Archive for the ‘Beltane’ Tag

MAGUS 2017: The Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S.   12 comments

The first of what richly promises to be an annual event, the Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S. (MAGUS) took place over this last weekend, Thursday to Sunday, at Four Quarters Sanctuary in Artemas, Pennsylvania.

magus banner -- W Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

The initial inward glimpse of the Gathering came to one of the organizers almost a decade ago.  There’s yet another indication, if I need the reminder, of the possible time-gap between first seed and outward manifestation.

And our hosting venue, Four Quarters, an interfaith sanctuary launched in 1994, was the perfect place to hold a Beltane Gathering. As the Four Quarters home page observes, it’s

a membership-driven non-profit, a vibrant community of real people living real lives. And Four Quarters actually owns the Land, buildings and equipment that make our work possible, forever set aside from the vagaries of private ownership.

The lovely and wild 150 acres of the sanctuary lie in the Allegheny foothills in southern PA, just miles from the Maryland border. Home to a stone circle, labyrinth, retreat center with bunkhouse and dining pavilion, a brewery, a drum and dance circle, sweat lodge, a handful of permanent residents, and the clean-flowing Siding Creek defining part of its periphery, Four Quarters strives to

honor the many world traditions that reflect an Earth Based Spirituality, and we work to support those traditions and welcome their people. We do not teach “One Way” of belief. We do not have “The Answer”. We do have good questions.

Here’s the Stone Circle seen from the north, a work in progress (with annual megalithic-style stone raisings open to anyone willing to join the rope-pulling and log-rolling stone lifting team). Note the nearly three-foot-long camp bell suspended from the tripod in the foreground — a deep voice audible throughout the property.

circle w bell

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

A wide-angle shot can’t capture the majesty of the stones or the power of the circle. Here’s a closer view of some of the lovely rough surfaces, mottled with rust in places, asking for touch and communion.

stone closeup w flah

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

The first time I walked the circle Thursday evening, I sensed a quiet hum of presence. The next time I came more at ease, eager to touch and listen to the land and the inner voices. By the time I reached the eighth stone, sudden tears filled my eyes. The circle holds indisputable power.

Here’s one of the altars near the center of the stone circle. The ancestors speak strongly here, if I give even half an ear.

ancestor altar in circle -- W Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

How to convey the blend of the speaking land, the personal and the tribal at such Gatherings?! You come as someone new to Paganism, or to OBOD more specifically. Or you come knowing you’ll reunite with your people once more, across the miles. If we saw each other every day, we might begin to forget the human and spiritual wealth that surrounds us. In ritual, in conversations in the dining pavilion (below) or over coffee during breaks, we’re reminded that we’re never alone, no matter how solitary we may live the rest of the year. Inner connection exists over any distance.

dining pavillion -- W Flaherty.jpg

dining pavilion — photo courtesy Wandy Flaherty

Typically when I reflect on a Gathering a few days after, one or two things stand out sharply. But when I started naming them over breakfast this morning, I ended with a list of a score of items — nearly the entire weekend as I experienced it, a blend not to be parcelled out in soundbites or highlights.

From the place, with its cool air crackling with oxygen from the vigorous trees, to the faces and energy of the Tribe and its rituals, formal and informal, to the songs of spiritual presence that all places offer, everything stands out in memory.  Impossible to narrow down. This post is a small attempt to hint at that Everything — to urge you, if you want a taste of a particular kind of marvelous, to attend a Gathering if you can.

The way of the Solitary can indeed be a blessed one, but the Tribe also offers a great deal to reinvigorate even the most hermetic of Solitaries. A Gathering can paradoxically reaffirm the Solitary, because you meet other Solitaries. You witness the integrity of the individual path, as well as the gift of the Tribal way. Gatherings have changed me into an avid Tribe-seeker, at least a few times each year, so that when I retreat to my own smaller circle, the closing words of OBOD ritual echo true: “May our memories hold what the eye and ear have gained.”

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“Kindling the Flame” was our Gathering theme. We apparently also needed the blessing of Water, in the form of steady rain from late Thursday afternoon through the night, and intermittently all Friday, to help remind us that all the elements gather, whenever any one of them is invoked. “Thus is balance preserved”.

Thursday included an opening orientation by our special guest OBOD Druid Renu Aldritch, a workshop I delivered on “Kindling Our Sacred Fires”, the opening ritual, and preparation for Bardic initiations the next morning.

After breakfast Friday, we initiated 12 Bards. Like many others, I’ve come to see how priceless it is to support initiations and attend whenever I can, regardless of whether I have an assigned “role”. The rite washes over us all, renews the experience each of us had during our own initiation, helps us rededicate, and allows us to greet the newly initiated within ritual space.

Always there are small hiccups and endearing glitches during a ritual. I think without them we’d have to make sure we added them. And we come to expect them: they humanize a dramatic moment, when someone with a major or minor role misplaces a prop or drops a ritual spoken line, topples the incense or bowl of water, mispronounces a magical name, and so on. We laugh, disarmed, and then the next part of the ritual can reach deeper, because we’ve opened up that much more. Each initiation is unique: tears, laughter, the presence of Spirit, the call of bird or beast to punctuate a word or silence.

Friday gave us Renu’s workshop, “Kindling the Spiritual Warrior”, a theme that bears ongoing attention. Dana’s workshop “Land Healing on the Inner and Outer Planes”, her ritual later that afternoon, “Ogam Tree Galdr in the Northern Tradition”, her generous personal readings using her own tree divination system, and her conversation fired many with renewed love and commitment to this path. That evening also brought initiation to three Ovates under moonlight and the background throb of drums from a drum workshop. We couldn’t have asked for a better ritual setting.

Downhill from the Labyrinth, prepping for the evening Ovate initiation in the open air: Renu, Dave, Ahote, me and Cat. (We opted later for a covered stage, in case the rain continued.)

planning for ovate init -- gail Nyoka

photo courtesy Gail Nyoka

Saturday gave us Wanda’s workshop, “Awakening Your Beltane Sensuality” with its creative chance to heighten one sense by muting the others. Now that the rain had ceased, we could hold our main Beltane rite in the stone circle.

Here’s an evocative pic from Saturday night, the Fire Circle alight, a few dancers visible, along with Brom, our Fire Master, tending the flames.

magus beltane

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers

By Saturday night I’d mostly finished my other ritual responsibilities, including providing a glitch for the main Beltane ritual where I had a speaking part — I dropped a line. “When that ritual pause goes on a little too long and you look around, you’re probably what’s missing”, as someone quipped over the weekend.

I was looking forward to enjoying the Fire Circle without performing for the eisteddfod, the Bardic arts portion of most OBOD festivals that welcomes the evening fires and the awen-inspiration of a Gathering and offers it back again in song and poetry and story.

But as Bards know from experience, the awen sometimes has other ideas. Fire gave me an opening line a few hours earlier during dinner. And it kept gathering more lines to it, right up to the evening Fire Circle. Verses kept changing and I didn’t have pen and paper handy, so I kept playing with lines and rhymes and their order. “Fire says improvise” came the first line. I’d invoked fire, after all, during my workshop, in several different ways. What did I expect?! Here’s the poem:

Fire says improvise —
no surprise,
when such orange wonder
seeks out skin and eyes.

Fire can burn all to black
but before,
that hot roar lifts me
to soar beyond
anything I thought to think I lack.

Most times I’m no fool —
how does this jewel
get to be so hot and cool?

Old rule, it says.
Burn madly, gladly,
or — if you must — sadly:
one way only among those other two.
For I will heat you from your crown
to your open-toed shoe.

The fire, friend,
the fire is in you.

Just get up and say it, came the nudge. Doesn’t have to be polished. I delivered the lines, gazing at the flames the whole time, then stumbled back fire-blind to my seat on one of the Fire Circle benches. The version here is close to what I remember saying, probably edited a little. Fire didn’t want an editor. Just flame, large or small. The other Bards obliged, and this eisteddfod was among the most varied and interesting I’ve known.

One of the oldest pieces of spiritual counsel in the Indo-European tradition is this: “Pray with a good fire”.

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Below is an informal altar by Siding Creek, which curls around Four Quarters, another voice audible through much of the Sanctuary as a background whisper.

siding creek altar -- renu

photo courtesy Renu Aldritch

Four Quarters brews its own mead, a taste of the Land to take inside the body. Warmed by place, fire and fellowship, we return to our lives richer by each person who attended. Long live MAGUS!

Coffee Dragon -- Wanda Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

A final view of the Circle through the eye of the Mother Stone:

throught he mother stone -- Wendy Rose Scheers

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers

Festivals & Holidays — Druid & Christian Theme 6   Leave a comment

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8|]

Happy Beltane! Go here for an enthusiastic if skewed view of the holiday, and here for The Edinburgh Reporter‘s take on this year’s celebration in Scotland’s capital tomorrow evening. As the Chair of the Beltane Fire Society says in the article:

Beltane is an event that cannot be described, it has to be felt, and that’s what makes it so special. We really want to reach out and welcome in the wider community this year, so come and share the beginnings of Summer with us.

Thornborough_Henge

Thornborough Henges, Yorkshire, England — site of modern Beltane festivals

[Here for more on the Thornborough 2017 Beltane.]

If you’ve been following this series on some of the shared imaginal territory between Druidry and Christianity, and you find your hopes both raised and disappointed, this preamble is for you. Of all the themes, festival and holidays are probably the most self-explanatory. Instead of worrying too much about what I’m writing here, go find a good Beltane celebration. You’ll know more afterwards than anything I cover here.

But if you’re kind enough to have stayed and you’re still reading, let’s take a look at the nature of this theme. Now I have something of a handle on the weaknesses in my own understanding and writing ability. Let’s lay that aside for a moment. You and I both bring to this discussion — as we do to everything else — our personal histories of living in societies where Christianity still dominates the scene. After all, for centuries it’s ruled the roost. It’s been the default setting: our laws, values, art, music, vocabulary and ways of thinking all still draw so deeply from Christianity that we can suppose that if we’ve “left the church” we’re “free” of it, and shaped no more by its perspectives and doctrines and worldview. [Yes, you may belong to the growing minority who grew up in a non-Christian household. Still, it’s pretty likely you celebrate Christmas in some way, and get some kind of Easter vacation without even asking.]

We assume, that is, if we no longer subscribe to a handful of Christian doctrines for spiritual guidance and practice, that we’re somehow “post-Christian”.  You hear that everywhere. Yet we can acknowledge how much Classical civilization continues to mold the West — we never imagine we’re “post-Roman” or “post-Greek”. To offer the most trivial example, one of our generic insults is “Go to hell!” — a distinctly Christian destination, one that’s unlike to freeze over any time soon. (We can check back in after another 500 years — maybe by then a more clearly post-Christian West will have taken shape. One of the best ways to test this is to live for a time in a non-Christian part of the world. Much of Asia will do, but so will the Middle East, Africa, and parts of South America. Get back to me after that, if you take issue with what I claim about persistent Christian influence in the West. I had to live outside the U.S. for three years to see something of this.)

In a word, we’ve all got baggage. Nothing surprising in that. But if by chance we still long to salvage something from Christian practice that moves us still — if we refuse to throw out an imaginal and spiritual baby, however troubling its family tree, along with an often foul historic bathwater — and we’re walking a non-Christian path, the many links and themes like these past few posts have explored can call to us quite strongly. Parts of the Mass may move you, or you love the lights and cheer of Christmas, or the palm fronds and joy of Easter, or the quiet of candlelight services where words don’t fill your head and your heart has space to expand into the richness of silence.

We can use that fact of emotional and spiritual connection, use it for insight and growth and exploration.

How? Bear with me. I’m suggesting a few ways in what follows.

palm and maypole

One of the delights of following a couple of blogs mining the same spiritual or religious vein is the interconnections they can weave over time. Obvious reasons for such common ground are shared experiences, comparable reading lists, current events, and so on. But sometimes you just end up in shared spaces, looking around and talking about what you’re experiencing, as if it’s in the air and water. (Which it is.)

I reviewed John Beckett’s new book in the last post, and John launches the interconnection this time, in his recent April 25th post “Why I Had To Make a Clean Break With Christianity“. If you follow his blog, you know that John has grappled with the lingering after-effects of membership in a fundamentalist church, and its mind-warping power on his worldview. He revisits that experience occasionally for hard-won, balanced insights anyone can use.

If you’re uncertain about the possibility of an rapprochement between Druidry or Paganism and Christianity, in other words, John’s got something to say you may find well worth your while.

There have always been, he notes, Christian groups with a wide range of practices:

Christianity was never a wholly new thing in any of its forms. It has mythical roots in Judaism, intellectual roots in Greek philosophy, and folklore roots in every land in which it was established. Some pagan beliefs and practices survived, but they were Christianized. They had to be –- in medieval and early modern Europe it was impossible to be anything other than a Christian (or possibly a Jew, in some places, at some times, for a while…).

These survivals and continuations include magic –- a lot of magic.

As a Pagan and Druid, John knows magic because he practices it, and from that practice he knows from the inside how pervasive magical practice actually is. If you’re human,  in other words, you’ve both done magic yourself and had others practice it on you. The less conscious, and therefore weaker, the more random in its effects. But most Westerners have confronted one extremely common form of debased magic in advertising — the manipulation of emotion, desire, image, sound and verbal conjuring for a specific purpose: to sell you stuff. And though most of the more radical Protestant denominations have worked assiduously to purge their churches from any perceived taint of Catholic magic, it manages to creep back in unseen.

Magic doesn’t care what you believe – magic cares what you do. Work this magic properly and you’ll get results.

But I can’t do this magic. I had to make a clean break with Christianity and I can’t go back, not even to work magic with the aid of powerful spirits.

Wait, you’re saying. The title and theme of this post is Festivals and Holidays. What’s that got to do with magic, anyway? You’re always going on about magic. Enough already!

Well, “ritual is poetry in the world of acts“, wrote OBOD founder Ross Nichols. And poetry works with image and emotion. You see where this is going? Poetry is magical art, verbal magic. And rituals and festivals, if they’re potent and memorable, are stuffed with poetry and theater. There’s a reason that a wedding at a justice of the peace can be much less satisfying than a church or temple wedding, regardless of what you believe. (Because what you do is another matter.)

We long for ritual, even as we’ve managed to banish a bunch of it from our lives. So we pour it into wedding planners and other secular makeshifts that can deplete our bank accounts without delivering the goods. (“But do you really feel married to this man?” my mother-in-law asked my wife after our non-church wedding. Note: we had two weddings, secular and spiritual to cover all the bases. Neither one “churched”.)

So. Most of the “Great Eight” holidays of the Pagan Wheel of the Year have their Christian counterparts. We needn’t rehash old arguments about who “stole” whose holiday. If Druids, and Pagans generally, would like to find common ground with Christians, shared celebrations of holy days are one place to look.

Interestingly, of all the Eight, Beltane has perhaps the weakest Christian link. Yes, May 1st is the feast day of two apostles, James and Philip, in the Catholic church. In northern and central Europe Walpurgisnacht on April 30th, the eve of the festival of the eighth-century saint Walpurga, on May 1, came to be associated with witches. Beltane on the other hand was almost exclusively a Celtic holiday until it was claimed by neo-Pagans in the middle of the last century. Six months out from the start of winter at Samhain (“summer’s end”, the Celtic sam– cognate with the sum– of English “summer”), Beltane also fits the rhythms of the year-long cycle of seasonal celebrations, heralding the beginning of summer, of energy and fertility and well-being.

Whatever you do, wherever you are, try to find a way to celebrate the season.

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Images: Thornborough Henge; palm and maypole.

Fire — Druid & Christian Theme 3   Leave a comment

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8|]

There was the briefest mention of fire in the previous post, but much more about the other three elements. Why?

fire-ring

Deborah Lipp notes in her The Way of Four Spellbook (Llewellyn, 2006):

Fire has always been set apart from the other elements, because Fire alone has no natural home on the earth; Air has the sky, Water the sea, and Earth the land, but only Fire stands apart from geography. In nature, Fire is the outsider; it is out of control, and it conforms to no known rules (pg. 10).

Now Lipp’s observation both captures the nature of fire and also feeds our stereotypes about impulse, passion, strong feeling. How often we may long — or fear — to be out of control, fearless, spontaneous! Who hasn’t felt like an outsider at some point? Why would the Australian-inspired Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain opt for its advertising slogan “No rules. Just right”? Because there is indeed a rightness to fire — it can only flame up where there’s something to burn, after all. And most of us have been storing combustible material for a long time. How else to explain our explosions, outbursts, flares of temper? Even our language about these things draws on fire for metaphor.

Following the theme from the last post, we can speak of a fire baptism. You’re wholly in it when that happens. The full experience, nothing held back.

John the Baptist, Jesus’s precursor, explains to those asking, “I indeed baptize you in water … but he that cometh after me is mightier than I … he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire”. We sense the power in fire, of all the elements closest in so many ways to Spirit. It can purify, transform, forge and anneal. Its extreme heat can also scorch, char, consume and destroy. Each element transforms its own way. “We didn’t start the fire”, sings Billy Joel. “It was always burning since the world’s been turning”. But he goes on: “We didn’t start the fire. No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it”. And sometimes we even try to “fight fire with fire”. Yet we also long for fire to kindle cold hearts, to heat a flagging will, to spark the spirit deepest in us. We yearn to be fire.

“O! for a muse of fire”, cries Shakespeare’s Chorus in the first line of Henry V, “that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention”. We long to blaze, because we feel in fire something native and free. We are both it and other, too, as with all the elements. “Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire”, says Jose Luis Borges. The elements are natural sacraments, folds and garments for Spirit all around us. For fire, we light candles in so many traditions, for so many reasons, the flame cheering to the eye and heart.

I both am and am not fire. Self and other: the quest of our days, the distinction we cherish and also long to cast away. Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, atheist, shaman, through all these experiences and intuitions we still ask ourselves, each other and the world: “What makes a good burn?”

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Maybe the purest ritual Druids and Christians might share is one which seeks not to fill our ears with answers, but that gives us space and silence to listen to and ponder the questions. In some ways, the long, slow burn of Spirit in us is fire in its most potent form of all.

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Beltane approaches, that festival of fire. The Edinburgh-based Beltane Fire Society celebrates 30 years this year of a dramatic festival of thousands, from 8:00 pm to 1:30 am. Here’s the “Drums of Beltane” subpage of the Society’s website. As the page notes,

Beltane may be known as a fire festival, but it may as well be considered to be a drum festival too. Drums are the beating heart of Beltane that create the rhythm of the festival, drive the procession forward, and soundtrack the changing seasons. They have been an integral part of Beltane since our tradition was first re-imagined on Calton Hill in 1988.

Looking for a fix of Beltane energy to get you launched? Here’s a video of the Drum Club which will be among the groups performing this year for the event. Just the first five minutes will give you a fine taste of Beltane fire in sound form. We can spark from anything, but sound and rhythm are powerful keys.

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Image: fire.

Thirty Days of Druidry 24: Playing the Druid Card   1 comment

Could I be the Mage,
or might I be the Fool?
Should we learn to use our cards
like any kitchen tool?

When I search for wisdom,
when I peruse old lore,
do I seek just kicks and tricks
or something worth much more?

Is my quest a question,
things I already know,
or an “undiscovered country”
I rediscover as I grow?

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If “playing the _____ – card” means to take (unfair) advantage of some given of our identities, what might it mean to play the Druid card? Well, it certainly gains us nothing with either the gods or local land spirits.

Druid-card Holder (DCH): “Hey! I’m a Druid!”

Land Wight (LW): “Welcome. Have you listened to the land, spent time hearing what it has to teach, growing a portion of your own food on it, and feeling how each season and its energies shape the lives of all the creatures on it, including you? Have you, in four words, lived where you live?”

DCH: Well, no …

LW: Go away and do not return until you learn reverence.

Print

“I invoke you, goddess, for a change.”

Let me try again. If I live where I’ve lived, rather than almost anywhere else, I accept the gift of responsibility. Usually the word sounds heavy — something people try to flee rather than to welcome. But let me do my Bard word trick once more. I know I’ve often walked away from my response-ability, my ability to respond. I turn it off, drown it out, change channels, either because it’s painful or too demanding or or or. Third time’s the charm: find three or’s and I can successfully escape my ability to respond and maybe spend my whole life in someone else’s dream rather than one of my own. Success!

I often explore my own “weaknesses” because I find I learn more from them than from my strengths. (“Could that be one of their uses?! Hmm.”) We’re so accustomed to others being down on themselves that you may hear this as more of the same. No. I gain strength and insight from such cool, steady gaze. Don’t misunderstand. I’m as good at denial, deflection and depression as the next fellow. A 3-D life! A modern Western triad!

But what I want to get better at are the finely-tuned opportunities my weaknesses constantly point me toward. Lack something, and I sensitize myself to it everywhere around me. My lack magically energizes the thing to keep knocking at the door of my life. But rather than turning to my ability to respond, my responsibility, I do everything to reject the thing I said I wanted. But no worries, mate: it doesn’t actually vanish. It will keep knocking until I let it in. “Ask (I keep asking all the time) and it will be given to you; seek (we never really give up seeking, just take breaks for a day or a decade) and you will find; knock (oh, how it will knock back, friend!) and the door will be opened to you.”*

Bala_Lake2

Bala Lake in Wales, where Gwion Bach begins his adventure of transformation

More and more it seems that rather than missed opportunities, there are only ones I keep rejecting. If I really do “miss” one, it will re-group and when necessary take another form in order to reappear down the road and insert itself into my life. Come around the next turn and — ah! There it is, possibly in a guise more difficult to ignore, less easy to escape at all.

My fate pursues me like yours does you, like Ceridwen pursues Gwion through all his transformations. I might even evade my fate for a life or two, come back in another body, gender, set of circumstances, with a “clean slate” so to speak. Except not really. My one life is with me, my responsibility sharpens, clarifies, till I can live it fully, because there’s nothing else I can do, even if I wanted to.

That’s one corner of my “Druid card” — at least, living where I’ve lived, as I understand it so far. What’s yours?

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When I respond, link, connect, then I “beltane.” Let’s make it verb … Not to cheapen it, market it, no. To sanctify it. And you, my kin, my readers, when you last beltaned, what did you discover?

“Beltane is so much about the urge to connect, to blend and merge; to feel a part of something extraordinary; to at once lose one’s sense of self in that merging but also to paradoxically feel more absolutely and truly oneself because of it. In the desire to penetrate life’s mysteries, we need also to open ourselves to them, surrendering to the power of love that it may have the opportunity to transform us. Great things are born in us at such moments of union; this place of merging is where the tap root of our creativity feeds, without it we feel dry and disconnected. If that magical, alchemical moment of connection and merging were a colour, I suspect it might be perceived as many beautiful, vibrant shades but its foundation, I feel sure, would be the green of spring: ecstatically joyful – the irrepressible life and desire that leads us to love.” — Maria Ede-Weaving

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IMAGES: Ceridwen Centre logoBala Lake.

*Matthew 7:7 — an excellent Druidic number!

Updated 9 May 2016

Thirty Days of Druidry 23: “Pray Like a Fire”   1 comment

Beltane’s nearly upon us, and Alison Lilly’s most recent blogpost “Holy Adoration: Fire as Prayer” catches the energy behind this fire festival. For it is after all the day of the Fires of the Celtic solar god Bel, as even a traditional source like the BBC calmly informs us on their website. Some seasons you’ve just had enough of the world, and most of all yourself as a tame fire, to paraphrase Alison. Do check out her blog. She evokes and invokes Beltane in a personal and poetic meditation.

You too may long to spark, flare, burn and roar. Heap the kindling of my life and ignite, you whisper — or shout. Beltane is here for you.

Part of the Bardic training of Druid groups like OBOD and others, and much of the initial work in the outer grades of the magical Order of the Golden Dawn focuses on exploring and balancing the elemental energies flowing in and around us. We don’t — normally — want to burn up or out. But a healthy conflagration may burn off the wintry torpor that clings to our mood and outlook. Beltane is tonic, purgative, exhiliration, ignition.

The symbolism of the four physical elements of earth, water, air and fire persists in the cultural and magical imagination of the West because they express important truths about human life. They serve as a powerful shorthand for a whole cluster of ideas, images, experiences and memories, and their presence in ritual and story, song and myth will endure as long as we inhabit the same worlds where they manifest.

Their existence as physical entities endows them with the further potential to serve as sacraments. As always, though we keep forgetting, reverence and engagement are our choice, an opportunity like any other that we may welcome or reject. Here, too, fire can kindle us to possibility and change.

firetempleexter

Fire Temple, Chennai, India

Further afield from Celtic-flavored European Druidry, fire is also central to the religious practice of Zoroastrians, the people popularly known as Parsis. Their Fire Temples offer just one more illustration of why reducing fire to an explanation like “rapid oxidation in an oxygen-rich environment like earth’s atmosphere” says nothing about our actual experience of fire, its light and warmth and flickering presence, and its long association in human consciousness with spiritual reality, energy and life. Anyone who’s experienced a good bonfire knows this to some degree. It’s our human art to extend these experiences and celebrate their effect as spiritual opportunities for transformation and joy.

zorofire

Zoroastrian Sadeh Festival

Fire calls to ancestral human memory. Cultural practices and beliefs that center on it only endow it with additional significance and power. Druids may say as part of ritual “Let us pray with a good fire,” an invocation traceable to the worship of the Hindu Agni and a hymn in the Rig Veda (Bk. 1, 26). And Wendy Doniger in her translation* notes that “When Agni becomes the priest, his robes are both the flames and prayers.” Thousands of years of human experience with fire has not dulled its power.

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Whether you’re part of an OBOD Beltane gathering that follows the traditional ritual, or some other group and ceremony, or you’re a solitary celebrating alone in your own way, may you too share that shiver of anticipation and delight as the day and the rite opens for you at the birth of summer. May you and the Sun both grow in strength. “By the power of star and stone, by the power of the land within and without, by all that is fair and free, we welcome you to this rite of Beltane …”

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IMAGES: Fire Temple in Chennai, India; Sadeh Festival;

*Doniger, Wendy. The Rig Veda: An Anthology. One Hundred Eight Hymns, Selected, Translated and Annotated. Penguin Books, 1981, pg. 100.

 

Thirty Days of Druidry 21: Beltane 2016   Leave a comment

[Here are some previous posts on Beltane: a 4-part series, Touching the Sacred; and the Fires of May.]

Once again we’re about a week out from the holiday, close enough it tugs pleasantly at awareness. Here in Vermont, in the northeast U.S. where I live, the last few days in the 70s F/20s C confirm that winter’s gone, though nights below freezing are still a possibility. I remind myself from now till June that it snowed on my May birthday the year I was born. Weather, life: stick around long enough and you find anything’s possible.

beltaneOutward from the merely personal to a group I practiced with the longest: students at the boarding school where I worked for 16 years. Our last and best effort was a truly elaborate Beltane. We devoted a lot of time to preparation, reserved a spot on the school’s Great Lawn (associated with the annual graduation picnic for the whole school community and parents), put up attractive color posters (see the image to the right), and even inspired our student president to spring for the cost of a whole roast pig.

Beyond our small group of eight, just three other people came.

We’d even begun forming a magic study group, devising our own sigil with input from each member, and generally carrying on in magically appropriate ways: sharing and describing our imaginative/astral visions until they took on a life of their own, balancing our elemental energies, ascertaining each member’s strengths and limits for later ritual work, and so on. To those who exclaim “What?! Are you insane?! Working magic with adolescents?! Nutter! Whackjob! Fool!” I reply only that we had multiple safeguards in place.

momTo the left is one version of our sigil, drawn with magic marker on a student’s sketchpad, which I share here — “Guard the Mysteries! Constantly reveal them!” — for the benefit of those curious about the lineage and origins of such things.

Some readers may cluck their tongues knowingly and go on to detect “influences.” To which I say only: That’s fine. But these kids didn’t “know” anything about the Golden Dawn or Euro-alchemy or similar things. Spend time in ritual and you too will find that valid images continually reconstitute themselves in the imagination. If I had the sketches each of them made to include here, the connections pointed to a shared experience out of which they crafted the sigil. The Cross, the Cup, the infinity symbol, an upsilon, the axial symmetry — as far as we were concerned, we were onto an experience and a realm worth exploring. Our truth against the world’s.

As for the sparse attendance at Beltane: each group forms around and operates on its own harmonic. We ate well, sent leftovers home with everyone, and chalked up our rather large budget shortfall to the frequent mismatch between inner and outer worlds. Our next fundraiser only just recouped the outlay; balance restored.

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Beltane, like the other “Great Eight” festivals* of contemporary Druidry and Paganism generally, draws on a swirl of energies as democratic and mongrel and vital as you could wish for. Find a circle to celebrate with, or if you prefer or are gifted with solitary practice, get outdoors, invite the season, contemplate on images and energies alive and at work in your awareness. Bring them into some physical form to ground and manifest them in your world. We all need reminders to help us through those “difficult” days with humor and grace and even, spirits friendly and stars favorable, with gratitude. What better than something that’s come into your world through you?

 

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*The “Great Eight” festivals of the Wheel of the Year

October 31 – November 2: Hallowe’en, Samhain/Samhuinn, All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Todos Santos, Day of the Dead, Dia de Muertos.

December 20-22: Yule, Winter Solstice, Alban Arthan.

February 1-2: Imbolc, Oimelc, St. Brigid’s Day, Groundhog Day, Candlemas.

March 20-22: Spring Equinox, Ostara, Alban Eilir.

May 1: May Day, Beltane, Bealtainne, Walpurgis Night.

June 20-22: Summer Solstice, Midsummer, St. John’s Day, Litha, Alban Hefin.

August 1: Lughnasad/Lunasa, Lammas(tide).

September 20-22: Autumn Equinox, Alban Elfed, Mabon.

 

Touching the Sacred, Part 4: Beltane as “Found Festival”   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

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Bluets (houstonia caerulea) in our back yard

 

Bluets carpet our backyard lawn, an easy seduction into putting off the mowing I’ll need to do in another week. The air itself is a welcome. I no longer brace myself to step outside. Instead, I peel off an unnecessary extra layer and stand still, feeling my body sun itself in the coaxing warmth. Bumblebees chirm around the first blooms, goldfinches dart across the front yard, and our flock of five bluejay fledgelings from last year wintered over without a single loss and now sound a raucous reveille every morning.

In this last of a four-part series on Beltane, I want to look at our “found festivals” — how we also touch the sacred in the daily-ness of our lives. We don’t always have to go looking for it, as if it’s a reluctant correspondent or a standoffish acquaintance. When I attend to the season and listen to the planet around me, I touch the sacred without effort. The sacred encounter, like a handshake, is a two-part affair. How often do I extend my hand?

Susanne writes in a Druid Facebook group we both follow that finally in her northern location “the last bit of snow on the north side of the house melted away on Beltane day.” Gift of Beltane. Something to dance for.

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Rudolf Steiner school celebration in Great Barrington, MA

 

The ritual calendar of much modern Paganism meshes with the often milder climate of Western Europe where it originated. It doesn’t always fit as well in the northern U.S. or Canada, or other places that have adopted it. (So we tweak calendars and rituals and observances. Like all sensible recipes say, “Season to taste.”)

It’s a cycle that the medieval British poet Geoffrey Chaucer celebrates in the Canterbury Tales by singing (I’m paraphrasing lightly):

the showers of April have pierced the droughts of March to the root … the West Wind has breathed into the new growth in every thicket and field … the small birds make their melodies and sleep all night with open eyes …

A Vermonter like me looks at Beltane looming on May 1 and reads those lines of Chaucer’s and thinks, “About a month too early, Geoffrey.” Spring, not summer, begins at Beltane, though to feel the recent temperatures on your face you might well think Beltane is the start of summer indeed. Game of Thrones fans, never fear: Winter will come (again). But now … ah, now … Spring!

Susanne continues:

and even though they are a symbol of Imbolc, the snowdrops are blooming merrily followed closely by the daffodils. The peepers are peeping, the owls are hooting, the woodcocks are rasping ‘peent’ on the ground and twittering in flight.

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salamander crossing signs in our nearest town

 

Late April and early May here in southern VT, and in your home area, too, means an annual migration of some sort. Here it’s spotted salamanders. After dark, volunteers with flashlights man the gullies and wet spots to escort the salamanders safely across roads, and slow the chance passing car to the pace of life.

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Beltane finds Susanne with her hands in the earth, responding to the call of Spring:

The weekend was spent with Spring clean up, turning the soil and sowing the greens and peas in the garden. I was a bit disappointed in myself that I haven’t held a Beltane ritual but then I realized that this was the ritual…working with the soil, plants and spirits of the land, listening to my favorite songs …

May you all touch the sacred where you are.

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

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Images: bluets/houstonia caerulea — ADW; Great Barrington MA school celebration; salamander sign — ADW; yellow spotted salamander.

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