Oh, do not tell the priest our plight,
For he would call it a sin;
But we’ve been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
excerpt from “A Tree Song” by Rudyard Kipling – 1906
The current pandemic has brought many changes to the world at large and to the Pagan world in particular. This year there will be no orgies in the woods at Beltane. Not that I imagine there were ever very many orgies in the woods at Beltane. In my 27 years as a Pagan I’ve been to exactly zero. I’ve been invited to exactly zero. The ones that I heard about but wasn’t invited to? Yeah, exactly zero.
Not that they haven’t happened at one time or another – I’m sure there’s at least a bit of truth behind the myth. And I’m sure this coming Friday a few couples and groups will find a nice isolated spot to express their sacred sexuality.
But the idea that Beltane is a day when everyone should be having sex has been in decline for some time, and this year the hype runs head-on into reality.
The war on “sex is natural and good” is over and we won
In the early days of the modern Pagan movement – around the time Kipling wrote “A Tree Song” – the wider culture still had the idea that sex was something sinful. Christianity is largely to blame, especially its more extreme forms that focus on a “fallen” world and humanity’s “sinful” nature – neither of which are true. Patriarchy is also responsible, with men wanting to own women (practically if not legally) and control them, instead of forming mutually respectful relationships with them.
But sex is natural and good and it can only be repressed for so long. The Victorian era was replaced by the Roaring 20s, then later by the 60s and all the social changes it brought.
We’re still fighting for gender equality and for full acceptance of LGBTQA people – especially trans people – but the days when we needed religious cover for sex are long gone.
We won. We don’t have to keep fighting this particular battle.
Too many people used “sacred sex” for abusive purposes
Finding a nice healthy respectful balance is always difficult. It’s a very short walk from “sex is natural and good” to “everybody should have more sex” (whether they want to or not) to “everybody should have more sex – with me.” There are far too many stories – many of them true – of Pagans who pressure or outright force others to have sex with them even if they don’t want it.
It gets worse when there are power differentials: between teachers and students, between adults and children, between charismatic leaders and awe-struck followers. Significant power differentials make true informed consent virtually impossible.
“Hey it’s Beltane – we’re supposed to!” isn’t the way to negotiate a consensual coupling. It’s coercion, and coercion is unethical.
So if the restrictions caused by this pandemic are the last nail in the coffin of “you’re supposed to have sex on Beltane” that’s a very good thing.
The sexual imagery of Beltane is heteronormative and gender binarist
I’ll freely admit the idea of a sexy holiday is attractive. I’ve led my share of Beltane rituals over the years, but when I started trying to make them sexy I ran into a big problem. We’ve always had a significant number of LGBTQA persons in our group, and the usual imagery – especially the Wiccan Great Rite – is about one type of sex between one type of couple. Plus don’t forget that the “A” stands for asexual / aromantic. Even if we can eliminate the coercive aspects of Beltane as the sexy holiday, the fact remains that it’s far from inclusive.
And besides, the whole “fertility rites” thing (a concept misused by early anthropologists) suggests that the purpose of springtime lust is reproduction – when the vast majority of sex is done in ways that strongly and intentionally inhibit reproduction.
When the themes and images don’t fit the people celebrating, it’s time to find something new.
Alternatives for Beltane celebrations
The more my own Paganism has moved from generic Nature worship to devotional polytheism, the less I’ve thought about Beltane as a sexy holiday. While Denton CUUPS has done a Maypole Dance every year since 2005 (a tradition I’ll be sorry to miss this year), the Beltane rituals I’ve led in recent years have completely skipped sexual themes and imagery.
If I wanted to do a Nature-oriented ritual, I would do a working for protection from storms – this is the height of tornado season here in North Texas. Or perhaps, a ritual that emphasizes that Nature is good even though Nature includes things like tornadoes and coronaviruses.
Beltane – A Solitary Ritual could easily be adapted for a group. And there are other ideas in 8 Things To Do For Beltane As a Solitary Pagan. These ideas remind us to not let Beltane become the Pagan equivalent of Valentine’s Day for single people.
There is still a need for sacred sexuality
For all that sex permeates our mainstream society – sometimes to liberate, other times to exploit – it remains mysterious. It’s more than evolution’s way of getting us to reproduce. Sex forces us to expose our vulnerabilities in order to manifest our desires.
Sex is sacred and holy. Not in some evangelicals-lecturing-to-teenagers “save yourself for marriage” way, but in a way that quite literally produces ecstasy. It’s worthy of myths and rituals and celebrations… but only in an environment that is both inclusive and consensual.
What does that look like? Honestly, I haven’t given it a lot of thought. It would be a nice topic of conversation over a cup of tea or a glass of wine, whenever in-person gatherings are possible again.
But whatever it is, it’s not a public Beltane ritual where cis male – cis female sex is held up as the idealized form, and it’s certainly not an excuse for predators to pressure anyone into sex they don’t really want.
The reality of Beltane
In 27 years I’ve heard lots of talk about sexy Beltane rituals and orgiastic afterparties – but only third-hand. Reality for me and for the vast, vast majority of my Pagan friends has been some very beautiful and occasionally powerful rituals about Spring, fertility (but never human reproductive fertility), and our Gods.
This year the Beltane fantasy – let’s face it, that’s what most of this is – is running head-first into the brick wall of quarantines and social distancing. The hype of Beltane as the time when all good Pagans should be having sex has been in decline for some time – this year we know we’re not missing out on anything.
May this most unusual Beltane be bright and joyous, no matter how you choose to celebrate it.
Jason Mankey has an excellent post on his blog that covers what we know about Beltane in ancient times (hint: it wasn’t about sex), how the idea of Beltane as “the sexy holiday” began, and how we can do better.