Pagan Studies

Learn how Classical Music harbors subliminal and not-so subliminal Pagan messages.

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To Be, or Not to Be...PAGAN MUSIC

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

Now that I've given a brief synopsis of the Afternoon of a Faun and you've no doubt listened to or watched the video, I'd like to detour for a moment into a discussion about what makes music "Pagan or Not Pagan." 

What would make a certain kind of music Pagan or not Pagan?   There are two things that can be considered when it comes to subject matter in music: Textual references (such as lyrics, song titles, and instructions within the score) and secondly, the intent of the composer (as expressed through historical research of that composer and his or her colleagues).   Of those two things, it is now to determine whether or not the evidence suggests that the intention of the composer could have been to disseminate his or her ideas about Paganism, or to capitalize on a popular trend. 


    Toward that purpose, it is necessary to discover what it means for something or someone to 'be Pagan.'  The following is definition and instruction in the basic philosophy, morals, values, and theories which Pagans in general find themselves traversing on any given subject.    For the purpose of this work, 'Pagan' should be construed to mean pre-Abrahamic European Indigenous religion.  "Abrahamic" constitutes Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and their influences on various aspects of daily life.  European Indigeny is the concept of the original religions of Europe as practiced before Abrahamic traditions were spread. *  
    This is a topic that I've been struggling with writing about, and I think I've figured out a set of criteria, with the help of the Choir of Asphodel, as to what makes a particular type of music "Pagan". What I am trying to do here is define music from a "Pagan-centric" point of view, mostly as an exercise and a jumping-off point from which to describe just one way to view Pagan music.    I define "Pagan" as specifically European Indigeny as it has survived (or been recast, depending on the situation) past the fall of the Roman Empire.  Naturally, the viewpoint of this kind of Paganism is not going to be without its lacunae, in which case, surviving folk traditions and historical artifacts can fill in the contextual lapses.

    First and foremost, we have music that is 'by Pagans, for Pagans,' meaning, essentially, that pagans who are musicians (or vice versa) have written music for the audience of other Pagans with subject matter that directly includes deities, myths, and daily-life references specific to Pagans.  Secondly, we have "Pagan-friendly" music; music on the subject of nature, spirituality, and mysticism that is religiously non-specific yet the lyrics or title or end purpose of the song support ideals that are embraced by Pagans.  There is "Non-Pagan" music; music of other religions or traditions that either speaks to that non-pagan tradition, or that simply has nothing to do with Pagan morals, ideals, standpoint, deities, mythos, or daily life.  And lastly, there is 'Secular' music; music which speaks to the rhythms and activities of daily life and has no relationship with religious identity whatsoever.  

    Music that is 'By Pagans, For Pagans" is an obvious category for the above mentioned reasons.  The next category, "Pagan-Friendly" music, consists of music that is appreciated and ubiquitously sought after by Pagans for its content while neatly avoiding a "Pagan" public persona.   Loreena McKennitt and Jethro Tull are examples of this kind of artist, with Loreena McKennitt writing about Pagan sensibilities and stories in a medieval-celtic oevre, and Jethro Tull, a rock band with a lead flute, crossing the line into direct pagan referencing with their song "Beltane."  Neither artist has a distinctly "Pagan" public image, however, through their music they talk directly about things that are Pagan-i.e., Beltane being a Pagan holiday. 

    "Non-Pagan" music is not too difficult to define, but it can be a thorny one if the right words aren't chosen.  This category approaches 'otherness' from a Pagan perspective, and that 'otherness' is most often derived from the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  This often presents a catch-22, since a large number of Pagans today were raised in an Abrahamic religion and converted to Paganism at some point in their lives, and associate negativity and bad feelings with said origin religion.  Hence, this category covers music from the religions that are considered to oppose Paganism, and would be distinctly concerned with music of the Abrahamic religions.  Why not call this section "Abrahamic Religious Music?"  Partially because I am working with the concept from a 'Pagan-Centric' standpoint, and partially due to the desire of many Pagans to completely abort the Abrahamic religions of the world in favor of Paganism.  A good example of music in this situation would be "What if God Was One of Us?" by Joan Osborne.  In this song, we have an excellent theory presented, with lyrics that define the role of God in everyday life and takes that as seriously as it can go.  It's a song that many people relate to, but could potentially create tension if played at a Pagan gathering if the words weren't changed to reflect Pagan Gods and Goddesses, and couldn't easily be altered that way.

    "Secular" music is music that talks generally of love, life, happiness, going to the movies; in other words, 'Secular' music in this context refers to everyday life without religious referencing.  The stumbling block in this category is the occasional "my God" or "Oh God" in the ejaculative.  Does the reference to "God" count as an Abrahamic influence and therefore negate the neutrality of the song by indicating belief in divinity, or is it acceptable due to its ubiquitous usage making it nearly neutral in and of itself?  This is a question best answered on a case-by-case basis per song and with the artist's compositional intent and other works in mind.  "Tribute" by the band Tenacious D is a good example of this: they use "Good God" and "God lovin'" as an ejaculative to express frustration that they could not remember the song that they had played in a competition with "a shiny demon."  Can this song be construed to be amongst the Abrahamic religious songs?  It doesn't praise God or speak of any of God's stories, words, actions, or attributes, and demons can be found in many cultures across the world that are non-Abrahamic, and the intention of the lyrics clearly expresses that the song is about a song, not about a deity.  Clearly,  "Tribute" by Tenacious D is in the 'Secular' category, and further shows that in the end, the intention of the composer plays a very important role in determining whether a song is "secular," "Pagan-friendly," or "Non-Pagan." 

    This all having been said, other religious identities and their music will be only minimally cited.  That is because Ethnomusicology has a good handle on that topic for the most part and it isn't part of the definition of European indigeny that I spoke of earlier.   Even though music of the world does have an effect on Pagan music and the religions of the world have representations in Pagan practices, there are others who have written about these subjects in more detail than I can possibly go into.  Suffice it to say that here I have written what categories Music represents itself in as it is seen from a Pagan perspective.  While these categories are nascent at the moment, they will grow and change with time to include more and more information and criteria for assessing, analyzing, and judging Pagan music and will grow to include further standards by which we can do this. 


As a final thought, I bring your attention once more to "Prelude a l'apres-midi d'une faune" by Debussy.   We know now, after the last two articles, that the Prelude is indeed richly suffused with Pagan imagery and the concept of sex-positivity.   Whether or not a Pagan wrote it, it contains qualities that are conducive to Pagan culture today.    

As an afterthought, Mallarme was referred to as a Pagan by people in Debussy's circle. Perhaps they both were Pagan.  Either way, that will be the next blog. 

And will I talk about Afternoon of a Faun forever? No, but it must have its season. Allow me one more post, and I will turn to Opera.  Never fear; the Faun will definitely come back around on Beltane!  


*It should be noted that this is a topic of some heat within the Pagan community. I will be treating it with as much detachment as possible, as it is my belief that we will not receive respect unless we give it.

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Amarfa has been studying the occult, wicca, and paganism for 17 years and counting.  She has been a musician since age 5, studying first guitar, then accordion for 10 years, placing 2nd in her division in the 1995 ATARI/ATAM New England Regional Competition,  and has been studying voice for 9. She has directed small early music ensembles, performed publicly, and starred in local theatre works, particularly the World Premiere of Nightsong, a musical theatre piece with direction and book by Jon Brennan and music by Kari Tieger and Kevin Campbell, as well as composing a musical of her own and writing music in her spare time.

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