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May Day 2015: Looking deeper

I write this on Beltane eve, later than I hoped.  A bout with some bug has laid me low and I will not be up to my usual activities this Sabbat.  But perhaps my enforced period of solitude has enabled me to think a little more deeply than I might have about the meaning of this time.

Beltane and May Day comprise one of the two most important Wiccan Sabbats, the other, Samhain, being six months away.  For Wiccans and most other NeoPagans Beltane marks the beginning of summer.  We believe every basic dimension of physical existence is sacred in its own way, and seek to honor each at that time of the year when it can be most powerfully symbolized in ritual and celebration.  Beltane and May Day so honor summer.

This is the time when we celebrate the powers of life’s vitality, beauty, and fertility in all their appropriate dimensions. It is a time when the promises that slowly grew in the months since Yule have finally burst through winter's grip.  Flowers bring the promise of fruit.

Samhain is inward looking, for death is that universal experience we all must encounter entirely by ourselves. Beltane and May Day are the opposite.  Life reflects the exuberance of community, from the ecological community without which we would not be at all, and the human community that enables us to be the beings we are, to the spiritual community that gives all beings and communities a richness of meaning beyond the power of words to describe.  Beltane and May Day are exuberant and outwards looking, and best honored with others. 

 This year, barring a miracle, I will be staying home. I've been nailed by a bug.  This is also why this piece is so last minute.  Fortunately the garden I began two years ago is blossoming beyond anything I anticipated, and I will be doing a small observation by myself surrounded by flowers.  My altars will also be decked with them

On healthier years whenever possible I have gone to see Morris Dancers dance up the sun at dawn, May 1.  Even in a downpour they dance, and I and many other Pagans have been there to celebrate with them. This wonderful tradition is fairly new to America but happily growing.  Out where I live, years ago there was only Berkeley Morris near by. Now Sebastopol has its own Morris troupe. If you have such a group close to you and missed it this year because you are reading this after dawn, seek it out next year.  

The first time I saw Berkeley Morris dance a Presence of enormous antiquity pervaded the place.  Here were people celebrating the triumph of life and fertility as they had in one way or another for thousands of years.  Rather than being on the leading edge of “progress” we were deeply immersed in a place of timeless meaning.  It was very magickal, and I have never forgotten it. Picking the closest weekend would not have done it because what this celebration honors far precedes the work week. 

Happily the early hours of dawn precede when most of us have to work, and so in Berkeley and Sebastopol alike the celebration is always well attended. We are not so fortunate for May Day itself this year.  Given the nature of our society where economic values are grinding everything else to second place, few May Poles will be danced on May Day. They and other celebrations will have to wait until Saturday or Sunday.  This tension between the economic and the sacred reminds us of May Day’s other significance.

For over 100 years May Day also honored and celebrated working people’s push back against modern society’s masters of wealth and domination. This other May Day also celebrates the promise of life, vitality, beauty and abundance, focused within the hearts and minds of those rendered most powerless within the capitalist world. In its political form May Day is usually resolutely secular, and at one level this is appropriate. All people no matter what their beliefs want a decent livelihood and the opportunity to do more than subsist from day to day under the arbitrary power of others. 

Superficially these two versions of May day clash. One is celebratory, fun filled, and often sexy, and in its deepest dimension focused on the Sacred. The other tends to be militant, often angry, and focused entirely on this life.  It is marked more by parades than by May Poles.

But the clash is only superficial.  At its deepest the workers’ May Day also focuses on what constitutes a truly appropriate way of life, one where values of care and community outweigh what can be calculated by money alone.  Both focus on community. Both focus on our participating together.  Both emphasize creating and honoring the most appropriate ways for human beings to relate.

Beltane and the Pagan May Day emphasize the big picture of life’s timeless rhythms, the newer political May Day focuses on how we can best relate to one another within those rhythms and celebrates the necessity of stronger communities to get there.

Both offer a corrective to the dominant religion in this country, which is not Christianity, though it often pretends to be. It is the worship of Mammon over all other powers. This religion’s most honored priests are hedge fund operators and bankers who contribute nothing and its major temples are the casinos springing up everywhere. It is most fitting that Sheldon Adelson  a man who became wealthy from casinos and political privileges gained from dictatorships, is a major power in the party most deeply devoted to this entity. Today that world has increasingly set its face against the values the Pagan May Day and working people’s May Day celebrate. 

The most aware of us are all too cognizant of the increasing depredations those who worship Mammon are making on the beauty and vitality of life on earth.  Global warming is only the worst of many such threats confronting us. Just today, April 30,  a major scientific paper appeared demonstrating the most common pesticide used in America is highly toxic to honey bees, who are in widespread collapse across entire continents.  And of course the list could be extended substantially.

            The same kinds of depredations are happening to all who must work for their living.   Last year Target and many other corporations forced their employees to work Thanksgiving day, the least commercial of our national holidays. Financially it was not as successful as they had hoped, and so they might not do it this year. But the point was clear. Money trumps every other value.  Far less symbolically just this year we have seen a court uphold a ‘do not compete’ contract that prevented a janitor from taking a better job.   And only three days ago I discovered some major corporations are laying the ground work for denying that we ever own anything we ‘buy’ from them. We only lease with their permission and under their rules. They retain ownership. Looking ahead, envision a world where you own little beyond your most personal belongings and anything you learned from working for someone remains their ‘intellectual property.’  The precedents are being laid today. It is the logic of serfdom and as in 1984, they call it ‘freedom.’

Both May Days celebrate different dimensions of the same insight: that a society based solely on money and respecting the value of nothing else is pathologically separated from all true values.

My point is not to urge us to go out and get militant on May Day. I won’t, and wouldn’t even if I were healthy. I would rather dance around a May Pole. But that is because for me the political exists within a larger spiritual context.  And so I honor those who are not Pagans and who celebrate the May Day of the working class as well. We are threatened by the same forces and our ultimate goals are harmonious.



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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham Thursday, 30 April 2015

    As always, thank you for your wisdom and insight Gus.

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