Satan over Birmingham

A dark force is at work in industrial Birmingham. The evidence is there before us in our streets, in our museums, in the halls of power, our entertainment venues, our dark mills. Yes the devil himself pervades the fabric of Birmingham culture.

Nowhere is this presence felt more than in the imposing effigy in the main atrium to the Museum & Art Gallery in Chamberlain Square – the Civic focus of art and tradition in Birmingham. It is the first ambassador to welcome the casual visitor or tourist to the culture of Birmingham.

The sculpture is by Jacob Epstein and represents the Biblical fallen angel Lucifer. He towers over the visitor, delicately dipping his toe into the fiery lake, his male member conspicuously free of his barely real skirts. The figure appears to be at once male and female. It was the audacious placing of this expressive demon is which led me to look deeper into the city’s demonic heritage. Can the corporation really be sanctioning the devil? And who was Epstein actually depicting?

Epstein considered the sculpture his finest work to date on its completion in 1947, but it remained unsold at the end of a major exhibition. He tried to give it away to the V&A and then the Tate, but neither wanted it. The Mayor of Birmingham stepped in to ask for it if it was going begging and it was duly gifted to the city: “Shame to waste all that metal”.

Elsewhere in the city: the City Arcade on Union Street. There’s plenty of architectural enrichment here in terracotta and faïence, much of it sea themed. Four figures appear to support the upper masonry. It’s difficult to make out clearly at this distance but they appear to have curled, ram-like horns, mischievous faces, pointed ears and distinctive goatee beards. Ask someone to draw the devil and this likeness is what he or she will produce. But don’t panic, this isn’t Satan. These are depictions of the Great God Pan. These particular atlantes end at the torso in a scrolly tail, but Pan’s lower figure is that of a goat. It is likely that early Christian literature and art borrowed and demonised images of Pan, lacking detailed descriptions of the devil in the Bible. Pan himself is of Greek descent, but the Church later went on to further demonise Pagan imagery to promote its own product. In these sculptures, Pan is seen playing something more like a flute than his usual Pan Pipes, perhaps expanding his woodwind repertoire.

Another horned figure appears conspicuously in the keystone above the entrance to Waterstone’s on New Street (a former bank). Another impish expression, and unusually the horns here are intertwined. Historically, this is an important intersection in Birmingham commerce and it’s a shock to discover this figure here. Curiously, few spot him as they enter the shop in search of Dan Brown’s latest investigation into the supernatural that is pervading our urban fabric. Demons, Green Men and monsters pepper architecture of the Victorian period as standard in a way that would be inconceivable for a new business premise today.

Perhaps the world’s most notorious Satanist was Aleister Crowley, born in Leamington Spa in 1875 and schooled in Malvern. The popular press of his day called him “The Wickedest Man in the World!” His father made his fortune with Crowley Ales, which were sold throughout Birmingham. Aleister lived on the proceeds of the demon drink, which freed him to explore the dark arts. However, as with most claims of Satanism, those levelled at Crowley’s don’t really hold up. True, he rejected Christian symbology and practiced White Magic, a spiritual appreciation and understanding of nature and the human body, but rather than describe him as a devil worshipper, it is more accurate to say he was keen on Yoga.

His story mirrors that other notorious local ‘Satanist’, Ozzy Osbourne. Born in Aston, Birmingham, a year and a day after Crowley’s death, Ozzy and his band invented Heavy Metal after seeing a Boris Karloff film (‘Black Sabbath’, naturally) and observing that horror films seemed to do well at the Box Office. Did anyone ever take his lyrics and imagery seriously? Maybe not then, and certainly not now, but it seems they did in the 1980s and early nineties. There were a series of court cases that accused heavy metal bands of hiding Satanic instructions (‘back masking’) to fans in their lyrics. The most high profile of these cases wasn’t against Black Sabbath, but another Birmingham metal band: Judas Priest. In a typically dry Brummie rebuff, Judas Priest observed they’d be more likely to hide instructions to “buy more of our records”, while Ozzy quipped that the only Black Magic he dabbled in was of the chocolate variety. Look for Ozzy’s inaugural commemorative pentagram set into the pavement on Broad Street’s Walk of Fame.

A trawl through the history books of Birmingham reveals an undercurrent of local anti-Christian tradition. In 1841, George Jacob Holyoake became the last person to be convicted for blasphemy in a public lecture, for which he served six months imprisonment. But perhaps the best-known free thinker was John Baskerville, the eighteenth century printing pioneer and book publisher after whom Conan Doyle named his devil dog. Baskerville lived his life in contempt of the church, openly flouting social mores and living unmarried with a woman for 16 years. In his will, he recorded his desire to be buried in unconsecrated ground. His epitaph read thus:

“Stranger, beneath this Cone in Unconsecrated Ground, a Friend of the Liberties of Mankind Directed his Body to be Inhum’d. May his Example contribute to Emancipate the Mind from the Idle Fears of Superstition and the Wicked Arts of Priesthood.”

While atheism was not unheard of in 18th Century England, such vocal opposition from a prominent man was rare. The Church exacted revenge when canal building caused Baskerville’s body to be exhumed: they refused to accept the coffin in their vaults. The tit-for-tat retaliation between the two continues today. The extinguished ‘Flame of Hope, a gift from the Christian community is located in Centenary Square…formerly Baskerville’s back garden. The eternal flame remained lit for a year or two until the Council failed to pay the gas bill and it was cut off. The whole area is now the site of the New Library of Birmingham – suggesting Baskerville won.

In this sense, anti-Christian doesn’t refer to an allegiance with the Antichrist; it merely describes Baskerville’s opposition to the church. But it is interesting to investigate what ‘the Antichrist’ actually is. Only John the apostle refers to the Antichrist in the Bible, and even speaks of “many anti-Christs” in 1 John 4:3. Even Revelation doesn’t mention the Antichrist, referring instead to the Beast. Rather than referring to a great powerful demon, John seems to be predicting that Christianity will meet with opposition, as indeed it was already doing in the 2nd Century AD when he wrote it. The Antichrist as an entity disappears.

Returning to the museum and our old friend Lucifer, we find that a similar misunderstanding surrounds him. Lucifer (in Ezekiel) was an archangel who led a rebellion against God. The plan was bungled and Lucifer was thrown out of heaven along with his pals, and lived on the earth (not hell, as suggested by the sculpture’s caption). Nothing describes him as being the devil, or even being another name for Satan.

Revelation 13 famously describes the Beast, but later refers to Satan as if they are two separate entities. Revelation in fact describes two Beasts: one resembles a leopard “with a lion’s mouth” and the other is a talking lamb. Both have dragonesque qualities but neither sound like angels, nor especially terrifying. In Revelation 20, Satan is described as an angel who “will be” cast out of heaven into the lake of fire, this fate yet to be. In Genesis, we assume the fruit-loving serpent is the Devil’s mouthpiece, but this is never mentioned directly (We also think of the fruit as an apple – but why not a lemon?). On the whole, the bible is short on adjectives and many creatures, monsters, outcasts and pieces of fruit are later rounded up by early Christians into one all purpose evil entity for our convenience.

Before we leave Birmingham, is there anything sinister to be found in the “Dark, Satanic Mills” we often hear about in connection to industrial cities? While they sound suitably hellish, presumably belching fire, smoke and noise, Blake was actually referring to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

The harder we try to conjure up Satan, the less real he seems to be, or indeed ever was. He evaporates like waking up from a bad dream…but could this itself be a final, fiendish, diabolical deception?

Author: Ben Waddington

Director of Still Walking festival — Birmingham's festival of walking 14 - 20 Mar 2014: mosaics, glaciers, ring roads... the usual stuff.