Beltane (alternate spellings include Beltaine, Beltene, and Bealtaine), an ancient Celtic fire-festival, falls within the astrological sign of Taurus the Bull, thereby associating the celebration with the robust life-force of eros in humans and their herds. Given this association, as we mark Beltane, our modern relationship with the herds comes into chillingly clear focus. Writer Adrian Strong explains this sad connection in his essay about "the death industry which brings food to our tables." He writes, "The way we treat our daily food--as stock--not as a living sacrament which keeps us alive, is an indication of just how removed we are from Life, and consequently from Death."
Three springs ago, Mad Cow Disease was discovered in England. The world watched as 2 million hoofed creatures in the United Kingdom and Europe were dumped into flames, surrounded by toxic smoke through which their confused, suffering spirits had to rise. These were sentient beings--one need only look into their eyes to know they had souls, to know they suffered and grieved.
Long gone were the sweet-smelling fires of Beltane that once restored and honored their ancestors. Beltane was once a time when cattle were honored in rituals of protection, purification, and fertility. Just as they were driven to their winter pastures at the beginning of the Celtic year at Samhain (Halloween), so were they driven to their summer pastures six months later at Beltane. It was a sacred time, for one's status and wealth were measured by one's herds--and any threat to their lives and health impacted their owners. Protecting one's animals, as scholar Miranda Green writes, "is closely associated with the supernatural world, and not simply a profane, secular activity."
The Celts knew that seasonal transitions were times of heightened supernatural strength, even danger. Beltane and Samhain were the year's two great fire festivals -- they divided the year in half and marked the time when the veils between the worlds were at their most vulnerable, when spirits moved freely through the portals and enchantment abounded. In respecting such powers, the celebrations called for holy fires, kindled from the most revered trees. The magical woods were believed to be "specialists" in protecting and purifying people and animals. Beltane's fires welcomed the sun's return and therefore had specially focused powers of renewal. That is why the Celts at Beltane drove their treasured herds and flocks along a narrow pathway between two banks of burning wood piles, through the holy, incense-like smoke, asking for blessings upon the animals and themselves.
Cows in ancient Ireland were closely associated with various goddesses, especially those connected to rivers, because cattle must drink an average of 16 gallons of water per day. For ancient peoples, Mother Goddesses were often synonymous with a celestial cow giving generously of her milk to her children. The Irish regarded cow's milk as so sacred that they used it instead of water to baptize their children.
That attitude is reflected in a myth in which the hero Cadmus is instructed by the Delphic oracle to hound and follow a cow until she falls dead. Upon that spot, he is told to build a city. Surely, such a dishonoring of that desperate creature's life-force would make it an ill-omened place--only people completely out of touch with nature would build their city there. That city, Thebes, is where Cadmus' successor, Pentheus, was torn into pieces by his own mother, and where the ill-fated Oedipus would be born.
In Sigmund Freud's hands, the "Oedipus complex" became a fitting cipher for Western civilization, for we too are built on a foundation of thoughtless abuse of the natural world and of each other. We have founded--not a city--but a meat-engorged urban economy upon dead cows.
Although the Mad Cow crisis of 2001 is behind us, because of the long incubation period of the human form of the disease (i.e. New Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), hundreds of thousands of people remain at risk and may not know for decades if they are carrying the disease or not. The animal form of the disease has an incubation period of four to seven years, which means that young animals exposed in 2001 might not show symptoms until 2005-2008. In the meantime, inhumane factory farming practices guarantee still more epidemics - it is simply a matter of time.