I am the Iron Tree.
I stand upon the Mountain
at the center of the World.
My trunk is straight and strong.
My roots go down deep into the earth.
They spread out and drink the waters
of the four rivers of the underworld,
blue-green and glacier-cold.
My taproot sinks to the center of the earth
and brings up the heartfire.
I am nourished and empowered.
My branches reach up high into the heavens.
They drink the light of sun, moon, and stars like rain.
A single ray from the single star that belongs to me alone
descends into my crown, illuminating and guiding me.
The winds of the four quarters blow upon me,
bringing news and carrying messages.
My spirit allies gather around me,
knowing they can meet me here.
I am the iron tree, grounded and centered,
illuminated and balanced.
I bend only when I will,
and I do not break.
This full moon? Old man Ryōkan
gave it to me; he said a thief left it behind.
I was having tea with him one day in early spring,
before the cherries had blossomed out,
and after the rain passed over, he took it down
and said he didn’t need it any more.
Do you need it? I have enough light to read his poems by.
(Ryōkan, Zen monk, hermit, poet and calligrapher, died on this date in 1831.)
When I light my candle and incense, look at the divine images I printed off the Internet and pasted together, read poems I have written and then fumble my words when I try to ask for help–the little voice says, “Devotion is for losers”.
It sounds a bit like Chris Evans in an early, jerkass role–masculine, slightly nasal, tenor register, and very American. (No offense to Evans, who remains one of my favorite actors and beautiful people.)
I’m a strong independent person who don’t need no gods, right? I live by myself (well, self and bird). I work full-time and support myself. I’m an introvert who needs plenty of alone time. I should be pursuing the empowering path of Magic/k or however you want to spell it, right? Grinding out spells to make the changes in my life that I want.
Except that doesn’t work for me. Positive change happens when I’m not looking. Things I want tend to come to me if I genuinely, steadily desire them. Trying to have some sort of regular magical practice turns out to interfere with the one thing in my life that is genuinely, invariably, reliably empowering–that is, writing.
I’ve seen over and over again that if I have to choose between using my limited time and energy for magic/k/e or for writing, writing will win, every time. Writing wins over laundry, dishes, bingewatching, and sometimes even eating or sleeping, let alone magic.
Yet devotional practice flows in around the edges of work and dinner and writing and video and supports all that. Replenishes energy instead of taking it. Makes dealing with everyday stressors easier. Inspires my writing. Tends toward greater kindness to myself and others.
“Devotion is for losers.” I’m not sure where that snotty voice in my head came from, but I’m pretty sure it’s wrong.
All the world’s a stage, and all the Tarot merely scenery,
a painted backdrop for an amateur display.
All the world’s a stage, and all our comedies and dramas
re-enactment of the myths, rehearsal of a few enduring plots.
All the world’s a journey, and Pixie’s Fool goes tripping through it,
feet light as feathers, eyes raised to the sky.
Only the Fool’s dog knows what’s in that bag of tricks,
the wanderer’s bindlestaff over one shoulder,
its humble length an axis round which all the worlds revolve.
(For Pamela Colman Smith, Pixie to her friends, born on this date in 1878, illustrator of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot)
In fannish circles we have a saying: “I didn’t know I wanted that until I saw it.” It refers to something, usually a fan work, that satisfies a need or desire you weren’t aware of having. It might describe an unusual pairing, or a fan video using a particular song, or a what-if scenario in a fanfic that goes far afield of what “really” happened onscreen. A large part of the pleasure of fannish activities, I think, is simply discovering and connecting with your actual pleasures, desires, even kinks. In fandom it’s okay if you want to read a dozen different stories about a character overcoming past trauma by taking care of an abandoned child, however badly that sort of thing would work out in real life. (Not that I would ever read that sort of thing myself, of course….)
There was a moment sometime back in 2014, I think, when I realized that I wanted to make an offering to Antinous and ask him for help with something specific. At the time I had been going to church regularly for over a year and identifying as an Episcopalian. But despite going to Sunday Eucharist and saying the Daily Office (daily), I had no desire to take this particular problem, whatever it was, to Jesus or his Father. That was when it hit me that I had a relationship with Antinous, a Greek teenager who drowned in the Nile and was deified by Egyptian custom in the year 130 C.E., that I had never had with the god of my childhood religion, a religion I kept coming back to in spite of exploring a lot of alternatives. I had feelings for Antinous that I had never had for Jesus, and it wasn’t that I hadn’t tried to cultivate those feelings for Jesus–I had. I had relationships with some of the saints that had this emotional resonance–Julian of Norwich, in particular–but never with Jesus or his Father. That relationship, those feelings, are devotion.
That was what caused me to give up Christianity and adopt a polytheism focused on Antinous, finally, decisively. Devotion, this deep emotional connection with a deity, was the thing I didn’t know I wanted, the thing I didn’t quite know was missing, until I had it. I couldn’t manufacture it, any more than I could make myself fall in love with someone. Devotion is a sort of falling in love, being in love, falling in love some more.
Salus, giver of health, guardian of the people,
on this the Nones of August we hail you once again.
Feed your holy serpent, Salus, that giver of
health and wisdom, predator of pests,
deity of surging energy. O Salus, bless us
with all things that are salutary, with medicines
of prevention and medicines of cure, with
cleanliness and carefulness, with concern
for our neighbors, whose health affects our own.
O Salus, may our offerings to you be
accepted, for our well-being, O guardian
of the people, giver of good health.
(Originally posted to Antinous for Everybody, 8/5/2015)
1And the LORD appeared unto [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; 2And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, 3And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: 4Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: 5And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said.
–Genesis 18:1-5, Authorised Version
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.)
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.