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.
A recent book, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, by Charles Patterson discusses our policies toward livestock by considering the connection between the treatment of Jews by the Nazis and modern society's treatment of animals. Although the appropriateness of its central analogy to Treblinka may disturb many, it comes from a Jewish vegetarian--Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote: "In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka."
Modern dairy factory farms, where cows live confined in huge buildings, never roaming free, never "living," are among the most chilling examples of Patterson's argument. Their calves have a nine-month gestation period. Once born, calves are immediately removed (the surplus males are slated for the veal market), and their mothers are artificially re-impregnated. Injections of synthetic Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) stimulates milk production but impairs the cows' health and leads to birth defects in their calves. Ironically, milk is advertised as a fine source of calcium, but the cows providing it are forced to produce so much that their blood cannot replenish their own calcium--thus, they suffer from extreme calcium deficiency.
My own suspicion is that to take into one's body a life-form killed painfully, disrespectfully, untimely, and cruelly is to invite one's own cells to run amock in confusion and revulsion--the result could be what we call cancer.
Humans are just one among many life-forms--we're all interconnected. How can our cells not feel the pain of all the others? If we were digesting the flesh of animals and birds whose cellular structures still held memories of sun and rain, wind, and fragrance, then even if their lives were terminated abruptly, but with the respect a hunter feels for a brave prey, we could probably find true nourishment there--for the earlier, life-drenched memories would still overbalance the pain at the end.
But to take into ourselves the flesh of creatures reared in dreary, claustrophobic boredom on huge farms with thousands of other miserable creatures, never tasting rain or wind, never running free, and herded at the end into brutal pens of mass death--how could our own bodies ever digest and find decent nourishment in such gray, cramped, inert flesh? For myself, I prefer not to risk it.
Whether we know it consciously or not, our myths and folklore inform our fears, prejudices, values, and ethics. Cadmus and that poor cow are one example of how such material "works" within a culture.
But there are also more positive examples that deserve our attention. We are all familiar with the story of Cinderella, but few realize that in many Cinderella variants, it is a cow, not a fairy godmother, who plays a crucial role. In Marguerite L. M. Wolf's re-telling of a traditional Romanian version, for example, a dying mother leaves a cow to her daughter, telling her to turn to the cow whenever she is in trouble. The cow, Fairywhite, becomes the girl's only source of consolation. When the stepmother gives the girl impossible tasks to do, Fairywhite tells her human friend simply to get started and not to worry. Each time, the girl's fingers fly and whirl through the tasks, accomplishing everything within the assigned time. Suspicious after several such episodes, the stepmother orders her husband to have the cow killed.
Realizing Fairywhite is doomed, the girl runs to warn her. But the cow gently asks her to bury her bones, hoofs, and horns under a cover of dung and to go to that place whenever she needs help. The girl obeys--and the bones speak with her, just as Fairywhite did. Eventually, the bones manifest lovely clothes for a dance, where the girl meets a prince, falls in love, and the rest of the story unfolds much as in more familiar versions of Cinderella. Even when Fairywhite is killed, her bones continue to manifest magic for the young girl.
Perhaps it is magic we miss most. Deep in our own bones we remember a time when life itself was "magic," when animals talked and helped us, when food and drink nurtured us, making us healthy and well. Our food has lost all "magic." We are factory-fed. Scientist Candace Pert even suggests that molecules carry "emotion." If food-molecules are in shock or trapped in appalling death-traumas, what's being nurtured?
Eventually there will be no more factory farms. Even today, many groups of physicians, religious leaders, and environmentalists are calling for immediate moratoria on such farms. But in the meantime, we need to "re-magick" our food. Perhaps a good start, especially at Beltane, is to create meaningful rituals of grief and gratitude to the animals.
Small groups of us, for example, can link up in prayer.The prayers should include concern for small farmers, too, because many love their animals and feel crushed by their fate at the hands of bureaucrats. We can light white candles, echoing those ancient sacred Beltane fires lit on small hilltops across the Celtic world. With our candles we create a gentle web of light, soothing the spirits of the dead or dying creatures but also purifying fire itself, for it has been massively violated. We can sprinkle the earth with drops of fresh water while we chant, speak, or whisper blessings. The Celts sprinkled the earth with warm milk, but milk from cows suffering living-deaths would be no blessing to the earth.
And we might call upon the Welsh goddess Cerridwin and ask her to receive the animals into her magic Cauldron of Death and Regeneration, heal their bewildered spirits, free them of terror, bless them--and send them into future lives where they can live fully, and die at peace in old age.