Gateways to Paganism: Tori Amos

(Pagans don’t proselytize, and the majority of us don’t have Pagan parents; as a result, people come to Modern Paganism through various means. For many of us, books, movies, and music provided the impetus to walk the Pagan Path. Gateways to Paganism is one guy’s attempt to document some of the things that have led various people to Paganism, and why those things had that effect.)

There was a time in the early to mid-90′s when I was obsessed with Tori Amos. For a generation of Pagans, Tori Amos was our artist. Whether or not Tori is (or was) a Pagan is a subject I’m not going to get into here. I don’t particularly care either way because I know what the music meant (and means) to myself and others. Amos could appear on the 700 Club tomorrow and I’d still blast Cornflake Girl with the ferocity I usually reserve for Led Zeppelin. Under the Pink is one of those desert island discs for me, a life changing musical experience with few equals (which is my way of apologizing in advance for talking about it the most in this piece.)

It’s always easy to romanticize the past, and I’m more likely to do it that most, but the early to mid 90′s were an exciting time in Paganism. There was all of this music that seemed designed for us. Not just Tori, but Sarah McLaughlin, XTC, Dead Can Dance, and Loreena McKennitt. It was the time of Silver Ravenwolf’s To Ride a Silver Broomstick and the movie The Craft. In some ways it felt like Paganism was going to become the faith of a generation and that we were going to have this huge body of cinema, book, and song all for ourselves. I’m writing as my overly exuberant early 20′s self, but I really did feel like that back then.

I’m not going to comment on all of Tori’s output in this piece, mostly because I lost track of her after a while. The change in direction that marked Boys For Pele wasn’t really to my liking, and while I remained a fan through the Live From the Choirgirl Hotel years I lost the script after that. To put it in an odd way, I felt like the intimacy of our relationship had ended. Amos’s first two records are intimate (especially Little Earthquakes) in a way few records are. Listening to those albums is like being ushered into a quiet back room and being told a secret quietly in the dark. Lots of artists share their skeletons, Amos bares her soul.

Writing about Tori is odd because I almost feel like we are on a first-name basis. At my house and amongst my circle of friends she has always been just “Tori,” no need to clarify because there’s only one. Sharing Tori with someone else for the first time was akin to sharing a life-changing religious experience. “Shhhhh, I need you to listen to this . . . . .” These were the early days of the internet, when people were only capable of sharing information, not music, and Tori was not the kind of artist you were going to find on the airways outside of college radio and a few alternative rock stations. Anyone could listen to Pearl Jam, listening to Tori (and artists like Ani DiFranco and Dar Williams) was like removing a sacred heirloom from a locked box.

I was a Tori collector for several years, and I still have all of my various Tori singles and re-mixes all on CD. Like a lot of other artists Amos released various ep’s and (CD) singles with b-sides and alternative versions of songs. Did I really need a cd with four remixes of Professional Widow? Probably not, but I thought it was important at the time. Today you can just pop on to YouTube and find just about every alternative recording by a major artist in existence. Back in the early to mid-90′s things were radically different. You had to track down that single of God to get a copy of Tori singing Home on the Range (and yes it’s gorgeous and worth the fifteen bucks I spent on it).

All of those various B-sides and unreleased tracks led to even more speculation about Tori too. I had a friend who was convinced she had a CD somewhere with Tori singing a song called Sometimes I’m a Witch. If that song exists I’ve never found it, but it’s what we all wanted Tori so badly to be that it sounded real to us. Why couldn’t Tori be a Witch? And besides, she nearly had to be, her music was a spell in and of its self.

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Tori Amos-God

There’s nothing inherently Pagan in the lyrics of Tori’s first three albums (with the exception of a few references to deity on Boys For Pele, but coming from anyone else they probably wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow) but the lyrics capture the sense of isolation and questioning that many of us who walk a Pagan Path often feel. “God sometimes you just don’t come through, do you need a woman to look after you?” from God is one of my favorite lines in the history of music. It’s the kind of thing I asked Yahweh a number of times as I began the transition from Christian to Pagan.

My favorite Tori track will forever be “Icicle” and not because I masturbated in church (didn’t for the record) but because of what it says to me personally about religion and not-belonging. I had a mostly good Christian experience (unlike many Pagans) but there was always something about it that didn’t feel right. I was comfortable enough while there, but I always felt like a stranger, that a different truth was waiting for me elsewhere. “I think the good book is missing some pages . . . . gonna lay down.” Years later examining song I can even see a little Pan in it “When they say ‘take of his body,’ I think I’ll take from mine instead . . . ” Yes, that sort of celebration is undoubtedly Pagan.

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(I saw Tori during “The Boys For Pele” tour, eighth row at the Wharton Center in East Lansing Michigan. I remember suffering from the flu that night, with a fever of over 100 degrees but there was no way I was going to miss Tori. During Icicle I swear I caught Tori’s eyes for just a moment. It might have been a fever dream, but I will always swear it happened. There was a lunar eclipse during the show that Tori shared with us on a video screen, endearing her even more to me.)

I’ve always felt kind of like an interloper when it comes to the music of Tori. Some of that’s due to the nature of songs like Me and a Gun and Leather, songs which talk about horrific things that I can empathize with but never inhabit. Those are the moments where you feel like you’ve been given a terrible secret that you are powerless to do anything about. I remember the first time I heard Gun and I just sat there in stunned silence for a few minutes turning the CD player off and burying my head in my hands. It remains the most powerful song I will ever hear.

I always had trouble getting into artists like Ani DiFranco, but with Tori I always felt that there was a bridge there between us. She loves things like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones as much as I do. She was always a rocker with a piano, and the most beautiful woman in rock music without ever having to wear a low-cut dress or other such nonsense. There’s a presence around Tori, and she never had to wear a meat dress or a thong for anyone to notice it.

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Cornflake Girl

So what made (and makes) Tori a Gateway to Paganism? There’s nothing as explicitly Pagan there as The Christians and the Pagans by Dar Williams or most of Loreena McKennitt’s The Visit, but the questions and the power Tori infuses her music with are so very Pagan. Like many Pagans Tori doesn’t put religion in a box, life’s journey is not static, it’s something to go out and experience, even with all of its heartbreak. Tori was self-empowerment (very much like magic is), cleansing yourself of the bad and then becoming something powerful and secure. Tori was about the transitions in life, especially on those first few records, of leaving child-hood and parents behind, and reconciling the past with the present. Tori said it was OK to be a bit eccentric to touch other realms and live with one foot in fairy. Undoubtedly Tori led at least a few of us here just by saying it was OK to ask questions. I was already walking the Pagan Path when I met Tori, but she was one of my early guides, someone who walked the path with me when I was first starting out.

If you had asked me in 1994 what The Goddess looked like I would have replied with Tori Amos. Tori was there during the transition, telling me it was OK to wonder, to wander, and to embrace the changes that would make me who I am. On breezy fall evenings when the autumn leaves swirl I sometimes see The Lady in the distance, and She still looks a bit like Tori and in the back of my head I hear the thunderous piano of Cornflake Girl and I smile.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Nicole Parsons Platania

    I love Little Earthquakes. It has always stirred up something inside and I think you summed it up here. My favourite song by far has always been China.

  • Emily

    I think the song your friend is talking about, which starts with the line, “Maybe I’m a Witch,” is called The Etienne Trilogy, off her first album, Y Kant Tori Read? (Little known fact, Little Earthquakes is actually her second album, or possibly her first solo album, away from the band that had habitually backed her up, it’s not clear). This song has had a special place in my heart for many years.

    And since you can look music up on the Internet now:

    • JasonMankey

      I’ve always wondered if that’s what she meant, but she always made it sound like it was a particular live version of an unreleased track. People easily get confused though.

  • Farrell McGovern

    I got into Tori (yes, that first name thing again…) when a friend who ran a record store recommended “Little Earthquakes” to me, describing it as “an earthier Kate Bush”. I met Tori on the “Little Earthquakes” tour, after watching her with about 60 other people in a little club called The Penguin in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada…the fantasy writer Charles de Lint and his wife were sitting next to me. I had heard from reading on that she frequently comes out after the performance to meet fans, and sure enough she did! I was last in line. I had brought along one of the most important Pagan books I know of to give to her. So when I finally got up to her, I said “So, it sounds like you have had nearly as many problems with Christianity as I have!” and she gave me a hug! We chatted for a couple of minutes, and I handed her the book, saying “This has given me many hours of enjoyment and help in perspective on life, you may find it enjoyable too.” She asked, “Did you write it”? I said “No, but I wish I had!”. So I handed her the book, and wished her luck with the rest of the tour, and we parted ways.

    The book I gave her? The Principia Discordia by Malaclypse the Younger. I don’t know if I had any influence on her life, but I do hope that contributed a little bit of silliness to help her in life. A few tours later, I saw her in concert, but didn’t have a chance to meet her…but her tour T-Shirts that year were enblazened “Recovering Christian”, as in, recovering from Christianity. I think my job was done.

    • Steph Rendino

      Tagging on to Farrell’s post because I was hoping he’d weigh in with this story and he did not disappoint.

      Give “Night of Hunters” a try. It’s VERY pagan and done with an orchestra, not a band. I love it. It’s her best work in years.

      • JasonMankey

        I actually picked that up last year after reading Jason’s review of it on the Wild Hunt. I enjoyed most of it quite a bit. It’s not as personal as the early record, but the sound is gorgeous. After listening to a lot of Tori the last few days while writing it’s made me very wistful, and with a strong desire to maybe catch up on some of the albums I missed.

      • Phoenix Grove

        Oy…love the girl, and I’m a freaking druid, so you’d think just by titles that this album would be my favorite thing ever, but I have to strongly disagree that it’s the best in years. Bringing in her daughter may have been a nice mommy thing to do, but it didn’t help the songs at all.

  • Teo Bishop

    This post is…how shall I put it…

    A bouquet of Blood Roses from a Christian boy?

    (If I could hug you right now, I would.)

    Off to play first-name-basis-Tori on repeat.

    Thanks, Jason.

    • JasonMankey

      In Simpsons Comicbook Guy speak the response is “Best comment ever!”

  • Desert Freyja

    “Tori said it was OK to be a bit eccentric to touch other realms and live with one foot in fairy.”
    This sums my relationship with Tori. As a quiet, trench coat wearing 16 year old in 1995 who didn’t fit in, she gave me a role model unlike any other in pop-culture at the time.

    I’ve stuck with her music through the years, and while it’s not what it was in the 90s, there are touches of the personal here and there that endure. “Garlands”, “Dragon”, and “Curtain Call” come to mind. I appreciate that she flesh and blood human prone to missteps and poor judgement like the rest of us.

  • Laura M. LaVoie

    I had to stop to wonder how you got into my head when you wrote this. Tori came out at just the right time in my life – late high school, early college. Little Earthquakes changed my life. And yes, I think it did help make me Pagan.

  • Kourtney Leaf

    You have pulled so many of my thoughts of Tori straight out of my head. I, like yourself, am also a Tori collector (right down to Y Kant Tori Read, one of my most prized possessions ). And I would absolutely agree with everything you’ve said here. After reading her ‘Pieces by Piece’ where she dissects many of her defining lyrics, it was obvious that she never attempted to fit into any sort of ‘religious box’, even if her father was a Reverend. After reading her accounts (the one that has stuck with me most is her description and connection to Pele) it solidified what I always thought to be true. I’ve always maintained a relationship with Tori, and I own all of her albums. My favorites are Little Earthquakes, Choirgirl Hotel and American Doll Posse. “Big Wheel’ off the last is one of my all time faves!

  • Tara

    Thanks for this post! I’m glad it’s not just me. I discovered Tori in my early teens, when Boys for Pele came out, just around the time I also discovered Paganism. She has been a huge influence on my path over the years. I absolutely fell in love with Night of Hunters last year.

  • Amy Klsfknkns

    onmg i thought i only worshiped her…my private life… wow..i <3

  • Rynn Fox

    The song your friend was referring to was definitely “Etienne” from Tori’s failed synthpop album Y Kant Tori Read. The lyrics go “Maybe I’m a witch/ Lost in time/ Running through the fields /Of Scotland by your side/ Kicked out of France /But I still believe/ Taken to a land/Far across the sea..” and so on.

    Yep was, and still am a Tori fan (an ears with feet), though her stuff lately has needed a producer other than just her imho. Having met her she definitely gives off a Pagan/Witch-vibe that I’ve only found equaled in some advanced practitioners.

    • JasonMankey

      It probably was “Etienne” but my friend was always convinced it was some sort of bootleg release or obscure B-side from a CD single. My friend did have “Y Can’t Tori Read” so she would have been familiar with that album, but music was a lot harder to keep track of in the days before the internet.

      I almost adding something in the post about how much I think having an outside producer helped to make “Little Earthquakes” and “Under the Pink” my favorite Tori albums. That’s not a slight on Ms. Amos, it’s just that an outside influence to bounce ideas off of now and again can sometimes be helpful. In the case of many of my favorite musicians, it tends to limit their flights of fancy and/or self-indulgence.

      • Rynn Fox

        Agreed regarding the flights of fancy and self-indulgence. Since she and her hubby have become the producers on her albums, the quality of the work has degraded considerably in my opinion. Too many similar musical themes, keys, lyrical narratives, etc. From a production standpoint, I think “Little Earthquakes” is her strongest album.

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  • Jasmine Kyle

    Greetings Tori fan I was wondering what you thought about my work~ Here or @