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Hysteria, gender and Satanism: The pathologization of devil-worship in nineteenth-century culture
Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of Ethnology, History of Religions and Gender Studies, History of Religions.
2013 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

In turn-of-the-century France, the ongoing battle between the Catholic Church (which had traditionally been in charge of caring for the insane) and the developing discipline of psychiatry gave rise to lively debates concerning the nature of demonic possession and witchcraft. Psychiatrists claimed such phenomena, in past eras as well as in contemporary times, could be explained as expressions of hysterical conditions. Some Catholics, on the other hand, saw hysteria as a sign of demonic activity. Hysteria and the demonic were in turn used all over Europe to stigmatize feminists, who in conservative discourses were frequently metaphorically described as shrieking, hysterical witches or even, literally or implicitly, in league with Satan.

The sulfurous connotations of feminism were given support by some feminists, like Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826–1898), describing medieval witchcraft as a form of laudably anti- patriarchal Satanism – but fiercely denying witches were hysterics, in order to reject the negative stereotyping of feminists as mentally ill or aberrant. When a woman expressed sympathy for the Devil, as for example the radical individualist feminist Mary MacLane (1881–1929) did in an autobiographical book in 1902, male reviewers predictably held her up as hysterical and mentally ill, thus attempting to dismiss her subversive ideas and Satanic cultural critique as proof of a pathological condition.

Other men, like the Berlin-based Decadent Satanist Stanislaw Przybyszewski (1868–1927), took a different stance, and celebrated what others called degeneration, evil and hysteria. To him, all this was essential for the evolution of the species. He affirmed the connection between Satan, women and hysterical, ecstatic states of mind, but elevated Satan to a patron of progress in science and art.

The paper explores the conflation of Satanism and the medical diagnosis of hysteria in nineteenth century culture, and attempts to tease out some of the gendered implications the bringing together of the two had at the time.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
Hysteria, Huysmans, Charcot, Esotericism, Satanism, Occultism, Feminism, Gender
National Category
History of Religions
Research subject
History of Religion
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-99713OAI: diva2:688199
ESSWE 4th International Conference: Western Esotericism and Health, University of Gothenburg
Available from: 2014-01-16 Created: 2014-01-16 Last updated: 2014-01-16

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