Tuesday 26 January
by Olga Bloemen
Beltane was traditionally celebrated in this part of the world at the full moon closest to the midpoint between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice – which was yesterday. If it passed you by, don’t worry. The first half of May is still a good time to mark this festival in your own way. In this post I’ll ponder what Beltane may mean to us during this time of crisis and offer ideas for a belated and quarantine-proof Beltane celebration.
For a while now, the Salisbury Centre has been organising community celebrations for each of the Celtic ‘Wheel of the Year’ festivals – you may have been along to one of them! These festivals mark the turning of the seasons, honouring both the inner and outer shifts that each season brings. The below image shows the eight festivals and their different qualities well:
image credited to The Seasonal Soul
The celebrations have been a cherished opportunity for members of the Salisbury Centre’s diverse community to come together, and we are sad that this is currently not possible because of Covid-19. Yesterday Susannah, Ben and I (currently the residents of the Centre), lit a fire in the garden and held those connected to the Centre in our hearts and minds – we very much hope you are well and supported in this time, and that we’re able to welcome you here again soon.
The word Beltane may come from Celtic belo-tenia, meaning ‘bright fire’. Beltane itself marks the start of summer, and it was the day that cattle was traditionally driven out to summer pastures -but not before they had passed between two big fires to protect them from disease! There are lots of stories about fertility rituals held in this time too.
The name of the Beltane month May derives from the Sanskrit mag, meaning ‘to grow’, from where we get words like ‘magnify’ and ‘magnificent’ – and what a magnificent month it is! At Beltane we celebrate the renewal of life around us. From the boisterous dawn chorus of courting and nesting births to green leaves and blossoms springing open on the trees around us.
Ian Siddons Heginworth describes this seasonal moment well in his book ‘Environmental arts therapy and the Tree of Life’:
“All around us now a great passion stirs in the land. The sun and the earth wrap themselves
around each other like lovers (…) There are so many layers to this ocean of green, incandescent limes that blaze in the sunshine, deep velvet shadows full of turquoise, greens that simmer like glass and sparkle like emeralds. With the arrival of Beltane the whole world feels new and freshly painted. It is as if we have stepped through the doorway and found our home renewed.”
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the unfolding (or rather exploding!) of Spring so strongly as during this quarantine, and feel blessed to witness the Salisbury Centre garden coming to life and help prepare for the new growing season. With my own life-world shrunken, I’ve been more able to tune in with other life around me and that has been a real gift. On a larger scale, it seems like the slowing down of human activity has given more space for other creatures to thrive across these islands this Spring – from roadsides no longer sprayed and wild flowers blossoming to animals reclaiming urban spaces. (A fox has confidently been roaming the Salisbury Centre garden recently, but luckily hasn’t discovered the robin’s nest next to the greenhouse yet!).
What is this time of the year asking from us?
From this point onwards until the Summer solstice is the peak of sunlight in the northern hemisphere, with seemingly ever-lengthening days. A question to ask at this high-energy time of the year can be: What do I want to grow in my life right now? And -just as important – how can I stay grounded in the midst of the flurry, how can I balance being and doing?
At this moment we find ourselves in, I’m also aware of the mismatch between the booming fertility of life around us and our personal and collective lives being -for a large part- on hold. There’s a pull to activity from outside but we are on ‘lockdown’. Knowing it’s necessary doesn’t make it easy. Living through a pandemic, for many of us there’s grief and daily struggle. For those of us with privilege there may be gifts to find in this time, and seeds of ourselves that we can still grow, however small. Maybe it’s about finding ways to get to know and support our community. Maybe it’s about creative projects, or bringing our creativity to care work or home schooling our kids. Or maybe it’s about allowing ourselves to stop and notice, and seeing what might emerge from the not knowing now that the ground has been taken away from under our feet.
May we be inspired by the Beltane tradition of the Tein-eigin, the Need Fire – a special fire that was lit after all the other fires in the community had been put out. People then jumped the fire for good health and at the end of the evening, the villagers would take a flame of the Tein-eigin to start their fires at home anew.
Now that we’re not able to gather around central, community fires (both real and metaphorical), how can we still bring warmth and support to others, close and afar? The many community and mutual aid initiatives that have stepped up across the UK to support those most impacted by the crisis remind me of the spreading of this ‘Need Fire’. And then I wonder what solidarity looks like across borders too, how we can make our fire warmth reach further.
For those of us who aren’t having to focus on surviving day by day, maybe this Beltane time in quarantine can give us space to dream collectively what other futures may be possible. Because the world will not be the same as it was (and our ‘normal’ was already in many ways disaster). Joanna Macy, Chris Johnstone and others speak of practicing ‘active hope’ – to dare to ask ourselves what the best possible outcome may be. And then: What can I do to make this more likely? What can we collectively do? …Right now? (We can only climb a mountain step by step, after all).
Writer and activist Rebecca Solnit’s writes in her article ‘The impossible has already happened: What Coronavirus can teach us about hope’:
“We have reached a crossroads, we have emerged from what we assumed was normality, things have suddenly overturned. One of our main tasks now – especially those of us who are not sick, are not frontline workers, and are not dealing with other economic or housing difficulties – is to understand this moment, what it might require of us, and what it might make possible.”
Creating small rituals and ceremonies in our lives can be one way to give space to dreaming and setting intentions. So that we can go forward and ‘live into being’ the more beautiful, resilient and just world that we hope for, for ourselves and others.
So how might we celebrate Beltane in this time? If you’re able to light a fire somewhere safely, Beltane has traditionally been celebrated with fire rituals and gatherings. Lighting candles or a stove could be an alternative if you’re homebound or can’t access a fire pit. You can do a solitary ritual, or if you’re part of a bigger household, you can share stories and food together around the fire source, or connect with others virtually who may be gathering elsewhere. (These strange times demand our creativity!)
Glennie Kindred, author of the great book Sacred Earth Celebrations, suggests a couple of small rituals you can do, alone or together:
As residents, we did this ritual last night in the moon-lit garden, tying some of Susannah’s hand-died wool strings around the tender young trees and sharing our ‘spells’ or wishes with each other aloud.
I’d be curious to hear how you’ve been celebrating Beltane, and what intentions you’re setting for yourself for this light part of the year. Feel free to share on our new Salisbury Centre Community Facebook group.
Happy Beltane – may our fires be bright!
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