Before starting, I would like to admit that I have felt pretty drowned by the wealth of pagan musical material out there. The cultural sphere that we could broadly label ‘contemporary neo-paganism’ is full of overlapping, confused and vague boundaries, syncretism, and a distinct sense of playfulness. I make some pretty crass generalisations here, and freely admit it: we’ve got to start somewhere! I do hope we can return to the neo-pagan world in future.
Hear me get lost in a mess of historical periods and re-interpreted symbols:
Paganism is a disputed term, but for our purposes here it can refer to the pre-Christian religious traditions of Europe. It was not a single, unitary religion by any means; there was a patchwork of slowly overlapping systems of gods and rituals and folklore, each of which was unique to its own local area. Some broad tendencies can be identified, however, including: polytheism (many gods and goddesses), nature worship (being connected to the land and attuned to natural cycles), and magical ritual (invoking the gods in times of need through symbols and incantations).
The pre-Christian religion of the Romans was also ‘pagan.’ Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire until the Emperor Constantine converted in 312; Theodosius declared it a Christian Empire in 380. Over the next 700 years the rest of Europe was ‘Christianised’ in a long and confusing series of missions, conquests and political intrigue. The rest, as they say, was history, with Christian hegemony dominating Europe more or less ever since – although things have been changing over the last hundred years or so.
In the mid 20th Century, especially after WWII, disillusionment with the traditionally dominant European cultural modes – be they Christian or Enlightenment-rational – was on the rise. Some people looked East (triggering a chain of events which has led to Buddhist Death Metal, among other things) while other people looked to the past: to paganism. They picked up ancient texts, looked to archaeological evidence, and reconstructed something approximating the old pagan religions. Thus, neo-paganism.
Neo-paganism takes many forms, and there is a real acceptance of individuality in neo-pagan circles, of the form, “I’m a witch, but if being a druid works for you, go for it.” Witchcraft is a specific subset with its own particular history. The dominant source of inspiration for contemporary witches is the Wiccan tradition, with its duotheism of the female (the Earth Mother) and male (the Horned God) divinities. Perhaps we can explore that in detail some other time.
Wendy Rule, born in Sydney but now a resident of Melbourne, identifies as a witch. She plays music for a spiritual purpose, to “bring us in contact with the Divine.” The song we played, ‘Elemental Chant,’ draws on ritual language to evoke a sense of mystical energy and power; when she intones the names of the four elements and says “I stand at the centre and acknowledge each quarter” she is drawing on imagery of the ritual circle that witches draw in order to make their spells efficacious. Wendy explicitly says, in fact, “My live performance is ritual.” She also brings a peculiarly Australian flavour to these ancient European traditions: she is pictured on her website with Uluru in the background, and in one song refers to “Artemis of the Eucalypts.”
S. J. Tucker seems to engage with the neo-pagan community more generally with some fascinating genre-confused music. In the song ‘Hymn to Herne’ she evokes the tradition of the horned hunter named Herne, who haunted (phew alliteration) a certain forest in England. (Here is another story about a man trying to find Herne’s Hollow.) In referring to him as the Horned God, however, she links Herne to a whole panoply of other pagan horned figures, from the Celtic Cernunnos to the Greco-Roman Pan, to the Horned God of today’s Wiccans. Unfortunately, many people today (Christians and non-Christians) tend to associate horned men with Satan; however the pagan imageries actually predate the depiction of Satan as a horned man. The ignorant accusation that neo-pagans are Satanists is, therefore, erroneous and offensive.
There is much much more pagan music out there than these two singer-songwriters can allude to. Perhaps in future we can explore the pagan metal of Inkubus Sukkubus, the syncretic magic of Faith and the Muse, or the electronic medieval sounds of Qntal. Until then, blessed be!
EXCITING NOTE: Steph Liong, my host on 2SER, is taking a much-deserved study break for two weeks, so I will not be on air again until June 14 (when we’ll be looking at Rastafarianism and reggae). Rad Religion will, however, continue unabated! Taking a break from music, we’ll be doing something visual – perhaps some experimental modernist church architecture. Same spot, next Thursday! And remember you can subscribe to the blog on the right –>