Originally published at One-Eyed Cat, my blog for Witches and Pagans magazine.
Green and gold. A smooth, warm, gentle leafy green of mid-spring. His joy. The clarity of his smile, the vigor of his hale body, arched as the vast vault of a wind-stirred forest canopy, so close to me, much closer than the sky.
The tender brush of his skin.
These things stay with me.
May 4th: Beltane in Albuquerque
From the sun-drenched rocks of the Sandia foot hills to the humblest weeds sprouting amidst cracks in the sidewalks, the land exults. Everything around us sings with presence. It’s more there, more alive, somehow, all of it in vivid detail.
Sunlight filters through jagged-leaved Siberian elms. It smells green, and I want to lie in it, tumbling back into the grass, enveloped by spring. Behind us, amateur tight-rope walkers practice on thick lines strung between the decades-old, silvery trunks. Tongues lolling, playful dogs chase toys and each other through the park. Exuberant shouts from soccer players trump the chatter of neighborhood sparrows. Somehow, even close to a busy road in Albuquerque, I do not hear the noise of traffic. A light breeze soothes the afternoon heat, buffeting the icon of Frey propped against the base of the altar. He asked to come here today. So I tie his painting to a table leg. Someone— I never see who— wisely thrusts twigs into the ground in front of him to keep him stable.
I’m utterly spent and sunburnt from a sad weekend at a festival, but I refuse to miss this ritual. As I sit on the cool, lush lawn (a luxury in New Mexico) in front of the altar, wrapped in a light shawl against the flickering sun, I am filled with a healing peace quite unlike the overwhelming chaos of the festival.
My druid friends stand, blessing the Gods of the occasion (Belenus and Epona), and we all sing.
We don’t raise a May pole, and we don’t talk about fertility, sex or abundance. Several of us are wedded, none of us are prudes, and none of us have children present. But we do have pets. We have animals, like our ancestors. Members of our household, and not property, to bless. We don’t have the balefire smoke to run them through or jump over (not in this drought), but we do have water to give them, taken home at the end of this rite. Mine is for the visiting birds whose presence I enjoy, and the neighborhood cats who wander among my backyard flowers.
I sway, tired, lulled by the soothing rhythm of one of the grove members reciting the usual ADF Druid grounding meditation toward the opening of ritual. And when I close my eyes, I sense that we are not alone:
* * *
Someone climbs up out of a hole in the forest floor in front of us.
I almost blink, startled. She’s here… but not here. The ground rolls instead of being flat and the elms are taller, grander, older. Lush ferns curl at their feet. Ferns do not grow this far from the wet shade of mountains in the desert.
I can’t see how deep the hole is— a circle of hungry shadow before the altar— only that a young woman emerges from it. How can her hands dig into the planty earth at the edges, pulling herself up adroitly, and remain so impossibly clean? No dirt clings to her fine clothes, either. Nor to the tall, white-starched and pearl-encrusted tiara of a Slavic noblewoman that crowns her like a flowery Gothic arch. A sheer veil keeps her long, loose hair back neatly behind her shoulders. She’s dressed in a pale blue shift, the stuff of Ukrainian fairy tales.
Not what I expected.
I frown, puzzled.
“Mokosh?” I ask, imagining the Slavic earth Goddess. This is Beltane. This is the union of sky and earth… right?
But she shakes her head, serious, and I see a touch of red hair, like a desert poppy in spring.
Mokosh’s daughter. And usually a cheeky maiden, much more bold than her husband and twin, Jarilo, in speaking to me.
And then Vesna circles us, leaning down impossibly, the long fingers of one hand dancing across the earth as she runs…
One blink and she’s gone.
The presiding Druid talks about Belenus, and the occasion. Belenus, an old, old God whose name fragments, echoes, shifts, reforms across the Indo-European language and continental landscape: Ba’al, Bel, Beli, Helios. Shining one. Sun’s rays. Hero. He gives his name to the nearby town of Belen, south of us.
I listen, weaving new ideas with facts I already know: Beli, who likely gives his name to the Slavic or Thracian-born Byzantine general Belisarius (a triumphant youth and wanderer whose life mirrors the cycle of the Northern God’s), to the distant Slavic nation of Belarus. The power of the sun, who is not the sun itself, but the warmth and life of the sun among us…
And then I feel another circling, caracoling presence: Epona, called as the Gatekeeper, rides around us in that forest, watching us with interest, before pausing at our backs. I lose the Druid’s words.
* * *
Maidens dancing. They whirl in that circle Vesna traced, the same circle Epona rode. They are not holding brightly colored ribbons. They spin, arms raised, around a shaft of streaming golden-white light, lancing toward the sky. Somehow, their raised arms both gather and protect it. Their dresses are long, light, airy: blue as an early morning. Their loose hair is pale yellow rays at dawn. They are not Goddesses….
They dance in earnest, singing, barefoot. A soprano, joyous chant. As the spirit women lift their arms higher, the shaft of light rises far above them, illuminating them. It lances through the canopy of green leaves, glowing the pale green of a midday sun shining through them….
I feel the Wiła straining, stretching, feel it in the base of my arms, the space between my fingers. They’re getting taller, attenuated as they push towards the sky.
No. They’re not pushing.
They’re pulling the sky down.
Suddenly I feel him: vast, sheltering all of us, like Egyptian Nut arched over earthly Geb, her lover from whom she is forever parted, weeping the rains. The strain of him trying to meet us, gasping, bucking the massive natural forces that keep him in the heavens where his power lies—
Belenus groans, a deep grind of pain and unyielding struggle as he pushes down against the shaft of light. The planes of his bare chest and belly press down against the tree crowns, rigid. His face contorts with the effort.
Oh Gods, he’s—
“Help me!” he gasps.
…he’s not talking to the forest maidens.
He’s sweating, trembling from the stress. And still he is so achingly beautiful, wracked with pain, his skin and hair glowing even as he casts a shadow on the earth.
Belenus pushes down again, bearing with all his might, but he can’t, this isn’t enough—
The world tilts, and I am lying on my back when I know my body still sits upright. What is scale, and how is this even possible, that I of the mortal earth reach up and take his hands desperately in mine, pulling him down towards me, wrapping my arms tight around his shoulders as if he might be torn away in an instant? Fearing his pain more than my confusion, wanting it to stop? As if he were my beloved, my youthful husband?
Belenus gets no smaller, still the vastness of the sky above this forest. And yet somehow he’s lying close to me, almost touching. I feel the heat of him, the air between us disturbed by his deep, trembling sigh. He wants to rest, to sink deep into me, but he holds back.
The proximity of his rakish—but somehow tender— grin. It’s utterly endearing.
I know this grin very well. I have known it since the dawn of memory, and I am the only one who gets to see it. For a moment, I am the very earth in spring, his wife and lover, stretched below him, yearning as much as he does, and not just my human self.
“Thank you,” Belenus whispers. His eyes glint boyishly.
I want to kiss him. I want to close the space between us. There’s something delightfully pure to all of this, unencumbered by performance or shame.
Oh. His erect cock is straddling the shaft of light, one with the tree we consecrated at this rite, waiting. There is no need for a May Pole to anchor him. The pole represents a tree, and there are sacred trees aplenty in this park.
Ohhhhh! He’s waiting on me.
Belenus’ cheek grazes mine.A gentle kiss below my ear, on my neck farewell, and he’s gone— from my sight— but not from the earth, whom I touch.
Even the Gods have a sense of privacy, apparently.
The Celts had much contact with both the Norse and Slavic peoples. Part of their territory included central Europe. In Poland, a mountain region where old customs persist, Galicja (land of the Gauls), is named for them.
The root-name Bel/Vel is ancient in Indo-European language, variably indicating ‘Shining’ or ‘Lord’ and directly related to sky/solar dieties in several forms across Europe and Western Asia. Indo-European and comparative mythology scholar Jaan Puhvel has written on this topic. The epithet of ‘Shining’ occurs multiple times in Norse mythology, from Skirnir (a humanized aspect of Frey and his “boyhood friend” in Skirnismal) to one of several possible meanings of the name of Odin’s famous and beloved son, ‘Baldr‘. Beli is also a name intimately connected with Frey as ‘Beli’s slayer’ ; one possible interpretation is that his courtship of his wife Gerd in the underworld will result in his eventual demise, and thus he is also her “brother’s slayer”, as Gerd may be a youthful form of his twin sister, Freyja.
Henbane, an herb associated with Belenus, is also historically associated with the Norse shamanic art of seidhr, a form of magic connected to both Odin, as father of magic, and Freyja (who taught it to him). See Jenny Blain’s “Nine Worlds of Seid Magic” for more information.
Whirling symbols, such as solar crosses, and the wheel, are associated with Belenus… and also, in very ancient times, with Odin. (zz
Wila are Slavic female air, forest and water spirits, sometimes called Rusalka, often depicted as dancing young women, connecting with the sky, rivers, death and crops. There is a fascinating book on their distribution in European folklore, The Dancing Goddesses, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.