Tag Archives: beltain

Pilgrimage to the flowers

In previous years I’ve managed both an Easter and a Beltain pilgrimage. The Easter walk talks me via two Iron Age hill forts to Gloucester Cathedral, and is very much a pilgrimage honouring the ancestors. Like most modern Pagans, I have my share of Christian ancestors, and the cathedral itself has family stories associated with it. The Beltain pilgrimage is all about wildflowers – bluebells, wood anemone, wild garlic. This year the flowers came before Easter, and I had to choose. I chose to honour the unsettlingly early flowering and to make my ancestral pilgrimage at some later point in the year.

Part of the route for my Beltain pilgrimage takes me along the edge of the Cotswolds, through an area dense with barrows. People have been walking that way – but not that path, I assume! – for thousands of years.

The flowers I go out to see, the garlic, anemones and bluebells, are all indicators of ancient woodland. It’s not my motivation, but it is certainly a bonus. Beech trees are not long lived, so the age of trees round here is not an easy indicator of woodland age.

It was a beautiful day. Bluebells in swathes, like a misty sea in the Woodchester valley. The scent of them subtle and gorgeous. Very small lambs out in the fields. We sat near some of them (but not too near so as not to cause alarm) to have lunch. As we ate, a raven sang to us from nearby trees, pausing for the odd fly past to make sure we didn’t miss any of its raven-ness. It’s such a distinctive voice though that we didn’t need to see in order to know. Later, we found the heronry, which we’d been looking for, and several herons who looked to be in the business of making more herons.

I have personal stories and family stories about Woodchester Valley. I have folklore and history as well. Repeatedly visiting an area at a specific time of year adds to the web of stories as things happening to us are woven into the tale of our relationship with the land. The year we saw a buzzard take a rabbit. The variations we’ve walked, the people we’ve walked with…

We walk fairly quietly, but it is about engagement and engagement includes the people around us. The valley is managed, and home to a lot of wild things. There was a large flock of tufted ducks, bigger than any group we’ve seen there before. Last autumn there were dragonflies in great number. It’s not a pilgrimage to somewhere, but a big, circular walk. It’s a pilgrimage into the land and the season, a deepening of relationship with place and a commitment to holding that connection.


Walking for Beltain

The most obvious association with Beltain is the May blossom – the hawthorn flower, traditionally collected and brought into homes for this festival. Hawthorn is most reliably found as a hedgerow plant, so walking in country lanes around the start of May is the easiest way to find it. Blackthorn is also in blossom, and both hawthorn and blackthorn have white flowers, but they are easy to tell apart – blackthorn flowers before it leafs, whereas hawthorn flowers after its leaves are open.

For me, finding the hawthorn flowers is not the key thing for this festival. Instead, I’m drawn to the woodland flowers. It’s at this time of year – before the leaves are all out – that woodlands come into flower. My holy trinity of bluebell, wild garlic, and wood anemone fill the woods with scents and colours. There are places where vast swathes of bluebells all come up together – misty and sea-like between the trees. The subtle scent of the bluebells becomes discernible, in sudden, glorious washes of sweet perfume.

Bluebells don’t grow in this profusion just anywhere. Since the spring, I’ve been keeping an eye on the woods where I walk, looking at the leaves to see what’s coming – where the great swathes of garlic would be, where the bluebells dominate, and where there’s a mix. I’ve been waiting for the flowers. I walked to see them at the end of April, and again, more successfully, on Beltain eve. As an added bonus at the same time as all this floral delight, the first beech leaves are unfurling. Beech starts out an amazing, vibrant green and gradually darkens as the year progresses. There’s something giddy about them as they first show.

I seem to have found my ideal Beltain walk for my current location, which takes in two barrows, hilltop woodland, and a lush valley. A person can get drink on the colour and smell of a bluebell wood.


Greens and Blues for Beltain

All over facebook, people are posting bits of folk songs and generally hailing the first of May. Beltain is here! Summer is a coming in. And here’s me, feeling awkward. Again. Part of it is not having a group at the moment. These festivals in the calendar are all about group coming togethers, and without the focus of a circle, the first of May is not so very different from the 30th of April, or the second of May. Just another part of the slow transition through the seasons. I can’t find it in me to celebrate any of these days on my own. I bow to my ancestors, to the ones who celebrated, and the ones who protested, because this is also Labour Day. (we’ll have a May Day my oh my…). I bow to the Queens of the May, and the morris dancers who danced up the sun. Memories of previous Beltains, good and less so, also come to mind.

It’s not just the issue of not having a celebration lined up. It’s also about what’s happening around me. The willow trees on the canal are just coming into leaf. Not all of the hedges have greened yet, and hawthorn normally gets going in March. The big beech tree on the school run hasn’t even started to open its buds, most of the visible woodland is still in the twiggy stage, and brown, not green. How can it be Beltain when the trees are not yet fully in leaf?

I’ve seen one clutch of ducklings, and plenty of evidence of nests, some of the usual spring activity is well under way. I’ve heard a cuckoo a few times, that folk icon of May, calling out the coming summer. There are swallows hunting over the canal and along the lanes, bugs now abound and the fish have started jumping in the evenings. It’s coming. But it isn’t here yet. Not all of the cows are back in their fields. There’s a big change in the character of a landscape when the animals go back out. We’ve had lambs, and the sheep are always out earlier than the cows. My nearest neighbours were let out a few days ago, but some of their cousins up the road are still in their sheds. The boggy ground won’t have helped, although we’re drying out finally. Traditionally Beltain is the time of taking the livestock off the low pasture and up into the hills, and the fires purify and protect them. It’s not the time for getting the cows out of the barn. That should have happened already.

I can remember one bad winter in my early twenties where we didn’t have trees in leaf until Beltain. Even that year wasn’t as late as this. I have missed the leaves. There’s no sign of the new reeds coming up yet either. No reed smells and rustlings. I miss the dappling of light through leaves and the greening of the landscape, I miss the way the air is different under a leafy canopy. It’s been a long winter.

If you are celebrating today, or over the weekend, I wish you much joy. May the sun smile down upon you, and the leaves unfurl around you. May there be life and all the delights of summer’s promises. I hope we get a proper summer this year, a good balance of sun and rain so that crops ripen rather than rotting in the fields, unharvestable. Again.

Once upon a time, apparently people related the health of the land to the virtue of their ruler. If we did that now, the UK government would be in a lot of trouble, and we’d have had a very big wicker man last Samhain. There are things a modern person cannot blame the government for, but at the same time, we are seeing climate change, and those in power do not care that Beltain has come without the greening.


The mocking of pagans

It’s a popular sport in certain British newspapers. I won’t name them, they do not deserve any more attention than they already get. Paganism has become an emblem of ‘political correctness gone mad’ taking it seriously in any way is seen as the government bowing ot the loony fringe, upholding the rights of a few superstitious and misguided idiots. Then a few spurious and usually inaccurate ‘facts’ are chucked in as proof, feet are stomped, self righteousness expressed.

I think what infuriates me most is that these reporters aren’t stupid, just prejudiced. They cannot see beyond their own very narrow and frightened world views to consider anything else at all. Which is not healthy. We live in an age where the dominant philosophy is that there is one true way – which is ’rational’, consumerist, middle class, conformist, a bit like how we imagine the nineteen fifties might have been. We live with a consensus that trumpets the superior, rational, reasoned and scientific nature of its own thinking. The trouble is, it doesn’t bother to check the facts. I’ve read enough science to know that once you get past school-level content, science is big, scary, and often a bit insane. We’ve taken apart atoms enough to know that most of reality is made up of nothing in particular. Hard facts are never as hard as people want to believe they are.

Pagans are still an easy target for anger and resentment. Not least I suspect because we don’t tend to produce the kind of fanatics who may kill a person whose words they do not like. That’s very much to our credit. We will fight stupid writing by trying to offer something better, or by ignoring it. I’m not ashamed to be seen as a ‘soft’ target in that context.

It tickles me that people still default to the assumption that paganism equates to an irrational, superstitious belief in impossible things. The majority of pagans I’ve met are far less interested in belief than they are with engaging with the world in a meaningful way. The one we live in. The one our species seems hell bent on destroying. Given the choice between a pro-planet movement and a mindset that say ‘no, we can use all of this with impunity’ I know what looks like irrational belief to me. We have solid science for the existence of the placebo effect. What is placebo but the power of positive thought and belief? We know that the single biggest indicator of survival in life threatening situations, is belief. There are plenty of logical reasons to assert that belief, is not inherently irrational, it is a very powerful survival skill. Not necessarily belief in a deity, but belief in self, in ideas and ideals, in possibility. There’s not a huge practical difference between belief and hope.

There are tones that are easily audible in the articles that mock pagans. Resentment is there by the bucket load. There’s also a lot of fear, because any suggestion the world is not as you believed it to be, threatens many people. I suppose if it’s in your nature to mock, persecute, harass, denigrate and otherwise abuse, then not being on the side of the powerful is going to be a terrifying prospect. What if paganism took over? What if all those snide and cynical journalists found themselves in the vulnerable minority? They believe in tormenting vulnerable minorities, and they’ve seen The Wicker Man, so of course they’re worried.

The other thing I frequently hear in the words of people who live by mockery, is loneliness. I get a real sense that these are folk who don’t have a great deal of warmth and joy in their lives. The trouble with being cynical, is that it limits your scope for enjoying anything. You can’t celebrate, or cherish in the same way with a cynical heart. If you look at the world through cynical glasses, its very hard to form deep, trusting and emotionally satisfying relationships. The urge to mock and pick, the urge to put down in order to bolster up your fragile ego, is a ticket to sure fired loneliness. Human relationship calls for a bit more… well… humanity.

And of course when they publish the anti-pagan tripe, we roll in, we argue with them, we talk to them, we pay them attention. I fear it feeds the monster, and when you’re talking to someone who is selectively deaf, you can be sure they will only pick out the couple of things they wanted to hear. I don’t think there’s much to gain by arguing with them directly. It’s not what we say to these people that will change their minds, if anything can, it’s what we do. I have a great deal of faith in what the pagan community can, and will do into the future.

And no, I neither danced naked for Beltain, nor sacrificed any virgins.