Beltane, as Viewed from Outside the Maypole Dance

Beltane, as Viewed from Outside the Maypole Dance April 18, 2018

Hello, beautiful creatures.

April is drawing to a close, taking with it both its attendant showers and its unseasonably chilly weather, and the flowers promised in May are already starting to put in an appearance. All of this meteorological and botanical wackiness heralds the arrival not only of something actually resembling Spring, but of Beltane, that much-beloved Celtic fire-festival which has been adopted and adapted by Wiccans and other p-word folks. In many ways, it can be seen as Samhain’s opposite number on the Wheel of the Year; where Samhain is a solemn observance of mortality and what lies beyond the gates of Death, Beltane is a celebration of life and, for a great many people, the means by which life comes into being.

That’s right, I’m talking about sex. Again. And you’re not even surprised, because if there’s any occasion suited to talking about sex, Beltane would be it. I mean, what could be more appropriate? It’s a fertility festival, after all! You don’t have to be Fellini to figure out the symbolism of a bunch of people, um, erecting a maypole and dancing around it, right? And, of course, there’s the classic folk rhyme associated with May Day:

Hurray, hurray, the first of May!
Outdoor fucking starts today!

Yes, well. At the risk of sounding like I’m hiding behind the ironically popular social-media game of “Unpopular Opinion” here, I’m going to out myself a bit and confess that, as much as I’m indifferent about most of the Wheel of the Year, I really don’t get along well with Beltane.

Of course, that’s probably not terribly surprising, since I’ve written before about my ambivalent relationship with the Wheel of the Year. However, my feelings of “meh” about Beltane are complicated. They’re tied up with my feelings about sexuality, culture, and the intersection of those things with spiritual practice, both on an intellectual level and on an emotional level rooted in my own experience. If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’re aware that I’m sex-positive, but I find a lot of the exuberant “sex-positivity” that runs rampant through much of the Pagan, polytheist, and magical practitioner communities around this time to be… well, a little tin-eared.

Here, I’ll explain.

I remember an outdoor Beltane many years ago, a popular event with the Pagan community in my area. The “official” start of the festivities involved all the men gathering one one side of the ritual field, and all the women gathering at the other. The men had hold of the maypole raised like a battering ram, while the women had hold of the beribboned floral crown which was to sit atop the maypole. The two teams faced off with each other, trading “flirtatious” comments heavy on the sexual innuendo, before positioning the crown in front of the maypole. The two artifacts were then rocked back and forth in front of one another, to the accompaniment of much moaning and yelping. Finally, the crown was finally mounted at the tip of the maypole, which was then erected in the center of the dancing field. The ribbons dangled down, and everyone grabbed an end—everyone, that is, except for the May Queen and the Green Man, our personifications of female and male divinity. They joined hands around the maypole, and we all danced around them, weaving in and out, drawing closer and closer to them, until at last they were firmly bound to the pole together. The power of the ritual was gathered and passed through them, then fired up the maypole to rain down on us all…

Looking up the, er, shaft of the maypole. I’m sure this isn’t symbolic… (Image via Pixabay.)

I don’t think it’s stretching the point to suggest this rite was a reification of heterosexual, penis-in-vagina intercourse, nor that the central component of the rite was phallic worship. Likewise, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, in and of itself, but…

…you knew there’s going to be a “but” here, right?

I found myself wondering how many of the women on the “girls’ side” in this ritual had been victims of sexual assault. I wondered how many of the men on the “boys’ side” were secretly embarrassed by the macho posturing. I wondered how many people on either side felt forced into these gendered, sexualized roles against their wishes or preferences, all because it was an expected part of the ritual. I wondered how many people were engaging in the lascivious banter because they felt they were required to, and how many were doing it because they got a thrill out of saying sexually explicit things in semi-public.

Most of all, I wondered how many of us were queer. I wondered how many of us were here, taking part in the ritual or watching from the sidelines, celebrating a glorification and valorization of gender and sexual roles from which we were, and would always be, excluded.

Some folks might think I’m being overly critical and unfairly negative about a ritual that’s all in good fun. You might think I’m thinking about it too much, and maybe you’re right… but as much fun as it might be for some folks, there are going to be folks for whom ritual simulated heterosexual intercourse isn’t their cup of tea.

“Well, then those people shouldn’t come!” some of you may reply.

Indeed… and that’s the very definition of exclusion. If your high holy day is predicated on a “mystery” that either requires people to lie about their truest selves or bars them from participation, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there’s something very, very wrong with your mystery.

It’s especially frustrating because there’s so much about Beltane to love. Looking back at Lá Bealtaine (if you’re Irish) or Là Bealltainn (if you’re Scottish), we can see the festival as a celebration of fire, an honoring of its role in the communal lives of the people, as well as a reaffirmation of their relationship with the land and its spirits. Scarlet Magdalene and Cyndi Brannen have both written lovely pieces about the aspects of Beltane that resonate for me, as well as touching on the parts that, speaking frankly, I’d rather eat my copy of Eight Sabbats for Witches than ever have to sit through again.

And no, I’m not suggesting that we burn the maypoles and the flower crowns… not all of them, anyway. Maypole dances can be fun, and so can flower crowns. There’s nothing wrong with the sexiness of Beltane, but there’s more to Beltane than sex. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with maypoles and flower crowns, but goodness knows, there’s more to sex than penis worship.

So yes, let’s all have fun… but let’s try to make it fun we can all share in, okay?

Until next time, dear ones, take care with yourselves, and with each other. ♥

About Misha Magdalene
Misha Magdalene (Seattle) is a multi-classed, multi-geek, multi-queer witch and sorcerer with a degree in gender studies and a slightly odd sense of humor. They're an initiate of multiple lines of traditional witchcraft, including the Anderson Feri tradition and Gardnerian Wicca, and have also been known to dabble recklessly in both modern ceremonial magic and grimoiric goetia. They've been blogging since 2001, negotiating the online world since 1987, playing Dungeons & Dragons since 1981, and listening to weird music since birth. They live on occupied Duwamish territory in the Pacific Northwest with their polymath partner, their precocious daughter, far too much coffee-making apparatus, and a long-suffering bamboo plant named Smitty. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram, or lurking somewhere around the Seattle area, usually hiding behind a cup of coffee. You can read more about the author here.

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11 responses to “Beltane, as Viewed from Outside the Maypole Dance”

  1. Tee hee, you said penis.

    Seriously though, having been the May Queen at one of those public maypole events, I tend to agree with everything you said here. It felt awkward. I am all for sex in the sense of “wanting it should not be stigmatized” (nor should not wanting it), but all the FERTILITY!!! stuff in the way it’s usually played just really isn’t me. (Mind that one of the first things I did with my shiny new, maybe not “Cadillac”, but certainly very generous health insurance plan when I got hired at FHDA in 2000 was nip off and get, uh, nipped off.) I was also *scrunches nose* at the macho posturing and all that. Not how I personally enjoy my sexual interactions.

  2. As an asexual, agender person, who has a LOT of trauma due to the fact that ‘No thanks, I’m ace. I’ll never be interested,’ is usually replied to with ‘No problem, honey. I can fix that,’ followed by a rape or attempted rape (36 by last count because I don’t say I have a boyfriend/girlfriend/am a nun, or what have you – I just tell the truth) – THANK YOU FOR THIS!

    FIRE FESTIVAL is where my focus is for Beltaine. Well, and little flower baskets, with maybe sweets in for those I care about. Because LOVE is a fire, and LOVE is not SEX. You can use the moment of conception of life as a moment of a FIRE being ignited, but that’s only one tiny moment among all the FIRES that the season is about. The fire of generosity and uplift of all beings. The fire of the sun bringing life more and more to the earth in all the flowers and fruits about to happen. The fire of determination that brings things to fruition. So many other ways to think about it.

    I appreciate this article so much. Thank you for showing that we are present in the world.

  3. Very well written as always. Excellent point too. I don’t know the history of the festival well enough to say much more than this. . . Either this festival was heavily influenced by or caused/added to the over sexualization of the American culture. But as one earlier respondent said, we can keep the Fire of the ritual in making it about Passonately Loving, just skip any blatantly sexual binary or sexual anything. There is always one thing at the very least in everyone’s life that they can “talk for hours” about that is not rooted in sex. . . My $0.02

    • I don’t even mind Beltane being about sex, or having a sexual component. Honest! I just wish it were done a little more thoughtfully, is all… or at least honestly.

      And thank you. ^_^

      • Thank you! People like yourself opening up and making yourself vulnerable are why I have a better understanding of the non-binary side of life. Please keep doing so. I am currently breaking from the pack so to speak and creating my own liturgical calendar based on the astrological timing rather than set dates complete with renaming of the holidays. All thanks to a few writers on patheos that i naturally don’t remember the names of, unfortunately.

  4. I’m on board with inclusion, but I cannot go along with the solutions you and a few other columnists are calling for, which is effectively to purge Pagan religion of much of its core of historically authentic traditions in the name of inclusion. Fertility and sexuality are not ancillary to Beltane, nor to our traditions generally. They are in fact THE central mystery of most Neopagan traditions, and certainly everything with roots in Wicca or the older Western esoteric traditions. If we trace back any of these roots to Kabalistic, alchemical, ceremonial magick, Thelema, Tantra systems of thought and practice, it is all literal and or figurative sex magick, concerned with the creative dynamism of male and female bodies and energies – energies which may predominate in one biological gender or another but which also flow between and within all of us in different measure. ritual calendar is, to this day, rooted in cycles of biology. Fertility, birth, creation and destruction, sowing and harvest and rebirth. We celebrate and learn these mysteries as they are reflected in the Earth itself, God and Goddess and within human beings.

    The closest we ever get to a consensus definition of modern Paganism is that we are, in large measure, nature religions. Nature, in most of its manifestations, is binary, cis-gendered, and heterosexual. We, and the overwhelming amount of complex life we most closely relate to, simply would not exist but for the power of generative male/female procreation. That in no way diminishes the existence or value or creative powers of the many of us who do not fit entirely, or at all within that paradigm. But I reject entirely the notion that celebration of binary sexuality is illegitimate or inherently unjust or something we must downplay or “sanitize” from public ritual. I’m all for inclusion, and diversity, but if this is where the revolution is going, it’s time for me to desert and ride for home. If we’re at the point where we must sacrifice our traditions on the altar of political orthodoxy, then I, and I think not a few others, will take our craft back to its roots of a people celebrating wildness privately and deep in the woods under the light of the moon.

    I also reject the idea that should constantly second guess everything we’re doing because someone might feel uncomfortable. Every public event should have both a policy and a culture of non-coercion. If someone doesn’t want to be part of a ritual where guys are symbolically mounting a flower crown with a maypole in bawdy fashion, for whatever reason, that’s fine. Then don’t. I won’t judge. But grown men and women can bloody well decide and speak for themselves. I will not into the business of making everything G-rated and beige and vanilla and lowest common denominator for fear of what traumas they might be carrying. I didn’t get into witchcraft to run a kindergarten class or a therapy group. I got into it to master my own heart and will, the powers of nature, to ride this life by the horns and to hopefully gain at least some of the deep wisdom which rarely, if ever, comes from “safe space.”

    • Oh, for pity’s sake. I mean, you’re hilarious, but please, stop with the chest-thumping and soapboxing. You’re perfectly free to play your reindeer games any ol’ way you want. Nobody—I repeat, nobody—is trying to force you to believe or do anything you aren’t willing to do.

      You’re also free to ascribe to me a whole pile of misinformed nonsense, and you’ve… well, you’ve done precisely that. I can’t stop you, but the fact that you’ve interpreted what I wrote as an attack on your “historically authentic traditions” says far more about your insecurities than it does about anything I’ve written, here or elsewhere.

      It’s become clear that you find much of what I write objectionable, and I’m not especially interested in debating with you, so consider this a cordial invitation to stop reading my blog.


      • So he disagrees and that’s how you talk to him? What do you write here to accomplish? Here I was going to mention the differences between the Beltaine you describe and how this all translates into the Radical Faerie world. But you are clearly only interested in wacking off your metaphorical maypole when you write. Wtf, eh? Shall I, newly introduced to your blogging, also step away from your one person dance show? Because even on the catwalk, my dear, you are not the only star.

        But, seriously, what IS the solution you suggest? What do you think should be ACTUALLY DONE to make things different if you don’t think people should be excluded, ever?

        You know what, I am already here so I am going to tell you anyway. Gurl, the radfae beltaine is super sexy and definitely gets into the phallic. But you don’t have to have a penis or be whipping it out to be part of the love. Nobody is gonna fundamentally change the tradition there just because they get some feels about the ritual. There is always room to tag out or get some support. It’s not perfect, and all the best intentions don’t prevent problems of all sorts, but there’s a stage for making sure everyone feels heard. But it’s a fag-centric community just like what you describe is definitely het-centric. It is what it is and that feeling of “I don’t belong here” is how we know to leave and find the place where we DO feel the Beltaine magic. Right? Otherwise we would have all stayed in church on Sunday and married who Mommy and Daddy wanted us to.

        Ok, so a little more love and a little less judge, ok?

  5. I know I’m super late to the game and I’m struggling a bit to articulate this point goes.

    I have no solution for what I’m about to bring up. Sorry about that.

    I, too, really have a “meh” feeling about Beltane and it is because of sex. Actually, that’s quite true. I’m a really big fan of sex. I just think that in(at least American and maybe Western) society that all of the stuff before and after sex is really fraught right now and has been for most of my life and I don’t see it getting any better.

    At this point I stay far away from rituals like the
    one you described not because I’m queer or ace(but I totally respect
    those reasons) as much as because I’ve made the decision to be
    monogamous(I was poly in my last relationship and am with someone who is
    mostly monogamous) I express intimacy with people outside of my primary
    partnership in a way that is non-sexual.

    Which, shouldn’t feel controversial at all to me but it somehow does. Strange.

    of this for me personally these rituals aren’t for me because all they
    are is a way for me to get crushes I won’t act on out of respect for my
    soon to be fiance and I would hope there are at least some people who feel the same way. I mean, there have to be Pagans who want to be monogamous in the “actually I mean it, for reals” kind of way, right?