Jenny Hval’s Pagan Psalm

After speaking about the neo-pagan band Heilung at the Real Magic event, I keep thinking about what paganism does in various songs. Heilung’s performances are simply astoundingly creative and powerful neo-nordic rituals. But lots of music uses “paganism”  in subtler ways. I thought I might start with a couple of moments in Scandinavian music, namely Jenny Hval’s recent song “Lions” and Björk’s video “Pagan Poetry” (initially banned in America). I’ll start with the former, and work backward.

“And the strange blue flowers that grow near” my dog Muki, who is certainly “singing a pagan psalm”

Jenny Hval’s genius is intimidating: not only is she a great musician and lyricist, but her novella Paradise Rot is also really good. I’d have Å Hate Gud (Hating God — forthcoming in English with the curious title, Girls against God) in my hands right now, if covid hadn’t stopped travel. Those two novels are important background for thinking about Jenny Hval’s attitudes toward god(s), but I’ll leave them out here and keep it concise.

I encourage you to listen to the song “Lions” on your platform of choice before reading further. The song mixes a spoken-word foreground with background singing. The spoken word begins, “Look at these trees / Look at this grass / Look at those clouds / Look at them now / and look at them now.” Our senses are directed to the ants, the raindrops, the topsoil, the mushrooms, the “strange blue flowers,” etc. Finally, the speaker asks, “And ask yourself: WHERE IS GOD?” I listened to this once in an altered state of consciousness, and let me tell you, it was alarming! Where is he? Is he behind me?!

However the song goes on to claim, “This is a no-God’s land / Look at those trees again / … Are they not darker than the trees you know? / Are they not smaller? / Listen to the wind and the rattling leaves / They’re singing a pagan psalm.”

So the question is, what does “singing a pagan psalm” mean? One answer is that “singing a pagan psalm” just means “nature worship,” and nature worship just means paying attention to living beings and the landscape. But that answer totally misses the point,  because it totally neglects the feelings of wonder, power, and maybe a little fear that the song is trying to invoke. Look at those trees again, and again: “Are they not darker than the trees you know?” It’s not the looker who’s singing, it’s the trees. (Tolkien fans can think of Fangorn Forest.)

As for gods, the lyrics insist that “This place doesn’t care / about the holy scriptures, or how to pronounce, and live by, the ecclesiastical.” That seems to rule out institutionalized  Christian God. But it sure seems like some kind of numinous power bleeds back into God’s empty place. That, I think, is what “paganism” is doing here.

Before signing off, I should add a brief note about the background lyrics. Hval is singing, “Look at me / I feel tender in the elsewhere / in the dark, a sudden empathy / I am, threatening to some / must be explained / but not explored.” There seems to be a parallel here between the numinous forest and the singer’s embodied inner world: also dark, but with powers of tenderness and love, not to be analyzed and explained. One thinks of the feminist Hélène Cixous’ famous discussions of women’s bodies as “dark continents.” I want to be careful not to demolish the mystery of this song by drawing this parallel too exactly. But given Hval’s novels, it seems fair to suggest that this pagan celebration blends and connects insides and outsides. All in all, it’s obvious even from this brief discussion that “Lions” implies a pretty rich and complex spiritual attitude.

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