I gave a quick talk to my congregation about Beltane this past Sunday and it felt awful. I hope it did not seem that way to the people who heard it. I talked about the beginning of summer and moving the cattle to the summer pastures, and, glancingly, about animal generation as opposed to vegetable generation. I commented that our animal lives need more intentional tending, and then connected the whole spiel to what kinds of things the kids (and congregation) do intentionally to help their households and the church. We are, after all, in pledge season.
But this absolutely failed to address the deeper meanings and possibilities that Beltane has for me. I tend to see religion and spirituality in their most metaphoric values. Man, as meaning maker, defines the unknown (and even the known) world with stories; I am supremely interested in those stories.
As a story, Beltane contains so much that is vital. It is driven by agriculture and animal husbandry. Half way—kind of—between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice, after the planting season has finished its first great stage and the buds have either burst, or are about to burst, the cattle is sent to the summer pastures. Unlike plants, animals require direct contact to generate; no bees act as romantic intermediaries. Just as seeds would be blessed before going into the earth, the flocks received blessings on their way to the fields—so much relied on the herd and its health.
Beltane was not simply about cattle. At its heart, and as it is celebrated now, it marks the joining of the goddess and the god—of nature and man. Human generation was equally essential. Infant and maternal mortality rates were staggering. Fertility was a bulwark against decimation and disappearance.
In Matthew, Jesus Christ counsels, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.” Nature, as opposed to agriculture, finds its own way. It is, if you will, in some god or goddess’ hands. Life waxes and wanes in (sometimes perilous) balance, but it is a balance that existed before us and without us. When we began to organize the world to suit our needs, it behooved us to learn nature’s rhythms. Nowadays with food produced on demand and infant and maternal mortality rates reduced to be exceptionally and not ordinarily tragic, nature’s rhythms seem more distant. We can live as we please. “Can live,” of course is different from how we do live. We are caught in other less natural rhythms.
What strikes me about Beltane is the confluence of intention and nature. Or, to put it another way, how we think about will and desire. Human sexual desire, or eros, if you wish, tends to be framed as an ungovernable facet of who and what we are. It is the part of us that is most of nature. We talk about “chemistry” between people that leads to romance, and this implies some kind of arcane, mystical experience. Our desire for love, for children, for sex, is baked into us. It may be influenced by those less natural rhythms (I can only be turned on by movie star beauty), but desire is not a bus that I can drive. I am a passenger.
And yet, we, as people make things—homo sapiens, and homo faber. We think. We make. And making takes will and intention. It seems to me that we fall back on inspiration—crediting our ideas to a muse or providence or some other source—rather than staking a claim to our own will. “Rage–Goddess, sing the rage” begins my copy of Homer’s Iliad. The goddess provided the song, and then like an amanuensis Homer put her will onto the page. Even Rilke’s” rope-maker in Rome” must have some ancient idea of rope, “formed over generations” that guides her hands.
Isn’t there something wild in creation, in making, too? Isn’t there some aspect of it that is more closely (if, at times a bit mechanically) connected to eros?
I first learned of Beltane what seems like a million years ago, when reading George Frazier’s The Golden Bough (driven there by an interest in understanding Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; go figure, I was a movie nerd). I conflated Beltane and Bloomsday when I read Ulysses (there’s a paper to be written somewhere in all that), and made even more use of those ideas when I read Finnegan’s Wake. I am not the only one who has linked Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of carnival with Beltane. So I became more than a movie nerd.
Still, what always bothered me was the ritual, and the programmatic nature of the one day (Mardi Gras, Purim, Beltane, Bloomsday) that was meant to somehow contain the generative energy that the ritual pointed to. It almost always felt that the ritual existed to cordon off all that energy to one safely wild day—or a week, in the case of something like Burning Man. And I understand that, even if I don’t like it, because who can live with wildness every day? Who can make love with the kind of reckless abandon that honors the goddess every single time? Who can tap into the discordant creative chaos of the subconscious each time he or she picks up a pencil, a palette knife, or a paint brush? Who would set himself on fire, over and over again, only to return, each time, more brilliant and more ready, once again, for the flame?
It’s just not a way to live, unless one has decided that it’s the only way to live.