Widespread “Satanism” in Black Metal and its Demons

Asbjørn Dyrendal
Asbjørn Dyrendal

In the title song of ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’ (1994), the seminal album by the groundbreaking Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, the protagonists, thirteen in all, sacrifice a goat to demons.

The rite is read from a book “made of human flesh”, and the deed is committed in a graveyard. Blending traditional demonological fantasies with horror fiction, the song places the demonic out in the open, explicitly thematizing satanic worship.

Seemingly, the Satanism of the more prominent bands was openly professed as well.

Their lyrics often much more than hinted at devil worship and an unhealthy interest in macabre themes, such as murder or necrophilia.

In addition, the band members frequently articulated the same themes beyond their musical output.

In interview after interview, they would be quoted in a way that made them sound like actual “devil-worshippers.” They also looked the part, in that, at a fairly early stage, the dress code of black metal settled on black denim and leather, with long spikes on jackets, belts, boots, and wristbands.

A white facial (sometimes also bodily) make-up called corpse paint, although rarely worn off-stage, completed the grim look of a scene where members seemed never to smile.

When their explicit anti-Christianity was connected to the spate of church burnings, violence, two murders, and allegations of rape, their role as “Satanists” was cemented in the public imagination. There was, however, a limited amount of truth to these claims.

To some extent, they were reacting to — and, in their symbolism and discourse, explicitly transgressing — the symbolic boundaries of a complacent, secularized social democracy, in a country where the state church mainly serves as a ceremonial locus for rites of passage.

In addition, state Protestantism is allowed access to elementary schools in many different ways and, moreover, teaching children to become “good Christians” is still one of the aims of the school system. Thus, the mainly teenaged black metallers inverted dominant cultural themes within Norway.

Against the liberal left public — and perhaps equally important, the radical left-wing politics of the Norwegian punk scene — they adopted both the images and the rhetoric of the far-right.

Against both Christians and secularists, they often adopted an inverted, fundamentalist reading of Christianity in their public discourse. Some, like Mayhem’s “Euronymous,” the central figure within the Norwegian black metal scene, stressed that they wanted church burnings to revitalize a stronger Christianity in order to spread both misery and rebellion.

The internal and external discursive constructions of black metal as satanic and fascist served to separate them out from other scenes and was also a process of self-identification. However, the emphasis and seriousness varied between individuals and over time.

The external discourse could, at times be tongue-in-cheek, but as the grim, anti-fun attitude promoted, it could also, from an emic perspective, be taken very seriously.

The stress on transgressive practices, and the internal “competition” over transgression that amplified deviant practices, may (at least to some extent) show how seriously it was taken. However, it is difficult to assess how much the behaviour stemmed from ideology and how much it was an effect of the particular dynamics within a rather small group of individuals.

The problem with judging when the “attitude” was meant literally, and the degree to which it was, is compounded by what Keith Kahn-Harris has dubbed the “reflexive anti-reflexivity” discursive style within the scene (Kahn-Harris, 2006: 141–56).

While the question of “authenticity” is of limited interest, we shall concentrate on something a little more easily assessed, namely how the subject of the satanic and demonic is treated within black metal lyrics.

Norwegian black metal bands were obviously not the first within the heavy metal to use imagery of the demonic and devil-worship.

Indeed, similar lyrics were already explicitly evident from the early 1980s. Evolving from a form of music more akin to death metal, Mayhem was among the ground-breaking, early representatives of what is commonly called the second wave of black metal.

As such, the use of satanic and devil-worshipping imagery was always part of what has retrospectively been identified as a subgenre.

Black metal’s first wave included bands such as Venom, which was then perceived to belong to the “new wave of British heavy metal.”

As early as 1981 they were singing proudly (although not sincerely) about being “In league with Satan”, a song that superficially celebrated Christian demonological themes: the protagonist obeys the heretical deity’s commands, sits at his left hand, and commits deeds of carnality and violence in Satan’s service. That was not the only tradition they drew on.

Among their songs we also find black metal classics such as the eponymous “Black metal” (which Mayhem has subsequently covered), where the musicians follow in the footsteps of Satan as the recorder of “the first note”, and lay down their souls to play the devil’s music.

In this lyric, Satan as the first musician inspires the rebellious to “rock ’n’ roll” (which is also a common theme within some streams of Christian fundamentalism).

From one perspective, this continues the mythology of the blues which describes — most notably in the story of Robert Johnson bargaining with Satan at the crossroads — the relation between music and Satan (in itself continuing much older folklore).

This is, however, not the place to recount that history (see Moynihan and Søderlind, 1998; Baddeley, 1999; Pinn, in this volume). It is simply noted here as an antecedent to contemporary black metal. Hence, while Venom, in one sense, may be said to have been the pioneer black metal band and was certainly amongst the principal promoters of a satanic image at this early period, the genre had, by the late 1980s, moved on to something bleaker, more destructive.

The second wave of black metal was more aggressive, both musically and lyrically than the first. Lyrically, both the lurid and juvenile sexuality — still present in some early black metal — and also the stereotypical rock ’n’ roll clichés receded into the background.

To the degree that sex was still part of the black metal discourse, it was more often presented in the context of violence, rape, and necrophilia — themes one also finds in death metal, the genre which many Black metal musicians began their careers playing.

Moreover, while the demonic was usually primary, within Norwegian black metal, there was another theme, namely “nature” (e.g. Mørk, 2002: 99–100).

Landscapes, particularly landscapes that are bleak, cold, barren, and hostile — which often serve as a backdrop for the violence of the protagonists — became prominent within the lyrics.

Generally, agents, story, and landscape tended to draw on imagery similar to the comic book adaptations of Conan the Barbarian, which were popular in Norway. However, unlike the Conan stories, the warriors described in black metal lyrics fight under the command of and on behalf of the dark forces, not against them.

This is particularly typical of one cluster of motifs, where the lyrics describe fantasy-inspired, mythic landscapes, where demons rule, and warrior heroes torture and kill their weak and godly enemies.

An example from the “Black Circle” — the core of the early scene, centred around “Euronymous” and his record shop in Oslo — is the lyrics to Emperor’s ‘Into the Infinity of Thoughts’. Here, “frozen Nature chilly” is more than the scene for the antagonist’s brutal deeds of hatred and violence; it reflects both psychological ideals and the deeper reality of life.

While, in this particular song, the demonic realm is described merely as “the Shadows,” the same album, ‘The Nightside Eclipse’, also features several songs naming the demonic as literally “demonic.”

Generally, the demon’s relation to brutal nature, “red in tooth and claw,” is made clear.

This is evident, for example, in ‘Beyond the Great Vast Forest’, where a dark Lord and his ‘Devils of Darkness’ haunt a similar landscape, draining the blood of living creatures. Not least, the album also includes ‘Inno a Satana.’

This is one of their most “conventionally religious” songs, in that the lyrics praise the ‘Lord of the Night’ who is “master of beasts”, compassionless bringer of everything destructive and hateful. The song ends with an oath that the singer forever will praise Satan’s name, serve him, and fight for him in the certain knowledge that “thou shalt forever prevail”.

It is once again clearly evident from the lyrics that hatred and strife are among the central “virtues” and the beasts of prey are typical symbols for the favoured side.

Again, we are presented with key themes from Christian demonology. Topics such as the agent’s willingness to “serve” and “praise” a nether power are not uncommon in black metal lyrics.

Although the relation to “nature” may at times lend itself to a version of Paganism, particularly that of Norse religion, this is a relatively simple inversion of conventional Christian beliefs and attitudes, along with elements taken from horror movies. As such, it constitutes one of the typical “satanic” stances from the black metal scene.

Indeed, as well as in some lyrics, in interviews members of the scene sometimes adopted a Christian eschatological narrative, in which they take Satan’s side.

In addition to these treatments of Satan and the demonic, however, we find a more conventional, romantic Satan in other parts of black metal.

In these narratives, he is portrayed as a proud rebel against servitude, oppression, and conformity. Unlike the readings in romantic poetry (e.g. Schock, 2003), the Satan of even these black metal lyrics more often tends to be explicitly destructive.

He despises the weak and encourages their destruction. It is this revised romantic, rebellious Satan that comes closest to the Satanism constructed by some of the followers of Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan.

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