Of Music and Mayhem: How Dante and Black Sabbath Birthed a Musical Genre

26 April 2019


Dante Alighieri’s epic The Inferno reaches back to pagan traditions to people a Hell with fully realized characters of myth giving The Inferno a vital literary texture that would not otherwise exist within the sparsely worded lines of the text. The familiar mythic characters are then recontextualized within a Christian framework. The preexisting characters and their stories help Dante to create a new Hell that feels just as ancient and alien as any older conception of the afterlife. The use of myth also allows Dante to recontextualize the mythic past as a living mythology of the Christian Hell. Black Sabbath’s creation of the Heavy Metal genre mirrors Dante’s process. Black Sabbath and the Heavy Metal bands they give rise to dip into their past through the Gothic literary tradition and recontextualize tradition to suit their needs.

Bryan Bardine’s article, “Elements of the Gothic in Heavy Metal: a Match Made in Hell,” explores the connection between Gothic Literature and Heavy Metal music. Originally, Gothic Literature only referred to literature written between the 1760s and 1820s, but later the definition was expanded to include literature from other time periods that shared elements typical to the genre (Bardine 126.) According Bardine “Typically, Gothic stories from the period took place in medieval settings, which were often archaic, like castles, abbeys, convents, or just dark cave-like structures. Also, the literature contained supernatural elements, the occult, suspense, violence, vice, religion—in particular the demonization of the Catholic Church […]” (Bardine 126.) While The Inferno may or may not be an easy sell as the first text of Gothic literature as it is written hundreds of years before the genre came into wide spread popularity, Dante’s epic poem follows many of the gothic themes. The Inferno contains the cave-like structure, the occult, representations of vice and violence, and the demonization of the Catholic Church that is characteristic of the Gothic mode. Anita O’Connell backs up The Inferno as a Gothic work. In her article, “Dante’s Linguistic Detail in Shelly’s Triumph of life,” O’Connell says, “The Inferno was [Dante’s] most popular work […] and his reputation in the general public often stemmed from its Gothicism. […] It had entered the public consciousness as one of the ultimate expressions of the grotesque” (O’Connell 2.) Dante’s Gothicism as well as his flair for the grotesque are the themes that connect Heavy Metal music and The Inferno.

Dante and Black Sabbath both use distorted references to the Catholic Church as one way that they demonstrate both the Gothic and the grotesque. Plutus says, “Papa Satan, Papa Satan, aleppy” (Alighieri 7.1.) According to John Ciardi, “The word ‘papa’ as used here probably means ‘Pope’ rather than ‘father’” (Alighieri and Ciardi 65.) Dante’s depiction of Plutus as a supernatural monster of Hell is an example of both the Gothic and the grotesque, but Plutus’ dialogue is what really sets this scene apart as grotesque. The Pope is Gods representative on Earth, and, to have the Pope as Satan one and the same creates a horrifying caricature. Black Sabbath creates a similarly grotesque image of modern Christianity with the inverted cross on the inside cover of their first album. Bardine cites Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal and says, “The interior of the album’s gatefold sleeve contained few details beyond a grim gothic poem inscribed in a giant inverted crucifix” (cited in Bardine 134.) Inverting the crucifix creates a caricature of the symbol of Jesus’ crucifixion symbolizing a world where God sacrificed himself in vain as his redemption of the human race could not hold.

While a strait reading of the poem from the cover of Black Sabbath’s initial album shares little more than gothic themes with The Inferno, the presence of the poem on the inside cover of the first Heavy Metal album inscribed inside of an inverted crucifix stands like the inscription on the gates of Dante’s Hell. Being that Black Sabbath’s first album is considered to be the first example of the Heavy Metal genre (Bardine 125), the poem on the inside cover shepherds listeners  into an uncharted, Gothic, and grotesque musical space. Yet on its own, the actual poetry of Black Sabath’s “Still Falls the Rain” lacks the foreboding power of Dante’s inscription on the gates of Hell: “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE” (Alighieri 3.9)

While Black Sabbath’s “Still Falls the Rain” (1970) shows Gothic themes and some grotesque imagery, the poem only obtains its eerie and ominous warning once read against Dame Edith Sitwell’s poem, “Still Falls the Rain” (1941.) Edith Sitwell’s poem is a mature juxtaposition of the horrors of World War II and Christ’s crucifixion. While Sitwell’s poem is decidedly dark, it contains a feeling of hope and mercy that is decidedly absent in Black Sabbath’s poem of the same name. Black Sabbath’s “Still Falls the Rain” is a much more juvenile poem. It contains images of death and darkness but more for shock value than as societal commentary. But a shared title and disturbing imagery is not all these poems have more in common.

Black Sabbath’s “Still Falls the Rain” is almost certainly written as a response to Sitwell’s poem as it shares and recontextualizes themes and images from Sitwell’s work. Both poems cover darkness and blackness within their first two lines. Sitwell writes, “Dark as the world of man, black as our loss” (Sitwell 2.) Sitwell writes of darkness as a metaphor for the emotional content of a world at war. However, Black Sabbath misses the point as they write of darkness as little more than a device to elicit a Gothic feel to the poem. Black Sabbath writes, “[V]eils of darkness shroud/the blackened trees” (Black Sabbath 1-2.) Later in the poem, Sitwell writes of a Bear being beaten by its keepers and the tears of a hunted hare (Sitwell 23-24.) Black Sabbath counters this with images of mutilated birds and dead rabbits strewn about the ground (Black Sabbath 6, 7, 9-10.) Sitwell’s poem uses the images of violence against animals as another metaphor both for man’s cruelty toward animals and toward his fellow man through the atrocities of war. Black Sabbath is just using dead and mutilated animals as Gothic scenery of the grotesque. At this point Black Sabbath’s contribution to this literary conversation is to do little more than remove the metaphorical meaning frim Sitwell’s words.

However, Black Sabbath turns up the volume on their critique with their version of Sitwell’s imagery of Christ’s crucifixion. Sitwell says, “At the feet of the Starved Man hung upon the Cross./Christ that each day, each night, nails there […]” (Sitwell 13-14.) Sitwell mentions Christ and the cross and the nails that affixed him there. Yet, Black Sabbath writes, “[T]o caress the feet of the/headless martyr’s statue whose only achievement was to die” (Black Sabbath 19-20.) Black Sabbath follows Sitwell’s religious imagery starting at the feet then moving to the figure of the statue that they simply call “the martyr.” Black Sabbath’s imagery of a statue of an unnamed and headless martyr read against Sitwell’s imagery of the actual Christ crucified on the cross situates the Black Sabbath poem in a Post-Christian world, a world with no hope and no meaning. At this point, the simple Gothic and grotesque imagery of the previous examples stand out as definitive examples of a world where life has little meaning and chaos and death exist with no cause. Even the shabbiness of the writing of Black Sabbath’s poem is a statement that beauty has no place in the Post-Christianity of the Heavy Metal Genre. But most of the Heavy Metal bands that follow in the genre created by Black Sabbath do not go quite as far as the Post-Christian dystopia as described in “Still Falls the Rain” (Black Sabbath 1970.)

In fact, the video for “Bleed” by Meshuggah (Nuclear Blast USA 2008) maintains meaning and beauty—at least a Gothic and grotesque sort of beauty— as well as looking back to tradition as an important aspects of their Heavy Metal style. The visual style and storytelling of Meshuggah’s video calls on the imagery of The Inferno to create a vital and evocative feel. In the video for “Bleed,” Meshuggah shows the image of the cockroach struggling on its back kicking its legs to no avail as a symbol of the torture of Hell and the futility of escape (Nuclear Blast USA 2008.) The cockroach mirrors both the scene in The Inferno where the lost souls are chased by wasps and forced to run for all of eternity (Alighieri 3.49-63), and the scene where the Simoniacs are buried upside down in the stone floor with only their feet above the ground (Alighieri 19.13-24.) Furthering the comparison between the roach and the Simoniacs, Dante says, “The soles were all ablaze/and the joints of the legs quivered and writhed about” (Alighieri 19.23-24.) But unlike the sinners in The Inferno, the cockroach foreshadows a danger to the main character of the video.

The image of the cockroach is juxtaposed with flashes of a living human male (Nuclear Blast USA 2008) hinting that the man is going to suffer the same inescapable fate. The image of the cockroach is also juxtaposed with the image of an exposed clock mechanism ticking away the time (Nuclear Blast USA 2008) much like Virgil who keeps track of time for Dante by tracking the movement of the stars in the sky. But unlike Virgil and Dante, the main character of the video is not likely to make it back out of Hell, as the juxtaposition of the cockroach and the ticking clock mechanism imbues the symbolism of the clock with other darker connotations. The futility and decay symbolized by the struggling insect highlights the exposed nature of the clock mechanism, and the camera focalizes the circular ticking gear spinning slowly. This imagery creates the idea that time does not work the same as it does in the living world. Time grinds by painfully slow spinning in an inescapable loop. This loop also mirrors the plot where the main character of the video eventually becomes the beast that menaces him from the beginning of the video. Presumably, the main character has been in Hell and will continue to be in Hell reliving this fall from grace over and over for as long as the clock mechanisms of Hell continue to tick.

Like the image of Satan frozen in place at the end of The Inferno, The Satan in Meshuggah’s “Bleed” video is mostly frozen in place, but this Satan is frozen in yogic meditation (Nuclear Blast USA 2008). The Satan at the end of the video differs in some ways from the image of Satan in canto 34 of The Inferno. Dante describes Satan as if he were an engine of war to be built and placed by an attacking army rather than a being capable of independent—although subtle—action. He says, “Like a whirling windmill seen afar at twilight,/or when a mist has risen from the ground—/just such an engine rose upon my sight” (Alighieri 34.4-6.) Satan, in Dante’s depiction, is incapable of moving on his own and seems not to even take notice of Virgil and Dante as they approach or even when they grab onto his fur and climb down his legs. Yet, Meshugga’s Satan is the size of a man and sitting on a raised pedestal. While this Satan moves very little, the raised pedestal implies that this Satan has power and agency unlike Dante’s Satan. In fact, the flashes of this Satan’s face throughout the Meshuggah video are symbols of him drawing the main character of the video to his doom whereas Dante’s Satan is little more than a tool that Dante and Virgil use to secure their escape from Hell (Alighieri 34.70-93.)While Dante finds a Hell with a possibility of both hope and escape, Black Sabbath and Meshuggah take Dante’s inscription on the gates of Hell much more literally as they create a hellish landscape with no hope and no escape.

Connected through the Gothic literary mode, The Inferno, Black Sabbath, Meshuggah, and more create a multimedia literary lineage of intertextual conversation and recontextualization that can even branch out to works outside the Gothic mode such as Dane Edith Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain.” Even Heavy Metal bands with little more than the intention to shock and disturb through images of death and blasphemy can have a positive and transforming effect on tradition regardless of whether or not they get any academic recognition. Popular music as a medium remains a fertile ground to till for literary connections to The Inferno and other classic and as the music medium continues to expand bands that look to tradition for inspiration and there will be more ways to explore the multimedia literary lineage.







Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante, and John Ciardi. The Inferno. New American Library, 2003.

Bardine, Bryan. “Elements of the Gothic in Heavy Metal: A Match Made in Hell” (2009). English Faculty Publications. 68. https://ecommons.udayton.edu/eng_fac_pub/68

Black Sabbath. “Still Falls the Rain.” Black Sabbath. Vertigo Records. 1970.

Meshuggah. “Bleed.” obZen. Nuclear Blast USA. 2008. https://youtu.be/qc98u-eGzlc

O’CONNELL, Anita. “‘Dante’s Linguistic Detail in Shelley’s Triumph of Life.’” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature & Culture: A WWWeb Journal, vol. 13, no. 4, Dec. 2011, pp. 1–9. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=74158744&login.asp?custid=magn1307&site=lrc-live&scope=site.

Sitwell, Edith. “Still Falls The Rain.” 1941. PoemHunter.com, 1 Jan. 2004, http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/still-falls-the-rain/.


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