Finding out that the Vikings didn’t actually have horns on their helmets kind of ruined Vikings for me. Like many aspects of ancient Norse culture, the grand, horned Viking headgear we see in our collective psyche is bullshit; in truth, Vikings wore simple metal helmets, maybe with eye guards. This is the case with many of the cooler parts of Viking lore.
The infamous Blood Eagle (a metalhead favorite—execution by having your ribs hacked from your spine and your lungs pulled out of your back) was probably never really performed. The famously crazed warriors known as Berserkers were just huge dudes on mushrooms. In the end, the Vikings were similar to every other ancient culture in humanity: hungry, filthy, and scared of the weather. Their gods just encouraged bullying more than others.
Sadly, as a metalhead, one finds this to be true amongst basically all of the awesome ancient peoples about whom it’s the most fun to write galloping riffs. The ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Mayans, Druids, Spanish Inquisitors, all of history’s soldiers, bandits ,and pirates were really just a bunch of malnourished pragmatists doing their best not to get bitten by a horse. (A commonly used alternative is getting really into Tolkien, but that’s hell on your wardrobe.)
But there is one character archetype that metalheads can always rely on. When the going gets tough and the facts get boring, the Metal Barbarian is there, swinging a battleaxe and screaming the name of a god that no one has ever actually worshipped.
Standing high above history and nuance, the Metal Barbarian is the coolest recurring archetype in heavy metal imagery. No monster, hero, or historical figure is half as important to metal’s mythology. Even the Devil and his worshippers pale in comparison when one remembers that Satanism still implies a set of rules, and that most Satanists were historically either rude hippies or actual child-murderers. The Metal Barbarian isn’t leashed by any dogma or belief other than the thrill of adventure and the greasy first bite of a mutton leg.
The Metal Barbarian has horns on their helmet, and on their shield, and maybe adorning armbands on their biceps. Their jewelry is made of teeth, their ankles and calves wrapped n the fur of some wild beast. They deftly wield a blade too large to be useful and ride a black steed made entirely of muscles. When they are not either leaping into battle or standing atop a pile of the slain, the Metal Barbarian drinks heavily, wanders across barren wastelands, and occasionally lays with a writhing sorceress.
No era holds them; they exist just as easily in prehistory alongside dinosaurs as they do in the future fighting mutants with laser cannons. Despite widely held ideas about the entomology of the word itself, barbarians do not hail from the Barbary Coast, nor do they speak in “bar, bar, bar” sounds (which is where the Greek word comes from). But the age they live in, though primitive, is always littered with the bygone relics of the age before it, abandoned temples and statues half-buried in sand.
This heroic stereotype in metal lore comes almost entirely from the minds of two great artists. Robert E. Howard is the Barbarian’s true father; his character Conan the Cimmerian is the ultimate benchmark for fiction’s savage warrior-kings. Conan’s free spirit, sharp intellect, and undying battle lust, along with the grand Hyperborian landscape in which he traveled, gave writers scaffolding on which to build the whole genre of sword and sorcery literature.
But it wasn’t until Conan and heroes like him were illustrated by painter Frank Frazetta that the style and culture of the Metal Barbarian was truly defined. Frazetta’s art portrays an endless battlefield where all of history collides in a single primal skirmish of flexed thighs, giants snakes, and greasy loincloths.
Many bands feature the Metal Barbarian in their lyrics, but only a few truly understand the character at its core. Oiled-up heavy metal warriors Manowar and iconic Rainbow-turned-Black Sabbath warbler Ronnie James Dio have used them in their imagery, but their music is generally a bunch of chivalrous floofery. The aptly-named British doom band Conan portray the Barbarian with grinding low-to-the-ground chugs that evoke stone ledges and bloodstained spears. Chicago’s Lair of the Minotaur tells the Barbarian’s story with misanthropic stripped-down stoner rock, while Skeletonwitch, Death of Kings, and 3 Inches of Blood use rollicking thrash to depict the thrill and fun of this kickass personification.
Perhaps the most accurate musical portrayal of the Metal Barbarian comes from Oakland stoner thrashers High On Fire, whose chugging paeans to battle, hedonism, and non-specific ancient gods contain all the Barbarian’s muscle and originality (their Skinner-animated video for “The Black Plot” features an army of Metal Barbarians fighting a horde of space nightmares). All of these bands have something in common: they are deadly serious about making awesome metal, even if their lyrical content leans towards the undeniably nerdy.
Why metalheads idolize brutal human weapons at all is fairly obvious. For the white, working-class, British down-and-outs who put metal on the map back in the 1970s, these organic fantasy empires were the last time white people were in any way cool; after that, it was all powdered wigs and bows on your shoes. But more than that, the world of these brutes is simpler than ours, ruled by steel rather than estimated taxes and SEO. Metal fandom always contains a fear of progress’ manic pace, a confusion about how things work and a sadness that the world is so much smaller these days. Self-identifying as a Metal Barbarian fills this void, and gives solace to those primitive souls who struggle to navigate of the modern world, wondering why they can’t just stomp that person in the neck.
We like the idea that our fantasies have some historical bearing, and that if it weren’t for all those damn hugs and participation trophies we got as kids, we’d be as hardcore as those humans who pulled the world out of the ground in times long gone. But the truth is that sometimes—often, even—our fantasies are better than the reality.
And that’s okay, so long as we acknowledge that, and make peace with it. Reality will creep into your life whether you like it or not; you need health insurance no matter how imaginative you are. Acknowledging that something is a fiction doesn’t mean you can’t lose yourself in it (professional wrestling has survived on that premise for half a century).
The Metal Barbarian is our champion of the unreal. They are metal’s brash theatricality, an avatar for all the fake names, corpsepaint, and pyro we need so that the world makes even a little bit of sense to us. Rest easy knowing that even now, somewhere, in the mind of a disgruntled teenager, they stalk the plains of Never-Was, a cluster of severed heads dangling from their fist and a horned helmet resting atop their weary brow.
Chris Krovatin is swinging foehammers on Twitter.