The vernal season is in full swing here in the lovely, thrice-rivered city I call home — after a long, harsh winter that seemed to cling to the underside of every eave and shadow for far too long, finally the sun has triumphed and opened her green mantle across the hills. The still chilled winds tousle the blossoms of the crab apple trees in the woods, filling the air with their sweet, wafting scent. Every morning, the sun raises her head above the soft, dark folds of the horizon, her golden tresses spilling out across the land. Each morning is an ecstasy of color and wild green pushing up from the mud, life force and eros overwhelming the lingering husks of last autumn’s dead.
Many Pagans celebrate Beltaine as a time of planting and sowing, an agricultural festival that begins the warmer months of the year with pastoral scenes of flower-clad maidens, suggestively phallic Maypoles and discreet (or not so discreet) trysts in the woods on a fire-lit eve. As much as romance and sexuality are celebrated and honored at this time of the year, the eroticism of the season is carefully contained and expressed within a greater liturgical cycle focused primarily on the relationship between the community and the land, honoring above all the eventual fruits of such love and procreativity in the autumnal harvest. In her recent article about the mythic implications of the royal wedding in Britain, Star Foster illustrates this focus well when she writes:
The First of May is Beltaine, the celebration of the marriage of the earth itself. In sacred symbolism and mythos the King is identified with the sun, who in order for his reign to be fruitful must marry the land itself, which is seen as a Goddess in her own right. It is in May the earth thrives under the caresses of the sun, when the greenness of the earth reaches toward the sun as toward a lover. There is no timidity in the abundant verdancy of May. In the [Wiccan] Wheel of the Year both God and Goddess are mature, confident, and aware of the danger when they marry at Beltaine. For a King to marry the May-bright land is no half-hearted gesture. The King that spends an early summer evening with the May Queen is the same King who is sacrificed for the land when his harvest time has come.
Yet the notion that marriage should begin during the spring season is a fairly new concept, not supported by what we know of ancient pre-Christian practices. Traditionally in Britain and other Celtic lands, for instance, Beltaine was considered an especially unlucky time to enter into formal partnerships like marriage. May was seen as a season of lust and new, untested love — love that could prove, in fact, to be shallow, fleeting, or even tragic — and in particular, love outside marriage bonds. Formal marriages recognized by the community and intended to be upheld in the long term were more often consummated in the fall, during the harvest season, when people gathered together to enjoy the rest and respite that came after a summer’s hard labor, and to reaffirm relationships within the community during the tribal holiday of Lughnasadh, to prepare for the coming months of scarcity ahead.
So why do so many modern Pagans associate springtime and Beltaine with marriage as well as with romance?
The idea that the marriage bond between the Sun and the Earth occurs in the spring is best expressed in the far more modern Wiccan, duotheistic mythology (made popular especially in Starhawk’s classic, The Spiral Dance). Bringing together many different and disparate traditions, these various bits of myth and folklore were tweaked and softened, and fitted into a neat, balanced eight holiday liturgical calendar known in Wicca as the Wheel of the Year, which mapped the changing seasons to the cycling relationship of the Goddess, a symbol of the land, and her sun/son-and-consort, the God. This liturgical calendar has a certain elegant simplicity to it. Drawing from many pre-Christian folk traditions particularly from ancient Europe, it blends them into a single mythological cycle that begins with the birth of the new sun on the winter solstice, celebrates the Maiden and her sexuality in the spring festivals, welcomes in the plump, fecund Mother of harvest as the autumnal season approaches and culminates with the sacrificial slaughter of the Sacred King come Samhain, initiating the Crone’s wintery season of death and withdrawal.
But in order to make the fit, some of the messier facts of historical tradition had to be glossed over.
Perhaps the most important of these was the role played by tales of elopement and extramarital affairs, especially in Celtic tradition. Some of the most celebrated and best-known love affairs in ancient Celtic myth — Diarmuid and Gráinne, Trystan and Esyllt, Noísiu and Derdriu, even Lancelot and Guinevere — are tales of transgression, in which romantic, erotic love drive the young couple to flee from the restrictive bonds of an unhappy, unfruitful marriage (and a jealous and socially-powerful jilted husband) into the arms of the waiting wilderness and the freedom it promises. These stories, far from celebrating a harmonious relationship between land and tribe as imagined in the marriage between Earth Goddess and Sacred King, more often reflect themes of tension between human community and the forces of nature, especially the life-force, or eros, that makes itself felt so powerfully during this season of spring. The love-triangles found so frequently in Celtic mythology — and strongly associated with the Beltaine season in folk tradition — point us towards a deeper mystery at this time of the year: the tension between individual and community, freedom and responsibility.
The significance of Beltaine reaches beyond merely being an agricultural festival focused on fertility and fecundity in service to the community, with romance acting as a bit of grease we can indulge in now and then to keep the Wheel turning. The holy day at the height of spring is also a day of ecstasy in the original sense, a day on which the attraction of life-force can pull us beyond ourselves and into communion with a larger Mystery, beyond tensions that might keep us too rigidly locked into unhealthy or hampering community bonds once they have outlasted their benefit.
Along with Samhain, the other hinge of the year, Beltaine serves as a liminal time, a time of thresholds and permeable boundaries. The great ecstatic mysteries of sex and death dominate both these holy days. On Samhain, the Dadga, lusty and virile father of the gods, makes love to the Mórrígan, fierce goddess of war and death. Likewise, the most passionate, romantic and ultimately tragic love affair in all of Celtic myth begins one cold, wintery day when the sequestered maiden Derdriu witnesses the slaughter of a calf, whose red blood upon the white snow brings a black raven swooping down to drink, granting her a vision of her fated lover, the handsome and courageous Noísiu who has “hair of the blackness of the raven, skin of the whiteness of the snow, and cheeks as red as the calf’s blood.” Derdriu’s infatuation with the hero, instead of her intended husband the King Conchobar, forces the young couple into exile, wandering in the wild, and eventually leads to them into betrayal and death.
Another couple, Diarmuid and Gráinne, also spend many years living in exile as a result of their love affair. When they first flee the wrath of Fionn, Gráinne’s elderly betrothed and leader of the Fianna, they cannot even stay long enough in a single place to eat where they have prepared food, or sleep where they have eaten. In these flights of star-crossed lovers are recurring themes of disruption and restlessness as the power of eros drives them beyond the safety of community and into the wilderness. Promises of reconciliation and reintegration into community life inevitably prove to be tragic betrayals of trust, leading to grief and death.
The lesson of these stories, so deeply associated with the romantic tides of Beltaine, seems to be something quite different from the tame celebration of procreative sex as part of a fertility tradition, or even the indulgence of youthful trysts as a prelude to marriage. Instead, they suggest that sex, love and eros can be powerful forces that can lead us to transgress social boundaries in irrevocable ways. Love, then, in its most powerful, erotic form is also a kind of death — a death of the old self, a death of our old, over-worn way of living.
During this time of year, we experience the power of this transformation in a visceral way, thrumming in our blood in harmony with the springtide rustling of the trees and the cacophonous cries of the birds at dawn. We long to shake off the stale company of winter and plunge into the fields and forests, giving new freedom to our animal selves, fleeing the confining obligations and duties we have carried with us through the cold, bitter months. The land, in her wild perfection, seems to offer us at last everything we could possibly desire — we long to make our beds among the soft heather, or sleep beneath the birch limbs as in a lover’s bower.
The sacred fire festival of Beltaine urges us to go deeper, to delve into the heart of our own eros, the life-force that drives us and calls us beyond ourselves into a greater, more meaningful life. But there is also a warning that we ignore at our peril: for love in its most powerful form is truly transformative and transgressive, not something to be treated casually or carelessly. Our modern understanding of marriage as a partnership born of romantic love, which brings the life-force of eros and the structures of community life together in a single institution, can sometimes obscure this deep truth about the tension between fierce, wild love and the social ties that bind us together as families and communities. Too many of us use Beltaine as an excuse to initiate trivial flings or to indulge in manipulation or deception in the name of getting laid. But the ecstatic Mystery of Beltaine is not that sex is fun or that monogamy is for suckers — rather, it’s that love as eros, as life-force, as attraction and gravity, is a matter of life and death.
As the poet Gary Snyder said, “The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.” Beneath the damp stones and fallen logs kissed by May Eve’s rain squirm the worms and larvae that turn the soil soft and yielding to the germinating seeds of spring. Life, like death, cannot be tamed.