Black Metal Traditional Connection with LaVeyan Satanism

Asbjørn Dyrendal
Asbjørn Dyrendal

The relationship between black metal and Satanism is complex. From LaVey’s side, Norwegian black metal artists often appeared “as essentially Christian,” at least in the sense that they were “defining Satanism by Christian standards” (in Moynihan & Søderlind 1998: 234).

That there was no love lost between them is evident from the fact that key members of the early Norwegian black metal scene claimed that they despised LaVey as just another humanist.

Deathlike Silence Productions, the extreme metal label founded by Mayhem’s Euronymous, sometimes featured a picture of LaVey in a circle with a line drawn through it — similar to conventional “no smoking” signs. At least one production carries the term “anti-LaVey.” It would seem that whereas LaVey’s Church of Satan espouses “nine parts respectability to one part outrageousness,” the discourse and ethos of transgression in the early black metal scene inverts the proportions.

Indeed, while the Church of Satan, like the extreme metal scene (e.g. Kahn-Harris, 2006), values transgression as well as control, only a few individual Satanists, many of which are marginal, would value transgression to the extent implied in black metal discourse.

But, as noted above, the relationship is somewhat more complex than may be gathered from this mutually expressed distaste. There is, firstly, a certain amount of common ground between LaVeyan Satanism, as interpreted by many Satanists, and the ideology of black metal.

Both LaVeyan discourse and black metal share related themes of elitism, misanthropy, individualism, non-conformity, and transgression.

An admittedly impressionistic comparison of the treatment of these topics suggests that black metal discourse is more extreme. Not only do few Satanists go as far as black metal discourse, but LaVey himself seemed to have varied widely in his degree of misanthropy, with the early LaVey appearing almost optimistic compared to some of his later writings.

With regard to contempt for “herd conformity,” they may seem more alike — but with important differences between individuals. While the combination of conservatism and transgression can be found in both Satanist and black metal communities, again, Satanists seem to focus differently on what counts as transgression and to what degree they are willing to transgress.

Although both parties claim to feel naturally alien in mainstream society, one can also make a case for alienation in Satanism sometimes being more strategic. Some consciously take on the role of “accuser” as part of what has sometimes been termed “creative alienation.” Consciously taking on the role of “accuser” involves going against the mainstream by contesting what currently functions as “holy.” That said, there are similar elements in play in extreme metal as well.

Moreover, the symbolism of transgression can also take on some of the same elements, with anti-Christian blasphemy and Nazi aesthetics being among the principal areas of continuity. Again, however, Satanists are, generally speaking, much less interested in these elements, seeing anti-Christianity as something to transcend, it being merely an unhealthy obsession with another religion, and the Nazi elements as immature foolishness or worse.

Bearing in mind these common elements, it comes as no surprise that there are more than a few LaVeyan Satanists on the black metal scene.

Even with regard to the Norwegian black metal scene, we find several who currently profess or have in the past subscribed to a LaVeyan type of Satanism.

My impression, however, is that these are typical within the least transgressive streams of black metal, both with regard to ideology and to their lifestyle.

While there are bohemian elements within the lifestyles of many, in actual fact regular employment, marriage, “family values,” and moderately conservative politics are far from uncommon (see Kahn-Harris, 2006: 61ff.). This personal impression fits well with what is otherwise known about organized Satanism (e.g. Lewis and Petersen, 2007).

To adopt Kahn-Harris’ vocabulary, LaVeyan Satanism seems generally more devoted to mundane subcultural capital than to transgressive subcultural capital (2006: 122–39).

Furthermore, the emic ideological stress on worldly success tends to support this thesis. Indeed, unless one holds to the mistaken belief that Satanists worship the Christian Devil and attempt to be the evil opposite to Christian congregations, there was never much reason to hold a different view.

That is to say, the Satan of LaVeyan Satanism is a far cry from the popular cultural horror-style demonology of much black metal. To the degree that Satan resembles anything from the history of demonology, as indicated above, it is principally the romantic and decadent reception and transformation of that transgressive symbol.

To those readers unfamiliar with contemporary Satanism, it is a tradition that can, broadly speaking, be divided into three different groups: (1) LaVeyan, rationalist Satanism; (2) esoteric Satanism; and (3) reactive, paradigmatically conformist Satanism (see Dyrendal, 2004; cf. Petersen, 2005; Schmidt, 1992).

For the first group, Satan is usually seen as a symbol and their worldview tends to be materialistic, atheistic, and encourages an attitude of rational inquiry — without necessarily eschewing “the occult” completely (see Barton, 1992).

The second group includes more theistic approaches. These tend to be inspired by Paganism and learn from the Western occult tradition as well as drawing inspiration from other religious and magical traditions, such as, for example, the Indian religious tradition (see Flowers, 1997; Schreck and Schreck, 2002).

Both of these are primarily “self-religions” (Harvey, 2002; Dyrendal, forthcoming). Only the last category adopts elements of Christian mythology. This is what the German historian of religions, Joachim Schmidt, has dubbed “paradigmatically conformist” Satanism.

The “reactive” element of such satanic belief and practice is the rebellious inversion underlying what is often an adolescent expression of Satanism.

The categories are not discrete, and there has always been substantial movement between them. However, unlike the personal powers and active forces described in black metal lyrics, one looks in vain for such interesting demonologies in Satanism, particularly LaVeyan Satanism.

While individual “demons” are referenced during some of the ritual chants constructed by LaVey, most Satanists seem to rarely perform personal rituals and collective ritual performances are even less common.

Indeed, as might be expected within a predominantly atheistic tradition, demons within LaVeyan Satanism seem to be primarily understood as fictional or psychological symbols. That is to say, references are not to be read literally.

Since “Satan” is most often viewed as a symbol of the essential nature of humankind, or sometimes as the “dark power” underlying the universe — passive and impersonal, thus uncaring, yet fueling the whole of life — it would indeed be strange if the demonic played a more significant role.

LaVeyan Satanism is presented as a sceptical, Epicurean, atheistic philosophy of life. “Religion” per se is condemned as an elaborate scam (LaVey, 1969: 31, 39).

The reasons why religion has prevailed argued LaVey, include, not only human gullibility but the fact that they have played on the human need for spectacle (ritual) and story (myth). Thus, Satanism in LaVey’s tradition has sought to address the same needs as a tool for liberation and the good life.

Since life is to be valued as it is — there being nothing beyond death — carnality and emotion are valued highly. This also holds true within music.

A versatile and skilled musician himself, LaVey gave music and the aesthetic in general an important role. Moreover, he gave instructions about how to use music within the ritual chamber (1992: 79ff.) and suggested uses of music in both lower and higher magic.

These suggestions are primarily concerned with how music can be used, for example, to heighten emotion and promote introspection. He focuses particularly on notions of universal or, as he puts it, “human-type” reactions to certain types and combinations of sound. Thus, his understanding of music commonly played for “the herd” is slightly sinister: “Music commonly piped into public areas is generally programmed so as to exert an influence on the hearer even though he is not listening. This type of music is utilized for lesser magical purposes (maintaining production flow, including eating and drinking, stimulating shoppers to buy, etc.). The music’s provider employs it towards magical ends; those who hear it are controlled by it, rather than using it to control” (LaVey 1992: 79).

“Satanic” music, on the other hand, is in accord with the individualist Satanist agenda: “The key element of Satanic music can be revealed in the question, will it appeal to you on an individual rather than herd basis? It is evocative, emotionally charged” (LaVey in Moynihan and Søderlind, 1998: 239). If it is produced for the herd, in order to control them, it is not likely to be deemed satanic.

Thus far, the musical ideologies of black metal and LaVey have something in common. However, much of this similarity evaporates when LaVey celebrates the marches of John Philip Sousa or discusses “satanic” music: “Simplistically speaking, it’s the kind of music you can walk away whistling or humming — thematic” (ibid.). There are a lot of things to be said about early, second-generation black metal, but it is notoriously difficult to whistle or hum.

When LaVey presents examples of music he deems particularly satanic, he refers to classical music (Barton 1990: 151–55). He repeatedly laments, in both interviews and his own essays, that contemporary adolescents only know the kind of sound made by different kinds of rock music.

This does not, however, mean that LaVey is consistently adversarial to black metal or to popular music in general. Railing against the American “satanic panic,” its proponents, and its consequences, LaVey writes: “I wanted to tell your children what was right about Satanism: encouraging sensuality with achievement, outrage with justice, nonconformity with wisdom. Instead, you provided media saturation informing them what ‘real’ Satanists do, what kind of noises they make when possessed. You encouraged them to rebel by the aesthetic standards you provided, and still, you grouse when they gravitate to Slayer, Ozzy, Electric Hellfire Club, Mercyful Fate, Deicide, Marilyn Manson, Acheron, Morbid Angel.”

“Do you know what? I think those bands are great. I would also like your kids to listen to Liszt, Borodin, Saint-Saens, Dvorak, Ketelbey, Wagner, Puccini, von Suppe, Rossini, Romberg, Kern, Friml, Al Jolson, Russ Colombo, Nelson Eddy, Nat “King” Cole, and the marches of John Philip Sousa. But you never gave me the time to explain that to them (LaVey 1998: 6).”

Since those opposing Satanism have been beguiled by the horror stories promoted in popular culture and have been less inclined actually to study Satanism, they have created a particular image of Satanism that is often at odds with the reality.

Indeed, the aesthetics and sounds of extreme metal, as well as its apocalyptic images, tend to be constructed as a direct, transgressive response to the taboos of Christian culture and the moral panic mentality.

Having noted this appreciation of classical music and initial scepticism concerning rock music, LaVey later acknowledged that death metal and black metal brought many people into contact with his kind of Satanism (see Barton 1990: 147–48). Thus, his opinion of the music he appears to have initially dismissed is later revised.

However, LaVey foretells a time when the same kids “come walking in the door with a Satanic Bible in one hand and a CD of Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain in the other” (1998: 7). Then the real nightmare will begin.

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