There are certain sabbats on the calendar that are just bigger than the rest. Obviously Samhain is one of those. For many Pagans it’s the annual “reset” button, and its associations with death and the final harvest give it an extra degree of gravitas that most sabbats just don’t have. Add in its overlap with the secular Halloween and you’ve got the makings of very big holiday. The other “big” sabbat is generally Beltane for a variety of reasons. In colder climes it’s a “coming out” party, plus there are all the goings on about new life, the first planting, and of course sex. Sex is always a big seller.
Beltane also has a few traditions that are just beloved. People like maypole dances for instance. It’s something to look forward to and it’s just goofy fun. Sometimes I think we take ourselves too seriously as Pagans; there are moments when I want Paganism to simply be an expression of pure joy. I think ye olde maypole sometimes provides that. Last year I got up before the sun rose to watch some Morris Dancers. It’s not something I’m going to do every year, but seeing a centuries old tradition in the mists of the early morning was a grand experience. At Beltane-time I simply have Spring and Beltane things to do, it’s kind of relaxing. No presents to buy, no treats to hand out, just rituals with the coven and other people whose communities I’m a part of.
For all of the ease I associate with Beltane, there’s one part that’s not easy: writing a Beltane ritual. Some rituals write themselves. At Samhain there’s the harvest and the returning souls of those that we have lost. Yule has several traditions both ancient and more modern. I can always use the Oak and Holly Kings, or perhaps something about the rebirth of the sun, not to mention a gift exchange. Imbolc has Brighid, and Lughnassa and Mabon have all the elements of the harvest and I can always fall back on John Barleycorn if I’m out of ideas. There are several ideas and myths in some of our modern conceptions of Beltane, but sometimes those can be difficult to build a ritual around.
In my own personal yearly mythos that revolves around the Wheel of the Year I celebrate May 1 as “Consummation Day.” For me it’s generally when Goddess and God go into the woods together for the first time to “Beltane.” (Full disclaimer, I’m involved in a ritual this year where the Goddess and Goddess-or in this case Queen of the May and Jill In The Green go into the woods together. I’m very happy about this.) The “magic of joining” is a beautiful thing to celebrate, but it’s hard to write that into a ritual without the whole thing becoming overly pervy. There are lots of obvious things about Beltane to write about, but figuring out a way to write about them without turning the whole thing into a late night movie on premium cable is another thing entirely. I’m not afraid to put sex into ritual, but I also want to make sure I’m inserting it in a way that’s not going to offend.
For years my wife and I built rituals around the idea of the young Horned God (the “Goatboy”) chasing the Maiden at Beltane, and those rituals were generally successful. We often added other elements, things like the Crone warning the Maiden just how bad the Goatboy could be, and it was all fun for what it was, but a few years ago the idea began to make me feel uncomfortable. The Goatboy chasing the Maiden could be misconstrued as a non-consensual act and that just didn’t sit right with me. We always took pains to express that wasn’t the case, but me running around half naked with horns on my head and my tongue hanging out of my mouth wasn’t the right image. It’s hard to express courtship and a Maiden playing hard to get over the course of a sixty minute ritual.
There are ways around the giant phallus in the room, one of those is to cheat and simply build the ritual around the giant phallus standing in the middle of it, but I feel as if using a maypole dance as a ritual’s “working” is too much of a shortcut. I like my rituals to have some sort of theological statement in them (“all that dies shall be reborn” for example or “thou art goddess/god” which I used for my Beltane Ritual last year) and I guess I could write a maypole ritual tying everything to safe-sex, but that feels more like a joke than a ritual. Perhaps I should ease off of following my own rules for ritual, but they’ve worked pretty well for me over the last ten years (and possibly earlier than that) so I’m not about to change now. Rituals have to be about more than just handing everyone in the circle a flower and telling a story.
Beltane is also the kind of holiday that calls for a celebration. “May Day Games” are a very traditional idea, and probably go back to ancient pagan times. Making a piñata out of flowers and letting the coven whack at it with a sword would probably be fun, but I’d want that activity to somehow tie into a bigger idea. A great ritual is not simply a few disparate parts, it’s several different parts which unite to form a greater whole. Any game I come up with should tie into the larger themes of new life, the blooming Earth, the coming of summer, and the joyous union of Lady and Lord.
Sadly this blog post doesn’t end with me finding a solution to my current quandary. Mercifully I only have a coven ritual to write which usually means “just the middle” (the quarter calls, circle casting, etc., is always the same), and I’ve got some time left to do it, but I hate being stumped. I love Beltane perhaps more than any other year time of the year in a purely “Pagan sense,” but I’m often at a loss about just how to express that love. Luckily for me my favorite Beltane Rituals tend to happen occur after the other coveners have left, leaving me alone with just my lady. Those I always know how to write.