A More Innocent May Day

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These two photos appeared today on a community page for the county where I live. I stole them. The top photo shows schoolgirls performing a traditional round dance, while in the lower  photo, wagons full of chairs and other items arrive as preparations continue for the May Day picnic.

Some people reminisced about a woman known to all as “Aunt Francis” who made sure that the girls had their white dresses and who performed other charitable work for the school.

Obviously, this was not a capital P-Pagan event. If you went back in your time machine and talked about “Beltane,” no one would have had a clue what you meant, even the prominent Anglo-Irish ranching family, I suspect.

It was a secular celebration — and where did it go? Did the evolution of May Day as a day of organized labor solidarity —and later, as the high holy day of the Soviet Union, with missile launchers rolling through Red Square, kill it completely?

Nothing much left there to re-Paganize.

After the Beltane Festival

Kinesthetic religion: my left arm was a little sore on Sunday from helping to carry the Maypole in procession—a pine trunk the size of a smallish telephone pole, ridden by a zaftig May Queen. And yes, we heard every ribald variation on “riding the pole” shouted from the onlookers. It was Beltane, after all.

The arm remembers the procession and the raising of the Maypole. What was said is not remembered. “Imagistic” religion trumps “doctrinal” religion—my take on Harvey Whitehouse’s work.

As for the workshop that I was fretting about on Friday, it produced a small but interested group. Contrary to the suggestion of one of my commenters, I did not resort to a joke book but gave them the “Calling It Nature Religion” chapter from Her Hidden Children and the “Where You At” quiz from “Nature Religion for Real.”

Every Pagan festival includes workshops, but I think that the larger the festival, the smaller the percentage of attendees that go to them. Is that workshop-learning model still working?

What draws the crowd are large-scale rituals and entertainment. Beltania, in fact, is billed as a “MusicFest and Beltane Festival” in that order. This year’s acts included Kenny Klein, Tuatha, Wendy Rule, Lunar Fire/INTI, Pandora, Mythica, and Skean Dubh.

And it was Lunar Fire, the biggest and showiest act, playing after dark in a haze of wood smoke and blowing dust, that really pulled the crowd. (Lots of free-range kids there—that’s good to see.)

Half the fun of festival-going is people-watching. You have those who remove as much clothing as possible to display their Pagan body art—and after a day at 6,700 feet elevation, their sunburns. You have the mild moments of cognitive wardrobe dissonance: black guys in kilts, a tattooed cholo-styling guy in a Renn Faire-ish velvet robe.

Then there was the guy who came to my workshop sporting a spiffy Panama hat. I saw him later during the Luna Fire set. Among all the dreadlocks and glow sticks and Pagan T-shirts and flowing robes—not to mention the billowing smoke—he appeared in the same Panama, plus white shirt, dark tie, and seersucker sport coat. He looked like the stereotypical Englishman in the jungle—definitely a contender for Best Costume.

Why Did I Agree to Do this Workshop?

Fire and law enforcement people gather as the Sand Guch Fire spreads.

Photo from April 29, 2011. All the gray in the background is smoke. I am in the yellow shirt, lower center, trying to get a word with the sheriff. (Photo from the Wet Mountain Tribune)

I have spent much of today being nervous about the weather (warm, dry, windy) while yet working on a workshop presentation on nature religion.

Nature is making me nervous. Ironic, eh? Even though M. and I have been back in our house for a week, we are still jumpy. After all, lightning season has not yet really begun.

At least my little volunteer fire department is suddenly taking training very seriously. And we have some new members.

Last night, when the festival was starting, I was at the fire house, working up an equipment order for the General Services Administration.  More hard hats! More yellow Nomex shirts! And what’s your size?

So today I had to finish the workshop for tomorrow. It’s too much like preparing a lecture.

The problem is, I’m not really a Pagan festival workshop guy.

I used to think I knew some things. Now everything is complicated, nuanced, and requires further thought.

A couple of months ago, this Pagan podcaster was after me and after me to appear on his show.  Finally I told him, “You have to understand that I don’t have a ‘shtick.’ I don’t go around to festivals (other than Florida Pagan Gathering two years ago, where I was  mainly on panels about Pagan history). In other words, I don’t do ‘how-to’ or ‘how ancient wisdom can make you a better Witch’ or anything like that.”

Never heard from him again.

If I had a shtick, I would be like my friend Thorn Coyle. I would walk out in front of a group, and inside of five minutes they would be breathing and moving and chanting and visualizing and liking it. That’s what she does, but it’s not what I do.

So I will try to talk about the ways that I defined “nature religion” in Her Hidden Children, I suppose. And give people an exercise or two to do. Maybe try to convince them that even if they are not capital-N Native (in some legal sense) they can still be “native” in an earth-based spirituality sense.

I have also decided that I am sick of the phrase “spiritual path,” at least on even-numbered days of the month. Being on a “path” sounds like you are trying to get away from something, but as that 1970s wall poster said, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

(Did the same people who said “Be here now” also say that they were “on a path”? And if so, did that mean that they were in fact trying to leave here and go elsewhere? Inquiring minds want to know.)

So, yeah, a workshop. Forty-five minutes worth of blather and then dismiss class early? That might work. This bunch will probably be talkative though.

Gallimaufry with Grosbeaks

Black-headed grosbeak, evening grosbeak, downy woodpecker. Photo by Chas S.  Clifton

First black-headed grosbeak of the season (left).

If it’s Beltane, why I am still splitting firewood? Usually I observe the rhythms of the “Celtic” year by turning off the furnace at Beltane and relighting it at Samhain, using just supplemental wood heat otherwise. Not this year.

But during a brief sunny interval yesterday morning, the first black-headed grosbeak of the season landed on a feeder, and I snapped a quick picture through the window. That’s a downy woodpecker on the shadowed side, and up above, facing the camera, a male evening grosbeak—they have been hanging around for a couple of months, an unusual “irruption,” as birders say.

Other stuff:

•  The Beltania music festival happens next weekend, just down the road. The weather still looks iffy. A friend on a Colorado Pagan email list said that spring weather is “manic depressive.”  My own mental image for Beltane is snow on lilac blossoms.

• I liked this quote from an interview with Lon Milo DuQuette at Patheos:

I have a new book coming out in November (from Llewellyn) titled Low Magick — It’s All in Your Head, You Just Have No Idea How Big Your Head Is. It’s autobiographic and contains stories of magickal operations I’ve done over the years. The title is a bit tongue-in-cheek, facetiously using the term “Low Magick” to refer to any magickal operation one actual performs rather than those one just talks or argues about.

• Jonathan Ott, who gave us the world “entheogen,” had his home destroyed by fire, needs help.

• An article on depression and dreams offers this:

In the 1970s, psychologists noted that people suffering from depression also report more dreams than average. In fact, people who are clinically depressed may dream three or four times as much. The quality of REM dreams (also called “paradoxical sleep”) is different too: more intense emotions, more negative themes, more nightmares, and more unpleasant dreams, in general.

And consequently depressed people often sleep worse. It’s a vicious circle.  Processed food is also linked to depression—another vicious circle. Feel low -> eat worse, etc.

• The Pagan Newswire Collective has two new group blog projects: The Juggler, on the arts, and Warriors & Kin, about issues facing past and current Pagan military personnel. They will be added to my blogroll.

Oss Tales: Creating the Archaic


To watch Oss Tales is to see the difference between a community and a network and the contrast between self-conscious ritual and tradition.

If you are interested in the construction of ritual and of community–and in the history of the Pagan movement–you should buy the DVD, which contains three short films:

1. “Oss Oss, Wee Oss (1953), an 18-minute documentary of the May Day hobby horse procession in Padstow, Cornwall.

This film was made at the same time when Gerald Gardner & Friends were creating Wicca as the “Old Religion,” and you can feel that mental atmosphere when the narrator intones that the procession represents “one of our religions when we lived in caves.” There are constant references to the unknowable antiquity of the event. “Some say it’s 4,000 year old,” says Charlie Bate, a member of the family that traditionally “brings out” the [Red] Oss.

2. “Oss Tales” (2007), filmed at the 2004 Padstow May Day event, and including some of the people from the original documentary and their descendants, by American anthropologist Sabina Magliocco and filmmaker John Bishop, who compiled this new DVD.

Unlike the 1953 film, which focuses on an unsubstantiated claim that the Oss goes “back to Pagan times,” the newer film touches on some of the social and class issues involved. For one, since 1918 there have been two Osses, the Red and the Blue, and everyone knows who belongs to which faction: “You are born into your color.”

The Blue Oss raises money for charity while the Red Oss raises money for beer for its crew. The Blue Oss dances at the manor house while the Red Oss, although invited by the squire, stays in the town. At least the two groups no longer get into fist fights when they meet in the street. Maybe they don’t want to scare away the 30,000 tourists.

These and other issues were omitted from the 1953 documentary.

Yet. as the historian Ronald Hutton notes in a brief appearance, the event has a “really archaic spirit” and has become a “genuinely primitive rite.” Without any overt, capital-P Paganism, the Padstow event grabs you by the throat, even through the medium of video.

We also learn that professional folklorists have influenced the event and its interpretations since the 1930s, telling Padstownians that their Oss procession was “the relic of a pagan sacred marriage between earth and sky,” as Hutton writes in The Stations of the Sun: The Ritual Year in Britain (1996). The earliest record of the Padstow procession is from 1803. In fact, the oldest record of a hobby horse in England dates from the Tudor era, the 1500s, and most hobby horse processions in England and Wales are–or were–associated with Christmas and New Year’s rather than with May Day.

There is the fertility connection: a woman “covered” by the horse is supposed to become pregnant soon. And there is a death connection: a decoration of graves in the cemetery before the procession.

3. “Oss Oss Wee Oss Redux: Beltane in Berkeley” (2004) runs 14 minutes and was also made by Magliocco and Bishop.

About a dozen years ago, Pagans in Berkeley, California, started their own Maypole-and-Oss tradition in a park. They started by researching Padstow, and as Oss-dancer Don Frew ruefully admits, they found no clues about ritual. So they took their NROOGD Wiccan rituals from the 1960s and added on to them.

After all, while the Padstow procession is ritualized, its rituals are communal, such as which family brings out the Oss. There is no magic circle. But the Berkeley Oss appears in a self-consciously created ritual rather than a pub and the streets. It is a conscious attempt to create tradition and magic. According to some women interviewed, the pregnancy part works, at least.

But this is America, and there is a separation of Oss and state. Participants discourse about rootlessness and ethnic identity and wanting to belong to something.

In Padstow, your family must have lived in town for at least two generations before you can even dance with the Oss. Think how many Californians that provision would disqualify.

One participant flippantly says that after three years, it was an ancient tradition. Maybe, maybe not. If they can keep it going until their grandchildren are doing it, then as Hutton says of Padstow, it will communicate “something genuinely archaic, whatever [its] actual age.”

The disk also inclues a “making of” segment and a study guide. It comes in a two-sided NTSC and PAL format for worldwide use.