Wednesday, April 29, 2015

In Celebration of Life

by Anna Belfrage

Tomorrow is the 30th of April, which for us here in Sweden is one of the more important days in the year. Not only is it our king's birthday, but it is also Valborgsmäss, the day when we traditionally light bonfires and sing to welcome back the sun - most understandable in a country as cold and dark as ours is during the winter.

The Celts called this day Beltane. It fell more or less halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice (and us Swedes have a major field day with the summer solstice, let me tell you...) and was a day in which to embrace life, to celebrate having survived yet another winter and the difficult months of March and April, when food stores were depleted and nature as yet had not revived enough to offer much in the way of edible stuff.

Beltane is a purely pagan rite. There is no saint to commemorate, no holy event to celebrate as per the Christian church. But no matter the established Church's determined efforts to eradicate this primitive feast, it has lived on, surviving irate apostles and harsh Conventicle Acts. Somehow, this celebration is imprinted in our DNA, harkening back to a time when the year was measured in solstices, equinoxes and quarter days, when human life was fragile enough for us to implore the gods to give us warmth and sun, continued life and good harvests.

Beltane was a major feast day for the Celts - a fire feast, and as mentioned above that tradition lives on up here in the north. Having said that, as far as I know there weren't all that many Celts up here, in Scandinavia, but seeing as they were a trading people I assume their cultural influence was massive - plus feasts such as Beltane, Samhain, and Midsummer are probably rooted in an even murkier past. Fire, for example, has played a major role in spring festivals since life began in the Fertile Crescent, and to this day the tradition of leaping over fires to cleanse yourself persists in countries such as Iran.

C F Hill - apple tree in blossom
The advent of spring was of utmost importance for our ancestors. Today, 3-7% of the population in the developed world are farmers, producing huge excesses of food they can sell to the rest of us. A century ago, roughly 50-60% of the population had their outcome from the agricultural sector. Before the Industrial Revolution, 80% depended on the land - and what little surplus they produced was sold to acquire necessities such as an iron plough, or salt. For them, an early spring was the difference between life and death.

The Celts, however, were more herders than farmers, and on Beltane the cattle were let out to pasture after months and months cooped up in byres. However, as any Celt knew, with the advent of spring came the increase in mischief from spirits and fairies, so to protect their cattle they lit two bonfires and drove their beasts between them, hoping the smoke would offer some protection against evil. These traditions lived on for a long time. As late as in the 19th century, Scottish Highlanders were lighting their bonfires on Beltane and driving their cattle through the resulting smoke. For good measure, the people would also run through the smoke - or leap across the embers. Similar traditions existed throughout the British Isles. For such a bonfire to be truly effective, it should be lit the traditional way, i.e. by rubbing two sticks together, but I suspect people cheated on this one, as it is very, very hard work to get a blaze going that way!

Sidney Richard Percy, Grizedale

Not only was the bonfire important as a way of cleansing cattle and people from the potential bad influence of the spirits. It was also seen as a representation of the sun, and on Beltane eve, households would extinguish their tallow candles and douse the fire in their hearths before rekindling them from the bonfire - a symbolic "here comes the sun" moment, which supposedly was to ensure the safety and fertility of the people in the household. And once the bonfire had run its course, the ashes were spread over the fields and gardens to protect the growing crops.

Originally, Beltane also included some element of sacrifice. As described in a previous post on this blog, sometimes the sacrifice made was the ultimate one - that of killing a man or a woman. This was done when circumstances were particularly dire, and generally the victim would be chosen by lottery. An oatmeal cake would be baked, it would be broken into pieces, and one of those pieces would be burnt. The pieces were then put in a bowl and passed round. Whoever got the burnt piece of cake was - so to say - toast.

The ritual of baking that oatmeal cake is known to have survived well into the 18th century in Scotland. Just like those long-dead Celts, the Scottish bakers would make a cake, break it and burn one piece. Whoever got the burnt piece had to leap the blazing bonfire on behalf of all of them. In some cases, the person who got the burnt piece was symbolically thrown into the fire and was treated as "dead" by his companions for some days.

Mostly though, the gods were appeased by somewhat less dramatic sacrifices. A cup of mead, a newly made loaf - maybe a chicken or two. And then, once the gods had been given their due, our ancient forefathers went a bit wild and crazy round the bonfire. It was party time, and there were bards singing, people dancing, mead and ale, food, more ale...Men and women retired to engage in more intimate pursuits, yet another variant of celebrating the return of life.

Van Gogh - flowering garden
In our neck of the woods, such pursuits would have to be undertaken indoors - or under a gigantic bear pelt or something. Chances are the last day in April will be cold - even very cold. But the evenings are light - where I live twilight lingers to well beyond 21:00 p.m. - and all around are signs of returning life.

The birches are decorated with minuscule leaves of brightest green, the shrubs shift into an emerald haze, and everywhere tits and blackbirds and lapwings and larks and ... well, birds in general - call and hoot that spring is here and so are they. In the woods anemones poke heads of brightest white through drifts of russet coloured leaves, the lake-shores are here and there still edged with ice, but a couple of swans sail by on the deep blue of the open waters.

Over by the bonfire, there is a smell of sausages burned to a crisp. Couples snog, or hold hands, or hug each other close, and the air is filled with the impressive sound of the male choirs singing in spring. That's what we call it; "Singing in spring". Us Swedes have books full of these spring songs, all about the melting drifts of snow, the return of the sun, of warmth, of hope that soon the ground will break out in full flower. Songs that rather unabashedly praise that first deity of human life; the sun.

For me, Beltane always brings home just what a miracle life is, an eternal cycle of dark and light. It behoves us to at times remember just how blessed we are to live on this green planet of ours. It behoves us to keep in mind that we are but the caretakers of a delicate sphere of life, as ephemeral in time and space as a soap bubble.

Monet - springtime
I'd like to end this post with one of my favourite poems - an ode of joy and gratitude for the world that surrounds us, in this case directed to God, but it could just as well be directed to Mother Nature. I don't know why it always springs to the forefront of my head this season of the year, maybe it's the sheer exuberance in it that speaks to me.

Glory be to God for dappled things - 
For skies of coupled-colour like a brinded cow;
For rose moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced; fold, fallow and plough;
And all trades; their gear and tackle and trim

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 - 89)

Happy Beltane, everyone! May the day be long and bright, may the sun warm your skin, may a soft breeze caress your cheek.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anna Belfrage is the successful author of seven published books, all of them part of The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, this is the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.

Anna's books have won several awards and are available on Amazon US,  Amazon UK, or wherever else good books are sold.
For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website. If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog.

4 comments:

  1. Lovely post, Anna! And ending it with GMH was the icing on the cake for me. I'd love to go to Sweden (been there once--beautiful country) and hear the singing around the bonfire.

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  2. I live in Canada, so think I will go out and jump over a bonfire soon. Our weather has finally gotten warmer. Thanks so much for the post, I always enjoy your posts and I really love reading your blog, it gives much enjoyment.

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  3. I think Canada must have similar weather to Sweden - our Spring is just now here.
    Enjoyed your post very much.

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  4. Loved this post! You hit a lot of my favorites. Working backwards, I love Gerard Manley Hopkins, and especially the poem you chose. 2nd, I've fascinated by anything Celtic. 3rd. it's amazing how many themes or preoccupations cross cultures when it comes to traditions: Fire figures large in Indian traditions. Great post.

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