Ten Brutal Pieces of History I Learned From Death Metal
If humanity’s history were placed in a section of Netflix, it would certainly be included in ‘Horror.’ The story of our ancestors, and even our fathers and their fathers, is a nonstop gorefest lined with greed, madness, and cruelty. But while much of the evil that men have done is known by your average Social Studies student, there’s plenty of it that got hushed up, shoved deep into history books, and generally ignored, considering that it’s rather impolite to talk about at most social functions.
But death metal, as a genre, is all about finding those tender morsels, ripping them out, and tossing them into the daylight for all the world to see. Not only that, but because death metal is often ridiculed and demeaned artistically, its makers love illustrating just how literate they are by finding some of history’s most terrifying truths and telling those stories amidst blast beats and death growls. And as a former teenager who loved history, and a student of humanity’s darker instincts, I ate that shit up, and still do.
So, omitting all the serial killers and massacres that everyone knows about, here are ten pieces of history that I learned from death metal songs. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy this leap into the steaming guts of our shared past.
THE CRIMES OF GILLES DE RAIS
When it happened: 1432 – 1434
The trial of Gilles de Rais was one of the first scandals involving a public hero actually being a private monster (think of him as a precursor to Jerry Sandusky, but more murderous). Rais fought the English alongside Joan of Arc, and was known for his fierce bravery on the battlefield. But privately, he was much more into abducting, sodomizing, and murdering children, sometimes using their body parts in occult rituals. A quote from Rais is feature inside the booklet of Cannibal Corpse’s Butchered At Birth, the original dead baby album.
THE GREAT FIRE OF ROME
When it happened: July, 64 AD
Referenced by: Behemoth
Behemoth’s The Apostasy begins with the track “Rome 64 C.E.”, leading into “Slaying The Prophets of Isa.” Both of these songs reference the Great Fire of Rome, a massive blaze that swept through urban Rome and destroyed huge portions of the city. Rumor has it that Emperor Nero, insane with power, might have caused the fire, and that he sang and played his lyre (in some myths a fiddle) as he watched the city burn (and while early Addamses danced the Mamushka). More accurately, the fire did spark the first Roman persecution of Christians (the prophets of Isa–“Isa” being a variation on “Jesus”).
When it happened: Varying times, specifically in ancient Persia.
Referenced by: Slayer
Any metalhead worth his or her salt knows the word, “ABACINATE!” from when Tom Araya screams it in “Angel of Death.” But while that song is about the tortures inflicted by Dr. Josef Mengele on concentration camp victims during WWII, abacination–the act of burning someone’s eyes out, usually with a red-hot plate–was more common in ancient Persia, where blinding was an often-used form of punishment (and this was only one of the ways people were blinded–acid was also a favorite).
THE CANNIBAL HYMN OF UNAS
When it happened: Mid-24th Century BC.
Referenced by: Nile
Didn’t think I was going to forget Nile, did you? The Egyptian Pharaoh Unas is best known for the Pyramid Texts written on the walls of his burial chamber. Utterances 273 and 274 of these texts are commonly known as the Cannibal Hymn, which outlines a royal butchery practice where the dead king in question kills the other gods (usually in the form of bulls) and devours their entrails, until he’s just bursting with magic. And if you’re a dead Egyptian god-king who had a song about eating the flesh of deities written on your tomb wall, you’re basically just begging a metal band to someday reference it.
THE BLOOD EAGLE
When it happened: Purportedly during the Viking Age, 8th to 11th Century AD.
Though many question whether or not the blood eagle was ever actually practiced by the ancient Vikings, it doesn’t really matter–even if it’s fictional, this execution practice is metal as the dickens. Basically, the Vikings would go through your back with a sword and cut your ribs away from your spine, pulling them outwards. Then, they’d reach in and pull your lungs out of your back, to give you a pair of “wings.” It’s sort of like a Colombian necktie with a bit more old-school Odin worship involved.
THE BURNING OF PERSEPOLIS
When it happened: 330 BC
Referenced by: Septicflesh
Parsa, known as ‘Persepolis’ (which means ‘Persian city’) by the Greeks, was the capital of the First Persian Empire. But when Alexander the Great took the city, things quickly went south. The story has it that while Alexander and his crew were feasting, drinking, and enjoying games and sacrifices to honor their victory, they all got so fucked up and crazy that they decided to snuff out Persia’s greatest gem just for the Hell of it, and sort of as revenge for the burning of the Acropolis of Athens. They all got torches, lined up in a procession to Dionysus, and burned the city down until only columns and staircases remained. That’s certainly one way to celebrate a victory.
When it happened: 897 AD
Referenced by: Teitanblood
Pope Formosus was not a well-liked guy. During his time as a bishop and a missionary, Pope John VIII accused him of warping the minds of his Bulgarian subjects, and after his death he was accused of becoming pope through illegal means. Eventually, Formosus was put on trial for his crimes–as a corpse. Yup, as a final act of political humiliation by then-pope Stephen VII, Formosus was tried after his death, with his cadaver propped up in the defendant’s chair. His papacy was retroactively nullified, though Stephen’s bizarre tactic backfired–it was soon rumored that Formosus’ corpse had been seen performing miracles shortly after his death. Way to go, Steve.
THE BURKE AND HARE MURDERS
When it happened: 1828 AD
Referenced by: Macabre
Back in the day, when anatomy was still a new frontier, there was a serious shortage of cadavers for dissection and study (lots of people didn’t want their bodies cut up for fear that they’d be a mess when the Judgment came). But in Edinburgh, Scotland, two intrepid young Williams named Burke and Hare made sure doctors got the bodies they needed. After selling the body of a dead man who already owed Hare rent, and realizing there was money in dead people, the two men just began making their own inventory by murdering people. Their body count was 15 in total, which isn’t that large compared to some modern serial killers, but is made more ghastly with the whole Korpses 4 Kash thing.
THE INTESTINAL CRANK
When it happened: Fourth Century AD.
Referenced by: Cannibal Corpse
It’s exactly what it sounds like! The intestinal crank was a crank, sometimes a windlass, on which the end of a person’s intestine was attached. Then, slowly, the crank was turned, so that the guts were drawn out inch by inch. It was used as an interrogation device, but let’s face it, the minute they brought out the crank, you knew you were a goner–this was the age when infection ran rampant and the idea of patching up someone’s intestine was probably considered black magic. To see one in (fictional) action, check out this vicious scene from Tarsem Singh’s The Cell:
Referenced by: The Black Dahlia Murder
While this bit of history is more modern than the other examples on this list, it’s so weird and morbid that I have to bring it up. Carl Tanzler was a radiologist in Key West who became obsessed with a tuberculosis patient named Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos. Sadly, Elena died in October of 1931–but that didn’t stop our boy Carl! The dude paid for her funeral, commissioned an above-ground mausoleum built in her honor, and then–wait for it–stole her body and took it home! As Elena’s corpse began to decay, Carl slowly turned it into a living doll, coating the skin with wax and dousing it in perfume to hide the smell. Best part? When all of this was discovered–somehow, word got out to the Hoyos family that Elena’s doctor was living with her fucking dead body–nothing really happened to Carl. Everyone thought he was kind of a romantic, and he was left alone. Ah, l’amour!
Any historical atrocities you learned from a death metal song? Add them in the comments!