Deity in spiky boots: finding the Sacred at a rock festival

“Let me enlighten you, this is the way I pray” -Disturbed, “Prayer”.

So there I was, standing in a mud-soaked field in a torrential rainstorm, surrounded by people dressed in black, chanting. Upon a raised dais, three figures lift their arms to the air and make a ritualised hand gesture, directing us all to worship the Fox God.

An occult ritual? Nope, this was BabyMetal’s performance at the Download Festival!

I got back the other day and wanted to write something about how amazing Download was. Despite the weather (leading to it being nicknamed “Drownload“), four days of schlepping about in the mud listening to metal was an experience to remember.

Image from Nottingham Post.

Image from Nottingham Post.

Over 80,000 people made the pilgrimage to Donnington for the festival, which lasted over three days (of music, plus two days of camping). And it was, in a very real way, a religious experience.

If you consider to root of the word “religion” to be from the Latin re-ligare (to bind together, or re-connect), then a metal festival certainly fits the bill. Thousands of people bound together by a shared love of music, connecting through song, cheering and chanting, with a shared identity and common symbols (band logos, metal “horns”, black t-shirts). Seems religious enough for me, anyway.

But this was no monastic retreat for self-denial, although it took a lot of self-discipline and will to withstand the elements. This was a joyously, gloriously, hedonistic celebration of life in all its fullness, including its darker elements. While metal deals with death and loss, it often does so in a cathartic way, leaving you feeling healed as a result.

This was a festival where you could find alternative visions of the Sacred. From the blow-up church on site where couples of all genders could get married, to Amon Amarth belting out hymns to Thor during a rainstorm, to Black Sabbath’s invocations to Lucifer, or Nightwish’s paeans of praise to the wonder of the Universe, or indeed to BabyMetal’s devotion to the mysterious “Fox God”, a range of Sacred concepts and forms found expression in the pounding drums and soaring vocals of metal. [Sadly Ghost were unable to make it, but their sublime Luciferian cantos would have fitted in nicely here].

The great joy of it all was that what you believe didn’t matter. I felt the power of Thor in the thunder and rain during Amon Amarth’s set, but you didn’t have to be pagan to enjoy connecting with the mythology of the Vikings. Likewise, I doubt many BabyMetal fans are devotees of Inari,  and I’m sure somewhere in the thousands-strong crowd were some Christians throwing the Devil Horns and singing the Number of the Beast with Iron Maiden.

It may seem a stretch to find a genuine experience of the Sacred in the often tongue-in-cheek Satanism or Viking-Warrior machismo of metal, but it is there, if you open yourself to it. As Disturbed might say, “Liberate your mind, you motherf***er”.

This is open-source, DIY, Sacredness. No dogma, no priests, no commandments. Just a field, some people, food and drink, fellowship and damn good music. Epicurus would be proud.

In the words of Lzzy Hale, can I get an Amen?

Bonus Druid moment: I got to meet Damh the Bard! I knew he was going to Download because he posted about it on Facebook, but I was surprised to bump into him outside a noodle van on the very first day of the festival! I may have fan-squeed a bit about being a long-time listener to Druidcast, but he seemed genuinely happy to be recognised. Nice bloke!


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