The apple lies in your hand, round and sweet. It is all
the forbidden fruit that you have ever tasted: The loves,
the pleasures, the stolen joys. There is no hiding from
the one who walks in the garden in the cool of the evening.
There is no offering you can make to your god, your
country, to atone for what you are.
The apple lies in your hand, the bitter apple of
self-knowledge. In another time, another place,
it might be the apple of Iduna, whose fruit gives
life to the gods. It might be an apple from
the Hesperides, the gift of Hera to Zeus, or
that apple which Eris tossed, designated for
the fairest. You have known your fairest and
lost him. You have lost all the immortality
in your veins. It might be the apple that was
given to True Thomas, or was that bread
and wine? He lay with the Faerie Queen and
gained the gift of prophecy. You have taken
the fruit unbidden and it will give you only death.
The apple lies in your hand, heavy as all your
memories. With a last gesture of defiance,
you put it to your teeth and bite.
(For Alan Turing, computer scientist, homosexual, who died on this day in 1954, possibly of suicide. His codebreaking skills helped the Allies win World War II; after the war, he was arrested and chemically castrated for being a homosexual. Written in 2015.)
Let it not be said that there are no goddesses in heaven.
Let it not be said that all goddesses are of earth.
Let no one deny the sovereignty of Juno,
queen of heaven, lady of the sky.
Praise to Juno whose domain is the heavens.
Praise to Juno whose mantle is the clouds.
Praise to Juno whose handmaid is the rainbow.
Praise to Juno who both stirs and calms storms.
Praise to Juno, wife and mother, queen and matron,
protectress of all women whether slave or free, rich or poor.
Praise to Juno, equal to Jove, wise as Minerva,
steadfast as Vesta, free as Diana, beautiful as Venus.
Praise to Juno, protectress of women, shaper of heroes,
guardian of the nation, noblest of goddesses.
Ave Juno Dea!
I can tell you exactly what and when and how I first heard the music of Andrew Hozier-Byrne. The date was May 16, 2014, and he performed a Live Lunch concert on air at a local college radio station. I was tuned in to listen because a friend of mine who worked at the station pinged me on chat to tell me about the concert and said she thought I would like him.
My friend’s intuition was 100% correct. Listening to the three or four songs he performed that day kindled a flame of interest in me that has grown slowly into a raging bonfire, culminating in the experience of seeing him perform live in March of this year (thanks to the same friend, who was able to score free tickets for me from the station). I’ve followed him on YouTube, and then Instagram and Twitter, bought his EPs and his self-titled debut album, listened to that music while he toured for two years and then went home to his cottage in Ireland for another two years to create a second album, and been blown away by that new album, Wasteland, Baby! and his live performance of old and new music with a fantastic band. I cannot praise Hozier enough for his combination of magnificent voice, complex and intelligent songwriting, charismatic performance, and sheer physical beauty.
But rather than talk about his gorgeous hair, I’ve been wanting for a while to talk about his songs, particularly his lyrics. Hozier has always been forthcoming about his influences, musical and otherwise, and alongside black musicians like Nina Simone and Otis Redding, he mentions poets W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney. I’m pretty sure he would dismiss the idea that his lyrics can stand alone as poetry, but I think I must beg to differ.
At the age of 24, an Irish lad nobody outside his hometown and environs had heard of had a tremendously successful hit song, a powerful gospel anthem called “Take Me to Church”. You might reasonably wonder why, especially if you’ve never heard the song with its powerful baritone vocals. I’d like to do a close reading of the lyrics and tell you what I think.
The song starts out fairly conventionally with a description of the singer’s beloved: “My lover’s got humour/ She’s the giggle at a funeral.” This note of irreverence is followed by a sudden turn to religious language: “Knows everybody’s disapproval/ I should’ve worshipped her sooner. / If the heavens ever did speak,/ She’s the last true mouthpiece.” The singer has gone from describing his lover as someone with a sense of humor to identifying her as something to be worshipped, a trustworthy oracle of “the heavens”.
He then turns, in the same verse, to conventional religion: “Every Sunday’s getting more bleak/ A fresh poison each week/ ‘We were born sick,’ you heard them say it”. To say that “we were born sick” is a reference to the Christian doctrine of original sin, which teaches that every human being has inherited what you might call a tendency from the first man, Adam, that separates us from God and makes us incapable of doing anything that isn’t sin.
The next verse offers a bold contrast: “My church offers no absolutes/ She tells me, “Worship in the bedroom”/ The only heaven I’ll be sent to/ Is when I’m alone with you”. “My church” is the singer’s relationship with his lover, and she is his deity, who tells him to worship “in the bedroom”, that is, through sex. Original sin has often been equated with sexuality and vice versa; some Christian theologians proposed that Adam and Eve did not have sex until they had eaten the forbidden fruit and were banished from Eden. “Forbidden fruit” is often, though not exclusively, a metaphor for sexual acts.
The singer’s religion is his love, his deity is his beloved, his worship of her is sex, and heaven is the intimacy of being alone with her. Hozier is far from the first poet to use religious metaphors for erotic/romantic relationships, just as mystics have for centuries used erotic metaphors for their spiritual intimacy with their god. But this theme is not something we have seen in popular music for a while. Instead of degrading his lover, Hozier exalts her.
Then, he takes the Church’s depressing doctrine and turns it on its head: “I was born sick/ But I love it/ Command me to be well.” And Hozier opens up and delivers a powerful threefold “Amen” before launching, at last, into the first chorus:
Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life.
This is, straightforwardly, a plea to a woman to have sex with the singer, couched in religious metaphor. But it’s not just a metaphor; it claims love and sex as religious experiences in themselves. Sex is as powerful to the singer as worship, sacrifice, and confession; it provides the “deathless death”, a reference to the “little death” of orgasm but perhaps also to the ritually enacted death and rebirth of the mystery cults which allowed the initiates a happy afterlife. The singer doesn’t just want to have sex, get laid, and go away; he pleads to be allowed to give his whole life to the object of his worship.
After this first chorus, the song turns openly critical of the Church once again. “If I’m a pagan of the good times,/ My lover’s the sunlight./ To keep the goddess on my side/ She demands a sacrifice.” I’m struck by the fact that Hozier identifies his personal goddess not with the moon or other conventionally feminine symbols like the ocean, but with the sun. This is the first time he does so, but it won’t be the last time in his discography.
Now he rips into the Church for not satisfying its faithful: “Drain the whole sea/ Get something shiny/ Something meaty for the main course/ That’s a fine-looking high horse/ What you got in the stable?/ We’ve a lot of starving faithful”. I can’t help but read this as a criticism of the Church for not satisfying people spiritually while at the same time profiting from them materially. As an Irishman, Hozier grew up with the Roman Catholic Church as a pervasive influence (though he himself was raised as a Quaker), but there are plenty of American megachurches that are guilty of the same charges. Rich clerics collecting wealth from poor congregants can be found in every form of Christianity and in other religions as well.
Hozier calls on those who are sitting on their high horse judging others to be mindful of those who are starving and make a sacrifice, give something up, for their benefit. He goes on, “That looks tasty/ That looks plenty/ This is hungry work”. The “hungry work”, I would suggest, is the work of dismantling religious institutions that exploit their laity, of dismantling the religious viewpoints that demonize erotic love and, dare I say, demonize women as objects of love and devotion in particular.
He then repeats the chorus, singing even more passionately than before (and this is very noticeable in live performance), and sings it a second time before going into the bridge of the song: “No masters or kings/ When the ritual begins/ There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.” The ritual here is sex with its lover, and in their lovemaking there are no “masters or kings”, perhaps no top or bottom, no dominant or submissive; there is no hierarchy in the sexual sacrament, the two lovers are equals. The Church may call it sin, but Hozier affirms, “In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene/ Only then I am human/ Only then I am clean,” following these lines with another powerful triple “Amen” before singing the final chorus. Hozier insists that his experience of sex contradicts the Church’s description of it; while it may be “earthly”, it is an experience which makes him “human” and “clean”.
Hozier arrived on the music scene with this song pretty much out of nowhere, unknown outside of Ireland, perhaps unknown outside the Dublin area, and was triumphantly successful. The song was hugely popular, and many interviewers asked him what it was about, what it meant. He repeatedly delivered a short version of my exegesis–the goodness and humanness of sex vs. the Church’s demonization and repression of it, especially in Roman Catholic Ireland–and authorized a music video that featured images of gay men being attacked and arrested in the Ukraine, broadening his words beyond any implied heterosexuality. He also affirmed same-sex relationships in his interviews, while dodging the question of whether he himself is gay. (He has consistently been private about his romantic/sexual relationships while being sex-positive, so I’m not going to inquire further.)
What no one seems to have asked is why this song by a virtual unknown was so popular. The immediate, obvious answer is that it’s a damned good song: rich lyrics and a powerful melody delivered by an accomplished singer with passion and commitment. Hozier’s rich baritone pouring from the speakers can grab the listener by the chest, making your breastbone vibrate in sympathy and your heart throb to his rhythm.
The deeper answer, I think, is that the song carries a message people are desperate to hear. In the gospel harmonies of American religious tradition, Hozier proclaims that whatever their church has told them, his listeners are not sinful or dirty for wanting, needing, and liking sex. Sex itself can be sacred, spiritual, holy, far more so than the Church’s greed for wealth and lust for control. Sexual love is love, in all its madness and messiness; sex is an act of worship, not of violence or corruption.
Hozier will return to these themes and work variations on them in other songs, with extensive borrowings from European myth and poetry. I’ll be revisiting his discography to discuss more of his songs in future, and I hope you’ll read along.
I approach you, Dea Juno, Juno Regina: I see you
standing over me with queenly mien. Queen of heaven,
queen of gods, sovereign lady, you preside in state
on the Capitoline Hill with Jupiter and Minerva,
your husband and his daughter. Like Hera in Hellas,
you own the peacock as your bird; the stars are your eyes,
the rainbow your handmaid, the clouds your veil.
I come closer, and you are Juno Moneta, Juno Curitis.
Wrapped in the aegis, you advise the sacred king
and wield your spear in defense of the people.
Under your protection auguries are issued, coins
are minted, and you become the giver and preserver
of wealth. Records, too, are in your storehouse,
for it is memory that advises and counsels us at need.
I come closer to find Juno Sospita, Juno at Lanuvium,
mistress of fauns, she who purifies with whips.
Under your direction the Luperci hound but do not harm;
pain and laughter drive out the winter’s filth.
Juno Seispes Mater Regina, Savior, Mother, Queen,
your temple is a grove, and as Juno Caprotinae
you bring together slave women and free in revels
and accept the sacrifice of the lusty goat.
If I approach closer still, I see you as Juno Lucina,
she who brings to light, the midwife who helps
the birthing mother, who opens the doors of the womb
that the child may journey from dark to light.
You are our helper in the deepest pain, in the hardest
labour, in the most daring task: Bringing life to light,
bringing children from our bodies. Protectress
of marriage, of children, of matrons, you still
remind us that our sovereignty is our own.
At last I come face to face with you, great goddess,
and find your face to be a mirror of my own.
For my own inner deity, guardian spirit, better self
is also called juno. Or should I say that my face
is the mirror to yours, and if I look at you, Savior,
Mother, Queen, Wife, Adviser, Purifier, Defender,
I may become all this as well? Therefore I look to you,
Juno Dea, Juno Regina; I bow to you, great goddess,
divine matron, heavenly sovereign; I praise you,
glorious Juno, of peacock, spear, and cloud.
(Originally written 1/30/2015, for an agon in the goddess’ honor sponsored by Galina Krasskova)
“Another request to smite someone? Brimo, when will they learn that’s not my job?”
Hekate shook her head. “Probably never, if they haven’t learned it by now.”
Hades buried his head in his hands. “Zeus does the smiting, with a little help from Hera. Persephone does the scaring. Thanatos actually reaps mortal souls. Hermes guides them here. I just–Hekate, what do I do? Why am I here?”
“Somebody has to keep the books.” She patted him briskly on the arm. “Why don’t you get Cerberus and go for a walk in the garden or something? One of the Nice Girls can watch the door for a while.”
“It’s no fun without my wife,” he grumped. “Besides, it’s like winter here when she’s with her mother.”
“You could watch some Netflix? I hear there are some interesting new documentaries on religious aberrations.”
Hades sighed. “I think we’re out of popcorn.”
Hekate clucked her tongue. “Well, I need to go. It’s still dark moon tide and I’ve got crossroads to visit, offerings to sample. If you won’t get out of the house, you should send out a daimon for snacks and watch some movies, something Persephone won’t mind missing.”
Hades flopped backward on his couch. “I can’t even catch up with Brooklyn Nine Nine with her.”
“Oh, Tartaros,” Hekate said. “I’m off for the night, do what you like.”
As she whisked out of the room, Hades threw his arm over his eyes. “I don’t punish people. I just watch the door. I do the paperwork. And it’s all because I drew the short straw….”
IF YOU LIKE MY WORK
There’s someone crying in the kitchen
I have heard that voice before
Someone shouting in the kitchen,
banging the pots and pans, brooding
over the lighted burners, the boiling pots.
Someone, something is in the kitchen
the ghosts of dead mothers, mother martyrs,
martyred mothers, the mothers who expect help
without asking for it, the mothers who smoke cigarettes
in their children’s faces, the mothers who flirt with
their daughter’s boyfriends. Someone is crying
in the living room, hunched in the corner of the sofa,
on the phone with a friend saying how awful
everything is, unfaithful husband, ungrateful child,
no money for jewelry, no time for herself.
Someone, something is clutching at me,
a cigarette in one ghostly hand. I spit beans at you!
Let the ghosts of unloving mothers be forever gone,
silent in Asphodel. Shut up, mother, you’re dead.