Friday, May 14, 2010

Know Your History

OMG! Did you know that Wicca is the oldest religion ever, in the history of ever? I know, right? Wicca was started 200,000 years ago when the first High Priestess named LilithAmbergrisFluffbucket wrote her Book of Shadows on a banana leaf with her A-thame when she escaped the first Burning Times in Atlantis! And it’s remained unchanged ever since. Seriously, I read it on the intarwebz!

Yes, I know the above paragraph is ridiculous, and it’s supposed to be. But it’s not that much different than some of the things I’ve heard in my travels in pagandom. There are people who insist that “Nine Million European Women Died!” during the Inquisition because that’s what the song “The Burning Times” said. A little research will render that fact as myth – though the numbers are still staggering (anywhere between 50,000 and 300,000 people died during the Inquisition) if you consider the population of Europe during that time.

Pagans love to live in the here & now – and that can be a good thing. But to be well rounded Witch, we need to know where we truly came from, not to devise a good story. This is not a Dungeon & Dragons campaign where we can conjure up a dramatic background for us to keep things interesting. The history of Wicca is not one where some High Priest or High Priestess was trained in Atlantis by the Fairies and passed down the knowledge since the dawn of civilization.

Let’s get the most important myth out of the way – repeat after me: “Longevity does NOT equal validity.” That’s a fancy way of saying that just because something is old doesn’t mean it is better. Wicca in its current iteration is only about 80 years old. Yes, my friends, it is not even a century old. The United States – one of the youngest of the first world countries on this planet – is more than twice as old as our religion! That doesn’t mean Wicca is worthless or invalid – far from it. Our understanding of genetics is also pretty young in comparison to other scientific disciplines, but we wouldn’t tell a geneticist that his or her work is worthless because it’s not steeped in antiquity, right? Still, we need to understand that we cannot make claims that Wicca as it is practiced today is the same stuff practiced by pagan peoples hundreds or thousands of years ago. That is simply not true.

I’m not going to go into the full history of Wicca in this article. There are authors better than I who have tackled that subject, and it’s a topic I teach new Witches in my classes. One of my favorite books is by Ronald Hutton called “Triumph of the Moon”. There are also excellent books written by authors who have LIVED and shaped the history of Wicca, such as Doreen Valiente, Margot Adler, Gerald Gardner and more. In your own library, it is not enough to have the more popular authors present – remember those who came before and read them.

Why is learning Wiccan history so important? Because in order to understand your current practice, you need to understand the evolution of the practice and how it began. Wicca might be under a century old, but the tenets it subscribes to, the concepts, the cosmology and attitudes come from wisdom gleaned over hundreds, even thousands of years. What I mean is that Wicca in its current form is relatively young when compared to some other religions, but it draws from ideas based in antiquity, worships the same Gods and Goddesses our ancestors connected with. In some ways it is a reawakening of ancient practices using a new methodology to reflect our own spiritual and social evolution.

A good pagan tends to ask “why” and “how” a lot. Why are our Circles cast this way? Why did this tool become intrinsic to our Craft? Why are these words said and what do they mean? Who wrote this chant / prayer / spell? How did this concept become incorporated into common Craft lore?

It’s one thing to practice your faith, it’s an entirely different matter to understand the rationale behind it. If you blindly cast your Circles, celebrate Sabbats & Esbats, and execute spellwork without understanding where these things come from, you are missing the core of your purpose. And, my friends, isn’t PURPOSE important when using Will and Intent to make your magick? You’re shortchanging your magickal practice and your spiritual evolution.

In addition, just going through the motions without knowing why or how it came to be makes us little more than sheeple – those folks who just bleat out the words without understanding the meaning. That’s not what a Witch is. A Witch is the master of his/her destiny and actions. Allowing someone else to dictate how you behave is giving that control away – learning about your practices in depth takes that control back.

This is why it is imperative that every Priest and Priestess of Wicca, every practitioner of the Craft, knows the history of Neo-Paganism. Learn about Eclectics as well as Traditionalists, the founding mothers and fathers of the Craft (living and non-living alike); read their books and learn what they based their ideas on, even if you don’t agree with them. Read voraciously. Don’t believe every bit of hype without verifying it (and not just on the internet either!). Most of all, be in control of your own spiritual practice. Learn your history – it can only enhance your understanding of you as a Witch in today’s world.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sing the May Song of Beltane

May 1st marks one of the most beloved, and perhaps one of the most misunderstood Sabbats in pagandom - Beltane. This Sabbat has its origins in Europe, primarily from the Celtic regions. It means, literally, Fire of Bel – Bel, Belen or Belinos being just one name of the Sun God who we honor this day. In the Pagan calendar, this is one of the eight stops/holidays on the cycle we call the "Wheel of the Year". Beltane is known as a "fire festival", which means it is not connected to a solstice or equinox - it's a day chosen outside solar or lunar calendars.

Whether you spell it Beltane, Beltaine, Beal-tinne, Bealtine, whether you call it Beltane or Roodmas or Walpurgisnacht or whether you celebrate it on April 30, May 1 or May 2, is no matter. It remains an honored and enjoyed tradition in Wiccan practice. Beltane is a celebration about fertility in all its forms, personified through the sacred marriage of the God and the Goddess. It honors the power of growth and the importance of balance. The Lady is all grown up and the Lord is rited into manhood. They are ready to imbue the Earth with their blessings.

When we talk about the marriage between the Lord and Lady, it is not about the marriage of our contemporary understanding, but rather a carnal & spiritual joining between the male and female Divine. From their union comes abundance and fertility which is shared with the Earth and those of us on it. Using the axiom "as above, so below", this fertility is drawn into our world and feeds the summer and fall months – and we see this abundance manifested in our autumnal harvest. One of the most popular customs associated with Beltane is the Maypole. It is a strong and tall tree trunk representing the God, which is affixed with ribbons on the top. Over the extended ribbons lay a wreath of flowers, representing the Goddess. As the maypole ribbons are woven by dancers each holding a ribbon, the wreath is lowered symbolizing the union between the God and Goddess. Sometimes, the Maypole becomes the fodder for the Midsummer or Samhain fires later that year.

This sacred union of the Lord and Lady spawned many customs and taboos about marriage – some which survive to this day. Some say the first full moon span after the wedding was when the Lord and Lady would remain sequestered together, drinking only wine and eating only honey. Of course, this led to the concept of the “honey-moon” that most married couples partake in. However, May was considered the month of the God and Goddess’ wedding – so if you wanted to marry, it was expected that you would kindly respect the Divine Couple’s month. Hence, May became an unlucky month to marry in. This is one of the reasons why getting married in June became popular. The exchanging of rings has a Beltane component, symbolizing infinity and longevity. Another belief was that the God & Goddess give boons to those of us who came to celebrate their union. In Europe, it’s still very common to see newlyweds leaving their ceremony tossing candy or money out the back of their vehicle (car, carriage, etc.) throughout the village for the children to chase after and collect.

Yes, there were and are still many carnal associations to Beltane, and they can be quite sacred with consenting adults and in appropriate ways. Certainly, Beltane can be one of the most sexual of all the Sabbats, but that aspect doesn’t need to be emphasized in your practice. Understand that it is a spiritual and symbolic act. It is never wanton or vulgar. It is a celebration of the gift of love on many levels – spiritual and physical. In ages past and until the 19th Century, “Greenwood marriages”, (or as we call them today, “one-night-stands”) were popular on Beltane. Consummating such a marriage in a field would ensure fertility and success for that harvest. Today, spending the Beltane night with your significant other mimics the Sacred Marriage and ensures a year of luck & love to come. Fertility, however, is more than just physical. It is spiritual and mental as well – and spurs our creativity and abundance as much as anything else.

There are many traditions associated with Beltane. Women and young ladies braided flowers in their hair, as would befit someone attending a wedding. Young ladies would wash their faces with the morning dew to ensure a beautiful complexion. Wells and sacred water were visited and honored. Flowers would be strewn all over homes, people, animals and anything which was sacred and special, in the belief that the more you honored the God & Goddess, the more abundance you would draw to yourself. Fires are extinguished the night before Beltane and relit from the “Need Fire” which is started at dawn, sometimes from the Yule log which was kept burning since Winter Solstice. The Beltane fire was especially potent. Women who wished to get pregnant would jump over the Beltane fire – and those who didn’t want to become pregnant would gladly take the long way around! Some people acted out the Great Hunt, whereby the Lord and Lady chase each other. First the Lady is the one pursued by the Lord and then the tables are turned and he becomes the happy prey who would gets tangled up in the Maypole dance.

This is the time of year that cattle were put into their summer grazing fields and therefore beginning to enjoy the bounties of late spring. People in Europe used to drive their cattle through the Beltane fire (quickly, of course) to bring blessings on their livestock. As this is also the time for fairies to be very active – especially the mischievous ones – the cattle and homes were sprinkled with water from a sacred well to keep the fairies from turning milk sour and from causing mayhem in the home. Fairies were considered to be especially active during the first 3 days of May, and people feared that they would steal their children and bewitch cattle – so all the doors were locked and children were kept very close at night.

What does this mean for us as pagan practitioners? It means we bring a time of abundance into our personal worlds. We look for fertility in all aspects of our lives and take advantage of the Divine Couple’s boons. If you have a partner, share your love with them in honor of the Sacred Marriage. If you are single, raise a toast of mead, apple wine or apple cider to the Lord and Lady, wishing them a bountiful year. If you can’t participate in a Maypole Dance, a few twirls around your Circle (or living room) and some fresh flowers in your home in honor of the date is more than appropriate.

Beltane can be family friendly too – the Maypole is a great opportunity to dance and welcome summer into our lives. Even having kids walk around a park or house picking up litter to make a fitting place for the fairies to dance is a good way to celebrate! Perhaps a young child (or you!) can dress up like the May Queen or the Sun King and dance with the merrymakers. Making flower crowns/necklaces and adornments is a great way to welcome the Lord and Lady to the fullness of Spring.

And whatever you do, don’t forget to appease the Fairies! Make a basket of shiny things for them to play with, and if you wish, leave them cookies, milk and flowers, and put it near your home, perhaps in the garden. It will keep them busy long enough to forget to cause any mischief!

Beltane is one of my favorite Sabbats because it’s truly a festive time! It is a wonderful celebration, full of laughter, love, joy and blessings. Enjoy the bounty of the Gods, and be part of celebration! Take advantage of this time of year to connect with the Divine Couple and bring those blessings upon yourself and your home.