In ancient, pre-Christian Nordic myths, the Oskorei is a collection of souls that jets through the night sky above the living, often with the god Odin leading the horde. On certain occasions, the Oskorei may swoop down to grapple with the living, faces adorned in white with black rims. Over the course of the 20th century, a pagan revival took over, recharging these myths with new eyes, reinterpreting them through the lens of modernity and ascribing them metaphysical significance.
While it happened throughout Europe and the U.S., it was particularly strong among the völkisch movements in Germany that were trying to wrestle with identity around a newly formed nation and a reaction from the countryside to the homogenizing influence of urban life and advancing industrial technology.
Heathenry, the pagan religions of Germany and Nordic regions, was imbued with a new significance not possible before the modern concept of race took hold. Through this, the Germanic gods were seen as archetypes for the genetic kin of Northern Europe, and monstrosities like the rise of the Third Reich were a certain Odinic spirit taking over the psyche of its people.
It is with this angle in mind that Michael Moynihan and co-author Didrik Søderlind revisited the Oskorei in their 1998 opus Lords of Chaos, which told of the scattered birth of Norwegian black metal and the murders and church arsons it left behind. The book set the tone for how the U.S. imported black metal, the primary market for its albums, retelling its story as one of pure extremity — brutal and offensive, iconoclastic and dangerous.
For two decades, Lords of Chaos has remained the go-to text for how the black metal movement began. The black metal scene often wins its scores by outdoing itself in terms of outrageousness, blending all things taboo into pure hyperbole. It is within this framework, where real-life horrors only add to its branding, that Moynihan took the most painful parts of black metal’s history and made it a selling point.
It was the book’s pedigree that led to it finally being adapted into a fairly major Hollywood release from Arrow Films with critical support from Vice Films, capped with stars like Rory Culkin to prop up its focus on the violence of the Norwegian scene centered on the band Mayhem. Just like the book, the movie takes some of the most extreme characters, their murders and suicides, and turns it into horror fodder, acceptably scary because it is so extreme.
The question that should be asked about the Lords of Chaos film adaptation is not whether the story should be told; the story is, without a doubt, dramatic and poignant. Instead, we should ask why someone like Moynihan, whose history in white nationalism and fascist politics traces several decades, is at the center of it. In an era where white nationalist violence is at a record high, why did major studios decide to purchase the option to a book filled with fascist occultism from a man who never hid his own fascism?
“The Strong Rule the Weak, and the Clever Rule the Strong”
Moynihan is best known for Lords of Chaos, largely because it was the first book with insider access to the black metal scene, but his own history is even more checkered. Always on the edge of extreme music and occult philosophy, he was known for a “will to power” type of fascist politics that is explicit in much of his writing.
He is the front man for the neo-folk band Blood Axis, known for combining völkisch paganism and the fascist traditionalism of philosophers like Julius Evola. The neo-folk scene has been mired in controversy for the last 15 years since there is a central theme of reimagining Europe’s past in romantic terms, often focusing on occultism and the celebration of empire. This is a trend in far-right art that is often termed “metapolitics,” an effort to sneak in fascist ideas in ways that are not strictly political.
Instead, the artists will try to echo fascist themes through art and culture, changing the way the subculture thinks and thereby shifting the values of that culture to fit their vision. Moynihan was at the center of this project, both as a musician and journalist, propping up many of the bands that became influential at repackaging far-right themes in their music.
Lords of Chaos, both the book and the film adaptation, focuses heavily on Varg Vikernes, who fronts the industrial music project Burzum and served 15 years in prison for burning churches and the murder of Øystein Aarseth of Mayhem. While Vikernes would be a likely villain for a book like this, he is instead portrayed as a charming oddity, an eccentric whose own ideas lead huge portions of the book’s philosophical musings. Vikernes himself is a white nationalist who sees a need to return to the ancestral religions of Norway, to remove the Judeo-Christian influences and reinvigorate a warrior culture.
Together, Vikernes and Moynihan discuss the black metal scene as the Nordic people channeling their Oskorei nature, a part of the Nordic spiritual psyche waiting to be reawakened. Reacting to the spoils of Christian capitalist consumerism, the children of this generation embodied total nihilism, wanting for death and violence expressed in frenzy. This is in line with what evolved to be known as “folkish” paganism, the idea that the gods of a particular culture’s past are psychically bound to them, racially prescribed.
It is through this lens that Vikernes attempted to justify his church burnings as acts against the “invaders,” both worshiping a foreign Jewish god and representing a degenerate “slave morality,” which celebrates the virtue of the commoner rather than the oppressor stamping out rebellion from a position of utter strength. He railed about the weaknesses of Christianity, and about cleansing the land to re-establish a Viking morality that would sanctify will, power, cruelty and hierarchy.
This line resonates strongly with Moynihan, who referred to himself as a fascist in the 1990s. He worked closely with the enigmatic far-right artist Boyd Rice, a similar experimental industrial musician, on the Abraxas Project that was designed to propel “social Darwinist” ideas. The tagline of the organization was: “The strong rule the weak, and the clever rule the strong,” echoing their own Nietzschean brand of domination theology.
Blood on His Hands
Moynihan loved to raise up the voices of the absolute fringes, which led him to James Mason. Mason joined the American Nazi Party’s youth division in 1966, and when he turned 18 in 1970, he became an adult member. By then, it had been renamed the National Socialist White People’s Party. He eventually saw the group’s activism as stale and wanted to co-opt leftist strategies of guerrilla warfare he was seeing in liberation movements in the Global South. Thus, Mason argued for using shocking violence as a tactic to disrupt the order of society and create fractures that could be used to build the kind of national socialism Hitler imagined.
He joined the National Socialist Liberation Front in 1976, whose publication was Siege, which he revived and became the editor of in 1980. Since his publication rarely hit more than 75 monthly subscribers, it would have disappeared from the white nationalist audience entirely, yet Moynihan saw something there. He collected the newsletters and edited them into a book, which grew a cult following among neo-Nazis because of its extreme calls for urban terrorism and its support for Charles Manson and the use of cultish murderers as praxis. Siege later became the inspiration for the U.S.-based Atomwaffen Division, a series of neo-Nazi terror cells that have murdered at least five people in the last two years as the group found a new home at the corners of the “alt–right.”
“Moynihan introduced pro-genocide, pro-serial killer neo-Nazism to tens of thousands of people,” said Spencer Sunshine, an associate fellow at Political Research Associates, who researches fascist subcultures. “He has blood on his hands.”
What Moynihan did later in his career is a familiar pattern for white nationalists looking to embed their ideas more thoroughly with intellectual credibility. He started the heathen journal Runa to mix in folkish perspectives on folklore and literature with more mainstream ones, often republishing dead authors like Michael Cunningham or essays on J.R.R. Tolkien to give the ideas broader appeal.
Moynihan founded the journal Tyr, which helped to popularize “radical traditionalism” as a philosophical idea. Building on fascist metaphysical authors like Julius Evola, radical traditionalism argues that there are underlying hierarchies and spiritual pathways to all of society, and that we must return to pre-modern ways of living, which followers see as stratified along lines of class, race, gender and so on.
Tyr worked hard to mix white nationalists like Collin Cleary, known for his books on white nationalist interpretations of Norse paganism, with legitimate scholars on ancient art, religion, politics and culture — mixing a cocktail of academic prose to make the racialist and totalitarian themes seem more palatable. Moynihan has gone on to edit a reprint of a book by Evola, as well as edit books by a range of folkish authors, oftentimes getting them published in more mainstream occult presses without objection.
While Moynihan’s ideas have always been pretty clearly stated, his work is often dismissed as an act. Instead of seeing him as entirely sincere, Moynihan is often discussed as an intentionally provocative antagonist rather than an evangelist.
His relationship with Mason is reduced to his obsession with those on the edges, rather than a commitment to ideology. This is, to a degree, the mentality applied to black metal, where we may not agree with some ideas, but it is their extreme nature that makes them attractive, if only in a kitsch way. This requires certain rhetorical gymnastics, since Moynihan has been one of the centers of the pseudo-intellectualism inside the U.S. far right, which desperately hopes to create an ideological center that looks like more than simple bigotry.
“Moynihan is definitely proto-‘alt-right’ in that he was one of the first people to champion a more ‘intellectual’ version of white nationalism,” Sunshine told Truthout.
Jonas Åkerlund, the director of the film adaptation of Lords of Chaos, knows better than anyone who Moynihan is since Åkerlund himself comes from the world of Norwegian black metal. Though he is best known for his film school takes on Madonna songs, he was also a member of the Swedish black metal band Bathory in the 1980s, which is likely why he was channeled into this project. Vice has covered the far-right areas of National Socialist black metal thoroughly as well, and so there is little question as to why this book was chosen as the source for a major film that Vice Films supported so heavily. Vikernes, for his part, has attacked the movie virulently, accusing Jews of spreading lies about him.
The book itself has little narrative thrust to it, largely made up of philosophical diatribes and band interviews, and so the screenplay likely had to be drawn from a range of sources. This means that while the production company likely cut Moynihan a sizeable check for the rights to the book, they didn’t have to. Instead, they chose to only because of the name recognition for the title, and possibly, because of the edgy reputation it brought along. Instead of seeing the violent white nationalism openly professed in the book as a liability, they may have cynically hoped it would help them cash a check.
There is undeniably something important in the way that the black metal scene formed, what it says about alienation, and the negotiation between consumer capitalism and identity, but there is no reason that history has to be defined by self-described fascists like Moynihan. The story of black metal has multiple centers, bands repudiating the right, defining themselves on the left, and the families and communities torn apart from white nationalists posing as nihilistic artists. Instead of telling the same old mythology about extreme music, the producers could have given the story three dimensions. And they could have saved the money they sent to a white nationalist.