Planet Waves | Beltane: The Tree of Life by Eric Francis


Beltane is a Pagan holiday devoted to fucking and trees. Above, an illustration
from the Kama Sutra, the Hindu text devoted to the science of pleasure. Not
all religions are inherently anti-sex.

The Tree of Life

By Eric Francis

No recent song captures the beauty and mysticism of Beltane like "The Mummer's Dance" by Loreena McKennett. I remember hearing the song one afternoon driving through Ulster County in New York State, as the days of Winter waned that year. The cyclical, interwoven melodies and rhythms began, and then:

When in the springtime of the year
When the trees are crowned with leaves
When the ash and oak, and the birch and yew
Are dressed in ribbons fair

Driving up the country highway, the boughs and branches seemed to become animated by Loreena's music and poetry, and I could vividly see and feel for the first time that the trees were distinctly alive, moving and reaching into the world. Each had a distinct personality. They seemed like old, friendly spirits, but powerful and wise. Beltane is a celebration of the life of trees, literally, as they sustain and protect us, and clean and enrich the air we breathe; and symbolically, as they represent life and the interwoven pattern of the human family that is sculpted within their branches.

Beltane, sometimes called Midspring, is one of the four High Sabbat's of the traditional witch's calendar, also known as the "cross quarter days." It is traditionally celebrated around when the Sun reaches the middle degrees of Taurus, the first Earth sign of the horoscope, in early May. Trees, of course, grow in and from the Earth, and provide us with fruit, as well as wood to build our homes, and to warm them. Taurus is associated with fertility, abundance and, by extension, the personal value we feel both in our hearts, and financially. It is the sign of wealth. As one multimillionaire, whose home was opulently furnished natural cherry wood paneling, commented to me, "All wealth comes from the Earth."

Each Spring, the Earth is renewed and we are given a fresh chance to live, and this is the most simple meaning of Beltane. While we may view this metaphorically today, in earlier times there were no guarantees of surviving winter. Harsh climates throughout Europe and elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, and many unchecked diseases, compounded by lack of supplies and medicine, provided long and challenging months. Emerging with one's life intact in the warmth and renewal of Spring was something to celebrate. And celebrate they did. As Loreena tells it, "And so they linked their hands and danced / Round in circles and in rows"

In honor of Spring, trees were dressed in garlands, wreaths and ribbons. The May Pole, the ancient symbol of fertility, was celebrated in a dance involving the interweaving of ribbons, symbolic of the entwined fabric of the human family. And then, as evening would fall, something unusual would happen. For one special night, the normal rules of community were suspended, and people would have sex in the forests and fields, often with people other than their husbands and wives. In some comminutes and cultures, The May was celebrated all through the month.

"Marriage vows were temporarily forgotten during this honey month, writes Donna Henes in her book Celestially Auspicious Occasions. "People coupled freely in the woods and fields, fertilizing the soil and each other, sharing a fervent participation in the regenerative magic of the Earth."

"In pre-Christian Europe, sexual activity was considered sacred, and Beltane was literally a night of love," comments Marion Weinstein in The Ancient Modern Witch. "Women and men met in the dark, and paired off under groves of tress, or lay on the newly-sown fields. This was believed to create healthy babies, and simultaneously provide a blessing for the crops. Any child conceived on Beltane Eve was considered a child of The Goddess and The God."

The more impassioned the Beltane celebration, the more fertile the year would become, according to tradition; fertility translated directly to survival.

Beltane, like the other cross-quarter days (Samhain, which became Halloween or All Soul's Night, Imbolc, which became Candlemas, and Lamas, which became Second Planting) was co-opted by Christian culture. Samhain, at the opposite side of the calendar, is a holiday devoted to recognizing the inevability of death, marked by its ritual display of skeletons, ghouls and cemetaries caskets. Beltane is at the other side of the regenerative cycle, where life is renewed and reborn.

Beltane has survived in the modern world as May Day. Yet Henes notes that, remarkably, the tradition of the May Pole has passed straight through the generations intact, with the tree being turned into a cross. As the Christians colonized Europe, Bishop Bonifacius (through the 8th century A.D.), among other infamous missionaries, constructed churches built of the wood of the sacred tree where the nature-god Wodan was worshipped for countless centuries. The people were informed that their God was dead, but not to worry: there was another God, symbolized by a cross. Thus, the local Pagans were converted to Christians, and the new tradition spread.

As a remnant of the tree-to-May Pole-to-cross connection, Holy Cross Day is observed May 3, at the heart of Beltane season. Note the Christian's apparent confusion of the holiday of sex and rebirth and a symbol of death. The fact that the cross is rhetorcially converted into a symbol of "eternal life," the fact remains that it is a torture and execution device. This fact alone underscores the need for a return to traditional seasons and holidays to help us sort out such deep and fundamental confusion.

Yet thanks to Pagan and Celtic revivals of the past thirty years, there are some communities where Beltane is celebrated with great enthusiasm, where the spirit of life is remembered to spring up from the wellspring known as the Earth, and, as Loreena reminds us, perhaps from far beyond as well.

A garland gay we bring you here
And at your door we stand
It is a sprout well budded out
The work of our Lord's hand


Additional research: Carol Burkhart, Debbe Faulhaber, Jenny Singer and Lorin Vincent at Planet Waves Digital Media.

Note: "The Mummer's Dance" is on The Book of Secrets by Loreena McKennett, which is available at this link:

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