When I was 11, we studied the Middle Ages in school. We learned about King Arthur, and falconry, and how miserable it was to be a serf or a vassal. But since it was a very progressive school, our class also did some unusual things: We made parchment out of animal skins. We learned how to bind books and illuminate them. And in preparation for May 1, we learned several medieval May carols--like "Summer Is a Cumin In."
On the morning of May 1, I remember my mother taking me to school on the subway at 4 o'clock in the morning. I still remember looking at the people riding to work at that hour, many of them painters and bakers, their clothing spattered with paint and flour. My mother dropped me off at school, and our class was driven out to the countryside, where we were led to gardens filled with flowers. As the sky slowly reddened, and the sun rose like an orange flame, we picked armfuls of pink and purple blossoms. We carried as many as we could back to the cars and drove back to the city. Then, our arms filled with flowers, we walked from classroom to classroom singing and handing out bouquets to each class. When we reached the top floor, we went into the gym, and for the first time I danced around the Maypole.
It was the first religious ritual I remember, although none of the teachers would have called it that. And it hit me with such emotional impact, partly because it was the first truly conscious celebration of life and the earth that I, a child brought up by atheists and agnostics, had ever experienced.
Every year after that first May Day, I would buy bouquets of flowers to give to people or to wear in my hair. I didn't have a complex understanding of the holiday. I did not know then that May Day was based on Beltane, an ancient Celtic festival. I certainly would not have talked about fertility or about the planting of crops and the herding of animals.
Perhaps that is why I read with eagerness about plans to re-light the ancient Beltane fires in Ireland for the first time in centuries.
The word "Bealtaine" (here in American we usually write it as Beltane) most probably comes from the name of the Celtic god Belenos and a Celtic word for "fire." According to mythology, this was the time when the Druids celebrated the beginning of summer by lighting fires on sacred hills. Many people in Ireland believe that the most sacred hill is Uisneath, the sacred site of the Goddess Eriu. (This is where Ireland gets her name: Eire.) Tradition says that on this eve, all lights and fires were extinguished, and two great fires were lit on the hill of Uisneath. Then additional fires were lit on neighboring hills until they covered all of Ireland.
The original plan this year was to re-light fires at Uisneath and on many neighboring hills. I know many people who had been preparing to travel to Ireland for this event. Patricia Monaghan, an American writer on Goddess spirituality, has been an active organizer of this event for many months.
But the spread of foot and mouth disease in the British Isles has changed all these plans, and the organization planning the event (Fire-Eye) is requesting that tourists who have not made plans to travel to Ireland stay away. There has been only one outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Ireland, and that has been in the North. But Irish farms have been closed to visitors to avoid spreading the disease, and access to traditional hills will be limited. Events that involve large groups of people are being canceled or postponed. At this point, Fire-Eye is creating alternate events in towns near the hills and is launching a campaign to get people to light Beltane candles in windows across Ireland and around the world.
The organization has posted the following on its website: "Even as we write, hundreds of thousands of healthy animals are being slaughtered, something we pray will not become necessary in Ireland. Please join your prayers to ours as we proceed with our planning."
The earth is real, and earth religions are about real concerns. This Beltane is an important moment to think about the situation facing our planet. Fire-Eye asks that people send prayers and meditate for the healing of the animals, our relationships to them, and, of course, the planet. They ask that you light candles between April 27 and May 1, and they have given us the following Prayer for Bealtaine (another spelling of Beltane):
"This is the season when, in ancient times, great fires were lit upon hilltops to signify the coming of spring and to pray for an abundant summer. At that time too the ancient Celtic peoples drove their herds near the Beltane fires, praying for the health and protection of the cattle. We light again the fires of spring in our hearts and in our homes, in our windows and our spirit, and as we do, we remember: The health of the herds is the health of the people. The health of the herds is the health of the earth. The life of the herds is the life of the people. The life of the herds is the life of the earth. Lighting the flames of Beltane, we pray for healing: Healing for the animals. Healing for those who care for the animals. Healing for the land. Healing for us all."