One of my favorite Black Sabbath songs is “War Pigs” and it was recorded in 1970 as an antiwar anthem that evokes the occult but its message is timeless and its origins are fascinating. The track was originally called “Walpurgis” and was inspired by the international festival known as Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht) celebrated on April 30th each year. Walpurgis has Pagan roots and is also known as The Witches’ Sabbath or the night that witches gather to welcome spring before May Day aka Beltane (the Wiccan Sabbat). Today many celebrate it as a fire festival associated with Saint Walpurgis to ward off witches but it is also a Satanic holiday observed by Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan.
The early lyrics for Black Sabbath’s “Walpurgis” were very different and arguably more raw in the way it incorporates esoteric themes. According to various sources, the band was forced to change the lyrics and song title to “War Pigs” on behalf of their record company who thought “Walpurgis” was too “Satanic.” The song and its corresponding album (Paranoid) were scheduled for release at the height of the Manson Family trial, which was making headlines around the globe. No doubt worried about bad press, the record company probably didn’t want the band to be associated with Manson and his followers who were being portrayed as a “satanic cult” by trial lawyers and the media.
Navigating censors arguably turned “Walpurgis” into a much richer and more complex song. In the retitled track now known as “War Pigs” the band uses the imagery of a sacrificial Black Mass to animate evil in the shape of unfettered capitalism and military forces leaving burning bodies in their wake. The song lyrics also conjure up images of Walpurgis Night in Europe typically celebrated by burning effigies of witches recalling the European witch trials that led to thousands of victims, most of them women, being burned alive.
Ironically, listeners at the time could still associate “War Pigs” with Manson who encouraged his followers to write “Death to Pigs” and “PIG” using the blood of their victims at crime scenes. But it’s important to point out that “pigs” was a derogatory term for police and other figures in positions of power that became popular in the 1960s long before the Manson Family used it.
Like many of the rock bands that debuted in the late 1960s, Black Sabbath took song writing inspiration from popular culture as well as occult sources and folklore. In his book Black Sabbath and Philosophy: Mastering Reality Professor of Philosophy William Irwin points to the band members’ fascination with ceremonial magician and Thelema founder Aleister Crowley as the possible source for their initial interest in Walpurgis Night. Crowley, who would later inspire Ozzy Osbourne’s song “Mr. Crowley” in 1980, wrote about the festival in 1917 and referred to it as a Sabbath in his occult novel Moonchild. Walpurgis Night was also the title of one of Crowley’s paintings.
Following the song’s release the band was reportedly asked to perform at Stonehenge on Walpurgis Night for a fire festival being organized by the Wiccan High Priest and renowned occultist Alex Sanders. When they turned down his invitation, Sanders was rumored to have put a curse on the band. Members of Black Sabbath were so disturbed by the event that they consulted what they have referred to as a “white witch” who suggested they wear large crosses to ward off any evil. This lead to Ozzy Osbourne asking his father, a metalsmith, to craft the band giant crucifixes that they regularly wore in publicity photos.
How many of these stories associated with Walpurgis are fact or just rock music legend and lore? We may never know but whatever its source, “War Pigs” remains a powerful antiwar song, often referred to as the original Heavy Metal track, evoking the darker aspects of Black Aquarius that were prevalent in the late 1960s and early 70s. With its thundering drums and bassline, searing guitar riffs and wailing vocals, “War Pigs” summons images of macabre Sabbaths and lustful Satanic figures that feed on the darker aspects of human nature.
by Black Sabbath
Witches gather at black masses
Bodies burning in red ashes
On the hill the church in ruin.
Is the scene of evil doings
It’s a place for all bad sinners
Watch them eating dead rats’ innards.
I guess it’s the same, wherever you may go
Oh lord, yeah!
Carry banners which denounce the lord
See me rocking in my grave
See them anoint my head with dead rat’s blood
See them stick the stake through me
Don’t hold me back cause I just gotta go
They’ve got a hold of my soul now
Look at my brain instinct with bloodened sea
Look in my eyes I’m there enough
On the scene a priest appears
Sinners falling at his knees
Satan sends out funeral pyre
Casts the priest into the fire
It’s the place for all bad sinners.
Watch them eating dead rats’ innards
I guess it’s the same, where ever you may go
Oh lord, yeah!
War Pigs (lyrics)
by Black Sabbath
Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerer of death’s construction
In the fields, the bodies burning
As the war machine keeps turning
Death and hatred to mankind
Poisoning their brainwashed minds
Oh lord, yeah!
Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor, yeah
Time will tell on their power minds
Making war just for fun
Treating people just like pawns in chess
Wait till their judgement day comes, yeah!
Now in darkness, world stops turning
Ashes where their bodies burning
No more war pigs have the power
Hand of God has struck the hour
Day of judgement, God is calling
On their knees, the war pigs crawling
Begging mercy for their sins
Satan laughing, spreads his wings
Oh lord, yeah!
– Black Sabbath – The Holy Trinity & The Birth of Heavy Metal
– Black Sabbath and the Occult