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Pushing Back at Life: Paganism, Strength, and Heavy Metal (Part 1)

“Man is delight of man and augmentation of the earth and adorner of ships.” – Old Icelandic Rune Poem

The nightclub was the size of a postage stamp, with a tiny stage set in a corner. The show was sold out, the house was literally packed, and earplugs would be necessary. A shot of whisky in hand, the music began. Fists pumped the air, head’s snapped forward and back, and then we all were dancing.

Between bands, the doors opened wide, letting in the sweet night air. The club was hot, and smelled like a mass of humans. There was no way to escape the heat that rose from bodies pumping with adrenalin. By the second band, the mosh pit could no longer be gainsaid. The heat rose. The energy soared. The air decreased. I was being buffeted by bodies as the music poured through me. A wash of beer cascaded down my back. People laughed at the shock of it. The abusurdity of it. People grinned fiercely at the pure enjoyment of being pushed and pushing back. We were not pitted against one another. There was just a need to feel. To be. To experience the push of life force and to push back.

I could barely breathe, and being smallish and a glasses wearer, I shoved my way to an edge of the mosh pit, which is to say I edged out to where things felt less intense. With a club that size, the whole floor is a moving mass of bodies. I got bumped. I pushed. I stood and pumped my fist. I threw the sacred horns of the God of lust, and strength, and magic, and felt happy. One member of the second band wore a t-shirt emblazoned with a white rune, “mannaz”. This is the rune of humanity. And humanity was what we were in that moment, no mistaking it. The little brindled deaf dog that lives at the club was nowhere to be seen, having escaped to a place that felt safer for him, no doubt. It was just us, upright hominids, listening to the music of battle, of night, and of Gods who appear where the hammer is worn, beer is spilled, and people come together in dancing.

When you can decipher the lyrics, doom metal is not always uplifting. But at last night’s concert, thrashing around a nightclub to dark metal felt incredibly life affirming. An outsider could become quickly confused by this music that often sings of darkness, or by the black clad bodies and the raised fists. It can look like fascism, or hypnotism, or anger. It can look a bit scary, I suppose. But look a little closer: like most Pagan rites, this is a rite of power, yes, but not one of enslavement. We are pumping our fists together and shouting because we like it, not because someone tells us so. We are pushing at each other, not out of violence or hatred, but because sometimes we feel pushed around by life, and it feels really good to push back. If we dance like this together, there is no need for fighting. If we dance like this together, there is no need for leaders and followers. If we dance like this together, there is energy that rises from the trance inducing chords of the guitars and the droning of the voices. This energy conspires with us to spell out “Life!”

Several years ago, I read an article written by a man who had used a “red-rover” type game at a Pagan gathering to push, to pull, to feel an affirmation of his life blood and his own joy in pitting strength against strength. He chose a place in the line opposite him where two big men held hands, and ran there, shoving up against them. They held together and resisted, struggling with him. He felt met, and enlivened. Some people were later upset by this, feeling this man had brought violence to their playful, peaceful, Pagan idyll. He felt confused. He was just trying to be a man who was met by other men. I understand this.

Life is beautiful. Life can be found in the gentle unfolding of a flower, the caress of a lover, the warmth of spring sunshine. Life is beautiful. Life can be found in the explosion of volcanoes, the wrestling of dogs, the mantis hunting the bumblebee, the activist putting her body before the bulldozer, and the roaring of the wind. Is this not all life? Are we humans not a part of this?

So last night I went with friends to hear a trio of Finnish Pagan metal bands. I was pushed, and I pushed back. I may not have stayed in the mosh as long as my larger friends, but I enjoyed their enjoyment, just as I enjoyed the rush of power through my body, channeled through electrically amplified chords. I enjoyed the literal sense of the heat rising from our bodies. I enjoyed the respite of the cool night air.

I do not advocate for violence. I do not comprehend the love of gladiatorial spectacle, in person or on film. In fact, I tend to feel very disturbed by it. I do however, love the testing of strength and the feeling of your power next to mine. I love it when we help each other grow stronger -– through training together, and through our testing – and we are needed to be strong as well as gentle. We are needed to be fierce as well as kind. The tall tree with no resistance from the wind soon falls. Let us stand together, tall.

We are Pagan. Strength becomes us.

Blessed be.

[who were the bands? Swallow the Sun, Moonsorrow, and Finntroll. Mannaz Rune Box from Oswald the Runemaker. Some critical analysis of this experience to come in Part 2, and if anyone has a lead on that article I reference, I’d appreciate a link. I believe it was in PanGaia.]

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