the wheel of the year, part 6: beltane

(very late due to tornaditude—read it and then come back to it next year :))

throughout the process of writing my wheel of the year posts, i’ve repeatedly been amazed how the goings on in my life have so closely aligned with the themes and stories of the holidays that i investigate.  this is a writer’s dream really—an pile of obvious connections just handed to me on a plate—a good set of tangible, real-world examples just there for the taking.  beltane was no different, but i certainly wish it had been.

james spann, how i’m going to miss you in maine!

on april 27th, one of the most devastating storms on record barreled across the southeastern united states, killing hundreds and leaving thousands injured, homeless, or both.  i’m not someone who is easily scared or worried, but this time was different. earlier in the day,  i held class as usual, thinking “hey, nothing ever actually hits the city proper, so it’s fine.”  i came home from work and turned on the weather—good old james spann.  his jacket was off, so i was at least interested (there is a direct correlation between between the casualization of james’s clothes and the level of imminent danger—jacket off and you should be concerned; jacket off, tie off, and sleeves rolled and we’s a-gonna die!)

throughout the afternoon, i watched as tornadoes touched down in mississippi and west alabama.  one in particular started to head up the 20/59 corridor—a nasty bugger and a huge one—but i didn’t think in a million years that it would stay on the ground for more than a few miles.  i was wrong.  this particular tornado would travel over a hundred miles, ranging from an ef3 to an ef5, and would destroy everything in its path.  i remember watching james spann sweat bullets and shed items of clothing over the next few hours—the last thing that i saw on tv was him looking straight at the camera, pointing to the most menacing image of a tornado that i’d ever seen, and saying “if you are near downtown tuscaloosa, this is coming straight at you!  go to your safe place now!!”  ….and then the power went out.

sign me up!

i spent the next 20 minutes fighting an anxiety attack in my bathtub, pillows under me, comforters over me, huddled under a road sign that my friend’s dad stole back in the 70s.  my phone was about to die, but i made some important phone calls and texts.  my brother called me and tried to give me some landmarks, since the power had robbed me of my james spann lifeline.  are you near downtown?  yes.  the hospital?  yes.  the stadium?  yes.  shit!

i waited for something—anything.  the sound like a train, the shaking ground—i heard nothing but the sound of suction in the water pipes.  the most comforting thing to me the whole time i was in the bathtub was the chirping of the birds who nest in our dryer vent, which is on the other side of the bathroom wall in the bricks of the building face.  if the birds weren’t worried, maybe i shouldn’t be either.  after 20 or so minutes, i came out of the bathtub, made the necessary “‘i’m alive” phone calls, and slowly started to fall apart as word of the damage made it to me through the power blackout.

pretty much sums it up

a massive tornado had hit the metropolitan area about 3 city blocks from my house.  41 people were dead, thousands were injured, 2,375 homes were destroyed, and another 3,426 sustained major or minor damage—-and that’s not counting the other major cities that the tornado went on to destroy.   the city of tuscaloosa had been brought to its knees in a matter of minutes.  my neighbors and i were part of the 400,000 people statewide without power, and those of us in the blackout areas turned to our cars for radio news and precious cell phone juice.

were my friends ok?  were my students ok?  there was no way to know for certain until we had power, so i hopped in my car and headed for birmingham.  at my friends margie and kojin’s house, I watched the devastation unfold in full detail on every news network.  i can’t really describe the intensity of emotion that i felt—the sadness, the anger, the utter disbelief at seeing my town destroyed.  buildings that had been landmarks to me for the past decade were simply gone—whole neighborhoods had been wiped off the map, with the poorest neighborhoods hit the hardest—tuscaloosa was in ruins.  for two days, people did nothing but pace the streets, wandering aimlessly and surveying the damage.

a local and an out-of-towner working together to unload supplies

but over the next few days, something else began to replace the despair and disbelief; with a strength that i have never before seen in a community, tuscaloosa began to pull itself back up.  no, it was more like the whole nation began to pull us up.  trucks of supplies began to roll in from everywhere.  churches and schools were transformed into supply storehouses, receiving, sorting, and distributing goods wherever they needed to go.  email listservs were activated, and the university devoted all of its time and resources to caring for the needs of students and employees.  department heads started taking account of those lost, missing, hurt, or without homes.  volunteers poured into the rally point at st. mathias church in droves.  tide came to do laundry, duracell came to charge phones, and charlie sheen came to….well……remind us that life can always be worse i suppose 🙂

the work of rebuilding tuscaloosa had begun—and the eye-opening connection for me is that that’s what the may day holiday is all about:  it’s about working and laboring towards a strong community—it’s about building and rebuilding, whether literally or metaphorically,

saint joseph the worker

on the general roman calendar, may 1 is the feast of st. joseph the worker, earthly father to jesus and saintly model of patience, persistence and hard work.  most of us think of joseph (and by extention, jesus) as carpenters, but the actual greek word from the new testament, tekton, is far more encompassing than “carpenter.”  A tekton is a builder and a highly-skilled and prestigious artisan in any combination of wood, metal and stone.  he’s a skilled and knowledgeable worker in the creation of all things tangible and beautiful.

the association isn’t always with tangible work though.  in the anglican calendar, may 1 is the feast of st. phillip and st. james, apostles to christ.  an “apostle,” from the greek apostellein (to send forth) is someone who is sent out into the world to spread the word of god.  they do the work of jesus, son of god (ministry), rather than the work of jesus, son of joseph (building).  but in a bery big way, ministry is  building—it’s just that the thing being built is spiritual community rather than the buildings of one’s physical community.  when the quran speaks of jesus’s disciples, it does not mention their names;  instead, it refers to them as “helpers to the work of god.”

it is by no accident that, for the roman catholic church, may day has come to be associated with all things work.  joseph the worker’s feast day hasn’t always been may 1st; rather, it was declared so in 1955 by pope pius xii in reaction to the communist declaration of may 1 as “may day,”  international day of the laborer.  this co-opting of a holiday is less than surprising, given the success of the tactic in the past for the church (see christmas declared at yuletide, easter named for ostara, and all saint’s day’s quick clean up of pagan samhain, and so on, and so on).  “let them keep their day and keep the sentiment, but we’ll show them how it’s really ours!”  and who can blame them?  making itself relevant is the best thing that a religion can do to ensure its spread and survival.

may day for laborers

even without the religious angle though, may 1 is still to this day “international workers’ day” in many countries.  efforts to move our own labor day here have failed because of the association of the day to radical leftists and to the communist party.   just like the church, though, america has sought throughout history to gain the upper hand by claiming the day for itself—may 1 has been called “americanization day,” “loyalty day,” and “law day” here in the u.s., perhaps as a direct head-butt to the “evils of communism.”  so you can either be communist OR loyal—-nice set up, america!

for the real spirit of may day, though, we have to look deeper—deeper than 1900s religious calendars, deeper than modern social movements, to the earliest incarnations (the earliest in memory, anyway) of the may day holiday.  if you picture the wheel of the year as an actual wheel, as a circle, you’ll notice that directly across from samhain sits the holiday known as “beltane.”  like samhain, beltane is a traditional gaelic holiday, and like it’s cross-quarter partner, it marks a day during which the veil between worlds becomes thin.  as samhain’s polar opposite though, beltane doesn’t prepare us for death; rather, it introduces us to life.  beltane is about waking up from a long sleep—it’s about mobilizing—it’s about purifying and rebuilding—it’s about rebirth.

a modern may queen and green man

and what better way to capture the spirit of youth and birth than through the image of the young couple?  although prudish 19th and early 20th century iterations were more likely to represent purity rather than fertility, the may queen has remained a beltane staple throughout the millennia.  originally, the may queen was a woman chosen for the festival to embody the goddess in her transformation from wintery cailleach to the maiden of may.  once transformed, the may queen awaits her consort, the green man.  he too, however, must first experience a rebirth from his winter persona, the old horned god, to his youthful incarnation, jack-in-the-green, or the green man.  in a ceremonial gesture, the old horned god touches the newly reborn may queen and then falls to his death.  the may queen’s handmaidens then tear his garments from him and he is reborn as the youthful and virile “green man.”  the green man then demonstrates his newly reborn life and vigor in a series of wild dances.  together, they symbolize the vitality of youth and the promise of future fecundity.

like samhain, beltane is a fire festival, and fire is used on this holiday as another symbol of rebuilding and rebirth.   on beltane, household fires would be doused and re-lit in gesture of renewal.  oftentimes home fires would be re-lit off of one communal bonfire, thus symbolizing the community’s dependence on one another.  since we now have central heat, we can’t really imagine the importance placed upon the hearth fire, but this was a lifeline for the family.  it had provided them with warmth all winter and would allowed them to cook their food.  even though we’ve lost this tie, fire has recently been re-associated with the rites of beltane—in 1988, 15,000 gatherers decended upon edinburgh to revive the traditions of beltane with a fire festival of huge proportion.  it’s still going on each year, and based on the pictures, i’d say it’s a wild time indeed.

now THAT is my kind of party!

in addition to the revival of the beltane fire festival, dancing ’round the maypole is another may day practice not unknown to modern folk.  although it is germanic and not gaelic in origin, the maypole is a mysterious pagan symbol that somehow survived the christianization of europe, making it to the shores of the british isles sometime before 1300.  the price of its christianization, though, is the fact that its meaning and symbolism is to a large extent lost to us.  i was able to track down several different theories:  tree of life, phallic symbol, axis of the world (unlikely before copernicus!).

a woodcut of a maypole dance

the most likely explanation to me seems to be that the maypoles were physical manifestations of the community spirit (think about our flags and flagpoles).  a lot of work had to go into cutting down, stripping, and painting a tree with local colors, and then it would take a section of the community to hoist it up into place.  town festivities would take place near the maypole, and there were dances specifically meant to happen around the pole.  surely you’ve seen this before—ribbons and garlands streaming from the top of the pole and a slew of young men and women dancing ’round in all directions, weaving in and out of one another so that the ribbons knit themselves into a pattern down the pole—weaving together community.

there are a few hilarious legal records from the 17th century, involving maypoles, that show the feisty side to community spirit.  in both hertforshire and warwickshire, england, several incidences of pole stealing were recorded between what i suppose you might consider to be “rival” communities.  things haven’t really changed if you think about it.  once when i was a lake house with several of my graduate school friends, we decided to take a nighttime boat ride, drink wine, and look at the stars.  all of us graduated from the university of alabama, and alabama’s biggest rival is auburn.  well, we passed a house (a palace, really) that was flying an auburn flag at the end of its dock—so my friend (names withheld to protect the guilty) cut the motor, turned out the lights on the boat, shucked all of his clothes, put a knife between his teeth, jumped in the water, and swam over and cut the gorram flag down off its pole.

community rivalry!

illegal? yes.  childish? yes.  community building?…….well, yes.  as communities, we define ourselves both by what we are and by what we are not.  erecting a maypole (or an auburn flag) symbolizes community of which we claim to be a part.  stealing others’ poles (or flags), i suppose, is just a way of claiming the dominance of one’s community over the community of others.  ah, human nature.  in tuscaloosa, the “roll tide” spirit binds together all crimson tide fans, but it also strikes fear into the heart (or so we would like to think) of the auburn tigers.  community makes an “us,” but with every “us” comes a “them.”

morris dancers

one may day ritual that’s a little less competitive than the maypole is morris dancing.  like the maypole dance, morris dances are traditional beltane routines that are still performed in the british isles today.  also like the maypole, we’re a little fuzzy on the origin and purpose of the dances.  morris dances, which adhere to traditional steps and use traditional music, have historically been performed by men—morris men.  these dancers wear matching outfits (i’ve seen everything from all-white to a odd lederhosen-type get-up) and they dance using sticks and handkerchiefs as props.  the sticks are banged together (kind of patty-cake style) and one person who i saw interviewed said that the banging of the sticks helps to wake up the earth.  not sure about the hankies.

offerings at the clootie well in inverness, scotland

while much of the rebirth and rebuilding that happens during beltane does focus on the community, with outward shows of celebration and solidarity, with dances and merriment, there is also a very personal, private aspect of beltane.  beltane is not only a day of community healing but also a day for personal healing.  one traditional practice that has stood the test of time are springtime pilgrimage to “clootie wells.”  the word “clootie” is a bit of a portmanteau because it comes from the words “cloth” and “tie,” and the wells are named as such because they are surrounded by hundreds of pieces of cloth, all tied to the branches of surrounding trees.

in pre-christian britain, wells and natural springs were thought to hold mystical and symbolic significance.  each well was guarded by a goddess or local nature deity, and pilgrimages were made to the wells so that people could ask to he healed.  it was thought that by dipping a piece of cloth into the well and then washing the affected area with the holy water, the divine presence could heal the pilgrim’s ailments.  once the ceremonial washing was complete, the strip of cloth was tied to a nearby tree.  as the cloth disintegrates, so the belief goes, so does the ailment.

the chalice well in glastonbury is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the british isles. because of the high iron content, the water runs red. pre-christian peoples thought that this symbolized the life-giving blood of the mother goddess, and christians, once believing this to be where joseph of arimathea brought christ’s chalice, thought that the red was the healing wine/blood of christ

during the christianization of the british isles, the goddesses and spirits were replaced with saints, but the practice and the sentiment continued.  the goddess brigit became saint brigit, and the only difference in belief was in who was actually doing the healing.  for pagans, brigit provided the healing—for catholics, saint brigit interceded on their behalf.  throughout the british isles, holy wells are still places of reverence and of healing, and if you travel to one on beltane,  you will see trees littered with brightly colored requests—-presumably to goddesses, spirits, saints, or a mix of all three.

as i sit and muse on these practices, both ancient and modern, it is striking to me how the beltane spirit has rung so true in tuscaloosa this year.  as i watch alabama power restring the poles, i’m reminded of the maypole, ribbons flowing, weaving in and out.  we’ve re-hoisted the poles, we’re restringing the lines.  as i see more and more people in the state have their power restored, i’m reminded of the relighting of the hearth fire.  we can’t do it ourselves—it takes the whole community to relight so many homes.  we don’t have the clink of morris dance sticks, but we do have sign-posts hammered into the ground, bearing statements like “we will rebuild!”  this is what awakens our earth this beltane.

many people mistakenly think that when a plane is going down, pilots yell “may day, may day!” but what they’re really yelling is “m’aidez, m’aidez!” which is french for “help me, help me!”  this beltane, my city called out, and it brings me to tears to think of the number of people who came to our rescue.  thank you to the citizens of tuscaloosa, and to all of those around the country who swooped in to help.  now begins the hard labor of rebuilding homes and rebuilding lives, and we can only do so because, on april 27th, 2011, our “community” increased in size a hundredfold.



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