TWH — During a 2002 concert in Daytona Beach, Fla., by Tool, that esoteric prog-metal band, I found myself shapeshifted. “I would totally trance-journey to the underworld if this was played at a Samhain ritual!” I thought. Similarly, while listening to a CD by Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, I realized: “Wow, this music would blow up my crown chakra at a Beltane celebration!”
Such has been my reaction to hearing live and recorded music many times during the two and a half decades that my Pagan path has coincided with my career as an arts, entertainment and music writer at daily newspapers. Non-Pagan music (however one may define that nebulous term) can unexpectedly transport one into Pagan space-time. With that in mind, here’s a look at five music albums for Pagans by non-Pagans.
TWH — “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” the mischievous sprite Puck says to Oberon the faerie king in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare was no fool when it came to incorporating the magical and astrological worldviews of his time into his immortal works. That’s the premise of the fascinating, exhaustive (but not exhausting) book Shakespeare and the Stars: the Hidden Astrological Keys to Understanding the World’s Greatest Playwright (Ibis Press, 547 p.) by professional astrologer and English literature teacher Priscilla Costello. Costello weaves not just astrology but extensively-researched aspects of the Elizabethan worldview, Renaissance magic, ancient history, mythology, modern psychology, and more into her examination of Shakespeare’s works. While she discusses the bard’s plays as a whole, Costello delves deep into six specific works, including three of his most “magical” plays: The Tempest (with its story of the exiled nobleman Prospero, who takes up the magical arts and frees the air spirit Ariel), Macbeth (with its “double, double, toil and trouble” witches who prophesy Macbeth’s doom), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with its tale of a love quadrangle fostered by a quarrel between Oberon and his faerie queen Titania, and heightened by the errant spell-casting antics of Puck).
TWH — On the song “Descent to the Realm of the Dead” by the duo Nemuer, singer-guitarist Michael Zann chants and growls, “Ušellâ mītūti ikkalū balṭūti,” but only a handful of scholars in the entire world will know, without looking at the liner notes of the band’s new album Gardens of Babylon, that Zann is singing, “I will raise up the dead so that they devour the living.”
That’s because the Czech-born Zann isn’t singing in his native tongue, some other Slavic language or Klingon. Rather, he’s singing in Akkadian, the extinct language that was all the rage in Mesopotamia from 3000 B.C.E. to 1000 B.C.E.
Evocations of flesh-eating, netherworld denizens aside, Nemuer (pronounced Ne-moo-er) isn’t some black metal band. Instead, Zann and his mate Katarina Pomorska call themselves “an atmospheric dark folk duo.” Their bio proclaims that “in order to keep the atmosphere utterly immersive, they use solely authentic dead languages or lyric-less primordial chanting.”
Zann’s co-writer for “Descent to the Realm of the Dead” was some anonymous, ancient Babylonian scribe who carved the tale of the goddess Ishtar and her descent to the netherworld onto a clay tablet some three millennia ago. That song and the rest of Gardens of Babylon are certainly atmospheric and dark, but it’s the darkness of shadows and sorrow, of dread and the Dark Side of the Moon rather than something overtly sinister or evil – even if the band did use the term “Lovecraftian atmosphere” to describe some of their earlier work. Cross-breed the sound textures of that Pink Floyd classic with the mythopoeic world music ensemble Dead Can Dance, then mix in the story of how Ishtar, the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of love, sex, fertility and war, ventured into the netherworld, and you have an idea of Gardens of Babylon.
TWH — If Emily Dickinson, Anais Nin, Virginia Woolf, and Agatha Christie were Witches, they kept that side of their lives out of history’s spotlight, yet they and 26 other female writers are “initiated” into a coven in the new book Literary Witches: a Celebration of Magical Women Writers by poet-writer Taisia Kitaiskaia and illustrator Katy Horan (Seal Press, October 2017, 128 p.). Literary Witches is a charming (witchy pun intended) grimoire that weaves biography, recommended readings, Kitaiskaia’s prose poems and Horan’s moody paintings into a heady brew of brief, off-kilter but always evocative portraits of these writers. Refreshingly pan-cultural, Kitaiskaia romps across space, time, history, ethnicities and genres to anoint the famous (the aforementioned writers as well as Toni Morrison, Sappho, Mary Shelley, and others), plus lesser-known wordsmiths (Iranian poet Farugh Farrokhzad, Laguna Pueblo novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, and more). The foreword by Pam Grossman is not only engaging and informative itself, it also is essential to this book. Frankly, Literary Witches wouldn’t make much sense and would struggle to bridge women writers and witchery without Grossman’s framing device.
TWH — In the new TV series Britannia, a Celtic sorceress in ancient Britain draws a large pentacle on stone and casts a spell, saying, “Dark mother, send me a demon to do my will!”
Early in the series, top-dog Druid Veranm and his Druid tribe, who live in a rocky, mountainous hollow apart from the warring native tribes they serve, capture an invading Roman soldier. Veran performs some sort of ritualistic soul-sucking thing which causes the soldier to reanimate as a zombie under Veran’s control, after being tossed over a waterfall to his death. The zombie soldier shows back up in the Roman camp and delivers a verbal get-the-hell-out-of-our-land message to the general, Aulus Plautis. The general and Veran then trade notes back and forth by placing messages in the mouth of the dead Roman soldier’s severed head. Later Veran, who looks like a cross between Skeletor of He-Man fame and Richard O’Brien’s characters Gulnar (in the Robin of Sherwood TV series) and Riff Raff (in the Rocky Horror Picture Show), has a Vulcan mind-meld with Aulus Plautius, who has decided to seek the Druid’s help to go on a vision quest to the underworld..