This Christmas season, we at the Dark Soul Corporation intend to offer our adoration to the Prince of Darkness. We hope you join us.
Just notice what fun it would be! Above is a reproduced 16th century woodcut of a "black mass", an idea which had already whipped most of ecclesiastical Europe into a lickspittled frenzy by the time this particular depiction was carved. Look at what that naughty priest is doing: having convinced two women to strip naked, he puts one on the holy church altar to serve the Eucharist on her flesh while the other waits on her knees with a helpless babe, doubtless moments away from being made a diabolical sacrifice. The candles are lit, the windows flung open for all to see; the crucified Christ looks on with what must be disapproval, but what can he do? He's all nailed up. Like the motif of the naked woman's body, the body of Christ also appears twice: once on the crucifix and once in the form of the communion. In between, the priest and the sacrificial babe: a double unholy trinity.
What makes such an image so ironic is the historical fact that Christmas (the Christ Mass) is the Black Mass. In fact, the Christ Mass is the darkest mass of all: invented during the Dark Ages, observed during the very darkest time of the year and in honor and adoration of none other than the Prince of Darkness himself. These are bold statements, of course, so I'll have to back them up; but to do that, we have to back up a bit.
Lord of the Underworld
Actually, I lied: we have to back way, way up - all the way back to the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt. For the uninitiated antiquarians, that puts us in the range of 4,000 to 4,500 years ago - over two millennia before the invention of Christianity - when the most popular god of the Egyptian elite was the O.G. Pharaoh of Darkness, Osiris.
The myth of Osiris may sound vaguely familiar to Sunday School graduates like me: adored as a king on Earth, he was betrayed by his very own Judas figure named Set or Seth, consequently died a horrific death, but then came temporarily back to life before departing into the spiritual realms where he lived eternally (my primary mythological source for this article is the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology). Most tellingly, his divine example paved the way for mortal humans (originally just the pharaohs, but eventually including all Egyptians) to follow his example and thus discover their own path to eternal life. Nor is that all; a comparative analysis of the myth of Osiris-Isis-Horus with Jesus Christ reveals many uncanny parallels. Most relevant to the present discussion is that the ancient Egyptians called Osiris (which isn't an Egyptian name at all, but rather the Greek adaptation of one of his names) "the one with many names" - indeed, some of them seem quite familiar, like "King of Kings".
Although it may seem that Christ and Osiris have much in common, here's one critical difference: whereas Christ ended his brief post-resurrection career by ascending into heaven, Osiris went in the opposite direction: into the underworld, where he reigned as king. Like Christ's, his kingdom "is not of this world" - it lies beneath, in the dark realms below. One might be tempted to jump on this difference and use it to show how actually, the two gods are different - but not so fast. Remember that Christ also descended into the darkness of his tomb after his crucifixion; only after those three days in darkness did he ascend.
The connection between Osiris and Christ clarifies considerably when we consider the intermediary Greek god, Dionysos. In the mythological literature, one can find many more articles in support of the idea that the Greeks copied Dionysos from the Osiris template than those which will admit that early Christians did the same with Jesus - more than likely, this has nothing at all to do with the fact that the majority of such scholars were raised Christian while practically none were raised Dionysian. Be that as it may, The Immortality Key by Brian Muraresku summarizes numerous scholarly articles in support of the thesis that Christ originated as a syncretic, half-Jewish, half-Greek copy of Dionysos who, while considerably older than Christ, is probably not as old as Osiris. (It's a little difficult to say for certain; like Osiris, Dionysos was also known as "the one with many names" - see Carl Kerenyi's excellent treatise Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life.) So it's fairly easy to trace the slow evolution along the family tree: Osiris, then Dionysos, then Jesus Christ - with possibly a handful of others, like Orpheus, as slightly more immediate Christian precursors.
This is significant because, like Osiris, Dionysos was the lord of the underworld. His wife was Persephone, known as the Queen of the Underworld. "Wait a moment" - you might be thinking - "doesn't he mean Hades? Or Pluto maybe?" My response is that it simply depends on which version of the Persephone myth you're reading. Sure, some versions of the extremely popular story say it was Hades who abducted Persephone and took her to wife in his underworld kingdom - while others say it was Plouton (the Greek version of the Latin Pluto), others say Zagreus and still others say Orpheus. However, the oldest version of this myth still extant, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, says it was "the one with many names" - in other words, Dionysos (I refer you once again to Kerenyi's terrifically good monograph on this topic).
The salient point is that all of these divine figures - Osiris, Dionysos, Persephone, Zagreus, Orpheus and Jesus Christ - were a Prince of Darkness (except for Persephone, who was its Queen). Christians are the only ones who deny it. They found the idea so morally repugnant that they instituted an international "holy" Inquisition against the Prince in all his faces and his many names, burning up to 60,000 innocent victims at the stake in public squares at the height of the medieval European "witch hunts" (source: Bailey 2001). Jungian psychoanalysis would diagnose this as one of Christianity's principal shadows, the call of its own soul which was cut off when it repudiated the long, august lineage from which it descended and hubristically declared its theology sui generis, in contradiction of three thousand years or more of dark tradition.
Alchemy, Necromancy and Witch Hunts
All of which brings us back to the Black Mass and its first cousin, "black magic", and back to the very land where these traditions probably originated: Egypt.
The Arabic word al-kemi literally means "the black land" - a common name for Egypt during the Islamic era. Most of us learned in school that the annual flooding of the Nile valley brought rich, dark earth from sub-Saharan Africa to the land of the pharaohs; this fertile soil was the lifeblood of the Egyptian agricultural economy and was strongly associated with Osiris (traditionally it coincided with the reappearance of the star Sirius - another name for Osiris - though in the long centuries since this coincidence has slowly eroded due to the precession of the equinoxes). The European word "alchemy" derived from this relatively new Arabic word and not from a more ancient Egyptian word because of the relatively late date at which the proto-science arrived in European courts - around the year 1200 CE. This is not at all coincidental. After the Christian crusades to the Middle East, the courts of Europe found themselves increasingly exposed to Levantine philosophies, of which Egyptian alchemy was then one of the most prominent. The practice quickly caught on in southern Europe, as greedy lords subsidized promises of transmuting lead into gold.
Little wonder that it never worked out in a literal sense; this is because the truth of alchemy is esoteric. One popular version of the ancient texts described a four-stage process of transmutation - nigredo, albedo, citrinitas, rubedo - which exoterically described the transmutation of base metals but hid its true purpose esoterically: the true transformation was within. Alchemists work on radically transforming their own sense of self-identity, from the persona which they bring to meet society into deep relation with their own soul - the secret meaning of "lead into gold" (I discuss this process at length in my forthcoming book, The Way of Integration, coauthored with Baba Dez Nichols). But don't simply take my word for it; I borrowed this hermeneutics principally from Carl Jung's Collected Works, which describes the alchemical process of transmuting persona into soul consciousness.
For this article, I'll focus only on the first alchemical stage: the nigredo, which means "blackening" (from Latin nigro). This is the step which kicks off the whole alchemical process; the first step is to embrace our own blackness, our own darkness. As Michael D. Bailey (2001) painstakingly reveals, the ecclesiastical powers of Europe strongly reacted against the nigredo of alchemy, labeling it as "black magic" and accusing practitioners of consorting with demons. And they were absolutely right! Alchemy certainly does build an intimate bridge between the alchemist and his/her own daimon, a concept of Greek philosophy which describes each individual's portion of the universal soul. And, as I mentioned, the "blackening" of nigredo is the necessary first step of this process, so it's hardly a stretch to call it "black magic" - that's what it is.
But the Catholic inquisitors made some rather consequential mistakes. First, as Bailey details, they confused the difference between nigromancy and necromancy, the latter of which they misunderstood as consorting with demonic (daimonic) forces. Whether through copying errors or mishearing or simple wilful ignorance, the two ideas became thoroughly conflated by the 14th century, and the "necromancers" of Europe were mercilessly demonized. Second, they failed to appreciate the difference between the alchemy practiced by the elites of the European courts and the simple folk magics - like the "evil eye" still encountered in southern Europe today - which eventually became swept up into a catch-all idea of demonic sorcery. Convinced that Satanic practices had become ubiquitous, the inquisitions launched the systemic witch hunts which left thousands dead by horrific execution.
But most fundamentally, they made the mistake of assuming that "black" and "dark" necessarily mean "evil". This is just plain wrong. In Egyptian and European alchemy, the nigredo, like all alchemical stages, is morally neutral - there's nothing either inherently bad or inherently good about it. Instead, it's merely a necessary first stage, and whether it leads to good or ill depends entirely on the intentions and dedication of the practitioner. The popular equivocation of darkness with evil later led to even more tragic results, like systemic racism premised on the belief that people with darker skin must be cursed by God; many white elites saw this as justification to mistreat folks who descended from Africa - the very same continent where the myth of Osiris and the practice of alchemy originated.
So I hope you understand by now that I really mean it; please join us this holiday season as we worship the Prince of Darkness. For as long as Christianity continues to demonize the dark, its potential to empower us to find our own souls will lurk in the shadow, waiting to take us all down.
The author Jeremy Daw is the CEO of the Dark Soul Corporation and the coauthor, with Baba Dez Nichols, of The Way of Integration, to be published in early 2023.