A Quick Note on Sacred Music

A Quick Note on Sacred Music August 11, 2012

There are a couple stories I’m in the midst of writing, but none are quite ready for primetime. So instead I’d like to chat a bit about music. I’m about to record this week’s episode of A Darker Shade of Pagan, and I’m getting ready to see the great Peter Murphy in concert this evening. So music is foremost on my mind.


Murphy is, of course, a famous student of Sufi mysticism and religion, and that sense of the sacred imbues his work.

“If someone calls themselves a Sufi… you can be sure that they’re not…Sufism isn’t a fad or cool fashion spiritualism… its at the dead center of your being. Yes YOURS; where the “I” is effaced in the You…”

Next week the band Dead Can Dance officially returns with a new album of original songs after a 16-year-absence (my advance digital order has already been filled, I’m enjoying it a bit early). That album, “Anastasis,” shows a duo,  Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard, utterly confident in their creative union, wise elders and teachers for a merging of creative eras and mythologies that is every bit as transcendent today as it was when they began in the early days of the 4AD label in the UK. Back then, they were counted among the Goths and art-school students who preferred This Mortal Coil, The Cocteau Twins, and Bauhaus to the (generally) brighter and more populist alternatives on offer within pop-culture. Now, the band returns as a mythic arts movement they helped inspire reaches its maturity.


“We want people to remember who they really are, and not be robbed of their potential because of mediocrity. We’re prepared to commit all of our time creating the mad, harmonic structures of music in order to reach with soft hands into their hearts.”

I’ve written before about Dead Can Dance’s return and their impressive influence, so I won’t reiterate that here, but I bring them up because both Murphy and Dead Can Dance represent a struggle for sacred music that surpasses labels and categories. They are reaching for something more ephemeral, and perhaps more important, than success or pleasing a fanbase, they want to expose their souls, and in doing so touch ours.

I’ve often written about “Pagan Music” but the longer I listen to music, and the more I explore artists who mine the numinous, the more I think such labels do nothing but limit musicians. The best “Pagan” artists regularly transcend such labels, and aren’t interested in leading a movement of Pagan bands who sing songs about the gods. The yearning to develop something akin to “Contemporary Christian” music within our own communities is, I believe, counter-productive to the impulses that actually move us into sacred territory.

When I construct  A Darker Shade of Pagan each week I don’t think about the Pagan pedigrees, I think about what inspires and envelops me. When I think about music that makes the dead dance, I don’t think about whether that artist is “one of us,” I ask if that artist moves my Pagan soul. I hope you find that music, as I continue to journey in my own quest.

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  • Oh dear, you have the new Disqus! Love the post but I’m curmudgeonly against this new-fangled commenting system…. (Can’t tweet my comments with this thing….)

  • Last year’s Samhain circle at Denton CUUPS was one of the most elaborate rituals we’ve ever done. The setup took longer than we had planned, the turnout was larger than we had even hoped, the co-leader and I were arguing over setting up more chairs, and the starting time was getting close. To say I was stressed would be a massive understatement.

    At precisely 7:30 I started the prelude music: “The Host of Seraphim” by Dead Can Dance. I closed my eyes and did my best to focus on the music.

    Six minutes and 17 seconds later all the tension was gone. I opened my eyes and we began the ritual. The gods and ancestors came and the circle was a success.

    Yes, I think “sacred music” is an appropriate term for Dead Can Dance.

  • Guestlin

    I do, too, having used “The Spider’s Stratagem” for ritual

  • For what it is worth: I find your comments to blog posts in my twitter feed to be confusing as they are clearly part of a conversation I am not party to. I often go “huh?” before realizing they must be comments to posts.

  • Jason, I agree that what I seek out is music that moves my heart and soul (and sometimes my body!). I just wondered recently if hearing Holly Holy by Neil Diamond when I was 5 or 6 ended up influencing me in my spiritual quest, leading towards Paganism. It isn’t a “Pagan” song, but is nonetheless imbued with things I value as a Pagan, including honoring a person as a sacred pathway to divine connection.


    On top of all that, I’m happy to be seeing Peter Murphy and Dead Can Dance this month!

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I hate it too. I can’t subscribe by email to anything but replies to my own comment. That’s not a good prescription for the Wild Hunt community, damage to which in turn subverts TWH’s blogosphere influence, which is an assset for the Pagan community generally.

  • If you have listened to Sufis blissing out on daf and oud, you’d know that Sufis do have a wonderful genre all their own. I personally love all sorts of spiritual music. Lisa Gerrard is one of my all-time favorite musicians. Her music must be like the music of angels because she comes from another realm with the way she sings.

    I am a huge fan of many groups which use music to make Divine Wine. Whether its Hagalaz Runedance, Mozart’s Requiem, Debu, Snatam Kaur, or MC Yogi..I love how it becomes like a prayer my ears are praying.

    There is a pagan radio station online, btw. You really don’t have to be pagan to enjoy it either. 🙂 http://www.paganradio.net/

  • And of course, I consider Zikr one of my favorite Divine Songs.

  • I agree. Music should move you deep within – make you want to sing, dance, meditate even. A song should pull you into its world. No matter what the genre! In fact, most of the music that effects me (and that I write) is not “Pagan” specific. My genre boundaries know “no limits.”

    But its even to find the Pagan spirit in everything! (even Neil Diamond, apparently! Cool!)

  • Obsidia

    For me, Sufism has a very special relationship with Paganism…and perhaps the two sprang from the same source. Remember, that Robert Graves (author of “The White Goddess”) wrote the intro to Idries Shah’s book “The Sufis.” Of course, that is only the tip of the iceberg. There is also something in Sufism that harks back to humans’ earliest spiritual practices, including the dancing celebrations of the turning of the “rolling year.” Some even maintain that the expression “Blessed Be” was derived from a Sufi greeting.

  • Hmm. You’re the first person to comment on that. I’ll have to sit with that. I found using that drew more people into the conversation in the past.

  • Totally agree, I mean hell Type O Negative to me is pretty sacred (tho I guess you can make a case for them being somewhat Pagan considering all the stuff going talked about on October Rust….) as well as a couple of Gackt songs.

  • Guest

    And there’s the Sufi influence on Gurdjieff, who influenced many people since.

  • Anon_Mahna

    Oh Monday will be such a nice night when I get home from work. The new DC albums will be waiting for me, and I’ll be skating in the front door just in time for ADSOP.

    side note, they’re more towards the meditation end of the pool but Mystical Sun might be a group you’d enjoy. In the right mood much of their material is like taking lsd through your ears.