The Acolytes of Beltane: Re-examining the Sabbat Through the Tarot

The Lovers. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

Beltane is the last of the three Planting festivals. In the old days these festivals revolved around the agrarian year, and for some they still do. However, my urban self relates to all the festivals in a slightly different way. For me these are more personal festivals, encouraging and celebrating more personal types of growth.

Beltane is usually the hardest of all the sabbats for me to find personally relevant. I’ve written about it before, and every year it’s still a bit of a struggle.

However, this year I took a new approach and examined Beltane through the lens of Tarot. It works for almost everything else, right? The most obvious Tarot card to start with for Beltane is the Lovers, but as you’ll see my examination rapidly expanded out from there.

 The Lovers

Beltane is almost always associated with love and marriage. The union of the Lord and Lady (as seen through any number of sacred marriage stories) is perhaps the single most common symbol of the holiday. The aptly named Lovers card perfectly encapsulates that whole concept.

However, no card of the Tarot exists in a vacuum. The Lovers is linked, by both image and theme, to other cards too. In fact, it’s one of six Acolyte Cards.

So I had to wonder. If one of the Acolyte Cards relates so well to Beltane, could the other Acolyte Cards somehow relate too?

The Acolyte Cards

In addition to the Lovers, the Acolyte Cards also include the Devil, the Hierophant, the Chariot, the Six of Pentacles, and the Tower.

The Acolyte Cards are called that because, in all six cards, we have two “acolytes” at the feet of a larger figure or archetype. The visual composition of each card is almost identical, and their meanings are similar too. In all six cards the two figures in the foreground are submitting to whatever the figure behind them represents. The only difference lies in what precisely that happens to be.

The Lovers. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Lovers. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

In the Lovers, the figures commit themselves to each other under the eyes of an angel, making this a sacred marriage. By so doing they collectively place their relationship above their individual desires, submitting to its influence in their lives. While it depicts a sacred marriage, this card can refer to any great love to which we commit ourselves.

The Devil. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Devil. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Devil is often called the shadow card of the Lovers, and it’s easy to see why. The figures in this card don’t submit to each other, but to the worst parts of themselves. The chains represent the attachment of the figures to fears, addictions, self-serving behaviors, and hedonism. They’re wholly committed to that which holds them prisoner, but they retain the ability to free themselves from bondage any time they choose. The Devil is ultimately a helpful card, because it points out that which holds us back and encourages us to pursue self-improvement, independence, and true freedom.

The Hierophant. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Hierophant. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The monks of the Hierophant submit to the leader of their faith, and by so doing commit themselves to a higher purpose. I also think it’s significant that, out of all six cards, the monks of the Hierophant are the only figures with their backs to us. Part of their devotion is a rejection of the world, while the other five cards are of the world and face it more directly.

The Chariot. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Chariot. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The sphinxes of the Chariot submit to their princely driver, who is completely focused on worldly conquest. Since the world can never truly be conquered by one person, the drive to succeed is never-ending. Total success isn’t really the point, though. The sphinxes are committed to the journey itself and carry the driver onwards regardless.

The Six of Pentacles. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Six of Pentacles. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

As befitting the only Minor Arcana of the set, the Six of Pentacles shows a more scaled-down version of the dynamic seen in the other cards. Here the two acolyte figures submit to their need for aid from a wealthy benefactor, who is committed to helping them. Unlike the other cards, though, the benefactor isn’t a larger-than-life archetypal figure. He’s human too, and a quick reversal of fortune could cause the acolytes and the benefactor to switch places. This unites the acolytes and the benefactor in a way not permitted by the other cards.

The Tower. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Tower. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Tower is also considered an Acolyte Card, but it differs from the others in two fundamental ways. For one, the archetypal figure in this card – the Blasted Tower – represents the destruction of commitment. The figures in this card were dedicated solely to their own egos, and that is the sin that could not be borne. That’s why the lightning physically removed them from their high station and returned them screaming to the earth below. None of us are immune to natural law or natural forces, and the figures of this card were required to submit to that if nothing else. And that leads to the second fundamental difference between this card and the others: the lightning didn’t ask for or require the consent of the figures in the card.

If the other cards are facets of life we’re invited to explore, the Tower tells us that the worst thing we can do is ever think we’re done exploring.

The Acolytes of Beltane

As a culture, we’re kind of obsessed with the values represented by the Lovers card. It makes total sense that the type of submission and commitment explored there is the one that gets its own holiday, especially when we consider the history and focus of modern Paganism.

However, maybe this singular focus is unnecessarily limiting. The Acolyte Cards invite us to explore love, self-improvement, faith, drive, and a recognition that we’re all in this together. They also caution us against the idea that we’re ever done growing and provide an ego-check when we need it.

All of the Acolyte Cards, even or maybe especially the Tower, provide us the tools we need to grow into our best and most authentic selves. That sounds like the very definition of what Beltane is supposed to be, and to my mind makes this holiday much more interesting and personally relevant.

Now I’m eager to see what kind of light a similar study might shed on Midsummer!

It’s the Most Uncomfortable Time of the Year*

Out of all the holidays, Beltane is by far the weirdest for me personally. Over the last few years I have developed my own way of conceptualizing it that works for me, and if I’m going solo or running a group ritual with that in mind it’s fine.

However, this year I’m attending a group ritual run by someone much more traditional, and I’m honestly kind of dreading it. Not because I don’t enjoy ritual, or even this person’s rituals, but because Beltane itself is all kinds of awkward for me. It kinda feels like I’m back in Christian church.

I am well aware that’s not a common response, especially to this holiday in particular, so I figured an explanation might be handy.

First off, what’s Beltane?

Beltane, or May 1st, is the absolute favorite holiday of a ton of people. Traditionally it’s the day when flocks and herds were returned to the fields after being cooped up all winter, and that aspect of things does play a part in the season. However, these days Beltane is more commonly considered the day the Goddess and God get together, or the day the Holly King fights the Oak King for the Goddess’s hand. The emphasis is heavy on sex, fertility, and marriage.

This type of image sums it up nicely, doesn’t it?

This type of image sums it up nicely.

Sure, there are other associations too – protection, community engagement, sensuality and self-appreciation – but most public rituals bypass them in favor of the sex/fertility/marriage triad. Makes sense, really, as it’s so easy to work with that in a ritual setting. It’s also a way of declaring, loud and proud, that sex is a holy thing and not something to freak out about in the dark. For many of us from more puritanical backgrounds that kind of reminder is incredibly welcome.

Like I said, it’s all perfectly understandable. I simply don’t really relate to it.

Why not?

I promise this isn’t just me being difficult. There are some pretty fundamental disconnects between me and the way Beltane is commonly celebrated.

Sex

The sexual focus of Beltane is fairly lost on me. *shrug* I’m asexual.

“Asexual” means I am rarely if ever sexually attracted to someone. I can appreciate pretty people, but it’s like appreciating a sunset or a piece of music. I have no visceral “damn I’d like to bang that!” going on. That doesn’t mean I’m celibate – orientation is based on attraction and not action, which is why a gay man having sex with a woman while fantasizing that he’s banging Channing Tatum is still a gay man – but it does mean that who I choose to have sex with is based on other factors. (Usually, for me, it’s either because I’ve seen them have sex with someone else and thought that looked like a good time or because they’re awesome people and I like their skin on mine.)

While sex is fun, it’s by no means required for my health and happiness. Roller coasters are fun too, and I don’t see many rituals devoted to those. Sex is the same way. Awesome if I can get it, but if not? Eh. Not exactly a crisis.

Touch my damn wifi, though, and we'll have issues! *growl*

Touch my damn wifi, though, and we’ll have issues! *growl*

A whole ritual focused on something I can take or leave honestly isn’t all that meaningful to me.

Fertility

The fertility of people and the land has been important for the entirety of human history. I absolutely get that. And I can appreciate the latter – it’s part of my own observance.

However, I am personally childfree. Militantly so. I have no children, I have no desire for children, and I find my life perfectly fulfilling without that. The idea of being pregnant makes me physically ill. I know I’m in the minority with this, and that’s fine, but just thinking about it is horrifying. I am unspeakably grateful, every day, that I am infertile (thanks PCOS!).

While I realize that fertility in all areas is part of this holiday, and that “all areas” includes things like my creativity, the ritual emphasis is almost always on physical fertility. Even if it’s not, that is still the metaphor most rituals run with. In order to relate to that personally I have to do a whole Cirque du Soleil routine in my head, mentally overcoming my revulsion at the idea of physical pregnancy and then substituting that idea with something I actually want fertile.

How many ways do I have to contort my brain to make these ideas relevant?

How many ways do I have to contort my brain to make these ideas relevant?

That, frankly, is a lot of damn work.

Marriage

Marriage and handfasting, the romantic union of self with another, is a large component of the traditional Beltane. And, again, this isn’t really my thing. I’m aromantic.

“Aromantic” means I have no desire for a romantic partner. None. I have close friendships, and I’ve had some cohousing situations where queerplatonic dynamics ruled the day, but no matter how intimate those friendships get they’re never romantic in nature.

That is wonderful when it comes to my spirituality and my creative projects. As I’ve discussed before, there are only so many hours in the day. All the time I’m not spending with a partner – and that is a lot of time – I can instead spend on other priorities. I can fall into a project for an entire weekend, as I am wont to do, and that’s fine. If someone calls me and needs my counsel I can take whatever time they need without short-changing the other people in my life. I can travel on a moment’s notice, and as long as I’m meeting my work obligations I don’t need to check in with anyone else about it.

I’m not saying that this is the best thing for everyone, because it’s not. But it is absolutely better for me.

There isn’t a lot of room for this viewpoint in a traditional Beltane ritual, though, and that’s a problem.

Observance vs. Ritual

So far I’ve covered how the three main ritual focuses of Beltane – sex, fertility, and marriage – are just not for me. But how those things are focused on is an issue too.

The “observance vs ritual” concept just came to my attention as that pretty recently. It figures in to all the sabbats I celebrate with more traditional Pagan people, and the issues I already have with Beltane just make it worse.

I approach each sabbat as an observance, and Beltane is no exception. For me Beltane is all about the Land. I invite the local land spirits (and anyone else who wants to honor Them) to attend a meal in Their honor, as an act of appreciation and connection, and that’s as far as it goes. If other people are present conversation stays focused on the land, on the seasons, on the physicality of our lives. The spoken invitation to the Land at the beginning of things and my farewell at the end are as formal as it gets.

Not exactly crying out for heels and a ballgown here.

Not exactly crying out for heels and a ballgown here.

That’s quite intentional on my part. I am a purpose-driven person, and I don’t often do something if there’s not a clear reason for it. That’s why nothing I do for a sabbat resembles a typical Pagan ritual. I’m not doing magick or raising energy because that’s not what I’m there for, so it doesn’t happen. Casting Circles and calling Quarters is completely superfluous, so I don’t do it. Beltane is not about honoring the Gods or the Ancestors (They have Their own days), so there are no invocations for Them (although my Lady is always welcome where I am, of course). My altar rarely has the traditional altar tools on it, and never has all of them, because they’re not being used. Since the entire thing is a picnic with offerings, Cakes and Ale has no point. Add that in with my complete lack of focus on sex and marriage, and fertility only being referenced as a seasonal energy increase for the land, and the disconnect between what I do and a more traditional Pagan ritual becomes blindingly obvious.

That’s why I find attending a Pagan Beltane to many times feel like attending a Christian church. I attend, I say the things, I do my best to engage, but it feels very “not me” when I do it almost all of the time. That’s what makes it uncomfortable. Of course, a traditional Pagan is likely to be just as uncomfortable attending my observance as I am attending their ritual. *shrug*

I’ll be doing both my personal observance and a much more traditional group ritual this year. After which this day passes for another year, and I can turn my focus to Midsummer – much more comfortable all around.

*For those who were wondering – yes, I sang the title. I’m not even a little bit shamed, either. *grin*