Seeking the Grail: Beltane Blues

Seeking the Grail: Beltane Blues May 2, 2016

Beltane used to be easy for me. When I was new to Paganism, I knew what Beltane was all about. Sex! And by extension, romance. And falling in love. And awesome sex with someone you fell in love with. These days, if you ask me what Beltane means to me, I’d probably get that frown line on my forehead as I think about how to answer you, because it’s more complicated. Beltane brings up for me issues of life force, yes, but also sex and consent and expectations for sex and social pressuring and heteronormativity and binary genders. It brings up for me the time my ex pressured me to have sex on Beltane even though I said no.

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The simplest answer I can usually offer up isn’t so much about what the holiday means to me as what it means for me to be a teacher/leader/facilitator during a holiday. Meaning, if it’s Beltane (or Samhain) I’m probably either running a public Pagan ritual or small event, or I’m the invited guest at a weekend festival or teaching a weekend intensive.

In other words, if you ask me what Beltane means, the first thing that comes to mind is “work.”

Now–it’s work I enjoy, or I wouldn’t do it. I subscribe to the poet Kahlil Gibran’s definition, “Work is love made visible.” But it’s still work.

A few hours after I write this post, I’ll be on the road for a 2+ hour drive to Chicago. Then I will deal with trying to park close to the venue, unloading my entire minivan probably without many helpers, and then trying to get as much of the decorations for the evening’s ritual set up as I can before the class starts at 10am. This year I only have one teaching engagement for Beltane, and I’m hosted by a CUUPs group at a Unitarian Universalist church.

While I do enjoy running events, there are definite advantages to being hired by another group to do a class and support a ritual. One is that I’m not the only person marketing and promoting the event. Related to that, I’m not biting my nails the weeks leading up to the event wondering if we’ll make enough in donations to break even on the cost of the venue and other expenses.

That being said, it’s still work. I still have to spend the time working with the organizer to figure out what I’ll be teaching, and for how long, and what we’re doing for the ritual, and other factors of planning. I need to load my van for the trip, I need to drive. I need to unload my van and set up. I need to teach during the day, and then lead a public ritual, and then take down all the decorations and reload my van.

Often when I run an event, I’m up for 24 hours and “on” for all of them. I’m pushing 40, so that’s getting harder to do, and I’m losing some muscle strength as I age and so the hauling and setting up is harder, though I’m loathe to admit I don’t have the stamina of my youth.

Let me get back to Beltane.

I’m not writing all this to complain, but more to explain why that frown is going to appear on my face if someone asks me what Beltane means to me. It was easier when Beltane was in a book, when it was theoretical.

I can’t tell you the first time I was introduce to the concept of Beltane as a fertility festival. Might have been in one of those early Pagan books I read when I was about 15. Might have been in one of the Celtic history and mythology books I was reading a couple years before that. Might have been in some of the fantasy novels I was also reading at the time.

The point is, by the time I was about 16 I knew that Beltane was connected to sex and fertility, and I had it firmly lodged in my head that there was a romantic aspect to the festival as well. I definitely recall reading at least one fantasy novel where the heroine has sex for the first time during a Beltane festival, and it’s socially acceptable (or even expected) that this is how young people will first be initiated into sex, by meeting some stranger and developing an instant mutual attraction and then having mind blowing awesome sex.

This may have set up some unrealistic expectations for me.

Now, as a horny teenager who was also the fat kid with acne and without (shall we say) many social graces, I was basically un-dateable, even with the Ren Faire crowd I hung out with in the summers. I didn’t look like I was 15 or 16, but that didn’t matter. Nobody hit on me, and I sure didn’t know how to flirt.

Life Force Current

I did, however, come up with my own way to use the rising life force current of Beltane. I’ve written a bit about a ritual I came up with in my book, Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path. Basically it involves complete celibacy (no masturbation, no orgasm) for a month (in my case, I went one full moon to the next full moon) while focusing on a specific dream intention. I start out the month by writing down the intention for the dream incubation, and then I faithfully write down my dreams for the whole month. By the end of it, my dream recall is pretty intense; the more you write down your dreams, the easier it is to recall them in more detail.

What I didn’t mention is that I came up with this particular dream ritual when I was about 16. I’d read that in some ancient traditions, you weren’t supposed to have sex before doing dream incubation. Since I wasn’t having sex with anyone, I came up with the modified format of celibacy/no orgasm, and that worked pretty well. I also specifically would time this ritual for the full moon closest to Beltane to take advantage of those rising life force energies. I suppose I knew they were there because I’d read it in books, but I also think I knew it in my body, because spring definitely wakes up my libido from the winter funk.

I’ve done this particular ritual a few times over the years, usually when I’m in desperate need of spiritual guidance. It’s a really effective technique of building energy for a specific purpose, but (as you can probably imagine) I get pretty cranky when I’m doing that ritual.

It’s a difficult ritual to do when I’m with a partner, for obvious reasons. I was able to sustain it a couple of times with my ex husband, but that was about the time when I started getting involved with the Pagan community.

And, I really haven’t done that ritual, or at least, not the full version, since I started supporting and then running (or guest teaching at) Pagan events.

Now–some of that goes into the whole reason I was doing that ritual in the first place, which was me asking a particular Goddess for help in finding my true spiritual path. Having found a lot of that, I haven’t needed to ask that big question.

But when I think about what Beltane means to me, that’s also what comes up. I remember how sacred those rituals were, how connected I felt to that Goddess I was working with. How potent the dreams were.

And the more work I’ve done running Pagan events or traveling and teaching, the less time I’ve had for things like that, things that are just for me.

Beltane and Romance and Hot Sex

I always wanted that; showing up at the Beltane ritual, meeting eyes across the room (or grove, as it were) and then getting it on with hot hot romantic sex where we’re both touched a bit by the gods.

The first Beltane ritual I ever went to was when I was 18. It was my freshman year in college, and I’d met some Pagans at a local Sci-Fi convention. Let’s just call the ritual a disappointment in a lot of ways. The ritual team and attendees had various cliques and none of them made any move to welcome the shy outsider. And I was pretty awkward then, so I had no idea how to include myself without being awkward. The ritual was done in such a way that I had no idea what was happening, nothing was explained, and I tried to follow along and not look stupid.

There wasn’t any hot hot Beltane sex, and I was still very much an angsty virgin when I went home.

A year later, I met someone online. This was in the early days of the internet, before online dating, but it’s how I met my first boyfriend. His screen name was Beltane. We talked over the course of several months. I was deeply depressed by a few things happening at the time; one was dissatisfaction with college, the other was having my heart broken by a guy I’d fallen for. Making a longer story shorter, I drove from Minneapolis to Kansas City to lose my cherry with a guy I’d never met in person.

He was a nice guy, and we still talk from time to time. I tried to make it special, but the truth was, I didn’t really have feelings for him. I wasn’t even super attracted to him other than as friends. But I’d learned that with my body, apparently the men I was attracted to weren’t attracted to me.

He was overweight, older than me, and a geek, so we had a number of things in common that made us work out. And for a time I convinced myself that we could have something longer term, but I think that was in part because I was so emotionally desperate, so clingy, that anyone who had paid attention to me at that time would have found me willing.

In fact, that’s sort of how I got married to my husband, whom I met several months later while working at the Ren Faire that summer. Similar story; I wasn’t in love with him either, and I wasn’t really attracted to him physically, but we clicked. If I look back, I very much approached his and my relationship with the idea of “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Or put more bluntly, “With my body, who else will want me?”

He wasn’t Pagan, and so there wasn’t even any attempt at hot hot spiritual Beltane sex. That’s when I did a few of those dream rituals of spiritual seeking on my own.

Spiritual Sex

The closest I’ve ever gotten to hot, amazing, mind blowing, spiritual sacred sex was with my boyfriend after that. Making another long story short, I left my husband in my late twenties in order to move to the Diana’s Grove retreat center. I’d finally found my calling, and my husband’s and my relationship had been slowly drifting for quite some time. I developed a huge crush on someone else, and that didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, but then I started dating another guy. He and I were only together for about a year and a half, and much of that was tumultuous, but he was a Pagan and he and I clicked sexually in a way I hadn’t with any previous lover.

While we never did any specific or intentional ritual sex, sex was so good with us that it often was a ritual of its own. I often felt with him that primal essence of the Horned One, the antlered hunter, chasing me down in the forest, fucking me hard against a tree, bearing me down into the grass. He’s the first man I can honestly say I made love to, and he made me feel like a goddess was exploding from my chest, from the crown of my head.

Things didn’t work out with him, or with a subsequent string of potential lovers, and that’s how I came to end up with my abusive ex. Another Pagan, and someone who was bitten by the event planner/community builder bug. That’s a lot of why I stayed with him, because we were so similar and interested in the same work. And to be honest, I still had a version of the “No one else will love me” voice inside.

Emotional abuse didn’t help with that part.

There were a few times when he tried to instigate some heavily magical/Great Rite/sex magic kind of sex, but I found something out: sex magic doesn’t work if the underlying sex isn’t really any good. It felt fake and it felt forced. I didn’t have the genuine emotional connection I’d felt with the previous lover I mentioned.

There are times with that previous lover where I came so hard that I just started weeping. I think it’s the first time in my life I felt safe crying like that.

Pressure for Beltane Sex

Our first Beltane together, we were running an event. We got up when the alarm went off, and he wanted to have sex. Now–we’d only been together for just under a year, but much of the “honeymoon” vibe had worn off. I said, “No, we don’t have time.” He didn’t take no for an answer. I finally gave in, and it wasn’t until years later that it was pointed out to me that this wasn’t just bad sex, this was rape.

I was physically injured from what he did, and at the time I just thought it was kind of my fault for not being into it and for not being able to lubricate. It’s sort of the female version of impotence, and I felt very ashamed by it. I thought especially, “I couldnt even get turned on for Beltane? Something must be wrong with me.”

I went on to run a daylong event with workshops and an evening ritual despite being in some pain. In fact, what he did caused a minor (but occasionally painful) injury that hurt on and off for several years.

So when I think about what Beltane means to me, that memory always eventually surfaces as well.

Beltane Rituals

Whenever I lead a Beltane ritual these days, I try to do at least an overview where I make space for the ritual not just being about sex, and in specific, it’s not just about heterosexual sex or fertility. I almost always ask, “Is anyone here actually trying to get pregnant?” I almost never have anyone say yes. It’s usually too nerdy for me to go into the details of binary gender and dualism and heteronormativity and a host of other similar topics, but I try to at least touch on them.

I try to focus the Beltane ritual on the rising life force in whatever way someone wants that to manifest. That sure can be sex, and it can be fertility, but it can be other things too.

The Magic of Sex

This year I had my first Beltane with my newest lover. He’s not Pagan, so it was just “Sex on Friday” for him. However, like that man from my late twenties, sex is not only really good between us–but I actually love him. He’s not someone who describes himself spiritual, but when we’re together and I come hard enough that I just start to shake and cry, he holds me and I feel safe.

While he and I won’t be doing any version of intentional sex magic or the great rite any time soon, he and I definitely experience the magic that underlies that, the magic of connection and intimacy, of real love. It helps that we’re sexually compatible. Sex isn’t easy for me with someone new; I have a bit of an “instruction manual” and many guys aren’t willing to take the time to help me feel good. In my boyfriend’s case, he not only has the technical skills, he’s enthusiastic about doing what works for me.

I’m not attracted to many people; most of my life I’ve been attracted to men, though in the past couple of years I’ve found myself attracted to a couple of women. Either way, I just don’t often find sexual chemistry with people, and when I do, they often aren’t interested.

It’s possible that I’ll end up doing some kind of intensive sex magic with him, even if it’s with him just acting in more of a supportive role or holding space. It’s possible that I’ll end up having hot epic romantic Beltane sex with another (to be determined) lover, since I am in an open relationship.

I think after all these years, though, I understand that some of the early preconceptions about instantaneous-Beltane-romance-hot-sex is about as useful as most of the tropes in romance novels. Sure, it might happen, but it isn’t likely. It shouldn’t be an expectation, I shouldn’t feel like I’m a failure for not having found that.

What is Beltane?

I suppose my point is that Beltane isn’t just what’s written down in a book. Sure, if you’re part of a culture/tribe/clan that all joins together and celebrates these holidays every year, there’s a certain energy to that. And Beltane is certainly rising life force; depending on where you live, it might be late winter weather, or it might be spring beginning to move into summer. Or it might be “the nice weather before the really icky hot weather.” It might be about fertility, it might be about sex, it might not. Beltane, like any holiday, is also about our lived experiences.

I tend to look at Beltane fairly broadly as a seasonal marker, a part of the rhythm of the year. I’m also looking to bring back a few of my own private spiritual practices around the holiday. If I have a lover to share Beltane with who actually celebrates Beltane, great. If not, I don’t really need to wait for Beltane for awesome sex with someone I love and care for deeply.

For me, Beltane is more about awakening energy. I’m trying to make it less about those early unrealistic (and in my case, romantic) expectations and more about the flow of my spiritual work. As with many things, it’s part of my seeking and I’m not sure where I’ll land with it.

Right at this moment, Beltane means that I had enough sunshine to pack my car in the evening and not be shivering, and the sun will be up when I drive to Chicago in the early morning. And that’s pretty exciting all on its own.

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