[As I mentioned previously, I’ll be re-posting essays from a now mostly-defunct group blog here.
This is the first, originally written 29 November, 2013.]
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 hear Christmas music ad nauseum 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 also 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.