The walls of the medieval castle flicker in the light of the torches as crowds mill across the courtyard. The smell of cooking fires and stew waft from the kitchen and another group of people in medieval clothes, some in chain-mail, pass me on their way to the tavern. I watch them descend the well-trodden stone stairs, then turn toward the tower, hoping to get a break from the crowd and a better look at this medieval market from above.
Taverns are not my thing, I can’t stand the taste of alcohol and find the smell of drinking establishments repulsive. But my companion grabs my arm and points to the stairs. “I think there’s going to be a band playing down there, let’s go.”
As if on cue a new sound joins the rumbling drums and clanging swords on the castle grounds. It is a sound I have never heard before, piercing, deep, demanding my full attention. A shiver runs down my spine, goosebumps appear on my arms, and my chest feels tight. Tears spring to my eyes and I have no idea why. I squeeze them shut, trying to get a grip.
Behind my closed eyelids a vision begins to form. My thoughts are pulled from the castle and its mountain, into a deep forest. I see a clearing and a group of people dancing around a fire. They look different, there’s something about their clothes, and the coarseness of their hair. They are not dressed in the usual mix of modern and reconstructed medieval garments. They are wearing leather, their hair is unkempt, and some are not wearing much at all. The atmosphere is joyous, ecstatic, wild. Most are dancing, some are laughing, and a few standing around with a reverent look about them as if they are listening to something only they can hear.
“This is some kind of pagan celebration”, I think, and shiver. I hear someone saying my name. I feel a pull on my arm and I open my eyes. It is my companion. “Why are you standing around like this?”, he demands, dancing from one foot to another. “Come on, hurry, there’s medieval bagpipes being played in the tavern, let’s see if we can get in!” As I let myself be dragged down the worn steps into the hot and smelly tavern, my mind is far away, in a forest clearing somewhere outside of time and space.
Since I wrote the first installment of my journey from evangelical Christianity to Paganism, I’ve been busy writing letters. I came out of the broom closet almost a year ago, but most of my family ignored it. A few weeks ago I received a scholarship to Witchcamp and got so excited I posted the news on Facebook. That’s when my family realized I was serious about “the Witch thing” and I have been corresponding with them since, writing and thinking a lot about my transition, apostasy, conversion.
There are many angles from which to approach the subject, and I find myself wanting to blog endless articles on theology, history, sexuality, culture, politics, psychology, and comparative religion, so instead I end up not blogging at all. I often think I should focus on the important things, namely theological issues, rational arguments. But they elude me. What I really want to write about is the experience that takes hold of me when I listen to music.
Every weekday I peddle my old school European bike over the busy streets of Oakland and the bike boulevards of Berkeley. In those morning hours, the sun on my face or the fog numbing my fingers, I feel alive. It is my devotional time. I listen to music and the world I bike through burst into color, the roses smell sweeter, the trees along the roads are greener, and I see the wonder of life in every bird that circles overhead and every smile I exchange with pedestrians. Sometimes I run energy while biking, from the sky overhead, dousing me and my bike, swirling all around. Often I wish I could let go of my handle bars, spread out my arms, scream, and give into the sensation of flying.
With each song that my mp3 player shuffles into my ears come memories and emotions. Lately I have been listening to a lot of medieval bagpipe music and I remember the first time I heard the instrument and the vision it brought that day on the castle, so many years ago. There was something familiar about those bagpipes, something that was calling me, a memory I wasn’t sure was mine. I would see that clearing in the forest again, but not for another decade.
I can’t overemphasize the importance music has played in my my spiritual journey. The idea that artistic expression can be a major factor for someone’s conversion is odd to me. In much of evangelical Christianity religion is understood to be about absolute truth, about being right, understanding reality correctly. Music is a means to an end, it is used to bring about emotional states during praise and worship, it is a vehicle for the message, driven home through repetitive lyrics with catchy melodies.
Most of my life I had a conflicted relationship with music. I gained a deeper understanding of music through marrying a musician. I learned how to play various instruments and began performing with my husband. As my ear for music improved, I became disillusioned with praise and worship songs and came to dislike most Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). When I no longer experienced the presence of God in praise and worship, I despaired over losing music as my gateway to the Divine.
In my marriage I learned to play the instruments my husband wanted me to learn, I played the songs he wrote, and I listened only to the kinds of music he liked. I had no idea what kind of music I actually liked. After we get divorced I wondered if I ever really liked music in the first place and decided I probably didn’t. Besides, it reminded me too much of my failed marriage, so I stopped listening to music. My world became silent and dead, and so did God.
It was my brother who brought resurrection by introducing me to the music of the German PaganFolk band Faun. I listened to the song “Rad” and suddenly remembered how music used to make me feel. “Tritt in den Kreis zu mir” – “step into the circle with me”. I had no idea what the lyrics meant, but whatever circle the band was singing about, I wanted to step into it! I desperately wanted to feel alive again.
I accumulated all of Faun’s music and had it been on a cassette tape, I would have worn it out over the course of the following weeks. Finally my brother and I headed out to see them play in concert and I dressed in my finest medieval costume, giddy with excitement. When we arrived, the scene was similar to the time I first heard the German bagpipes. Again, shadows were flickering across ancient walls. Hundreds of bodies were crowded into the courtyard of the ruined castle. Firedancers came on stage and the band launched into a song invoking Iyansa.
I had no idea what the invocation meant but the music grabbed me and I closed my eyes and let it carry me away. In my mind’s eye a vision formed and I was looking into a clearing in a forest.
Dusk is falling upon the forest and I see trees in a blueish green hue. The scene feels oddly familiar. I notice a group of people standing in a circle and it looks like they have built a fire in the middle. They look happy but solemn, as if they are about to celebrate an important ceremony or ritual. I feel guilty, I probably shouldn’t be here and I hope they won’t notice me. Suddenly I wonder if I am looking into the past. A woman with beautiful red hair jerks her head around and looks straight at me. My heart skips a beat as I hear my own thought ringing in my head: “that’s me!” and with that the vision disappears. I open my eyes and stare at the fire dancers.
It would be years before I’d dare speak of this experience but in the mean time I discover just how much I love music. Most of my collection falls into the genre of PaganFolk. I fall in love with Omnia, Damh the Bard, Sharon Knight, Woodland, and so many more. Through their songs I learn about mythology and Paganism. I start to wonder about the stories which inspire these artists and I yearn for the deep spiritual connection I sense in many of their songs.
One of Damh the Bard’s songs, Cauldron Born, becomes my anthem.
And see how the land is bathed
In silver hues
You feel so lonely
Come with me and let me show
There are others
Just like you
Who feel the powers
Of Earth, Sea and Sky
Of Dragon and Faerie
And Shades of the night
Hear the call of our ancestors
Of blood and bone
Of womb and tomb
And standing stone
Music becomes my sacred practice, my escape, my refuge, my mp3 player my most prized possession. Sometimes I sneak out of the house and stand under the moon with my headphones, mouthing each word of the lyrics, anticipating each and every note and letting the sounds melt into my ears and soul. Through music I enter another world, a world in which God is not far away, a world in which God is purple, blue, and green, and understands me, where God loves me just the way I am, where I am free from all the Dos and Don’ts and expectations of my Christian faith.
I listen to Druidcast and my fantasy world becomes populated with many other musicians, historical figures, Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente, and interviewees, Philip Carr-Gomm, Ronald Hutton, T.Thorn Coyle, and Jason Pitzl-Waters. I forget most of their names and I never look any of them up, to me they are characters in another world, not the one I live in.
Eventually I leave Christianity and convince myself that I don’t need religion. I live as an atheist in the “real world” and often visit my fantasy world through the gates of music. During a trip to Germany I get a chance to see another one of my favorite bands play in a church, the PaganFolk band Omnia. I dance between the pews and sing at the top of my lungs “can you feel alive today?”
After the show, I hang around to ask the band if they have ever thought of playing in the US, and to bug them about coming to the West Coast. When it is my turn at the meet and greet, I am prepared to keep it short and straight to the point, but as I am speaking, the singer takes my hands into his and looks me straight into the eyes. In that moment I feel a sadness come over me. I see something in his eyes, something I wish I had, an aliveness I am missing.
As soon as I am back in California, I call the one person I know who identifies as a Witch. “I can’t live like this anymore”, I tell him. “I feel so dead inside. I need a spiritual community. I am terrified, but I think I need to explore this Pagan thing.” He understands the fear, he was raised evangelical Christian, too, we even went to the same church many years ago. He tells me to read the Spiral Dance by Starhawk and look into the Reclaiming community.
I mention this to my housemate and she points out that it is almost the time of the summer solstice and offers to go with me to the Reclaiming ritual on the beach. On the day of the solstice, for a third time, I find myself in a circle of Pagans gathered around a fire, only we are on a beach, not in a forest, and most importantly, my eyes are wide open and this is not a vision. I think of another favorite song, Loreena McKennitt’s All Soul’s Night.
Figures dance around and around
To drums that pulse out echoes of darkness
Moving to the pagan sound.
Naked bodies sway in the firelight singing beautiful chants, the Goddess chant I know, and I am overcome with a sense of having come home. These are my people. This is my music!