Eliza Gilkyson’s website states that her album Secularia (2018) “is a collection of spiritually charged songs that don’t fit within the parameters of traditional religious beliefs and challenge us to embrace a more inclusive perspective, to respect all life and to be accountable for our actions in these divisive times.”
Music critic Mike Davies, writing for Folk Radio, reviews the album: “Gestating over several years, it was inspired by both the early feminists and the current metoo movement in questioning the patriarchal notion of God as Man and its centuries-long impact on the lives of women. She says the songs were ‘inspired by a new way of understanding myself as a woman in the context of a culture going through a massive overhaul’.” Of the song ”Emmanuelle,” which seems to embody the feminist perspective, he observes that it’s “a steady slow march, passionately sung swelling six-minute epic of the title a gender spin on the name of the divinity, that, first written back in 1994, tells the anthemic story of herself and every woman and the journey back to self and the world ‘out of this darkened place’…” (Mike Davies, Folk Radio, 7/18/18)
Another music critic, Bill Nevins, of the Journal of Roots Music, writes: “Emmanuelle, with its title’s sly gender reversal of one of the male Biblical names of God, is this album’s enthralling prayerful feminist epic, with its rolling march-time and humbly self-referential, self-realizational candor: ‘A rock, a star, a drunk in a bar ... pushing the will like a rock up a hill/Until, until, until ... from out of dreams awakening it seems ten thousand years ... Emmanuelle.’ A woman finding herself, and her selves, at long last. And happy to find love in her own true heart.” (Bill Nevins, Journal of Roots Music, 7/30/18)
Yes, I wholeheartedly agree—“Emmanuelle” is a feminist great epic of a song!
Its subject is obviously based upon the Biblical figure of Immanuel. Immanuel (Hebrew: meaning, "God is with us"; also romanized: Emmanuel) is a Hebrew name that appears in the Book of Isaiah as a sign that God will protect the House of David. The Gospel of Matthew, which cites the prophecy of the sign of Immanuel from Isaiah, using a Greek translation rather than the original Hebrew, and interprets this as a prophecy of the birth of the Messiah and the fulfillment of Scripture in the person of Jesus. Immanuel "God (El) with us" is one of the "symbolic names" used by Isaiah. It has no particular meaning in Jewish messianism. By contrast, the name based on its use in Isaiah 7:14 has come to be read as a prophecy of the Christ in Christian theology following Matthew 1:23, where Immanuel is translated in the KJV: "God with us.” The King James Version of the Bible uses the spelling Emmanuel. The English Standard Version and others use the spelling Immanuel. The New English Translation employs both spellings, Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14) and Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23).
It is Eliza Gilkyson’s musical genius that subverts the Biblical Immanuel figure and theme in two ways: (1) by secularizing a religious theme for our times (and let us not overlook the fact that for all the songs on the album recognized as associated with religious themes, the album is nonetheless entitled “Secularia” (from the Latin saecularis: secular, worldly; of or relating to worldly things or to things that are not regarded or are opposed to religious or sacred; concerned with nonreligious subjects; of the age or generation); (2) by a gender reversal that subverts patriarchal authority.
In other words, this album as a whole, especially “Emmanuelle,” explores spiritual domains without adopting religious ideology, and there’s deconstructionist agenda in Secularia. The secular framing operates to provide a female source of empowerment, as opposed to the way the sacred empowered the male. (I’m admittedly generalizing here, since there are exceptions with the songs “Sanctuary” [from Psalm 23] and “Instrument,” which are “religious” in the traditional Christian sense. However, these are both offset by two others that are clearly antithetical to them. “Conservation" is nothing less than an atheist hymn, wherein the singer overtly declares a secular, irreligious stance: “I have no god, no king or savior, no world beyond the setting sun. / I’ll give my thanks for one more day here and go to ground when my time has come.” Then there’s “In the Name of the Lord,” wherein the singer distances herself further from traditional Christian theology by calling out the injustices of that patriarchal religion. Thus, to my mind, the album as a whole not only transcends the bounds of organized religion in terms of Christianity but, moreover, deconstructs its patriarchal framework.)
Emmanuelle as a woman’s name is of Hebrew origin meaning "God is with us". It is the feminine form of Emmanuel. Grammatically, as a suffix, elle, it is a French personal pronoun, meaning “she” or “her.”
Now, considering that Eliza Gilkyson spells it out clearly that her subject is a female figure of divine authority—one which I will argue is associated through Biblical analogies with Christ as the personification of “Wisdom”—you’d think that it would be plain enough to all that the Emmanuelle of her song is of feminine gender. Unfortunately, if you took this for granted you’d be wrong! Yes, despite feminized name Emmanuelle, the song lyrics sung plainly as “she” (and the lyrics written plainly on the album as “she”), when you look up the song lyrics on the internet—whether you google Genius.com, L-Hit.com, Elyricsworld.com—you discover the personal pronoun “he” instead when referring to Emmanuelle. Given this, one can’t help but sense the irony here that the patriarchy is not easily subverted!
I mentioned I would argue for identifying Eliza Gilkyson’s Emmanuelle with the personifications of Wisdom in the Bible. In the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, the feminine personification of divine wisdom as “Holy Wisdom” or “Hagía Sophía,” which can refer either to Jesus Christ the Word of God or to the Holy Spirit. Following 1 Corinthians, the Church Fathers named Christ as "Wisdom of God". In the Latin Church, "the Word" or Logos came through more clearly than "the Wisdom" of God as a central, high title of Christ. In Proverbs, Divine Wisdom is a female figure, who was with God from the very beginning. In Gnosticism, Sophia is a feminine figure, who assumes aspects of a goddess or angelic power. Gnostics held that she was the syzygy of Jesus (i.e. the Bride of Christ) and was the Holy Spirit of the Trinity. However, Divine Wisdom as Sophia is not of Biblical origin; she goes back to classical Greek tradition of philosophy as Wisdom. (For an in-depth breakdown of the personification of Wisdom from the Greek philosophical tradition to the Biblical and beyond, see my previous post “Sophia, The Feminine Personification of Wisdom.”)
Now, to my mind, when we examine how Eliza Gilkyson describes Emmanuelle, what we find is a Wisdom figure:
“When at first I came into this land
In the highlands I did dwell
Where ancient winged masters taught
The depths of wisdom well
Emmanuelle, she walked with me
And secrets she did share:
The order of the swirling stars
The laws of earth and air
The golden pipes of heaven
She entrusted in my care
And I sang of the mercy of
“The depths of wisdom’s well” indicates the nature of what Emmanuelle and her “winged masters taught.” And what exactly is the secret wisdom communicated to the disciples? It’s on the order of what the Greeks understood under philosophy, such as that of the Pythagoreans and not what you’d find in the Biblical teachings: “The order of the swirling stars / The laws of earth and air.” But not only these—music in the form of “The golden pipes of heaven” is the kind of wisdom associated with Emmanuelle. This seems more like a pagan wisdom, such as that ascribed to the Greek Muses. (“The order of the swirling stars / The laws of earth and air” sound more like Pythagorean secret wisdom—“The Music of the Spheres.”) Therefore, this Wisdom figure of Emmanuelle is not only feminine instead of masculine; she is also more pagan than Christian.
Again, I’m arguing that Emmanuelle is an archetypal Wisdom figure, more precisely another personification of Sophia as Divine Wisdom.
In conclusion, I would quote here the last stanza of the soulful “Emmanuelle” in order to emphasize why I included this particular epic song—this deeply spiritual and mytho-poetic story of fall and redemption in secular terms—in the playlist for my last installment (#6) of the “Troubadours & The Beloved: The Religion of Love/Amor.”
“Oh, how I long to hear the pipes
I held before I fell
And sing the ancient songs of love
From out of dreams awakening
It seems ten thousand years
Since I beheld my true love’s face
And cried these cleansing tears
The song’s returning one by one
Out of my memory’s well
How can I lay them at your feet
Can I lay them at your feet