One realization dawned on me, more than any other, while walking and enjoying myself through the weekend festivities at Sunfest 2018: Whether the thousands of people partying knew it or not, they were celebrating Beltane. It was the weekend after the three-day window given for the traditional Celtic celebration and there was no overt religious imagery or ideas anywhere* and yet the tropical heat, the pure sunlight, the wild abandon of the participants–the feel it of all screamed Beltane. Or rather, the best calendarical and ethical fit our modern society was able to do.
Thousands of miles northeast, the Edinburgh Beltane Fire Festival happened a few days earlier. The iconography and celebrations were more accurately what is remembered of the ancient pagan rites, making room for modern accommodations as well. You can tell the different right away, even without the presence of a pagan theology or liturgy to manifest. In Scotland, it seems, the pagan spirit reaches beyond religion into culture and heritage. It speaks a different language than it might in North America.
Between those two celebrations, and my own small, religious Beltane celebrations in the area, I sensed there was a dialogue that needed to be had. Questions emerge, like:
- What exists?
- What is remembered?
- Who leads the rites?
- Who celebrates?
- What is being celebrated?
The first thoughts I had were that the celebrations were different because of the grounded reality that each emerges from. In Edinburgh, there is a cultural heritage that is being remembered, an unbroken line of descent, perhaps. Whether or not they go to church on Sundays, the people there remember the ancient past along with the names of their ancestors. In South Florida, there is no such heritage shared across society, even if it is felt by individuals by blood or spiritually. Even if there are “new priests of the Old Ways” who can give context to these “fests” and notice the details that escape the layperson, we are not a cultural force to influence the wider world.
It is a problem with North America, it seems, and perhaps other the colonies of the Old World, as well. Our lives are not tethered to a surviving culture. Amnesiac, we recreate small settings, flawed memories played out with meager means, while echoes of the past play out like ghosts bombastically.
There is nothing wrong with the people, at large and well beyond our influence, attempting to give voice to an ancient wisdom as old as humanity. Perhaps there lies the most meaningful question in this dialogue:
- Who benefits from these celebratory moments?
In Scotland, there is no doubt the attendees find articulation to an old human urge to celebrate the Sun and the sensual expansion that entails. It is evident in the acts of the participants, recorded in images and video for the world to see–and envy. Moreover, enacting the yearly drama allows the culture to refresh the roots of its identity. In South Florida, corporations benefit while people try to remember who they are meant to be during Beltane–more-than-human, elemental, animal. However, unless it is achieved through chemicals or by accident, there is rarely any transcendent experience there. We form a small group in a sea of strangers and worship a constructed image that is neither god nor entirely human.
The pagans remain within their groves and circles, in the woods, backyards, or liberal churches. We consult our books and write down some approximation of the rites, but forget the fine text: Awaken the wild and roaring heart of people, and lead them to the Inner/Outer Wilderness.
* The only religious anything on display was outside of the event. Some evangelical folks stood and yelled at incoming crowds that ignored them about how they were going to Hell for their sins. Apparently, some zealous Christians are still able to recognize the competition of everything they strove to stamp out in Europe by building on top of holy sites and stealing holy days. The partygoers absolutely ignored them.