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The Sustainability of Music in Paganism

Author: Alfred Surenyan
Posted: June 20th. 2010
Times Viewed: 3,867

The Neo- Pagan Movement has now been active for roughly 50-60 years. The movement included the birth and growth of several different religions including Wicca, Feri, Reclaiming, Druidism, and many other traditions. Any type of organization, religious or non- religious that the human race participates has included many of their artistic values; and music is among them. Music has been a part of civilization since the pre- historic man. Man has been creating organized sound since the forming of the primitive tribes with rhythmic drumming, singing, and the use of many musical instruments. It is only natural that the Neo- Pagan Movement would include music in man’s religious practices.

This paper is the investigation and study of the sustainability of the music of the Neo- Pagan Movement under the classification of Pagan Music. Part of the study was to reach out to the Community itself in order to have a better understanding on the amount of practice of music that is involved in the sacred rites. A survey of ten questions was asked in order to get a complete picture on how music has been sustained in the Pagan Community. The general outcome of the survey (from 100 participants) was an interesting result that many Pagans make use of music in their sacred rites and rituals.

In order to truly talk about Pagan Music, a definition is needed. The definition could not come from my view only, so one of the questions in the survey was “What is your definition of Pagan Music?” The following definition is a culmination of this question asked to the 100 participants. Pagan Music is music that is used in Pagan sacred rites, magickal practices, or performance on the concert stage that includes themes and subjects of Pagan beliefs and Pagan theology or mood of the sacred rites, either instrumental or vocal.

During the beginning stages of the Neo- Pagan Movement, there was no original music composed specifically to the religious rites. Therefore, as in any practice, people of the religion took what they knew from their own background. They either took instrumental music that fit the mood of the sacred rites or reworked text of songs to fit the views and beliefs of Paganism.

Most of the songs used in the practice were Celtic Folk Songs with the lyrics switched to become a story, myth or a section of the sacred rites. Such themes would be about a goddess or god, the four elements, magickal practices, or songs in love and honor of the earth. One such song was Sidney Carter’s The Lord of the Dance. This song makes use of the folk tune Simple Gifts and originally meant to be used in Christian theology. With a switch of a few lyrics, it is possible to make use of the son in Pagan theology. This practice is not new nor considered stealing of copyright work. It is a practice of human nature since the early development of art forms. It was a normal practice of notable composers such as J.S. Bach, L. van Beethoven, and W.A. Mozart who took music that was already written and reworked them. Gwydion Pedderwen and Isaac Bonewits recorded several albums making use of folk songs with lyrics reworked to fit Pagan themes and beliefs. Gwydion made available The Lord of the Dance to the general public on his album titled Songs of the Old Religion. This recoding is known to be the very first available musical album within the Neo- Pagan Community.

The creation of original music was brought into the movement in the early 1970’s. Z. Budapest’s We All Come From the Goddess is one of the very first original musical works that has been passed down in the community and is now considered to be a standard. Though there were original works composed in the early days, more original works were written in the late 1970’s, especially with the first presentation of Starhawk and the Reclaiming Tradition’s first ritual in 1979 of the spiral dance. This ritual included original music titled Let It Begin Now. These songs were later available on recording to the public.

Another major creation of Pagan specific music in the 1970’s was Circle Sanctuary’s collection, Circle Magick Songbook. It includes songs used by The Circle group at many of their camp gatherings. It includes both original works composed by Tim Allen and Selena Fox and folk songs with reworked text. It includes the well-known song The Twelve Days of Christmas as The Twelve Days of Yuletide. This collection also has several chants that are used in casting the sacred space. A recorded companion audiocassette was made available that could be used in learning the songs.

Two other early Pagan musicians who recorded music specifically to Paganism were Lady Isadora and Todd Allen. Lady Isadora recorded three albums in relation to music about the goddess and the practice of magick. Todd Allen was among the first to record and perform music known as Pagan Rock. Many of his songs were in concern to the environment of the earth. He also recorded his own version of The Lord of the Dance. This recording includes a different ending creating an instrumental dance as a coda.

All of these were among the first practice of music in Paganism. The recordings by Gwydion, Isaac Bonewits, the Reclaiming Tradition and the songbook by Circle are the foundations and groundbreaking materials that influenced the creating of music specifically to be used in Pagan sacred rites. All of these works continue to be available to the present day on Audio CDs and publications. They are also readily found on the Internet.

In recent decades, more Pagan Music artists emerged and created various songs and chants. Many of these songs and chants were first performed and used at sacred rites during Pagan events and campouts. Many songs were created not specifically on the casting of the circle, but also on the honor and love of earth mother. Such songs as The Earth is our Mother was composed and performed in the continued concern of the environment, an important theme among Neo- Pagans. The lyrics of the song mention that we must take care of her because she is our home and land.

Charlie Murphy created the song The Burning Times. This song is in a genre known as “historical songs.” The song looks back at the middle ages and the history of the Witch Burnings. Later Isaac Bonewits reworked this song to be adapted to modern scholarship on the topic.

Chanting and drumming became a popular musical practice in the Neo- Pagan Community. Chanting has been a tradition of expressing spiritual beliefs of many religions; thus it became a standard among Pagans. Many new chants were composed during Pagan Camps, especially during Witch Camps hosted by Reclaiming. Ellen Cannon Reed also made use of chanting during her camps in the Los Angeles Mountains. Drumming has been a simple method of raising energy by the ancient Pagans and Mesa- Pagans, thus taken up by the Neo- Pagans. Drum circles and the use of drumming became a major factor in many sacred rites and workshops.

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s many more chants and songs were created. Sacred rites were using many new original chants as well as rhythmic instruments, including drums, rattle, and tambourines. Though this practice has never stopped, especially among tribal cultures of North America and Africa, it became a very popular form of spiritual practice among the Neo- Pagan Community.

Many public rituals started to arise and included both drumming and chanting. In the survey, more than 80% of the participants included answers with musical experiences during rituals. Several mentioned that music is an integral part of their tradition and make use of chanting. One survey answer was an experience where the ritual was practiced entirely of music and musical instruments. Less than 5% of the survey participants mentioned no experience of music in sacred rites or prefer silence during ritual practices. Many of the answers included the popular chants such as We All Come From The Goddess, Hoof and Horn, Ancient Mother, She Changes Everything She Touches and Kore Chant.

Another practice of music among Neo- Pagans is the use of pre-recorded music. Most of the music used was either Pagan specific composed music or Non- Pagan instrumental music that fit the mood of the specific ritual. Some of the recording mentioned by participants of the survey was Gwydion, Reclaiming Tradition’s Chant recordings, and Gaia Consort. Other sources of recordings were mostly Native American drum and flute music, New Age, World/ Ethnic and Ambient music. It appears to be a common factor among the Pagan Community not only makes use of music specifically written for Pagan Rites, but also anything that is pleasing and feels fit to the mood of the spiritual practice.

With the growth of Paganism and the growth of Solitary practitioners, many workshops and drum circles were created to fulfill the spiritual needs of these individuals. Many Pagan events such as Pagan Pride and Pantheacon included music performances, workshops for drum circles, chanting and instrumental world music. These workshops also include dancing and movement. These workshops thus created a learning center for practitioners to take with them into their own practice and sacred rites. Many of the popular chants that were composed specifically in Paganism have been taught during these Pagan events. These, of course, were done out of experiencing the practice just like any other oral tradition.

Pagan Music recordings and performing of Pagan specific music grew in numbers. Over the past 30 years many new names have grown into the Pagan Community. In the 1980’s notable performers such as Enchantress and The Moors recorded albums in their respective styles. Both of whom were known as Pagan Rock artists, building the style influenced with Pagan themes. Pagan musicians who now currently record are among different genres that emerged in the past two decades. Some notable artists are Wendy Rule, T. Thorn Coyle, Emerald Rose, Lisa Theil, and Hauk. Each of these Pagans who are also musicians create songs and music in their respective genres.

The creation of Classical Style Pagan Music has also been done. James Gagne (known as Seumus) composed two pieces in the early 1990’s. They are The Cantata for Beltaine and The Oratorio on the Charge of the Goddess. There has also been many other various Choral works created on the basis of Pagan Chants and influences of Paganism in various other original Choral works created in the past 15 years.

Pagan Music even was created for Children. Anne Hill recorded a companion Audio CD to the book she co-authored titled Circle Round. The recording includes songs and chants from the book. One of the songs Who Where The Witches became a standard among children raised in homes of Earth Centered Religions.

There are many published songbooks available with Pagan Music and Chant. Kate Mark’s Circle Song was published as a means of music for healing. This publication includes various standard Pagan chants: how to create a chanting circle using different movements and the use of musical instruments. An accompanying CD is also available to help in the learning process.

Additionally, Julie Forest Middleton has compiled and published several songbooks. One of her publications is Songs For Earthlings: A Green Spirituality Songbook. This is an excellent songbook with collections of standard Pagan chants, songs concerning the environment, and prayers and praises to the Earth Mother. The a cappella group, Libana recorded two CDs in the classification of Pagan music or Earth Centered themes. These also have accompanying songbooks. Circle Magick Songbook continues to be published and is available through Circle Sanctuary.

There are many others who have recorded but can’t be listed as it goes beyond the scope of this paper. However, there is many ways in finding Pagan Music. The main source is the Internet. Serpentine Music is a large distributor of Pagan Music. Other websites that include information on Pagan Music are Circle Sanctuary, Witchcraft Music, and Several podcasts have become available to the Pagan Community. One is the weekly show A Darker Shade of Pagan. Each week, this podcast features several different Pagan Musicians, Pagan Music, and Pagan related music. With a Google search, various websites can be found with Pagan chant lyrics and audio files. YouTube also includes many Pagan chant recordings and performances of Pagan music. With the Internet, any Neo- Pagan can easily find a song or chant that they can use in their sacred rites.

From these examples given, Paganism has created music to fit the artistic and musical needs of the sacred rites. As long as there are Neo- Pagans, there will be music accompanied to traditions and practices. This is a given. The classification of Pagan Music has grown, but yet it appears that it is still is in the process of developing. It is something that will not become “mainstream” with the current popular trends, as it does narrow down to a particular group of practitioners. This is no different than Christian Music, Classical Music, and Jazz. It is a style and classification that is contained within a group of listeners who seek out the music for their needs.

A Pagan Musician or Pagan Band is not part of this classification. Pagan Musicians do not necessarily record and perform Pagan Music, but also Pagan Music does not have to be performed nor recorded exclusively by Pagan Musicians. No matter how Pagan Music is viewed, there is a background of support and the community has sustained it. It has grown to a larger degree, but not beyond the framework of Paganism. It does however have room for further growth.

Pagan Music is not static and will continue to evolve as Paganism evolves. It well includes new concepts and materials as new evolutions are brought into the religious practices. It is the practitioner who brings the music into the practice. When a certain concept or idea or belief is practiced, artistic expressions are also brought into the system. Many Neo- Pagans are creative individuals. They will continue to bring in arts, crafts and music into their practice. Thus, creating a further growth to Pagan Music in Paganism.


Alfred Surenyan

Location: North Hills, California


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