All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.
For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means, and how to experience it first hand, involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.
The Magick of Pagan Music
As with every year, this year’s Pantheacon offered too rich a menu of workshops and performances for any of us to see all we wanted. This year I was lucky. Several of my favorite Pagan singers (and wonderful people as well) offered back-to-back performances, and I was able to see them all. Ruth Barrett and Holly Tannen were prominent Pagan minstrels and bards when I first entered our community back in 1984.
Ruth and her partner Cyntia Smith was among the earliest Pagan composers and singers, and Holly followed closely. She had inspired Ruth with her adaptation of Renaissance music to the mountain dulcimer, and Ruth later introduced Holly to Paganism, a mutual enrichment from which we all have benefited. [Ruth just clarified their relationship to me! 2/14] (For relative newbies here’s a good interview with Ruth that puts much of that in perspective. )
Celia Farran is one of my favorite new generation singers and bards. An evening featuring them all was a delight, and proof the musical and artistic talent in our relatively small community is deep indeed. The beauty and laughter these three remarkable women created prompted me to think and write about music’s important role in Pagan religion.
We Pagans overwhelmingly practice religions of experience, not doctrine. I think it has always been so and hope it always will be. Doctrine tries (and fails) to squeeze Spirit into a very small box while giving us an inflated sense of our own understanding. We are mostly free from that error.
Our workings, our rituals, and our celebrations work when they take us out of our daily awareness and connect us with a greater context, one many of us find ultimately redeems our suffering in a larger, more beautiful, sacred context. Whether we are Wiccan or Asatru, Druidic or Voudon, or some other tradition is ultimately not more important than whether we prefer the coast to the mountains. We can have strong commitments and respect others’ different ones. Nor is the fact that the person next to me might think of the Gods in Jungian terms and I experience them as more real than I am reason for concern. Do we work well together? That’s what matters.
To use a ‘60s term, taking doctrine and theology real seriously is “head tripping,” and while it has its place (and I think I’m pretty good at it), good ritual and experience trumps it.
We are more a religion of myth than of scripture, of poetry rather than prose, of body than of mind. Scripture rarely and doctrine never takes us farther than the words they are written in. They appeal to the critical mind that distances itself from the world and sees reality in texts. And reality is not in texts.
But (sticking with words for the moment) poetry takes us to the edge of what words can say, and then takes us beyond.
And music takes us there even faster. It seems to me Pagan music focuses not so much on a message, a spiritual lesson, as in giving us an experience. Barrett and her musical partner Cyntia Smith’s “Rolling World” was one of my favorite songs capturing the sense of Wicca, when I was a newbie, and it still is. Holly Tannen’s version of Heretic Heart was bracing medicine when I felt oppressed by how few we were and how many those who hated us. Their messages were great, the deeper experience they evoked even greater.
That musical experience can be humorous, cathartic, empowering, and in its most powerful forms (not good for public concerts) trance inducing. Celia’s "Symbol" probably speaks to every contemporary Pagan’s experience in beautiful, moving, and empowering ways. Her “Please Bless this Place” is magickal music at its best. Ruth Barrett’s “We are the fire” captures the feel of many of the best circles in which I have participated. (This link opens to a small but beautiful portion of her many songs.)
Of course good Christian music can do the same. I love my favorite Christmas music. But theology and scripture gets in their way. Too many of the words of Handel’s “Messiah” are about killing. I would prefer much of it sung in a language I did not know.
We don’t have that problem.
And then there is the role of sacred humor, so absent in monotheistic musical traditions.
Coyote and sacred clowns have long been central to many Native American Pagan traditions. The Wiccan Goddess tells us both “reverence and mirth” are Her rituals. And these singers of the sacred participate with gusto. Holly Tannen, who describes herself as coming from “Mendonesia with her half-astral entities” and Celia’s Trestlefoot fairy are in this tradition. Holly's Rime of the Ancient Matriarch combines reverence and mirth in wonderful ways.
Celia’s Trestlefoot fairy cannot be described, or at least I cannot. She can only be experienced. No video does it.
These women give us reverence and mirth.
Music is a constant in every society, and the loss of Pagan music from our past is one of the greatest tragedies arising from over 1000 years of suppression by Christian churches. Now we are beginning to rebuild it through the creativity of generations of Pagan singers and artists. At Pantheacon I got to hear three of my favorites and hope you enjoy them if you don’t already. But whoever your favorites are, please support them because like the rest of us, musicians need to have a roof over their heads and food on their plates. And when they are assured of both they can enrich our lives through their song.
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