After I separated from a partner of 15 years and was headed for divorce, I found the return to pagan traditions to be a great comfort. I connected to the cycles of the moon, the agricultural calendar, and my ancestors. I joined a community of women. I rediscovered my sense of magic. But as Beltane neared, I felt outside again. Middle aged, single, full of questions about sexuality and my relationship to relationships (ha!), I couldn’t envision a place for myself in Beltane’s celebration of fertility, conception, passion, marriage, and sex-positive heteronormality.
But, as my connection to the divine feminine and earth magic deepened, my perspective began to shift. Traditions are important, but spirituality is a living thing and, as such, breathes and morphs and expands to serve the needs of its practitioners. Our connection to spirit shapes us, but we’re active participants. We shape spirit, too. We evolve with it and in it and of it.
I was recently at a metaphysical fair where, at a table of crystals, I met a woman wearing a medical mask. We talked about stones and how to choose one (I like to hold several and keep the one that feels most tingly and at home in my palm). The stone that her hand lingered over was a Shiva lingam. When I explained its significance — related to the divine masculine and associated with fertility — she was crestfallen. She’d lost her reproductivity to cervical cancer and was still battling the disease.
It came to me then that the definition of fertility and reproduction is often too narrow. What about art? What about ideas? What about the healing modalities and activism with which we engage? What about the communities — virtual or physical — that we foster? In that moment I knew that if my sister lost her womb to illness but was called to work with a Shiva lingam, her connection to fertility and divinity was meaningful and sacred and would bear wondrous fruit.
Let us remember that pagan observances morphed as needed, making use of what resources were at hand while also allowing space to change — by necessity and sometimes by force of conquering Christianity. The scattering of beans was a ritual, but it was also practical. Seeds needed planting if there was to be a harvest. A millennium ago, cattle were driven though the smoke of a bonfire to bless them because blessed cattle likely did more work and fed more hungry villagers than un-blessed cattle. And fertility meant crops and babies and the survival of the species.
But even the goddesses long associated with fertility rituals were subverting the paradigm of what it meant to be fruitful. Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and childbirth was, herself, graysexual. She chose abstinence in order to focus on her craft and expected the young women in her circle to also eschew romance with men (going so far as to drive a pregnant handmaiden into the wilderness). When the hunter Actaeon spied on Artemis as she was bathing, she turned him into a stag and he was set upon by his own hounds. Artemis wasn’t playing.
Athena, too, in the pantheon of so-called “virgin goddesses,” is most often depicted in a battle helmet rather than a feminine crown of flowers. Quinquatria, the festival of Athena’s Roman counterpart, Minerva, was celebrated the week of the equinox and Ostara — in honor of rebirth — but both Athena and Minerva lent their skills to the arts, classical learning, freedom and democracy rather than conventional partnering and raising families.
The Aztec goddess Xochiquetzal, a patroness of childbirth and fiber arts, was associated with female sexual power. “The goddess who seduced a priest and then turned him into a scorpion as a mark of her power, was no soft touch,” says an article on MexicoLore.com. “Unlike other fertility goddesses, she encouraged love-making as a means of pleasure, not reproduction.” Today, Casa Xochiquetzal, in Mexico City, houses retired prostitutes who, along with craftspeople, are under the protection of the deity.
And Persephone, whose return to earth heralded the end of winter, is perhaps the truest representative of the complex lives of women. Perhaps she left her home for love; perhaps she was taken by force. Perhaps her time with Hades, in the underworld, is a love story, perhaps it was a misstep, a toxic relationship, a detour away from self and health and wholeness. But the thing is, Persephone did return. Perhaps still as a young woman, perhaps as an older person with many hard lessons under her belt.
Still, she re-emerged. Still, like so many of us, she rose.
After all, isn’t healing the self and returning to wellness the ultimate rebirth — the embodiment of spring? Each of us are called, many times in our lives, to embark on an underworld journey. We encounter the splendor of darkness in the face of divorce, health scares, bereavement, estrangement from partners and family and community, loss of jobs and animal familiars, and reckoning with the personal stories we’ve long clung to, only to realize they no longer serve us.
So we go into the earth, into the cave, and we tend to our wounds and our healing and our growth. We tend to our dreams and misplaced hopes and long-neglected skills. And then, when we’ve done the work of stripping and shedding and breaking down, we rebuild ourselves and make our way back into the light. We are the daffodils and the tulips that sometimes bloom before the final snow because we are arriving and we’re here and we have a giant, resonant Hell Yes to shout out to the universe.
That is Beltane. The arriving. The hell yes, no matter how it’s received. And the blossoming, no mater how far removed we are from our reproductive years or reproductive organs or the desire to bear children. The blossoming — no matter if it’s met by a willing partner, no matter if our particular blooms are considered charming or pretty or desirable — marks our place in the dance. Our perfect creation. Our consecration. Our offering to the goddess.
We bloom into desire for ourselves, for the lives we’ve germinated in the rich compost of our wounds and pains and disappointments. We bloom into the understanding of our talents and how to use them. We rise like the April sun, like the flowering forsythia, like the new shoots of grass.
We’re intricately woven into the web of the agricultural calendar, but the seeds we sow don’t need to produce a harvest of beans or babies. We grow, instead, wisdom and patience and compassion. We grow our communities and our craft and our connection to mission and vision. We ripen and blossom, even if we’re well past maidenhood and headed fearlessly toward our crone years.
Even if our femininity is our own potent take on the theme of what it means to be a woman. Even if our best partnership is with ourselves.
All of that verdant rebirth is fertile, and it’s ours to claim, ours to emulate, ours to celebrate, with or without a spin around the phallic Maypole. We can simply acquire a Shiva lingam at a metaphysical fair and feel our power.
We can call in Beltane any way we want to, any time we feel the blossoming of our persistent spirits reaching toward the light.