Beltane: Of Flower Brides and Green Men

The ancient festival of Beltane is celebrated at the beginning of May when the sexuality of life and the Earth itself is at its peak and now turns to conception and the initiation of a new life force. This is when the Greenwood marriage was celebrated, the union between the May Queen, or the Flower Bride, and the Green Man, the young oak king or the Jack-in-the-Green. Even today this ritual is still re-enacted in villages around the country, where a May Queen decked in flowers weaves the ribbon of the male pole, symbolising the fertility of the god, in a dance that follows the spiral of life.

Traditionally Beltane began when the hawthorn blossomed, drenching trees, hedges and paths with scented petals like the scattered confetti of a bridal feast. The blossom was taken into the house and used together with mead and cake in handfasting ceremonies, where a couple tied hands with a red chord bound in a figure of eight and pledged to stay together for a year and a day. It was also the time when everyone went to the fields and celebrated the Greenwood marriage; children born to these couplings nine months later were considered sacred.

Beltane is above all a fire ceremony when bonfires are lit to honour the sun and its role in bringing forth life on Earth. It was probably named from the god Bel, a complex composite god originally belonging to the Sumerian/Babylonian (Bel = Baal = Lord) pantheon, and then adopted by the Celts as their sun god. This was when a special fire was lit called the Tein-eigen (‘teine = fire in Gaelic)[1] and everyone would gather together and jump over it to purify, cleanse and bring fertility. Cattle were also driven through the smoke to protect them from disease. Afterwards everyone would take a spark of this original fire with them to rekindle the home hearth. There is also some evidence that bonfires were lit along special places that were aligned to rising sun at Beltane, giving rise to some huge scale alignments such as the Michael Mary line. [2]The fires were lit on top of mounds and aligned Heaven and Earth, drawing down and harmonising energies, renewing the sacred bond afresh each year with this sacred act.

There are two stories about Flower Brides, or May Queens, and they are both told in the Mabinogion. In keeping with the prevailing Welsh culture of the early Middle Ages, the stories are told from a male perspective and the female protagonists appear somewhat lacking in their own authority. However, as ever there are deeper thread discernible just below the surface.

The first story is about Creiddylad, the beautiful daughter of Lludd Silverhand. She was fought over by two men, ‘carried off by one before the other had slept with her.’ Acts of revenge were carried out between the two parties, until King Arthur himself heard tell of it and came north to settle the dispute. He decreed that ’the maiden should remain in her father’s house, unmolested by either side,’ and there should be battle between the two ‘suitors’ each Beltane ‘for ever and ever, from that day till doomsday.’

So Creiddylad in this way, remained the eternal May Queen around which the seasons revolved, fought over by the holly and the oak king, or the powers of the waxing and waning sun, locked in a continuous battle for supremacy as a result of the yearly seasonal cycle.

The May Queen in the second story also has two male suitors, but of quite a different form. This is the tale of Bloueuwedd, the flower bride, created for the son of the goddess Arianrhod (more on her later) by his uncles to thwart his mother who declared he would not marry a mortal woman. Together they ‘took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they called forth the very fairest and best endowed maiden that mortal ever saw.’ [3]She was duly presented in marriage to Arianrhod’s son, who changes his name throughout the story, but here is called Llew Llaw.

After they have been married a while, he leaves her alone in the castle and goes to visit his uncles who have promised him some land. However, in the meantime a hunting party arrives and Blodeuwedd invites the leader of the party into the castle. They immediately fall in love and ‘she knew great joy at heart, and their talk that night was of the affection and love that they had conceived for the other.’ [4]Losing no time, they plot to kill her husband on his return.

Showing a degree of cunning that has earned her a reputation for betrayal, Blodeuwedd tells her husband that she fears for his untimely demise. He tries to reassure that this would not be easy for in order to die, he must be killed with a spear that was a year in the making. Not only that, but the manner of the death is very specific. ‘By making a bath for me on a river bank, and making a vaulted frame over the tub, and thatching it well and snugly too thereafter, and bringing a he-goat and setting it beside the tub and myself placing one foot on the back of the he-goat and the other on the edge of the bath. Whoever should smite me so, he would bring about my death.’[5]

Bloudeuwedd listens demurely. ‘Why’ she replies, ‘I thank god for that. That can be avoided easily.’

Armed with this information, her lover gets to work and fashions the spear needed to kill his rival. A year later, once they have their plan in place, Blodeuwedd once gain feins concern and asks her unsuspecting husband to demonstrate how he might meet his untimely death. This he dutifully does and as he stands precariously with one foot on the bath tub and the other on the back of a he-goat,  her lover jumps out and stabs him with the spear. Llew Llaw flies up in the form of an eagle and gives a horrid scream, and after that he was seen no more.

But that is not the end of the story. Llew’s aggrieved uncles once again come to his rescue and set out to find him. Eventually they find a maggot covered eagle and sing him out of a tree, changing him back into the form of a man with the tap of a magic wand. Llew Llaw is in a pitiful state and it takes him a year to get his strength back. But then he comes back to the castle where his wife and her lover are ensconced to seek revenge. Blodeuwedd’s maidens are all drowned in a lake whilst trying to escape, but she herself survives. For her is reserved the fate of being turned into an owl ‘so that she may never show her face in the light of day, and that there be enmity between thee and all the birds and that it be their nature to mob and moles thee wherever they may find thee.’[6]

So, it could be said that the flower maiden, made as the perfect wife to serve her husband, falls in love and thereby empowers herself. This enables her to take the sort of ruthless action that those  deprived of choice must take. But she must take responsibility for her action as she matures, symbolised by the owl, an ancient symbol of wisdom and cronehood. She also achieves independence and self-determination in the end (the owl), and like Creiddlydd, remains connected to the cycle of nature for ever more. Her suitors also face each other in combat, but unlike in Creiddlydd’s story, her lover is killed, though only after he has served as the king, or consort for allocated time (the timings are very precise in this story). So in this way, the story may be perceived in terms of the May Queen, goddess of the land (Sovereignty) and her two suitors, the holly king and the oak king, or the Green Men, who act as consort to the goddess, forever locked in an eternal cycle of waxing and waning, linked to the seasonal power of the sun.

[1] http://www.goddessandgreenman.co.uk

[2] ‘The Sun and the Serpent’ by Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller

[3] The Mabinogion, ‘Math Son of Mathonwy,’ 1991, Everyman

[4] As above

[5] As above

[6] As above

Spring Equinox: Bran and the Cauldron of Resurrection

The sap is rising, bulbs are emerging, blossom is exploding into life and buds forming at this time of balance between the light and the dark. As the days continue to lengthen, it is the light that has the upper hand but the power of darkness is still strong, urging us to integrate and acknowledge that part of our shadow that is holding us in stillness, even nourishing us like the moist and fecund Earth holds the seed. Dandelion starts to push through the loomy soil, along with burdock, borage, chickweed and violet, all packed full of nutrients and cleansing potential to prepare our systems for the energy of summer. And in the night sky the Spring Triangle is visible, comprised of Arcturus in Bootes, Spica in Virgo, and Regulus in Leo.

Sheelah’s Day is celebrated around Equinox in honour of Sheelah-Na-Gig, the goddess of fertility and sexuality, of green wildness and powerful life force. In the Celtic tree alphabet (f for Fearn), this time is ruled by alder, the tree of Brân. Said to have fought on the front line in the Battle of the Trees, this mother-of-all-trees is also closely associated with the goddess Sovereignty, who in her capacity as the regenerative and destructive power of Nature and ruler of the Equinox and Solstices, ultimately births, marries and lays out in death all sacred kings of which Brân was but one.

Brân was known as one of the three blessed kings of Britain and has an ancient pedigree preserved in several of the tales collated in the Mabinogion. Though written down in the Middle Ages, the tales were based on an ancient oral tradition where Brân was known as the Celtic god of regeneration, and has the illustrious pedigree of descending from both the house of Llyr (god of the sea) and Belenos (the sun god). The legends tell us that Brân possessed a magical cauldron with the power to bring dead warriors to life, but without restoring their speech. He received this cauldron from giants, or otherworldly beings, in return for his kindness, and it was so huge that it needed to be carried by wheeled vehicles such as chariots.

In a story related in the tale of ‘Branwen, the Daughter of Llyr,’ Brân gifted this cauldron to the Irish king Matholwch after he married his sister Branwen, but was dishonoured by another brother who had not been involved in the decision making process. Brân hoped to ward off war between the two kingdoms with his peace offering, but the Irish king refused to accept the cauldron as a gift in kind, reduced Queen Branwen’s position to that of a servant, and waged war anyway. Brân himself was poisoned by an arrow in the devastating battle that resulted and died. On his deathbed he instructed his followers to cut off his head, which was still able to talk even after removal. They solemnly and carefully carried the head back home with them, which was said to speak all the while.

This Cauldron of Resurrection was one of the sacred objects of the Celts and features later in Arthurian legend when King Arthur sets out on a quest to retrieve it. Indeed, in ancient times it was considered to be a gift of the goddess Sovereignty herself, the goddess of the land who bestowed plenty and abundance and presided over the magical gift of rebirth. In medieval times, the story of Branwen’s dishonouring by the Irish king is told in terms of her brothers, and her status is also reduced to that of a kitchen maid in the tale, symbolic of the withdrawal of powers by the goddess Sovereignty.  It is poignant that an object as magical as a Cauldron of Rebirth could no longer prevent petty wars between kingdoms as a result.

This theme is one that weaves through Celtic mythology, though in later times it is often edited out or watered down: the gifted abundance of the land is dependent on mutual respect between the land, the goddess of Sovereignty, and the people and mediated through the marriage between the land and the king who swore to uphold and protect her. When this sacred trust is broken, the gifts of the land and the Otherworld are withdrawn.

There is a powerful message here for our times. Alder rules from 18 March to 14th April, at time of writing, the period of lockdown in many countries due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic worldwide. The entire world is in the grip of the Wasteland, resulting in no uncertain terms from our abuse of the Earth and failure to take heed of the dire consequences of our actions and choices. Alder, like the cauldron of Brân is also known as the tree of resurrection through its association with the growing power of the sun, and its apparent ability to survive in, and therefore ‘conquer’ water. This year, Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection in the Christian church, falls on the 12 April, right at the end of the lockdown period imposed.

Brân was also associated with another magical symbol, that of the singing head removed from his body after he died in the futile battle with the Irish king. There are many legends surrounding this oracular head, but one of them says that it was buried on the hill where the Tower of London now stands, facing out towards France to ‘protect from invasion.’ Brân’s sacred bird was the raven, and to this day six of these birds are resident in the grounds of the Tower to protect ‘the Crown and the Tower,’ and superstition holds that if the ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it. During this time of resurrection, we are being given an opportunity to examine the collective actions that have brought us to this current Wasteland. The old stories are very clear in their warnings. We ignore them this time at our peril.