Bang a gong: rock music rocks rituals

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TWH — Terry Riley, high priest of the Southern Delta Church of Wicca (part of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church), is preparing a Grease ritual for an upcoming new moon.

It will be a “special circle” that will have “a double high priest and a double high priestess so we can get both movies in,” Riley says with a chuckle. “We’re planning on using ‘Greased Lightnin’ ’ to raise the cone of power.”

Movies? “Greased Lightnin’,” that John Travolta song? Grease the movie musical and not Greece the birthplace of Aphrodite, Persephone, Hekate and all those classical goddesses and gods?


“We’ll be using all the characters from Grease and Grease 2, and we’re using the music from both of those to set up the circle,” Riley says by phone from Lake City, Arkansas, where he and his late wife, Amanda, founded their Wiccan church 25 years ago. “We’re getting a good response. Everybody wants to come out and see this.”

Using rock and pop music — the actual original recordings of well-known hits and not rock-oriented works by Pagan artists — is commonplace for Riley and for Jason Mankey, a Wiccan Witch who, with his wife Ari, runs an eclectic Wiccan coven and a Gardnerian coven in Silicon Valley, California.

Music by the Doors and AC/DC, plus the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” Fairport Convention’s “Come All Ye,” the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” XTC’s “Green Man” and even Nazareth’s “Hair of the Dog” (“Now you’re messin’ with a son of a bitch”) have been utilized by Mankey and Riley. Samhain rituals at the Florida Pagan Gathering have featured a recording of “Forever Autumn” by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, and a live performance by ritualists of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”

Such rock and pop classics are deployed just like any other music used in ritual: to set the mood and intentions, to evoke sacred space, to alter consciousness and to commune with the gods and goddesses.

Songs from the Doors’ self-tiled 1967 debut album are used in ritual by Jason and Ari Mankey.

Mankey experienced rock ’n’ roll in ritual for the first time 20 years ago at Pagan Spirit Gathering when it was held in the Wisteria community in Ohio.

“There was a guy there doing what he called the Jim Morrison ritual,” Mankey says by phone from his California home. “It wasn’t really choreographed to the music. He just kind of played the Doors in the background, but I really loved the idea and it stuck with me and I borrowed it from him. Being initiated into the Morrison clan, which is what he offered that night, I decided it would be much cooler if you synced everything that went on in the ritual to the music.”

For his Doors-oriented ritual, Mankey used “Break on Through (to the Other Side)” to cast the circle and call the quarters. He used “Hello, I Love You” to call the goddess. To call Dionysius, he deployed “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar),” a 1920s Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill work rejuvenated by Mr. Mojo Risin’ and company. Key lyric of the latter: “Show me the way to the next whiskey bar.”

“Everybody really loved that ritual,” says Mankey, who writes the Raise the Horns blog on the Patheos Pagan channel. “It’s a ritual about excess, and the Doors really fit the mood of that – they have this really sort of spacey and trippy sound. That was when I was first like, ‘Whoa, rock ’n’ roll can be really effective in ritual’ because it does create this mood and this soundscape and this texture that you don’t see in other places.”

Three years ago, Riley was “trying to figure out a way to bring in more young people to introduce them to the faith if they had an interested in it. I love Wicca. I love the old traditions. I love the chants and everything, but a lot of the young people, these are techno babies now. They’ve all got cell phones. They’ve got tablets. They’re into social networking and stuff. . .

“I wanted a way to try to relate to them beyond the traditional chants and the traditional stuff of Wicca.”

He had the idea that the Southern Delta Church of Wicca should do “a Rocky Horror full moon circle complete with costumes, characters, and the music,” he says. “I got to play Riff Raff because I was the oldest guy there.

“We had over a hundred people, and we did the cone of power to the ‘Time Warp.’ We had everybody there up doing the dance and sending out the power. Everybody had a great time. Everybody told me that was a brilliant idea.”

Terry Riley [courtesy].

More rock in ritual followed at the church’s circles, which are always open to the public.

“The songs that were used back in the ’60s and ’70s have a higher meaning if you interpret them in a different way,” Riley says. “Like ‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins: if you listen to that song and use it in circle, it’s perfect for a dark moon. You can interpret it as the lord of the otherworld talking to the soul of man just before he takes him on a spiral journey.

“I always tell people that if you listen to songs — especially the classic rock songs — as symbolism of a higher need, it’s usually the soul of man talking to the gods or it’s the gods talking to the soul of man, or it can be the gods talking to one another.”

When members of the Southern Delta Church of Wicca wanted to symbolically portray the great rite in circle, Riley and high priestess Ivy Moon danced to the Righteous Brothers’ 1965 version of “Unchained Melody,” which was revived in the 1990 film Ghost featuring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore.

“I came up behind her, wrapped my arms around her as the god, she turned around and we danced,” Riley says. “It showed the union and the love between the god and goddess. It was pretty intense. Everybody was awestruck by that. Of course, I’m a lot older than Patrick Swayze but I did a damn good job.”

In a summer solstice ritual, Riley’s oak king was represented by Nazareth’s “Hair of the Dog” as he prepared to battle the holly king, played by his son to the sound of AC/DC’s “TNT.”

A ritual invoking Aphrodite and Ares featured the latter singing “Bang a Gong” by T. Rex, with Aphrodite replying via Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.”

The Wiccan church’s “Roman version” of that same myth featured Venus singing “Venus” by Shocking Blue, while Mars sang “On the Dark Side” by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.

Jason and Ari Mankey [courtesy].

Mankey and his wife use the song “Green Man” by the English band XTC “in horned god rituals,” he says. “It’s otherworldly to hear this really well-produced, beautiful song about the green man. It just works really well.”

For a Samhain ritual, the couple set the mood with “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” by Sandy Denny. “It just seemed to sum up life,” Mankey says. “It’s such a beautiful, bittersweet song.”

The couple found the perfect song for Beltane and summer rituals with Fairport Convention’s “Come All Ye,” which features the late Sandy Denny on vocals and opens with the lyrics: “So, come all ye roving minstrels and together we will try to rouse the spirit of the earth and move the rolling sky.”

“Fairport Convention is one of the great, unsung, sort-of-almost Pagan bands,” Mankey says. “We’ve used other Fairport Convention songs. ‘Come All Ye’ has this great, sort of summer vibe and feel to it, and when you’re dancing around the maypole, you want something that’s going to make you skip and dance. All of the Baby Boomers love it because they know the song, but so many younger people don’t.”

Pagans aren’t the only ones to regard rock music in magical and mythological terms.

In Ray Manzarek’s 1998 autobiography, Light My Fire: My Life with the Doors, the band’s keyboardist recounts the Doors’ notorious 1969 Miami concert, in which singer Jim Morrison was alleged to have exposed himself.

Manzarek describes that night in stark mythological imagery: “It was now time for the blood sacrifice of Dionysus and his musicians . . . . The maenads caught the flying Dionysus and gently lowered him to the ground, whereupon he began to dance with them in a swirling vortex that shape-shifted into a snakelike conga line as Jim worked his way through the crowd, his followers behind him. . . .  that damned satyr was there, too, cackling and hopping on his goat hooves. What a night for that little beast. Exactly the kind of action he had come back for.”

In the mid-1970s, beat writer Williams Burroughs was asked to write about a Led Zeppelin concert for Crawdaddy magazine: “The essential ingredient for any successful rock group is energy – the ability to give out energy, to receive energy from the audience and to give it back to the audience. A rock concert is in fact a rite involving the evocation and transmutation of energy. Rock stars may be compared to priests . . . It is to be remembered that the origin of all the arts — music, painting, and writing — is magical and evocative, and that magic is always used to obtain some definite result. In the Led Zeppelin concert, the result aimed at would seem to be the creation of energy in the performers and in the audience.”

Riley sees no clash between melding traditional Wicca with contemporary rock in circle: “It’s an evolving and growing religion just like every other faith in the world out there.”

“I love rock ’n’ roll — not just the classic bands but things that are more contemporary too,” says Mankey, who notes Led Zeppelin is his favorite band. “I love to insert rock into ritual whenever I can. I won’t do it if it doesn’t feel appropriate. There are times when it works and there are times that it doesn’t work.

“You have to be really selective when you do it, because if you do it at the wrong time, everybody’s going to snap back into this reality and just kind of start singing along to whatever song is going on, or they’re going to look around bewildered trying to figure out what it is you’re playing, o it has to really fit. We’ve been really lucky in that most of the time it really fits.”