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.