Monday, 4 April 2011

The Socio-Cultural Underpinnings of the Norwegian Black Metal Movement

This blogpost is going to be on the Norwegian Black metal scene, specifically a series of events the occurred in the 1990s involving, amongst other things, a series of church burnings and other acts of arson.

What is Black Metal?
Black metal is an extreme form of metal that developed in Europe in the 1980s, with the second wave of Black metal originating largely in Scandinavia in the 1990s. Perhaps the most striking thing about Black metal, particularly the second wave that developed in Scandinavia (esp. Norway), was its overwhelmingly Satanic and specifically anti-Christian themes. However, such sentiments were not just limited to the music. In between the years 1992 – 1996, black metal fans and musicians took part in over 50 arsons of churches around Norway.

In addition to these acts, there were also other controversial events. In 1991, the lead singer of the Norwegian Black metal band Mayhem, Per Yngve "Pelle" Ohlin (aka ‘Dead’) committed suicide by slashing his wrists and shooting himself in the head with a shotgun, leaving a note that apologised for the blood and for firing the weapon inside. His band members proceeded to photograph the scene (using it as the album cover of their album Dawn of the Black Hearts) and making necklaces from pieces of his skull. In 1993, Varg Vikernes (aka ‘Count Grishnackh’) of the one-man band Burzum, stabbed and killed Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth (aka ‘Euronymous’). Vikernes was also involved in the aforementioned spate of church burnings. He was subsequently given a 21 year sentenced, attempted to escape in 2003 and was let out on parole in 2009. However, a lesser-known aspect of Norwegian Black Metal is its links to neo-Nazi style nationalism.

The Politics and Social Context
The racism of Europe can be traced as far back as the ancient Greeks.
“For most Greeks the difference between what they called Europe – by which they meant frequently if not consistently Hellas, the lands around the Aegean sea – and "Asia and Africa would remain, as it had been for Aeschylus, one not only of climate and disposition, but also of race (ethos).” - Anthony Pagden, Europe and the World Around, from Euan Cameron, Early Modern Europe, Oxford (2002), p4
This kind of view was prevalent in the ancient world, although it varied. Some groups would be extremely xenophobic, such as the Ancient Egyptians, whereas others, whilst holding to bigoted views, were vastly more accommodating, such as the Romans. As the Roman Empire came to dominate all of Europe, so did Roman culture (note: this later included Christianity after the Romans made it their state religion, although various groups not under Roman dominion were also Christian (such as the Goths.)) The Romans spread out from Rome and conquered Greece, Egypt, Turkey and later Spain, Gaul (France), Germania (Germany) and Britannia (Britain). The Roman empire eventually split into two, the Western Roman empire and the Byzantine empire, and crumbled after invasion from Germanic tribes such as the Goths and Vandals. However, whilst the empire had effectively crumbled (the last remnants eventually became the Holy Roman Empire in the area of Europe that is now Germany, as well as some other regions) however the Church remained and most of the Europe royalty were still Christian (the sole exception being Britain as it was invaded by waves of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Vikings and, later conquered by the Normans, and so had no central monarchy or central church until later.) There were still areas of Europe that were not yet “Christianised” such as parts of Britain (particularly the Isle of Wight, which had to be “Christianised” twice), and the Scandinavian region. In Scandinavia, the kings converted to Christianity but then insisted that their subjects take up Christianity too... under pain of death. In fact, the Northern Crusades were carried out by Scandinavian kings against their own people who still clung on to pagan beliefs and practices. This anti-Christian sentiment can therefore be attributed to the forced Christianisation of Norway along with the other Scandinavian nations. Although there is the slight double-standard that the Scandinavian Vikings were far more brutal than the Crusaders, and the fact that the Northern Crusades were carried out by Scandinavian Kings against their own people.

Now, going back to European racism, after the fall of the Roman empire, Europe eventually became “Christianised” and, for a time, was under feudal subjugation to the Roman Papacy. The first major clash with other ethnicities came at home with the Jewish Diaspora, and in the Crusades against Turkish, and Egyptian Muslims. Jews were often blamed for various things, such as black death, as they did not adhere to Christian standards and usually kept to themselves. Negative stereotypes of Jews can be traced back to the Roman period, and, before that, to the ancient Greeks, and these cultural standards were, unfortunately, spread throughout Europe. Muslims were vilified as infidels essentially for the Pope’s own political power, as the Papacy sought to re-unite the Western and Eastern Churches, and given that, Muslims were invading Spain and Byzantium, this was used as the pre-text for the Crusades, and negative stereotypes of Muslims were promoted to promote ad hoc theological rationalisations for the Crusades. Anti-Semitism proved very pervasive in European society culminating in the efforts of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party to eradicate Jews from the planet. However, this was not concealed just to Germany, but was also present in Britain and France. The French were willingly handing over Jews to the Nazis even before the Nazi occupation of France and during the 1800s the Jews were blamed for, amongst other things, the Jack the Ripper murders, and there were numerous riots over this.

So, there are two major things affecting the ideology of the Norwegian Black Metal musicians, racism, and Christianity. Whereas racism was adopted, Christianity was held in disdain. The interesting thing is that many Black metal musicians are pagan or Satanist, and an interesting fact is that Adolf Hitler, and prominent members of the SS were pagan and the Nazi party originated from the occultist Thule society. The reason for the disdain of Christianity is in one part due to their anti-Semitism, but largely due to the fact that they feel as if Christianity destroyed the Viking culture, which includes Norse mythology. An ironic fact is that many Black metal fans are fans of the Lord of the Rings books, citing its similarity to Norse mythology, when J.R.R. Tolkien was, in real life, a Christian.

How This is Portrayed in the Music

The prime motivation behind anti-Christianity, and by association, anti-Semitism, is because Black metal fans and musicians believe that the forced Christianisation of Norway destroyed Viking culture, and this includes Norse paganism. Although anti-Semitism, was also a Roman export (although I should add that in-group/out-group us-versus-them mentalities can be fostered anywhere.) Anti-Christian sentiments are most typically displayed in lyrics, but there are also the aforementioned Church burnings. Black metal musicians also incorporate Viking chants and sing about Vikings in general, and fondness for Norse mythology has spread to other genres such as Death metal. This has led to the term “Viking metal” and one such example is the band Amon Amarth, although they are a melodic death metal band. Here is the song Guardians of Asgaard, by Amon Amarth which is entirely about Norse mythology:

We notice the Norse imagery and lyrics. Black metal differs musically, but they also differ in that they wear corpse paint and also wear upside down crosses. Now that is Melodic Death Metal, whereas this song, Sacrilegious Scorn is by Norwegian black metal band Dimmu Borgir:

In that video, we notice the different style and also the use of corpse paint, upside down crosses and the specific anti-Christian themes. Too bad as it is actually quite good musically, it is too bad the lyrics and video suck. The end.

Andrew Brown, Church and Society in England 1000-1500, Palgrave MacMillan (2003)
Andrew Pettegree, Europe in the Sixteenth Century, Oxford (2002)
C.H. Lawrence, ed., The English Church and the Papacy in the Middle Ages, Burns and Oates Ltd. (1965)
Euan Cameron, ed., Early Modern Europe, Oxford (1999)
Geoffrey Barraclough, The Medieval Papacy, Thames and Hudson (1968)
Henry Kaman, Spain’s Road to Empire: The Making of a World Power, 1492-1763, Penguin Books (2002)
J.L. Daniels, Anti-Semitism in the Hellenistic-Roman Period, Journal of Biblical Literature, 98 (1979) p45-65
Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Desire in Late Victorian London, Virago (1992)
Margaret Deansley, A History of the Medieval Church 500-1500, Methuen & Co Ltd, (1925)
Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology, I.B. Tauris & Co (2004)
Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: from Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800, Verso (1997)
R.W. Winks and L.P. Wandel, Europe in a Wider World 1350-1650, Oxford (2003)
Sam Dunn, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Seville Pictures, Warner Home Video (2005)
Sam Dunn, Global Metal, Seville Pictures, Warner Home Video (2008)
Urs Bitterli, Cultures in Conflict: Encounters Between European and Non-European Cultures, 1492-1800, Stanford (1989)

Clips Taken From:
Sam Dunn, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Seville Pictures, Warner Home Video (2005)
Sam Dunn, Global Metal, Seville Pictures, Warner Home Video (2008)
Brendan Small, Metalocalypse, Season 1: Episode 4: DethTroll (2006)

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