Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Song of the World: Some Things We Know

Firstly (and bestly, I think): below is an amazing video from the World Science Festival, held in New York City last month. The clip comes from a lecture on "Notes & Neurons: In Search of a Common Chorus," and in it, the famous a cappella singer Bobby McFerrin demonstrates just how ingrained music is in our bodies and brains by leading the entire audience in a spontaneous sing-along.

I doubt the rest of this post can compare to just how cool that was.

Maybe it's just me, but group experiences of music have always moved me powerfully. This clip reminds me of the many times I've been blessed to be part of spontaneous rounds and sing-alongs (these always seem to happen especially at family holiday reunions and on long bus rides to high school marching band competitions). But in particular, I remember the high school football game I once attended, when the student singing the national anthem to open the game was so nervous that she stumbled and faltered no less than three times on the words "what so proudly we hailed" and had to begin the first verse again. On the third time, without any hesitation, everyone in the entire stadium raised their voices to meet hers and carried the song through, the collective murmur of hundreds softening the harsh tinny notes screeching from the loudspeakers, lifting the melody gently into the autumn evening sky as though on a just-visible cloud of exhaled breaths. I'm not patriotic--but I love people, and their spontaneous basic goodness, and the memory still brings a tear of gratitude and pride to my eyes.

So I can believe that, to some extent, music--literal music--is hardwired into our brains. But I think there's something more to it than that. In Druidry, there is this idea that everything has a Song, and that the world, too, has a song. The Song of the World is something like a Divine or True Will, I suppose, and we join with it our own voices, the music of our bodies humming, pumping blood, inhaling and exhaling, neurons and nerves buzzing and vibrating. The air we move through shifts around us with every stride, and our laughing and crying shape it, too, creating leitmotifs, bridges and bass lines. When we sing and move and live in harmony with the World Song, our own songs are amplified, modulated and carried along--our lives become beautiful, our hearts become soft and permeable, our minds become nimble and familiar with the patterns of how things dance.

This idea--that we each have a song, a soul-song, and that everything, the landscape and the gods and the world itself, has a soul-song as well--underlies a kind of lovely animism that permeates everything, everywhere, and fills it utterly with life and movement. It bestows a special sacredness to space, to limits and the separation of necessary absence through which limited, finite beings move. The Song of the World offers us a way to understand our unity and community without sacrificing our individuality and uniqueness, our creativity and our freedom. For all of these reasons, the Song of the World is an absolutely fundamental aspect of my Druidry, that shapes a great deal of my spiritual practice as well as my theological and ethical ponderings.

The Song of the World is so essential to my Druidry--and yet, I can't remember where on earth I heard of it. It must have been in one of the many Druidry 101 books in my perky little collection, or maybe in some article I read online, or in some email message group or discussion forum. One thing's for sure, though: the World Song isn't mentioned in my historical books on the ancient Celts, or in my books on Celtic mythology, or in my books about the archeology and iconography of Celtic religious art and ritual objects. (In fact, the only Celtic-ish reference I can find to the phrase are two poems in the Book of Taliesin, neither of which mention the soul-song as an animistic/pantheistic theological principle.) Recently, I began reading Ronald Hutton's newest book, Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain; no word about the Song of the World on any of its almost five-hundred pages, as far as I can tell. But Hutton's writing brings home, as it always does, just how shaky our historical-fact footing is when we try to talk about Druidry and Druids at all.

This drives some people up a wall. Sometimes that wall is plastered with fantasy novel-like posters of flowing hair and horned staves and huge oaks and bonfires and magical chants and such. Other times, it's a wall studded all over with personal equivalents of the Ninety-Five Theses, carefully nailed into place, complete with footnotes and academic citations in MLA formatting. Cynical scholarly types especially like to equate accurate facts with intellectual depth, and accuse those with a relaxed attitude towards the former of being totally lacking in the latter. On the other side of the argument are people who grasp on to any remotely "Druidic" peculiarity--the Ogham, the Coligny Calendar, the white robes and golden sickle--and make their spiritual lives about Druidry, instead of living and practicing as Druids. Each old text is parsed and analyzed for either ancient Celtic or Medieval Christian influences, each new archeological find subject alternately to skepticism and acclaim, scrutiny and hope. For some people, it is incredibly important to prove whether or not the Druids of old were real, or really what we believe.

But to me, Druidry--and indeed, any spiritual life in all its many forms and paths--is about learning to be present, in the blessed here-now. As I struggle to live authentically and deeply with my self and the Divine, I just can't find the relevance of nit-picking to pieces bits of historical data. It doesn't tell me anything more about people--or about myself, or the gods, or the world--than I already know by being present in the here-now, attending and listening carefully. What it tells me is that, the bigger the picture and the finer the focus, the more uncertain "facts" become, with every scholar, then as now, contributing their own ideas, visions and inspiration as well as their own assumptions, prejudices and ignorance. But this isn't history at all! It's not confined to our understanding of the past, it's what each of us do in the here and now as well, as we struggle to think about our world and engage with it.

Cynics watch the video at the beginning of this post, and say with a smirk, "Well that is amazing--look how clever, look how well trained we are." They assume that all this spontaneous singing is just so much automation, a kind of brainwashing following paths laid down ages ago in our mammalian minds. They wink at each other about the persistence of the past, its apparent dominance. But I see something else. I see the present, full of singing. I see a single man who, without instruction, without a single word, can coax a whole auditorium into song just by humming a few notes, hopping around on stage and waving his arms. I see attention and response, liveliness--I can practically feel the amusement and engagement as the audience follows along, tries to guess what note will be next, listening to his body as it leaps and turns, listening to his voice as it plays off theirs.

We are not puppets wound up and constricted, pulled one way or another by the strings of history. We are so full of the present, so full of imagination and creativity in this very moment that not only can we shape our future, but our past as well. Our engagement reaches back as well as forward. The past is something we share, like a language or a story, not something we're bound by. The present is spacious and full of absence, full of uncertainty. Through that uncertainty, we move, we vibrate, we make music with our bones and the old bones of our ancestors. Why should we always be trying to dig our way back into the dense strata of historical fact, settle down inside it like a cocoon or a coffin? As though certainty about the past could protect us from having to be creative and responsive in the present...

Maybe there were no Druids at all, back then. Maybe until now, they existed only in imagination, amorphous and fluctuating . But there is something--an idea, a story, a familiar pattern of notes to make a scale--that shapes us today. I used to be called "Catholic" and "Christian", because that was the name for our family religion as my parents gave it to me. Then, I was called "Pagan" by readers of this blog, long before I had even relinquished the first. But "Druid" is the name I chose; Druid is what I name myself. I sing a melody to myself that seems to drift in from the mists of history, and the melody is Druidry, here, in this very present that we're living together. I am the song I'm singing, I create it from familiar notes in familiar patterns that I draw, prompted by dancing and encouragement, from the depths of my being. And the song goes something like: Were there real Druids in the murky landscapes of far away and long ago? If they weren't real then, they sure are now. I am that; that's how I know...


  1. If there were no druids, we would have to invent them. As for the song, it has sort of a Indian religion resonance, but I can't place it either. However, I do know what you mean. This was my OBOD bardic gift back in 2003

    There is a Sound

    There is a Sound,
    That supports the World.

    It is tree dance
    And brook babbling.
    It is summer storm and volcano.
    It is in us and apart.
    As loud as sleigh bells -
    Still, you may not hear it.

    Touch tree.
    Face fear.
    Light fire.
    Dance in moonlight.
    Make love.

    The Sound is silent
    Til you sing it.


  2. Daniel Hammond8/05/2009 8:47 AM

    Came from over at "Executive Pagan," stayed for the post.

    Well written. :)

  3. Just lovely... thank you. (Couldn't comment yesterday, not sure why; but it's working now!)

  4. David, Thank you for sharing the poem!

    The idea of the soul-song is something I felt before I ever read about it anywhere; I remember sitting in an incredibly boring sociology class during freshman year of college, staring outside at the autumn leaves and suddenly imagining color as light-vibration as music-vibration, so that all the trees were humming. A friend of mine, after reading this post, sent me this quote by Frank Zappa: "Light is just the vibration of a note too. Everything is. You've got to keep that in mind."

    So, yes, I think perhaps some ideas and understandings of the world have to be invented and, in fact, are invented, by many different people, over and over again. :) And each time, it's a creative act--which is what makes it so amazing!

  5. Dan, Welcome! Thanks for stopping by. :)

  6. Erik, Thank you, and thanks for linking to me. :) I don't know why the comment posting thing is sometimes finicky (even for me, which is a bit weird). :-/ I keep hoping Google will tweak it. Glad it's working again, though!

  7. Song of the World--what a lovely image! Glad to find your blog, and I'll be adding you to my earth spirituality blogroll. This particular video has been inspiring me too since a musician friend linked to it on Facebook, and I woke up this morning thinking about posting on it....

  8. Amazing video -- it is wonderful how much commonality that we have.

    I have heard something else that's pretty compelling. Hum "Shave and a Haircut", then get a guitar or other instrument and figure out which key you were singing in. Is it the key of F? :)

    A final note -- there have been more than one flute found that was made in prehistory, perhaps even by Neanderthal. The scale on these flutes have been determined to be the pentatonic scale.

    Keep the song going --

    Feral Boy

  9. I have seen Emma Restall-Orr writing about the world-song; you might have got it from her; or you and she might have got it from the same source.

    Regarding the historicity of Druidry, or not. Given that, as you rightly say, we know next to nothing about what ancient druids got up to (if they existed), the people who claim that they're doing something because ancient druids did it, and not because they feel it to be the right way for them to be a Druid in the here and now - that is what is irritating to the academically-minded. You can be a Druid because you feel you are one because it fits the image you have in your mind of what a Druid is (and I affirm your right to do so). I can do the same with "Witch". But what happens when someone else with a completely different idea about what a Druid or a Witch is, does the same? Then we have confusion...

  10. Yewtree,

    What happens when two self-named Druids differ over what that means? The same thing that happens when two Christians differ, or two Buddhists, or two Muslims. The process of creating self- and group-identities through evolving cultural conversation and an on-going search for both spiritual and historical authenticity happens in almost every single religion. Debate about names, their meanings and their origins is not unique or limited to modern Pagans, but vital to most religious communities. It gives rise to fascinating complexity and diversity (which some academics, like those in the field of religious studies, do not find irritating at all, but rather take in stride as part of the nature of comparative religions). But to call it "confusion" when Pagans do it, but not when members of mainstream religions engage in the identity-crafting process, seems a bit derogatory to me.

  11. Feral Boy,

    Some really interesting facts about music there! I think I'd heard about the flutes, but not about "Shave and a Haircut" in F. Very cool. :)

  12. Priscilla,

    Welcome! :) Glad you found your way here, and that the video and the post gave you something to contemplate. :) Hope you visit often!

  13. For Solstice one year, we got the kids a pentatonic xylophone. It was an amazing, and blessed, instrument: whatever the kids played on it, regardless of what order the notes were played in, or what notes were hit, it sounded good. There's something about that scale that fits our blood.

    Here's a puzzle for us all. We humans make music, obviously, and when we are listening, we hear music everywhere: in birdsong, in rushing waters, in oceans and storms and bees and creaking trees. We can hear the music of the world. The puzzle is, why don't other animals do this? You never see, say, chimpanzees sitting down to make a drum circle.