I doubt that these observations are especially original (although they are certainly deliberately provocative), but it strikes me that the ‘pagan arts’ are decidedly peculiar and must give non-pagans a distorted view of what pagans are. This revelation came when looking at the covers of books in a shop. With very few exceptions, these books had covers that were identical in style to those found on the books in the Fantasy and Science Fiction section.
Not only that, the designs were uniform in their use of graphics, colour, and the depiction of the human form. Non-pagans could be forgiven for thinking that paganism is either a kind of soft pornography or that only superficially attractive young women need apply. Sorry, young women with pointed ears. And wings. And those damned clothes that just will not stay on.
This propensity for perfection and nudity particularly afflicts pagan magazines. In some, it is unremitting, page after page. And the only time there is any relief from this delight in the body beautiful is with pictures of strange creatures or wimpy looking wizards who bear a striking resemblance to Terry Pratchett.
Now, I enjoy well-produced pictures on pagan themes. The wallpaper on my computer is John Duncan’s ‘Riders of the Sidhe’, I have a print of Richard Dadd’s ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’ on my wall. I have always gone weak at the knees for a William Morris & Co Arthurian tapestry or stained glass window. Perhaps it’s a deficiency on my part – I’m quite willing to concede that – but creative work that uses ancient pagan imagery is no more necessarily pagan than someone wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt is necessarily a Marxist revolutionary. Pagan imagery might well be employed genuinely, but it need not be overt nor, if the work is seeking to make new connections, need they be the expected and well-used symbols and images of old. Images and symbols are connections to the real world and they must necessarily evolve as the real world evolves otherwise they become fixed and no longer point in a true direction. And truth, after all, is at the core of being Druid.
The same goes for music. I have listened to a lot of these bands and musicians and much of it feels second hand, inspired by songs that were inspired by events. I know that my friends will point out that my musical tastes were frozen in the late 70s, but I find all the pagan inspiration I need in the music I have from that period. The songs were not consciously trying to be anything (let alone pagan), but accurately reflected the zeitgeist – love, peace, and a fresh, green world in which nobody suffers. Such sentiments may be clichés to some – to me they are the essence of paganism and the heart of my Druid path.
I could go on. Poetry, novels, plays… My point is, if you are Druid (or any other kind of pagan) and true to the spirit of that, everything you do is Druid. If you write a poem or song about a tree, it doesn’t have to mention a Celtic deity in every other line – Taliesin and Myrddin didn’t. If you paint a picture, the subject you choose and the way in which you portray it will invariably reflect what you are without it having to contain cavorting, semi-nude sylphs with pointed ears.
My being Druid is not a retreat from reality, but an engagement with it. That is, the real world of the twenty-first century. I might express that in terms of Celtic deities and with rituals, I certainly write a lot of stuff (poetry included) that employs imagery and symbolism derived from an understanding of the Celtic metaphysic, but there has always been a great deal more to it than that. Everything I do, including the weekly shop at the supermarket, is a reflection of my Druid nature. It does not need dressing up in the clothes of fantasy.
If we are to consider the pagan nature of the arts (by which I mean all creative arts), it would perhaps be a good idea to step back a moment and reconsider what is meant by ‘pagan’.
Paganism is a broad path (a term I use to sidestep the religion versus spirituality argument) that encompasses ecstatic, shamanistic, polytheistic, and magical traditions, along with less well-defined but generally pagan attitudes such as nature-centred spirituality, veneration of female and male deistic principles, personally developed belief systems based on a direct experience of the divine in the world, and an encouragement of truth, tolerance, diversity, honour, and trust.
It is essential to understand the connection of paganism with the natural world. Nature is considered theophanic, the visible manifestation of the divine, which is why a veneration of the natural world is a core expression of pagan religions. This is not a crude worship of trees or stones or rivers or hills. Rather, it is a recognition and reverencing of the divine in the material world (including humanity), using nature as a model for understanding the divine at work in our lives.
There are, of course, a number of other aspects of paganism that make it distinct. Many pagans are animists; they see things as cyclical; many believe in reincarnation; most practise some form of magic; and they are often informal in their expression of their belief. This is not because they take their belief casually. Rather, it is because their beliefs are the entire framework of their existence, inseparable from their everyday lives. They also consider their material existence to be as important as, and inextricably linked with, their spiritual existence.
From this I would suggest it is possible to extrapolate a set of parameters on which it would be possible to base an appreciation of the arts from a pagan perspective, perhaps even go so far as to say to what degree a piece of creative work is pagan.
So, any work that explores, examines, features, or has as its major themes a majority of the following:
- strong emotions and their causes, especially where that involves a standing outside of one’s self;
- healing (in its widest sense)
- magic (in its widest sense)
- the natural world, either as a character in its own right or as a major component in the main focus of the work;
- balance, particularly between male and female principles as well as between chaos and order;
- connection with and development of personal spirituality through direct experience of the divine in the world;
- truth, tolerance, diversity, honour, and trust;
might be said to be a pagan work of art.
These are arbitrary and open to expansion and argument but these clearly allow for all the usual suspects whilst being far from limited to them. Furthermore, it is important to remember that the above listed themes can be examined just as effectively through the lack of them. As an example you can produce a piece of creative work about the importance of trees that has a tree as its central motif, but you can also do it by portraying a world in which there are no trees.
Of course, it is all very well to interpret already existing works from a particular viewpoint, but this never provides a definitive interpretation, merely peels back another layer.
If we are to have a pagan art, it must be created from the heart of people who are fundamentally pagan and whose work is imbued with their soul and reflects their view of the world.
As an example, a novel about someone rallying his local, dysfunctional inner city community to save and restore their one piece of green space in the face of opposition from developers, politicians, drug dealers and all the rest is just as pagan as a fantasy with dragons and wizards. Indeed, given the number of fantasy writers who disavow any belief in magic and eschew paganism, I would suggest we are just as likely (if not more so) to find pagan work in the mainstream. As with so much in paganism, it is not hidden, it’s just that we have to learn to look with new eyes.
Graeme K Talboys