Cultes des Ghoules
by Niklas Göransson
Elixirs of the night and flesh of the gods – a conversation about mysticism, devotion, and witchcraft with Cultes des Ghoules vocalist Mark of the Devil.
This is an excerpt from the full article, which is twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #8. The same issue also includes conversations with DESTRÖYER 666/BESTIAL WARLUST, AKHLYS, LEVIATHAN/LURKER OF CHALICE, BLACK WITCHERY, THUNDERBOLT, BLACKDEATH, MISÞYRMING, NORDVIS/ARMAGEDDA, MORTUUS, DÖDFÖDD/REVERORUM IB MALACHT, and OFERMOD.
It is largely thanks to Ritual Murder – the old ‘zine Mark of the Devil, or Marek, used to edit – that CULTES DES GHOULES exists in the form we know it today. In 2005, the band’s guitarist, Machine, contacted Marek on account of Ritual Murder. At the time, Machine lived in a town about an hour away and had recently joined a black metal project formed by drummer Windom Earle. The three of them got to know each other, and Marek was appointed vocalist. After all his years of trying to get something serious going, he finally struck gold. However, only a few weeks later, Marek was diagnosed with cancer.
– I felt double hit for this precise reason. I had known a few local guys who were into black metal before, but none of them adhered to its principles. So, meeting those two felt great; I’d finally befriended like-minded people capable of doing something instead of just talking about it. Joining that band was a huge deal to me, and then comes this blow. For the first few weeks, I was completely out of my wits. This was when I fully – in both heart and mind – acknowledged God for the first time. I screamed aloud in anguish: ‘God, you motherfucker, ye worthless piece of shite! Cunt!’ These days, I have a slightly different perspective on this, but back then it felt personal.
Were you afraid of dying?
– I feared dying before I’d accomplished anything with the band. That was my only concern. It might sound callous, but I don’t have mortal fears; life has always been a burden to me. I’d already been through some serious, life-threatening illnesses all through my childhood and teenage years… and then I get served this shit? I asked myself – in sheer amazement at first – ‘Really? As if life wasn’t miserable enough already?’ I’d say I was more pissed off than scared.
After a few tests, Marek learned that the tumour wasn’t fatal.
– Highly malignant, yes, but possible to control even without radiotherapy. But before this was cleared up, I went through a lot of confusion, anguish, anger and whatnot. Doctors, surgeons especially, are very brief and unhasty to divulge any knowledge of the situation. Anyone who’s dealt with severe health issues should know that reality is nowhere close to the one presented in House and other TV series. Anyhow, the actual surgery and subsequent weeks were truly brutal. The tumour was gigantic and there were severe complications, such as hepatic vein thrombosis: a serious issue very difficult to survive. I only found out about that much later, of course! But I persevered and went straight from the hospital to record vocals for our demo.
“Angel of Poison and Death” – CULTES DES GHOULES’ first official demo – was recorded in November 2005. Since Marek had been unable to rehearse, this was only his second-ever attempt at performing black metal vocals.
– The recording took place on a freezing cold winter’s day, inside a plain garage somewhere in the countryside. I was still in such poor health that I could barely stand on my feet. But it was also the first time I did something truly authentic. So, despite my poor performance, I have genuine sentiment for this demo. It has that raw and unhinged feeling!
I can’t imagine any thinking person undergoing such an ordeal without being deeply affected. ‘Death worship’ is one thing when you’re in your twenties, full of testosterone, with a life expectancy of an additional sixty years. But when it comes knocking on one’s own door, I’d wager things are put into perspective. Marek’s recognition of divinity would be one example, even if it was established on adversarial grounds.
– Oh, indeed. As we all know, people stricken with illness – terminal disease in particular – can transform in incredible ways. We hear such stories all the time, right? Life becomes brighter; they find the courage within themselves they never knew existed, a strength that inspires others and makes the world a better place. Well, suffice it to say, none of that happened to me. But, on the other hand, I didn’t whinge and moan very much either. A year or so passed, and I slowly recovered and eventually stopped thinking about the shit. I lived as if nothing had happened, with an appetite for life neither greater nor lesser. As for matters of the spirit… I didn’t consider myself a Satanist for many years. I tried earnestly to learn more about Satanism and black magic, yet I remained sceptical. It took me a long time to fully believe: to tear down the veils of doubt and immerse myself with heart and soul.
Was there a specific tipping point?
– In a manner of speaking. One night, my brother and I were prowling a local cemetery: our regular place of evildoings. It had become our morbid custom, so to speak. That night, we had the specific intention to break open only the graves of priests. Thoughts about confiscating rings or other pieces of sacred jewellery crossed our minds too. Unfortunately, we found nothing of value. A few of the graves were empty, one contained the rotting corpse of a woman, and when we finally came across a priest there was nothing but a shitty little cheap crucifix. The flesh on his skull was not yet fully eaten and I had no good hiding place for a half-decomposed cranium, so I took his fingers instead. Once done, we brought out some beers and started drinking. Suddenly, a strong gust of wind rustled through the tree branches and brought forth a whisper I heard clearly in my mind: a murmur of many different voices mingling into one angry lamentation… ‘Leave us alone.’ I was puzzled, to say the least. But at last, I’d been granted undeniable confirmation of the existence of ‘the other side’!
Did you come back?
– Yes, I did once alone and was almost caught by the police. And then one more time, much later, when we brought along a friend of ours who fucking dared and egged us on. I think he enjoyed what he saw – and touched? – that night, but he never spoke about it afterwards. Anyhow, it appears as if our disturbance of priestly tombs, carried out with pure and malignant intent, was too much to handle for the cemetery spirits. On that night, we perpetrated sacrilege and magical violence against the souls of Catholic devotees. The peasant servants could withstand our profanations for as long as we didn’t touch the ultimate taboo: the remnants of those who shepherd the flock, central figures in their superstitious lives. I paid for this with blood as I smashed my finger during the revels, but it was a small price to pay.
– It’s always great to learn about people without fear of taking things further, and for whom black metal isn’t just a music style. I’ve always been fascinated by ‘secret cults’, but there’s so little proof that it’s reasonable to dismiss them as mere fantasy or urban legends. I’m not talking about religious sects, but rather something else. I mean, serious people of wealth and higher ranks, bonded by fiery will and a taste for the dark and obscure… just like we want to imagine them, right? Whomever those people hinted at in your OTAL feature were, it was hugely invigorating to learn that satanic cults actually exist beyond artistic bohemia.
Come 2011, despite having released the debut album of CULTES DES GHOULES – “Häxan, …or Medieval Witchcraft and Infanticide…” – and working on its follow-up, Marek felt that his time in Poland had come to an end.
– I found myself in a pretty miserable situation, and my soul pined for radical change. So, when a Finnish acquaintance offered me a place to stay, I leapt at the opportunity. There was supposedly a job waiting for me, but – as things panned out – no such luck. Furthermore, the toxic air of the place I lived in didn’t exactly encourage me to stick around. So, one day I just booked a ferry and returned to where I started. Then, in the late spring of 2012, I moved to the Scottish Highlands where I lived and worked in a small village. It was a relaxing time for the most part. Except for the shitty job, obviously. That’s where I wrote the lyrics which later ended up on “Sinister”; I listened to a lot of DANZIG and THE DOORS back then, which is evident to me when I read them today.
During his stay in Scotland, Marek came into contact with T Kaos of LVCIFYRE – a fellow Polish expat residing in the United Kingdom.
– In the summer of 2013, Tomasz invited me to come by the studio where he was working on the second LVCIFYRE album, “Svn Eater”, and do some guest vocals. I didn’t think much of LVCIFYRE at this point, but my intuition told me to give it a try: good call, as it turned out. Not long after the recording, Tomasz presented me with totally different material – somewhat raw and unfinished songs that he’d shelved a while back – and asked if I’d be interested in helping him bring it to life. And this is how DEATH LIKE MASS was born. Much later, I moved down to the south of England, and it turned out that we resided in relative proximity to each other. So, we started working more closely together and eventually became good friends.
Besides DEATH LIKE MASS, the pair also collaborate on a black metal project called SODALITY: Mark of the Devil on vocals, T Kaos handling all instruments. Marek’s multifaceted oration is one of several aspects that make CULTES DES GHOULES – and any other band he lends his talents to – so unique. His voice is often more of a guttural snarl or manic ranting than outright screaming. Occasionally, he reminds me of Karl NE on NÅSTROND’s “Toteslaut”. When I discussed this with Karl, he told me those vocals were more influenced by old horror films than contemporary metal.
– To be honest, my main inspirations were always musical. That said, I’ve long been fascinated with Gary Oldman’s performance in the opening scene of Bram Stoker’s Dracula: the one where he renounces God and commits blasphemy. The way he utters, or rather spits out, his curse never fails to send shivers down my spine. Another lodestar can be found in The Exorcist – namely, the voice of possessed Reagan, courtesy of Mercedes McCambridge. Now that was a channelling of true evil, filled to the brim with ancient wickedness! And what an effort to perform it; the backstory is impressive in and of itself.
According to a documentary called The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist, the McCambridge performance came at quite a cost. To produce that ravaged, rasping voice, she started chain-smoking and gurgling raw eggs. She also broke her sobriety by chugging straight whisky. To further immerse herself in the role of a demon trying to break free from its constraints, she asked the director to have her tied to a chair. On a related note: after listening to CULTES DES GHOULES’ 2016 album “Coven, or Evil Ways Instead of Love” while reading the lyrics, I asked Marek if he’d ever trained as an actor. He sounded perplexed at the mere notion. Surely, I cannot be the first to have asked? I mentioned this to T Kaos, who said he’s constantly blown away whenever Marek guests LVCIFYRE on record or on stage. T added that he’s been badgering Marek to sign up for some kind of drama school, but this advice was never taken seriously. It is never too late to play the Dane!
– I’d rather play Caliban, if only fate had me do it. But yes, as a matter of fact, you are the first person to ever ask me this. Tomasz’s remark meant to me no more than that he was pleased with my performance in the “Svn Eater” video. And no, acting classes are unlikely to happen because I lack one basic skill required of any prospective thespian: the ability to memorise long texts in a short amount of time. I’m not cut out for that kind of thing.
T Kaos also revealed that Marek is a huge Shakespeare aficionado. That made perfect sense to me, as this influence is clearly visible in the theatrical flair of “Coven”. Most black metal lyricists try to sound more like John Milton, Charles Baudelaire, or the Book of Revelation, whereas this prose has a decidedly different air of drama.
– Thanks a lot for that! The lyrics have always been the most important aspect of my contributions to this band – more so even than the vocal delivery. Shakespeare is very inspiring; he teaches me this archaic language that adds some charm to our albums. I have entertained an ambition to read his collected works for some time now but not yet succeeded. As for the other well-known authors… huh? I’ve tried to sound like them as well, but perhaps that’s more evident in other projects. My lyrics for CULTES DES GHOULES were influenced by a wide range of sources. On “Henbane”, I wanted to write something in the vein of Polish cult band KAT, but we were also obsessed with the likes of ELECTRIC WIZARD, THE DEVIL’S BLOOD, and BLACK SABBATH. It was yet too early for my proper acquaintance with the Earl of Oxford.
While Shakespeare might not have exerted much influence over the lyrics, “Henbane” still bears his unmistakable mark. The intro to “Passion of a Sorceress” contains a sample which clearly comes from a film adaptation of Macbeth – though I don’t recognise which one.
– You were right to discern the three witches – they are the Weird Sisters in the opening act of Macbeth. The scene can be found in an English-American movie from 1971, directed by none other than Roman Polanski. The fact that Mr Polanski has become a victim of the recent moral purging witch-hunt lends a lot of additional weight to this record, and “Passion of a Sorceress” in particular. Crush the feminism and #metoo; great artists and true kings of life should never have to answer to the mob.
I’m assuming you’ve seen the Orson Welles version?
– The one from 1948? Yes, I watched it recently and, in my opinion, it hasn’t aged very well. Although I suppose the same could be said about Polanski’s film. I liked a lot of the experimental scenography though, and Welles made for a great Macbeth. However, certain other actors seemed to me like a joke, and I wasn’t fond of Lady Macbeth. Of course, nothing beats the Macbeth adaptation from 2015, directed by Justin Kurzel. For comparison, watch the monologues of Lady Macbeth, portrayed here by Marion Cotillard. I get goosebumps every time! Cotillard looked the most evil out of all the witches in that story: almost like Hecate herself.
I was also reminded of another cinematographic classic that I suspect Marek might be familiar with: Warlock, a witchcraft-themed horror film from 1989.
– Yes! Warlock is such a great movie. I still vividly remember some of those scenes – as if I saw them one year ago, not twenty-five. And this is rare in my case. So yes, it could very well be that the protagonist so brilliantly portrayed by Julian Sands influenced me in some ways. In addition, I’ve always been inspired by KAT, who sparked my witchcraft obsession in the first place. Back then, my primary interest was in the philosophical aspects of the witch. One question that would drive me was what a witch can symbolise today and how it relates to the work of CULTES DES GHOULES. I wanted to explore the darker aspects of the archetype, which became the central theme of the first two albums.
How much historical research did you do?
– For “Häxan”, I did no research: it was all intuitive, resulting from our fixations and desires around that particular period. Machine wrote two of the lyrics. However, I did some reading in preparation for what became “Henbane”. Online mostly – there wasn’t anything especially interesting in Polish back then, and English books were beyond my reach. That’s how I came across an essay about a henbane ointment used by witches of old times in a kind of masturbation ritual, and it was like a revelation to me.
This salve is often referred to as a ‘flying ointment’. Henbane, Hyoscyamus niger, is a plant from the nightshade family. Essentially all psychoactive nightshades have historical connections to witchcraft and sorcery. Peruvian-American anthropologist Carlos Castaneda recalls in his 1968 book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge how an indigenous sorcerer taught him to make a preparation from Datura stramonium. When applied, it induced an out-of-body experience during which he turned into a crow. Highly convincing perceptions of flying or taking animal form are characteristics of the deliriant tropane alkaloids associated with nightshade plants, as are sexual elements. In Magia Naturalis, a renowned work of popular science from 1558, Italian scholar Giambattista della Porta describes how a witch offered him a demonstration of flying salve. After rubbing herself all over, she fell into a deep sleep-like trance lasting for hours. Upon returning to sentience, the witch refused to believe that her body had not left the ground; she was convinced that she’d been flying. After studying the ingredients, della Porta attributed these sensations to the presence of nightshades. Several hundred years later, a German folklorist named Will-Erich Peuckert – professor at the University of Göttingen, recognised as a pioneer in European ethnology, and by all accounts an overall serious person – followed della Porta’s recipe and tried it out on himself. In his 1960 paper Hexensalben, he wrote:
We had wild dreams. At first, horribly distorted faces danced before my eyes. Then I suddenly had the feeling that I was flying through the air for miles. The flight was repeatedly interrupted by deep dives. In the closing phase, there was an image of an orgiastic party with grotesque sensual excesses.
– It might be common knowledge these days, but back then it appeared to me like a sign. Hence the album title. It was like a spell had been cast, or an invitation of sorts… and sure enough, I received a gift from some Spanish witches: a vial of henbane in a creamy substance, something you apply to your body parts. So, one night when I had the place to myself, I proceeded in the way I had understood it – the main difference being that I brought my own rod, so to speak. I tried two or three times but never felt any effects.
Applying henbane salve directly to the skin can have medicinal properties in the form of pain relief for aching joints. However, if the compounds don’t enter the bloodstream, the alkaloids never reach the brain. Therefore, this method is non-psychoactive. Taking henbane orally as a tea infusion will generate strong deliriant effects but also various physical discomforts such as intense abdominal pain: a side effect of the liver processing scopolamine. One way to circumvent this is to absorb it either through one’s sweat glands – like the temples and armpits – or the mucus membranes of the anus and vagina. Presumably, this is where Marek fell short.
– Hm, do you think this is why it didn’t work? Does it make much difference rubbed onto a cock instead of a cunt?
It makes all the difference. The penis is neither a sweat gland nor a mucus membrane, so the salve must be applied to the rectum, armpits, or temples. This technique appears to have been known in 1324 already, as it’s mentioned in the first criminal case for witchcraft in Ireland. When Lady Alice Kyteler’s fourth husband died under mysterious circumstances, authorities accused her of witchcraft. She fled the country, but the investigation produced forensic evidence: an alleged flying ointment hidden in a closet. According to the confessions of the lady’s servant, her mistress ‘greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.’ Theologian Jordanes de Bergamo notes in his 1470 book Quaestio de Strigis (‘Inquiry into Witches’) that it is widely known from confessions that witches, on certain days or nights, ‘anoint a staff’ and ride it to the sabbath, or ‘anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places’.
– I see. I’ll have to make another attempt if the opportunity arises, then. As I said, I didn’t have access to much reading material back then. It wasn’t until I moved to England and started researching new CULTES DES GHOULES lyrics that I discovered a brand-new world … hundreds upon hundreds of books and publications on witchcraft and black magic! That’s when I found that what I’d been looking for all along had a proper name: traditional witchcraft. I didn’t know that this tradition was so potent and alive today.
Traditional witchcraft is an umbrella term used for a number of present-day schools of thought related to European folk magic – cunning-craft is one such example. Some groups are drawn toward sinister occult spirituality, while others focus more on pagan, nature-oriented practices. I’ve also noticed how most adherents will be quick to point out that it has nothing to do with Wicca.
– I was aware of Wicca, sure, but saw it only as a positive, merry, pagan movement – and therefore nothing for me. Then, gradually, I discovered a wider and darker world of diabolical currents utilising sorcery, religion, ritual magic, devotional mysticism, gnosis, and ancient iconography. I guess the turning point for me was Children of Cain: a book written by the late Michael Howard, beautifully published by Three Hands Press. I am by no means an expert on the subject; it’s just that this dual-faith observance has resonated stronger with me than any neo-pagan movement with pre-Christian claims.
This was an excerpt from the full article, which is twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #8. The same issue also includes conversations with DESTRÖYER 666/BESTIAL WARLUST, AKHLYS, LEVIATHAN/LURKER OF CHALICE, BLACK WITCHERY, THUNDERBOLT, BLACKDEATH, MISÞYRMING, NORDVIS/ARMAGEDDA, MORTUUS, DÖDFÖDD/REVERORUM IB MALACHT, and OFERMOD.