“I give this to the squirrel, that it may stay in its place and leave our house and garden alone.”
I crumble the knob in my hand, tossing it over my shoulder into the garden.
“I give this to the owl, who is welcome in our woods and can eat its fill of the small creatures who infringe on us.”
“I give this to the chipmunk, that it may stay in its place and leave our house and garden alone.”
For much of my Pagan life, I’ve dreaded Beltane. The stupid sexual jokes, the expectation (whether real or imagined) of one-night stands in the name of fertility, the leering looks from strange men who seemed to show up to rituals because “Pagan chicks are easy.” Yes, there were aspects I loved: making flower crowns, something I’ve never been able to do on my own. The Maypole dance, with its ribbons and its music. Dancing around fire circles, singing and beating the drum. Playing my shruti box and singing.
Perhaps it makes me a prude, to admit that the hyper-sexual atmosphere always made me uncomfortable. A sex-friendly culture is fine and awesome, but it dances along a fine line: acceptance versus expectation, openness versus shaming. And that shaming can go either way: the shaming of the sex-positive woman, often termed a slut. The shaming of the sex-negative man or woman, often termed a prude. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the larger American culture — stripped of its shining celluloid images and the babble-box — is not only Christian, but Puritanical. Sex may be natural, but it’s sin, it’s badness and thus blown out of proportion. “Natural” metamorphoses into an image of rutting barbarians in the woods, the archetypal painted savage or Ugg the Caveman.
“I give this to the coyote, who is always welcome on our lands. Eat your fill of the small wild creatures here.”
Crumble, toss. Shake off the crumbs and raisins onto the greening ground.
“I give this to the dreaded groundhog, so you may steer clear of our garden. There are better places for you, the ones with fields.”
“I give this to the fox, who is always welcome on our lands. Predators R Us!”
So, I’ve had to find better ways — and perhaps more traditional ways — to celebrate the May. Ways that don’t tap into the cringe-worthy, cartoonish characterization of fertility as free sex anywhere, anytime, with anyone.
I come back, as I so often do, to Annie Dillard’s brilliant Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In her chapter on fecundity, she writes: “Fecundity is anathema only in the animal. ‘Acres and acres of rats’ has a suitably chilling ring to it that is decidedly lacking if I say, instead, ‘acres and acres of tulips.'” Plants aren’t our competitors, Dillard points out; they sustain us, via food, shelter, clothing. They are the wide base of the pyramid. “Acres and acres of rats” is an image of ravening hunger, of fecundity ultimately picking the world clean of life, leading to the death of those before it and, ultimately, after it, the wave itself crashing on the stony shores of need.
Fertility is sacred only in the right amounts among the right sorts of creatures. It’s a very powerful spice; too much spoils the soup for everyone. And quite frankly, I don’t think human beings need any help in that regard. There are too many of us as a whole, at least to live in conditions that one would regard as comfortable, acceptable, humane. It’s easy to shrug that off, living in comfortable first-world North America. It’s harder to shrug off if you live in Bangladesh, picking rags from trash heaps for a living while the sea laps the land you formerly called home.
I’m a gardener, albeit a lousy one. For me, Beltane is about the awakening land — and the right sorts of fertility. Plant fertility, unabashedly, as well as that of the animals with which I share my space.
“I give this to the ant, so that you may stay in your place and not invade ours. Live in our forest, not our house!”
“I give this to the cats, with whom we share our home. Love you, kitties!”
“I give this to the bees, which pollinate our plants. You are welcome in our woods and garden, but please don’t drill holes in our house.”
For Beltane, I depart slightly from the usual Keltrian round of deities and honor Danu and Bile, or Bel. To borrow a term from Hinduism, I’m usually a saguna type of Pagan, in that I have anthropomorphic images and attributes for my Gods. On Beltane, however, I don’t see them as human-shaped. I see Danu as the wide expanse of the Earth and Bile (pronounced bee-lay, meaning “sacred tree,” and not the green substance produced by a particular bodily gland) as both the shining sky, and the Otherworldly Tree. They are massive and, in some ways, unrelatable. Nirguna, without attributes or form, nameless and vast. The land and the sky itself.
I make offerings to the land spirits. Caudle, a porridge-type mixture of eggs, milk, mead and spices poured out onto the land. Bannock with nine knobs, each crumbled to honor an animal — one either beneficial or unwanted. I pass through the smoke of the Beltane fires — the name of the holiday translates either to “bright fire” or “fire of Bel” — to bring blessings on my house, my land, my family.
There are no Maypoles, no juvenile sex jokes, no creepy people trying to get me to participate in a roll in the horse stall. I celebrate the holiday in accordance with what I believe it to be, at heart: a celebration of the land itself, of awakening life, of the creatures we share our space with, that all may be well and in their right place, that all may stay in balance.