Dark Illumination of the Self in the Aesthetics of Black Metal

Brenda Walter

Brenda Walter

Entering into the magic circle of black metal, we cross an invisible threshold into a world of inversion, a dark dreamscape rendered in black, white, and blood.

Here, in the sempiternal night, ice-laden autumn winds twist through gnarled and blackened woodlands as shadows grow long beneath a freezing moon. Throughout the forest, covens of corpse-painted men robed in black leather chant demonic paeans to death and destruction, to pain and terror, in honour of their lord Satan.

In an ecstasy of evil, they lift their heads to the dark sky, pink tongues lolling while phallic fingers writhe and clench into fists. Inverted crosses, downward-facing pentagrams, and the severed heads of sheep flicker in the firelight cast from the conflagration of Christian stave churches in the distance, while the Goat of Mendes, ruler of darkness, surveys his kingdom of hellfire and sulphurous smoke.

The upside-down world of satanic black metal is uncanny, both familiar in its use of inverted tropes and schemes and yet completely “other” to those on the outside looking in, including Christians and consumers of mainstream popular culture.

For them, it is a spectacle of abject horror in which the viewer, unable to look away, becomes one with the object of revulsion through jouissance, or desire. Those within the hellish magic circle experience a similar abjection as they gaze outward at the decadence, hypocrisy, and emptiness of WASP-y middle-class culture.

In this context, the inverted signifiers of satanic evil serve not only to distance the blackened self from the hated once-self/other, but also to caricature and reflect the horrors of human society.

From satanic black metal to cascadian black metal and beyond, the black metal mirror moves from inverted binary into existential complexity, calling the viewer to contemplate not only humanity and nature, but also his or her own fetid image.

Staring into the darkened abyssal glass, the blackened self discovers negatives of negatives, a string of perpetual inversions that ripple into oblivion. At the moment of dark epiphany, the abyss gazes back, the self succumbs to blackness, and is annihilated.

Often oversimplified as “Christianity upside down,” the inverted aesthetics of satanic black metal are actually quite complex, operating according to the specific rationality of medieval scholasticism and signifying deep discourses of power in Western culture.

In the thirteenth-century, scholars working in the milieu of the medieval university sought to reconcile Aristotelian constructs and epistemologies with those of Christianity, including the scriptures and the and Neo-Platonic tradition transmitted through patristic authors such as Augustine.

In works such as ‘De Universo’, ‘Summa Theologica’, and ‘Scriptum Super Sententiis’, scholastic theologians William of Auvergne and Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle’s logic and natural philosophy as supporting structures for theological precepts and articles of faith.

Aristotle’s cosmology, elemental theory, and physics would prove particularly valuable in the construction of paradigmatic Christian goodness and its radically-inverted contrary, Satanic evil, two binary categories that, by the fifteenth-century, were not only ossified but also deeply entrenched in Western culture.

At the heart of the medieval construction of good and evil lay Aristotle’s cosmos, which was divided into two realms. The realm beyond the moon was imagined to be a series of nesting crystalline spheres, each of which contained a planet.

The outermost sphere of the fixed stars served as the boundary between the cosmos and the Prime Mover, an entity who applied pressure to the spheres and set them into motion through love. All movement in the superlunary realm was circular, perpetual, and perfect; below the moon, however, chaos reigned.

The sublunary realm was composed of four elements — fire, air, water, and earth. Because the fire was the lightest and most pure element, it hovered above elemental air and rose toward the lunar sphere. Earth, on the other hand, was the densest and corrupt of the elements, and therefore sank like dross to the very core of the cosmos.

The inherently unstable nature of the four elements meant that they were in perpetual states of transformation, thereby creating myriad forms of matter and a chaotic physical world of violent motion and change.

In the thirteenth-century, scholastic theologians began the process of reconciling this ancient and pagan cosmic system with Christianity, thereby transforming the Prime Mover into the Christian God, the realm beyond the sidereal sphere into his Empyrean Heaven, the world below the moon into a demonic playground, and the bowels of the earth into Hell.

The superlunary realm of divine goodness was imagined as a heavenly hierarchy, with God enthroned in the Empyrean, “the subtlest of all bodies” containing “within itself the purest light.”

There, the Christian God was surrounded by seraphim, the Virgin Mary and the saints of his royal court. Radiating from the Godhead, divine light suffused the weightless and translucent ethereal bodies that populated the heavens, illuminating the choirs of angels arranged in concentric circles that descended to the lunar boundary.

These angelic beings, Aquinas argued, stood at guard, their eyes turned toward the brightest heaven, in perfect obedience to the Deity. From God on his golden throne to the lowest angel, the heavenly realm was one of singularity and unity, a slavish collective bound to serve God’s will alone.

On earth as in heaven, only those willing to submit fully to the Christian God through his institutional Church would one day be permitted to see the wonders of this static and luminous world; all others would damned to the Hellish world below the moon for all eternity.

Having structured and codified the realm of divine goodness, theologians set about constructing the realm of Satanic evil. Following Aristotle’s theory of radical contrariety, they ensured that earthly evil would be the absolute inversion of heavenly goodness in all of its qualities and parts.

Sublunary evil was envisioned as an inverted hierarchy, with Satan at its nadir enthroned in the icy core of the dark and fetid earth. Aquinas and his colleagues argued that fallen angels did not have natural bodies, but could collect moist and fetid “earthly exhalations,” or noxious air, in order to manifest in physical forms.

Once coagulated from the “dark atmosphere” that was their home, Satan and his demons most often appeared as monstrous black angels with leathery wings with deformed features. Created as inverted beings, they spoke through their asses and shat through their mouths; associated with the lower bowels and the reproductive organs, they emitted a continual stench of sulphur and dead fish.

While demons had the power to “hover through the fog and filthy air,” they remained trapped in the sublunary realm, bound to the corrupt earth — the cold and dry element associated with autumn, black bile melancholy, the colours black and grey, and death — from which they might never ascend.

Wicked as they might be, Satan and his minions were initially limited in their power; they could not operate beyond natural law or physics, nor did they work together effectively towards a common goal. They had, after all, fallen from heaven because of their own willfulness, their refusal to submit to any power other than their own.

Between the thirteenth- and fifteenth-centuries, however, demonic entities were increasingly ascribed greater power over their human prey.

Aquinas, for example, argued that while demons were bound by natural law, they had roamed the earth for millennia and, having retained their angelic intelligence despite their fall from grace, grown more perceptive and learned many tricks with which to fool the feeble minds of women and men.

Events over the course of the fourteenth-century, including the Great Famine, the Black Death, the Babylonian Captivity of the Church and the Great Schism, as well as the multiplication of heretics such as Jan Hus and his followers, led many theologians to believe that the Church was under assault by Satanic forces empowered by God to punish his wretched and disobedient children.

While the early-fifteenth century cleric Johannes Nider saw this demonic assault as a call to reform the Church in its head and members, many others such as the author of the Errores Gazariorum and Heinrich Kramer imagined that Satan and his demons had organized themselves into a disciplined and hierarchical army whose primary objective was the destruction of the Christian Body.

Like the angels that had subsumed their own will to that of the Deity, so too had demons, apparently, become enslaved in obedience to their Lord Satan.

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