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Pop Paganism

Of stags, Jägermeister and reading tea leaves

A year ago I stumbled upon an article about a record by a Canadian music project called Tasseomancy. The finding left me dumbstruck: I didn't care what kind of project it was, anyone who calls their band that deserved my eternal loyalty. Tasseomancy, or tasseography, for those who don't know, is the term for the practice of fortune-telling by interpreting patterns in tea leaves, coffee grounds, or wine sediments. It is believed that this tradition started in several places in Asia, the Middle East and ancient Greece, independently, while its modern variety, before becoming a popular Victorian pass-time has been linked to the Gaelic cultures in Eastern Europe. Tasseomancy belongs to the family of Divination, which also includes geomancy (divination by means of the patterns of the earth), haruspicy (reading the entrails of sacrificed animals), chiromancy (palm reading) - and hundreds of other forms of divination via the reading of patterns.

The “modern” version of tea leaf reading has evolved, but it's still fascinating because of the direct connection with the subconscious - the interpretation of abstract patterns and the use of symbolic logic they bring with them. We know, for example, that the first symbol one sees represents one's dominant character or someone close or influential. The symbols on the edges of the cup represent the present, and the closer a pattern is to the edge, the sooner the event it represents is going to happen. The part in between is the near future, normally the coming two weeks. What's on the bottom of the cup is further in the future and also represents the answers or ultimate conclusions. Some tasseographers admit they can only read the next 24 hours.

Tasseomancy, the band, is a fairly new music project but already worthy of the expectations their name generated in me. The band members are twin sisters Sari and Romi Lightman, based in Toronto but originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Although Tasseomancy is one of the strangest and most personal projects I have stumbled upon recently, the Lightman twins are better known as the two backing singers in the Austra live band - who dance languidly, with amulets dangling from their necks, either side of the singer at that band's gigs. On the one hand, “Ulalume” (Out Of This Spark, 2011), Tasseomancy's first album (they had previously released a mini album under the name of Ghost Bees, recommended but not as good), has a sound familiar to the lovers of the psychedelic and dark folk of bands like Comus or The Incredible String Band - that became ubiquitous three or four years ago. On the other, it sounds surprising because of its emphasis on the literary, the unity of its tracks and its use of narration and myths.

Anubis”, the opening track, is a slow, ghostly litany that starts out describing the stages of a ritual ( “Break the key / Light the Leaves / Pour the salt / Underneath / So the dark doesn’t leak / Past the doorway”), only to gradually penetrate a liminal space full of supplications ( “Devourer / I feel your breath / Teeth are beneath / My breathing chest, O breathe / The feather outweighs all I hide”), which precedes the final appearance of the God of the underworld with his scales. “Diana” is another oration, which supplicates the goddess and asks for her arms to resist the omens around them ( “Who's in my cellar / For my apples have blackened and rottened / And they've taken more than they have given / And my animals frightened and sickened / Soon your crops / They will rot / This dark season”).

“Heavy Sleep”, possibly the highlight on the album, is another song about crossing thresholds, an investigation of the other side of conscience, or maybe of life ( “When you go / Can I only breathe again? / Words un-spoke / Fester slowly in the skin / Demons come to harm / Paralyze the spine / Weighing on the chest / Demons come to harm”). It's another slow, Gothic litany, almost impossibly languid and catatonic. The video accompanying it, a kind of compendium of the morbid images of the record, shows the twins drinking some kind of drug or venom that opens the liminal space, full of images of death and where both experience the visit of a presence from the Other Side, alternatively provided with demonic, vampiric and oracular features.

Another of the central songs on the album, “Healthy Hands (Will Mourn You)”, once again sketches a scene of transition to the beyond. Here it's Saint Eustace who visits the death alcove, appearing with Pagan features and with the power to extract spirits from the body. Saint Eustace is another one of those Paleochristian martyrs of whom the legends are so fabulous that not even the Vatican considers them to be true, nor is it possible to not see the traces of ancestral folklore in them. Before his miraculous conversion, Saint Eustace was a Roman general named Placidus, who, while hunting, saw a vision of Jesus between a stag's antlers. The vision made him change his name and baptise himself and all of his family. Although few people know this, the symbol of Saint Eustace, a cross between a stag's antlers, is identical to the logo on the bottles of German liquor brand Jägermeister (literally, “master hunter”). This is because Saint Eustace is the patron saint of hunters, and in old times, the jägermeisters were the bosses of the German foresters.

I find it impossible to not see the legend of Saint Eustace as the classic Christian re-elaboration of an ancestral Pagan motive, in this case the antlers of a stag. Everybody knows that the stag was a sacred creature worshipped by hunters - from the Celtic world to primitive America. They were prayed to - especially in autumn, the hunting season - asking for its support for the tribe. The stag had many divine attributes, especially its antlers, often associated with aspects of fertility. The touch of the antlers is a recurring theme in Paleolithic art. The passage of the stag's antlers as an object of Animist adoration to the antlers as a resident of Christian divinity is, in my humble opinion at least, pretty transparent.

Antlers have been adopted as an emblem by Neo-Pagans of all kinds, and turned into a pop image for record sleeves, video and what not. The mythical Coil, pioneers of the Pagan pop wave that is now flooding the music scene, named one of their best albums “Black Antlers”. The title track, a kind of avalanche of neo-tribal, electronic percussion and hypnagogic sirens, with Jhonn Balance already on the verge of death desperately shouting “WHERE’S YOUR CHILD / DO YOU KNOW?”, uses a motive, a stolen child, that is very striking. The motive also appears in the legend of Saint Eustace, who, after converting, suffered a series of setbacks sent by heaven in order to test his faith. One of them was the theft of his children, while he was crossing a river, taken from him by a wolf and a lion. In the Tasseomancy song, the Saint, the lion and the boat appear as well ( “Saint Eustace / With his head held high / Goodbye man / And goodbye lion / A tongue to greet the boat / Goodbye lions O”), creating an unexpected double arch of symbolic links between the Paleochristian legend and both songs. Something worthy of toasting on, next time you open a bottle of Jägermeister.

Coil performing "Black Antlers" in his final tour:

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