The Forgotten Mother of Metal Music and Birth of the “Devil’s Horns”
It’s summer still, but many, including myself, already have Halloween on the mind. Disneyland has released tickets for the after-hours party, Universal Halloween Horror Nights has announced their new mazes and some stores already have Halloween decorations in stock, and me? Well, I’m working on what songs from my spooktacular playlist I’m going to share with you next. And I decided to give you a little early bonus post to ease you into the the Halloween season!
At some point we’ve probably all thrown up the “Sign of the Horns” also known as the “Devil’s Horns.” You know what I’m talking about, extending your index finger and pinky finger while using the thumb to hold down the middle and ring fingers. Maybe you were at a concert or just rocking out in your car. But have you ever given thought to just where it came from? While the sign has similar imagery and symbolism within various religions and cultures, it is most often associated with rock, metal, and Satanic music. But who was the first person to bring this icon to the stage? It may surprise you, it was a woman with an opera background.
Born Friday, January 13, 1950, in Indianapolis, Indiana, Esther “Jinx” Dawson came from a wealthy family that can trace their heritage back to the Mayflower. Her family’s wealth meant a childhood of many homes, and ballet, piano, opera, etiquette, painting, and hunting lessons, oh, and occult lessons too, as her family were actively part of the Left Hand Path. She also she grew up around those who practiced Hoodoo and Obeah. “My world was a mix of post-Victorian and the wealthy country club set,” Dawson said of her childhood. As a teenager, her vocal talents were so good that she received an opera scholarship.
In 1967 she formed the band Coven with Greg “Oz” Osborne (not to be confused with Ozzy Osborne) and Steve Ross, and they began performing on stage as the opening acts to The Yardbirds, Alice Cooper, and Vanilla Fudge. Their performances, described as a “morbid, gothic rock opera” by Dawson, featured intense theatrics, including having a roadie attached to a cross that would become inverted by the end of the show.
Primed to release their first album, Coven was signed to Mercury. When they arrived to sign their contract, Dawson said her and her bandmates rejected the studio provided red felt-tip pens, and sliced open their own wrists to sign the contracts with their own blood, showcasing how seriously they took their work.
In August of 1969 Coven released their debut album, Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls, the year before Black Sabbath would usher occultism into mainstream rock music. The cover featured Dawson and her bandmates, as well as a human skull. Opening the album provided what was most certainly a shock to some, a nude Dawson sprawled across an altar with robed men around her, many with their hands raised in the “Devil’s Horns.”
With songs like “Black Sabbath” and “Pact with Lucifer” Witchcraft is a dark and moody album of the pre “Parental Advisory” days. The exact genre of the album is hard to pin down (iTunes classifies it as metal). However I would say the album is a bizarre mix of psychedelia, blues, and rock, which then ends with a 13 minute recording of a Black Mass, the only studio recording known to exist. Later, Dawson said that the Black Mass was edited, as the studio supposedly feared its power would “fall into the wrong hands.”
The same month as Witchcraft‘s release, the Tate-LaBianca murders occurred under the instruction of cult leader Charles Manson and in March of 1970 Esquire ran an issue featuring multiple articles about Manson and the occult. In a short article titled “The Style of Evil” a “[Sunset] Strip hippie” mentioned bands that are into he occult, “The Stones are the heaviest into Satanic stuff…Have you heard of this new album? It’s called Witchcraft. ‘Destroys minds and reaps souls’ it says on the jacket…full of Black Mass stuff.” The following page featured full page photograph of a Black Mass ceremony akin to the image in the album. Then a photograph of Manson holding Witchcraft outside of Tower Records supposedly surfaced, although I could find no such photo in my digging. Together it was enough for Mercury to pull the album from shelves, concerts were cancelled, and, depending on the source, either the label dropped Coven, or Coven walked away, but not before burning their contracts at the studio office. Dawson said they took the ash and drew crosses on the foreheads of secretaries and such a mess was made that the carpet had to be replaced. Later on Dawson would blame Manson for the downfall of Coven, saying “[Manson’s] unnecessary blood party hurt our mission.”
Coven went on hiatus in the mid-1970s, and Dawson did clothing work for music legends such as Jimmy Page, Cher, and Michael Jackson. She soon recorded the song “One Tin Soldier” for the film Billy Jack, which proved to be a hit, and Dawson used its success to revive Coven and release two more albums before dispersing again. In 2013 Dawson brought Coven back to life again, and even released another album, titled “Jinx” and began to tour.
Meanwhile Black Sabbath began to enjoy an immensely successful career, even though when reviewing their 1970 debut album, Lester Bangs said that they were trying to be “England’s answer to Coven.” However Bangs went on to say though that Sabbath’s album “has nothing to do with spiritualism [and] the occult.” In 1979 Ronnie James Dio joined Black Sabbath and began using the “Sign of the Horns” on stage. When questioned about Coven in a 1986 interview Black Sabbath band member Tony Iommi claimed to have never heard of the band or the album. Later on Gene Simmons of Kiss would also lay claim to the “Devil’s Horns,” going as far as to try to trademark it. Dawson wasn’t too happy about Simmons’ trademark attempt. Taking to Coven’s Facebook page, she threatened to sue and pointed out Simmons does it incorrectly, and that his version is “I love you” in American Sign Language.
As time went on the “Sign of the Horns” became more and more present at rock and metal concerts without any recognition of Dawson’s influence. This could be because of Coven’s lack of commercial success or because rock and metal is very testosterone heavy. But at the end of the day Coven did it all before Black Sabbath or Kiss. Dawson said she started to do it during performances, and that it was a sign she learned growing up from her Left Hand Path family. Additionally, the Witchcraft artwork shows the band members using the “Sign of the Horns” clearly showcasing their initial use of it prior to Black Sabbath or Kiss.
Unlike many metal bands, where their interest in the occult is more about showmanship and shock factor, for Dawson it was always real. When Coven made a comeback in 2013 Dawson said she had to “conjure up some tricky Magick for the 2013 album.” But is she actually a Satanist? Dawson says no, “I wouldn’t say I’m a Satanist. To Left Hand Path people Satan is more like a mascot. And to scare people. But it’s not the same thing. They don’t believe and I don’t believe in a real Satan.” Additionally, on more than one occasion, Dawson has said that Witchcraft was suppose to be a “scholarly work” going as far as to also say “it really was not meant to be a band like other rock bands. It was meant just for the stage, a sort of rock opera situation, because I had come out of extensive opera training.”
So, next time you’re rocking out and throwing up the “Sign of the Horns” give a little recognition to Jinx Dawson. Also do yourself a favor and add some Coven’s numbers to your Halloween playlist. My favorite is “White Witch of Rose Hall.” And stay tuned for my annual Halloween playlist post sometime soon!
Bangs, Lester. “Black Sabbath.” Rolling Stone, 17 September 1970. Accessed 21 July 2021.
Coven. “Making of Witchcraft.” Witchcraft, Mercury, 1969/2015.
Heigl, Alex. “The Overwhelming (and Overlooked) Darkness of Jinx Dawson and Coven.” People, 26 October 2016. Accessed 21 July 2021.
Herron-Wheeler, Addison. “Coven’s Jinx Dawson on 50 Years of Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls.” Kerrang!, 15 June 2019. Accessed 21 July 2021.
Ludwig, Jamie. “Shocking Omissions: Coven’s ‘Witchcraft Destroys Mins & Reaps Souls.” NPR, 25 October 2017. Accessed 21 July 2021.
Sadler, Darren J. “Coven Interview: ‘Life is All About Sexuality.'” Iron Fist Heavy Metal Magazine, 5 October 2016. Accessed 21 July 2021.
Selzer, Jonathan. “Occult rock pioneers Coven return: ‘We thought people were going to kill us!‘” Metal Hammer, 12 July 2017. Accessed 21 July 2021.
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One comment on “The Forgotten Mother of Metal Music and Birth of the “Devil’s Horns””
Tremendously interesting and informative post, Janey. I knew a bit about the background here, but nothing compared to the wealth of knowledge you’ve shared with us. I will think of this post now each time I see someone make the devil’s horn sign.
Autumn Zenith 🎃 Witchcrafted Life
PS: Happiest t-minus two months until All Hallows’ Eve wishes!