Understanding Victorian Morality and the Occult Undertones in Black Butler (2008)

Ciel and Sebastian
Ciel and Sebastian from Black Butler

Disclaimer: This study is in reference to the anime version of Black Butler. 

A friend of mine wanted me to watch the anime version of Black Butler since according to her own words, “It is bloody good.” Cranking up my Netflix, I found the series and figured that I’ll just watch one episode. Sure enough, within a week I ended up watching the entire two seasons. While I understand some fans may have their differences in opinions regarding the anime and manga versions of the series, I thought the anime version was excellent.

For those who are not aware of the plot of the series, it involves a young boy name Ciel Phantomhive, head of the Phantomhive household and business owner of the Funtom company. He performed a Faustian Contract (demon contract) with Sebastian Michaelis. As a demon butler, Sebastian is under Ciel’s command to perform certain tasks and help assist Ciel on avenging his parents’ death. Once Ciel achieves his goal, Sebastian would be able to consume his soul.

The purpose of this article is to provide a general reference of the rise of occultism and the belief system during the Victorian Era through this medium.

Outskirts of Phantomhive Manor
Outskirts of Phantomhive Manor

The revolving theme during the series clearly shows that there is an issue of compromising your morality based on your faith and relationship with others. While some of the elements of the show may be highly exaggerated, it brings down to the point of how people felt when being approached by social phenomena and their daily lives of forcing themselves not to give into their temptations. Simply put, they did not want to dance with the Devil.

At the time of Queen Victoria’s reign between 1837 – 1901, the United Kingdom was subjected to these moral views on sexual restrain, low tolerance of crime and a strict social conduct. Many of the historians can agree that the Victorian era was a time of hypocrisy. With the rise of maintaining a sense of dignity and outward appearance based on the morality system, it also brought the worst when the country was facing a high rate of prostitution and child labor that came as a result of the strict code of conduct.

Sebastian's Faustian Contract with Ciel Phantomhive
Sebastian’s Faustian Contract with Ciel Phantomhive

The subject of Victorian morality would not be complete if there was no mention about the rise of occultism. In today’s work of fiction, the fascination of mentioning about making a pact with the Devil is probably one of the most sought after subjects in literature and media. I have to admit, the thought of having a demon butler who was very sharp, quick-witted and simply charming would be a dream come true for those who needed some “assistance” in personal matters. But I digress.

Imagine this – for a society that was so strict with their morality system, why was there an increase of people who became interested with the occult? During the end of the 19th century, there was a revolution in scientific understanding known as the “Crisis of Faith” in which it challenged religion and society’s faith to a high degree. In 1859, Charles Darwin published his work On The Origins Of Species in which his theory focused on his reasoning that the human race have survived this long because of natural selection and survival of the fittest.

A sample quote from Darwin’s work on explaining his theory:

As natural selection acts by competition, it adapts the inhabitants of each country only in relation to the degree of perfection of their associates; so that we need feel no surprise at the inhabitants of any one country, although on the ordinary view supposed to have been specially created and adapted for that country, being beaten and supplanted by the naturalised productions from another land.

This was an invitation for society to encourage people who were susceptible to religious experience by using scientific methods to answer metaphysical questions. There was no stopping to finding the answers of the unknown. Some consulted with fortune tellers and tarot cards while the other half joined the Golden Dawn which was an organization that was purely devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics, and paranormal activities.

Ciel's Right Eye of his Faustian Contract with Sebastian
Ciel’s Right Eye showing his Faustian Contract with Sebastian

In the case of Black Butler, Ciel was the type of person that did not believe in morality – he was simply focused on avenging the death of his parents. Ciel’s outlook in life was even more hampered as he was once a slave to cultists who subjected him to inhumane cruelties. During the course of the season, Ciel and Sebastian was on duty most of the time when solving cases that involved the murders of dead prostitutes from Jack the Ripper. As the Watchdog of the Queen, Ciel would prepare himself to resort to any dishonest measures such as bribery, provided that he will be able to retrieve the information to help solve the case as quickly as possible. As the story line progressed through the anime series, Ciel Phantomhive’s viewpoint remain unchanged. It’s no wonder that with all of the events that surrounded the young boy, it gave Ciel every reason to remain livid after witnessing the angel’s attempt to rewrite Ciel’s own history in order to purify his soul (and attempt to release the Faustian Contract with Sebastian).

The irony of Black Butler is that Sebastian had a better understanding than the rest of the humans who were fighting their differences between remaining moral and exploring the unknown. In his conversation with Ciel during Season 1, he mentions the following:

You are different from demons who are revolting and possess complex evil intent. Telling lies . . . desperately struggling, kicking down other people. Stealing the stolen, while repeating your reasons over and over. And even so, you aim for the horizon over the hills. That’s why humans are interesting.

Even with Ciel’s attempt to conform with his beliefs, Sebastian often reminded Ciel that he will always help assist his tasks until the very end towards the end of Season 1:

As long as there is the contract, I will protect your life. However, if you make a mistake of your own accord, you will possibly suffer a painful experience while alive. You already know that, don’t you? Any game becomes boring when it lacks thrills.

I am fortunate to have watched the entire two seasons of Black Butler as the storyline was very unique and engrossing. To me, it is very reminiscent of some dark tones that were highlighted in another favorite of mine which is Batman. I’ve watched other horror anime series such as Hellsing, Vampire Hunter D and Deathnote, but this series takes the cake in terms of focusing the aspects on what it was like to live in the Victorian Era and their struggle on overcoming supernatural battles.

It was simply one hell of a good show.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Personally I am at odds with myself over the ending.

    I’m not going to lie. I am a fangirl of Sebastion and Ciel. Those moments between them where it appears there is something more to the two of them.

    But then I also, even more than the above, wanted Sebastion to eat his soul. It was ready to end. Ciel had completed what he wanted. But then season 2 came around and as much as I loved it I couldn’t shake the feeling that it should have ended.

    • When I saw the season 1 finale I was also somewhat glad– it was the ending that the whole series was building up towards. However, I thought that it would be somewhat of a letdown if it ended just there. Sebastian should’ve seen what a loss it would be, eating Ciel’s soul. Then what? Would Ciel’s soul be just dead, digested, or would he be an integral part of Sebastian? What I didn’t like about Season 2 the most was the need for Sebastian to find something for Ciel to get revenge over. But I thought that Season 2’s ending was near-perfect: we learn the extent of Sebastian’s obsession with Ciel’s soul, and he sort of deserved the punishment of being always around Ciel and having no hope of reward. Sebastian also makes it clear at one point that he was tired of always devouring things; maybe, in the end, this is what he wanted…?

  2. Johnnie

    this is sucha awesome anime. sebastian and ciel are my faves for sure. i love grell and also the undertaker. i was enchanted with the puppet collecting girls to create dolls. he was beautiful and creepy.

    • Recently watched season 2 so here we go!

      Top Favorite:
      1.)Alois Trancy
      2.)Hannah Anafeloz
      3.)Lau & Ran-Mao (Adorable couple and very funny)

      Honorable Mention: Ashe/Angela (But mostly Ashe b/c I’m in love with Chuck Huber’s voice)

      Most Hated:
      1.)Claude Faustus
      2.)Grell can be a bit annoying at times but I wouldn’t say I hate him
      3.)Elizabeth can be a bit annoying too but again, I didn’t hate her

      I suppose I only truly hated Claude cause he was such a jerk haha

  3. Kudos, great post! On the whole, I found the series a curate’s egg. There were some great moments and memorable imagery. However, there were also lot of the worst anime cliches. Jumping 20 feet in the air and darting back and forth at the speed of sound. The servants conflicting art styles – one moment faux-realistic, the next all big eyes and cartoony. Sebastian suffered from the Captain Scarlet syndrome – Would it matter if he was struck by a hail of bullets from a machine gun when he was immortal anyway? The attention to detail tended to fluctuate – you’d have episodes where the authors had clearly researched their material (ice fairs on the Thames and the Crystal palace) and then you have incredibly looking anachronistic cars… The curry burgers were daft and Grell’s transformation from Jack the Ripper to pathetic lovelorn teenager-with-a-crush was annoying.

    Nevertheless, the overall story held my attention. It could have easily finished at the end of the first series, but the second series gave an interesting ending to an interesting conceit.

  4. Good read. Its setting of Victorian surely adds a one of a kind setting and occasionally I found the supernatural element that is added to the series enjoyably reminiscent to horror books I have read from the Gothic Victorian era such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dracula.

  5. NarUt0fan

    Not certain what made me fall so extremely and madly in love with this one. I thought it must have been the Victorian-era London scenery, the gloomy, melancholic, weeping like atmosphere that prevailed and after reading through this, I have confirmed it.

  6. TedMarsh

    This series really confused me as to what are the rights and wrongs. I can easily say that this is one of a kind that give it a passionate fans, the demonic kind.

  7. Unfortunately, I have yet to see the second season of the Black Butler anime, but I have been keeping up with the manga version. Obviously, the story lines differ between each version, but both deal with similar themes. Black Butler is one of my favorite series for the reasons you described. The author of the original manga and the creative team behind the anime both seem to have a good grasp of Victorian values and the struggles people had with such stringent morality. It’s an interesting juxtaposition – the definitive supernatural elements against a society that was all about strict morality…in public, and the protagonist caught between the occult and the struggle to keep up pristine appearances. The setup has such appeal

  8. I haven’t watched Black Butler or read the manga version, but I always hold the belief that anime – at least good anime – is more than entertainment. Such kind of articles are needed to let people realize that there’s a lot to pay attention to in anime (or other art forms, so as to say) to make the whole process more enjoyable and fruitful than ever. Good work!

  9. I watched both seasons. I really enjoyed the first season, but the second season just got weird in the last couple episodes. Sebastian should have been able to eat his soul. He shouldn’t have been punished this way.

  10. Mary Awad

    You would really enjoy reading the story arc in the manga about the circus performers. It’s my favorite part and it applies to a lot of what is written here. I know this is an anime review but I just thought I’d recommend it. It’s super epic.

  11. Natalie Sheppard

    Great article. I love Black Butler and further understanding the Victorian/occult context just deepens my appreciation for the show and the manga.

  12. i loved Black Butler it was very deep and at times i was even dazzled by the smoothness of Sebastian. In the end when he does consume Ciel’s soul it was very sad . Great write up

  13. Great article, personally I’ve always loved those dark supernatural-themed shows like Hellsing and Black Butler, especially how they delve very deeply into the occult mythology.

  14. Emily Deibler

    Great work. I’ve started watching Black Butler on Netflix, and I enjoy the mix of Victorian elements and occult fascination. I’m also a huge fan of Hellsing, which has similar themes in terms of the supernatural and a nonhuman being controlled by a human.

  15. Felicia Doucette

    First I must state that I only watched the first season. Second:The art and some of the thought provoking questions and well written characters of Black butler were good, however the horrible morals and twisted lines between right and wrong went too far towards the Darkness in my opinion. It is wrong that us viewers are pulled towards wanting a demon to eat a young boys soul. We should want the good to win. It is NOT OKAY for a demon to eat anyone’s soul! Most of life is shades of grey in the world and there is only ever the maximum of the palest grey or the darkest grey, BUT there is always room for Light and good morals even in confining and hypocritical societies. We can all agree that Slavery was never acceptable and that no one makes the hero of the story okay with slavery. They either fight to free slaves, rise up from slavery to freedom themselves or after being raised noble and taught that slaves are okay learn empathy through trials and then fight to end slavery, even if it’s just freeing what slaves they can when they can and running far a way where there are no slaves. This Slavery discussion is my point about morality in the Victorian Era or any other era. As in Anything devouring the Soul of something else is worse than slavery + rape+ torture + murder combined! Characters should have flaws, weaknesses and trials to overcome, BUT I believe in the responsibility of Artists and Authors to have a life affirming message and morality. There is no reason why the trials and torment Ciel suffered to make him have no morality: When logically he would develop phobias and perhaps even anxiety but also be motivated (such as Batman) to prevent other such suffering in the world. I can’t get behind a character who not only is so hopeless as to not even try to live for a happy future for themselves but has no interest in saving others or making the world a better place. That is a Villain (or background Neutral Character) NOT a HERO! Withing the setting their are innumerable and still dark themed stories that could have been done morally better. Ex: Demon pact with a clever way out (see Liliana of Magic the Gathering), Brooding heron who deeply cares after empathy from his own trauma who puts on a convincing cold front, while actually seeking for life, and to improve the world. Oh and so much more but It would take even longer to be more specific with my examples. I was deeply disturbed by Black Butler and warn everyone I meet whenever applicable to never watch it no matter how pretty the art style appears. Just to sleep well and have peace in my life again I had to continue the story and have my main character destroy Sebastian and free all the souls he had devoured so that they can go on to heaven and /or be reborn on the cycle, that ‘fixed ‘ it. The story is dangerous and too much from the Darkness if I need to do THAT to get on with my life!

    • Thanks for sharing Felicia, I couldn’t agree more. I actually didn’t intend on watching this show until my housemate suggested it to me. She told me how it was the best show and her “life”. I replied that it seemed a bit dark from the outset so I didn’t want to watch it when I first noticed it. However, I told her I’d give it a try. It’s great to see the historical background of Black Butler and put it into perspective, but it still doesn’t give a case for fighting hate with hate. Fighting for a just cause wouldn’t be a fight if we could all have our way all the time, even if we have suffered greatly at the hands of others before. I don’t know that much if the audiences of this show have first hand experiences of abuse like Ciel went through, but coming from a family that’s gone through a cycle of abuse I can assure you that vengeance is not the way to justice or healing,

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