How Sexual Was Your Beltane?

Many of us in Pagandom participate in several groups/circles/covens etc. My preference has always been to be a part of a small, intimate group (sometimes a full-fledged “coven,” sometimes not) along with a larger, more open circle. The small group becomes my place for serious work and instruction, and hopefully lives up to the idea of “perfect love and perfect trust.” The larger group satisfies my social urges, and allows me to be a part of my greater community. There are unique aspects to both types of groups; aspects that can’t be replicated by the other.

My coven work allows me a level of freedom and comfort generally unattainable at a ritual with over forty people. Many of those experiences have been skyclad, or involved ritual nudity to some degree. During “more wild” ritual there can be a feeling of “everything goes,” and that all consenting adult behavior (and antics) are on the table. (For the record I’m a devotee of both Pan and Dionysus, and have been known to throw the occasional ritual in honor of Jim Morrison.) “More wild” rituals have never resulted in orgies* or the worst of rockstar self-indulgence, but they’ve often had a sexual component, and a frank acknowledgment that me and many of my friends are, well, sexual. Amongst my best friends, and with everyone aware of what was going to transpire before the fact, this has never been a problem, and it’s often a welcome (though infrequent) escape from mundania.

Large, public group ritual tends to be free of more adult elements, as well it probably should be. Many of the open circles I’ve attended over the years have had children present, and Pagans of varying moralities and experience. Not every Pagan is polyamorous, or comfortable around nudity, or uses alcohol as a sacrament, and those things shouldn’t be expected either. Many public rituals are in local parks, and out here in California, a lot of them are in Masonic halls and churches. What happens in my living room is not necessarily what should happen in the Fellowship Hall of the local Unitarian Universalist Church. Even with all the rules (written and unwritten) public ritual offers a “gathering of the tribes” feeling that I can’t replicate with just twelve people. I’ll forever love that feeling of being “with the folk,” even if that being generally results in a PG rating.

I’ve had some amazing experiences at closed door Beltane rituals, but my most perfect Beltanes have been all day or overnight affairs, generally with large groups of people from a diverse cross-section of Paganism. Those favorite Beltanes were generally open rituals, but on private property, allowing for a wide open feeling, but with everything held to a solid PG-13 rating in public spaces. There were Maypole dances, dalliances, kisses stolen in the moonlight, and those fleeting moments of near perfection and true happiness that only occur while communing with my gods and chosen family.

All of those mostly public rituals had sexual overtones to them, it’s nearly impossible to celebrate Beltane without at least a casual glance towards coupling, but we always tried to keep it down to a John Hughes-80′s teen angst level. There were courting rituals with the Maiden playing hard to get, and the Goatboy** doing his damnedest to be charming (and usually failing, at least for a while). I’ve written rituals with guys chasing girls (and girls chasing guys), reminiscent of school-yard games of too long ago to think about now.

I’ve always looked at Beltane as the day when the courtship of the Maiden and Horned Youth was consummated. The most powerful confirmation of that joining has always been (to me) the Great Rite. I sometimes feel as if the Great Rite is something glanced over in ritual, “Look at me I’m putting my knife in this cup!” but to me it’s always been one of the core expressions of Pagan Spirituality. The symbolic Great Rite at Beltane is an “Oh Shit” moment; it’s the acknowledgement that the Earth is again renewed through the two polarities of male and female. It’s overtly sexual and obvious without needing a detailed explanation.

While this post will get into a level or prudishness in another paragraph or so, I need to make sure you know that I’m not a prude. Many of those rituals I loved so much saw couples walking together into the woods to go “Beltaning.” I’ve been to Sacred Sexuality Beltane Celebrations that are probably close to what you might be imagining. I’m comfortable with myself and my sexuality, and all of that is due to the sex positive message of Paganism. (There’s also a strong element of “sex smart” to be found in Paganism these days too, I so love being a part of a generally responsible tribe.)

When some friends of mine came over recently to have my wife and I look over their Beltane ritual I was surprised to find myself a little bit aghast and surprised by the large amount of sexuality in their rite. One section included a ritual spearing of the Maypole into the wreath designed to crown it. During this “spearing” (and obvious Great Rite) the men held the Maypole and the women the wreath with cat-calling between the sexes written into the script. Some of the lines written for the ritual gave me pause, lines like the men saying “Nice bush” to the ladies and the ladies responding with “Is that a Maypole in your pocket or are you just happy to see us?” Lines like that wouldn’t bother me in a private or all adult setting, but they make me uncomfortable when children are around. I think it’s fine to nod and hint about things, but I’d rather do it with a wink than with “it’s a woody for you.” (For those of you thinking I was raised down South, you’re right, I was, just outside of Nashville, Tennessee.)

I think the thing that bothered me most was the construction of a “Temple of May” for the ritual. Such a thing sounds like a great idea on a few acres of land where it can be placed out of earshot of everyone in attendance. This ritual was in a backyard, a large backyard by California standards, but the Temple of May still only ended up being twelve yards away from where we were all eating lunch. It’s not the idea that bothers me, but the “in your face” of it. Parents generally have sex only yards away from their children, it’s a part of living under one roof, but it’s not usually in the middle of the day in a backyard. It just felt out of place for me in the context of an open group ritual that also featured a ritual component for children. Had this all been on a larger piece of property I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but having it in suburbia was another thing entirely.

Since this ritual was written by smart people that I respect, it made me wonder if my approach was wrong, and my reaction out of place. Nearly a week later I still don’t know exactly what to think. I have a feeling that most of the people I’ve met over the years probably agree with me, but I don’t know that for certain. Beltane is sexual, and you can’t escape that, it’s all about how sexual you want it to be. As for me I’ll probably keep my public rites PG, and my more private ones private.

*At least none that I was invited too.

**Calling the Young Horned God the “Young Horned God” never worked for me, and since there’s not a truly satisfying God-equivalent to Maiden/Mother/Crone, my friends and I are partial to “Goatboy.” Goatboy seems to sum up the over-exuberance and pent up frustrations of the Horned God at Beltane.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Faol_song21

    In general I agree with you. If there are small children there I think it should stay with in the pg 13 level. Kids need to stay kids for as long as possible before they experience the nitty gritty. And parents may end up being faced with questions not ready to be answered. However in small ritual circles I think its ok to let it get beyond pg 13 as long as everyone is comfortable with it. It’s hard to do rituals when people don’t feel comfortable

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

     Other than the obvious Maypole imagery and getting punny with some mildly off-color jokes, I’ve never been to a “sexual” Beltane. People kept their clothes on, children were present and people behaved like their grandmother was watching. Doesn’t mean we didn’t have fun, or that we didn’t have a meaningful spiritual experience, but I’ve never had any interest in sexual rituals.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=601178231 Jason Mankey

      Nude does not necessarily mean sexual.  

      • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

         I’m aware of that, having attended clothing optional festivals. I’m just saying my Beltane experiences have been very conservative by modern Pagan standards, and I enjoyed them immensely.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=601178231 Jason Mankey

          Most of mine have too . . . . I think that’s probably the case for the majority of us.   I think most of mine have been with children present.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000155387343 Ronald Belflower

    there are always more sides than what we see, While I can see and understand a wild beauty, sexual seduction that tempts any pagan. I also feel there is a time and place . Children should not be around it nor should those uncomfortable . For my self the ritual from your friends is not beautiful nor in my mind pagan , and eating next to a group of people in rut is distastefull . If the your wanting this to be about sex than have a select group and have your orgy . But if it is a rite than handle it in a mature and respectfilled way.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=601178231 Jason Mankey

      Oh, I think it was very Pagan.  My problem was with the language, it was just too suggestive and made me kind of uncomfortable.  There was never any chance of this turning into an orgy (and such a thing was not ever suggested).  I think the open acknowledgement of sex is one of the things that makes Paganism different form other forms of spirituality.  It’s not the elephant in the room, it’s something that we discuss.
      While I was horrified that a sex tent was within twelve yards of where we were eating lunch, no one actually used it.  Setting up a space like that as a figurative gesture feels appropriate to me, actually using it would be something else.  

      I agree with you about “time and place,” it always comes down to that.    

  • Tamalia

    Absolutely, CHILDREN should not be present! Now, when it’s just adults then the seductress comes out in me.
     On another note, Someone shared this book with me that points out many things in the church that strengthens the urge not to be a Christian. After reading this I saw that those who are least like Christ are Christians! Maybe the author didn’t mean for it to be used as literary suicide to his belief’s position by Paganist but glad it was shared with me. PLEASE Share with your friends! See it here: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/the-zeal-of-thine-house-has-eaten-me and http://zeal-book.com

  • Angus McMahan

    As always, I find myself nodding along when reading your posts. (This is vastly different than nodding off!) An interesting angle on Beltane and well presented.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Taffy-Dugan/625236087 Taffy Dugan

    I guess we left the celebration before it got past the PG-13 rating ;-)  My kids loved the celebration and probably have no idea about the sex part (son 5 1/2 daughter almost 3).  Being raised Catholic, I still am uneasy about sex and what to say to the kids once they get older.  I want to be open and relaxed about it.  Maybe in time.  But, everyone was so wonderful with my kids.  I hope more kids come next time :-)  We’ll remember to leave before the rest of you get busy ;-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=573907649 Mari-Anne Mahlau

    I think I’m with you in what I personally am comfortable with regarding sexuality at open pagan rituals where children are present. Our own group tends toward the bawdy, suggestive and thus Beltane is one of the only sabbats we do not open to children. It’s not that we’re having orgies or even having a space set aside like an Aphrodite room or Freyja’s tent, but that we are usually playing some kind of game that results in the crowning of the May King and Queen that are very overtly suggestive. There definitely is a time and place for everything. It’s not about being a prude, but about parents being able to control their children’s exposure to sexuality in their own way and time in what they consider a healthy way for them.

    But others may feel differently as is their right. :-) Happy Beltane, Jason!

  • A Rose

    The cat-calling and over-done puns, to me, make the ritual cheap. I have no problem with the glorious sensual and sexual nature of Beltane (though a Temple so close in proximity would be VERY uncomfortable) but bringing in cheap pick-up lines takes away from the sacred nature of the event. While I believe the Lord and Lady to be as fun-loving as any of us hence our own playful nature, there is a place where funny becomes crude. I wouldn’t respond to a pick-up line like that in a bar (in fact I would be outright offended) and I would be far less likely respond to it in a sacred setting as part of the ‘fun’ and celebration of our sexual nature.

  • http://backbooth.thesane.net/ Eli Effinger-Weintraub

    My main frustration with the kind of sexuality you describe here is the heedless heteronormativity it conveys. As a gay woman and a member of a community with a large transgender population, I am irate with rituals that reduce everything to heterosexual, male/female dynamics, with no acknowledgement (or, it often seems, awareness) of other forms of sexual or gender expression. And, sure, folks can say “God this, Goddess that, fertility this, Nature that”, but the Earth isn’t *really* a woman nor the Sun (or whatever natural phenomenon we’re anthropomorphizing as the God these days) a man, and plenty of plants and animals reproduce in very different ways than the heteronormative “athame A into chalice B” that too many Pagans fall prey to. If we in Pagandom can conceptualize an entire planet getting shagged, surely we can expand our vision to include other forms of sexual experience and expression.

    My other thought about the ritual you describe is content vs. consent. It seems to me that at the heart of your discomfort might be not the level of sexual explicitness but the fact that (at least as far as I can tell from your post), *you did not consent to it beforehand*. In your small group rituals, everyone understands going in what’s going to happen and has a say in whether or how they participate in that. In this larger ritual, you went in with a certain understanding of how much sexuality you would be exposed to, and that understanding was violated. That, to me, seems like a pretty chilling boundary-crossing that the ritual planners probably ought to address.

    • http://www.facebook.com/andrewmaxson Andrew Edward Maxson

      Yes, many plants and animals reproduce in different ways than heterosexual sex… but not humans.  Pagan gods tend to be anthropomorphic, showing a wide range of sexualities but more limited means of sexual reproduction.  We’re humans, and we all reproduce through heterosexual interaction.  Having a fertility religion use heterosexual imagery during its most fertility-oriented celebration is not “heteronormative”, but simply reflective of biology and reality.

      • http://backbooth.thesane.net/ Eli Effinger-Weintraub

        Well, whose fertility are you celebrating at Beltane? If all you care about is human fertility, then I suppose all you need are lingams and yonis. Personally, I prefer to celebrate the awe-inspiring array of possibilities offered by a fecund planet.

        Also, though human reproduction does ultimately require the combination of female and male gametes, I wouldn’t say we all reproduce through “heterosexual interaction”. I could get sperm from a sperm bank, but I’d hardly call that “heterosexual interaction”, regardless of how phallic a turkey baster may look.

  • Hawthorne

    MM!

    This year, considering who was coming together for our small, in house, coven ritual, it was important to me to find a focus /other/ than sex. I thought back to my Tantric experiences, of which the most moving were deeply intimate yet without sex. One of my Tantric deities was kind enough to inspire me with ways to share the intimacy and deep connections, without the sexual overtones. & the feedback was pretty amazing! There was lots and lots of love and comfort, and a gentle opportunity for people to gently open to each other with profound intimacy. We had the fun and community feeling of the maypole in a way that could safely include everyone!
    My Beltane was not at all sexual, but it was full of love, connections, and creative inspiration!

    BB

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephanie.metz Stephanie Cantrell Metz

    If this is the ritual that I think it is, it’s not the first time that they’ve done this.  One year they even had one of the bedrooms set aside for trysts between consenting adults.  Maybe I read it wrong, but it sounds like they didn’t even have that much this year.  Not cool if kids are present.

  • Jason Hatter

    Our actual rite was not sexual at all, being instead focused on the passion of creativity and inspiration, and was very musical.   That being said, the weekend itself was very much a Beltane celebration. 

  • Sandyhogg

    Suitor Father Sage is what my husband and two boys came up with, they seem to like it

  • Sandyhogg

    I think we are losing the fertility aspect of our fertility religion.  We are removing nudity from ritual, we are removing sex from ritual, don’t say what the great rite actually is, don’t say what the maypole actually is, don’t talk about sex.  the kids may ask *shiver* questions!!! We are letting our puritan upbringings interfere with our Faith here people.  A few off color jokes does not therapy make.  I’ll quote my favorite Ren Faire Song “Don’t blame us if your kids get the joke!”

  • Johdar

    I know that the vast majority of the children that I know in the pagan community here in the Pacific Northwest are fairly well educated in the area of what sex is (at least from what I have seen within the circles that I interact with) and off-color jokes are sometimes said. 

    I think the only thing I personally would disagree with here is having an Aphrodite/Pan shrine so close to where the children are.  It was a cause for concern with one of our local open churches because they were getting flak for not allowing children to attend a clothing-optional festival.  It wasn’t the clothing-optional part, it was the fact that there was a section of open ground, well removed from the main camp, that was designated as a “pleasure garden.”  As long as the pleasure garden was there children could accidentally wander onto scenes of actual sex.  The church’s response- remove the pleasure garden and restrict sexual worship to a designated Pan/Aphrodite shrine building that was used for that purpose during non-festival open worship.

    Other than that, enjoy yourselves.  Revel in your sexuality and be free!  Just do so responsibly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sue.dorney.1 Sue Dorney

    I really enjoyed reading your article thank you. From a British perspective, (stiff upper lip and all that) and being an organiser of Open Rituals I think there are a few points that haven’t been touched here.

    There is a reason that in the UK the age for consensual sex is 16 years old, that is because children below that age are deemed not old enough to understand the emotional aspects and be responsible enough to deal with the consequences of sex. Much as in this day and age, Paganism is tolerated fairly well, at worst non-pagans see Open Rituals as a bit of a giggle or a gathering of the mildly
    eccentric. However, by the very nature of an Open Ritual, do you know who is in the crowd? do you know who every guest is? the answer is no. Can you guarantee that a reporter for the national tabloids isn’t amongst the eager guests?

    So whether or not parents mind their children being exposed to a large dollop of sexual innuendo, and I don’t approve anyway, I think from a personal aspect that children have to grow up eventually, and we should allow them their childhood, but can you imagine what the mass media would make of it. Headlines like: Toddlers fed next to a mass orgy, or Parents take part in sex rite whilst their children play only feet away. Since when do the media allow the truth to get in the way of a good story. The next thing you know, the kids are in care, and all Pagans are seen as sex starved maniacs.

    There is a reason Open Rituals should be kept to a family friendly rating, what happens in closed or in ‘adult only’ rituals is another thing.

    Beltane Blessings to all from The Cauldron of Cerridwen :)

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