The history of metal iconography and lyrics is littered with references to the left-hand path: worship of or allusion to the slanderer, the adversary, Ba’al Zabul, the great deceiver, Satan is more common in metal than in any other genre of music.
Not all metal bands mention Satan; not all bands who mention Satan approve of Satan; not all bands which express approval of Satan believe in a literal Satan. Finally, few to none of the bands which believe in a literal Satan believe in its existence in the same form as it exists in traditional Judaeo-Christian teachings — most take their spiritual-mystical influences from gnostic sects and cults, Thelema, or occasionally from a sense one’s self as a sort of god or spirit.
Whatever Satan is, animal, vegetable or metaphor, he is an undeniable presence in many metal genres. The reasons for the presence of Satan in metal are many and complex. After all, the devil is supposedly the great enemy of man, responsible in many accounts for man’s fall, and for all the evil in the world. For many, it is incomprehensible that any could respect him — medieval traditions, for instance, portray him as a ridiculous, almost-pitiful hunchback composed of mismatched features, hideous in appearance.
The most predominant reason in extreme metal, as opposed to mainstream or traditional forms of metal, is outright opposition to Christianity. Satan is seen as a vehicle through which one can safely express a dislike for the faith and teachings of Christianity.
Of course, this raises the question why hate Christianity?
For metal from the Scandinavian countries, this is quite easy to answer. Christian culture resulted in churches being built on historic pagan sites, a bowdlerisation of swathes of epics whose original forms are now probably lost to us forever, and quite a lot of conflict. The grudge is partly philosophical enmity towards Christian teachings, and partly historically inspired.
For other parts of the world, it’s mostly a philosophical opposition, often expressed in something in the approximate vein of LaVeyan Satanism. The hate, which is occasionally too strong a term, is based on frustration at being a minority in, for instance, predominantly Christian America.
Musicians who take an atheist approach to Satanism are often quite disdainful of those who truly believe in Satan as a real entity. The post-Christian devil is only a symbol to them of what they believe is wrong with Christianity; suppression of personal pride, independent reasoning and the pursuit of knowledge (symbolised in Satan’s fall and in the serpent (who may be Satan) tempting Eve in the Garden).
Religious Satanism is, therefore, something of an oxymoron to these people: Satan and Religion are antithetical concepts. Atheist Satanists often assign the concept of Satan to such things as free will or the ‘god inside’; essentially, the true self of a person. I’ve seen it most commonly in sludge, stoner, grind, early death metal & blackened death metal, but some psychedelic rock and metal bands have also invoked Satan to imply opposition to conventional Christian morality (especially the whole “Not allowing free love all the time” thing).
Examples of ‘Atheist Satanists’ include Gaahl of the band Gorgoroth. Gaahl has in the past appeared to suggest that Satan represents the entire natural world outside Christianity, which Christianity treats simply as ‘the adversary’ to Christian, civilised life.
Black metal has its fair share of Atheist Satanists. However, due to the inherently mystical nature of black metal’s building of textures and bleak, hollow sound, black metal is most notable for the (relatively) large number of religious satanists involved in the scene.
Truly religious satanists are much harder to find in metal.
They’re even harder to pin down to a set of beliefs than atheists. Some simply identify with the poorly defined image of the devil as laid out in the Judaeo-Christian holy texts, some are in love with the idea of destruction (including self-destruction), and some are effectively from a different mythological tradition entirely, so different is their conception of the Devil and God.
Some gnostic sects rejected the god of the Old Testament as part of a corrupt demi-urge, and considered the devil, although not a pure good, at least on a moral par with the “god” of this world. These gnostic sects have influenced some of the more mystic and black magic-oriented black metal bands.
Psychedelic, stoner, and trad metal acts that worship Satan religiously often figure him as an animal spirit, a pagan deity similar to a Satyr. Lovecraftian influences can creep in and confuse the issue, referencing, for instance, “The Great God Pan” — but then, Lovecraft was the quintessential uptight Christian. The lines between Religious and Atheist Satanism are often blurred with the more tie-died new age-y Satanists, as sometimes they take Satan as a powerful Jungian psychological archetype rather than a literal being.
Finally, metal often uses Satan as a general symbol. Of what? Having a good time (by throwing off ‘Christian’ inhibitions about sex and drugs), rebellion (Satan being, of course, the ultimate rebel), and the black magick[sic] of metal itself.
Satan is often portrayed as an animal, fuelled by hormones and instinct; he’s reminiscent of the Dionysian archetype Nietzsche outlined, the “hairy-legged goat-god greeting the dawn”. He’s a figure of subversion, rebellion and freedom — and also of animal lust. This is why he has had such an influence on, and has such a presence in, the development of metal.
And that’s all the Satan I can Satan today.
See you next week probably maybe, I’m off to Brighton.
Now we listen to this one.