Woodland Rites and Sylvan Signs: Rediscovering the Old Gods Through Music

Toppled circles of broken stone, chalk outlines of towering giants on hillsides, unknown figures carved on ancient buildings, the Green Man face in your local pub – even throughout the vast swathes of the world in which the most followed religions are now monotheistic, there are vivid reminders of the pagan worship that once held dominance. Before we gave our gods a singular benevolence and omniscience, we worshipped pantheons of varied, flawed deities who reigned over different aspects of nature, culture and society. And before that, we needed no figures in the shape of man or beast at all, and instead we simply worshipped pools, rivers, rocks and trees. 

Today, we retain an awe for natural things and the landscape that surrounds us, but we are separated from nature itself. Over the centuries we left the countryside behind as we moved into towns and cities, and nature became another commodity – something to be enjoyed as we might wish, but not truly engaged with as it once was. The “Old Gods”, then, is a nebulous term used to refer to a broad umbrella of ancient deities and spirits, reflecting not only an older way of living but a time when our relationship with nature was not yet as fractured and complicated as it is today. We lived and worked amongst it, saw both the beauty and the brutality contained within, and thus held an innate sense of respect for the landscape. Today, we have firmly stamped our domination over nature, extracting ceaselessly and paying only lip service to the widespread damage we’ve wrought.

This apparent disconnect between us and the land that birthed us has created a soul sickness of sorts, and in the wake of the internet and digital media’s increasing significance in our daily lives, this disconnect has only intensified. As a result, there is a longing to reforge a relationship that has somehow dissipated. We are increasingly seeking to reconvene with an ancestral way of living, mining the past in search of lost wisdom – reaching out to find if the Old Gods still live. 

But how do we fabricate a relationship with something so intangible? We have forgotten the old ways so profoundly that trying to pick up the lost threads often feels fruitless, like trying to carry more firewood when the sticks have already begun to pile up and come tumbling out of your arms onto the forest floor. It’s something that’s hard to communicate through speech alone, and thus, we turn to the same thing we have turned to ever since we first discovered we could draw figures on cave walls and bang bones together to create sound – we turn to art. When we cannot quite fathom an aching feeling in our hearts or pin down a concept swirling incessantly around our minds, we try to capture its essence – in writing, in poetry, in painting, in photography, in film, and yes, in song. 

This much is reflected in the folk horror revival that only works when the countryside itself seems alien to us, in the success of attractions like Cornwall’s Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, and in the surge of folklore and hauntology-influenced zines such as Weird Walk, Hellebore, and Rituals & Declarations. It’s reflected in the popularity of nature writers like Robert MacFarlane and the late Roger Deakins, in our continued obsession with myths and legends, and in the communities forming around such interests, exemplified perfectly by the recently launched Stone Club, which aims to bring together enthusiasts of ancient standing stones and megaliths.

And just as writers, filmmakers, photographers and artists have been expressing their admiration for the nebulous realm of folklore, nature, mythology and weird history, musicians have also turned their attention to forgotten practises and ancient cultures. And it’s not reserved only for obscure niches, either. The Gods We Can Touch, the new album from Nordic pop icon Aurora, is based on returning to a time when the term ‘god’ did not mean a distant figure lauding over us from afar, but a wealth of spirits and deities that surrounded us in the landscape we called home.

Aurora’s quirky magic may keep her just shy of mass appeal, but she has nevertheless flirted with the mainstream, finding a TikTok sensation with ‘Runaway’, featuring on soundtracks for films like Frozen 2 and Wolfwalkers, and even scoring the 2015 John Lewis Christmas ad with a cover of Oasis’ ‘Half The World Away’. Her new record therefore brings ancient myths and a pre-Christian outlook to a broad modern audience, finding messages in Greek mythology that still ring true today.

“The Greeks had gods and goddesses for everything,” Aurora notes. “For anxiety, for wine, for sex… Long ago when this concept of gods and goddesses started they were more human, more relatable, and almost touchable. Most importantly, they had flaws.” The album, then, is a celebration of the things that make us human – our flaws. Where puritan idealism has long demanded that we deny our earthly desires and try to live sin-free existences to please a supposedly forgiving god, The Gods We Can Touch speaks to the notion that spirituality does not have to mean suppression and constraint. Nor does it mean lawlessness and chaos, simply that morality does not have to be taught by any doctrine – right and wrong are vague concepts, but it’s up to you to decide where you draw those lines.

On ‘Heathens’, Aurora sings of “Stealing from the trees of Eden // Living in the arms of freedom”. In doing so, she reflects on Eve’s biting of the forbidden fruit not as a wrongful act, but a liberating one. In this alternative view of Genesis, mankind is not tainted by original sin but graced with the free will to err, to explore, and to shape ourselves into distinct individuals. The pursuit of perfection is a futile one, and once we get there, the end result is mundane: a world of perfect people is one in which we are denied any sense of personality or identity. To put aside this pursuit is to find freedom.

This notion of liberation, found in an ancient pantheon, forms the bedrock of the album, where it’s used as a springboard for intimate personal musings as well as expressions of inner power and self-love. On the almost frustratingly catchy ‘Cure For Me’, Aurora emphasises the importance of being true to yourself and shutting out those who make you feel abnormal or unworthy, a sentiment of self-belief that is mirrored on ‘Giving In To The Love’, a track the singer-songwriter claims is inspired by Prometheus, who defied the Greek gods to gift humans fire in order for us to have wisdom, technology and civilisation. “I never had the world, so why change for it?” she sings triumphantly.

Speaking about the album’s closer ‘A Little Place Called The Moon’, Aurora says that she sees beauty everywhere, and sees god everywhere. This sense of finding divinity in the world itself speaks to an understanding of god that differs from the common contemporary perception, in which he becomes more like a parent half listening in on a baby monitor whilst off in another room attending to more important matters. Finding god in the world harks back to a more ancient polytheistic outlook, where the various deities were associated with specific areas, events or purposes. Whilst the Greek gods are each associated with fairly specific functions, the gods of the Celts seem to be less rigidly categorised, and were worshipped not in grand devoted temples but in forest clearings, besides rushing rivers and shimmering lakes. And it is these kinds of deities that seem to have inspired psychedelic folk-rock outfit Hexvessel, most notably on 2019’s All Tree.

The band’s fourth album, All Tree embraces their interest in folk tales and ancient mysticism, recalling the concept of the World Tree that we see in religions, mythologies and philosophies throughout the world. Musically, the record is perhaps their most stripped-back to date, striking a balance between bewitching, calming instrumentals and infectious, moving melodies. Despite a focus on simple string arrangements and gentle finger-picking, the melodies have a dreamy quality, and the music’s modesty lends it an inherent serenity – a sort of pleasant, rustic disquiet. It makes tracks like ‘Old Tree’ – a mournful lament for an age-old, dying tree – feel all the more sincere. 

Like much of the album, standout track ‘A Sylvan Sign’ is on the nose with its lyrics: “We’re told that the ancient gods have ceased to exist, but deep in the woodland and valleys I hear music”. Here, the band are finding communion with the wood, hearing song amongst the trees and thus deriving meaning from the earth itself and the lessons it has to teach us. Importantly, though, this is not a solitary pursuit: the band reveal on their website that “the main message of All Tree is a sense of community that is created when you observe a spiritual connection to nature.”

To honour this, the band created a fan community on Facebook to discuss the themes they were exploring and thus expand the concept. In an effort to further solidify that the album was a shared experience between fans and the band, Hexvessel worked with French incense maker Occulta to produce a scent that they used in the studio when performing rituals and recording music. Fans could then pick up the same incense and therefore further attune their senses with the band’s whilst listening to the album.

Through encouraging a sense of community, the band are not simply setting out alone to seek out the ancient gods amongst the landscape, but doing so together. This is further highlighted by the video for ‘Son Of The Sky’, created by the band’s Mat McNerney, which shows the ancient pine tree Timin mänty as well as Avebury standing stones – sacred places McNerney visited to worship nature and the Old Gods. Often, looking back to these concepts can devolve into a reactionary longing for the past, but the video actually emphasises how modern technology can in fact be used to enhance our pursuit of reconnecting with the old world – what were in fact solitary trips can in some sense be shared, turning the solitary into the communal. On ‘Wilderness Spirit’, the band sing of the spirit in question, “It’s in the rise of the land, it’s in the calling of the cranes, it’s in the rocks when the Earth was young.” Evidently, that spirit is a shared one.

And a band who shares a longing for that wilderness spirit is Green Lung, whose lyrics and aesthetics come steeped in occult imagery and folk horror tropes. Despite the seemingly dark nature of these themes, though, the band’s music is not the mournful affair you might expect. Indeed, for a band so closely entwined with the UK doom scene, their music is by all means groovy, dynamic and upbeat. Thus, even when the band is singing about the Highgate Vampire or Satan himself, there’s a theatrical element that makes it more of a celebration of historical folklore than it is horror born of a fear of the old world.

Never is this more clear than on ‘Old Gods’, taken from the band’s 2021 album Black Harvest. Upon the album’s release, the band told us that the track serves as a mission statement for them, and “a microcosm of everything Green Lung is about – a massive, grooving riff, an anthemic chorus, a proggy interlude and a soaring key change. The lyrics, too, encapsulate the band’s vision – celebrating a lost, folkloric pre-Christian, pre-imperial, pre-capitalist England, and seeking to revive it.”

As such, whilst the track certainly pays homage to the Old Gods, asserting that they did not and never will die, the track is just as much about proclaiming England to be a land in which the Old Gods still reign: 

“Oh well, they say that Jerusalem

Was built on English ground

But from the tor to the sunken fen

We stand on heathen land”

In a sense, we see here a reflection of Norway’s second-wave black metal scene and its will to return the country to a pre-Christian state. Green Lung have not exactly distanced themselves from these parallels, either, releasing a “burn churches, not witches” shirt that calls to mind the various church arsons committed by members of the black metal scene. However, the band also clearly represent a different take on fighting Christianity than the one we see in Norwegian black metal. For one, they’ve made an effort to make it clear that they don’t abide by the nazis who might latch onto their occultish aesthetic and claim it as their own. Musically, though, the differences show in the way the band are no strangers to good old-fashioned fun. Green Lung are a heavy band, but their music is also vivacious, and there’s no forced commitment to an uber-serious “trve kvlt” aesthetic.

Like Hexvessel, Green Lung sing of finding the old religion in the landscape around us, “upon the moor and the mountain side”. For them, the Old Gods never died, and music is a means of unearthing and reawakening so that we might start to reforge a connection between us and them – between us and the planet that gave us life. Though we may not refer to anything (or anyone) specific when we say “Old Gods”, they still hold a relevance today that has in many ways been eradicated by the dominance of organised monotheistic religions. Aurora, for instance, shows us that being yourself and accepting your flaws is something we can learn from millenia-old myths, a message that’s vital in a social media culture that forces us to be conscious of ourselves at every moment. Meanwhile, Hexvessel teach us how to communicate with the land as if it were alive in a time when we’ve forgotten that it is, and Green Lung invite us to celebrate forgotten customs, rituals and practises that might help us embrace the land we live in whilst distancing them from the nation of Britain and the horrors committed in its name.

In the modern day, the ancient ways seem outdated, perhaps even goofy and silly, but progression is not strictly linear. We have done great things as a species, but we have lost wisdom along the way as well. In our pursuit of growth and our will to dominate, we have created a culture that is damaging to the planet and to ourselves. The Old Gods will not emerge from the landscape to fix these issues for us, they are simply stories we tell ourselves – an effort to personify that which we love and pass on the lessons we deem important. But there’s a reason these artists seek to find resonance with forgotten beliefs. Art has never had the ability to fix anything on its own, but it can inspire us, motivate us, and show us different ways of living. Truth is, we don’t need the Old Gods, we just need a little bit of the relationship we once had with the natural world, where there was respect and love instead of exploitation and greed.

Words: George Parr

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