Rite of Spring as Metaphor for Renewal: Musing on Life and Death as Witches

Rite of Spring is one of the most renowned and controversial classical pieces ever performed. Written as a story of sacrifice to the harsh spring of Rus, composer Stravinsky pulled no punches in dramatic effect and eerie darkness. Stravinsksy teamed up with ballet choreographer Nijinsky, whose angular, distorted moves supposedly upset the audience in 1913. You can see a reconstruction of the ballet from 1987 or 2013. The maiden is chosen for sacrifice through a mystic circle dance, and the one who falls out of the circle twice is doomed.

But Nijinsky’s dance — while historically significant — doesn’t do the music justice. Their flapping, slapping, disjointed poses don’t match the deep, resonating rhythm that evokes the power of the earth, sometimes wild and crushing, and at others brooding and insidious. While the story does force a maiden to dance to her death for the good of the tribe, I fantasize that the sages really should be throwing her into a volcano based on the dissonant rumblings in the music. But Stravinsky claimed he had a vision of village elders seated in a circle around a maiden dancing herself to death for the assurance of a god’s favor. He was also likely inspired by the Russian poet Gorodetsky’s disturbing “Yarila.” The ballet’s two-part arch seems to have been designed primarily by Nicholas Roerich, a theosophist and mystic: I. The Adoration of the Earth and II. The Sacrifice. (You can read more about the development on Wikipedia.)

My point here is that Stravinsky succeeds in giving us something disturbing, dark, and primal. But it serves as something more than just a pastiche of pagan sacrificial ritual. Rite of Spring is primal power, unyielding and unpredictable in its variance. It picks at an archetypal truth, a wound every human bears: life and death are unforgiving and unrelenting, until the very end.

This is why I would argue Disney’s abridged interpretation from Fantasia is a better one than the original dance (or many that I’ve seen after). Certainly not scientifically or chronologically accurate in depiction, the animation details evolution and prehistoric life on earth, tapping directly into the deep rumbling of power that can be felt coursing through Stravinsky’s composition. In undersea distortion, lifeforms disappear under the black cloud of mass extinctions. And in the end, even the mighty predator succumbs to unrelenting destruction born of (an implied) asteroid impact that evaporates surface water and scalds the flora. The bones of every dinosaur are sucked or crushed into the earth by violent tectonic forces before the sun sets on earth. It is, quite possibly, the bleakest conclusion from Disney I’ve ever seen. But it’s also true, in a metaphorical sense.

Yet what the pagan ritual Rite of Spring implicitly depicts is the drama of renewal, and Fantasia doesn’t drop the central theme. Single-cell prokaryotes disappear and reappear as multicellular lifeforms, the lungfish crawls from the ocean, inch by inch, to the dinosaurs that feast on new life, on each other. Life begins anew through death. Violent change, over and over, cycles to renewal and regrowth. The prospect for an individual (The Chosen One in the ballet) is terror, singled out to die for the rest. Without death, without those extinctions, what would humanity be?

Neopagans seem obsessed with the light of life, the fantastical elements of magic, but ‘nature’ isn’t a kind host. It isn’t all free love, a smiling mother goddess with her handsome horned consort. Of course, there are other occultists who embrace the dark, but why does it seem so distinct from an understanding of nature? Death is as part of life as blossoms and speckled fawns. Traditional Witches, or at least the most typical group under that heading, tend to love the concept of death (bones, bones, bones) isolated from nature, as a metaphysical, eldritch meaning, but few probably call themselves pagan. “Dark paganism” isn’t often acknowledged. Ecstatic ritual, as seen in the 1913 Rite of Spring, is nowadays (in Eurocentric practice) tempered with high ceremony and a certain roteness that doesn’t lend itself to that primal power underlying the piece. Not that I’m for bringing back animal sacrifice. It’s more a matter of perspective. Indigenous folk practices don’t seem to have this hangup.

Pop witchcraft is neutered, in a way. The darkness is too unsettling, too disturbing for the witch who chooses pagan trappings. 2019 witches hex and curse to feel empowered by the one who oppress them, but rarely do we hear in the mainstream what shadow work or underworld journeying might entail. The left hand path (LHP) is a different side entirely, strongly Luciferian or demon-associated, rarely associated with death gods (Hel? Hades? Persephone?) or natural cycles.

Looking to the cosmos and natural cycles — life and death all around us — should not be exclusive to pagan theists. Atheist witches, self-identified as pagan or not, need to face these phenomena, which are no more or less metaphysical than the table you put your food on. It is existence, and it is powerful. And deep within us, there is a primality that both fears and indulges in the shadow. One day we will die, each and every one of us, as a sacrifice to the unrelenting fierceness of time. The Rite of Spring is just a reminder.