For it giveth unto all lovers courage,
that lusty month of May.1
If Ostara is viewed as the return of fertility, Beltaine can be viewed as the time to do something about it. This is the seasonal celebration of sexual union. It’s the time of the Maypole dance, when the pole (male) is enwrapped in fabric streamers (female).2 It’s when the previous year’s fires are allowed to burn out and a new blaze is kindled and shared—taine (or teine) is Gaelic for fire.3 Fertility and abundance were encouraged by human couplings, out on the land, under the stars. This male/female symbolism can be utilized despite one’s sexual orientation, since any act of creativity is bound to call on both left and right brain, both logic and intuition, within ourselves, to become fully realized.
Pale but charming suburban remnants of Beltaine were celebrated during my 1950s childhood as May Day. “May baskets” were crafted from colored paper and lacy paper doilies, stapled or glued into fanciful shapes with a hanging-loop of narrow paper at the top. Filled with the season’s first flowers, the baskets were anonymously hung on neighborhood doorknobs— we’d ring the bell and run off feeling elfish.
A friend remembers dancing the Maypole as a Catholic school kindergartner. Those students annually crowned their statues of the Virgin Mary with wreaths of tiny rosebuds. Altars heaped with elaborate offerings were dedicated to Mary as “Queen of the Heavens, Queen of the May,” a brief paganish respite at a strict 1940s Catholic parochial school.
“Witch hunts” of the political variety helped squelch May Day customs in the United States. Designated International Workers’ Day, a Socialist holiday, in 1889,4 by the 1950s May 1st had become the occasion of massive military parades in Communist Russia, complete with missiles and tanks rolling through the streets of Moscow. Faced with lingering paranoia about Joe McCarthy and his ilk, many Americans forsook their old floral customs rather than risk being labeled “soft on communism” or worse.
The graphic symbolism and high energy of a Maypole is wonderful and explained in great detail elsewhere,5 but basically you need a tall, strong pole, well-planted in the ground. An even number of people is necessary, divided into two equal even-numbered groups moving around in opposite directions. Strips of cloth several inches wide show up better than narrow ribbons; you’ll need one long strip per dancer. There are ways to adapt the Maypole to limited space and solitary/small group workings. Find a good phallic stick in advance; during your Beltaine rites wrap it with streamers and your intentions for the coming season. Old traditional colors were red and white (for female and male sexuality), but any significant hues can be used. In a group, people might wrap personal sticks, or one stick can be passed as people wind and bind and speak intentions until the “maypolette” is completely swaddled and the streamers are used up.
Several sources speak of saving the first rain of May to bathe in6 or rolling in May-day morning dew.7 Consider soaking your streamers in the evening dew (Father Sky joining Mother Earth) before wrapping your pole, or placing your Maypolette outside to absorb this potent moisture on May-morning.
Early Beltaine fires were created with a fire-drill (a stick spun briskly into a hole in another piece of wood—more sexual imagery?)8 and leaping the flames may have been a means of symbolically firing up the human nether regions. Nine different woods were traditionally used in the fire, each with its own significance (9 = 3 x 3, the Triple Goddess, triple-strength).9 These fires—regenerative heat incarnate—were a vital part of earlier rites and well worth retaining. For the city-dwellers among us, this may take the form of a cauldron fire (that old stand-by, rubbing alcohol and epsom salts), but we can still jump over the flames and shout our intentions—what aspects of our lives we discard, what we claim.
Through all Beltaine observances runs a pleasing sensual current that celebrates the body in flesh and blood and beauty. The joy and color of the Maypole, the exhilaration of fire-leaping, the acknowledged enjoyment of our own sexuality—all these echo the current exuberance in nature as flowers (the sex organs of plants) appear and the earth blooms again. Invite Flora’s bounty to your rites—cut, blooming in pots, seedlings, in salads or in your hair. Remember the chicken-and-roses-recipe scene in the film “Like Water for Chocolate”? Let our sensual floral relatives help heat up your festivities!
- Create a Maypole, or an individual “Maypolette” wrapped intentions into a small stick with ribbons or fabrics strips
- Take turns stroking each other’s feet and hands with flowers – very sensual!
- Create and jump over a fire
- Consenting adults, why not allow for some amorous time outside amid the returning greenery and under the night sky?
- Catch some May-eve rain, or roll in May-day morning dew
- Flowers are sexy and sensual – enjoy them
1. Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) Later adapted into lyrics for the musical Camelot
2. Though we tend to think of ribbon for this, strips of cut fabric—streamers—work wonderfully.
3. Steve Blamires, Glamoury, (St. Paul MN: Llewellyn Publishing, 1995), p. 250
4. The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia
5. Pauline Campanelli, Ancient Ways (St. Paul MN: Llewellyn, 1991), pp. 52-77
6. Luisah Teish, Carnival of the Spirit, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), pp. 103-11
7. Blamires, ibid., pp. 254-5
8. Blamires, ibid., p. 253.
9. Campanelli, ibid., p 72.