Beltane 2011

Beltane (May 1)                                                        Waning Bee Hiving Moon

A bit about how I got interested in the auld religion, the ancient Celtic faery faith and from it, the Great Wheel.

23 years ago I left the Presbyterian ministry and wandered off into a life I could never have anticipated.  The writing turn I took then led me to investigate my Celtic past, the heritage of my Welsh and Irish ancestors.  I learned about Richard Ellis, son of a Welsh captain in William of Orange’s army who was stationed in Dublin.  After his father’s death, his mother paid Richard’s fare to America, to Virginia, where he was to become heir to a relative’s land, a common practice at the turn of the century since children died so often.  This was 1707.

Also a common practice at the turn of the century was a ship captain’s larceny, stealing Richard’s fare and selling him into indentured servitude in Massachusetts.   Richard went on to found the town of Asheville, Massachusetts and become a captain in the American Revolution.

My own other Celtic ancestors, the Correls, were famine Irish, part of the boat loads forced out of Ireland by the failed potato crop, or an Gorta Mór it is known in Gaelic, the great hunger. (Incidentally, this was due to planting potatoes as a mono-culture, much like we plant corn, soybeans and wheat today.)  They came to this country in the mid 19th century.

I did not go into the history of Wales at the turn of the 18th century, nor did I investigate the an gorta mor and its aftermath.  Instead, I went further back, into ancient Ireland and Wales; in fact I looked at all the Celtic lands, Isle of Mann, Scotland, Brittany and Galicia as well.  What fascinated me then, and still does now, was the auld religion, the Faery Faith, as represented in The Fairy Faith by W. Y. Evans-Wentz, more famous as the translator of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Not long after leaving the Presbyterian ministry I packed my bags for a week + at St. Denioll’s, a residential library in Hawarden, Wales.  While there I wandered northern Wales, visiting holy wells, castles and Welsh villages.  There was also an extensive collection of Celtic material at St. Denioll’s.

In this first burst of research into my ancestor’s ancestors I began to notice certain aspects of Celtic life that answered deep questions I’d had, some that had been on my since seminary.  First was the holy well.  These wells, sprinkled throughout Wales, Ireland and Scotland, are what we would call artesian wells.  The Celts believed they had magical powers, some in particular serving as gateways to the Otherworld, the realm of the gods and the spirits that stands close alongside our own, but invisible.

This notion of going in and down as a pathway for spiritual sustenance resonated for me since I had long been troubled by the up and out metaphors in Christianity.  Our Father who art in Heaven…deliver me from evil is an example.  I believed then and believe now that these metaphors reinforce (or create) hierarchical and patriarchal views of religion that undergird the same in society.  I had also, for some time, wanted to search for the spiritual within my Self, going in to my interior and down to the depths of my own Self, down where the Self connects to the vast collective unconscious.

This had been triggered in me long ago when I learned about the Hindu greeting, namaste.  The god in me bows to the god in you.  This made sense to me in a way that keeping god outside of me did not.  The Christian notion of the Kingdom of God is within you sounds similar at first until you realize it simply smuggles the patriarchal, hierarchical worldview into the inner realm.

The second formative shift in my spirituality came when I encountered the Celtic holidays.  At first, the ancient Celts only celebrated two holidays, Beltane and Samain.  Beltane, observed the week of May 1st, marked the beginning of the growing season.  By putting hands through a hole in a rock or other structure these early Celts could enter handfast marriages, marriages for a year and a day.  Married or not, couples took to the fields on the night of Beltane, with the understanding that their lovemaking would encourage the fertility of the soil.  Much better for it than petroleum based fertilizers, I’m sure.  Cattle were driven between blazing bonfires to rid them of disease. Women leapt over fire to enhance their chances of child-bearing.  This was also a time for markets, the predecessors of our fairs, so the whole community around a village gathered for Beltane.

When the last harvest came in, the growing season finished, the Celts celebrated their second major holiday, Samain, Summer’s End, on October 31st.  This holiday has, in a lukewarm fashion, entered our culture as Halloween.

Over time the Celts added the equinox and solstice events to their calendar and rounded it out with two more cross-quarter holidays, Lughnasa and Imbolc.  A cross-quarter holiday falls between an equinox and a solstice or a solstice and an equinox.  At this point the Celtic calendar became known as the Great Wheel of the Heavens, a keeping of time according to the rhythms of nature, a cyclic view of time that emphasizes the regularities and predictability of nature.

As Kate and I began to grow first perennial flowers, then vegetables, adding an orchard and bees at a later point, the Celtic calendar began to work its way into my spirituality.  For a long time after embracing it, I insisted on cyclical time over against chronos or linear time, or, said another way, time with no ending versus time with an end.  I now (thanks in part to cybermage Bill Schmidt’s embrace of linear time.) see them as aspects of reality, not competitive.

So, today is Beltane.  The first day of the growing season in the old Celtic calendar.  It’s a time for looking at what’s germinating in your life, what might require some tending, what could use a little magic.

Today, for me, it’s the bees and that pesky novel.