By Ken Mondschein
While the world has been watching, horrified, at the accidental tragedy of Notre-Dame in Paris, a man named Holden Matthews sits in a Louisiana jail, accused of purposely burning three historical Black churches. The crime echoes anti-Civil Rights terrorism of the past, such as the bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham in 1963. However, while this is indeed a hate crime, the strands of racism that prosecutors say motivated Matthews are interwoven with other elements. Matthews is reportedly a member of online communities that mix heavy metal music, specifically the sub-genre known as black metal, and a devotee of the “folkish” branch of the Heathen/Odinist neo-pagan movement.
Without a doubt, just as we cannot blame the vast majority of Muslims or Christians for the recent worldwide spate of attacks on churches, mosques, and synagogues, most neo-pagans and metal fans are neither intentional white supremacists nor violent terrorists. However, both neo-paganism and heavy metal contain medieval imagery that either appeals to, or allows them to be co-opted, by the far-right ideologies. By creating communities that evoke a distant, pre-Christian, and racially pure past, they reject mainstream, multicultural, globalist society and all of its disappointments. In this month’s column, I want to specifically look at these medievalisms, how they are both a protest against and a product of modernity, and how white-nationalistic tendencies can be interwoven with them.
A Brief History of Neo-Paganism
The Latin word paganus meant “rural, of the countryside.” However, when Christianity became the official religion of the urban Roman Empire, it came to mean unbaptized rural dwellers. “Pagan” thus, over time, became synonymous with “non-Christian.” The term neopagan was coined in 1904 by Hugh O’Donnell, an Irish representative to the British House of Commons, who used it to criticize W. B. Yeats and Maude Gonne’s Abbey Theater (now the National Theater of Ireland). Influenced by 19th century Romantics such as the pre-Raphaelites and Shelley, Yeats and Gonne had sought to create nationalist Irish theater by blending ancient Celtic myth and more modern occultist ritual.
Modern organized neopaganism was probably given its biggest boosts by two Britons who worked independently from one another, but were certainly aware of and supportive one another’s work—the folklorist Margaret Murray and a retired civil servant named Gerald Gardner. Murray, in her books The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of the Witches (1933), maintained that pagan religions had survived as organized cults into modern times. (In actuality, folk beliefs were blended with Christianity—thus, such customs as Christmas trees and Easter bunnies). Gardner, who was born in 1884, spent a career in the colonies before returning to England in 1936 and becoming involved in Rosicrucianism and other occult practices.
In 1954, three years after the British anti-witchcraft laws were repealed, he published Witchcraft Today. Much like Murray, he held that his “Wiccan” religion had survived from pre-Christian times. Just as Yeats and Gonne had given their works Celtic-Irish overtones, Gardner tried to make his practice quintessentially “English”—for instance, he claimed that the word wicca derived from the Anglo-Saxon wicce, “sorcerer” or “shaper.” However, he also blended interests in nudism, BDSM (early rituals reportedly involved such elements as scourging), and a ritual structure derived from 19th century occultism.
The “heathen” movement emerged more recently, during the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. Heathens usually take their inspiration from Germanic or Scandinavian paganism and seek to reconstruct its practices from surviving archaeological, documentary, and folk-practice evidence (albeit without the human and animal sacrifices). The attempt to reconstruct pre-Christian northern European practice, with its obvious echoes of nineteenth-century racial obsessions, has given rise to the two major camps: The vokish or “folkish,” and the “universalist.” The differences are stark: While the universalists believe that participation in the rites and worship of the Old Gods is open to any to who feel the call, the “folkish” believe that these are cultural practices indigenous to northern Europe, and that those who can not claim white ancestry have no business engaging in them. Anti-Semitism is wrapped up in this: Christianity is often seen by this camp as the original Jewish conspiracy, designed to weaken the vigor of the Aryan races.
This is not mere Internet posturing: Heathens of color of my own acquaintance have been spat upon in what were supposed to be safe, sacred spaces. Church-burnings are but a small step from this. Matthews made his motivations clear in a social media post on April 6, 2019, saying that he couldn’t “stand all these Baptists around here, bunch of brainwashed people trying to find happiness in a religion that was forced on their ancestors just as it was on mine. I wish more blacks people would look into ancient beliefs of pre Christian Africa.” This is, if not an explicit statement of white supremacy (if anything, it demonstrates a patronizing and misplaced sympathy for the experience of enslaved Africans), a clear expression of sympathy for folkish ideas. The progression from folkish heathenism to church-burning is obvious: What better way to attack the enemy faith than to burn its places of worship?
Black Metal and Church Burning
An overlapping community that borrows heavily from both heathenism and medievalism is the “black metal” scene. Heavy metal has used “dark dungeons”-style medieval, fantasy, and occult imagery from the days of Black Sabbath both as a marketing tool and as a tool of rebellion against working-class ordinariness. Thanks in no small part to Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center campaign and the “satanic panic” of the early 1980s, it has been wildly successful in both aims. However, black metal, a subgenre often associated with Scandinavia, has a special association with heathenism. It is distinguished by dissonant, unconventional compositions; lyrics that emphasize occult, Satanic, or neo-pagan themes; frantically picked guitars played to rapid-fire drums; a vocal style that resembles gargling with broken beer bottles; Halloween-inspired stage apparel first popularized by ’70s shock-rockers such as Alice Cooper and the Misfits; a love of fantasy literature, pre-Christian Norse culture, and medieval weaponry; and an overall antisocial stance that emphasizes the music’s anti-commercial, inaccessible nature. It is music played by people who feel excluded by mainstream society, for people who feel excluded by mainstream society.
The overlap of black metal and folkish heathenism is epitomized by Varg Vikernes, who was accused of burning down three churches in Norway (the first supposedly being Fantoft Stave Church) and murdering fellow musician Øystein Aarseth, known as Euronymous. (Euronymous was no angel, either: He reportedly made necklaces out of fragments of bandmate Per “Dead” Ohlin’s skull and artistically photographed the corpse after the latter’s suicide.) Norwegian right-wing mass murderer Anders Breivik (referred to, in turn, as “Knight Justiciar Breivik” by Christchurch shooter Brenton Harrison Tarrant) addressed one of the copies of his manifesto to Vikernes—though Vikernes rejected Breivik, accusing him of working for international Jewish conspiracy. These three men may have never met, but the chain of inspiration is clear.
The irony is that most of the earliest metal bands, like many British bands from the late ’60s and early ’70s, were heavily blues-influenced (indeed, Led Zeppelin has been derided as essentially a cover band.) Considering that black metal, like rock music in general and heavy metal in particular, wouldn’t even exist without African-American music, for its fans to hold to racist ideologies is hypocritical in the extreme.
The ills of imagined pasts
Black metal, white nationalism, heathenism, and belief in an international Jewish conspiracy are inextricably intertwined. Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, in their sympathetic take on the black metal scene, Lords of Chaos, published by the controversial Feral House press, assert:
Satanism and the heathenism from which it ultimately descends are themselves the products of the archetypes and differentiated psyches of nations and peoples, and they therefore spring from the same “occult” or mystical sources as nationalism itself. Nationalism is the political manifestation of a folk’s unconscious; heathenism/Satanism is the spiritual manifestation.
I disagree: They have their common roots the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, a diffuse movement to which we can attribute everything from the ideas of imagined national and racial pasts to the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons and Game of Thrones. (To read more on Romanticism, see my last month’s column.) And, like everything in the Romantic movement, both the revival of ancient religions and the love of powerful, loud music can be used for good, or for ill.
Ken Mondschein is a history professor at UMass-Mt. Ida College, Anna Maria College, and Goodwin College, as well as a fencing master and jouster. Click here to visit his website.
Top Image: The rebuilt Fantoft Stave Church at Fantoft as viewed from the south, Bergen, Norway. Photo by Rosser1954 / Wikimedia Commons