On May 1st, the ancient Celts celebrated the high point of spring with the festival of Beltane, which is Gaelic for ‘bright fire.’ Beltane honors the fertile and flowery abundance of the earth goddess, the sun god Bel and the fiery, sustaining power of sexual union. For the pagan Celts, May 1st was the evening of the great mating ritual between the ruling king or the green man and the Avalon priestess of Mother Earth.
The Beltane festival of sacred sexual union that sanctified kingship was also celebrated among ‘regular’ men and women in what we might call spiritual one-night stands out on the land to ensure good harvests. These were the ‘greenwood marriages.’ Couples would return from their night’s escapade with the sacred May hawthorn flowers, which they would use to decorate their hair, homes, and cattle. Committed, longer marriages were contracted during Beltane through Hand-fasting and consecrated by fires that were lit for sanctification, protection, and purification.
Both of my marriages took place in May, but now I celebrate an inner marriage.
Beltane was a wild time of music, dancing, drinking mead, and leaping over bonfires that honored the passionate union between heaven and earth, male and female, which the Celts believed would secure their prosperity and survival. In ancient Rome, the May festivals were dedicated to the goddess Flora and also encouraged erotic expressions between couples, mirroring the flowery lushness, wild colors, and juiciness of nature.
The Christian church outlawed such practices for Beltane, but some vestiges of these earlier traditions remain for May Day festivities, such as dancing around the Maypole. I remember doing this as a child and being told it was a children’s game. However, the Maypole dance actually symbolizes the cosmic union between male and female, with the pole representing the male principle and the women dancers weaving rainbow-colored ribbons about the pole, as the enveloping female principle. Nowadays, we have Mother’s Day and garden tours, which channel this erotic flowery primal energy into the celebrations and constraints of Motherhood.
We tend to forget that human sexuality and the earth’s orgasmic fertility in spring have anything in common. In our culture, sexually charged images, especially pictures of female bodies, are used by advertisers to sell everything from cars to clothes to jewelry, etc. Human sexuality has become an objectified commodity without a real connection to Earth’s fertile abundance.
However, one modern author, D.H. Lawrence, tried to restore and celebrate this ancient bond of sexuality rooted in nature in his novels, which were considered obscene and often banned or even burned. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for instance, a refined aristocratic English woman engages in forbidden earthy sex with her gardener—a totally taboo topic in 1920s Britain. Shockingly enough, some love scenes even took place outside. Likewise, in his novel The Rainbow, memories of the old fertility rituals rise up again in what Lawrence called ‘the deep language of the blood.’
If you want to celebrate this peak moment in nature, give your imagination permission to go wild and brainstorm. What would be the most lush, sensual way for you to connect with Nature? Mindful gardening or flower arranging are always good choices, of course. This year I’m choosing to wear a green dress, put white hawthorn blossoms in my hair, and meditate outside in the gentle spring sun. Such a simple thing can bring ancient memories into the present moment if we create an intentional celebration.
As with all these nature-human festivals, you can experience them inwardly, such as ritualizing the Beltane union of masculine and feminine within yourself as an inner marriage and visualizing the flowers of creativity in your soul’s garden bursting into bloom. I’ll leave the choice up to you.