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Beltane, unlike Ostara, is a Neopagan sabbat with bona fide pre-Christian origins. It was celebrated in ancient Ireland and other Celtic countries, and has survived through the Christian and secular eras, although with numerous changes in its traditions and significance. (The Maypole dance, for example, is probably a 19th-century invention, perhaps merging the earlier elements of a symbolic, decorative maypole and dancing around bonfires.) One can also point to the Roman Floralia and various Germanic festivals as evidence of a wide and varied custom of spring fertility rituals.
A friend once observed that the two most important Pagan sabbats, Samhain and Beltane, celebrate the two aspects of life that are most taboo in mainstream culture: death and sex. Although these taboos are weakening somewhat in recent decades, we still have a long way to go before our cultural norms actually support, rather than hinder, a healthy acceptance of these essential facets of human existence.
Most cultures, of course, attempt to regulate the expression of sexuality. A tribe, village, or other community of people has a vested interest in supporting family structure and parental responsibility, and minimizing the prevalence of destructive emotions such as jealousy and rivalry. One way to do this is to emphasize long-term monogamy as the culturally sanctioned form of sexual expression. As customs for maintaining social order go, monogamy is not a bad idea. Many people are drawn to permanent partnerships through their natural emotions and temperament, and it certainly makes things easy to keep track of.
But (you knew there was a “but”), the cultural regulation of sexuality often seems to take a rather unhealthy turn. I think this is because of the human need to rationalize our customs. We want to be able to explain, to our children and to adults tempted to break the norms, why it is that we do things the way we do. When sexuality is tightly regulated, we need rationalizations for why sex is “bad” when it strays beyond the culturally approved norms. These rationalizations can build up into a system of thinking that hangs a shadow of guilt and oppression over our sexuality. Christianity is notorious for this, but it is hardly the only offender.
An ethical system that labels the things human beings enjoy as inherently evil puts people in a constant state of internal conflict, and distorts their natural impulses into indirect, devious expressions that may be more problematic than the impulses themselves. Our bodies tell us that sexual pleasure is a good thing. If the cultural institutions are so repressive that they cannot acknowledge the messages of the body, then most people will end up defying those institutions, either in secrecy and shame or in open rebellion.
Enter the long history of Christian religious condemnation of the springtime revels. Even long after the celebrations of spring has lost any explicit reference to Pagan religions that they may once have had, people continued to see the springtime revels as a prime occasion for indulging in romantic and sexual fun. Young men and women were accustomed to spend the night out of doors in the woods, ostensibly to collect tree boughs or morning dew for use in the next day’s celebrations. Persistent traditions such as these aroused periodic condemnations from clergy, which the villagers apparently ignored. The priests would describe the spring revels as “pagan”, but it was probably more a simple term of derision rather than any sort of studied assessment of their pre-Christian origins.
I think there is a solid wisdom to opening a cultural space for the expression of sexual desire. Adolescents have been discovering the pleasures and lure of sex for the entire history of our species; it’s not something any priest can wish away, no matter how fervently they insist. Setting aside an occasion that acknowledges sex and its role in the transition to adulthood brings us back to basics. We drop (at least for awhile) our overworked moral theorizing and take in the larger picture of the wheel of life and our connection with the other living things on the planet.
Modern Pagan approaches to sexuality, I like to think, preserve some of the simple wisdom of those medieval villagers and their spring revels. We treat sex with an earthy candor, and generally don’t care much for the seemingly arbitrary puritanical restrictions on the who, how, where, and why of sex. This is not to say we encourage reckless or promiscuous sex – most Pagans respect sexuality as the potent power that it is. I think of it as a form of magic. It is a sacred thing, though not sacred in the sense of idealized, remote, and lofty. It’s sacred because it is one of the powers that binds us to this world and draws us into the dance of life.
Venus rules Taurus, so she is very alive and very much in her element here. With Venus in Taurus, we are drawn to all things beautiful, pleasurable, and sensual. Spring is in full blossom this month, and the days are becoming long and warm, although we are still far from the oppressive heat of summer.
Venus may encourage a certain hedonism at this time: self-control is not one of her virtues, especially when she is in a roll that comes so easily to her. Rich foods, fine wine, beautiful, comfortable clothes, sensual love-making – these are all appetizing and enticing during this “spring fever” time. For those of us who live in our heads or are driven to accomplish things, these desires may create some confusion or distraction. For those at home in their bodies, however, it is a welcome revel heralding in the light half of the year, just in time for Beltane.
Today, most people think of Venus as a love goddess, inextricably associated with romance and partnership. This is closer to her expression in Libra, which is about interaction, communication, flirtation, and interpersonal harmony. In Taurus, Venus is more earthy. It’s less about connection between people and more about the pleasures of the senses. Right now, a chocolate dessert hits the spot as well as (or better than) sweet conversation over dinner.
Venus also has a strongly nurturing, almost maternal side when in Taurus. She wants to make sure everyone is comfortable, and that no one’s needs are neglected. The food, the clothing, the hugs and caresses, are all ways of taking care of ourselves and others. In Venus’s world, the earth is abundant with everything we need – warm sunlight, soft grass, sweet flowers, fresh food, shelter, and companionship. She is the beautiful bearer of this cornucopia of delights, and she shines in that role.
I hardly need to give advice on how to work with Venus in Taurus this month, as I expect most of us are doing it already: taking time to enjoy the delights of spring and appreciate the pleasures of the senses.
Today’s card is from the Aquarian Tarot by David Palladini. It is a relatively simple Moon image (it reminds me a bit of the 15th-century Rosenwald sheet, actually). A crescent moon with a classic face rests tranquilly in the center of the card, filling nearly the whole frame.
The Moon is one of the “celestial” cards of the major arcana, falling between The Star and The Sun. In previous eras, quite a bit of negative symbolism was attached to it: delusion, deceit, error, madness, addiction, misfortune – these were just a few of the charming connotations of the Moon in old-school fortune-telling.
Today, most readers are (thankfully) more inclined to emphasize the Moon’s spiritual and mystical aspects. She is one of the main connections with Goddess energy and concepts in the tarot (The High Priestess and Empress being a couple other prominent ones). The Moon is aligned with the tides, with feminine mysteries, magic, and divination.
When I first began learning tarot, someone posted to our email group an analogy for understanding the nature of The Moon card: When you walk a familiar route in the sunlight, you see every detail, all the street signs, all the landmarks (large and small), and you can see every step you take. Walking the same route under moonlight provides you with some evidence of where you are, but you find yourself navigating much more by memory and intuition, flowing through the dark shadows and ambiguous shapes. I’ve always liked that explanation. The Moon is there for those times when we can’t (or choose not to) work everything out logically, in detail, or with lots of data. Sometimes, we are guided instead by hunches, moods, daydreams, or memories.
The Moon’s light is less intense than the Sun’s, which creates a more peaceful mood (dogs howling at the full moon notwithstanding). Moonlight is for lovers, poets, jazz musicians, and gondoliers. When daytime’s ambitions have run their course, and we are weary of focusing, competing, and striving, The Moon takes over. Maybe we sit out on the veranda with a bottle of wine, or lose ourselves in idle recollections and fantasies. It’s the winding-down part of the day, where it is OK to let things be.
In some decks, The Moon may feel very active, and make on think of magic, witchcraft, or the power of instinct and emotion. Palladini’s image, though, exudes contentment, almost to the point of languor. It reminds us that there is magic and power in sometimes just “going with the flow” and letting thoughts and images drift through our minds of their own accord.
In the cycle of the Moon we can see an archetypal story of growth and change. The New Moon appears, small and faint and hanging near the Sun, visible for just a few minutes in the evening before it sets. As the days pass, she grows in size, power, and independence. As Full Moon, she illuminates the entire night, bestowing a light that is strong enough for us to walk, work, or even read by; night animals are active. After full, the Moon wanes, gradually becoming weaker again, and finally disappearing into darkness.
All living and growing things go through a similar cycle: birth and growth, fullness or fruition, and then age, decline, and death. Plants sprout, grow, flower, bear fruit, cast their seeds, and return to the earth. Humans are born, grow and learn, express the powers of adulthood, perhaps through our work, or by making a family, and then enter the reflection and wisdom of age before we die. The Moon cycle reminds us that this process is not just a one-time journey from cradle to grave, but rather a cycle that repeats endlessly, linking us with life long past and lives yet to come.
Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, presented an archetypal connection between the Moon, the Goddess, and the stages of a woman’s life. The Triple Goddess is Maiden, Mother, and Crone – the Moon waxing, full, and waning. Although examples of triple goddesses can be found in ancient Pagan cultures from different times and places, the prominence of this image in modern Wicca and Neopaganism was launched by Graves. Like all powerful ideas, though, its strength comes from its resonance with deep parts of the human psyche.
The Maiden is the young goddess from birth to menarche: learning, growing, striving, searching. She is Persephone/Kore, and her spirit is also present in “virgin goddesses” such as Artemis/Diana or Athena. She is independent, wilfull, impulsive, vivacious, and aggressive. Connecting with the Maiden Goddess provides energy for undertaking a new venture, helps us assert our autonomy, and helps us summon resources and seek out what we need.
The Mother is the goddess from menarche to menopause: governing, creating, nourishing, sustaining. She is Demeter, Hera, Gaia. Although her energy can be expressed through physically giving birth and raising children, the term “Mother” should not be taken so literally as to appear limiting. The Mother Goddess is woman (or man) at maturity, with the experience, energy, and inclination to undertake large-scale and long-term endeavors, to manage resources and relationships, to promote positive change in others.
The Crone is the goddess from menopause to death: wise, penetrating, observant, challenging. She is Hekate, Cerridwen, and the Norns who spin fate. She’s seen too much of life to pull punches or care about other’s expectations. For these reasons, she is sometimes regarded with fear (particularly in a patriarchal context, where both her sex and age threaten the power-base of the warrior male). The Crone is the wise woman, the ultimate teacher and guide. In the end, she teaches the final lesson, letting go of life itself. When we connect with the Crone, we can face our fear, release our ambitions and obligations, and surrender to transformation.
When we look at the Moon cycle astronomically, it is convenient to identify eight phases. Eight is an even number, and it makes the diagrams and charts tidy and symmetrical. From a spiritual or magical perspective, however, odd numbers such as three, five, or seven, are more dynamic and meaningful. Three is a potent magical number, because it represents stepping out beyond the world of polarities and opposites implicit in the number two. Instead of pairing off Dark Moon against Full Moon, First Quarter against Last Quarter, the Triple Goddess leads us around a circle of endless becoming. One is reminded of the rock/paper/scissors game.
Whereas the Full Moon is the undisputed province of the Mother Goddess, presiding over the night as queen and caretaker, the Dark Moon is shared by the Crone and Maiden. The Crone leads us into the void of death and mystery, and it is this void out of which the Maiden is born.
For witches, all times of the lunar cycle are full of power. Many emphasize the Full Moon, because that is the peak of her light, when she is most present to our outward senses. It is a natural time for manifesting – making real the changes we seek. But there would be nothing to manifest without the full cycle, which pulls new possibilities out of the darkness and leads us back into it again as life’s changes play themselves out.
From the most ancient times, astronomers and astrologers understood that the Moon is closer to us than any other celestial body. In Western culture, the heavens were thought of as perfect, divine, and unchanging. The Moon, both because of her visible markings and also because of her cycle of phases, was a kind of bridge between the unchanging heavens and the growing, dying, evolving earth.
For Pagans, all facets of nature can be profound symbols of spirit. But the Moon is a symbol of special potency, central to the practice of many Pagans of varied traditions. In her we find a union of Goddess and worshipper, permanence and change, manifestation and mystery, calendar and body, darkness and light, life and death – and a moving energy that transcends all such dichotomies and creates without end.