“Black Magic” – from Occult to Science

“Black Magic” – from Occult to Science

Foto: Stefan Keller, CC0

Adaptation from the article in Slovenian "Black magic” - from Fortunetellers to Science of anthropologist Valerie Kochmann on the subject o black and occult magic. She studied this theme in the context of her Master's degree Cultural perception of Magic in modern society: perception of magic in the black metal subculture (2012).


“The Rolling Stones toying with occult ideas on Their Satanic Majesties Request may have caused mild alarm and the mainstream, but true occult rock aspired to reach beyond superficial imagery to oil the hinges of hell’s gates. Bringing a bona fide whiff of danger to the fledgling heavy rock world, and Informing ITS iconography and subject matter for 40 years to come.” States Dom Lawson, journalist and also musician, in an article “Occult rock: do you believe in black magic?” published in Guardian.

There are some fragments in the mainstream media of occult music which have some elements of so-called black magic (term occult magic in the article covers mainly this aspect), but they are not usual nor frequent[2]. Lawson acknowledges they are usually taken from the very top of the iceberg of the occult, which can be besides that found in deeper forms in the darker vibes of rock and also metal. Some bands seemed truly creepy in the beginning of this genre, which went through some changes, but “still can thrill and chill” even today, says Lawson. Closer to this phenomenon, there are insights that follow from various but mostly anthropological scientific research.

As for the darker scene of occult music, it is usually different bands, representatively or as sometimes presented which also practically are using the elements of the (occult) magic in their music, which can be seen in iconography and stage repertory; (Evil) spells, (evil) lyrics, texts with reference of esoteric tradition, supernatural experiences, dark atmosphere and sometimes individualism are familiar with these kinds of tones. As Lawson quotes Alexander Milas the Metal Hammer editor: “heavy metal and macabre are no strangers to each other” but the bottom line of this sphere is actually the theatre as furthermore debates Milas, and says that this was like this since some of first bands as Black Sabbath, Kiss, King Diamond and Alice Cooper.        

With the question of believing in magic, there is fear on the other side, as sometimes is a most obvious indicator of actual belief. But maybe the occult music which by rule gets the applause of fans can with its theatrics transcend that fear? Lawson quotes Ghoul from band Ghost who states that there is a “blasphemous aura” around them and that they want take the audience into their “black bubble”, into somewhere “beyond”, and that they wish to be perceived also as the real theatre, “like movies The Omen and The Exorcist”.

Magic Beyond Black and White Mark

The idea of something supernatural and also practice to try to gain control over nature has probably always been present in human consciousness. In historical context the division on the opposite value scale of »white« and »black« magic represents important moment in the history of magic.

In this light “white” magic is defined as good part, and on the other side “black” magic as dark part. But this is not universal rule. In ancient Mesopotamia, magic was something profoundly natural and good and possibly harmful at the same time. They studied nature and the most important purpose of their rituals was the attempt to calm, and try to appease also control, those mystical forces. Can music travel to those times? According to Lawson, true occult music digs really deep into mysticism and he also claims, that bands that go so far, are “minor subculture” as opposed to the bands “who brandish pentagrams while selling out arenas”.

Good and bad division came with the Persian Zoroastrianism. A couple centuries BCE Persians defined supreme God Ahura Mazda, which concentrated in himself everything good. Supposedly he was superior to his evil twin Angra Mainyu. This concept therefore represents the beginning of the institutionalization of the religion, and with that also beginning of the prosecutions of the “heretics”. Established system – worshiping and belief in good creature which has the ability to overcome physical obstacles – actually did not differ much from magic according to the intervention into the supernatural. Was it the politics that made the difference?

Anyhow, black and white divisions were marked with blood and fire. From witch hunts in medieval times after Churches decreed to burning Churches in 90s in Norway by black metal cult. In terms of modern times, metal and also some occult rock genres would naturally fall deeply into the black part of the schism. As Lawson says, metal “has been waist-deep in Satanism and themes of supernatural horror for decades”. Lawson also expresses a rhetorical question about the actual truth about the previous claim: “whether it's a heartfelt expression of devilish beliefs or simply a good excuse to wear a spooky mask and annoy a few Christians”.

Black Magic and Witchcraft

There are similarities between today’s black also occult magic and accusations of witchcraft in the middle ages in which they tortured and convicted “witches”. Maybe evil eye theoretically more belongs to the witches, but evil spells and evil thoughts are common for both high lightened spheres.

Behind all previous mentioned elements there is a classical “formula” which is found in emotional manipulations that work through psychophysical vulnerability and it can also be dangerous. About working psychological background of magic wrote Historian Edward Bever in his book Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe.

To go back, did people really believe, that the persecuted are witches? To some point society knew that the purpose of witch trials was more about enforcement of certain socio-political hierarchy. On the other hand, fear in combination with believing makes witchcraft somehow real. But maybe fear in the art’s form even that doesn’t matter that much, and it is catharsis the thing that shines through, in accordance with Lawson’s remark about the bands as Ghost which: “are unlikely to shock, regardless of whether they are perceived to be true servants of Beelzebub or not”.

French sociologist Marcel Mauss in the beginning of the previous century stated that magic isn’t something coming and belonging only to the past, but on contrary, according to him, magic is mainly individual social phenomenon which can be found in all societies at all times. Mauss (A General Theory of Magic) connected magic with social power, and also he emphasized the importance of the symbolic value of the rituals also from the surrounding people’s points of view and not only from the eyes of the contractors of the rituals. Lawson cites what Lee Dorrian, frontman of doom metal Chatedral says about Ghost: “Everything about them is contradictory”, he claims that if a person isn’t into metal and comes across Ghost in a magazine, one might think they're sounding “really evil and extreme”, but he concludes that actually they make “quite beautiful classic rock with great melodies”.

Science derivers from Magic

All the ideas that later actualized in the science, came from magic, argues Mauss and in his opinion the belief that is characterized for magic, is the true driver of all different scientific tests. Would a plane be possibly invented, without the faith into the flying in a plane someday? But this kind of perspective is usually confronted with evolutionistic theory, which claims over the different centuries, that the development of the human went in the exact order: from magic, through religion to science. Here is obvious strong eco of the Vatican’s doctrines, which was exposed also in the critics of the evolutionistic approach.   

Italian renaissance was important for transition from magic to science, there we might find the beginnings of technology and on the other side basic of today’s humanities and social studies, for example psychology, philosophy and sociology. Even more, magic which was transferred through renaissance, served also for a foundation of the establishing modern psychological reign over the crowds, argues Rumanian historicist of religion Ioan P. Couliano in book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance.

Occult rock and metal by definition distinguish themselves from praising the “progress” of the modern world and can with this status represent also rebellion. Lawson formats: “occult rock can hardly fail to provide a welcome antidote to an increasingly soulless and cynical music world that prizes profit over atmosphere, and perfection over power”.

Technology as Magic

American sociologist and anthropologist Richard Stivers (Technology as magic: The Triumph of the Irrational), looks at this differently, he says that technology today “fills the sack” which was previously full of ideas that was perceived as magic, elements of this are: flying, communication across the continents, smart technology and similar technological inventions.

Advertising, claims Stivers, is a modern magical tool and that today’s technological world is full of psychological manipulations, which are using fear. This certainly could be a bit different example of black magic. Metal heads and possibly also occult Rockers are typically rejecting the modern age they also eschewing technology “in favour of warm, analogue tones and unfettered psychedelia” says Lawson.

Besides “evolving” we must re-think possible dominance of the technology. Even if we would be confronted with revival of the magical consciousness on some kind of shamanistic level, as it was defined by American anthropologist Susan Greenwood (The Anthropology of Magic, etc.). Music might do that, as Lawson cites Dorrian about Ghost: “They have real magic about them. Embracing the occult is about being taken over some esoteric force, and that’s how good music works, to, isn’t it? ”


[1] The original article was a comment on the definition of black magic from the Slovene bio therapist Marjan Ogorevc’ points of view.

[2] With different context, original article focused on black magic in context with (Western) witchcraft, magic and science. Conception of magic is usually different in Slovenia than in other Western counties, due to the fact, that academic sphere mostly assimilates witchcraft and magic. This article deals more with occult music as a part of (occult) magic. (Western) – wide, viewed globally – occult music, magic, by definition commonly combines black magic or chaos magic with Western esoteric magical traditions  (alchemy, Neo-Platonism, Kabbalah, etc..)

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