Beltane – Sacred Sex

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles. This one was originally written in 2012.

In addition to the four Elements, on the cross-quarter days of the Wheel of the Year this year I’m going to explore four major themes or concepts that I think are deeply important in Wicca. Please note that Wicca is not the only kind of Paganism that there is and that even within Wicca interpretations vary widely, so this is not authoritative about anyone else’s practices or beliefs. It’s offered as food for thought.

Wicca is not a religion based on a text. Even the forms of worship vary tremendously, with nothing resembling a formal liturgy that is widely accepted or agreed upon. Most Wiccans, though, are familiar with a few important pieces of writing and many use them in ritual at times or consider them important reflections of the religion. The best-loved of these is Doreen Valiente’s The Charge of the Goddess.

The Charge exists in many forms and has been revised over the years by different practitioners. Here is a version by Starhawk, a famous feminist Pagan author. I’ll note that some people use the whole thing, but I personally only use the section from “Hear now the words of the Star Goddess…” to the end. In British Traditional Wicca, the Charge is read at each ritual, and others may use the Charge similarly, especially near Beltane. The reason is simple. One of the most oft-quoted lines of the Charge says:

Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.

In Wicca, sex is sacred. This has a lot of metaphysical connotations: the union of Goddess and God is seen as the source of everything, and stories of that union take many forms. But it’s also about the purely human. Beltane is traditionally a fertility festival, even more so than Ostara, perhaps; as we begin to enjoy the longer days and warmer temperatures of spring and summer, it’s natural to be interested in making whoopee. And as we noted at Ostara, our nonhuman neighbors also tend to engage in acts of love and pleasure with great enthusiasm around this time of year.

But for me, it’s important to understand that this valorization of sex is about a lot more than it can seem. Yes, “all acts of love and pleasure” certainly refers to intercourse, and it also refers to a lot more than that; any loving act of pleasure is included, regardless of the genders of people involved. It doesn’t say “acts of love and pleasure that lead to conception” or even might lead to conception. To me, it’s a bit misleading to say that this is about fertility – unless one expands the concept of fertility to mean a lot more than simply making babies.

One of the ways I like to express this is to say that it’s not as much about having sex as it is about making love. My partner and I make love with each other in all kinds of ways that happen fully clothed and outside the bedroom: he makes dinner, I do the laundry, he gives me a foot rub, and we go to sleep having expressed our love for each other with great depth and passion, just not with “sex” per se. Don’t get me wrong – sex is one of my favorite ways of making love – it’s just not the only one, or the most important one for all situations.

Think also about the meanings of the word “intercourse.” Yes, it is usually used only to refer to sex these days. But historically, its meanings have included what today we might call “dialogue” or “exchange,” where people engage with each other in any number of non-physical ways. To me, these too can be acts of love and pleasure. When two friends have an engaging conversation that leads to the creation of a work of art, I can see that as a kind of non-sexual “intercourse” which has also brought forth something new in the world. And if a work of art has a life of its own, as we often express it metaphorically, then this too is a kind of fertility, of bringing new life into the world.

These expanded ideas of intercourse and fertility make my understanding of Wicca one where sex is sacred not because of sex acts themselves, but because it is one of the most wonderful, vital examples of a whole class of activity – all acts of love and pleasure. Wicca is about connections: connections within nature, connections to deity, and connections between individuals. All acts of love and pleasure that create and celebrate connections between people, especially ones that are fruitful or productive in those people’s lives, are sacred.

This weekend, participated in a ritual that included dancing the Maypole. The Maypole has a long history as a fertility symbol. But what struck me about it, as I steadied the pole and my friends whirled around me, was not the pole itself, but the network we wove as we did so. This wasn’t just about union between two people; it was also about community, coming together to celebrate how our interconnections are important to the fabric of our lives, and how those interactions bear fruit in so very many forms.

And those are what I celebrate this Beltane. Yes, I include plenty of bawdy humor and making love both in and out of the bedroom with my partner, but I also celebrate the ways that I connect with others: through song and story, image and word, through all the myriad interconnections that make my world the vibrant, vital place that it is. One of those is the Slacktiverse, and so I celebrate each and every one of you, too, this season. With that, I wish you many acts of love and pleasure, of many different kinds. Bright Beltane to you all!

Beltane – In My Hands

I’m continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2011.

The Pagan celebration of Beltane, May first and second in the northern hemisphere,  is a fire festival and also a very earthy and bawdy celebration of physical love and pleasure. It’s easy to think of Beltane in big terms: huge bonfires with whole communities dancing in ecstasy, both vertically and horizontally. For the moment, though, I’d like to put it in smaller terms based on something I discovered recently: the motion I make when I cup my hands around a candle to protect it from the wind is the same as the gesture I use to cup my beloved’s face before a kiss.

The full moon after Ostara (in 2011) was a “supermoon” when the moon was full at nearly the same time it was at perigee; its nearness to the earth made the full moon bigger and brighter than usual. I decided to do my personal ritual marking the full moon outside, on the rooftop patio of my apartment building. I took my portable altar kit upstairs and and settled down to watch the sun set and the moon rise. I was a little irritated by the fact that the densely urban area where I live creates a lot of light pollution, so the supermoon wouldn’t be as impressive as it would be elsewhere, out in “real nature.”

Well, Mother Nature must have heard me thinking, because she decided to remind me that even in the middle of a very human-constructed and human-influenced environment, she can still play tricks. Thankfully, she was gentle and only sent wind, but it was an erratic wind that snuffed my candles at frequent but irregular intervals, spaced out just enough to let me think I could relax and meditate a bit before another gust came. It became something between a game and a competition as I frantically relit candles from each other, and finally I let two of my candles go out, but sheltered the third one in my cupped hands to keep it going until the moon rose, majestic and beautiful and just exactly the same shade of ruddy yellow brilliance as the flame.

This was a good reminder to me not to let myself get caught up in “living room Wicca,” where we practice indoors and all too seldom actually experience the nature that we claim to revere. Living room Wicca leads to all sorts of silliness, especially from ultra-urban Wiccans who can get all overly romantic about the purity of nature. I’ve got news for people who think that way: the idea of the wilderness, and especially the idea that it is in some way better than the settled areas, is a social construction from the Romantic period. After the atmospheric nuclear testing of the 20th century affected the distribution of isotopes in the air and water of the world, there is no place on earth that is completely unaffected by humankind’s actions. Even the moon in which I admire one face of the Goddess has had men walk on it.

The purity of nature as distinct from humanity is a myth, just as the idea that humanity is distinct from nature is a myth.  Humans are creatures of flesh and blood, bone and sweat, tears and urine. What wildness does exist is valuable and a vital part of the planet’s biosphere, but it’s not necessarily nice or comfortable or beautiful, any more than humans are necessarily rational and logical creatures.

Anyone who actually lives there will tell you that it takes a lot more work to live in less-developed areas. It’s even a hard place to do ritual: the flames get blown out, nothing is level, the rocks are sharp, the ants carry off the sacred bread, you discover what a dead frog smells like, and when you start chanting “We all come from the Goddess / and to her we shall return / like a drop of rain / flowing to the ocean,” she takes you at your word. People who succumb to living room Wicca run the risk of being like the young Wilderness Explorer in the movie Up!, who complains that the wilderness is just too wild. It takes a keen appreciation of the ridiculous, as well as deep familiarity with your environment, careful planning, and a high degree of flexibility to do ritual outdoors successfully.

In that way, it’s actually a lot like making love. Robert Farrar Capon wrote that “the unrehearsed and unrehearsable ritual by which two people undress each other for the first time” was one of the few things “not worth describing seriously,” what  with all the fumbles and uncertainty and mishaps: clothing gets tangled, zippers stick, and jewelry breaks. Even after that, our bodies don’t always keep pace with our thoughts and emotions, sometimes zooming light-years ahead, sometimes lagging, frustratingly slow to respond. It almost never happens smoothly, as if choreographed; sometimes it hardly seems like it’s worth the trouble, and that it might be slightly ridiculous to bother about it at all.

And the ultimate ridiculousness can be found in Beltane’s opposite – Samhain, the festival that recognizes death and its place in our lives. After all, as Sir Terry Pratchett pointed out, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” So why should we bother, why take the risks, why expose ourselves emotionally to the dangers and difficulties of loving, let alone physically struggling with the acts of love?

And yet somehow, we still keep trying, and we believe it’s worth the trouble. Because here and now, we are alive, and in love.

These two great mysteries, love and death, are closely intertwined, although we try to separate them, to idealize the one and ignore the other. But no matter how much we try, they exist in dialogue with each other. The only real response to the fact that death happens is, “I love you.” And all I have to believe is that that’s enough. All I have to believe is that love can be the basis for me to build a meaningful life and relationships.

And this is true: we have proof that love is amazingly, tremendously powerful precisely because it happens in the face of silliness, and ridiculousness, and impermanence, and death. It is worth the trouble of popped buttons and of broken hearts, because love is what makes new life possible. This is true in the literal sense, obviously, of creating new lives, but it’s also true in a metaphorical sense.

Capon argued that grace, which I regard as the ultimate manifestation of divine love, makes sin utterly irrelevant. For Capon, the grace of the divine love is forgiveness that not only settles the score but throws out the idea of keeping score at all. Although the concept of sin is no longer particularly meaningful for me, the concept of forgiveness still is.

For me, the most incredible forgiveness happens when I love someone enough that I want my relationship with them to go on, regardless of what has happened to hurt me. I’m so in love with them that I’m willing to let the old me die, so that the me who was owed a debt by the offender is simply gone, and the debt will never be called in. If we go forward into that together, our love can create a new life for us both, and for our relationship together.

That’s why this year, especially when Easter and Beltane are so close together, it seems appropriate that Beltane occurs at the new moon, not the full moon. It’s a reminder that both are celebrations of love over death, reminders of the love that transcends death and helps us make life meaningful, in the face of all the fumbles, and the pain, and the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Beltane and the love it embodies are about light, and fire, even in the darkest moments of a moonless night. After all, that’s why it is called the new moon and not the empty moon.

Even in those very dark moments, I find the newness of life in the simple motion of cupping my hands. I light a candle, rather than cursing the darkness, and cup my hands around it, nurture it just a bit more, get it to glow a little brighter. I cup my hands around the face of a child, and wipe away the tears, and replace them with kisses, nurturing the young life that is just barely taking hold but promises so much potential. I cup my hands around the face of my beloved, and nurture the flame of our love. And when I do, that brilliance blazes up into a light that illumines my life, and I have the answer right there, in my hands.

The love of the body

Brigid's Cross Tattoo

…if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you shall never find it without.
-Doreen Valiente, The Charge of the Goddess, Starhawk’s revision

One of the things that neither of my parents really passed on to me was the love of the body. That’s partially because they were both raised in fairly grim Protestant sects which always distrusted the body when they did not outright disdain it. Moving away from that was part of what drew me to Paganism and to Wicca in particular. But I still find that there are lots of Pagans and Wiccans who spend more time getting away from their bodies – whether it’s in meditation or trance journeying or astrology – than being in their bodies, loving their own bodies, loving themselves.

I just recently got my first tattoo: a Brigid’s cross on my shoulder.

Brigid's Cross Tattoo

Tattoo by Paul Roe at Britishink. Image by blogger; please do not reuse.

Tattooing has a history of being a shamanic practice in the broad sense of the term, a practice that is a purposeful spiritual transformation for the person going through it. I certainly think that taking my matron’s symbol into me – into my flesh, literally – is having a deep effect on me in ways I couldn’t expect. Right now, it’s taking my love of my body to a whole new level. I’m experiencing the love of the body in way that’s very joyful. It’s not at all the grim calorie-counting, crunch-requiring kind of self-hate that is prevalent in our society, especially among women subject to the pressures of commodification. My sensuality is cranked to eleven. I’m making “healthy” choices for myself without guilting myself into them for the first time because they feel inherently right in my flesh in a way they never have before. So do the pleasures! As a result, I’m living, and moving, and acting so much more vibrantly, being more aware and more present, that it’s simply amazing.

This is a kind of mingled wild desire and joy that I have seldom experienced before; it’s Beltane, all right, Beltane coming calling in my own person, heralding the turning of the Wheel, helping me celebrate it in new ways. It’s my matron’s healing and forging and poetic inspiration deeply immanent within me. It’s the love of the body.

How are you experiencing the love of the body?

Down in the mud at Beltane

Some days I think that no one in her right mind would want to be a Witch and a priestess – unless, of course, she was called to it, and it was as much a part of her blood as the cells that carry oxygen to keep her moving even when she’s tired and heartsore.

Another family that my partner works with just lost a baby at term. It was one of those accidents that just happens; no one is at fault, there’s no real cause to look for. It just happened. I’m volunteering to help any way I can, and what I could do today was bake bread.

So I did: I took water, which is most of what we’re made of, and added salt, for the tears the family is crying right now. Then I added honey, for the sweetness and healing that will come later, and milk, for the nurturing the mother was going to give to her child, and the nurturing the couple needs right now, and oil to ease the transitions. Yeast came next, because baking is about life, in the midst of everything. And then flour: the body of John Barleycorn, whose offering of life sustains us all.

I mixed it, and when it started to stick together, I kneaded it, turning it, folding it, getting it stuck to my fingers, feeling it transform in my hands. And I sang: I sang my sorrow, and my concern, and my care, and my love, and my support right down into that dough until it was folded in among all the physical parts. I let it rise, letting the life of the yeast do what it’s supposed to, and when it had risen, I punched it down and kneaded it again, shaping it into a loaf. I laid the loaf in the cradle of its pan. When it was ready, I baked it, using the fire to further transform and then fix the physical form as well as to seal my intent.

And after I dropped it off for the family, I went to TRI to have a rest and talk with the Lord and Lady. I found a spot in my favorite corner of the island and was sitting on a rock dipping my toes in the Potomac, thinking about what it means to be a Witch and to live on boundaries, in the in-between spaces, when a family came by on the path. One of the little boys clambered up on top of some rocks and then jumped down again from about his height onto hard ground. He had a rough landing, but he didn’t seem to hurt himself, although my heart leapt up into my throat to see him do it. Then he started crying, and I thought maybe he’d bitten his lip – his father turned to him (had just been advising the other son not to climb on the rocks like that…), but the boy was crying too much to tell him what was wrong, and then I was moving, trying to get to them and mentally reviewing the first aid kit in the car and how quickly I could get to it if he had a serious laceration. It turns out he just bit his tongue, but I was at least able to tell his father what had happened, and he comforted his son.

On the way to them, I dropped and broke my sunglasses, and got one foot in the river’s mud, and I didn’t care, because as Nanny Ogg said, “Is a witch someone who would look round when she heard a child scream?” Of course she is.

As I continued walking around the island, I was acutely aware of the ways the rain and soil have been interacting lately; there was plenty of mud around, and while that’s not the first thing that springs to mind when I think of Beltane, it was obvious that the mud was part of the waking up of the land and the life just as much as the pretty flowers and new leaves. I thought about the ways that Witches describe themselves as living on the edges, or being there when life is on the edge, and things can go either way. Those edges aren’t a distant place on some far-away periphery, they’re the edges in the middle of everything, like the mud is the edge between the water and the land. As Granny Weatherwax would say, that is where the soul and center of Witchcraft is: down in the mud.

Beltane, botany, and desire

Hecate recently asked how we know it’s almost time for Beltane. She has an answer in terms of the deep relationship she has with the oak trees in her location. I haven’t lived in one place long enough to have the same specific awareness that she does, so my answer is more internal. I know it’s almost time for Beltane because of desire.

This year, though, I have a botanical example. The tulips by the Netherlands Carillon are beautiful.

Field of red tulips with Washington Monument in distant background.
Tulips at the Netherlands Carillon

I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Pollan investigates and meditates on the relationships between humanity and four different plants, each one catering to a different human desire. For the desire of beauty, he selects the tulip. In the opening of the chapter, he talks about how he had long preferred to tend food plants in his garden. The flowers of these plants, only a brief stop along the way to the bell pepper or tomato that he really wanted, he calls “teleological flowers.” In contrast to these purposeful plants, he sets out to rediscover what people see in flowers grown purely for their beauty.

This stands for that: flowers by their very nature traffic in a kind of metaphor, so that even a meadow of wildflowers brims with meanings not of our making. … Sometime long ago, the flower’s gift for metaphor crossed with our own, and the offspring of that match, the miraculous symbiosis of desire, are the flowers of the garden.

And although Europeans tried to find teleological uses for the flower, they failed: “The tulip was a thing of beauty, no more, no less.” He speculates about why this particular beauty captured the Dutch in the famous tulip mania:

I also think the particular character of the tulip’s beauty made it a good match for the Dutch temperament. Generally bereft of scent, the tulip is the coolest of floral characters. In fact, the Dutch counted the tulip’s lack of scent as a virtue, proof of the flower’s chasteness and moderation. Petals curving inward to hide its sexual organs, the tulip is an introvert among flowers. It is also somewhat aloof – one bloom per stem, one stem per plant. “The tulip allows us to admire it,” Herbert observes, “but does not awaken violent emotions, desire, jealousy or erotic fevers.”

Red tulip

Herbert was only partially right, as Pollan goes on to describe in the tulip mania. Today, when even the tulips look like wanton displays of desire, I know it’s time for Beltane.

Red tulip with outer three petals folded back