Fire, flowers, and sex: what you should know about Beltane, aka May Day
Lotsa Beltane, getting personal about my next novel, plus News from the Library re: Mary Lou Buschi and Jenn Bouchard, and a booktail for ALCHEMY OF YEAST AND TEARS by Patricia Davis-Muffett!
Welcome back to The Cauldron! (Ala-ka-DAMN! Spring looks good on you!)
Don your flower crowns and break out the maypoles! It’s all about that Beltane, baby! (I tried a Meghan Trainor parody there, but “Beltane” is one syllable too many.)
Picture it: the British Isles. Everybody’s pagan, pretty much by default. On the eve of May, youths spend the day gathering flowers and assembling May baskets full of blossoms, gifts of food, and other treats to bestow upon neighbors. There’s a certain virgins-at-an-orgy energy in the air, like prom night in the shire. As on Samhain, the counterpart to this sabbat, the veil between worlds is thin tonight, so when the sun sets, witches and fairies will come out to play and enchant. The purifying fires will light up the night and as summer approaches in all its lusciousness, the Maiden Goddess, or May Queen, will come to meet the Green Man of the wood to perform the Great Marriage, a ritual reenactment of divine sex. If tonight’s rites are successful, the livestock will foal. And nine months from now, the blessed Beltane babes will be born.
At least, that’s the neopagan story of Beltane, also spelled Beltine, Beltaine or Belltaine. You might know it as May Day. The word “Beltane” dates back to the early 15th century, from the Gaelic bealltainn, meaning “May” or “May 1.” The Celtic meaning is closer to "blazing fire." Beltane as a religious fertility rite predates the Roman conquest of the British Isles, where it was celebrated across the region at the climax of spring (heh!), halfway between the spring equinox, aka Ostara, and the summer solstice known as Litha. The rituals I’ve described are an amalgamation and approximation.
Sidenote! Meanwhile, in Northern Europe, Hexennacht is celebrated on the eve of May, aka Walpurgisnacht or Walpurgis Night. The name comes from Walburga, a nun born in Wessex in the early 700’s. Since she was supposedly canonized on May 1, honoring Walburga is the perfect cover for carrying on with pagan fertility shenanigans in a Christianized world. In Germany, Walpurgisnacht is celebrated with costumes and pranks. Making a ruckus scares off spirits, and offerings of bread, butter, and honey appease the ankenschnitt—phantom hounds. In Sweden, folks sing and light fires, while Finnish Walpurgis Night/May Day celebrations are carnival-esque and include lots of drinking—especially sparkling wine.
Today, Beltane is honored with fires, of course—long ago, cattle would be ushered between two fires, or so the story goes. This act of purification would ensure their fecundity. Also, there’s feasting, dancing round the very deliberately phallic maypole—with ribbons!—cutting green boughs and picking flowers, and fertility rituals, aka sexy stuff.
Symbols of Beltane include the stag, cattle, the phallus (duh), and fire, as mentioned. For a Beltane feast, All Recipes has some general suggestions, including mead. I suggest a cocktail instead. The Outdoor Apothecary offers everything from honey lavender scones to beef kabobs. No dick bread though, sorry.
For some clips of modern Beltane festivities, check out this video from CGTN. Here’s another from the Edinburgh Beltane Fire Festival. And here you’ll also find some incredible photos.
There’s one more Beltane story you might know, from the novel THE MISTS OF AVALON by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In the Beltane festivities depicted both in the book and subsequent mini series (starring Anjelica Huston and Julianna Margulies), a brother and sister are tricked by the high priestess into committing incest. This violation serves as a fateful source of conflict in the story.
You should know that in 2014, Bradley’s daughter Moira Greyland shared publicly that her mother, who had died by then, had sexually abused her. Follow the link above and you’ll see it reports Greyland swallowed her truth for years because she believed her mother, as a beloved figure, was too important to the world for her image to be compromised by her daughter’s pain.
Over the years I’ve spent writing and rewriting and expanding and paring down my next novel, QUEENS OF HEAVEN AND EARTH, which is about a magical Midwestern queer bar where witches and goddesses converge, I kept MISTS in mind. I wrote characters who survive abusive parents and partners, who discover they harbor tremendous power, who fuck shit up and start to figure out what to do with ALL THIS. My book isn’t an answer to MISTS—there’s no way to single-handedly counter the influence of such a book. Nor is it a retelling by any means. But it is a response. It’s also just a really wild (and very queer and very sexy) story.
News from the Library
Featuring news and updates on authors and their booktail-ized books!
Congratulations to Mary Lou Buschi, author of the booktail-ized poetry collection PADDOCK, whose third collection BLUE PHYSICS will be released from Lily Poetry Review in January of 2024! Stay tuned for more.
More delicious fiction is on the way from Jenn Bouchard, author of the delectably booktail-ized novel FIRST COURSE, which is now available as an audiobook! PALMS ON THE CAPE will be released this fall, and the booktail is already in the works!
And now, a booktail for the mothers and daughters of May… ALCHEMY OF YEAST AND TEARS
Patricia Davis-Muffett’s gorgeous chapbook ALCHEMY OF YEAST AND TEARS invokes heavenly bodies—both goddesses and the cosmos themselves—to explore the timeless dichotomies of birth and death, mothering and being mothered. The kitchen, garden, and the cradle of the body itself foster meditations on sea creatures and mythological mothers, set against the backdrop of a grief so consuming, it is almost unspeakable. Three poems reiterate the title “What to do with your grief,” offering no instruction beyond basic chemistry: “I am doing what I know.” Each calls upon the everyday alchemy of flour, sugar, and salt, combining into offerings of nourishment that are also expressions of loss:
My mother, so sick. She isn’t hungry.
For a time, she is tempted with cookies and pie.
I keep bringing them long after taste has left.
This booktail is designed to evoke the bounty of a personal harvest, literally and emotionally. In other words, it is meant to taste like a garden. From the top down: wheat beer honors Demeter, goddess of the harvest and agriculture, whose grief withers the crops. The question “Will I be Medea or Demeter” arises in “Discovery,” a night-sky poem touching on the stories behind stories–the meaning within myth. Beer combines with bourbon–which is by definition and regulation made with 51% corn–and is sweetened with raspberry rose syrup for the raspberry leaf tea, the “woman’s herb,” in “Blood of kindness”:
Its fruit’s juice, the blood of kindness,
its brambles keeping evil out.
This tea gives strength for what’s ahead,
the thrum from your core
pushing child toward air.
“Mother Venus” addresses the planet named for the Roman goddess of love: “you’re more than meets the eye.” Roses are a common garden flower and a symbol of this goddess. Raspberry and rose are also a match made in heaven, adding fruit and flowers to the corn and grains. The drink is elaborately garnished, as if topped with its own bouquet of blueberries–which contain solanine alkaloids, similar to those found in nightshades–an orange twist to bring out the citrus in the beer, and mint, which adds a lovely, fresh, herbaceous aroma to the experience.
The booktail is presented against a bright, sanded backdrop that mimics the texture of the chapbook’s cover. It’s served in a green-bottomed glass atop a smooth ombre rock base of pink, white, and gold. A golden arrow cocktail pick balances atop the glass, its gold feather underlining the word “poems” on the chapbook’s cover. Laden with blueberries and an orange twist, the cocktail pick crosses a sprig of mint. The chapbook and cocktail are surrounded by cut flowers, including daisies, roses, and freesia, along with fresh raspberries and tomatoes. The tomatoes are sliced in half, as in a still life. They are symbols of life and fertility and a nod to the recurring image of a beloved mother’s tomatoes, “fist-sized gems,” nurtured by her own hand.
ALCHEMY OF YEAST AND TEARS
2 oz wheat beer such as Blue Moon or Oberon
1.5 oz bourbon
0.5 oz raspberry rose syrup (see recipe)
Prepare the syrup. Add the bourbon and raspberry syrup to a mixing glass filled halfway with ice. Stir until well-chilled, then strain into a rocks glass with ice. Top with the beer. Garnish with blueberries, an orange twist, and a sprig of mint. For best results, stir gently before sipping.
Raspberry Rose Syrup
2 c water
1 ½ c sugar
6 oz fresh raspberries, rinsed
¼ c dried organic rose petals
Stir all ingredients together in a medium-sized pot. Bring to a boil then let simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain and discard solids. Store in a glass bottle or jar and keep refrigerated.
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Love learning from these newsletters and it’s always extra fun to read more about what’s coming in your next novel!