Beltania: a Maypole travelogue

The annual weekend-long celebration of ancient May Day traditions left attendees refreshed and rejuvenated -- and exhausted from a weekend of running around in the sun and dancing around a fire at night. Maybe that's a paradox, but if you attended the "20 Laws of Magic" workshop, you'd know this: "If it's a paradox, it's probably true." At any rate, there was a lot going on; here are some snapshots of the weekend as it happened.

My time off actually started on Wednesday, making it down to Florence Mountain Park -- a little over a two-hour drive -- by 9:30 Wednesday morning. After setting up camp, the first order of business was to help out the erection crew. (And there were just as many jokes about that phrase as you'd expect.) We got picked to dig permanent fire pits for the festival. There were eight of them scattered throughout the campsite -- with three of us digging -- and it was very hard work.

The Wild Meadow fire pit had some extra work involved -- smoothing out the area around the pit -- because this was the site of the all-night drumming and dancing around the fire, and nobody likes dancers with sprained ankles.

There were five different camping areas, ranging from family-friendly to eighteen-and-up segments of the camp. We pitched our tent in the Wild Meadow, which was adults-only, with no quiet hours and all-night drumming. It was steeper and rockier than some of the other camping areas, with some cacti to avoid on the ground, but the vista from the front of the tent was worth the hike.

After digging the fire pits, helping with the main canopy at the Center of the Universe (the central hub of the festival; also a nod to Einstein) and tying ribbons along the road toward Beltania, a trip to the Dakota Hot Springs was in order for a soak and a shower. The be-ribboned arches forming entryways to the Center of the Universe were an indication of the main ritual to come later: The raising of the Maypole.

Thursday, the festival began in earnest, with chakra breathing workshops in the morning, the building of the sweat lodge, music and more. We started our day with a hike along the Newlin Creek Trail, snapping some photos along the way.

After the hike, some sunbathing and a nap, we went to the sweat lodge -- woven from willows and draped in blankets and tarps, alongside a creek -- for the first long sweat of the festival. As we were finishing up, tribal hip-hop group INTI took the stage; we soaked up the funky beats while cooking dinner and settling in around the campfire for the first night of drumming and dancing. (No, we didn't have any trouble sleeping.) On Friday, the ceremonial crowning of the Green Man and May Queen took place around 10 a.m., along with workshops on making dreamcatchers, floral Beltane crowns, an herbal workshop and the aforementioned overview of Isaac Bonewits's laws of magic. The afternoon workshops included a sacred massage and practical astrology lesson, plus musician Kenny Klein leading a lecture on Grimm's fairy tales. Pandora Celtica and Kenny Klein both took the stage on Friday, as did Wendy Rule and Tuatha; Friday was also the first day of the NeoHighland Games, and there were rites of passage for both young men and women. One of my favorite places in the festival was the Sanctuary, where you could ask questions about ritual or just sit and meditate, using the pillows and altars in the space.

Saturday was the day featuring the main Beltania parade, ritual and dance; there were also workshops on yoga, leather mask-making, African drumming and more, but everyone was at the Center of the Universe to watch the Maypole procession.

First, the parade: Strapping young men of the festival -- preceded by a bevy of fairies -- carried the May Queen in atop the Maypole. This was followed by a ritual in which the Green Man pursued the May Queen and was rejected before she finally accepted him; they were ceremonially joined, and then the May Queen asked for ribbons atop the Maypole. The brightly colored ribbons (wound around four sporting participants) were attached to the top of the pole, and the participants danced away from the pole to unwind the ribbon. Once the ribbons and garland were attached and the pole was well-greased by willing young ladies, it was lifted up and placed in the waiting hole in the earth. (If you think this whole thing sounds a tad suggestive, then you've got the main idea as to what it's signifying.) Everyone grabbed a ribbon and the dance began, with dancers moving in and out and between each other to braid the ribbons atop the Maypole. All were encouraged to participate, by dancing in the middle of the ribbons -- and that view from below, as you saw in the opening photo, was pretty awesome -- then claiming a ribbon and continuing the dance around the pole. Pandora Celtica, Mythica, Kenny Klein, Wendy Rule and the Orpheus Pagan Choir (performing a sung ritual, The Rape of Persephone) warmed the crowd up for Lunar Fire, which put on a spectacular, earth-shaking performance for the final night of the festival.

Sunday morning, everyone was packing up and getting ready to leave; we caught a First Degree Reiki and Awareness workshop in the morning before taking off.

This was just one person's experience of the festival; between the workshops and discussions for atheists and skeptics, queer mysteries rites and mead-making classes (which I heard were both useful and inebriating), it's a festival where you can get as involved as you care to, or stand aside and watch as much as you like. The great thing about pagan communities across the board tends to be the open-minded people, who are accepting of you if your practices are not harming others. If you haven't ever checked out something like Beltania before, and this piqued your interest, I would highly recommend marking your datebooks for next year; for information, visit www.beltania.org.

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