The Song of the Other

La vie de Sainte-Barbe par Gérard Milon

Alder staff in hand, boot-shod feet sore from several days of hard-trudging, I walked slowly through fading day of the fleeting summer to the tiny village of Sainte-Barbe. To my left the sea and descending sun, to my right the fields of gorse and grass concealing ancient standing stones, and always ahead the image of my destination–its wind-worn spire rising steadily in the distance.

In the village, I shook off my boots and hooded tunic, laid my staff against an old stone wall and entered through the door into silence. It’d been nine years since I’d been here, nine years since I’d seen her, nine years since I’d had the vision of myself weaving songs from the land—and I had finally returned.

I was the only mortal in the chapel, its uneven walls echoing back each noise I made. Though the air seemed to breathe stillness, I was there to interrupt the silence. My pear-wood recorder in hand, I paused, uncertain, and then began to play.  I had no particular song in mind, only an intention to find the song which would please her, pulling from the brooding air and the stones what notes could fit this place, weaving a melody, weaving a world.

I was soon no longer alone. A man and his very young daughter entered, glanced at the altar and then sat upon a bench. Then, more people–stern-looking Breton women, crossing themselves prayerfully at her icons.

I stopped playing, suddenly aware of myself.

What was I thinking?  I, a moss-and-grass covered anarchist-punk, an American Pagan studying Druidry, here to venerate the goddess Arianrhod for whom St. Barbara is a likely cover-up.  I’d been camping and trudging around like some crazed pilgrim-monk with an alder-staff, getting stuck in gorse, drinking more cider than I ought, tying clooties on trees and cleaning up used condoms from their stone-circles, fumbling boyishly with their language and pillaging their boulangeries of pains-au-chocolats—who did I think I was?

The man with the young girl, himself a few years younger than I, approached and said, his voice low, “C’est mieux avec la musique.” ["It's better with the music"]. The stern-looking women nodded and smiled, and so I played again, conscious of my audience and now fully certain we were not the only ones listening.

Worlding and Song

Ever thought about the roots of the word Enchantment? It comes from Latin by way of French, from incantāre , < in- upon, against + cantāre to sing.>  That is, to exert magical influence over, to charm or make magic through song.

In some creation stories, the world is sung into being. In many myths and folktales, songs have power over not just the minds, but also the hearts, wills, and bodies of others—The Piper of Hameln (my anti-bourgeois role model), the myriad enchantresses and Sirens, magical instruments and world-ending horns. That one of the most common words we use to describe the practice of imbuing things with magic has its roots in singing and song is important.

Think of the songs you heard when you first fell in love, or the songs you played on repeat when you first fell out of it. The songs you’ve danced to, the ones you’ve cried to or found yourself utterly in awe of.

Music was part of the worlding of those experiences and is a crucial aspect of worlding now. We play music at festivals, in religious services, at parties, at dinners. In some places in the world they still sing in taverns, old songs and new, sometimes bawdy, sometimes nostalgic. Music is one of the tools we use to world the earth, maybe one of the most powerful.

There’s a host of cynical, Materialist explanations for why music has power, but most of them ultimately only explain the physical and psychological affects of sound upon the body.   Such explanations, as I mentioned before, seek to reduce our experiences of worlding to something safe, something in which there is no Other, something where we believers in gods and spirits have no language to define ourselves, our experiences, and our worldings.

But despite the theories, they still use music as sorcery–ask yourself why grocery stores play love songs (or lost-love songs), why you’ll be hearing Christmas music ad nauseum the next four weeks during our mad yearly pilgrimage to the temples of retail. Cynical theories don’t change the magic of music, and just like worlding, music and magic can be used to enchant or disenchant.

What is Known, to Busker and Bard…

Music can teach us how to re-enchant.

Every street musician knows the feeling, the moment before you play in a public place. Just before the first note there’s a wall, the strange membrane between the lifting of the bow or the intake of breath and the first sounding.  It’s a moment of doubt, similar to what we often experience when we encounter the Other.

But then the song starts, the worlding, the surprised look upon the passers-by pulled from one world into another. The tattooed punk pulls her headphones off, the tired businessman loses the thread of his frustrated thoughts. The immigrant woman rushing from one cleaning job to the next suddenly remembers a song from her youth, the man who’s boyfriend just left him lingers a little longer in the subway tunnel and finds his sorrow woven into another’s song.

We can’t co-create alone, and sometimes it requires a radical act, an intrusion into the minds of others through their ears.  Many of us now only listen to music (often through tangled cords attached to expensive rectangles) and forget we can create it.  Consider learning an instrument, or at least giving attention to the music around you,

This is what the busker and the bard knows.  Sometimes the guitar case rattles with coin, the harpist sees the flutter of a five, the accordion player’s used coffee-cup gets filled.  But best of all, the world changes around them, spells are broken and rewoven.  Sometimes, even, you can cross an ocean to play in an ancient chapel and get grateful nods and kind urgings from others, including from a goddess others have tried to silence.

 

About Rhyd Wildermuth

An intractable tea-swilling leftist-punk bard, Rhyd Wildermuth has left bits of his heart(h) everywhere—in a satyr’s den in Berlin, hanging from an elder tree over a holy well in Bretagne, scattered in back alleys of Seattle, and lost somewhere in the bottom of his rucksack. He’s devoted to Welsh gods, breathes words, makes candles, plays recorder, fumbles with tech, and refuses ever to learn to drive. He also writes at paganarch.com.

  • Ken

    As an individual who almost constantly listens to music (of my choice if possible) I have to say the right music makes the difference. The wrong song at work/while working out leads to a conflict of interests while the perfect song brings a group together singing and working in unison.

    I’m curious what your opinion Eluveitie is. Personally they make me want to learn more about the beliefs of my Celtic ancestors.
    I feel listening to them and similiar artists draws me closer to my ancestors (even if they would have hated the music.)

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      Hello Ken!
      I agree with you completely regarding the “right” music. Also, the more I play and learn about music, the more fascinated I become regarding its powers and the history of “sacred” music. For instance, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Catholics all believed that certain Modes could conjure certain feelings and were useful for certain things. Of those modes, only two have really survived into the present day (what we now call “Major” and “Minor” keys).

      Ah, Eluveitie. I really, really want to like them. As a medieval musician (I had a medieval rock band for a few months) whose music collection is about 3/4′s medieval rock/folk/punk, I should like them. I’m worried about their politics, however–fascist and anti-arab sentiment runs rampant in medieval metal, and Eluvietie has made so many unnecessarily ambiguous statements on the issue that I am never able to fully feel comfortable with them.

      On the other hand, I can happily list off about 15 bands similar to them (with unquestionable politics) and another 40 in the genre!

      • Ken

        I’ll have to stream those sites when I get home from work. I’ll check out FAUN and In Extremo too.
        I vaguely remember learning about the Modes in HS, I’ll have to look into that.
        I suppose I need to look into more of Eluveitie’s lyrics, I didn’t realize they are anti-Arab. I tend to overlook the fascist element, probably because a few bands I like use it to lengths its almost preposterous.
        I wouldn’t mind you listing those similar bands, I’m always looking for new stuff.

        • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

          At some point I intend to compile a list on my blog. In the meantime, here’s a short start of the more popular bands with stuff on youtube. Most of them are German and Swedish, which is where the majority of the neo-medieval is coming from. Qntal, Valravn, Garmarna (those last three are electro-heavy), Saltatio Mortis, Corvus Corax, Omnia, Heimatearde, Letze Instanz, In Extremo, FAUN, Subway to Sally (all Rock/Metal), Poeta Magica, Al Andaluz Project, Estampie, L’ham de Foc (neo-traditional).

          That should get you started. Also, check out my utterly favorite singer (who got his start busking) with a voice you won’t expect: http://youtu.be/TUNNigUL81s

          • Ken

            Awesome, I’ll check them out. If their lyrics are in German/ Swedish it’ll be a learning experience. Sometimes, I feel like being in the U.S. severely limits the music genres I hear about..

      • Kansas

        Eluveitie is anti-Arab? but…but i love Eluveitie. i need to look into that… :(
        is it Arab politics or race?

        • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

          I should be clear: my standards are a bit stricter than most people’s on anti-fascist links. There’s no proof one way or the other (with the exception of one line vowing not to be bound with the crescent moon at one’s feet, either a reference to Baphomet or Islam or both, since Baphomet and Mahomet/Mohammed may be linked); however, they’ve openly complained about antifa medieval groups in europe asking for clarification of their stand.

          The politics in Europe are much different from American politics, so it usually seems like I’m being overly-cautious. That being said, I really like Arabs and Jews and Gays and all the other peoples of the earth, so eschewing a band whose politics seem intentionally murky is easily done when there’s so much other music out there.

          Also, their bagpipes are electric. That’s cheating. : )

          • Kansas

            whatevs, their bagpipes are rad! >:)

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      And also as a follow up on this, if you can stream music, I highly suggest both http://laut.fm/mittelalter-net and http://www.radio-aena.de/

      Pretty much all the music I find about comes from those two sites–if you don’t like the stuff in the first hour, listen again later, as their playlists are quite varied.
      I’d also highly suggest looking into the bands FAUN and In Extremo. : )

  • Asa

    “Just before the first note there’s a wall, the strange membrane between the lifting of the bow or the intake of breath and the first sounding. It’s a moment of doubt, similar to what we often experience when we encounter the Other.”

    I always get a feeling like this just before I start reading my daughter her bedtime stories. I find I have to take a deep breath and sigh it out before I start the first story, to both build up and break through that membrane.

    Thank you for this wonderful post.

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      Ah! Good point…and I’m sure your daughter must sense that moment of magic. It seems like most of us forget it later on and have to remind ourselves that it happens.

      Thanks!


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