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When Pagan Music Isn't

I dislike the term "world music"; it's basically an inaccurate catch-all term used for Mediterranean, Asian, African, and often enough Latin American folk music in a culture where "folk music" is based on the folk music traditions of the British Isles and regions of France and Germany and maybe a few other "Northern Europe" regions.  But already, I digress....

I also dislike most "pagan music".  I've gotten very selective about my cheesy gothic pop-rock with my old age (no offence to Inkubus Sukubus fans in the room), and when your paternal grandfather and both maternal grandparents got off the boat from said Isles, your step-mother, who was not Anglo-Celtic in any ancestral manner, becomes obsessed with Irishness after marrying your father, and half your teachers feel compelled to tell you about how they felt when they say Michael Flatley in Riverdance, or that Michael Collins film, the Celtic folk-based filks that often uncritically dominate the pagan community get really boring, really fast.  To make things  worse, when interacting with "pagans" on an interfaith level, rather than other Hellenists exclusively, my opinion is not a popular one:  My religion encourages competition and bettering oneself --it is completely fair to offer a constructive critique of another's "musical offering" among Hellenists.  Many ancient Hellenic festivals featured contests where, yes, there would be a winner and sometimes even a clear loser.  I once hosted a Mouseia poetry contest where a participant later harshly criticised me in their own blog cos they didn't win for a very good reason --they submitted a very generalised poem of Olympian reverence, and the contest guidelines were for a poem dedicating a community website to the Moisai.  In what basically amounts to an experience-based community with a large interfaith focus, where the status quo is that all good faith efforts to produce something "good" necessarily produce only "good" works, the idea that some works are necessarily better than others will not make one many friends.

I may be an extrovert, but as a Leo with a necessarily high opinion of himself (save when the seasonal depression sets in during winters, but that's another story for another time), I'm OK with fewer friends I'll have regular squabbles with, especially when such "friendships" may necessitate me to compromise my ethics by either holding my tongue when I feel there is room for improvement, or apologise later because I thought highly enough of them to want them to do better.

So what was my point?  Ah yes:

I don't listen to much folk music, and most pagan music tends to be folk music.  I like Marc Bolan and David Bowie's "folk years", but more for who they are as musicians rather than the genre of the music.  Sometimes a musician can do no wrong in one's mind, where even at their objective worst, it still feels subjectively better than most other top-quality crap for the masses.  I've got the record Cass Eliot did with The Mugwumps, but the principle with Bowie and Bolan stands, because Cass Eliot was an amazing singer.  I like Donovan and Bob Dylan, but I'd argue that those two were more pioneers of "folk-rock", where British Isles and American folk music make clear crossovers with rock-n-roll and pop music and psychedelic sounds which sounds a lot more interesting to someone bored of the basic pub folk bands from Britannia and Hibernia's rocky and green beauty marks north of Europe's shores.  I therefore necessarily look for pagan music elsewhere, it sometimes isn't even explicitly "pagan".

Now, I do like Wendy Rule, she's got a foundation of folk rock and jazz, and tends to appeal to people who like Gothic pop along the lines of some of the moodier Siouxsie Sioux records as much as she appeals to pagans.  At one time, in her native Oz (er...  "Australia"), she seemed to be playing as many Goth events as pagan events. 

I also like Daemonia Nymphe, as cliche as that's starting to feel, being a Hellenist and all.  I've seen DN described variously as "ancient Greek music", "recon folk", "neofolk" and (shudders) "world music"1.  On that thread, I also enjoy me some Dead Can Dance and Sopor Aeternus.  Back on the folk-rock end of the spectrum, I also dig me some Waterboys, even if I enjoy making jokes about two things: 1) how much I like to scream at people for lumping them in with "Irish pop" and the like (not only do I typically just groan and roll my eyes, they're a Scottish band), and 2) how much I feel sorry for Mike Scott's Scottishness (which is more just an extension of how my humanoid meat-based house-mate and I make jokes about his Scottishness and my Englishness and Irishness at each-other)  But what about "pagan music" that seems... well... less pagan?

Here's a short list (very short, compared to my knowledge) of songs, albums, and bands that are ostensibly "not pagan", but entertain pagan themes to varying degrees of "informed" --sometimes, I've found the way these concepts are tapped into surprising, and yes, usually it's a fluke, but as far as I'm concerned, sometimes the Moisai just roll the dice when choosing a vessel.

XTC - "Greenman" and "Harvest Festival"

I've loved XTC long time --and I have a very interesting story of how I got into them, an incident that I've since become convinced was orchestrated by the Theoi, but that's another story for another time-- and yeah, these may be obvious choices, especially with "Greenman" having a clear British folk influence in composition, but with orchestration closer to English Art Rock.  Both really do feel oriented toward specific pagan festivals, and considering Barry Andrews (who later formed Shriekback, who also feature on this list) does seem to be some sort of pagan --though I've yet to see any statement from himself that confirms this, it does seem incredibly clear in his work.

Shriekback - Sacred City

If your pagan experience is distinctly urban --when you are most spiritually-aware in the cities, when you communicate with the cities in ways the pagan status quo advises only communicating with the countryside and forests, when you clearly recognise the spirits of a skyscraper and tube platform in ways most pagans simply cannot comprehend-- one thing becomes very clear, when listening to this record:  It's a love-letter to the city of London and its various spirits and local deities.  I feel completely confident in asserting that, if you consider your spirituality urban based (not necessarily "modern", and not necessarily "PCP", but intertwined with the unique energies and spirits and deities of cities rather than rural and/or "wild" lands), and you don't recognise this record, and especially the companion film, as one of the most pagan creations on a major label, you're probably doing it wrong.

Shriekback - "Nemesis", several other songs...

I can't just let Shriekback go with just Sacred City, even though it's the most clearly "pagan" offering from Andrews &Co., but "Nemesis", especially with their video, certainly entertains deliberately pagan imagery (indeed, Andrews has even admitted as much; and yes, he intentionally conflates the goddess Nemesis with Nemesis the Warlock from 2000AD, simply because "while she embodies an important principle, she doesn't have a nose like a harpoon" --that's not exactly saying that the two are one-in-the-same, but that the latter had more interesting imagery while the former fit the ideas in the song better), and several other songs by Shriekback certainly work for pagan purposes.

Paul Weller - "Pan", "Echoes Round the Sun"

I've always had mixed feelings about Weller's apparent conflation of Pan with Eôsphoros, but the song itself is quite lovely (even if the YouTube fan-made thing cuts it off early).  "Echoes Round the Sun" certainly has philosophically-inspired lyrics, and I can't help but think that the woman dancing in the video, clad in a voluminous chiton-like dress, is intentionally hearkening to Isadora Duncan --who had certainly been influenced by paganism.  There are a few more songs by Weller (including with The Jam and The Style Council) that dance with pagan imagery, but these two are my favourites and are probably the most clear in my inclusion of them on this list.

Makin' Time - "Two Coins For the Ferryman"

If you're familiar, even in passing, with Hellenic Underworld mythology, this should be really apparent.  This was written by Fay Hallam (the vocalist for this song and organ player for the band) and Graham Day, who at the time was in The Prisoners.

Julie Driscoll (singing for Brian Auger & the Trinity) - "Season of the Witch", "Wheel's On Fire"

Really strong covers of songs by Donovan and Bob Dylan, respectively, but I prefer these versions for several reasons, including the fact that I feel there's just something about these renderings that taps into the aura of the lyrics that the original versions did not.

Ray Manzarek - The Golden Scarab

Maybe I just know several Graeco-Aegyptians and a fair handful of Kemetics, but this also seems a pretty obvious choice, to me, cos the whole record is full of Kemetic and Near Eastern mythological references, as well as Hellenistic philosophy.  Sometimes it seems almost too reminiscent of Manzarek's time in The Doors (whose career was also full of paganish references, but I'm trying to steer away from anything too familiar to Pagan Square readers), and that's OK --it really highlights the fact that Jim Morrison wasn't the only important person in that combo (in fact, their biggest radio hits -"Light My Fire" and "Hello, I Love You"- were actually written by guitarist Robby Kreiger, but that's another story for another time).

Goldfrapp - Seventh Tree

Though Alison Goldfrapp herself prefers to keep her personal life private, a lot of fans feel that her music as Goldfrapp has referenced many pagan themes and symbols, and this is probably the album that does so most explicitly.  She does bring in folk elements, but for the most part, the album is firmly in the synthpop subgenre of "dream pop" right alongside Saint Etienne.

Marc Bolan - entire career

From his Mod/proto-punk days in John's Children to Dandy In the Underworld, from every single Tolkein reference to random references to Beltaine, I wholeheartedly believe that Marc Bolan was the closest thing that there has ever been to a pagan superstar --in spite of no clear identification by himself with any pagan religion, but he also built up a self-"mythology" about having spent a couple years studying under a wizard when The Beatles and Pete Townshend were all about Eastern gurus.  He flirted with the occult and ancient myth and fantasy novels in a manner that was cute and mostly harmless about a year or two before Alice Cooper catapulted to stardom and made it scary.  Yeah, he had some straight-up folk songs early in his post-John's Children solo career (where the entire instrumentation was himself on acoustic guitar, and a lad going by the stage name Steve Peregrine-Took on hand drums), but after two records, he returned to electric, and surprise surprise:  The easily-argued-as-pagan lyrics stuck.  Moreover, the mythos around him keeps building, and many fans believe he had a strong premonition about key points in his career and even his untimely death --his final record, the aforementioned Dandy In the Underworld, includes a title track giving a reworking of the Orpheus myth.  I've also dedicated a festival in his honour as a modern heros, by traditional Hellenic definition.

1: Seriously!  Think about it --that term is utterly useless, and we should purge it from the lexicon.

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Ruadhán J McElroy is a Helenic polytheist recon (Boeotian traditions) currently living in Lansing, MI, and maintains a blog focused on Boeotian religion and his own Neo-Cyrenaic Pluralism philosophy that blends the fragments of Cyrenaic Hedonism, the pluralistic philosophy of Empedocles, and some proto-Hedonism from Democritus. He also writes a series of fiction focused on the Mod subculture, has a shop on Etsy, and occasionally works as a DJ of Mod Revival and Ska music.


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