Tag Archives: Beltane

Sacred Space: Finger Bones

My hands ache.

I am acutely aware of the weight and shape of every bone in my hand.

I can feel the tendons stretching and relaxing as my fingertips dance over the keyboard to write these words.  The movements, subtle though there are, carry their own slight discomfort to the pain centers of my brain.

The tenderness is unfamiliar, and irritating, and strangely welcome.

It means that I’ve actually been working.

***

These posts, in my Sacred Space series, are supposed to chronicle my efforts at building a small private temple on my property.

The tree, which I mean to carve, stands untouched.  The ground where the fire pit will eventually go, the fountain and small reflecting pool, the spiral walkways…,

It’s all still a grassy patch of nothing in particular.

The plans are there, but the time, and the will to begin, remain elusive.

***

I took half of the month of May away from my job.

Beltane was celebrated with fire and feast and a flurry of creative exertion, as I broke ground on a new workshop in the backyard.

There was digging, and then backfilling, and leveling.  Lumber and nails were unloaded and then transformed into floor and walls, and eventually many-jointed trusses arched overhead like the bones of some terrible beast.

I took a break from my job to do work, to build a place where I hope to do even more work.

And that probably seems just a little insane, in a world where vacation time is ideally spent in some sort of leisure activity – or even better, inactivity.

But while the job I go to every day puts bread on the table, it lacks true satisfaction.  I spend most of my time creating nothing, adding nothing of substance to the sum of my time on this planet.  I find, instead, that true satisfaction comes about when channeling an idea through the body and forcing it to take shape in the material world.

***

So I haven’t built my temple yet, but my workshop is almost done.

And maybe that’s not so bad, because I think a workshop is a sacred space in its own right.

The stories that my ancestors have passed down, about the gods we worship, tell us that they were not only masters of warfare, and magic, and healing.  The greatest of the gods, the ones who were heroes among their own immortal folk, were the masters of every art and craft.

At the woodworking bench, at the forge, at the loom and the wheel, wielding hammer and saw, and torch and trowel…, through hand and heart the very energy of creation is focused in the places where we make the things that will last beyond our fleeting lives.

We reshape the world in our image.

How better to honor the gods of our fathers?

***

My hands ache – and that is as it should be.

A hammer is scarred by every nail it strikes.

That is the sacrifice we make to change the world.

Even the bones in our hands can be a sacred space!

Lace your fingers together.

Do you remember the rhyme?

“Here is the church…here is the steeple…,”

This is the eleventh post in this wandering series, following the thoughts, planning and eventual construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along, you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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On this, our desexualized fertility festival

Religious holidays can be difficult things to explain to those who fall outside of one’s faith tradition.

Just pretend for a moment that you know nothing about Christianity and imagine someone trying to describe Easter to you…,

…think about it…

…a god briefly sacrifices himself to redeem humanity for the sins of two people who hadn’t been given a moral compass to know they were sinning in the first place…

…and Christians the world over commemorate these events by dressing up in their finery, spending an hour in church, watching their children gather colored eggs, and then filling up on a big ham dinner (just like the apostles would have done).

And yes, I’m glossing over all of the finer points, and it’s all in the presentation, but still…,

…it’s a lot to take in.

Now imagine the difficulty of describing a holy day for which there is no one accepted or even remotely authoritative description.

Welcome to Beltane!

So let us begin from an traditionalist perspective.

A well reasoned polytheist, using a reconstructionist approach, based solely on what we know of the folk practices of the pre-christian Irish, would tell us that Beltane, marked by the first blooming of hawthorn trees, was a time of purification and blessing.  It was a day when maidens collected the first dew of the season.  It witnessed the release of livestock into the summer grazing lands, but was certainly best known for the lighting of great fires, the light and heat of which was believed to provide magical blessings and protection to man and beast alike in the coming season.

Who?  What?  Why?!

That whole Easter thing doesn’t sound so crazy now, does it?

Again, I’m glossing over some of the finer points, but not by much, because the stone cold truth of it is, we really don’t know much about why any of those things were done.  And frankly, I’ve begun to wonder if we haven’t been a little too willing to take things that just happen to have occurred on or near Beltane, as being part and parcel of the holy day itself.

Was it really so much about the movements of cattle into the seasonal grazing areas?  Or is that just something that happened around the same time, and over the centuries we’ve colluded the two things.

It’d be a bit like assuming that watching American Football was part of the celebration of the Christian Sabbath in North America.  A scholar, in some post-apocalyptic future might conclude that feasts of pizza and libations of cheap beer were likewise, part of the weekly observance, based purely upon the evidence at hand.

Now there are a couple things going on here.

Firstly, there is the importance of honoring our ancestors and finding our own way to the traditions and beliefs that they held sacred.  We do this through careful examination of the evidence at hand, with an eye toward preserving and reviving that which they left for us through the ages.  In this way we do service to them and to the gods which called us to this path.

That’s part of it.

The other thing that is going on is a negative reaction toward anything which smells even vaguely of NeoPaganism.

Where the festival of Beltane is concerned, the general opinion seems to be that the old Victorian occultists who started the revival in Beltane observances, were really just looking for an excuse to shuck their knickers, alone or in groups, and that adding a ritual component to the lusty month of May was all the provocation they needed.  As their spiritual descendants, the NeoPagans may have picked up a reputation for treating Beltane as an orgy at fireside: all drum circles and gypsy dancing, while ignoring history and tradition.

And maybe that’s fair.  It might be a good idea to pop over to the Wiccasphere and see if there’s anything unseemly going on.  You know…, for science.

10 Ways to Celebrate Beltane

(oooh, this ought to be good)

Light a bonfire (a little on-the-nose, but okay)

Pick flowers (ooookay)

Wear a Flower Crown (at least those flowers from #2 aren’t going to waste)

Do some Divination (actually, that’s entirely historical, something’s wrong)

Dance (also appropriate to the holiday)

Leave out offerings to the Fae (am I reading from the wrong lists)

Decorate a tree or bush with ribbons (…)

Take a Ritual Bath (NOW things are finally getting saucy)

Volunteer at an animal shelter (what just happened?)

Roast Marshmallows

Marshmallows!  My hand to the gods, I saw this listed on two of the dozen or so lists I rooted through in the course of my “research”.  Sure, there were indeed a few references to fertility magic and love spells, but a good naked frolic in the wild seems to be largely off the menu.

That, or I’m just not being invited to the good parties anymore.

Either way, we’ve got a majority of folks advertising Beltane like it was your local craft fair, while a small but vocal minority would like to point out that Maypoles are an imported tradition from English and German speaking folks, and if you could all please just be careful with your frolicking, as you are likely to frighten the cows.

The truth if it, as usual, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

FeelTheFire

There are plenty of things to suggest that Beltane IS, among other things, a fertility festival.

Those maidens I mentioned earlier, collecting the first dew of the season?  They bathed in it.  A ritual intended to increase and preserve their natural beauty.

The light and heat from those Beltane fires, was believed to not only protect the herds from harm, but to bless them – to increase their bounty – make them more fertile.  I wonder what we are supposed to think that same light and heat would do to the men and women who danced around those fires?

I wonder how anyone could believe, after standing near a great fire, feeling the energy of it moving through them, that joining in dance around those flames and sharing in that energy, passing it each to the other, could be anything other than a sexual act.

Standing at to opposite end of the year from Samhain, during which we honor the dead, Beltane comes to us at that moment when the generative power of life is at its strongest.  The veil between this world lifts but twice a year, once to allow the spirits of the dead to transcend this mortal plane, and once again at May Eve, to allow them back in where they might find new life and new lives to inhabit.

Fire Festival – Fertility Festival – Craft Fair

Celebrate it however you like, but don’t deny the energies at the root of it.

Sex is in the air folks, otherwise my eyes wouldn’t be itching from all this pollen.

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It would be so easy…,

The sun sets and the fire is kindled.
It would be so easy to feel alone.

I think of my friends and family,
Of confidants and strangers countless,
And I know that for so many of them,
This is just another sunset, another night,
And my energies, to them, seem wasted,
Meaningless.

It would be so easy to feel alone,
If not for the fire.

All over the world these fires burn,
Each connected to the others,
One shared light against the darkness,
The warmth I feel against my skin,
Is the growing heat between young lovers,
The sparks which leap and crackle,
Bring wonder to the face of a child.

Separated by miles,
Yet close enough to touch,
All of them.

On this night and thousands more,
Both past and yet to be,
I feel them,
Generations of us,
Basking in the same flickering light.

I think of my friends and family,
Of confidants and strangers countless,
And I know that on this night,
It would be so easy,
For them,
To feel alone.

HornedGod(Detail)

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Sacred Space: Back to the Altar

Altar Cup and Book

The Sun rises, its light breaking through the naked trees and piercing the heavy bedroom curtains I have drawn against the dawn.  The patterns of branches in a golden glow sway against the cloth, inviting me to step out into the morning, promising warmth and comfort in the dawning of a new day.

These are lies.

Yes, the lizard on his rock would tell you that the Sun’s rays are all the warmth one could ever need, if that is, he were not frozen to that rock in the 20°F air.

It’s cold out there folks!

It’s winter in Texas, and while we may not have to deal with snowplows and the like, it is too damned cold to be doing much of anything outside this morning.  And this from someone who likes the cold, and abhors the sweltering heat of Summer that all my friends and neighbors are already crying out for the return of.

The winter chill, drives us indoors and away from any outdoor project that is not of critical importance.  And so, by necessity, my backyard temple/shrine project has been very much on the back-burner these past several weeks.

AltarCandle

Oh sure, there are things I could be doing – out there.  But I want this project to be a ‘labor of love’ and quite honestly, I find no benevolent inspiration in the numbing of my fingers.

Also, there is the small matter of a recently cracked rib.  Which is, itself, another story and entirely beside the point I was trying to make.

It is enough to say that the cold weather does exactly what it is supposed to do.  It drives us home, and to the sacred hearth, if we have one.

If my small house had a fireplace, it would be dressed as the primary place of worship – the very heart of the home.

Altar Cernunnos

Lacking that, I have instead, a small altar – the expression of Sacred Space within my home.

It is spare, at the moment, in reflection of the Winter season.

It changes in design and content with the passing of each Celtic feast day.

The altar will begin to bloom again with the coming of Imbolc.  It will grow wild and chaotic in Beltane’s passing, and will take on rich, golden hues when Lughnasadh holds sway.

Altar Base

With Samhain, comes the season of closure, of sleep, and of the sacred balance between the light of life and warmth, and the darkness and the cold that lie just beyond.

There is no particular arrangement to my altar.  The sacred geometry of that space reveals itself to me each season, as I dress it anew.  Next winter, it will doubtless look very different, than it does today.

Altar Morrigan

There are some constants of course…,

There are the images of the primary gods and goddesses of my worship…,

There is the great book, where I will record the myths and traditions that shape my belief…,

A cup, for libations and sacrifice…,

A candle against the darkness…,

A sphere of gold-sheen obsidian, to represent the blackest night, and the promise of light that hides even there…,

And, of course, there is the sickle, Druids’ blade and harvest tool, its razor crescent turned outward in warning, because the harvest is done, and this is the season when the Earth bites back!

Altar Geometry

All this, and more, set upon a heavy wooden frame.  Totem and tool, symbol and sacrifice, a physical expression of the sacred, as warming to me as a roaring fire.

It is a place to go, when driven inward by the cold.

The deceitful Sun is moving higher into the air now, and I have much yet to do, this day.  Some of those errands will drive me out into that hard, bright chill, and I will bring the warmth of the gods with me into the day, and then back again.

Back to the altar.

****

This is the sixth post in a series following my progress (or often, lack thereof) in the planning and construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along with my progress you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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By Leaps and Bounds

I sat gazing at the fire, watching keenly as its flames climbed into the night and sent sparks dancing among the stars.  I watched, and could not leap.

I had been saving timber aside for months.

There are many traditions about what sort of wood should be used to build the Beltane fire, but I usually select from among the cuttings I make on my own property.  There does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to the logs and branches that I choose, except that some ‘want’ to be fed to the ritual fire, and others very much do not.

Each fire is unique, in both the way that I stack the wood and in the extra components that I include as I do so.  In the past I have included packets of herbs, or sprinkled oils, or folded slips of paper with messages secreted within.

This year, there was only the wood, and then the flame.  And I could not leap.

However different the composition of the fires may be from year to year, they are also very much the same.

We light the fire on May Eve, when the bounds that divide our world from the Otherworld are nearly absent.  By will and by rite the fire burns in both worlds.  It burns as a beacon, calling man and spirit and gods alike, to gather near, and to indulge themselves in that shared warmth and light.

We stoke the fire, and the heat of it penetrates us, moving through flesh, bone and spirit.  It burns away the cares and worries of our yesterdays.  It purifies body and soul and the airs through which it passes.  For this reason we snuff out the fires in our homes and relight them again from the sacred flame of May.  This is why we circle or dance around the flames, and why, in times now long past, the herdsmen would drive their charges past the fire, or between two fires built for this purpose.  The light and the heat are kindled to purify and to protect.

We may even take a bit of that flame, and walk the bounds of our property, whispering words to be carried away on a curling trail of smoke, to protect ourselves from those who would do us harm – in this world or the other.

And then there are those of us who feel called to leap through the flames.

The old stories say that we do it for luck, but it may just be that the power of the flame gets the blood racing and drives us into the air.  Or maybe, knowing that the fire burns in two worlds at once, we feel compelled to break the bounds and touch, if only for the space of a second, that elusive realm.  It might even be a hint of the daredevil, showing through in the heat of the moment.

As with most things, I tend to think there are multiple truths to be found here.

It is enough to say that every time I have built the fire, when I have stoked the flames to their highest, I run, and I leap through the rising blaze.  And when I land on the other side, I do so having lost much of the baggage I’ve collected since my last passage through the flames at Samhain.

But not this year.

Through a foolish accident which I will not bother to describe here, I broke the big toe on my left foot.  Damn, stupid, idiotic luck!

I limped through the few days between the accident and May Eve, my thoughts on the fire and the feast to come.  And it was not until I stood before the roaring flames that I realized I would not leap into May as I have always done.  I was, I am, for the moment anyway, bound to earth.

I didn’t know how much I would miss it.

And so I sat, and I watched the fire burn, and I felt bad for myself.

Then, I felt bad about feeling bad, knowing full well that there are plenty of people who have never known the joy of leaping over the Bel-Fire, and knowing that soon enough, I’ll be too old to manage it, whatever condition my bones might be in.

And as I sat there, stewing in my melancholy,  I noticed something to my right, glowing in the darkness, just at the edge of my peripheral vision.  Turning my gaze, I saw that it was a small moth, hovering not a foot from my head, and facing the flames.  It was not flying erratically, it did not trace that all too familiar doomed spiral, it simply hovered there, perfectly still in space, except for the blurred beating of its wings.

Turning back to the flames myself, I looked deep within that dancing, spiraling light.  I took a breath, and then another.  I let go of my self pity, my disappointment and frustration.  I accepted my place in the invisible circle which had formed around the fire.  And I finally, though I have unsuccessfully sought visions in the flame many times before, this time I traveled through the fire, though my feet never left the ground.

We learn and grow by leaps and bounds.

Sometimes we thrust ourselves freely into the unknown, never minding the risk, and knowing full well that we might stumble and fall, because we believe there is something to be gained along the way.

Other times, we feel ourselves bound by as much by circumstance as by gravity.  In those moments we may choose to bow down to the limitations which have been thrust upon us, or we can look instead for the shapes hidden within those boundaries.

Beltane Fire

Though late for those who celebrate on the 1st of the month, and early for those who remember ‘Old May’ on the 11th, I wish you all a joyous holy day.  To my friends south of the equator where time runs funny, a blessed Samhain to you and yours.

After a month long absence, The Stone of Destiny resumes its regular Monday posts (although I may be introducing an occasional ‘skip-week’ when things get hectic).  There may be other changes in the wind as well, which I will reveal when, and if, it becomes appropriate to do so.  For now, it’s just good to be back!

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On Bealtaine

The world turns, and we turn with it.

We sway and dance together through this short life of ours.  The seasons pirouette eternally around us, for though our performance is but a brief spectacle, the dance of the gods is eternal.  They move around us every moment, great beings, though we are mostly blind to their passing.  We live and love and die within them, their bone and muscle and flesh, a world not created but awakened and aware!  They know us from our movements and our prayer, to their senses indistinguishable.  They are drawn to our halting dance, illuminated by moonlight and flame.  Recognizing it for what it is, an imitation of their own movements, they hear our invitation and the dance is joined.

The world hungers, and we hunger with it.

The sacred night calls to us.  First we add our offerings to the great fire while whispering blessings into the night air.  Then, like planets around their sun, we begin to revolve about the flames.  One side briefly warmed and the other cooling, goosebumps raised against the chill.  We touch and are touched, by each other and the night and a deeper attention which surrounds us in anticipation.  Waiting.  Wanting but not taking.  I hear a familiar voice, not with my ear but with my heart, and I move aside, not with body but spirit.  I feel my flesh filled and falling.  What more do I have to offer than a share of my own life?  He will see and touch you, through me, with my eyes and hands.  There is no greater trust I can bestow.  This body is ours now.  I feel what the god feels, a fraction of infinite need and hunger.  It is almost more than I can stand.  Who am I now, if not myself?  I am the god and the sacrifice and we are yours if you will have us.

The world burns, and we burn with it.

Who do you see when you look into my eyes?  I would call your name but we are without language now.  There is only the puff and blow of my breath and your hair whips in the breeze of it.  My lungs expand until I think my chest might burst.  Are you in there, or does your flesh also ache with the presence of another?  The roaring fire casts it’s light on the earth around us and our shadows seem to shudder and twist, our shapes changing as we come together.  You glow with your own light, brighter than the needfire which roars beside us, while above you, twin arches of bone climb into the moonlight.  Antlers rising.  And falling and rising again, like tree branches swaying in a wind.  Do you feel the coming storm?  The sky above is clear, yet I can feel the energy gathering in the air around us.  The small hairs on my arms stand on end as the charge builds.  Lightning about to strike.  It rolls and twists, seeking ground, needing release.

The world dies, and we die with it.

Thunder rolls.  Lightning flashes in the violent ecstasy of sky against earth.  We are the storm and perspiration falls like rain.  Fevered flesh on a bed of leaves, mortals and gods, atoms and galaxies, we dance and turn and twist in perfect rapture as the energy of creation passes between them.  Euphoria and triumph, mixed suddenly with loss.  The fire is burning down now, it’s heat diminished against the raw night air.  My heart is racing but my flesh is my own again and the shadows around us have grown calm and still.  What did you feel?  What did you see?  I want to ask the questions but I feel suddenly alone, bereft of the certainty that seemed so close only moments before.  Was it all imagined?  Are we but singular beings dancing our little dance within an indifferent universe?  I feel your hand in mine and the questions drift away on the breeze.  Gazing up with you, at the vast expanse of stars arcing above us as we lie cradled in the soft earth, I see it all very clearly.  Close your eyes and you will feel it moving under you.

The world is dances…,

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The Fires of Beltane

It begins, as all things do, in darkness.  Tonight, as the sun dips below the horizon, not a single light will shine in my home.  Neither candle flame nor the light of a digital clock will be allowed to pierce that darkness until the first fire of the season is lit within the specially prepared bowl in the yard behind my home.

Once that fire burns brightly and its light and warmth have been dedicated to the gods of my ancestors and the spirits of the land, I will light from it a single lamp with which I will carry the flame into my home.  If I lived in a house with a fireplace I might proceed to that place and while blessing the hearth, light the fire within.  Instead, I will take the flame to the alter which I keep, cleansed and redressed for the occasion, where I will light a single candle, bringing the flame of the new season to the spiritual center of my home. Now we can turn the lights back on and chase away the darkness.

Now the feast can begin.

Lá Bealtaine (the ‘Day of Beltane’ or ‘May Day’ in Irish) is one of the four great festivals that mark the passage of time in the Celtic world.  Coming six months after Samhain (November 1st) Beltane marks the halfway point in the Celtic year and the beginning of what is considered the warm half of the year (May 1st through October 31st).  This is the ‘business part’ of the year when most of the planting, growing, harvesting, construction and traveling takes place.

There are many traditions associated with Beltane, the most obvious being the great fires that were lit on hilltops during the night.  Acting as beacons in both the temporal and spiritual worlds these great fires served as points of communion between the inhabitants of both realms.  People gathered from far and wide to build these fires and dance around them in a clockwise direction to ensure their own health and luck in the busy season ahead.  Cattle would be lead, either between two fires or over the embers after the fires had died down, in a ceremony intended to purify and protect them from sickness and ill omen.  By taking bits of the fire with them into their own homes the people brought the blessings of this night with them for the rest of the year (hearth fires were kept burning throughout the year and were only extinguished prior to these communal relighting ceremonies).

With the fires properly lit, the people could enjoy a feast comprised of the last stores left over from the previous growing season.  In this way the last of the bounty of the previous harvest was used to propagate the new growing season and the circle of life and rebirth continued to turn.

Many of these traditions may seem antiquated by todays standards.  It may be difficult to imagine a time when our ability to survive the winter months depended so vitally on the abundance of a single growing season.  Today, when we can visit a grocery store at any time of year and find it fully stocked with fruit and vegetables which have traveled half the world to get there, the prospect of starvation seems an absurd notion.

We may congratulate ourselves (as a culture) on rising above the ‘constraints’ of an agrarian society but what have we given up in the process?  Our ancestors lived in a kind of partnership with the living Earth while we choose to let others exploit it as a resource for our base consumption. If you do not have the skills to grow and store your own food you live at the mercy of those who do.

We are more than mere ‘consumers’ living on the land but not in it.  We are part of the land and it is part of us.  We share a spirit with it and how we treat it is a reflection on how we treat each other and ourselves.

And so tonight we will light the fires.  We will call out to the spirits with whom we share this land to protect ourselves and our loved ones from any who would do us harm.  We will promise, in our turn to do what we may to protect the land from those who would abuse it.  We will honor this union through laughter, music, story and sacrifice.  We will pray that more people begin to see the land as a living partner in mankind’s future rather than a thing to be exploited for our short term comfort and convenience.

Wisdom begins, as all things do, in darkness.

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