image: my husband at Callanaish on our honeymoon, February 2006.
soundtrack: Lisa Knapp, ‘Till April Is Dead – A Garland Of May.
It is the coming of the May, and Beltane is upon us. I am feeling grateful today. In nearly 20 years of working with the seasons, Beltane is a festival I have always struggled to celebrate with any sense of integrity or depth – of all the 8 major stations of the year it is the one I feel the least, if not no, resonance with.
This year, finally, it locked into place. It’s funny how these things work out, and when, and by what conduits these knowings reach you – rarely directly – and so here is my Beltane tale of how this year I’ve finally ‘got it’.
For me, Beltane has a particularly twisty, sketchy energy – unpredictable, spirals within spirals, random and chaotic (though like all chaos, with its own particular patterns and attractors). May Day was mostly loved by me back in the way-back-when as the best all-day drinking day you could ever hope to have. All your mates were out, if you were lucky the sun shone, and adventures and silliness were virtually guaranteed to be had. Some of us went a-rioting, some went a-protesting, but mostly we just got pissed and sat about in various Bristol dives and dockside drinking holes waiting for stuff to happen, which it invariably did.
One year in the early 90’s I was lucky enough to be in Padstow on Mayday. We’d gone down the channel in the Joseph, my old mate’s Dutch trawler that was his home in Bristol Docks, and saw the Oss in all its splendid, random, risky glory.
Much has been written about the Padstow May Day Obby Oss tradition, and so if you are not familiar you can find out all about it here. For all those who think the Padstow Mayday Oss and dance is just another quaint relic of a bygone time, the locals performing a jolly little dance for the tourists and the kiddies in a safely roped off area, marshalled by officials with hi-viz jackets and useful information on the whereabouts of public toilets and the best pasties – think again.
The drinking starts at least the night before with the waking of the Oss outside the Golden Lion and carries on all day. The Oss is a solid lump of wood, around 4 – 5ft in diameter, carried by someone strong enough to bear its weight. Imagine someone wielding a decent – sized family dining table, constantly wheeling and turning, lifting and dipping at speed in close proximity to a mass of people pressed cheek by jowl who are often pissed, jostling for position, or if unfamiliar, caught up in more than they’d bargained for and keeping a somewhat desperate grip on the children as the whole messy throng lurches and heaves along the narrow streets. If that black dancing Oss catches you with the edge of its skirts, you’ll know it, and so a respectful space is always given. Very sadly, in 2019 local nurse Laura Smallwood died after being injured by an Oss in a very rare occurrence when the sober Oss went backwards. As one witness commented ““The one thing you are always told is not to have your back to the oss. Most people face the oss with their hands out.”
It’s strange how it creeps up on you. One minute the streets are relatively quiet and the Obby Oss May Song sounds muffled and far away. And then – turn a corner – and you’re in the thick of it, with the high stepping Teaser coaxing, cajoling and taunting the Oss and the dancers processing behind with a strangely slow, ponderous dance that incorporates a queer twist and flick of the instep with the kick. The drums beat and the song lifts and falls as the Oss rises, dances, dies and rises over and over. I didn’t take part or join in with either the song or the dance. Outsiders are observers only, participation very much not encouraged, and rightly so. To be honest, it felt slightly disrespectful being there at all and much as I am very pleased to have seen it once, I wouldn’t go back.
My lasting memory of that trip, my iconic image of Beltane, is of coming up early from below decks and seeing a lad staggering along the harbourside in his Mayday whites at 7am, blue neckerchief askew, pint of cider slopping in hand, with a shocking scarlet splash and fan of blood down the whole of his chest where his nose had bled out from an unknown cause. The clear white and the vivid red of hawthorn blossom and berry, bright and timeless in the sharp, sacrificial early sunlight.
And it strikes me now, clear as day – no wonder I have long struggled with this time of year that I used to love so much. After that, how on earth did I think that the current lean towards pretty maids in white dresses, May queens in green bowers, turn-taking bonfire jumping , the proscribed and inhibited steps of a maypole dance, all the watered down themes of fertility and creativity and snigger-snigger self-conscious allusions to sexuality, could come within even chaste kissing distance of the raw, male, blooded, vitality of that unknown young reveller on his Mayday morn and the chaos of the dance? The blood, the violence, the drunkenness, the smell of sea and salt and fish, and rotting seaweed, the hazy stumbling wanderings in and out of narrow streets and dark smoky pubs, all to the sway and pull of the dance and the song on a ridiculously hot May Day. That, to me, was my initiation into Beltane before I ever knew there was such a thing, and I think I have been deeply, increasingly disappointed as the years have gone on.
Fast forward 30 – odd years to this Beltane. I am sitting at home with my husband on Walpurgisnacht, Beltane Eve, feeling somewhat baity with my continued annoyance at Beltane and slightly rebellious due the nagging sense that I should* be ‘doing something’ like the good little pagan I’m supposed to be. Still, we have our fire lit, a cozy domestic echo of the huge good-fires that roar and burn in the shared, subconscious dream-past of our isles. My husband is not a pagan, so I am solitary in my musings.
And then out of the blue, a friend messaged to say that they are on their way to Cerne Abbas in readiness for the Mayday dawn. Except, they kind of aren’t.
A small flurry of messages reveals that It’s taken them 40 minutes to travel about a mile. They’ve been stopping, starting, unable to make a decision, unable to commit to a route, unable really to leave town as if trapped by some fairy spell. Mazed, me and my friend H call it, when you can’t find your way and get all turned about. The last I hear, they got one junction down the motorway and then turned back for home, as if some ‘strange power’ was pulling them back. Maybe it is a prolonged lack of sleep clouding their decision-making abilities. But just maybe, in an adjacent, mythic reality, they have been allowed to return home after fulfilling their honoured role of emissary and messenger of the gods.
Because, by the strange and roundabout byways of the transmission of sacred knowledge, a chain has been set in motion and I have received that message. The Cerne Abbas giant has awoken for me, taken root in my psyche. I think of all the giants of this land, and all the tall standing stones as I drift off to sleep. I dream of a young adolescent boy, encased and bound from chest to feet in a featureless, smooth, neutering plastercast. I lead him outside, along the long sterile passageway of an airport to escape and freedom. I awake with my mind spilling over with images of the Cerne Abbas giant, of Cernunnos, of the Gundestrup cauldron with its snakes and bull-slaying, of the Long Man of Wilmington, of the horned god met by Nanny Ogg deep in the sweaty depths in the long barrow, and somehow this has become enmeshed with that bleeding Padstonian boy from years gone past. I feel so enormously joyful and restored.
Why on earth did I, as I am and with all that I am, ever think there was anything other than this at Beltane for me? I realise I feel robbed, that we have lost the rich masculinity of the public face of Beltane in an Instagrammable sea of pretty dresses and willow head wreaths, perfect smiles and hand-crafted delicacies, maybe a bit of postmodern Morris if we’re feeling edgy. All these things matter and absolutely have their place – but what has happened to the stink of Beltane, the meatiness, the hot breath of promised summers, the simmering undercurrent of things about to get out of hand?
No wonder the Oss dies, and rightly we should cry , indeed lament, ‘O! where is St George? O! Where is he O?’ Because he has been cast out on his longboat and is very, very far away. For to me, Beltane is man’s time, pure and simple. I love that divine masculine spirit that is in all men and always, always have in all it’s messy, beautiful, peacock-strutting, eye-rollingly daft, protective, drunken, noble, big-cocked magnificence and I am glad, indeed honoured, to give it its due and its time and even occasionally claim it as my own from time to time. I don’t want a castrated, emasculated Beltane. What would be the point?
I send my heartfelt thanks to that unknown young man in Padstow, decades ago, who inadvertently showed me my personal path to the energy of Beltane though I lost the way a bit until now. And I laugh at another personal ‘should’ that I’ve rooted out in my subconscious around this time of year – that this is how Beltane ‘should’ be celebrated, ‘should’ look like, and this is what women ‘should’ look like, and heaven help we should allow unadulterated masculinity in all it’s glory back into the fold because it might scare the children and you know, toxic.
Yet again I learn the inherent lesson to us all to find your own ways, your own connections, your own meanings. I don’t need paganism or Beltane or The Wicker Man to tell me it’s okay to get pissed and have a shag – I was swashbuckling my way about the place high and low long before that awful word ‘ladette’ was ever even thought of. And neither do I care that my fires are somewhat banked to embers these days now I”m married and middle aged now, and that has its own deep sexiness very different from the daffy 20’s me but equally as good. I certainly don’t want to court the whiff of danger that often accompanied me through the good, the bad and the downright ugly (well, maybe just a tinsy bit, though I never would). But I do now and again very much need a big kick up the arse reminder from my beautiful, mythical, magical otherworld to find my own way and my own path, and if my brother-in-arms the Horned One is slowly being written out of our birthright and heritage then in my own quiet ways I will be doing all I can to open the doors and bring him right back in.
By the end of today, the Long Man will drawn his staffs together and closed the gate into the hills once more. But until then, celebrate how you will while the fires still burn – and Long Live The Great Horned King!
*I have learned to be wary of ‘shoulds’ of this type, joy-killers and guilt feeders that they are.
Fun and games
As well as a time of rebellion and rawness, Beltane is also traditionally a time for fun and games, and I have this morning invented a corker. Imagine (if you will) an image of the Cerne Abbas giant on a flat board. And now imagine his most distinguishing feature as a spinner, as on a board game. The board to be then divided into 8 sections with each section representing one of the stations of the year. The board to have dual purpose depending on personal desire. Either the ‘pointer’ is to be moved manually, to mark each season. Or to be spun rapidly, to fall randomly at a particular time, to command a particular activity. A kind of pagan sex Twister, if you will.
Initially I thought ‘ho ho’ and that I might finish this piece with a somewhat predictable line along the lines of ‘I’m not sure Hasbro are quite ready for this’. And I am not so innocent as to think for one second that there is not a real sex Twister out there somewhere though probably without the pagan spin (so to speak). But lo and behold, the Beltane influence reached even unto the internet without me polluting the family search history, and I came across this article from The Smithsonian. Written in 2019, it tells how Twister was initially considered too risqué and very nearly didn’t make it beyond the design stage (and that’s even without the cock-spinner).
‘As Taft [development executive within the firm] put it to The Guardian shortly before his death, “When I showed it to my sales manager, he said: ‘What you’re trying to do there is put sex in a box.’ He refused to play. He said it was too far out, kids wrapping themselves around each other like that.”’
Sears refused to stock it, and the game would have died there and then if it hadn’t been played by Jonny Carson and Eva Gabor on the Jonny Carson show, thereby deeming it safe and respectable for even the most conservative of 1960’s Middle America.
I may give Hasbro a call after all…