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“the mummer’s dance”

April 27, 2011

“The Mummer’s Dance” is a song by Loreena Mckennit, a Canadian world music artist. The tune was included on the album “The Book of Secrets,” which was released in 1997.

The word “mummer” is unfamiliar to most people, and I had to look it up. Mummers were (and are) actors and other entertainers that were itinerant. They traveled all over, singing and performing for their suppers and to earn money. They put on shows in parlor rooms, pubs, social halls, and on the streets. The mummer tradition likely started sometime in the Middle Ages, in England. Groups of mummers also performed in England, other parts of Europe, Canada and a few small areas of the US. There are still troupes of mummers that perform today.

I don’t know why this song is called “The Mummer’s Dance.” As far as I can tell the lyrics are a pagan appreciation and celebration of Nature.

The word “pagan” originally meant “rural,” “rustic,” and “of the country.” This word referred to people who lived in rural areas who lived close to nature, and practiced their own folk religions. These folk religions had a basis in veneration of nature. The song talks about some of the religious practices of these people. I don’t know if mummers were pagans, or if they were from the country or rural areas. The mummers in this song are obviously pagan though, and practice a folk religion. Read the lyrics below, and you’ll understand what I am writing about.

But first, a little about how I came to hear this song..

I’d heard it a few times back in the ’90’s, but only a few times during those years. When I’d heard the song, I’d liked it, but didn’t seek it out, or try to find who had recorded it. Eventually, consciously, I had forgotten the song, but it hovered somewhere in my subconscious mind, dormant for perhaps a decade.

It was 2 years ago, I am guessing, that I ran into a friend at Borders Books and Music. He recommended Loreena McKennit. I had forgotten her name, if I’d ever heard it. The name seemed unfamiliar to me. I took my friend’s advice though, and bought a McKennit EP, a CD with just a few songs on it, which was cheaper than the full length CD’s. The first track on the CD was “The Mummer’s Dance.” Hmm.. that title .. seemed familiar.

I don’t remember if I played the CD on the drive home or not. I probably did. I was thrilled. I remembered the tune. It brought such feelings. This time much more so than when I’d heard it shortly after it had been released. Back then, since I’d only heard it a few times on the radio, it did not really get my full attention.

This time though, it did.

This song makes me feel such pagan feelings.. which I cannot fully describe.. a truly magical appreciation for Nature, and the spirits of nature, even though I’ve tended not to believe in an animistic view of reality.

Animism is the earliest form of spirituality. It is the belief that everything has a spirit – not only humans, but animals, rocks, trees, plants, soil, the earth, the planets and suns, everything has its own spirit.

Animist beliefs practices are still a part of many cultures today – including many African cultures, the shamans of Siberians, South Americans, and many other places, Western Pagans groups, and various parts of the Far East. Animistic views are part Theravadan Buddhism as practiced in parts of Southeast Asia, and the Shinto religion, which is native to Japan. I think the Native Americans might also have some animistic ways.

This song.. read the lyrics, and you will see pagan and animistic references.

When in the springtime of the year
When the trees are crowned with leaves
When the ash and oak, and the birch and yew
Are dressed in ribbons fair.

When owls call the breathless moon
in the blue veil of the night
When shadows of the trees appear
amidst the lantern’s light.

We’ve been rambling all the night
and sometime of this day
Now returning back again
we bring a garland gay.

Who will go down to those shady groves
and summon the shadows there
And tie a ribbon on those sheltering arms
in the springtime of the year.

The sounds of birds seem to fill the wood
and when the fiddler plays
All their voices can be heard
long past their woodland days.

We’ve been rambling all the night
and sometime of this day
Now returning back again
we bring a garland gay.

And so they linked their hands and danced
’round in circles and in rows
And so the journey of the night descends
when all the shades are gone.

A garland gay we bring you here
And at your door we stand
Here’s a sprout, well budded out
The work of our Lord’s hand.

We’ve been rambling all the night
and sometime of this day
Now returning back again
we bring a garland gay.

To get the full effect of the song, you will of course need to listen to it. If I could get the link feature on this blog site to work, I would include a link to a youtube video of McKennit performing this song. Absolutely a beautiful song.

I’m going to print out the lyrics again, and add some of my own commentary – my own interpretation. My comments will be in italics.

When in the springtime of the year
(celebration of the seasons and their significance. part of pagan and animistic traditions.)

When the trees are crowned with leaves
When the ash and oak, and the birch and yew.
(celebration of different types of trees.)

Are dressed in ribbons fair
(honoring the trees by placing ribbons around them)

When owls call the breathless moon
in the blue veil of the night

When shadows of the trees appear
amidst the lantern’s light.
(beautiful and haunting descriptions of nature.)

We’ve been rambling all the night
and sometime of this day.
(the mummers were nomadic – they roamed all over, performing in towns and villages.)

Now returning back again
we bring a garland gay
(returning to the forest to bring a wreath of colorful, happy and festive-looking flowers as part of a ceremony to celebrate and honor nature.)

Who will go down to those shady groves
and summon the shadows there
(this line refers to spirits of nature to be found in the darker and more remote parts of the forest.)

And tie a ribbon on those sheltering arms
in the springtime of the year
(again, tying a ribbon around the trees to honor them, and the spirits of the trees.)

The sounds of birds seem to fill the wood

and when the fiddler plays
(humans and birds, representing nature, joining together in song.)

All their voices can be heard
long past their woodland days

(timeless echos of the music the people and the birds made together can still be heard long after the particular people and birds who made the music have died, have passed on).

We’ve been rambling all the night
and sometime of this day
Now returning back again
we bring a garland gay.

And so they linked their hands and danced
’round in circles and in rows
(likely the pagan celebration of May Day – the welcoming of Spring.)

And so the journey of the night descends
when all the shades are gone.

A garland gay we bring you here
And at your door we stand
(speaking directly to nature – at the door to nature is the edge of the forest).

Here’s a sprout, well budded out
The work of our Lord’s hand
(who is the “Lord” in this line? It could be the Christian god, but looking at this word within the context of the song, which is quite pagan, I am guessing “Lord” refers to the male embodiment of nature, sometimes called the Green Man.)

We’ve been rambling all the night
and sometime of this day
Now returning back again
we bring a garland gay.

Again.. these comments are my interpretation of the lyrics – the way I understand and experience the song.

I got the idea to write this blog today, because I was looking out at the backyard as I was having a late breakfast. The backyard is so beautiful.. see the previous entry for some pictures of it.. just scroll down some.

There are evergreen trees of various kinds, alder, some other trees I have as yet not identified, plants sprouting up along the ground, and ivy nestling the base of stones. I just get what I call pagan feelings when I look out on all this beautiful nature. The simplest of pagan feelings.. no deities involved, no delving into divination or anything like that, just an appreciation of nature, and wondering if some kind of animism is really true..if there is a spiritual component to the soil and rocks and earth and trees in the backyard. I can’t help but feel this is true.

The song is magical and spiritual, the backyard and all of nature is magical and spiritual.

These feelings brought up by the song and by seeing nature’s glory in the backyard and all over cannot fully be explained in words, and are not entirely of the mind, but are much more of the heart and spirit.

“The Mummer’s Dance” is a song like no other, and makes me feel such a simple and beautiful pagan appreciation and love for nature.

I felt this was more than worth writing about.

Please listen to the song soon.

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