Beltane Ritual Here and Elsewhere

The Beltane ritual, performed on or around May 1st, has one element that almost everyone used to be familiar with: the Maypole. Years ago, young women at Vassar, the local woman's college (now coed), used to dance the maypole; they had a giddy, giggly time, usually. After all, what is the maypole, really?

It's the representation of a giant phallus. What were they doing? They were weaving ribbons around it, suggestive when you think about it. In effect, they were wreathing, or covering and surrounding the pole; venerating it. When you realize that traditionally this was an all-female activity, the meaning of it becomes even clearer. And yet, few of those Vassar women of yesteryear ever let themselves think about what they were doing, or rather, what it meant. Er, fertility, right?

There are other traditional elements of the Beltane ritual . Beltane, or May day, was the time of year in the Celtic calendar, when the cattle went out to pasture, after being confined in barns and byres (barnyards) for the winter. So, a fire, or better yet, two fires, is part of the ritual. The cattle were driven between the fires, to purify them from the darkness of winter just past.

The fires purify people, as well. Celebrants of the Beltane ritual pass between the fires if they are elderly or staid. Younger or more energetic celebrants jump over them. Since Beltane is also about sexual spring energy (how did you guess?) couples jump over the fires together, holding hands. A couple thus joined is supposed to be committed to each other--at least for the evening, although it was supposed to be for the coming year.

In the Beltane ritual at High Valley, we process to the fires after creating a sacred circle inside in our meeting room. We call the four directions in our own way, usually without rehearsed or written declarations, often with only the representations of the elements associated with them, and a chant invoking them.

Afterwards, the fire element is carried alone to the fire pits, where fires have been laid but not lit. Sometimes, I confess, the wind is too strong, but I have brought along a lighter and matches, just in case.

Our priestess, Elizabeth, leads the people in a chanting procession to the fires soon afterwards, where the keeper of the fires (me, usually) challenges them to pass through, or over, the flames.

On the other side is the maypole, ready to be worshipped, I mean danced, but men and women, young and old take part, and as the ribbons get shorter it gets quite comical, almost bawdy. Our rhythms and song are set by the priestess and a drumming cohort--all volunteer and ad-hoc.

From the Maypole, we, literally, "bring in the May," boughs of blossoms, apple, dogwood, pear, quince, forsythia, whatever is blossoming; the boughs have been pre-cut and laid butt end in the nearby lake. We bring them into our inner sanctum.

And then, we don't garland or crown a May Queen. We crown and garland each other in the inner room, singing, dancing, humming; we garland each other with the blossoms and flowers. We garland and dance and sing until all are decorated, and--

the pace quickens, the pitch heightens, the volume and dance rises to a climax--and then it is done. We ground the energy we have raised, by touching or falling to the floor.

After the circle is opened the informal part of the Beltane ritual begins: eating, drinking, drumming, dancing--and maybe other things.

Supposedly, in the traditional Beltane, the priest and priestess performed "the Great Rite," meaning intercourse, in the middle of the sacred circle: it might have been the solemn climax, the "grounding" of energy raised by the celebrants. This was supposed to fertilize the crops; it was the time for planting them, after all.

Perhaps there are some Pagan covens that do this; it can't be done at a public ritual. I saw a Beltane where there was a tent temple dedicated to the goddess and god, lit by candles, well-stocked with condoms, where people went after the public ritual. What went on there was only a little less public; it was also comical, even as a participant.

Back in the Pagan old days, supposedly, the end of the Beltane ritual was often celebrated two by two, under hedgerows or in secluded glades. There were many unintended Beltane babies.

Who knows? If you have any British, or Celtic ancestors, it's possible that one of them, way back, may have happened that way.