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Doing Justice to the Classics

Classical Imagery in the Album Artwork of White Supremacist Metal Bands

Editor’s Note: In this article, Pharos welcomes Jeremy J. Swist as a guest contributor to share his expertise concerning the function of Classical themes and imagery in the work of metal bands that identify with the “National Socialist Black Metal” subgenre of heavy metal music or otherwise engage in white supremacist politics. Interested readers will find more context and analysis of this topic in a lecture that Dr. Swist delivered earlier this year.

Heavy metal music and its culture (henceforth referred to as metal or one of its many stylistic subgenres such as black metal and death metal) have long attracted controversy, even becoming the subject of moral panics, due in no small part to the genre’s traditional valorization of transgression and sensual liberation. As a medium for often incendiary rejections of the status quo, metal can also become a haven and charismatic platform for right-wing ideologies expressed with unabashed racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism, including lyrics and imagery drawn from classical antiquity. 

The most recognizable and organized form of this hate music is the subgenre and movement known as National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM). Arising in the early 1990s, this collective has come to include at least a thousand bands mostly in Europe, North America, and Australia, supported by dozens of labels and unknown myriads of listeners worldwide. Comprising roughly 1% of the over 147,000 metal bands that have recorded any material since the 1970s, its most prominent acts such as Burzum (Norway), Graveland (Poland), and Satanic Warmaster (Finland) have sold tens of thousands of albums and have hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, while even the music of its lesser known artists is readily available for streaming, purchase, and/or download on the web. For much of its history the metal scene in general has consisted mostly of white, male artists and audiences, which accounts both for its congeniality to white supremacy and toleration, if not acceptance, of white supremacist artists. The choice to tolerate and even consume NSBM and other racist music reflects the privilege of these majority white, male audiences, who are either ignorant of the symbolism, dog whistles, or lyrical content or generally not personally threatened by their messages. 

Album artwork is one of the most immediate and impactful ways that metal bands signal their invocations of antiquity

As the metal scene has become more global and diverse in recent decades, however, so it has in many contexts been undergoing a reckoning with its toxic elements—a not dissimilar phenomenon for the fields of ancient studies—as more and more musicians, fans, journalists, and scholars have vocally denounced various forms of bigotry in the scene in order to to dissuade their fellow scene members and concert venues from supporting and platforming such music, while bands and festivals of the nascent subgenre of Anti-Fascist Black Metal have arisen in order to reclaim this musical style from right-wing extremists. 

As with most other forms of the modern and popular reception of the ancient world, the majority of the hundreds of metal bands that have based songs and albums on classical themes—which classicists such as KFB Fletcher, Osman Umurhan, and myself have been exploring—are not explicitly racist or fascist. Nevertheless, those that do express such views include some that are relatively prominent and influential in the world metal scene, and the NSBM subgenre specifically has demonstrable links to white supremacist intellectuals, politicians, and extremist groups and individuals such as the Wolves of Vinland, Attomwaffen Division, participants in the 2017 “Unite the Right” Charlottesville rally, and the man charged with the arson of three historically black churches in Louisiana.  

One National Socialist Black Metal musician claimed that the ancient Greek philosophers were all blonde-haired and opposed racial mixing

Black metal has also drawn the attention and endorsement of websites that Pharos has documented such as Counter-Currents, whose founder and white nationalist icon Greg Johnson, in a 2018 speech in Helsinki, called Finland “the land of Black Metal” in appealing to his audience, connecting the country’s thriving black metal scene to the “reawakening” of European thymos, the spirited element of Plato’s tripartite soul. The antipathy of NSBM and adjacent bands to Christianity, which they see as an outgrowth of Judaism, in favor of either atheism or a return to ancient paganism makes them sympathetic to certain, non-Christian incarnations of the modern right. For example, Alex Kurtagić, a figure who operates in both the metal scene and alt-right intelligentsia, presents black metal as the soundtrack to the new conservative revolution (yet he only cites NSBM bands and thus largely misrepresents the subgenre at large), and endorses the neofascist musician Varg Vikernes of the influential black metal band Burzum as Norway’s hero of the far-right movement over anti-Muslim terrorist Anders Breivik, who massacred 69 people at a youth camp in 2011. Vikernes himself, in a 2011 interview, claimed that the ancient Greek philosophers were all blonde-haired, blue-eyed, opponents of racial mixing, and that Greece ceased producing “great philosophers” when people with such traits disappeared. 

From the Encyclopedia Metallum

While Vikernes’ music focuses on Nordic themes, his 2011 ambient album Sôl austan, Mâni vestan features the 1888 painting The Rape of Proserpina by Ulpiano Checa. He explains on his website that the album is devoted to themes of “the Pagan religious-spiritual concept of a descent into darkness and the following ascend back into the light,” of which the descent and reascent of Persephone/Proserpina to and from Hades is a congenial allegory. 

Album artwork is one of the most immediate and impactful ways that metal bands signal their invocations of antiquity. Cover art and other visual merchandise like t-shirts are usually the first things that make an impression on potential consumers before they hear the music or read the lyrics. What follows is a brief survey of a representative handful of bands with evident ties to white supremacism who appropriate Greco-Roman antiquity in some form. This survey focuses on visual album artwork and merchandise, with only a few examples of lyrical content. Information for these artists, including lyrics and album artwork, is available on the Encyclopaedia Metallum, a universal database of every metal band with recorded material past and present. 

Naer Mataron: “Revenge of the Hellenic Blood”

The Athenian black metal band Naer Mataron have direct ties to right-wing political organizations in Greece. They were formed in 1994 by Giorgios Germenis, who performs under the pseudonym Kaiadas, the name of the chasm into which the ancient Spartans were thought to have hurled deformed or sickly babies, criminals, traitors, and POWs. Germenis also served in Greece’s Parliament as a member of the far-right and anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party from 2012 to 2019. In October 2020 he was imprisoned after Golden Dawn leaders were convicted of running a criminal organization. Golden Dawn members gather annually at Thermopylae, including the 2500th anniversary of the battle, to commemorate as a defense of Greece against eastern foreigners the last stand of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans against the invading Persians. 

From the Encyclopedia Metallum

Naer Mataron’s lyrics center on hellenic mythology and religion going hand-in-hand with anti-Christian and Satanic messages. The artwork and title of their 1998 album Up from the Ashes, which depicts black, demonic flames arising from the ruins of the Parthenon, illustrates the theme of the satanic resurrection of the old gods and their reconquest of the world on behalf of their loyal followers as conveyed by the lyrics to the song “Zeus (Wrath of the Gods).” Two of their songs use classical themes to make explicitly antisemitic and eurocentric statements. The track “Wolf of Ions” appears to be an invocation of the sea god Triton, the half-man, half-fish son of Poseidon, who will lead the extirpation of Judaism from Greece: “You have returned for the revenge of the Hellenic Blood / You are the wolf, the son of the seashell / Destroy now, the Plague from the east, / The Jewish race.” Later in the song comes the line “I hold the heart and soul of an Ancient Spartan!” Reincarnation as a Spartan reinforces the song’s xenophobia, evoking the defense of Thermopylae. In the other song, “Ancestor Worship,” the singer evokes the Eleusinian Mysteries by “initiat[ing] into the secrets of the forgotten Europa.” The song later proclaims “I hear the voice of Leonidas, standing in the Thermopylae / I attack in the east by the side of Alexander the great.” 

Der Stürmer’s Neo-Nazi Classicism 

Also from Greece are the black metal band Der Stürmer, who take their name from the most popular anti-Jewish newspaper in Nazi Germany. They are one of the most prominent bands in the NSBM scene, and have remained active since their formation in 1998. Their evocations of ancient Greece and Rome in their lyrics are legion, including glorifications of oppressors of Judaism. These include the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes whose persecution of his Jewish subjects sparked the Maccabean revolt in 167 BCE,  and the Roman emperor Titus, whose legions sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE and destroyed the Second Temple. Their music also calls for the resurrection of Alexander’s empire under the leadership of an Aryan race trained by the Spartan education system. In interviews in 2007 and 2010, Der Stürmer cite as inspirations not only military leaders such as Leonidas, Themistocles, Alexander, and Julius Caesar, but also thinkers such as Heraclitus, Thucydides, Isocrates, Xenophon, Plato, and Marcus Aurelius. The manifesto on their (now defunct) website, moreover, integrated Greece and Rome with other Indo-European peoples to form a single, united race:

The Message of Der Stürmer is a Pan-European one. The Hellene and the Roman, the Nordic, the Slav and the Celt. All we are Brothers from the same womb and from the same Blood. Our Race is one, The Indo-European One, our Fatherland is one, and it has Hundred Flags, Europe!

Der Stürmer communicate their marriage of Nazism and classicism through the artwork of a number of their albums. For example, their 2002 record Iron Will and Discipline features modern Sparta’s bronze statue of Leonidas, who is a hero of many white supremacists. Metallum

Der Stürmer’s 2004 split record with the Polish NSBM band War 88, titled Once and Again Plundering the Zion, features the south inner panel of the triumphal arch built in 81 CE in honor of the emperor Titus in Rome, which contains a relief sculpture of Titus’ triumph in 71 CE celebrating his crushing of the Jewish rebellion. The sculpture prominently features the menorah among the paraded plunder from Titus’ sack of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The arch has been a favorite symbol of antisemites ever since. Combined with the album’s title, the artwork suggests the emulation of Titus and desire to repeat his offensive against Jewish people in the present day. And Der Stürmer’s first full-length album, 2006’s A Banner Greater than Death, uses a photograph of the flag of the German army planted in front of the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis to mark the Axis occupation of Greece in 1941. This choice of artwork suggests the continuity between classical Greece and the Third Reich. 

Finally, their 2007 split album with the German NSBM band Totenburg, titled Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum, features a 4th-century BCE sculpted metope of the charioteering sun god Helios from the temple of Athena at Ilium, now in the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin. The record’s title is Latin for “if you want peace, prepare for war,” adapted from the late Roman military writer Vegetius (De Re Militari 3.praef.), a phrase used by advocates of militaristic, “peace through strength” policies such as Ronald Reagan. The artwork refers to the song “Smyntheus (He Who Beheads the Serpent),” which invokes Apollo-Helios as the “Father of the Black Sun” and ethnic god of the Hyperborean (i.e. “Aryan”) race so that he may fire his arrows of plague against the “eastern serpent” once more, much as he conquered Delphi by slaying Python.

Other NSBM bands lionize Titus, such as the French act Seigneur Voland in their song “Aigle conquérant (Titus victorieux),” appearing on their 2001 self-title EP who artwork features the 1867 Francesco Hayez painting La Destruction du temple de Jérusalem, in which one can see Roman soldiers carrying off the great menorah that Titus would parade around Rome during his triumph.

Encyclopedia Metallum

Arghoslent: Death Metal & the Ghosts of the Confederacy

While defined primarily by its ideological platform, NSBM is more or less grouped within the stylistic subgenre of metal, i.e. black metal, whose musical form is not inherently bound to any specific lyrical themes. Not all forms of racism and bigotry are Nazism much as not all metal is black metal. While metal music is not inherently racist, racism can be inlaid into the template of nearly any metal subgenre, such as death metal and thrash metal. It is to some examples of unaffiliated white supremacist metal bands that we now turn. 

From the Encyclopedia Metallum

Formed in Virginia in 1990 and still active, the death metal band Arghoslent are notorious for their hyperbolic racism, but nevertheless relatively popular for their melodic style. Their lyrics are most often based on anti-Abrahamic themes, military history, and the Atlantic slave trade. They foray into Roman history in their song “Mob of the Howling,” appearing on one of their early demo tapes called Bastard Son of One Thousand Whores, which features an illustration of the Olympian gods. 

“Mob of the Howling” later appeared on the vinyl of their 2002 album Incorrigible Bigotry, which uses as its cover artwork the painting Destruction from Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire series (1833-1836), which frequently appears on white supremacist websites, including that of a racist line of apparel that Pharos has documented. The Course of Empire pictures the rise and fall of an imperial civilization from a primitive and pastoral state, to the acme of prosperity, to its decline and fall into desolation. Destruction portrays an ancient city full of classical architecture being sacked by an invading army that sets buildings ablaze and decapitates monumental statues. Cole’s painting is often interpreted as a reaction to Jacksonian populism that threatened the power of American political and social elites. Arghoslent, who praised Andrew Jackson in a 2019 interview in which they also blame “Jewish Marxism,” “ideals of individual equality and total tolerance to (sub)human rights, racial integration, [and] quotas for minorities” for the “ruin of national states,” use this painting not as a warning but as a celebration of the barbaric overthrow of a decadent establishment. 

From the Encyclopedia Metallum

In light of the lyrics to “Mob of the Howling,” Arghoslent read this painting as depicting the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 CE. The song overall treats the centuries-long conflict between Germanic peoples and the Mediterranean Romans. It begins with the first major clash, that of the Romans with the Cimbri and Teutones, who by 113 BCE had migrated from either modern-day Denmark or Scandinavia and invaded Roman territory. They dealt the Republic’s legions a series of crushing defeats before Gaius Marius reformed the Roman army and annihilated the invaders in 102 and 101 BCE. The song describes the Cimbri and Teutones as “[t]he tall blond haired warrior / With the fierce blue eyes,” while the “[s]mall dark haired Romans / Are destined to die.” Arghoslent do not admire classical civilization. Theirs is an exclusively Germanic supremacy based on physiognomic distinctions even within European demography. 

Furthermore, these lines imply that it is inevitable that the superior Germans will vanquish the inferior Mediterranean race, which sets up the song’s final stanza: “To the decaying empire Visigoths / Refused to kneel and pay / Homage to the Caesar / Centuries would pass / But the dream remained / To plunder and sack Rome / Was their bonding call.” The five-century arc of history bends toward a biologically determined Germanic victory. Arghoslent also suggest that the collective dream that united the Germanic peoples into a single nation was the destruction of Rome. This is fiction, as even the Visigoths only besieged and sacked Rome as retaliation for the emperor Honorius refusing to make their leader Alaric the commander-in-chief of the Roman military. Arghoslent embrace nineteenth-century notions of ancient barbarism, Germanic supremacy, and social Darwinism to craft a narrative of racist historical determinism. 

Deströyer 666: A Summons to “The Sons of Remus”


Classical imagery has also been appropriated by artists who are themselves openly racist or have close ties to white supremacism. The Australian band Deströyer 666, formed in 1994 and still active, are signed to a major underground label Season of Mist and have toured worldwide. Their founding member Keith “KK Warslut” Bemrose is on record making racist, islamophobic, and misogynistic statements on stage, and white supremacism is evident in his lyrics as well, despite his strident denials. In terms of classical reception, Deströyer’s 2002 song “The Calling” calls for the “sons of Remus,” “wolfsire children,” and “daughters of Rome” to unite in rebellion against the world. Deströyer, along with other far-right bands who appropriate antiquity, connect the myth of the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus to their own predatory identity as wolves and werewolves, an identity symbol also popular with the Nazis and alt-right groups. The 2011 reissue of the album Cold Steel for an Iron Age, on which this song appears, features on its back a drawing of the Capitoline Wolf suckling a group of snakes. 

Diocletian and the Apocalyptic Roman Revival

The New Zealand band Diocletian, active since 2004 and named for the Roman emperor responsible for the so-called “Great Persecution” of Christians at the turn of the fourth century CE, also connect lupine and lycanthropic identity with the Roman foundation myth. While the band is not explicitly racist, their lyrics and imagery combine fascist imagery such as the Wolfsangel with themes of apocalyptic war and political philosophies of “might makes right” and “war of all against all.” Their most recent release, the 2021 live album Live in Leipzig, includes imperial Roman and eurocentric imagery in its cover art. It features an armored, winged werewolf wielding in its left hand a scepter topped by an eagle, whose wings connected by arc lightning identify it as a symbol of Jupiter and Roman imperium. In the werewolf’s right hand is a world globe oriented with Europe in its center, on which continent stands the winged goddess Victoria carrying a laurel crown and a torch, a statuette that resembles that which graced the Altar of Victory installed in the curia Julia by Augustus in 29 BCE. 

Encyclopedia Metallum/

Beyond their name, Diocletian have had an evident interest in themes of European supremacy achieved through past and future wars of global conquest. The lyrics to their 2009 song “Werewolf Directive” convey these themes most explicitly, including the lines “[p]rogeny of Europa / Successors of struggle and pride / The rider of blood from the past now bleeds / White are the wolves that conquer the ages.” These lyrics were penned by the metal musician and esoteric white supremacist Pete Helmkamp, who in his own published interviews and writings argue for the superiority of the “Arya Serpent Theos Race,” a roughly equivalent term for Aryans and Indo-Europeans. Diocletian’s own lyrics connect these themes to ancient Rome most directly. The 2019 song “Restart Civilisation” runs “Restart civilisation / Eradicate it all / Romulus bidding iron beginning,” expressing the deisre for  a rebirth of the Roman Empire out of a cataclysmic, global war. The band sells t-shirts based on this song that feature the Capitoline Wolf, blood dripping from her jaws, suckling Romulus and Remus with a black sun radiating overhead. Diocletian may not be avowed Neo-Nazis like the man whose lyrics are set to “Werewolf Directive,” but they nevertheless provided him a platform for his white supremacist messaging, while the remainder of the band’s original lyrical and visual output, with its vision of apocalyptic Roman revival, is consistent with fascist ideology. 

Detoxifying Metal & Classics

What is to be done about artists who blend classical antiquity with hate music? Record labels, concert venues, and websites such as YouTube and Bandcamp are in their rights to offer or deny these bands a platform. Activists, journalists, and public scholars, moreover, should document and deconstruct the manifestations of these artists’ ideologies, including their appropriations of antiquity, so that current or potential consumers can acknowledge the privilege inherent in their choice to support them. There is cause for optimism that the globalizing and diversifying metal scene is increasingly choosing to deplatform these bands, and, despite the structural challenges to women, people of color, and other marginalized groups that persist in it, to become a safer and more inclusive space for everyone. 

Efforts within the metal scene in recent years to divest itself of toxic individuals and ideologies run largely parallel to similar efforts in Classics and adjacent fields

The uses of antiquity by white supremacist metal bands here documented are largely congruent with the wider phenomena, and agenda, of classical reception by hate groups and political extremists. Album artwork specifically performs the same function as visual rhetoric of these other groups displayed on pamphlets, clothing, logos, and websites: they appropriate images of antiquity so that their messages might capture their audiences through appeal to tradition, authority, and aesthetics. To attract their target audience among metal fans specifically, these images are manipulated to signify empowerment, masculinity, and transgression. Combined with hearing the music and reading the lyrics, these images supply and reinforce in many of their consumers’ minds a distorted view of the ancient world that these artists wish not only to legitimize and glorify, but even to prescribe as a viable political alternative. 

Efforts within the metal scene in recent years to divest itself of toxic individuals and ideologies run largely parallel to similar efforts in Classics and adjacent fields. In a virtuous cycle, greater diversity can correspond to gains in equity and inclusion of those who are not white, non-disabled, cisgender men; but achieving these goals in full is hampered not only by the inertia of existing hierarchies and its defenders, but also those who call for toleration of those with pernicious viewpoints in the name of “freedom of speech and thought,” as though the rights and humanity of certain folks should be a matter of debate. Similar resistance is faced by both metalheads who openly denounce fascism and classicists who denounce transphobia, while big names and organizations in either scene are called on to use their subcultural capital to back endeavors toward equality and justice. Classical antiquity and heavy metal music belong to everyone. 

Jeremy J. Swist earned his PhD. in Classics from the University of Iowa, and has taught at Miami University, Xavier University, and the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is joining the Department of Classical Studies at Brandeis University as a lecturer in the Fall of 2021. Find him on Twitter @MetalClassicist, and follow his blog

Jeremy thanks Charlotte Naylor Davis, Amanda DiGioia, and Curtis Dozier for their assistance with this piece.

We have linked above to archived versions of white supremacist websites or sites that promote white supremacy in heavy metal to avoid generating traffic for those sites.

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