Trolling Hell: Is the Satanic Temple a Prank, the Start of a New Religious Movement -- or Both?
The most controversial new work of art in the United States is a sculpture that resides in an undisclosed warehouse location in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Hardly anyone knows where it is, and few have actually seen it. The people who commissioned the piece have warned the artist not to publicly identify himself.
They don't think they're being paranoid.
"We've gotten all kinds of hate mail," Lucien Greaves, one of the people who commissioned the work, says. Greaves has received a number of emailed death threats, which he occasionally posts verbatim to his Facebook page: "I hope, I pray you get a bullet. You are evil your a monster, an obamanation...the evil radiates off you. I hope you suffer." A guest on Don Imus's show on Fox News remarked jocularly that Greaves and his cohorts behind the sculpture should be lined up next to it and shot.
Greaves hadn't seen the artwork in person until recently. On a warm afternoon in early June, a friend drove him down to New York from his home near Boston so he could take a look. He arrived in Brooklyn just as the sun was setting and hurried into the space where the sculpture is kept, quickly shutting the warehouse door behind him. Someone had tweeted its rough location not long ago, and he was uneasy about prying eyes.
Greaves closed the blinds, then turned to face the sculpture. He inspected it for a moment or two with quiet satisfaction.
"I love it," he said without smiling.
Not yet completed, the work is a huge statue of Baphomet, a horned, winged, sexually ambiguous, goat-like deity. Baphomet is usually depicted with a goat's body and cloven hooves, a woman's breasts and enormous, flared wings. A flame protrudes from the top of his head, and from his lap a staff with two snakes wrapped around it: a caduceus. Greaves asked the sculptor — we'll call him "Jack" — to forgo the breasts. This Baphomet is smooth-chested and muscular, with thin, shapely lips and rectangular pupils. The sculptor based his physique on a blend of Michelangelo's David and Iggy Pop.
When the piece is completed, Baphomet will be seated on a throne underneath an inverted pentagram. On either side of him, two children — a boy and a girl — will gaze up adoringly. On this day the little girl was absent, visiting another artist for some finishing touches. The boy was in place, his lips parted, his unpainted, dimpled Afro reminiscent of a giant golf ball.
"The caduceus represents reconciliation and negotiation," Greaves explained, lightly touching the staff. "The whole thing has binary elements, to represent balance and reconciliation."
Baphomet has been around since at least the 1300s, when Spanish Inquisitors accused a Christian military order called the Knights Templar of worshipping the goat god. (Members were tortured for the offense, and burned at the stake every so often.) But the popular image of Baphomet comes from the mid-1800s, in the form of a drawing in Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, a treatise written and illustrated by French occultist and magician Eliphas Levi. For Levi, Baphomet represented perfect harmony: male and female, darkness and light.
More recently, Baphomet has come to be associated with Satan and Satanism — and that's precisely Greaves's intent. He's the spokesman for the Satanic Temple, a group that intends to plant Baphomet on the lawn of the Oklahoma state Capitol, alongside a monument of the Ten Commandments. Oklahoma lawmakers decided it's fine to put up a religious statue if it's paid for with private funds, the Satanists point out. So why not their Baphomet, which was crowdsourced through online donations?
Bathed in the orange light of the setting sun, the statue looked beautiful, and a little eerie. As Greaves walked around the base, tracing the figure's outline with his fingers, Jack smiled. He'd quit his day job a few months earlier to work full-time on the piece. The Temple has poured $30,000 into it already, but this is only a model made of clay and steel. A mold is yet to be fabricated, then a bronze cast — a process that will cost at least another 30 grand. (The Temple won't be getting any tax breaks to help recoup expenses. It has chosen to become an LLC instead of registering as a religious nonprofit. Greaves says the move, much like the statue itself, is a form of protest against the way most organized religious groups do business.)
In the meantime, the piece has become world-famous. After Vice magazine published photos on its website on May 1, seemingly every major media outlet followed with coverage.
If the piece ever does make it to Oklahoma City, Greaves expects that someone will destroy or deface it. "Someone's certainly going to try," he says. He chuckles. "They better know what they're doing, or they'll hurt themselves."
Greaves says he's looking into having Baphomet insured. But, he adds, almost merrily, "If it does get destroyed or defaced, there's a salient message there."