Browse through the 24-page booklet that comes with Wendy Rule’s new, double-CD, Persephone, and you may come across this lyric: “Oh, the ecstasy of being!”
What’s this? Has Rule, the Australian-born Witch and singer-songwriter-guitarist who relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2017, gone out on some New Age-y limb with fellow Santa Fe resident Shirley MacLaine?
No. That New Age-ish, light-worker proclamation (not that there’s anything wrong with that) is just part of the contradictory emotions writhing through the song “Ruby Seed,” in which Rule, as Persephone, sings over an echoing guitar reminiscent of U2 and a trance-inducing soundscape:
In the palace of the darkness, my eyes have adjusted now to see a light that glitters in the shadows. A ruby seed, a ruby seed, alive to the mystery of creation, the jewel in the hollow of the cave. A hunger blooms and I desire to taste, to taste, to taste!
A thousand seeds to feed my fire! A thousand mysteries to feel, reveal. A vivid darkness, a bright abyss, a brilliant shadow, a ruby kiss. A treasure was hidden and I found it, and now I will never be the same. Of all the jewels I have discovered, my name, my name, my name!
Oh, the ecstasy of being! Oh, the rapture of the flame! My body shining, my skin awake, a crimson diamond, a coiled snake.
Most people in the Western world know the tale of Persephone from, say, a class segment on Greek mythology in the sixth-grade, or from reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Like most myths, various versions exist, but the core tale is this: Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of fertility and the harvest. Zeus, Demeter, and Hades, the lord of the underworld, were siblings. Zeus secretly agreed to Hades’s request to marry Persephone, and Hades abducted her and took her in his chariot to the underworld. Not knowing her daughter’s whereabouts, the grieving Demeter allowed the earth to go barren, even though Zeus implored her to make the land fertile again.
Zeus realized the only way to make the earth green once more was to return Persephone to the upper-world. The supreme god decreed that, because Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds during her time in the underworld, she must spend six months of each year there, ruling that realm as queen beside Hades. And so that is how the earth came to have its annual cycle of summer, when Persephone returns to the upper-world, and winter, when the earth becomes barren as Persephone descends to the underworld once more.
Rule’s riveting, musical recasting remains faithful to the myth, but her heroine isn’t the Persephone of Hamilton’s retelling in her 1942 book. In Hamilton’s version, virtually no text is “wasted” on Persephone’s time in the underworld and her relationship with Hades – who, by the way, is not even cited by name by Hamilton. (Hamilton’s book does, however, feature an illustration of the god of the underworld kidnapping his obsession into the depths of the earth – a drawing that is bluntly captioned “The rape of Persephone.”)
Rule not only gives Hades his place, but she also casts Hekate, whom she calls “the ancient Lunar Goddess of Witchcraft,” in her tale.That’s not a move of poetic license by Rule. Rather, she has boldly, even ingeniously, aligned her Persephone with the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which was likely composed circa the seventh or sixth century B.C.E., and is thus the oldest known version of the Persephone story – and it’s also a version that features Hekate. (Hamilton’s Mythology also neglects Hekate in its Persephone myth – but so do many other retellings and encyclopedic summaries.)
Rule’s double CD – yes, call it a concept album if you like – is an exquisitely wrought, 24-track song cycle in which she sings the roles of the three goddesses: Persephone (the maiden aspect of the goddess), Demeter (the mother) and Hekate (the crone).
Rule’s now-earthy, now-songbird vocals, as well as the throaty Greek-language chant she channels courtesy of Hekate, wander above gentle folky guitars, moody soundscapes, ambient guitars, choral harmonies, tribal percussion, cello, vibraphone, and marimba – all of which serve this allegorical-mythological tale of love, lust, sexual awakening, Stockholm syndrome, motherhood, grief, rising feminine power and agency, and spiritual transformation.
Only occasionally does Rule wander into what might be called Loreena McKennitt territory: an uber-melodic, pop-folky vibe that tiptoes up to the mainstream and which could be termed “hit single” material in the world of Pagan/mystical/esoteric-alternative music. That’s the case here with “All as It Must Be,” a balled sung as in the persona of Demeter over gentle acoustic guitar, plaintive cello and marimba, and with the wistful “Eleusis,” another Demeter track.
More often, Rule is after bigger game on Persephone – and she succeeds magnificently. The themes cited above are served by the album’s rich, mystic-mood music, so much so that one almost wants to deploy the “o” word – opera – to describe what’s happening across these 24 tracks. Indeed, listening to Persephone makes one yearn for some sort of concert/opera/theatrical-stage-drama hybrid to be performed (hint, hint).
Any such production would be pointless if this music – 12 years in the making, Rule says – were not so arresting.
Timothy Van Diest, Rule’s husband, co-producer, and writer of the track “Hades,” is the sonic sorcerer who conjures what Rule’s website aptly terms “dark Underworld soundscapes.”
A “Greek chorus,” which ebbs and flows throughout the tale, is composed of five female singers from around the world: Callie Galati (Athens, Greece), Melody Moon and Talie Helene (Melbourne, Australia), Cyoakha Grace (Faro, Portugal), and Mauro Woody (Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA).
On “Underworld,” Van Diest gets suitably chthonic as the chorus sings over ghostly wails: “Here within the palace of bone, here the darkness rearranges, here the crucible of changes.”
Vibraphone and marimba may not get much exposure, or respect, in many musical genres, but Elissa Goodrich combines those malleted instruments with her tribal percussion to startling effect. Who knew that Persephone would take to vibes, or that the instrument could serve an enchanting role in spiritual-esoteric music?
That happens here on “Pomegranate,” in which Goodrich’s busy vibraphone (or marimba) and pitter-patter percussion dance ecstatically as Rule whisper-chants in English and double-tracks herself seductively chanting in husky Greek. “Out of the fruit the seed,” she sings, “Out of the seed the flower. Out of the flower the fruit holding the seed.”
Meanwhile, Rachel Samuel’s cello drifts like an empathic apparition across these tracks, shape-shifting from frantic mode on “The Panic” to achingly lovely on “Eleusis.”
As for Rule, her songcraft and voice on this, her eighth studio album, remain as witchy and beguiling as ever. That’s true whether she’s unleashing her enchantress-like coo, fueled with a delicious hint of ululation (one of her vocal trademarks), or channeling the low, throaty, incantations of Hekate.
Fearless prediction: Modern-day devotees of Hekate will be culling her tracks from Persephone to create what will be an amazing, soul-shifting ritual soundtrack. But one need not be a follower of Persephone, Demeter or Hekate to engage with this music.
“Oh, the ecstasy of being,” indeed – of being a fan of Wendy Rule, anyway!