Wild, Precious Life
BELTANE: CROSS-QUARTER STATION OF THE SUN
May 5th: The Sun Reaches 15° Taurus, Midpoint between the Vernal Equinox and Summer Solstice
Posted on May Eve, April 30th
Merry May Eve, Walpurgis Night, Beltane — the wheel of the year is turning. The Sun, our central star, nears a critical phase in its yearly passage: the midpoint between spring equinox and the coming summer solstice — here in the north that is. On May Day, north of the equator, we celebrate a fertile, waxing Sun swiftly climbing to its zenith, the height of its power. For those of you who like precision, the Sun actually strikes this exact "equinox-solstice" midpoint, a few days from now, arriving at 15° Taurus on the 5th of May.
Beltane is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish and Welsh literature and associated with important events in their mythologies. The festival marked the time when cattle were released to distant, higher elevation pastures; therefore, Beltane rituals were performed not only to increase crops and protect people, but also to protect the cattle foraging at some distance from the village. As Ronald Hutton, English historian and professor of history at Bristol University, noted in his book, Stations of the Sun, special bonfires were lit at this time and their flames, smoke and ash were thought to possess protective powers. Cattle would be driven around a bonfire, or between two bonfires, people would walk around the fires as well and sometimes leap over flames or embers. All household fires would be put out and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire, transferring its protective power to each home.
Doors, windows, barns, and cattle were decorated with hawthorne, primroses, cowslips and other flowers in bloom at this time. In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush or "Clootie Bush" — a thorn bush decked with flowers, ribbons, rags, bright shells and other votive offerings. Holy wells were also visited, and dew was gathered on the morning of May 1st for increased beauty and youthfulness. Maypoles were erected in villages across parts of Europe, obvious symbols of male-female fecundity, they include both the phallic pole protruding through a floral wreath, rung at the top, with another circle of dancers on the ground below. Our earthy pastoral ancestors weren't at all squeamish about sexual symbolism: the fertility of the earth was critical to honor at the beginning of the growing season, a matter of life and death.
Associated with Beltane is the thorn bush mentioned above, the hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) which sports its pure white blossoms at this time of year. The "thorn" of the British fairy triad: Oak, Ash and Thorn, according to lore, it marks entrances to the fairy realm, where two worlds meet. Also known as may, mayblossom, maythorn, quickthorn, whitethorn, and fairy thorn, wreaths and boughs made from the blossoming tree were used to decorate maypoles, barns and homes.
Hawthorne has long carried a reputation for being an unlucky plant, not unusual for something with such strong association with the fairies. There are long-standing taboos against cutting or pruning the tree except when in bloom. On the other side of the Atlantic, Native Americans I think would agree with this unlucky notion. The Mayflower, the ship that brought the pilgrims to New England, was named after the hawthorn. Rather ironic too that a flower associated with fairies and a celebration of the wild fecundity of the earth carried a group of priggish Pilgrims to a New World. Two hundred years later, bad luck visited the similar New England Puritans when another "May Flower" — Nathaniel Hawthorne — wrote The Scarlet Letter, his scathing indictment of the stony-hearted Puritan's hypocritical self-righteousness.
A more recent example of the "revenge of the hawthorn" is John DeLorean, American car manufacturer (and infamous conman*). Apparently a fairy thorn was removed to make way for his ill-fated sports car factory in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland. "It was two green fields with copses and trees and two rivers running through it just fifteen months ago ... now there is a sophisticated factory built on a million tonnes of quarry rock fed into the boggy land" — a resident of Dunmurry describes (back in 1976) the swift destruction of what sounds like a beautiful wetland habitat which was, no doubt, home to a variety of plant and animal life, if not the fairies as well. Aside from the loss of natural habitat, and angering the "good people," the DeLorean factory required a British investment of £56 million out of a total of £65 million. While many expressed reservations, the deal was made, and the business failed with substantial loss of public funds.
* * * * *
Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum, also associated with this time of year, is a native of Northern Europe. Many years ago I planted some in a shady spot next to my deck to commemorate Beltane.Each year around equinox it reemerges from its subterranean nap, and by May is lush and blooming, covering the ground with its delicate white flowers and lovely little leaves that look like tiny green hands. When crushed, Woodruff releases an exquisite fragrance best described as a combination of freshly-mown hay mixed with vanilla.
Heady, earthy aphrodisiac Woodruff is the herb added to May Wine, a traditional springtime drink in Germany, specifically associated with May Day festivities. If you have some growing in your own yard, you can add fresh sprigs to white wine (preferably a German varietal such as Riesling) or champagne, or use it to scent and subtly flavor sparkling water. If you have a Beltane gathering planned you can make a punch, a Maibowle or Waldmeisterbowle, with sprigs of fresh Woodruff leaves and blossoms and floating strawberries, just beginning to produce fruit at this time of year. I have quite a bit of German blood coursing through my veins so growing Sweet Woodruff and making May Wine is a way for me to not only celebrate this special turning of the year, but to also honor my parents, grandparents and earlier generations: the Shaffer, Facemyer, Eisenhouth, and Clutts branches of my family tree.
At this same time of year in ancient Rome, Flora, an agricultural deity, Goddess of the blossoming springtime, was also honored. Her main festival, Floralia, was held every year from April 28th through May 3rd. Revered as a protector of the grain crops, fruit trees, and vines, hawthorn was associated with her worship. And apparently Floralia was a pretty wild affair. In my copy of Larousse's Encyclopedia of Myth, the entry on Flora notes (while steering clear of any juicy details) that her festival was "rather licentious" — going a-maying Roman style.
"Listen — are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?"
— Mary Oliver
Many years ago, a friend of mine gave me a special Beltane gift — a garden ornament of a man's face shaped in leaves, and a companion book: Green Man: The Archetype of our Oneness with the Earth. The Green Man, also known as Jack in the Green, Robin Hood, and the King of May, is a Pan-like figure that symbolizes the unruly, irrepressible, intensely fecundating forces of nature that are in so much wild evidence at this time of year. A symbol that has persisted down through the ages, from its dim pagan past to present time, the Green Man motif was commonly utilized in Gothic and Renaissance art and architecture, including prominent positioning in many Gothic cathedrals. Marija Gimbutas, Lithuanian-American archaeologist, wrote in her book, The Language of the Goddess, that the current revival of the Green Man archetype is a "vital resource in renewing our lost unity with the world of Nature."
Archetypes, like the Green Man, are symbols that speak to us from a very deep, collectively human place. Similar to dream imagery, they connect two worlds: earthly matters with higher wisdom and inspiration, and can instill important guidance and hope, if we learn to speak their visual language of the heart. Instinctively attractive to us, these special symbols occur throughout the world in interesting theme-and-variation, motifs that "vary a great deal without losing their basic pattern" as Jung described their universal manifestations. We find these representations collectives in all cultures, indicating that human beings everywhere dip into this same, communal pool. Jung wrote that archetypes "are like riverbeds, which dry up when the water deserts them, but which it can find again at any time." Each is like "an old watercourse along which the water of life flowed for centuries, digging a deep channel for itself. The longer it has flowed in this channel the more likely it is that sooner or later the water will return to its old bed."
Observing and celebrating these old solar festivals, as well as following other cycles of astrology, are ways in which I have been able to find my own way back to these "old watercourses." Believing in forest spirits, woodland sprites — or that planetary movements affect human affairs — is certainly proof for many people that you are off your rocker! Yet, over and over again I have observed how the cycles of planets have coincided with periods of intense challenge in my life as well as the lives of my clients. I have also witnessed how my garden responds in a lush show of thanks when I express, through my garden altar and other seasonal rituals, respect and gratitude for the elemental spirits that reside in and around this little clearing in the woods I call home.
"Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves"
It makes sense that the Sun shines at Beltane through the Venus-ruled, earthy sign of Taurus, strongly associated with the enjoyment of life through one's senses. Taurus, at its best, represents taking the time to fully appreciate life, to be grateful for what we have instead of constantly chasing after the next conquest, the next important thing we think we can't live without. And in the meantime life bleeds away.
The Taurus/Beltane season is a reminder of how much beauty we have all around us, if we only stop for a moment and really take it in. It's obvious why our ancestors chose to celebrate life and love at this time of year when we fling open our windows, clear out the cobwebs and stale air of winter, feel the warm Sun, and drink in Mother Earth's many blessings.
by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
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Oliver, Mary. Dream Work. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986
Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press, 2001
The 1925 May Day celebration photo is courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
*Christopher Reed in an obit at the Guardian (2005) wrote that DeLorean was a world-class conman, despite a brilliant early engineering career at General Motors. Among his victims of fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion or defaulted loans, were, Reed notes, "the governments of Britain, the US, and Switzerland (which also failed to extradite him), Hollywood stars such as talk-show host Johnny Carson, who lost $1.5m, lawyers, and a California automotive inventor forced to pay him nearly $500,000 to buy back his own invention. Millions of pounds disappeared in the 1982 collapse of his sports car venture in Belfast."
© Elaine Kalantarian, all rights reserved