In 2015, when I initially got involved in the American Religious Sounds Project (then the Religious Soundmap Project), my very first assignment was to attend an Eckankar seminar in Dublin, Ohio. Eckankar centers on the idea that humans are connected to God through a divine spirit, which can be “heard as sound and seen as light.” One of the cornerstones of Eckankar is the HU song, a chant that adherents say allows them to raise their consciousness and become closer to the divine.
Upon coordinating my visit to the Eckankar seminar, I learned that although I could record a group HU song, I would not be permitted to take photographs. Granted, the ARSP focuses on sound, but with my background in documentary photography, I was accustomed to telling visual stories, and I had anticipated at least being able to take a few contextualizing photographs to accompany my recordings. I became somewhat concerned: How was I going to tell a compelling story about Eckankar without a visual element?
However, my fears began to dissipate when I put on my headphones and started to record. Despite the fact that the HU song was just that, a song, it had almost a three-dimensional quality to it. About 50 disparate voices, all chanting “HU” at their own pace, combined to form an encompassing, undulating melody. Most people closed their eyes as they chanted, and I later learned that some had visualized colors or peaceful scenes. I, too, felt my mind drifting.
There was no need to photograph people chanting HU, I realized, and to do so would probably be a disservice to Eckankar. Sound served to help the mind wander, both visually and spiritually. Attempting to represent HU through imagery would flatten this experience.
What can we learn about religion if we begin by listening to it? This is one of the guiding questions of the American Religious Sounds Project. It only took one assignment for me to realize the importance of taking a sonic approach, and how this might help us understand religion in a more nuanced manner.
For many Americans, mead is simply “honey wine,” a specialty alcoholic beverage to order at a growing number of boutique bars that have popped up across the country. However, for adherents to a pagan faith known as Asatru, the drink holds deeper significance.
Asatru, which first emerged in the United States in the 1980s, centers on the religious beliefs and practices of pre-Christian northern Europe, as described in ancient literature, such as the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas. Adherents, who often refer to themselves as heathens (meaning “of the heath” or “of the land”), honor the deities of the Old Norse pantheon and endeavor to reconstruct ancient Germanic traditions.
Brewing and consuming mead is one such custom. References to mead and alcohol pepper Asatru’s folklore and literature; believed to have descended from the heavens as dew, it’s known in some circles as “nectar of the gods.” American heathens today incorporate this beverage in a variety of religious rituals and social activities.
But what more can we learn about mead by listening to its use among heathens? And what can these sounds teach us about American Asatru?
Recordings by Lauren Pond, Caroline Toy, and Isaac Weiner Audio editing, photographs, and text by Lauren Pond
Truck stops, rodeos, and raceways are not exactly the kinds of places one expects to attend church. Yet, evangelical Christians have begun using these locations to offer exactly this, transforming them into centers of religious outreach for niche and often “unchurched” populations. The sounds of these highly specialized ministries illustrate how they often succeed: by enmeshing themselves in the culture the communities they are trying to reach, and by catering to their specific needs.
For America’s truckers, who are tasked with transporting about 80 percent of the country’s freight annually, the challenges are many: Long periods of time away from family. Increasing expenses and regulations. Deteriorating infrastructure. Health concerns. The ineptitude of other drivers.