For the New Reformed Druids of North America, it is the beginning of the Season of Life and the end of the Season of Sleep. The first spirits of the year will be added to the Chalice of Waters that is shared at each service, and the Third Order members will change their ceremonial ribbons, worn over the fronts of their robes, from white to red ribbons. The Earth Mother wakes from her winter sleep, and chants and praises are addressed to her.
Live Oak Grove plans to inaugurate the shaft grave, a Toll-Uaigh, we have dug this winter at Larry Press’s (Archdruid) instigation, with an offering of some of the new Waters of Life from the first chalice of the new season. Shaft graves were build in Ancient Gaul, and perhaps elsewhere in Druidic lands. Offerings presumably to the Earth Mother, were put into these deep shafts at different times over a long period. Some of the “Tolls” were twelve meters deep, and offerings might include a whole tree. We plan to offer a piece of the sacrifice at each service which will be put into the shaft after the rest of the sacrifice has been placed in the altar fire.
Beltaine, festival of the Sun, celebrates the long and eagerly awaited return of the Waters of Life to Grove chalices of the R.D.N.A. Use of the divine drink as sacrament, channel to the gods and restorer of mortal and Divinity alike, is an ancient Indo-European concept. It is found in a highly developed form in the Rig Veda, written down circa 1600 B.C. and the custom may go back two to three thousands years before to the Proto-Indo European homeland on the steppes of Asia. The Indo-European tribes early learned the use of fermentation processes both of milk products as yogurt, etc. known to many pastoral races, and, perhaps by extension, the fermentation of honey into Mead. Juices of other, psychotropic plants were preceded and added to this, by some of the later Indo-European tribes, notably the Vedic branch in the Ganges Valley where such herbs abound.
Fraser and others have collected and reconstructed Indo-European ideas surrounding the divine drink and its use, and the origin of sacrament from sacrifice. The early Indo-Europeans saw humanity as originally mortal, and the gods as immortal, and their myths tell how immortality was achieved by certain human beings, or in some branches of the Indo-European spectrum, made available to humanity in general. The Hebrew and Chinese mythologies took the reverse view: animals and humans were originally immortal as Adam and Eve in Eden, or the “First Man” before the dividing up of Chaos. Then, through some fall, death came into the world. In the theme, a hero or demi-god’s discovery or theft of a divine potion makes him immortal and able to communicate with the divine powers. The potion is then lost, through trickery or deceit, but sometimes an Earthly version of the drink remains with a promise of future immortality. Consumption of a Sacred drink is used both in initiatory rites and as a group bonding ritual in religions from Ireland to India. The Eucharist may be the Christianization of this ritual; it does not spring from any Orthodox Hebrew rite. Dr. Duran characterizes Christianity as “a very much Indo-Europeanized, Semitic religion.” Holy food is more characteristic of other cultures, Semitic, African or Amerindian, while the deified drink is Indo-European. The drink not only inspires, but is though to be a god, a divine thing in itself, or to contain the essence of a divine being. This led Fraser and Rutherford to associate it with the deified sacrificial victim of other sacrificing religions, but Dumézil and other modern students of religion have repudiated this idea. It is an area where experts still disagree. However, its consumption is treated as an act of sacrifice; an offering up to the gods of the drink and of oneself or one’s consciousness, (at least temporarily.) This maintains the human connection to the Divine, as well as maintaining the immortal vigor of the Deities thus worshipped. This is explicitly set out in the Rig Veda, and similar descriptions are preserved from the West: The sacrifices to Euses, the Horse Sacrifice of the High Kings of Ireland, libation ceremonies in Greece, and in the Slavic areas, wine or mal rituals to Perun. Statues of Perun held a drinking horn into which a sacred liquor was poured during a spring rite, perhaps even Beltaine, and in which the priest caste then read hopes for the year’s crops were read through the liquid’s behavior. Perun is cognate with Taranis and Thor as the thunderbolt wielding god of the Oak.
[Picture of Perun]
Stone Idols from Satchany in the Upper Dniester basin.
Structural anthropologists connect the deified drink rite with the “dying-god” motif, which is not an exclusively Indo-European theme, but wide-spread in the Old World. This connection is exemplified in the song of “John Barleycorn,” who dies with the harvest in order to feed the people, but rises again in the Spiritus of the ale, and in the sprouting grain of the spring. However, I think these two themes were only merged at a much later date, after the Indo-Europeans had scattered from their steppes homeland. There is no traced of the latter motif in the earliest Indo-European record, the Rig Veda, or in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary.
The young year god, Osiris, Dionysus resurrection theme seems to be part of the pre Indo-European strata of the Eastern Mediterranean. And in Europe, the dying Corn King tradition seems to be older than the Celtic Bardic records and has no official place in Druid doctrine. Though Dumézil also repudiated this “ambrosia cycle,” he later, in 1939 re-affirmed the parallel between the Germanic and Indic accounts of obtaining the vessel, cauldron or chalice to hold the deified drink. This vessel grew in importance, and takes precedence in the later mythology of the Western Indo-Europeans over its contents. Anything drunk from the sacred bowl grants divine inspiration. The vessel and the ritual, and the readiness of the participant, (set and setting) become more important than the particular intoxicant. This is the stance taken by the RDNA and discussed in the Later Chronicles, making us a descendent of the Celtic and Western most wavelet of the great Indo-European expansion and evolution. Thus Beltaine, beginning the summer and the Druid Season of Life, sees the return of the Waters of Life to the chalices of RDNA Groves across the country, and to our subscribers if they are holding Proto Grove services, in such unlikely places as Melborne and Hong Kong. * Since Samhain no liquor has been used, only the Waters of Sleep, pure distilled H20, in the sharing-cup. Concomitant with this holiday, the Third Order Druids, clergy rank, exchange their white ceremonial ribbons for red. At Live Oak Grove, a Maypole dance follows the Beltaine service, and a general partying and merry-making may continue till sundown.
*Write us for Proto-Grove instructions.
The Rig Veda
Littleton, The New Comparative Mythology
Gimbutas, The Slavs
Levy, The Gate of Horn. (This book is now published as Religious Conceptions of the Stone Age and Their Influence Upon European Thought, New York: Harper, 1963.)
When men go to serve the gods, they go for the god that serves them.
Maypole and Shamanism
A Druid Missal-Any, Beltaine 1985
By Emmon Bodfish
Beltaine, major Holiday of the Druid year, and beginning of the Season of Life, marks the point on the sun’s ascent when it is half way between Equinox, level, and Solstice, culmination. Bonfires are lighted on hill tops and feast prepared. The Maypole dance, which crowns the festivities, is probably older than Druidism, or than the migration of the Indo-Europeans into Europe or India. There is speculation from both academic and traditional channels to the effect that the Maypole and the Sacrificial pole may have a common origin in the spring and autumn rituals of the early Neolithic pastoralists of the Eur-Asian Steppes. At this season these ancestors of the Siberian, Turkic, Tartar and Indo-European peoples, celebrated an animal sacrifice, in which the animal to be offered was tied to a richly decorated post, which was the center and focus of the ritual and dancing. Ribbons, streamers or threads of bright colors figure in the rites and records of the descendent cultures.
The Rig Veda describes the stake to which the horse sacrifice is tethered as “brightly beribboned” with colored banners streaming down it.
In the Siberian Shamanistic rituals, which preserve the earliest traditions, the reindeer or pony sacrifice is tied to a freshly cut young larch or birch tree. The tree is festooned with ribbons, streamers or colored threads. The colors are always those associated with the particular deity or deities being addressed. The Shaman of the Buryat and his assistants, nine youths and nine maidens, dance. The Shaman, in trance, conducts the spirit of the slain animal up, along the path of the streamers to the top of the tree, and on up to the heavenly abode of the waiting deity. In healing and initiation rites, ribbons are also used to indicate soul-paths.
In the volumes of data collected by Fraser, are descriptions of the traditional cutting of the maypole in Europe, in which the tallest young birch in the woods was selected, cut and set up in the village square. These traditions probably pre-date Christian or Roman contact, and seem to have been very little affected by them. Their similarity all across Europe and the Steppes of Asia would argue for a very archaic origin.
But the May dance also includes strong Pre-Indo-European elements: the circle dance, the gathering of buds and flowers, maybasket giving, and the Green Man symbolism and costumery. These may speak of an older, agrarian tradition, perhaps brought by the first farming peoples coming into Europe from the Near East and the Mediterranean and melding with the indigenous (from Ice Age?) peoples of Europe. The farther East one goes towards the Steppes of Asia, the fewer of these milder customs of the May one encounters in village life and folk tradition, until among the never Christianized tribes of Siberia, there is found the pure animal sacrifice, tethered to the be-ribboned Axis Mundi, the World-Tree.
Beltane Essay: Fire Making
A Druid Missal-Any, Beltane 1986
By Emmon Bodfish
Beltaine, May Day, festival of bonfires, greeting to Belenos, the returning Sun. It is the beginning of summer, Season of Life. In old “Celtdom” cattle were moved to the highland pastures; modern Third Order R.D.N.A. Druids exchange their white ceremonial ribbons for red ones.
In ancient Britain, Ireland and Gaul, according to the witness of the Classical writers and to numerous folk traditions, all fires were extinguished on Beltaine Eve, and a “new, clean fire” kindled by the Druids, “through means of friction, from logs of Oak.” In Gàidhlig this process is called “tog an teine,” lifting fire out of the wood.
Making fire by friction is a ceremonial skill that one or a few members of each Grove might want to try.
The bow and drill method is the easiest
GRAPHIC OF BOW DRILL
Make a fire-board of Oak, well seasoned, very dry. With a knife or a pointed stone, make a shallow hole, a cup, near the edge of the board. Whittle a “V” notch in from the edge of the board, with the “V’s” point at the cup. Don’t cut through into the cup/hole. Making the notch, which is undercut, wider on the bottom side of the board, helps. Place your tinder in the notch. (More about tinder later.) With the board on a firm, dry surface, hold it steady by kneeling on it, or holding it down with your foot as you drill. Put the drilling stick in the cup and hold down on it with the “fire hold” block. Then with the bow, spin it as fast as you can. Persistence and consistent speed pay off. Use a “fire-stick,” i.e. a drill, of at least 3/8 inch diameter. Thinner sticks dissipate heat and cool off too quickly. And, as our Humboldt County “Third” says, it also helps to have someone else to push down on the top of the “fire-hold.” “As we work a bow back and forth like that, our arms automatically tend to rise.” If no one else is around, hold down on it with your chin. (Paleolithic fire-holds are the joy of Old World archeologists.)
The fire-stick can also be turned by hand. I have not done this and I don’t know anyone who has been able to get this way to work. It may have to be a group endeavor, with a number of people spelling each other in relay. But, so I’m told; “Use a longer drill than you would with the bowed method and roll it between your palms. When your hands reach the bottom, quickly let go and return them to the top of the stick and keep it spinning.” With either of these methods, it is easier and surer if you have a group of people. With the right choreography, this could be worked into the Beltaine Ceremonies as an effective part of co-operative ritual.
After a while, you will see smoke waver up from the cup-hole then hot black powder will well up and out into the notch; keep turning, faster. Press down harder. Press the tinder into the notch and against the red hot glowing firestick. If you turn the drill fast enough, sparks may jump out and catch the tinder. When you see a red, glowing area in the cup or on the notch, gently remove the fire-stick, and breath on the glow until it becomes a bright gleam. Then pick up the fireboard and tinder together and press the tinder around the incandescence. Carefully breath it into life. This part takes practice and finesse, minute attention, and great awareness of the right moment. In other words it is a meditation. Mastery over fire, like playing the violin, is not learned easily. In many pre-agricultural societies it is considered one of the marks of the Shaman or Adept.
For tinder, I use the feather “wolf-lichen,” Letharia vulpine, that grows on Orinda coyote bushes, with lots of fine, dry splinters of resinous pine or juniper, and thinly shredded paper at the center of the bundle. Bradford, in his survival books, recommends lint, from your pocket, and very dry pine needles or shredded bark. (“finely shredded pieces of the “Wall Street Journal” soaked in lighter fluid is great.”–Good-Gulf the Wizard) When the tinder begins to flame, gently set it to the kindling under your previous readied altar fire. Continue breathing on it auspiciously, coaxing it into a blaze. From this “new clean fire” re-kindle all your fires. By now you know why pre-industrial people kept fire burning, and never let it go completely out.
“Match” is from “maide” meaning “little stick” in Gàidhlig. The match was invented by a Scotsman. Be grateful.
Beltane Essay: Maypole and Sacrifice
A Druid Missal-Any, Beltane 1987
By Emmon Bodfish
Beltaine, May Day, was always the most widely and universally celebrated of the Druidic and old Pagan High Days. It was also the least Christianized and distorted, even in the heyday of the church’s powers. In Ireland, Wales, and parts of Europe the Maypole was a freshly cut young larch with a crown of green living branches at its top. The use of a tree of the larch family, decorated with streamers suspended down from its top, and other features of the Maypole dance are thought to hark back to the early Proto-indo-European deer and horse sacrifices, and the rituals around the sacrificial stake.
Rituals of this kind were preserved down to the present century in Siberia among the peoples of the northwestern quarter. These tribes once occupied a more southerly location, but have been driven steadily northward since medieval times. In the Neolithic, they are thought to have occupied the forest belt north of the Proto-Indo-European homeland around the Caspian and Aral Seas. Pursuing an essentially Mesolithic life of hunting and pastoralism, most of these forest peoples rejected Christianity and maintained their traditional religions down to modern times, and have, therefore, as Professor James Duran puts it, “been able to give us a window on the past.”
They have likewise preserved their traditions in the face of the Russian State, which tolerates them as a folk curiosity. First studied and recorded in this century, they have been a rich source of information about Meso and Neolithic European cultures. The Russian anthropologist Popinov, in his extensive studies of these peoples, gives transcriptions of many of the traditional ceremonies that they have preserved.
In the Siberian pony or reindeer sacrifices, the animal was tied to a freshly cut young larch or birch which had been decorated with ribbons, streamers, and colored threads. In this offering, the Buryat shaman was assisted by the unmarried young people of the tribe, nine youths and nine maidens, who danced around the larch and the slain animal. The shaman, in trance, conducted the animal’s soul up the path marked by the streamers to the top of the tree, and then upward to the waiting deity who received the sacrifice. (Ribbons were also used to mark out “soul paths” in healing and initiation rituals.)
In the East Indian Rig Veda, one of the oldest written Indo-European documents, there is a description of the stake to which the horse sacrifice is tethered. The pole is “brightly beribboned” with “colored banners streaming down from it.”
The tradition of the Maypole may also draw from a second and even from a third source in the Eastern Mediterranean rites of spring, and in those of the Pre-Indo-European peoples of Europe. In the former, ribbon decorate effigies were carried on tall poles, and each pole-bearer was followed by a line of young girls dancing and singing. These rites were formalized and preserved in the Roman rites of Priapus and in the older, Pre-Indo-European strata behind the festivals of Dionysus in Greece. It seems that similar rituals were enacted in European villages as part or in addition to the dance of the Maypole.
The bare Maypole, in contrast to the May Larch Tree, seems to be a blending of these different lines. From the Mediterranean and the Pre-Indo-European sides it take the bare form and Priapus’ crown of flowers, and, in some areas, preserved his phallic effigy. From the ancient Indo-European line come the pole’s central position within the circle of dancers, the long streamers, and the steps of the dance that weave them around the pole’s trunk.
The R.D.N.A. has always held a Maypole dance. It is the Big Party of the year, and was once dubbed by the media “Pagan Christmas.” We will be having a Maypole dance and celebration at the Orinda Grovesite, with food to follow. Isaac’s group will also be holding a May Celebration on the weekend.
Beltane Essay: Bonfires
A Druid Missal-Any, Beltane 1988
By Emmon Bodfish
Beltaine, the most festive and best-known holiday in the Druid Calendar. The theme of rebirth and renewal, and the beginning of a season of light and growth. It is the day of the Sun God, Belenus, and some authorities think that the name Beltaine or Cetshamain derives from Bel Teine, Bel’s fire. Others think this the worst sort of “folk etymology.”
(When I typed it* just now, the Goddess statue here on my desk fell over, so you can make what you want of that. She seems not to approve.) In Scot’s Gàidhlig there is a specific term, “tein’ eigin,” for fire by friction, fire created by rubbing one wood against another. The literal translation would be “raised fire,” and the method of lighting the great bonfires of the High Days, always with fire by friction, was called “raising fire of the wood.” Fire seems to have been thought of as inherent in certain woods, such as the oak, and was a matter of calling the spirit forth. Spending some time with bow and drill, learning how to this is a valid part of a Pagan education. It is a good skill has and a great fire meditation. It takes patience and stamina first, and concentration and the quickness, timing and delicacy to breath life into the glowing embers. (Write to us for the back issue covering the how-to techniques for this.)
On Beltaine the cattle were driven between two lines of fires to purify them before they were moved to the summer pastures in the hills. This may not have been entirely symbolic. Smoke and the scorching effect drop off exto-parasites and the ability of fire to sterilize surgical instruments used in treating wounds was known throughout much of the ancient world. Similar ceremonies continued to be used in times of plague or contagious diseases among cattle well into Christian times, and, in the Highlands, into the late 19th century. Dwelly, recorder of Highland customs and author of the large Standard Gaelic-English Dictionary ”the Scottish Webster,” printed this description of the practice in 1901:
The tein’-éigin was considered an antidote against the plague and murrain and all infectious diseases among cattle. Dr. Martin says all the fires in the parish were extinguished and 81 married men, being deemed the proper number for effecting this purpose, took two planks of wood and nine of them were employed by turns, who by their repeated efforts, rubbed the planks against each other, till the heat thereof produced fire, and from this forced fire each family was supplied with a new fire. No sooner was the fire kindled than a pot filled with water was put thereon, which was afterwards sprinkled on people who had the plague, or on cattle that had the murrain, and this process was said to be followed invariably by success.
A term applied to fire produced by friction—in olden times a means employed to check evils arising from being bewitched. If a household suffered loss such as indicated being under evil influence, all areas in fires district between two running streams were extinguished on a set day Then a spinning-wheel was put in motion, and kept going furiously until the spindle became heated. Tinder or tow was applied to the hot spind1e, fire was thus procured and distributed to all households affected by evil influences. Within the memory of persons still living, fire was thus procured to check witchcraft in a township in Uist where some sickness, supposed to be evil eye, carried off some cows and sheep. It is odd that neither cow nor sheep (tied after, possibly the epidemic had exhausted itself.—DC.
Dwelly was trying to be a good “modern man” which in 1901 meant denying his Pagan heritage and the efficiency of these remedies. Beltaine, then, is a time to purge the cares and ills of winter, as well as to celebrate the return of light and life. Try passing things infected with bad memories through the smoke of the Beltaine fire, giving away things you no longer use, lightening your load, and putting your burdens aside for a dance.
*Teine, which I had misspelled.
Beltane Essay: Old Crones
A Druid Missal-Any, Beltane 1989
By Emmon Bodfish
Beltaine, May Day, begins the Season of life. Hurrah! It marks the end f the Season of Sleep, the rule of “The Leprous White Lady,” the “Old woman of the Mill Dust,” the Crone. In several Indo-European legends the wandering hero, in Greece Hercules and in the Celtic, Finn, arrives at he palace of the Gods and after passing numerous tests is enraged by their mocking attitude toward him. He challenges any one of them to a duel. The young and vigorous Deities of both genders distain his challenge and will not fight with a mere mortal. Finally, however, the paternal figure of the pantheon says “Oh, but my aged mother will wrestle with you.”
The hero is insulted but he accepts. The Ancient of Days pins him. She laughs toothlessly in his face and lets him go. “Do not feel discouraged, hero” Says the pater-deitus, “that old Crone wrestles down every man who comes far enough to meet Her. Her name is Old Age.” Her name is not given, nor was the hero’s in the German version of this myth, which I heard, (it’s still a word-of-mouth culture,) from Dr. James Duran, Ph.D. If any out there know, please write us. In the Celtic world She was Cailleach, the Old Woman. She was credited. in Scottish myth to appear at sea, in the form of a sea horse or sea-hag, and lead enemy ships their doom, by challenging the captains to ride or catch her. She is a trickster figure, one who brings down the proud, and tricks the vain and the blasphemous. (As a death figure I wonder if She is cognate with Kali in India.) She is a Goddess of transition and transmogrification, not all like the “Underworld” or Death figures such as Nixus or the Eastern European “Mother of the Dead,” who greets the newly dead and nurse and instruct them in their new life in the Other World. She is the harbringer and transmogrifier, and She Herself can change from old to young and back again at will or with the seasons. Hers may be one of the stream of myth that fed the later Ban-shee tales and legends. All the seemingly contradictory characteristics of the Deity, enduring seasonal, warlike, alternately young and old, using allure and trickery symbolize Her station at the point of death and rebirth or rejuvenation. She is not a war Goddess per se, like Morrigu or Badh, inciting men to heroism, but a nature deity of the seasons and the elements, and the natural cycles of creation and decay, rest and strife. As Proinsias MacCana writes, more of Her traditions survived than those of the Goddess Morrigu, and being inexterminable, more were co-opted into Christian hegemony. Even the old bardic odes to Her were taken and rewritten to make Her a figure in the new foreign religion. In the eighth or ninth century one of the monastic collectors recorded and “Christianized” this old pagan “dan” written in Ireland. It is composed in that uniquely Pagan style in which the Deity speaks through the mouth of the bard and mourns with him the plight of Her people.