"All right ladies, here goes nothin'!"
I positioned the ancient shovel perpendicular to the ground in the middle of the orchard and jumped onto the top edge of the blade. It slid into the sandy earth easily with a muffled metallic sound. The women sitting on the lupine- and violet-speckled grass in front of me sang and drummed. Overhead hawks soared against a bright white sky, and all around us butterflies danced about, sometimes alighting on rocks to warm their new wings. In the distance we could hear the men talking as they searched the nearby woods for the perfect tree. And that is how our Beltaine began, in the late morning on May 4 on Ima's farm.
Before long we women had taken several turns with the shovel and dug a strangely perfect hole, perhaps 10 inches in diameter and about two feet deep. When we saw Star Farmer and Apollo approaching with a stripped sassafrass sapling, we decided we were finished digging. Apollo, not unaccustomed to digging slender holes (72 at a crack, to be exact) marvelled at our work. "Wow! Did you guys use a post-hole digger?" I have to admit, the hole was remarkably uniform for its narrowness and depth. "Nope," answered Freyja. "It was all that magical singing that made it so easy." I think she was right.
Several spools of wide, jewel-toned ribbon appeared, and we each chose a color. This turned out to be an intimate Beltaine, with only six of us in attendance -- four women and two men, but a fine even number nevertheless. Yellow for Apollo, turquoise for Star Farmer, emerald green for Freyja, violet for Pele, blue for Hermit, and fuschia for me. Apollo held the base of the pole while Star Farmer hammered the ends of the ribbons to the top. The women sang and lined the hole with red and yellow rose petals. Then, with a bawdy flourish, the men lowered the pole into the hole and held it straight while we women filled in the space around it with our saved earth, tamping it down firmly with our feet.
All the flowers we'd each brought for the event were laid in a large golden basket, and, equipped with floral wire, tape and clippers, we set about making floral crowns for ourselves in the grass while the loose ribbons fluttered in the breeze around the maypole. We were somewhat surprised to see Star Farmer, an architect and contractor by trade, gradually fashion a rather professional-looking crown, symmetrical, color-coordinated, and complete with a masculine touch of thorny juniper greens in the back. In fact, floral design may be his avocation; years ago, as a young man, he decided his prom date would have a corsage second-to-none by making it himself, which he did, with great success. We chatted and joked in the grass, passing the flowers and tools, putting an easy, gentle kind of magic into our crowns. When the fine mist that had started to fall became a soft rain, we took our flowers and finished making our crowns inside.
We reconvened after lunch in the orchard at the maypole, now clad in our fine ritual attire. Each of us used the break to find a special wand in the woods to be used at the main ritual later in the day. The postmodern pagan-y part of us knew that no Beltaine maypole dance would be complete without the right soundtrack, so into Freyja's boombox a Loreena McKennitt CD went.
We loosely fastened each of our crowns to our corresponding ribbons on the maypole, then quieted ourselves and grounded our thoughts as we stood in front of our crowns. Then, going clockwise around the circle, we placed our neighbor's crown on his or her head with a personal blessing. This was, I thought, welcome change from our usual talisman-making activities at these festivals, when the process becomes so very interior and rather secret. It was a lovely gesture, in a group so small and safe as this, to incorporate a blessing and charge from someone else into your own personal bit of magic.
Blessed and crowned, we began the maypole dance. Weaving over and under, in and out, we laughed and met one another's eyes as we circled the pole, around and around. Star Farmer commented that he felt as though he'd been transported back through time to another place, and I wouldn't be surprised if others felt that way too. When we got too close to the pole to weave anymore, we tied the ribbons at the bottom and stepped back to see the pattern we had created. A few gasps went up; it was beautiful. Freyja noticed that the ribbons, which had been tied off in pairs, were each tied to a color on the opposite side of the color wheel.
Then, led by Star Farmer, who carries the horse magic (in traditional Beltaine ceremonies of old, the procession would be led by the 'Obby Oss'), and Hermit with her deep drum, we traveled the trails through the forest to the sacred sites of the land to bring the May Day flowers there. First we stopped at Maple Woman, an old tree spirit in the middle of the woods. Then we placed flowers at the God's Hill and the Goddess Glade, the site of the most intense ritual working of Beltaine last year.
On the way to the Dromenon (an outdoor copy of the labyrinth at Chartres), the sky darkened and the wind picked up. When we arrived at the maze, at the center of which a special Beltaine altar was already prepared and where we were to conduct our main ritual of the day, I knelt at the entry stones and called out an earnest request: "Air Brother, sky gods and spirits of the wind! We ask that you blow the clouds away and hold off the rain until we are finished with our work. So be it!" Then we entered the labyrinth.
In the center, we opened ritual as usual by purifying the space and each other with the elements and then called upon the archangels for protection. The circular marble slab of the altar was decorated with a white cloth, flowers, a large covered painted glass maybowl, eight-inch pieces of each of our ribbons from the maypole, and a representative of each of the elements (incense, candle, water and salt).
Apollo and I stood before the others. I was so grateful for their dedication, commitment and presence. Steady, strong Hermit in her sequined red robe; quiet, wise Star Farmer in his tapestry cape, corded with green; lovely and bittersweet Freyja in her rose-colored gown, and young pixie Pele in muted tones of violet. All looked childlike and full of wonder in their crowns, holding their wands at their sides. As always, the people meant to be there are the ones who come.
Blessings of Blossoms
I talked about flowers. Beltaine is a flower festival, a time when we honor the goddess, the earth, the bearer of all life, in her maiden aspect. We honor too the return of the Sun in his full power -- this is, after all, the beginning of summer on the Wheel of the Year -- but it's really more about the goddess and the return of life and abundance, greening and flowering on earth. It is about her joyful response to the return of her lover, the Sun god, after a long and dark winter: she adorns herself with her finest robes of fragrant, colorful blooms. We do as she does, paying honor to the Sun and the active, fertile time of year his return signals by wearing our crowns of flowers.
We often take flowers for granted, as their transcendent language of joy, beauty and comfort thoroughly engages the senses, stopping short of critical thought. But flowers are, of course, much more than just a delightful accent to all our celebrations, lamentations and other rites of passage. They are the (often) arrestingly colored, flamboyantly styled, headily pefumed sex organs of a plant. If one considers the way we react to flowers, one can see that they are the only true representatives of a real cross-species sexual attraction. Everything about them says "Look at me, touch me, sense me!" The show is really for other flowers and insects -- for the sake of pollination (flower-sex), of course -- but we can't resist either. We bury our faces in blooms, inhale deeply, gaze longingly and touch softly. We take a part of the sex life of plants into our own mating rituals: we scent ourselves and our surroundings with flowers, we place them in our bedrooms, we anoint ourselves and our lovers with unguent perfumes. It seems that there is nothing or no one a bit of flower magic couldn't make more attractive.
The reason flowers do what they do so well is because they aren't agonizing over it the way we often tend to do. I suggested we direct our intentions toward three things, represented by the pre-language, pre-thought sexual qualities of flowers:
Attraction. A single flower can attract a bee from miles away. During this active, fertile time of the year, what opportunities or people would we like to attract to ourselves, no matter how remote, to help us to grow and accomplish more? The ascending Sun shines brightly upon us; how can we be ourselves more to make ourselves more attractive?
Connection. The male and female parts of a flower mature at different times to prevent self-pollination. By way of the bee mentioned above, or a favorable breeze, or even an observant human, a flower can use its powers of attraction to connect -- to mate -- with another flower far away. Once we have attracted an opportunity or person, how would we like to connect to him/her/it, and why? Is the motivation for evolution, for growth?
Creation. Within a flower is the potential of one fruit containing a number of seeds. Within each seed is the potential for a single plant. Within each plant is the potential for a number of flowers, fruits and seeds, which ultimately means that one flower, one seed, one plant, holds within it the power to create innumerable flowers, seeds, plants and fruits of its kind for the future. We are the same. What can we create as a result of the connection we have attracted to ourselves? How can we make this a meaningful part of our legacy and relationship with the world? How does this prepare us for the coming cycles of dark and light as the years roll on?
That having been said, each person was invited to come forward to receive an unguent oil blessing from me and Apollo -- a floral essential oil blend from me for a blessing of attraction and reception, and a woody essential oil from Apollo with a blessing for action and creation.
The Fire that Lives in the Tree
After receiving a blessing we poured our intentions related to attraction, connection and creation into our wands, and consecrated them with each of the elements on the altar, and then tied onto them the swatch from our ribbons. This wand would be a magical tool, a representative of the element of fire, symbolized by wood, signifying the ascent and return of the Sun at this time of year. Also, the ribbons tied to the ends of the wands would be a sort of mini-maypole reminder of this Beltaine celebration.
Once again we stood around the altar, with our newly-charged wands at the ready. I uncovered the maybowl to reveal a sweet libation of mead infused with quartered strawberries. We raised our wands above the center of the altar, ribbon-tied ends in our hands, and made ourselves antennae for the active force of the strengthening sun. "As above," we declared, then, bringing that force down into the womblike vessel of the maybowl, representing the earth, "So below!"
May we be fruitful, I thought, and full of joyful, loving creation in service only to the Divine. I certainly felt a charge. Then, producing some paper cups cleverly concealed under the altar cloth, we shared the delightful punch.
We closed the circle and departed for a feast chez Hermit. The weather held and rain did not come all night.
The Mystery of the Wailing Woman
The next morning I woke up on the top floor of an unfinished building we call Avalon Hall and asked Freyja, on the other side of the room, how she slept. She had not been feeling well all the day before and came down at dinnertime with a stiff neck and aches. "A classic Tai Yang stage of a Wind Cold Invasion," I chattered annoyingly while making a Greek salad and boiling water for her tea in the kitchen. (My inner nerd floats very near the surface and I'd just returned from my week with Herb Mom and Aba.) I tried to make Freyja sweat all night and finally we gave her a hot Benedictine punch which made her feel better before retiring. She must have had a fever while in bed because she reported chills -- but still no sweating. I pulled my earplugs out a couple of times in the middle of the night to listen to her breathing. She seemed OK.
So we let Freyja sleep in and walked over to Hermit's to make breakfast. It was a glorious morning. Sunshine, birds singing, butterflies, dew, the whole Disney package. I played short-order cook and made eggs, bacon, sausage, skillet potatoes, arugula and baby tomatoes and we ate outside. I asked how everyone had slept.
Apollo said he was fine -- except for that woman wailing inconsolably in the distance. "Did any of you guys hear her?" I looked at him as though he'd come from Mars, and said, "Apollo, that's two years in a row! That's the same woman I heard last year!" He looked at me blankly and then it dawned on him.
Last year I was given the high (and ‘high’ does not begin to describe what an incredible and profoundly transformational opportunity this was) honor of carrying the goddess-force of the land in a hieros gamos with my real-life husband. Our actions on this plane were a mirror of the turning of the seasons, and of the romance between the awakening Earth and the Sun. In other words, our ancestors thought that without human acknowledgement of the turning of the seasons, it might not happen in the heavens (as above, so below). It was a very intense working of love, fertility and abundance.
Our work was private, but for my mystery school’s observation of Beltaine that year, Ima planned a symbolic, non-sexual ritual featuring the male and female energies as embodied by the White May Queen/goddess and the Green Man, played by my friend Odin. To prepare for the altered states my role required, I camped far away from my friends in a curious part of the woods where the growth was all new and the sunlight that came through the trees created a very green floor, not found anywhere else on the land. I could see what seemed like miles into the distance through the slender, straight, young trees.
After dark on the first day of ritual and aspecting, I retired to my tent in what was fast becoming a heavy rain. I zipped myself up in my 15-degree sleeping bag and put in my earplugs to drown out the loud sounds of fat raindrops hitting my rainfly.
Some time later, I was awakened, but in a terrifying state of night paralysis, by the sound of a woman moaning pitifully. I thought I must have made the sounds myself, so loud that I had woken myself up. But I couldn't move. I heard the woman again -- this time sobbing, wailing, so inconsolably that I wondered if she were lost or had lost something or someone very dear to her. Unable to open my eyes or turn on the light, I lay there powerless to get up and investigate or even to discern for sure whether or not this was a dream. Then all of a sudden: the woman's wretched cry came right at my ear, as though she had gotten down on her hands and knees outside my tent and wailed inches away from where my head was. This sound of absolute despair and grief, so loud and sure, finally jarred me out of my paralysis. I sat straight up and tore out my earplugs. The air around me was suddenly a deafening din of rain on my tent and trees and leaves, the hissing sound of my sleeping bag’s nylon moving against nylon, and the thoroughly disheartening noise of leaks adding to not-so-new puddles on the floor of my tent. I tried to comprehend how, just moments before, the woman could sound so clear and loud despite my earplugs. I listened for her again. I didn't hear her, and it was hours before I could fall asleep again.
The next morning, Odin woke me. I unzipped the door to my pathetically soaked tent and peeked out at him. He asked how I slept. I was quite emotional and told him what had happened. He said he'd heard her too, coming from my direction. I asked him why he didn't come to check -- after all, I was the sole person camping out here, and it could have been me! I can't remember exactly what his reply was.
So, one year later, here I am sitting with Apollo and the others in Hermit's sun-dappled yard over a plate of half-eaten breakfast. And he's heard the same woman. His description of her cry -- grief-stricken, lost, full of despair – convinced me that this was the same phantom.
Gnomey, Pele's beloved and Ima's son, who's seen too much of this stuff over his 25 years or so to be surprised at much anymore, admitted he'd had an unusual experience the night before as well. He left us after dinner to read his book in the screen house, which is situated smack dab in the middle of all the communal sites of this land. Mind you, he's been walking these trails unafraid after dark for years and knows them better than any of us. He said he was about to step over the concrete threshold into the building when he felt a sudden pang of terror -- "Like something was going to jump out of the dark and stab me in the back," he said. In what seems, in hindsight, a feeble act of self-defense, he flicked on his lighter and walked to the light switch on the wall to turn it on. I know this way of thinking -- when the rational mind overrides the reptilian brain. When the light went on, he was fine.
Then Gnomey said, "Isn't Beltaine opposite Samhain on the Wheel of the Year?" I replied in the affirmative and I could already see where he was going. "Then isn't this one of the times of year when the veils between this world and the next are thinnest?" he continued. Why Gnomey, I think you've got it! Incidentally, Gnomey and Pele, who camped nearest to where I was frightened by the wailing woman so clearly last year, heard nothing.
Freyja appeared, looking awfully fresh for someone fighting off a bug. We told her about the woman and the dark. She reported that she'd awakened in the middle of the night, and looked out the window to discover the low moon, giant and yellow, and a strange fog that came right up to the level of the windows on the second floor. And she said she felt scared, but wanted to go out into it at the same time. "It was as though something sailed in," she said, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, "... and stayed for awhile before sailing out again."
I could have sat there and deconstructed our spooky night for hours, but it was time for us to gather at the Fairy Shrine (a special tree) for a special oracle provided by Pele, who is a pixie in human form if ever I saw one. We crowded into the small 'foyer' around the tree while Pele set up her multi-colored bells around the perimeter. A performing musician when she’s not sitting under an enchanted tree, she sang us a song she had written some years back about fairies, which goes, in part: “In each patch of light/ They’ll be/ There, behind your eyes/ They’ll be/ In the still of night/ You’ll see/ You’ll see.”
She invited each of us to draw a card from Brian Froud’s The Faerie’s Oracle, which is a deck much like the tarot, except illustrated with Froud’s unique fairy art. Then she used an accompanying book to interpret the keys. While I love fairy lore and the devas, I’m no fan of unconventional, “niche” decks, but I have to say that to my mind, each of us drew a very appropriate card/fairy and enjoyed eye-opening interpretations. (Also, to be fair, I’m not entirely sure this deck attempts to be a “tarot” anyway.) I drew “The Faerie Who Was Kissed by the Pixies,” which continued a long-running thread started in earnest for me last Yule about accepting love and being gentler with myself (and hopefully, others!).
Then Pele suggested that we each approach the bells and play one that attracted us. I liked to think of this as a way of being in touch with the hermetic Law of Vibration – each of us represents a specific, unique note resonating in a harmonious universe. Pele did a fine job of leading us into the world of fairy that morning. We set an offering of Freyja’s spiced raisin-oat-chocolate chip cookies and elderflower spritzer for the fair folk, then raised a toast to them and to a Beltaine well-done.
After a short half-hour working in the Netzach sphere of the Tree of Life gardens with Freyja, I said goodbye to the others and took Star Farmer and Hermit to the part of the forest where I slept and heard the wailing woman last year. The same slender sapling arched like a rainbow over my campground and the sun touched the ground in wide patches through the thin trees. Maybe this was once a settlement? Are these little hills burial mounds or disturbed earth from fallen trees? What is this large circular depression where no trees grow? I hung my crown of flowers on a young maple there for her, whoever she is.