Thursday, April 27, 2017

Advice for an Unsexy, Work-Filled Beltane

The National Library of Wales by Wikimedia Commons. By CC 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Regarding Beltane Traditions

by Race MoChridhe

Spring, sometimes, is a long time coming.
I have lived in the fertile, sheltered valleys of Oregon, where Imbolc brings the first shoots of bulbs from the soil and daffodils come up as readily as snowdrops. I have lived in the great temperate woodlands of Minnesota, where the astronomical and botanical aspects of spring coincide, and the equinox mists the tips of long bare branches in a haze of green. I have lived too on the subarctic tundras of Alaska, where snow is thick on the ground even as Beltane approaches and what was for the ancient Irish the beginning of summer, is instead the first faint glimmer of spring.

What all these places have in common, however, is that both religious and secular observances of Beltane/May Day (which, although closely related, are technically distinct traditions) are virtually extinct. I was an adult making my first studies of the Pagan community before I ever saw an actual maypole (known to me previously only from scattered references in Edwardian stories) or witnessed anyone light a bonfire. I grew up with a handy father, however, who took advantage of the first pleasant days of the year to involve me in pouring new concrete steps for the patio, re-staining the fence, or planting trees. Ever since then, this time has brought a memory of energy to my hands and a desire to see will into action, idea into actuality. I also grew up at the end of the Cold War, and so, while I have had to work at my relationship with observances of Beltane and May Day, the arrival of International Workers’ Day is felt in my bones.

At first, these two takes on the season—giant-phallic-pole-in-the-middle-of-the-village May Day and giant-phallic-rockets-in-the-middle-of-Red-Square May Day—seem very different. All cultures, however, form their beliefs and rituals on patterns woven by a universal fabric, and these two traditions are, in fact, closely intertwined.

May blossom, the common hawthorn flower; Crataegus monogyna. Ceridwen, 
by Wikimedia Commons CC by SA 2.0

For the ancients, Beltane was a celebration of fertility, and modern Paganism has presented this most often in the Wiccan image of the marriage of the Lord and Lady, whose union begets the abundance of summer life. Yet who has been fruitful and multiplied without tilling the earth from which they were taken, and eating by the sweat of their brow? The sweet, sweaty trysts following the maypole dance have become so clich├ęd that double entendres hardly register in the Pagan community anymore, and every year about this time one sees a flood of articles reassuring both single Pagans and parents of small children that it is possible to mark the first of May in an entirely celibate fashion. These pieces generally have much to say of fun spring-greeting activities, but offer little meaning to the holiday aside from sanitized metaphors of the same primal themes—fertility rites worked with garden trowels instead of athames. It is in looking to the traditions of the labor movement that we can make deeper meaning of the day, because they remind us to look not just at the planted seed, but at the digging hands.

The moment our focus shifts in this way, we begin to see that the work is not just a metaphor for fertility, but a spiritual principle whole unto itself—one distinct in nature but alike in dignity. By the same inexorable logic that brought Pagan and Socialist May Day into being at this same point on the Year’s Wheel, the Roman Catholic Church appointed 1 May as the feast day of St. Joseph, patron saint of workers, and there is something profoundly beautiful amidst the fleshly tangle of Pagan Beltane in glancing through a church window to see Joseph celebrated for performing the work of being Jesus’ father even though he was not biologically so.

As Dorothy Sayers once sagely observed, the first and most essential thing which we can know of divinity is the act of creation, by which the ideas of the divine mind are given substance and expression in the worlds. Though we may figure this act, as Wicca generally does, in the terms of biological fertility, it is more fundamentally an illumination of the unformed by form—an actualization of potential, a bringing forth of dream into reality. The spirit-drunken post-maypole frenzy and the spirit-sober consummation of the handfasting are, in the end, just as much metaphors as are the various “replacement” activities of the yearly round of consolation articles—activities which are, in some ways, actually a step closer to the reality, for all that they are consist more of art and less of instinct.

This is, of course, not to say that the old-fashioned fertility rite is not effective, or even that it is not profound, for it can most certainly be both in the hands of a responsible practitioner. It is only to say that such rites are the first tender shoots of the Mystery, and still far from the ripeness of its fruit. The true fullness of spring, with all its rich intensity of flavors, well—that can still potentially be a long time coming.

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