How Music Shapes Paganism

Originally published on Witchvox.

I am proud to be a Pagan. It thrills me to hear the call of the Earth; I rejoice at being in the green woods of the Mother, of raising my voice with others who believe as I do. All things of the natural world are precious to me, and even though I occasionally get morose about what damage we humans wreak, I am glad to be one.

One of the gifts I hold most dear as a human (and one of the reasons I’m really glad to be one) is the power of song. I love listening to, and especially being part of, powerfully woven harmonies that lift up to the heavens themselves. Whether it’s a Handel run or a ringing barbershop seventh, it’s all sacred to me. I love singing Christmas carols and I won’t deny that if Roman Catholics had more really good music I may never have left the church (Well, it would have to be lots more).

I see songs as a way of defining a religion. The Christian hymns based on Gregorian scales say something very different than the tonals and percussion of sacred Islamic music. The topics, too, speak quite a bit about what a religion feels and how it wishes to be perceived. Most Christian music speaks of glorious communion with Jesus, with a fair smattering of strategies for casting out Satan, for example.

What then, does Pagan music say about Paganism? Well, we have a fair amount of music that’s used in rituals and generally for praising our gods. However, it doesn’t take much of a search online to find other songs, songs that are not based on the love and respect that I find important to my faith. These songs, rather, are built upon anger and hatred.

There is a good message in “The Burning Times” by Charlie Murphy. It is saying that the Goddess does not abandon Her followers. However, that message is at the end of a diatribe about the evils of the Inquisition:

There were those who came to power, through domination
And they were bonded in their worship of a dead man on a cross
They sought control of the common people
By demanding allegiance to the church of Rome

More derisive towards Christianity are such songs as “Be Pagan Once Again!” and “Bring Back the Snakes, ” both penned by Isaac Bonewits. The former is particularly chilling as it states:

Both Catholic and Protestant, led us round by our noses,
Distracting from the deadly scent, of England’s bleedin’ roses!
Kick every preacher ‘cross the sea, burn out their golden dens.
It’s the only way we’ll ever be free — let’s be Pagan once again!

Paganism isn’t a really a religion, in the sense the Hinduism and Islam are religions. Self-identified Pagans believe an incredibly diverse number of things, and any author that has tried to define Paganism is either forced to be so incredibly broad that virtually every thinking human is included, or narrows the definition in such a way that a group that identifies itself as Pagan is left out in the cold.

It’s perfectly natural to find ways to bring our community closer together, and since we don’t have the luxury of finding that common bond in the deity we worship, it’s understandable that we draw upon stories and documents from history to find that commonality.

But is anger the common bond that will draw us together? Hatred about acts committed centuries ago? Is this one of the Five Pillars upon which Paganism will stand?

There are innumerable instances of persecution against Pagans in the modern day. Such acts are offensive and it’s a good thing to work towards a time when the US military acknowledges the pentagram on veterans’ headstones and children are not taken from parents because of their religious beliefs.

But ask yourself, if you were a devout Christian and heard the verses I quoted above, would you think of Paganism as a threat? Certainly you would, and with good reason!

Songs serve as our emissaries and diplomats, and these old ditties are not serving us terribly well. How Paganism is perceived by the world at large is shaped by how Pagans act, the art they create, and the way they relate to the members of other faiths. Is it possible that the perceptions we create for ourselves lead to these misunderstandings? I think it would be naïve to think not.

I understand that the songs I reference here are not recently scribed, but they are still being performed. These songs, and others like them that seek to cast blame upon Christians for the plight of the Pagans of old, is as specious as the argument that war is good for the economy, and as vindictive as the Christians themselves casting out Jews because some of their number crucified Jesus two millennia ago.

Unspeakable crimes have been committed by groups of humans upon other groups of humans since before recorded memory. Genocide and torture, slavery and disenfranchisement, rape and swindling are all part of the lowest levels that human beings can sink to in dealing with one another.

Do I bear the karmic responsibility for white people who enslaved Africans, or for men that subjugated women? Is it my responsibility to atone for the sins of all Europeans that brought disease and murder to North America? Of course not!

My job is to see that such acts are not committed again if it is within my power. I should not remain silent and allow the Holocaust or other genocide to occur. But I don’t see how having a foaming rage over heinous acts committed against alleged Pagans six centuries ago is going to help me be a moral and caring human being. Instead, it’s more likely that it will foment unreasoning hatred in me, and make me more likely to heap abuse upon the descendants of those criminals using acts no less despicable.

I prefer not to walk that fine line between moral outrage and immoral vengeance.

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