Guest Post: Satan in the Red Light District

This is a guest post by S, a reader of the blog and listener of Sacred Tension. If you would like to write a guest post for the blog, please send submissions via my contact page.

There is a strip club in the red light district of Amsterdam called the Banana Bar. 

At first glance it looks like any other sex business in the crowded tapestry of bright advertisements, with its illuminated signs of bananas and naked girls riding them. If you look more closely, you will notice that the windows are covered with tasteful art nouveau style nude paintings, and that the facade is completely black. The unusual appearance of the building, as well as the banana-gimmick for which the club is famous, belong to the legacy of a convent that used to house here: the Walburga Abbey of the Dutch Church of Satan, or Kerk van Satan

From its foundation in 1971, this Satanic church challenged legal definitions and societal preconceptions of what a religion is and can be. They dogmatically rejected belief in a higher power, fought the establishment with a wicked sense of humor, and ran a string of successful erotic enterprises as part of their religious activities.

The Kerk van Satan (KvS) was founded in December 1971 by Maarten J. Lamers, at the time a 24-year-old actor, playwright, and director with a few sex businesses on the side. He was in the United States to obtain the rights for the production of the musical Oh! Calcutta! in the Netherlands when he came across The Satanic Bible in a bookshop. He was so intrigued by the book that he decided to pay a visit to the author – Anton Szandor LaVey – in San Francisco. He left the meeting with a Satanic priesthood and permission to set up his own grotto in the Netherlands, which existed from 1971-1988 [1].

Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan in 1966 in San Francisco. The Satanic Bible, in which he elaborates the basic principles of his newfound religion, appeared in 1969. Adherents of the Church of Satan do not worship the devil, but view Satan as symbol of free will. The Church’s philosophy is a combination of individualism and materialism with occult trappings, and promotes the pursuit of one’s desires according to Aleister Crowley’s motto of “Do what thou wilt”. 

Prior to his Satanic priesthood, Maarten Lamers ran a small theater company called “Hades”. He also pioneered a sex museum and a sex theater with erotic live shows in Amsterdam’s red light district in the late 1960s, and he was the first to open a sex cinema catering exclusively to a (male) gay audience. In the summer of 1968 he traveled around the Netherlands and Belgium performing medieval pageant wagon plays in town squares.

The Walburga Abbey

Central to the story of the KvS is the Walburga Abbey – a Satanic reincarnation of an erotic night café owned by Lamers in the early 1970s, called Le Boudoir (inspired by Marquis de Sade’s La philosophie dans le boudoir). At Le Boudoir, customers were served by naked women reclining on a bunch of pillows behind a red velvet bar. Commercial activities in the red light district at the time were largely controlled by mobsters who conspired with law enforcement to weed out the competition. As an outsider Lamers was at odds with the authorities and competitors, and had trouble obtaining and keeping the necessary permits for his businesses, so he invented all kinds of creative solutions to circumvent the law.

After he lost the liquor license for Le Boudoir, Lamers came up with a system where customers would not buy drinks but rent glasses, which were then filled at the bar for free. Since he was not selling alcohol, he did not need a license. There was no law in place that could forbid this construction, so the club was eventually shut down on grounds of “outraging public decency”. (Though it is hard to imagine that naked bar tending would outrage any member of the public in this particular neighborhood.) In 1978 the club was reopened as a Satanic convent. Lamers hoped to avoid further meddling from the authorities by consecrating it as a place of religious worship.

The Walburga Abbey was officially owned by the Foundation for the Preservation and Promotion of the Old Religion (Stichting tot Instandhouding en Verbreiding van de Oude Religie). According to Magister Lamers, Satanism was the oldest religion in the world (20,000 years to be exact) [2]. Girls who worked at the Abbey were called Sisters, and they were supervised by a Mother Superior in a nun’s garb. Visitors would rent glasses for “ritual purposes” from the Foundation at minutely or hourly rates. The Sisters would then fill these glasses with alcohol for free. If visitors stayed longer than they had initially paid for, they would have to pay an additional fee for overstaying, so it was the Sisters’ task to make them stay as long as possible. 

The Foundation’s profit was donated to the Church, who would, in turn, donate back to the Abbey. This did not necessarily convince anyone that the Church was a legitimate religious organization, but it did make it incredibly difficult for the responsible authorities to prove otherwise.

The Fruit of Lilith

The Sisters at the Abbey also performed Satanic ritual services from a menu, for which they would receive “donations” in return. One of the rituals on the menu was the Fruit of Lilith:

“Eve had an apple… Lilith had a banana. 

In this Gnostic ritual, the art of erotica and satisfaction 

is demonstrated in an orgastic fashion. 

The banana is the ultimate phallic symbol. 

A magical property of this fruit is that, 

contrary to all other fruits, 

it starts to grow only after the production of the seed.” [3]

The ritual consisted of a Sister inserting a banana into her vagina, then peeling it and offering a bite to visitors. Less exotic services like dancing or a massage were also offered.

The working conditions at the Abbey are described in the autobiography of a former employee [4]. Sisters received a fixed salary or presence fee of 100 guilders (about 100 euros by today’s standards) for a working day from 4 PM to 4 AM. Any donations from ritual services they were allowed to keep. Girls decided for themselves which rituals they wanted to perform (if any) and how many they would do in one night, though more rituals meant more money, and competition was fierce.

The court eventually ruled that the Abbey was a sex club and therefore should pay taxes. This meant that Lamers owed the revenue authorities a large amount of money in back taxes, which resulted in the entire operation closing down.

Satanic religion

The KvS is now often dismissed as little more than a clever attempt at tax evasion [5]. The Magister himself moved on to other business ventures, and currently lives in a castle in France. Meanwhile, the Dutch branch of the Church of Satan lives on as a dormant website that has cut ties with its founder. The KvS chapter has also been purged from the original Church of Satan’s history.

On his hallucinatory website full of ancient pixel art, Lamers complains that his unauthorized 800+ page biography focuses too much on one short, sensational period in his life. The book does devote a substantial amount of space to the KvS, with lots of pictures and minute details, but it also elaborates on his numerous other experiments and business adventures. It is not surprising, however, that most people are more interested in Lamers’ grand “cultural experiment”, as Gavin Baddeley puts it [6], than his financial successes in phone gambling, or his French reality TV show formats.

While there is little doubt that the Abbey was a lucrative business, it is difficult to argue that the whole endeavor was not also a sincere expression of Satanic religious beliefs.

In an episode of a popular Dutch late night show in 1987, the host remarks that he does not see how the tricks performed at the Abbey are religious rituals [7].

The Magister explains: “If you look at the cult of Aphrodite, for example, which has been very important at the origins of our culture, so to speak, that was nothing short of temple-prostitution. So you could say: that wasn’t a religion, it was a brothel.”

– But then can’t you just say: this is a nice sex club, there’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t pretend it’s a church?

“No. The Sisters of Walburga have been operating for hundreds of years and they feel it is their duty to propagate and integrate sexual acts that are not intended for procreation. In other words, to teach people that sex can also be fun, and you can have a laugh with it. That in itself is a ritual experience.

The Magister encourages the host to come visit the Church sometime and judge for himself, to which the host replies that he has been to the Church, but that, if anything, all the leather straps and handcuffs he saw there reminded him more of a “pleasant sadomasochistic get-together” than a place of religious worship.

“That’s a bit superficial of course. If I walk into a Catholic church like that and I see all those people getting some bread, I could think it’s a snack bar.”

– Well, but at a Catholic church you don’t have to pay an entrance fee or hourly rates.

“You try sitting down there and not putting anything in the collection basket.”

The activities of the KvS were not limited to the Abbey. The church itself was located in a separate building where Black Masses and other celebrations were performed. For a brief period it occupied a vacant Protestant church in the village Etersheim (see some images here), before it moved to the red light district [8].

The Church also ran a Satanic seminary which offered courses on occult subjects. For Sisters of the Abbey, study at the seminary was mandatory, and included courses on sexually transmitted diseases and guest lectures from legendary SM mistress Monique von Cleef [9]. Several times a week the Church held open house, where curious people could pop by and ask questions. They also organized tours of the church building. The Magister gave regular interviews about his beliefs in the media, and he appeared in a documentary series about Joris-Karl Huysmans – the French author who famously described a Black Mass in 19th century France. Representatives of the Church also gave guest lectures at universities [10].

None of these activities were commercially oriented. If the goal had been to simply make a lot of money with a tax-free sex club claiming religious freedom, they could have sufficed with less elaborate window-dressing. In addition, if their goals had been strictly monetary, the Church could have paid less decent salaries to girls working at the Abbey, and take a cut of their donations. 

Lamers did not simply outsmart the authorities. He seemed to take a diabolical pleasure in testing them. When revenue officials started inquiring about the organizational structure of the Church, he claimed that they should address their questions to a fictional council of Nine Unknown Men. Any requests to this council had to be submitted elevenfold. Requests took a long time to be processed and could be rejected based on technicalities. One time Lamers agreed to set up a meeting with the council, for which he made the government pay travel costs, since the members of the council supposedly all lived in different European countries. For the meeting he gathered a group of nine anonymous people in black cloaks. Only one tax agent was allowed in. After he had asked one question, he was dismissed with the reply that he had not applied for more than one question. The Council would send their answer in writing, and if they wanted to ask any more questions, they would have to submit another request in elevenfold [11].

A 2014 bachelor thesis in religious studies investigated the philosophy and religious practice of the Dutch Church of Satan based on a box of documents and writings they produced [12]. The study concluded that the KvS had a small but devoted following that adhered to the principles laid out in The Satanic Bible and other writings. They had a strong sense of community and took part in rituals on a regular basis. 

So “Why can’t that be a religion?” [13] 

Because it was obviously a commercial enterprise, as the court ultimately ruled? 

– So is much of modern Christianity.

Because it incorporated sexual pleasure?

So does Hinduism.

Because they do not worship a deity? 

– Neither do Buddhists, strictly speaking. 

Because they were clearly joking? 

– At least they were serious about freeing themselves from arbitrary authority and antiquated social norms, as dictated by their religion.

There is a more important reason why I think the Walburga Abbey was not really a place to promote and explore the pleasures of non-reproductive sex: even though The Satanic Bible advocates for the sexual liberation of all genders and sexual orientations [14], the Walburga Abbey was designed specifically for straight men. The favorable working conditions at the Abbey in a way could be viewed as empowering to working women at the time, but the club itself was a form of straight male-centered entertainment – as was the case with the first wave of Modern Satanism in general [15]. 

Notes

[1] This text relies heavily on the book De Tegenstrever (‘The adversary’), a biography of Maarten Lamers written by Fred Baggen (in Dutch) and published by Aldus Boek Compagnie in 2018. Further in the text I refer to specific pages where certain topics are discussed.

[2] van Luijk, Ruben (2016) Children of Lucifer. Oxford University Press, pages 545-546.

[3] De Tegenstrever, page 304. 

I translated the text about the Fruit of Lilith from the original ritual menu in Dutch.

As a side-note: the idea behind the ritual was that the banana symbolizes sex for pleasure rather than reproduction, since it is a seedless fruit, but this is incorrect. Commercial bananas lack seeds because they produce fruit without fertilization and are propagated vegetatively. Wild bananas on the other hand, are full of seeds.

[4] Schaapman, Karina (2004) Zonder moeder. Uitgeverij Balans, pages 192-276. (in Dutch)

[5] See Introvigne, Massimo (2016) Satanism. A social history. Brill, page 519.

[6] Baddeley, Gavin (1999) Lucifer rising: Sin, devil worship and rock’n’roll. Plexus publishing.

[7] I translated this short dialogue based on a part of the original segment shown in Andere Tijden – Satan op de Wallen (starting from 18:21), and a transcript of a slightly larger part published in De Tegenstrever, pages 600-605.

[8] The old church in Etersheim is now an adorable bed and breakfast.

[9] De Tegenstrever, pages 385-387.

[10] De Tegenstrever, pages 559-564.

[11] De Tegenstrever, pages 256-258.

[12] Kuipers, Susanne (2014) The rise of Dutch Satanism. Leiden University: Bachelor thesis. Pdf

[13] The same question is posed by a member of The Satanic Temple in the 2019 documentary Hail Satan?, see the trailer here (1:37).

[14] “Satanism does advocate sexual freedom, but only in the true sense of the word. Free love, in the Satanic concept, means exactly that – freedom to either be faithful to one person or to indulge your sexual desires with as many others as you feel is necessary to satisfy your particular needs. […] 

Satanism condones any type of sexual activity which properly satisfies your individual desires – be it heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or even asexual, if you choose. Satanism also sanctions any fetish or deviation which will enhance your sex-life, so long as it involves no one who does not wish to be involved. Therefore, Satanism does not advocate rape, child molesting, sexual defilement of animals, or any other form of sexual activity which entails the participation of those who are unwilling or whose innocence or naïveté would allow them to be intimidated or misguided into doing something against their wishes.” 

(From The Satanic Bible, pages 36-37)[15] See also Satan Stream – Was Anton LaVey an LGBT Queer ally?

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