In those “getting to know you” moments that frequently occur in the early stages of friendship, I am often asked which holiday is my favorite. For years I have demurred, refusing to give any Sabbat preference over the other. But this year I was finally forced to admit that Beltane is my favorite.
Personally, I find that a bit strange since Autumn is, without a doubt, my favorite season; the crunchy leaves, crisp air, and spectacularly saturated September spectrum satiates my soul. Spring is wonderful in it’s own right; the awakening of the earthworms, catching a fragrant whiff of daffodil or lilac, the feel of newly turned earth under my naked feet. What I finally realized was that it’s not the seasonal trappings that give me a feeling of balance, center and connection. It’s the community, the rituals, and the celebrations.
During no other Sabbat do I feel such a strong connection to the timelessness of the ritual; the Romans recorded Celtic Spring ceremonies involving Maypoles as far back as 43AD during the reign of Emperor Claudius. Drumming and dancing around a Maypole I manage to escape time, losing track of what century I’m in, focused only on the joyful dance that brings me face to face with friends and strangers, bowing to the earth and kissing the sky.
The Maypole is most commonly depicted as a phallic symbol, and there’s no doubt that it is. It’s a long, hard, wood pole plunged into a warm, moist hole in the Earth Mother – you don’t get much more innuendo laden than that. But the Maypole is much more than a simple reference to sexuality, and to the seasonal theme of planting and fertilizing.
Dancers around a Maypole dance both clockwise and counterclockwise, spiral up and spiral down. And yet we are not whirling dervish-like into the chaos of the universe; we are tethered by our ribbons of intention to the Maypole, just as the energetic bonds of intention bind us to our metaphysical center. The Maypole is a balance point, a center, a visible connection between the opposite elements of earth and sky. Even on an individual level, the dance represents balance; first over, then under, shifting through the dualities of existence on a spiral path.
The dance does not move in a circle; instead dancers start at the outer edge and spiral in towards the center until they can hold their ribbons no longer. To me, this is a metaphor for life. We start at the outer edge of existence, spiraling towards our spiritual center until our life’s ribbons must be tied off. And, like life, the beauty of the spiraling ribbon is not in one single ribbon, but in how the myriad of colors weave together.
The Maypole is also a community building ritual; a giant, colorful binding spell. I may know several people at Beltane, but I have yet to dance a Maypole where I have known everyone. Yet by the time the pole is fully danced, the faces of those I encountered repeatedly throughout the dance are etched in my memory. Each one becomes a member of my own personal spiritual community, even if we only ever see each other during the Beltane celebrations. Like the variegation in ribbon color, the variation of pagans is what contributes to the overall beauty of the community. Dancing around the Maypole you’ll find Wiccans, Asatru, Shamans, Eclectics, Heathens, Ancient Riders, Goths, Solitaries, Santerians, Witches, Neo-pagans, Druids, Discordians, and many other variants in pagan flavor. For a few hours a year we all come together, not as a collection of independent groups, but as a community.
Plus, what better way to gauge potential physical chemistry than to dance the Maypole? It’s delightfully close quarters at the center.
Here in Maine, the Popham Beach Beltane has just completed its 28th
year. The coordinators for this event, Eric Robbins and Rita Moran, are fantastic people who embody the chaotically balanced spiraling duality of love. Going to Beltane at Popham Beach is like going to a family reunion. It’s a chance to see friends who live too far away for regular visits, or to meet face to face with online friends. In a recent interview, Eric mentioned that when he first became involved in public pagan activities in Maine he knew less than a dozen pagans in the entire state. Looking around the Beltane circle at over 100 pagans this past weekend (with an equally large number who didn’t join the circle), I was overcome with gratitude for how the community has grown, and to the people who are working to maintain and encourage this community.
Watching Eric and Rita bless and sanctify the cider and bread, cast the circle, and perform the symbolic great rite, I was struck by another realization; these are our community elders. As a self-taught eclectic, I have never had the opportunity to be shown mysteries by experienced elders; what I know was not taught to me by my parents, or grandparents. I learned by experimenting, adventuring, bumbling, making miraculous mistakes and reading voraciously. But the gaggle of giggling children frolicking half naked in the surf and sand will have something wonderful; a spiritual community with active, beautiful, powerful elders and traditions that are unique to our community.
Our Maine Pagan community celebrates Beltane not only with the Maypole, but also with a blessing of the steeds (the motorcycles of the Ancient Riders), and a footrace for the favor of Pan. For the last 12 years, runners have dashed barefooted across the beach to be the first to claim a lit copper torch. The winner is declared “Fleetest of Foot and Beloved of Pan” and is granted a hand-crafted medal with an image of Pan engraved upon it. Each year the competition gets fiercer as more people race, and those who race want it more. Fleet of Foot and Beloved of Pan is a highly coveted title that comes with extreme bragging rights. I don’t know a single winner of the title who doesn’t wear his or her medal with pride, including this year's winner, Brady Kuech, pictured at the right.
At no other Sabbat does the pagan community in Maine gather in such large numbers. Beltane is our personal community touch stone, the time of the year when we can see that even if we are solitary, we are not alone. Each year we get another opportunity to weave our lives together with our ribbons as we dance the Maypole.
Many thanks to Michael Eric Berube of AnotherMaine.com for the Group and Great Rite photos. Many thanks to Tiffany Tutor for the photos of the single Maypole and of Brady's splashtastic win.