Date of Birth: 1946
Birth Place: San Francisco
Year Founded: 1975
Sacred or Revered Texts: The Book of Coming Forth By Night, by Michael Aquino
Size of Group: Estimated in 1984 to include 500 members 1 . More recent estimates were not readily available, and the Temple of Set, as a matter of policy, does not disclose membership numbers.
Michael Aquino joined the Church of Satan in 1969, while he was in the US Army as a psychological operations specialist. Aquino became a priest in the Church in 1970, and was promoted to the level of Magister IV°, the highest ranking below High Priest (held by C of S founder Anton LaVey). In 1975, LaVey made a decision to sell priesthoods in the Church of Satan for cash, a move that alienated many existing members and officials. As a direct result of LaVey's announcement, Aquino and 28 fellow Church of Satan members left the group and founded their own church, the Temple of Set 2 . Aquino lists the number of members at closer to 100. He wrote The Book of Coming Forth By Night, supposedly with help from Set himself, declaring the need for a religion fulfilling individual potential through the Black Arts.
Aquino left the Church of Satan because of personal differences with LaVey as well as theological differences 3 . Aquino felt that LaVey was using the Church for his own personal gain - LaVey often made use of sensationalism to promote the Church. The two also differed in a deeper philosophical sense - LaVey felt that Satan was merely a symbol of strength and defiance, while Aquino believed in the literal manifestation of the god Satan (or the ancient Egyptian god Set, from which the Christian Satan is derived). The Temple of Set never gained the notoriety of the Church of Satan, largely because it was a more secretive organization from the start. The newly founded group became a non-profit church in 1975 and became exempt from federal and state taxes the same year.
Due to the tendency of the Temple of Set to avoid publicity, not much is known about their subsequent history. One major change has happened in the hierarchy of the Temple of Set in recent years. Michael Aquino stepped down as the High Priest in 1996, and has been succeeded by Don Webb. While the possibility of a philosophical change has been hinted at 4 , it is not clear what any such changes would be. Due to the inclination of the Temple of Set toward individuality as opposed to unity under leadership, it seems unlikely that a change of Head Priest would considerably alter the group's methodology.
The Temple of Set gets its name from the Egyptian deity Set, the original precursor to the Judeo-Christian Satan. The worship of Set dates back at least until 3200 BC, and possibly as early as 5000 BC 5 . Set was depicted most commonly as a human form with some sort of animal head, featuring a long, curved snout and upright ears. He was a god that went through periods of extreme popularity and unpopularity in Egypt, depending on the beliefs of the prevailing ruling class. At times Set was widely worshipped as a god representing individual consciousness, as well as the darker forces of nature (thunder, deserts, etc.). During other periods Set was looked at as being a god of evil, violence, and hostility. In some Egyptian myths, Set was born by violently bursting out of the side of his mother's womb, killed his brother Osiris, and was in the business of stealing dead people's souls in the underworld.
The Temple of Set points out that a lot of the more negative myths about Set came about after factions supporting the worship of rival deities, primarily Osiris, came into power. Setians focus more on the aspect of Set that deals with chaos, which does not necessarily have immoral implications 6 . They will argue that chaos is a consequence of exploration and expansion. Setians believe strongly in a quest for knowledge and self-improvement, which they contrast with the Judeo-Christian ideal of perfection embodied in the tale of an innocent Adam and Eve being reliant on an all-powerful God.
Setians, even though they believe in a literal deity, do not worship Set in the same way that Christians worship God. Rather, they honor Set for representing a deeper consciousness and individual strength -- thus, worshipping Set is analogous to worshipping the individual. The ultimate goal of Setians is to reach this higher spiritual consciousness and understanding of the self -- the process of self- actualization is called Xeper (pronounced "keffer"), the Egyptian term meaning, "to come into being." The focus on individualism is so pronounced that the individual process of Xeper is deemed more important than the collective entity of the Temple of Set. The Temple has been described as merely a bridge to self-consciousness: "destroy the bridge and you have still not in the least damaged the Gift of Set itself." 7
There are six degrees of membership for initiates into the Temple of Set 8 :
Priest/Priestess of Set III°
Magister/Magistra Templi IV°
New members start out as Setian I°, then will advance to Adept II° after being judged to be skilled at black magic. If new affiliates do not become Adept II° within two years after joining, their membership will be discontinued. Most members, once achieving the second degree, stay at this level throughout their time in the group. The higher degrees are only conferred by Temple leadership. These leaders are the Council of Nine, the Executive Director, and the High Priest/Priestess - the ultimate head of the Temple of Set.
The Temple is organized into "Pylons," different groupings generally according to geological location of members (the term pylon refers to the name of the gates of ancient Egyptian temples). Each new member must affiliate with a Pylon within a year after joining. These Pylons, led by a designated officer called a Sentinel, allow members more access to contact with others in the Temple of Set. There are also divisions in the Temple called Orders that reflect different areas of interest in the black arts. Each member, once having reached Adept II status, must join an Order within one year.
There are several sources of printed information available to (and restricted to) Temple of Set members. The Book of Coming Forth By Night is what could be described as a sacred text to the Temple. There is also a regular newsletter, Scroll of Set, and a set of reference manuals called the Jeweled Tablets of Set. In addition, each Setian has a personal copy of the Crystal Tablet of Set, which gives a range of information about the structure and theology of the Temple of Set.
The Temple of Set has been guarded about details of its development as a religious movement. Thus there is not much public knowledge about recent events or theological/structural shifts in the Temple of Set. The main source of publicity for the Temple of Set over the years have been legal issues that have plagued the group, and specifically its founder, Michael Aquino. These problems may have been largely caused or exacerbated by public perceptions of satanic organizations as being evil and destructive.
A scandal that broke out in 1986 did much to hurt the credibility of Michael Aquino and the Temple of Set. Charges of child molestation surfaced at the day-care center at Presidio Army Base, where Lt. Col. Aquino was assigned 9 . Gary Hambright, a day-care worker, was charged with 12 counts of sodomy, oral copulation, and lewd conduct. Aquino, along with his wife Lilith, were identified by some of the children as possibly being another man who had participated in the molestations. However, no formal charges were ever brought against Aquino, and the case against Hambright was later dismissed.
In 1994, Aquino sued Linda Blood, a former member of the Temple of Set, for libel in her book The New Satanists . The book, Aquino's lawyers said, depicted him and his fellow Setians as "pedophiles, child abusers, murderers and the masterminds behind a nationwide satanic conspiracy" 10 . This was settled out of court, with details of the settlement kept confidential.
The latest lawsuit, in 1997, was brought against an internet provider for failing to block defamatory posts from an anonymous user. A person using the name "Curio" had posted over 500 messages that accused Aquino of "having participated in heinous crimes, sexual perversions and acts of moral turpitude," according to Aquino's lawyers 11 . That case against the internet company ElectriCiti was thrown out of court.
Adler, Jerry. 1987. "The Second Beast of Revelation" in Newsweek. Dayton: Newsweek Inc. November 16: 73.
Aquino, Michael A. 2000. Letter to Joe Abrams. December 9.
Bromley, David G., and Ainsley, Susan G. 1995. "Satanism and Satanic Churches: The Contemporary Incarnations" in America's Alternative Religions. Timothy Miller ed. Albany: State University of New York. 401-9.
Lat, Emelyn Cruz. 1997. "Judge Tosses Out Suit Against Net Provider; S.F. Couple Sought Halt To Postings Accusing Them of Child Sex Abuse" in The San Francisco Examiner. The Hearst Corporation. October 1: A7.
LaVey, Anton. 1991. The Satanic Bible. New York: Avon Books.
Melton, J. Gordon. 1991. Religious Leaders in America: A Biographical Guide to Founders and Leaders of Religious Bodies, Churches, and Spiritual Groups in North America. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.
Rosenfeld, Seth. 1994. "S.F. temple, Couple in 'New Satanists' Sue Author for Libel; Suit Says Book Falsely Links Them to Kidnap, Molestation" in The San Francisco Examiner. The Hearst Corporation. October 29: A2.
Created by Joe Abrams
For Sociology 257: New Religious Movements
University of Virginia
Fall Term, 2000
Last modified: 12/8/00