Pagan Imagery in the Work of a Modern Troubadour

by Heidi Nelson Hochenedel, Ph.D.

Leonard Cohen's song, "Light as the Breeze," from The Future, is a rich and complex poem drawing from a variety of religious and literary traditions. This poem is particularly interesting because it combines images of spiritual devotion and sexual passion. One of its most striking characteristics is the portrayal of the feminine as divine. The subject may or may not believe that the beloved is a goddess, but his devotion to her is comparable to the experience of a believer worshiping his deity. The subject's sexual love is a form of religious and spiritual worship. As we shall see, Cohen borrows images from Jewish, Christian, and Pagan traditions and incorporates them into a poem reminiscent of a twelfth-century troubadour canzone (1).

The first stanza begins with a description in the second person (2). The voice seems to report the experience of another person (presumably the reader), which suggests that he expects the reader to identify with the description. The voice describes a specific personal experience, which is at the same time common place and ubiquitous.

She stands before you naked
you can see it, you can taste it
but she comes to you light as the breeze
You can drink it or you can nurse it
it don't matter how you worship
as long as you're
down on your knees.
This stanza can be read both literally and metaphorically. Either a woman actually stands naked before the subject or he experiences a vivid fantasy of this image. In any case, the vision is so intense that the subject can actually see and taste the presence of the woman. If she is present only in his mind, she is ethereal and genuinely "light as the breeze." The reader has a choice between absorbing the vision slowly or immersing himself in it. ("You can drink it or you can nurse it, it don't matter how you worship, as long as you're down on your knees.") Clearly, the image of the woman is both erotic and spiritual. This stanza is intriguing because it suggests that sexual arousal can be a form of worship. Such ideas seem blasphemous from a Judeo-Christian perspective, but they were quite pervasive in twelfth-century Southern France, where the troubadours wrote poems venerating their ladies and worshipping Venus, the goddess of love. Andrea Hopkins writes:

In the poetry of the troubadours love was often celebrated in quasi-religious terms, with the beloved woman being venerated as an object of worship, and much emphasis on the torments suffered by the lover. They invented a religious cult of love, with its own deities- Venus and Cupid- and its own temples, rites, prayers, priests, and commandments. It was truly revolutionary because it placed women, who technically had no power in medieval society, in a position of complete dominance over their lovers. The beloved lady is the master, and the poet- even if in real life he was a great lord- is her servant, her humble supplicant. The poems express the poet's homage to his lady as if she were his feudal lord.... The goal aspired to in these love affairs is sometimes a platonic, spiritual union with the beloved, and sometimes a more physical one....On the face of it, for a poet to sleep with his lord's wife and then to write poems about it would be incredibly dangerous.... And yet it is clear from contemporary records that the writing of these love poems was seen to confer great "honor" and "worth" upon both the poet and the lady (3).
Although Hopkins describes the phenomenon of courtly love as "revolutionary," it almost certainly had its roots in pre-Christian European goddess religions. The discovery of many female figurines (many times more than male figurines) from the Upper Paleothic period (4) have led scholars to believe that goddess worship was widespread in Europe (5). In these ancient cultures, women had a dominant role because sexuality and motherhood were considered sacred and the Earth (the Mother Goddess) was the principle deity. Christianity spread throughout Europe but vestiges of pagan traditions (often characterized by goddess worship) persisted. The cult of Mary is one example of Christianized goddess worship and it is certainly no accident that most Christian holidays (including Christmas and Easter) were scheduled to coincide with pagan feast days. The songs of the troubadours also betray a goddess worshipping heritage.
Christianity, at first brought little change. Peasants saw in the story of Christ only a new version of their own ancient tales of the Mother Goddess and her divine child, who is sacrificed and reborn. Country priests often led the dance at the Sabbats, or the great festivals....Persecution began slowly. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw a revival of aspects of the Old Religion by the troubadours, who wrote love poems to the Goddess (6)
Like the troubadours, the voice in Cohen's poem describes the naked woman in conspicuously religious terms and regards her (or his love for her) as a deity to whom he is subjected. The blessings he receives are reminiscent of the "merci" shown to the troubadours by their ladies. For the troubadours, true love always involved immoderate longing and suffering. Canzones were rarely about the beloved (who was generally distant and uninvolved), and focused primarily on the torments endured by the lover. In a style which is both ancient and modern, Cohen's poem incorporates all of these characteristics and artfully depicts the painful and pervasive experience of being in love.

It is significant that the goddess/woman's movement is described as "light as the breeze." Cohen's goddess is not the first to manifest herself as moving air. The Jewish God too, came to his servant, Job, in the form of a whirlwind (7). In this story, Satan claims that Job's faithfulness is merely a result of his prosperity, saying that if his fortune should change he would forsake the Lord. To disprove Satan's claims, God sends several plagues on Job and his household. Although his wife urges Job to "curse God and die," he remains faithful.

Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped. And said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. (Job 1:20-21) (8).
Finally the Lord comes to Job in the form of a whirlwind, explaining that mere mortals cannot understand His ways. Job is rewarded for his suffering with blessings from heaven. The process described in Cohen's poem is very similar. Like the Hebrew God, the goddess/woman comes to the worshiper as moving air or breath to assuage his torments. Although he, like Job, suffers because of her, he is unable to turn away. Job remains faithful to God out of blind love whereas the subject in Cohen's poem seems to do so out of emotional need, which suggests that faithfulness and dependance are identical.

The second stanza spells out quite plainly that the subject's romantic/ sexual love is indistinguishable from spiritual love. The woman (or more precisely, the vision of the woman) in Cohen's poem represents a spiritual presence. Although this presence is less forceful than Job's whirlwind god, it is certainly not less powerful.

So I knelt there at the delta
at the alpha and the omega
at the cradle of the river
and the seas
And like a blessing come from heaven
for something like a second
I was healed, and my heart
was at ease.

Oh baby I waited so long for your kiss
For something to happen,
oh for something like this.
The subject kneels at the delta because it is the temple of the deity, the Alpha and the Omega or God (9). God is both the beginning and the end, and the delta, the end of the river and the beginning of the ocean, symbolizes God's essence. A delta is also a triangle, which may represent the shape of female genitalia. The deltoid vulva is the mouth of the womb and the source of human life. Pre-Christian goddess worshipers considered the womb and vulva sacred. and many sculptures of female reproductive organs have been found from the Upper Paleolithic period (10). The womb is a sacred image in both pagan and Judeo-Christian belief systems. As we have seen, Job sees the earth as the great womb from which he was born and to which he will return. The earth (the mother goddess) represents the beginning and the end of all life. Cohen's "delta" may also refer to the great goddess or the earth itself .

In the refrain, which is written in the first person, it becomes clear what the goddess/woman must do to "cure" her worshipper; a simple kiss is all that is necessary to relieve his suffering. Unfortunately the "cure" lasts for only "for something like a second," generating a greater longing that can never be satisfied. Moreover, as in the case of Job, the deity (represented by either the woman or the subject's love for her) causes the suffering by withholding these "blessings." The next stanza, which reverts back to the second person, describes the feeling of entrapment caused by this addiction to "blessings."

And you're weak and you're harmless
And you're sleeping in your harness
and the wind going wild
in the trees
And it's not exactly prison
but you'll never be forgiven
for whatever you've done with the keys
The image of the wind in the trees evokes the vision of the goddess/ woman, whose movement was first described as "light as the breeze." In this stanza, she is outside and separate from the worshiper, manifesting herself as a strong wind, like the one that came to Job. The subject, however, is unable to be with her because he is too weak to escape from his "harness," an obvious metaphor for an obstacle to communion with the beloved. Strangely enough, this condition seems to be voluntary; he has locked himself up and takes full responsibility for having either lost or thrown away the keys. Perhaps the "key" represents the resolve to curse the woman and to let his need for her die. More plausibly the "key" would release him from his harness (or remove the obstacle) that separates him from her. In any case, it is clear that because of an obstacle he has chosen not to remove, he can not go to her.

The next stanza reverts back to the first person and describes the weather and landscape of a cold winter's night.

It's dark and it's snowing
I've got to be going
St. Lawrence River
is starting to freeze
And I'm sick of pretending
I'm broken from bending
I've lived too long on my knees
The images of winter, night, and the freezing river evoke the idea of death. On the album Cohen sings "Oh my love, I must be going " instead of "I've got to be going," suggesting that he is with the beloved but the environment she has created is so bleak and inhospitable that it is impossible to endure. The worshiper, who is as broken and tormented as Job, is clearly resentful for having spent so much time and energy "on his knees" worshipping a goddess, who rewards his efforts with coldness and distance. Significantly, the voice also expresses that he is "sick of pretending." The verb "to pretend" can mean either "to profess" or "to feign," but current usage seems to favor the latter definition. Perhaps the speaker is tired of pretending not to resent the indifference of a cold and distant goddess. At this point he seems ready to abandon his chilly "love."
And she dances so graceful
and your heart's hard and hateful
and she's naked
but that's just a tease
And you turn in disgust
from your hatred and from your love
and she comes to you
light as the breeze.

Oh baby I waited so long for your kiss
for something to happen
oh for something like this.
In this stanza the subject's ambiguous emotions are described. The beloved is beautiful and she looks available, but she is as inaccessible as ever, which may be both the source of his hatred and love for her. At the moment that he turns away, she comes to him with her blessings.
The next stanza is one of the most interesting because it evokes images of vampirism, blood sacrifice, forgiveness, and redemption. There's blood on every bracelet
you can see it, you can taste it
and it's Please baby
please baby please
And she says, Drink deeply, pilgrim
but don't forget there's still a woman
beneath this
resplendent chemise
The reference to bracelets may be connected to ancient goddess figurines, whose arms were usually adorned with decorative bracelets (11). The blood on the bracelets may allude to the sacrificial blood of Christ, who died to redeem humanity. One of the most interesting aspects of Christianity is that Christ represents both God and the sacrificial Lamb of God. It is believed that His body and blood redeem the world from eternal damnation. His sacrifice, in the form of the Eucharist, is the spiritual food of Christians. The subject's need to drink the beloved's blood (a metaphor for accepting her sacrifice), is comparable to a Catholic's need to ingest the Eucharist. In Cohen's poem, the worshiper discerns that the beloved has made a sacrifice for his salvation, and, as in the case of Christ, this sacrifice is symbolized by blood. Like Christ, she invites the "pilgrim" to "drink deeply," although she suggests that her resources could be drained because she is a mortal woman clothed in the garments ("the resplendent chemise") of a goddess. Like Christ, she is both human and divine. Perhaps she is divine only from the perspective of the worshiper.

The line "Please baby, please baby, please" declares the subject's hungering need for salvation from the torments of life apart from the beloved. It is not enough that she shower him with blessings, she must sacrifice herself because anything less would not demonstrate a great enough love. If the deity does not suffer, the worshipper cannot be saved. This idea is emblematic of Christianity and is expressed in John's first epistle.

God is love. In this love of God was manifested to us, that God sent his only son into the world, so that we might have life through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he has loved us and sent his son as an expiation for our sins. (I JN. 4.8-10)
The last stanza describes the result of the worshiper's communion with the beloved. It is very similar to the second stanza, but in it he professes his faith.
So I knelt there at the delta
at the alpha and the omega
I knelt there
like one who believes
and like a blessing come from heaven
for something like a second
I was cured, and my heart
was at ease.
Significantly, the subject says that "I knelt there like one who believes." This suggests that in general, he does not identify himself with the believers, but after the beloved's sacrifice, he does believe. One has the impression that the experience has come full circle and that the cycle is destined to repeat itself. After the goddess/ woman makes her sacrifice, the worshiper believes in her love and her ability to "save" him. Once again, he kneels at the delta, which symbolizes the Alpha and the Omega. Again, he is cured only "for something like a second." This implies that his desire is only piqued by her sacrifice and he is not fully satisfied.

Her blessings temporarily relieve his pain, but like her presence, they are ephemeral. When more is not offered, he will find himself separated from her. As a result, he will become consumed with both desire and resentment. At this point he will turn away from her, falling into a metaphorical state of sin. For Christians, sin is separation and estrangement from God and is described as spiritual death. In Cohen's poem, the subject's spiritual death is represented by being caught in a harness while the deity (represented by the wind) is outside. The cold winter night by the freezing St. Lawrence river also portrays spiritual death. Finally, in her infinite mercy, the goddess/ woman will return to the sinner as light as the breeze. Her sacrifice, identified by the blood on her bracelets, will assuage the subject's heart for something like a second, whereupon the process will begin again.


1) Canzones were lyric poems set to music and written in Provencal or early Italian. These poems expressed the ideal of courtly love, which developed during the twelfth century in France. The code of courtly love, which became a paragon for aristocratic behavior in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, celebrated intense and idealized sexual passion, usually between an unmarried man and a married woman.

2) The perspective of the poem alternates between first and second person, yet it is clear from the context that both subjects refer to the same person. The use of two subjects conveys the universality of the experience described in this poem. 3) Andrea Hopkins, The Book of Courtly Love (Harper SanFrancisco: Singapore, 1994), pp.10-11

4) The Upper Paleolithic period began about 35,000 years ago and is characterized by the use of flint, stone, tools, hunting, fishing, and gathering.

5) Theodore Ludwig, The Sacred Paths: Understanding the Religions of the World (Simon and Schuster: New Jersey, 1996), pg.30.

6) Starhawk, The Spiral Dance (HarperSanFrancisco: New York, 1989), pg. 19.

7) Dieties may manifest themselves as air because they represent the "breath of life. "And the Lord formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." (Gen 2:7)

8) This excerpt from the Bible is interesting because it suggests that Job sees the Earth as the mother Goddess- the womb of all life, from whence all things are born and to whom all things return in death.

9) "I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty." (Rev.1:8)

10) The Sacred Paths: Understanding the Religions of the World, pg. 30.

11)The Sacred Paths, pg. 30.

Copyright of the essay © 1997 by Heidi Hochenedel, Ph. D., Portland, Oregon.

Copyright of the lyrics © 1992 by Stranger Music Inc, Los Angeles.