M. Macha NightMare, 1999, 2000, reprinted from PanGaia #26, Winter ’00-’01
In all my years of practicing Witchcraft, I have found chanting, singing and breath and vocal work to be one of the most efficacious means of changing consciousness, and of ‘charging’ a working. It’s the easiest, most accessible method I know of. Anyone who breathes can chant; it’s as easy as breathing and vocalizing.
We1 need no tools for chanting. We carry lungs and voices with us at all times, our ‘magical tools’ are oxygen, our lungs and our voices. It’s not necessary to be musical, to be able to carry a tune — though it helps. Yet it’s also a sacred technology that we often don’t make the best use of. Regardless of the setting or what other tangible tools may be at hand for us to use, we can always be ready to chant when a situation calls for it; or when circumstances are such that they can be changed, the energy can be moved by chanting.
This is important because, as Don Frew has suggested, “in the absence of a single Neo-Pagan liturgy, songs and chants may act as a unifying factor, establishing a shared set of beliefs and principles which become a part of Neo-Pagan culture.”2; Furthermore, chants are an important ritual technique “because of their simple two- or four-line structure, they are easily learned and transmitted.”
Many are the rituals I’ve attended where the chants were only casually taught ahead of time, in order that everyone could participate as much as possible in the working at hand. Then, when the chants were employed in the ritual itself, they were repeated only three or four times. Had they been extended, had they been repeated beyond the point of thinking about them and what the next line was, beyond the point of ‘knowing’ the chant, beyond the point of boredom, they could have been far more powerful. As with other kinds of magical workings, in using chants we are better served by striving for the increased power of synergy. Our magic is stronger when we include everyone in the working, when we take advantage of the unique contributions of each individual as well as of the collective energy that can be raised by everyone in the circle.
The groups I work with begin most rituals with a simple breathing and grounding tree of life meditation which often involves vocalization. Many, if not most, other Craft traditions use a similar technique to harmonize their energies and to ready themselves for the magical work at hand. With just a bit more emphasis on vocalization as release of unnecessary concerns and distracting thoughts, we can begin to warm ourselves up.
During the time when participants are being purified in preparation for the ritual, with air and fire, with water and earth, we often begin a very soft chanting of “The ocean is the beginning of the Earth, the ocean is the beginning of the Earth. All things come from the sea. All things come from the sea.”3; We do this very softly, and usually begin to sway like the gentle action of the waves meeting a beach. This has the effect of involving those others in the circle who are not at that moment in the act of purifying or being purified, of bringing our breath and voices together even more, and of reinforcing the work of the priest/ess who is doing the purifying. Competing with one another in volume does not facilitate the work. To increase the volume of such a chant is to the miss the point of using it entirely. Consider the two following examples of using pre-taught chants in large group rituals.
Using Chants in Ritual
One of our early attempts at using chants in ritual prepared for others (as opposed to using chants within our own coven working) was when Coven Holy Terrors created a ritual as our gift to the first Merry Meet festival held by the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) in 1981. We were a coven of nine women, and operated as a ‘group priestesshood.’ We created a performance ritual, which was also meant to be experienced by attendees, based on the Wheel of the Year. One of us began with a tree of life mediation for everyone, then our drummer (my late husband Rod) accompanied us as the other eight of us entered the space (which happened to be a desanctified U.S. Army chapel in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the San Francisco Bay Area).
Each priestess embodied one of the sabbats (Witches seasonal holy days) beginning at Samhain. The circle was marked with eight stations, the foremost being the one where the sabbat priestess spoke. We moved from one station to the next as we progressed from sabbat to sabbat. We used different chants, nearly all of which were familiar to the people attending the ritual, so they didn’t need to be taught ahead of time. People could just join in. Another factor which made this ritual a bit different was that all participants were Witches of one kind of another; no one was a novice at creating and participating in ritual. It was easy to ‘read the energy’ of the room and to diminish the chant when the priestesses had moved to the next station. At the end, we used a lively chant that had everyone on their feet celebrating our Wheel. That last chant went on until it was exhausted and died down, at which point everyone grounded.
Some years later, I attended a ritual based on the ten Sephiroth of the Kaballah where a similar technique was used. There was a priestess and a priest for each Sephiroth. The ritualists used different chants to move the priest/esses from one point to another. The cantor attempted to teach the chants ahead of time, but not enough time was given for us to have actually learned them. As was the case in our Wheel of the Year ritual, this Kaballah ritual was performed in a setting of Witches. However, the chants chosen were less widely known, and in addition, most Witches know the sabbats but many are unfamiliar with Kaballah. So when the time came for the celebrants to use the chant, we fumbled and groped and ended up listening to the cantor (a newer role in larger public rituals) chant rather than joining her.
In 1984, my friends Sharon Devlin, Bone Blossom and I created a ritual/workshop entitled “Kali, the Terrible Mother, and Other Dark Goddesses” for the first Ancient Ways festival at Harbin Hot Springs, California. This was also a Grand Council of Covenant of the Goddess. For that, we had one chant in celebration of Kali Ma at the culmination of the what turned out to be a long and powerful rite. We didn’t teach it ahead of time. It’s an odd chant; it’s not in English, for one thing. The words all mean pretty much the same thing — “Hail, Kali Ma!” This chant, taught to me by a Palo Alto Witch who had learned it from an East Indian, went,
“Jai Ma! Kali Durga Ma, Kali Ma!
Jai Ma! Kali Durga Ma. Jai Ma-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!
Kali Ma! Jai Ma-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah! Durga Ma!” 4
When we three priestesses began chanting, the participants simply picked it up and continued with it. This chant went on and on and on, accompanied by wonderful drumming by Paul Erdman, as each participant passed between the legs of the three “Kalis” — one white, one red and one black. In contrast to chants used for purposes such as healing, changing mood, raising energy, this Kali chant was a praise chant, a chant of devotion to the Dark Mother, pure bhakti.
Using Chants in Rites of Passage
Another effective use of chant and song is in rites of passage. When my friend Tami was in labor, we chanted: “The river is flowing, flowing and flowing. The river is flowing down to the sea. Mother, carry me, a child I will bear for Thee. Mother, carry me, down to the sea.”5
To help bring on her milk and to encourage her newborn to take the breast, my partner Corby and I sang a traditional Gaelic Beltane song that we learned from Ruth Barrett and Cyntia Smith, called “Summer, Summer.”6 The chorus is: “Summer, Summer, milk of the heifer/We have brought the Summer in/Yellow Summer, brilliant daisies/We have brought the Summer in.” We sang is softly and soothingly as baby Rhiannon lay in her mother’s arms. Shortly afterwards, Tami’s milk flowed and Rhiannon suckled. We sang the Shaker hymn “Through All the Worlds Below,” 7 (reworked by Susan Rothbaum, Holly Tannen and Catherine Madsen) at Rhiannon’s naming ceremony.
When my friend Raven was dying, one devotional chant to Kali Ma, surfaced over and over again. It goes, “Like a bee my mind is buzzing round the blue lotus feet of My Divine Mother, My Divine Mother.” 8 Having the others present in the room maintaining this chant kept me bound to the world of the living as I attempted to go part way to the other side with him.
During the weeks of sitting vigil with the late John Patrick McClimans, he responded to my barely audible chanting of the refrain to the Gaelic song “Weaver, Weaver.” 9 The words I used were, “Weaver, Weaver, weave his thread whole an strong into Your web. Healer, healer, heal his pain. In love may he return again.”
Chants as Contemporary Pagan Folklore
Evidence of the accessibility and usefulness of chant in ritual abounds. I’ve had the good fortune to travel and visit Witches throughout the U.S. I’ve encountered chants and their variations everywhere I’ve shared circle.
In my particular tradition of Witchcraft, Reclaiming, chanting has been developed to a high degree and spread far and wide. We are fortunate to have Starhawk as our primary liturgist — she is supremely gifted in writing chants both as sole author and in collaboration with others. In addition, many powerful chants have been inspired by magical work at Reclaiming’s Witch Camps, which have also been disseminated and found their way into the workings of many other Witches and Pagans. Wonderful chants and songs come from throughout our fertile Pagan community, but since Reclaiming (and Starhawk in particular) is widely known, both in and out of the community, our chants have become more widely known than some others.
As is common with ‘folk’ material, chants change. When I visited Atlanta in April of 1998, the group of Witches I was working with used a chant written by Starhawk back in the early 1980s. This chant was remembered differently by people who had learned it in different places and circumstances. I, who had been part of the action for which it was written (a nonviolent protest of nuclear development at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California) had one memory, while the woman I was with in Atlanta had another. We were somewhat frustrated in trying to maintain the ‘togetherness’ that good chanting requires, since we knew different versions of the same chant. The woman in Atlanta remembered the chant as having an additional article, “the” before the word “Sun,” which slightly changed the scanning; she also remembered the melody slightly differently. That particular chant, sometimes called “Summer Solstice Power Chant,” has found its way around the world.
The words go like this:
We are the power in everyone,
We are the dance of the Moon and Sun,
We are the hope that will not hide,
We are the turning of the tide.
I learned this chant by doing, by singing it in ritual. I don’t know that it had even been committed to paper at that time. Also during that Summer in the early eighties, there was a woman training with Reclaiming who worked with the deaf and American sign language. She taught us the gestures that translated the chant into visuals. The gestures (or I might call them asanas, since they really are sacred gestures, meant to effect both internal and external changes by their meanings) were very graceful, and she taught us all. This woman, T’Brin, and I encountered one another in New Mexico last September and I thanked her once again for teaching me the movement to that chant.
More recently my friend Tami, trained at the Golden Gate Interfaith Institute, was ordained as an interfaith minister. At her ordination I encountered a version of this same chant again. This time, the chant had been transformed into a song of sorts, using essentially the same words, led by a guitar playing folk singer and intended to be sung by all at the service. The program said that the song was “Native American.”
After the service, I spoke with both the director of the school, (where I had lectured in the past) , and with the performer who sang the song. I told them of its origins, and asked the director to take care in any future use of it to attribute it to its true author. I asked the same of the singer, who, when I asked him where he’d picked it up, said that he’d learned it at Ananda, a Zen Buddhist retreat center in the Mother Lode country of the Sierra Nevadas, and insisted that he sang it exactly as he had learned it. I didn’t doubt his story, but my concern, was with correcting his misimpressions and with preventing further misleading dissemination of the chant. After all, it was written by an individual and she is due her credit (if not royalties).
My musicologist friend Steve Rasumussen says, “It is axiomatic among musicologists that printing freezes oral tradition; local and personal variants disappear as singers conform themselves to the perceived authority of the printed edition.” 10 What happened in the case of the Summer Solstice Power Chant is that someone committed it to paper, complete with musical annotation, and that subsequently appeared in the ordination program. It’s more difficult to correct something that has been printed, due to the authority conveyed by the printed word, than it is to correct an oral teaching.
One striking instance of chant appropriation occurred when a Craft chant, written by Starhawk for a Reclaiming Brigit ritual some years ago (and used every year hereabouts), being adopted by Irish Catholics. The tune to this chant comes from a South African freedom song. A Reclaiming Witch named Pomegranate, was visiting Brigit’s shrine at Kildare in the early ’90s when she heard the chanting of, “We will never, never lose our way to the well of Her Memory, and the power of Her living flame, it will rise. It will rise again. Like the grasses, through the dark, through the soil to the sunlight, we shall rise again. We are thirsty for the Waters of Life, we are moving. We shall live again.” 11 I don’t know if they chanted the entire chant, or just the first few lines, but in any case, here is an example of Craft culture being picked up and used by those who are not Pagan — a sign, in my mind, of our coming of age.
Three Easy Rules for Achieving Enchantment
- Be sensitive to the purpose, and use the chant accordingly. If your intent is to move into trance, then chant softly. If it’s to raise energy, begin slowly and softly and very gradually increase in pace and volume.
- Look into each other’s eyes. Hold hands or move your body, as you might be doing if dancing a spiral. This helps keep you connected.
- Chant until you no longer need to think about what the next words are. Chant for longer than the time it takes for you to memorize the chant with repetition. Chant beyond the point of boredom. Chant beyond the point at which you know you can chant no longer. When you’ve reached a point where you think you cannot possibly chant these words one more time, reach deeper inside yourself and bring up more energy and chant some more. Chant until your consciousness begins to change, until you begin to experience enchantment. Finally, when neither you nor anyone else in your circle can chant any more, allow the words to become a wordless chant and raise it higher and louder.
As a Witch and a ritualist, I look forward to an ever-increasing repertoire of chants — enchantment is a magical technology we can all learn to use and enjoy.
1 When I use the term “we” here, I mean contemporary Pagan ritualists, not limited to Witches. Return to article
2 Magliocco, Sabina and Holly Tannen, “The Real Old-Time Religion,” in Ethnologies – Wicca, Vol. 20, 1, 1998, published by the Folklore Studies Association of Canada (publication formerly called Canadian Folklore Canadien) Return to article
3 The chant that goes, “The ocean is the beginning of the Earth” is by Delaney Johnson and Starhawk and can be found on the tape Chants: Ritual Music by Reclaiming Community. Return to article
4 The Kali chant “Jai Kali Ma!” is a traditional Hindu one, its origins obscured by the antiquity and complexity of Hindu culture. Return to article
5 I ran across “The River is Flowing” in Green Earth Sprituality Songbook complied by Jess Shoup. He credits the writing of this song to Diana Hildebrand-Hull. Return to article
6 “Summer, Summer” lyrics by Cyntia Smith and Ruth Barrett, traditional melody with Gaelic translation of the chorus by Jim Duran appears on The Heart is the Only Nation, Aeolus Music, 1993. Return to article
7 “Through All the Worlds Below” appears on Between the Worlds by Holly Tannen, Gold Leaf Records, 1985. Return to article
8 “Like a bee” is traditional in its imagery, in that Kali devotees such as the mystic/poet Ramprased use it in their songs of “god intoxication” Return to article
9 “Weaver, Weaver” is a traditional Gaelic tune with lyrics by Starhawk. It appears, with musical notation, in The Pagan Book of Living and Dying. It is recorded on Through the Darkness by Beverly Frederick, 1998. Return to article
10The Rasmussen quote is from a personal communication and appears in Crossing Over: A Pagan Manual on Death and Dying, self-published in 1996 by the Reclaiming Collective, republished by HarperSanFrancisco under the name The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, 1997. Return to article
11 The chant that begins “We will never lose our way to the well” is called “Way to the Well.” The tune is a South African freedom song, lyrics by Starhawk and Rose May Dance; it is traditionally used at Reclaiming Brigit rituals. It appears on Hand of Desire by Lunacy, (Greg Johnson & Sparky T. Rabbit), 1992. Return to article
All recorded music cited can be purchased from Serpentine Music.