent past (1990s). By looking for similarities between accusations of cannibalism, incest and child sacrifice leveled against early Christians, the witch hunts of the late medieval and early modern periods, panics about Jewish ritual murders from the same centuries, the Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) movement in North America and the United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s, and modern day witch hunts in Africa, Frankfurter argues that in each case an actual evil conspiracy never existed. Instead, in each case a myth about the demonic or Satanic was both constructed and performed. The tragic outcome of this performance is often the torture, punishment, imprisonment or even murder of the supposed participants in the conspiracy, and this outcome is the genuine evil that arises from such mythic constructions. “The real atrocities of history seem to take place not in the perverse ceremonies of some evil cult but rather in the course of purging such cults from the world” (12).

What drew Frankfurter’s attention to this topic is the consistency with which a number of components of this myth occur, signaling a pattern across time. These components include abducted, abused, sacrificed children, people whose inclinations and habits mark them as not quite people, and the authoritative ways in which these stories are performed. His aim is not, however, to present some timeless archetype, some universal social or psychological essence, but rather to uncover recurring patterns of thinking about Otherness and inversion.

Although he gives a great deal of detail about the specific case studies he uses to make his argument, Frankfurter’s goal is not to investigate each case within its particular social, political and intellectual context or to produce a history of myths of demonic conspiracy. Rather, his aim is to explore the construction of these myths as a social phenomenon. In other words, theoretical considerations take precedence over historical ones. Frankfurter is known for his elegant and innovative use of interdisciplinary theoretical models for investigating topics that pertain to late antique religion, in particular the religious landscape of late Roman Egypt. He has drawn on recent work in anthropology and sociology for many of his publications. His approach is derived from the field of religious studies, and his methodology and the kinds of questions he investigates serve as a model for scholars who work on similar topics. In this new study, he takes his theoretical bent even further, drawing on psychoanalytic insights to account for what he describes as “primary process thinking” involved in the production of the more fantastical and perverse elements of these myths of demonic conspiracy.

In his Introduction and second chapter, Frankfurter presents one of his most compelling ideas, namely that myths of evil conspiracy emerge in contexts where local religious worlds encounter larger universal systems that produce totalizing discourses about evil. Within these local religious worlds, misfortune and danger are accounted for in terms of malicious or capricious spirits or specific marginal individuals on the fringe of communities. But with the introduction of a totalizing discourse, often by self-proclaimed experts who come into the local context from outside, these spirits are fitted into a universal structure that lends them an added significance and makes them dangerous in an ultimate sense. This totalizing discourse takes the form of a demonology, a discourse about the entire range of potentially malign spirits. In some sense then, demonology is “the collection, classification and integration of demons out of their immediate social context, as a function of religious centralization” (15). One example Frankfurter uses to demonstrate this encounter is the way Zoroastrianism recast older local spirits within a more universal framework and gave them a moral valence. These ancient spirits were no longer merely ad hoc, hostile or ambiguous beings. They became evil.

The production of demonologies is usually done by self-defined experts acting under the auspices of centralizing institutions. In Chapter Three, Frankfurter discusses the range of these experts who claim to have the ability to reveal the global system behind inchoate misfortune. These include prophets, missionaries, inquisitors, witch-finders, social workers, police, psychologists and even the possessed or formerly possessed themselves. Frankfurter claims that these experts do not merely explain the experience of everyday misfortune, they fundamentally change it. Furthermore, through their activities of representing and projecting the conspiracy onto the local for others, experts gain charisma for themselves.

Chapters Four and Five explicate the common features of the stories that these experts convey to their audiences, the actual content of many of these myths of evil conspiracy. Frankfurter’s argument is that the commonality of many of these features is neither accidental nor the reflection of some essential or universal psychological trait of human nature. Rather, their consistency derives from reflection about inversions of “prevailing notions of proper liturgy, sacrifice, sacrament, or ceremonial behavior” as well as a “deeper element of speculation about humanness and savagery, about local maleficence and a greater evil, and about ritual itself as an ambivalent aspect of society and tradition” (75). In other words, inversion is the mode through which human beings think about the Other in their midst. This is why child sacrifice, cannibalism and the use of impure substances figure so universally in many of these constructions. Frankfurter’s treatment of early modern fantasies of the witches’ Sabbat ritual reveals the way these fantasies brought together various notions of danger and may have even drawn on Protestant suspicion of ritual in general.

Chapter Five takes this argument about inversion and otherness one step further. Here Frankfurter draws on psychoanalytic insights to account for the content of the “tableaus of perversion” produced in the course of the construction of myths of Satanic conspiracy. His argument is that these tableaus are not merely the result of groups attempting to clarify differences between themselves and the Other in their midst through modes of inversion. Rather, they are as much the outcome of voyeuristic participation. In other words, their construction allows for the imaginative participation in perversions and atrocities, a transgressive enjoyment. Frankfurter points to what he calls the “sheer pornographic inventiveness” of many of these tableaus, the graphic details of which cause many to ask: “who could think up such bizarre and horrifying things — they must be true.” On this point, he invokes Georges Bataille, the quintessential philosopher on transgression. Frankfurter writes, “imaginative inversion offers the experience of transgression from the vantage point of taboo, the projection of desires within a framework of censure” (154). One extreme example of this projection that the book explores is that of inquisitors in early modern witch trials. These clerics were able to observe, probe and subject naked female bodies to torture in the course of their investigations. These actions required a proximity and intimacy with women that would never be allowed these men in their usual roles, but were permitted in the context of censure during the witch trial.

The question remains, however, of why large groups of people come to believe in these tableaus and myths if they are only imaginative constructions, and particularly perverse ones at that? According to Frankfurter, it is because these myths are performed. In other words, they gain reality through social acts and social experience. Chapter Six classifies various kinds of mimetic performances and their performers. Some of these performers act directly, others indirectly, some performances are coerced, others voluntary. In the case of the SRA myth, performers include “survivors”, television show hosts, their audiences, therapists, exorcists, and so forth. Furthermore, those who parody the myth in their roles as self-identifying Satanists, as a form of social deviance, also make a contribution to the performance by confirming stereotypical behaviors and appearances.

In his final chapter, Frankfurter returns to one of his most salient and, in this reviewer’s opinion, most timely points, namely that the true evil that arises from myths of demonic conspiracy is that which is wrought when groups seek to purge supposed participants and culprits from their midst, be they Christians in the late Roman world, Jews or witches in any number of time periods. He saves his most dramatic demonstration of this point for the final paragraph of the book in which he documents recent cases of actual ritual abuse. A chilling footnote records at least nine cases, all children, who were either abused or killed in the course of mainstream Christian exorcisms over the past ten years.

Evil Incarnate quite successfully does what it claims to do, namely explore a social phenomenon, the way in which a certain kind of myth has functioned in different historical circumstances to produce social cohesion and to provide a medium for thinking about danger, inversion and otherness. One of the strengths of the project is Frankfurter’s consistent resolve not to engage in the prurient curiosity of many scholars about whether or not there is any grain of truth in any of the accusations brought against, for instance, early Christians or medieval witches. This resolve in turn allows Frankfurter to provide fresh insight into issues that his study only peripherally touches on. For instance, in a fascinating aside on theories of sacrifice in the social sciences, he challenges the view of Freud, Girard, Burkert, Durkheim, Turner and Eliade, all of whom suppose in some way or other that sacrifice revolves around ecstatic killing, a killing in which some intrinsic life force or power is released. Frankfurter’s claim is that these modern theories rely on classical literary fantasies to “assemble a theory of ritual power to explain rituals that have no forensic evidence” (124). The book in general is very rich in tantalizing and controversial asides of this sort.

One question that readers might ask is what a book that is essentially a religious studies project, and one that only cursorily touches upon issues or events pertaining to the ancient world, might have to offer scholars in classics or ancient history. I would like to suggest that the aforementioned way that David Frankfurter works with theoretical models and insights from other disciplines can serve as an example to scholars of earlier time periods. Many historians of the ancient world affirm the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to their topics, but it is difficult to find studies where this intention is realized as more than a veneer. Evil Incarnate also provides scholars with a wide range of interesting avenues for further study. Given the book’s broad historical scope, many of the questions and topics it raises for scholars working in late antiquity deserve further investigation. For instance, although many historians have challenged the view of E.R. Dodds and others that the late Roman period was one in which people were more anxious, spiritually curious and credulous, and hence more prone to thinking about misfortune and fate in terms of the intervention of a broader range of spiritual intermediaries, very few writers have suggested satisfactory alternatives. Frankfurter’s study of demonic conspiracy provides fresh impetus for exploring questions about late antique demonology in its Christian, Jewish and pagan/Neo-Platonic forms. Frankfurter also suggests avenues for comparative research between time period, something which few historians are willing to attempt but which can be very fruitful. Few scholars, for example, have explored the very interesting parallels between the religious world of the late Roman period and the early modern one where we see similar religious tensions at play.

I do not have any substantial critiques of the book. Readers should be aware that because of his stated purpose and nature of the project, Frankfurter mainly engages with secondary sources throughout much of the book. His sections on Satanic Ritual Abuse tend to make more use of primary materials than others. And although his sources are well-documented, it is not always clear how he is making use of them in the context of his own theoretical considerations. For instance, if the reader wants to gain a sense of how Frankfurter’s use of the work of particular writers in the psychoanalytic tradition fits in with that tradition and its debates more generally, she will have to do a substantial amount of reading beyond the book itself. Frankfurter could also be clearer about why he feels the need to depart from sociological and anthropological models at the junctures where he draws on psychoanalytic theory. The move is an interesting and effective one, but given the somewhat checkered relations between history and psychoanalytic modes of thinking in earlier scholarly epochs, more explanation for this choice would be helpful to the reader.

Finally, because the book is not strictly a historical study, it may leave the reader with a good number of new and unanswered questions of a historical sort. But as I mentioned before, the stated aim of the book is not to explore the phenomenon of myths of evil conspiracy in detailed historical contexts. Hence it is up Frankfurter’s readers to follow up on the many promising avenues of inquiry he suggests and to find the many devils, so to speak, in the details.