THE GRAIL’S STORY, PART XX: Beltane
Beltane was the most important holiday for the Celtic inhabitants of fifth century Britain. A celebration dating back to long before The Grail was born, the magic of fertility was tapped to insure the ongoing fruitfulness of the land and all that inhabited it: crops, livestock, and people.
Food enough for a feast was still a little hard to come by, since the first plantings of the spring were barely far enough along to be harvested. But the bubbling vats of “Mother’s Grog” more than made up for that shortcoming. Each clan had its own secret recipe, passed down and perfected through generations. Great handfuls of what The Grail called weaselwhisker and loco weed were simmered with freshly fermented apple squeezings and raw red wine to release their potent intoxicants, along with raisins and spices and honey to cut the bitter taste. Mother’s Grog brought on visions and uninhibited behavior, not to mention blinding headaches and queasy stomachs the next day.
Most important was the dancing. Massive hollowed logs lay half-buried so that the very earth reverberated with each blow of the stout clubs the musicians wielded. Smaller drums and a variety of rattles had been cleaned and repaired and handed out to those too old or too crippled to dance. A few of the assembled could play other instruments, recorders and lutes and the like, but once the dancing started in earnest, these lesser voices were drowned out by the primal throb of the percussion.
The end result of all of this heightening of appetite and passion was the unabashed promotion of raw, unrestrained sex. It was thus that the religious and temporal leaders of the Celts invoked the blessings of the goddess. King and drudge were indistinguishable as they cavorted and sweated to the urging of the drums which drew all into their primal song. Partners found each other on the beaten earth around the bonfire, danced with barbaric frenzy until their glistening bodies broke loose from the bonds of judgment and restraint, slipped away to mate savagely in the fields and behind shrubs, and returned to find new partners. Many a child would be born around the fourth week of January, each carrying for life the blessing of being conceived during Beltane.
And this year, the initiation of a new high king would add to the drama of the festivities.
The Grail’s tale needs no summarizing, so I share it with you unedited.
* * *
The eating and drinking began as soon as the sun went down, and once the Mother’s Grog started working its magic, the music began. A few of the most eager slipped onto the packed earthen dance floor, but before the dancing got serious, Merlin stepped into the circle in front of the great fire. Clutching me in one hand, he held up the other and spoke the single word, “Silence.” And if alcohol enhances my power, locoweed and weaselwhisker do a number. The pounding of the drums stopped so suddenly that the husky breathing of the dancers could be heard clearly in the shocking stillness. Merlin paused for a dramatic moment, then motioned for Arthur to join him.
At some unseen signal, the largest of the drums began a slow, steady pulse unmarred by the chitter-chatter of the bones and rattles. Arthur knelt in front of his old teacher, who with a flick of his fingers summoned two robed women to his side. Drawing the king to his feet, they swiftly removed his shirt, then dipped long fingers into earthen pots and began to paint Arthur’s face and body.
A single tambour added its voice to the low bass of the great log, and around the circle people unconsciously swayed to the rhythm. A lone voice, old and thin but compelling none the less, began a wordless chant from somewhere behind the crowd. Arthur’s trousers joined his other clothing in a pile, to be replaced by a simple cloth bound around his loins. One of the women painted long indigo stripes down his legs with her fingers while the other plaited jasmine vines into his hair.
Slowly but inexorably the tempo rose. Some of the smaller percussion began to join in, here an antler rattle, there a dried gourd. The women finished and slipped back into the crowd to be replaced by another, this one naked save a thick coat of malachite paint. She circled in a lithe but somehow still brutish dance, brandishing a great boar spear at Arthur, who stared at her without movement or expression whenever her weaving path brought her in front of him again.
Then with a cry she drove her spear into his chest. A low moan escaped from the audience. It was an expert thrust, however, and only the very tip of the spear pierced the flesh. The woman held the edge of the blade against Arthur’s skin until it was reddened by a thin trickle of blood, then held it up for the crowd to scream its approval. Finally she offered the spear to Arthur before dancing her way through the crowd and into the darkness.
Relentlessly now the drummers attacked their instruments. The tempo was so rapid that the men with the giant clubs had to switch to every other beat, so that the logs seemed to call and answer each other from across the fire. One of the musicians dropped to the ground—impossible to tell whether from exhaustion or frenzy—to be replaced by the man waiting behind him.
Suddenly a huge white stag, driven by a team of druids, burst into the circle. The magnificent beast was half again as large as the biggest trophy adorning the hall of any lord there. A massive rack, as dangerous as a Saxon battleaxe, towered above his stately head.
The stag rushed at the crowd, first at one point of the circle and then another, but each time the wall of shouting faces and waving arms drove him back. Maddened by the flames and the noise of the living prison in which he found himself trapped, he reared on his hind legs and pawed the air, but was unable to goad himself into attacking the massed foes surrounding him.
Then he saw Arthur standing there, and his splendid fighting spirit banished all fear. Here was an enemy he could identify. Snorting streams of hot vapor, he lowered his antlers in challenge.
A savage growl escaped from Arthur’s lips as he accepted the challenge. He took a single stride forward, all that was needed to incite the stag into charging.
Arthur planted the butt of the spear into the earth to receive the onrush of the beast. His strike was true, and the force of the stag’s charge buried the spear in his chest. But the stout ash haft snapped as if kindling from the combined might of the two warriors, and the deer was upon the king, slashing and pawing.
Parrying with the broken shaft of the spear, Arthur kept the stag from dealing him a serious wound, although blood flowed freely from a dozen cuts. The beast was dying and knew it, and was doubly dangerous because of it. In desperation the animal reared, slashing with its hooves, but Arthur swung the shaft with both hands and fractured its left foreleg. Then, as the creature landed and stumbled, the king leapt half across its shoulders, seized its antlers, and broke its neck.
Instantly the drums fell silent. With a cry as if from a single throat, the crowd of worshippers surged forward to touch their king. Arthur was lifted high and carried around the fire. Then, as the two women came to tend him, wrapping him in a fine new robe, handing him a cup of grog, and tenderly cleaning his wounds, the percussion once more began its compelling throbbing and the dance started in earnest.
A normal man might have been content to watch from the edges, but with the adrenaline of the kill, the call of the drums, and the grog coursing through his veins, Arthur was soon back in the circle. He danced with first one and then another of a score of adoring and willing women, each hoping to catch his fancy. Then, suddenly, one did.
A slender woman, wearing the mask of a panther and sporting lapis beads woven into her raven braids, strode into the circle just as Arthur stepped away from his latest dance partner. In daylight and with the mask removed she might have been quite ordinary, but there in the magic of the firelight and the intoxication of the dance, she was Franca herself stepping down from the heavens. Arthur offered no resistance as she took his hand and led him back onto the packed earth, where they were immediately caught up in the urgency of the dance. Hers was the unconscious grace of the panther totem that adorned her face as they moved in an erotic arabesque older than the Great Stones who kept watch. The hopeful maidens saw the look that passed between Arthur and his captor and moved on to other hunting grounds.
Their dance was too intense to be prolonged. Even a field is bed enough for a king in heat. Unlike most of the other couples, Arthur and his panther lady did not return to the circle of the fire that night.
* * *
The next morning the Kings of Britain clustered around waiting to be officially released so they could head for home. Lot, the highest ranking among the kings as well as the Warden of the Northern Marshes, would have the honor of being excused first. But Arthur had asked to meet Lot’s wife before they left for Orkney. Merlin had snatched Arthur away from Tintagel within days of his birth, and he’d never met any of his three half-sisters. Now the brothers-in-law waited side by side—Arthur looking a little nervous, Lot looking a little impatient, both looking more than a little worse for the wear of the night before.
At last the high ladies entered the pavilion, escorting Morgause through the parted assembly to her husband, who would present her to the high king. Resplendent in a fine white robe worked in crimson thread, the queen managed to rouse the company from their stupor. A buzz of excited conversation, wistful and admiring and lewd in equal measures, broke out as she shook her lush raven tresses and strode to the front of the tent to take her husband’s hand and meet her new high king.
There was no sound from Arthur, however. Words deserted him as he recognized his half sister as the panther, his enchantress lover of the night before.
THE GRAIL’S STORY, PART XX: OUTTAKES
Then, as the two women came to tend him, the percussion once more began its compelling throbbing and the dance started anew.
I interrupted her narrative.”This is the scene you put into poetry at Bilo’s, isn’t it? You said I would recognize the participants, but you never hinted that they were Morgause and Arthur.”
Would it have made your conquest sweeter if you had known?
“Well, probably not,” I conceded.
The death of the white stag was the only gratuitous killing I ever saw or heard of being perpetrated by the druids. They had a profound respect for all life that is rare among humans. It seems strange that your histories all suggest that the ritual sacrifice of animals, and even human beings, was a common and integral part of ancient Celtic beliefs and practices. I could charitably hypothesize that this misunderstanding was caused by the secretive nature of Druidic worship keeping the real facts from preservation in the chronicles. But what I believe is this: history is dictated by the victors, and when the Christians finally conquered Britain, they deliberately planted these lies to justify their savage behavior in wiping out the Druids.
“And draw attention away from their own record as the bloodiest religion in the entire history of man.”
* * *
The next morning the Kings of Britain clustered around waiting to be officially released so they could head for home. A general pall of malaise hung over the assembly.
“Could that be called a post-party depression?”
The Grail’s only comment was a groan.
* * *
“Let me see if I’ve got this straight. You take a seventeen-year-old virgin, anoint him the most powerful man in Britain, drug him up, make him fight for his life, turn him loose unchaperoned in a religious celebration where what everybody is supposed to do is screw like rabbits, and sic his sexy older half-sister who he’s never met on him. Then when he ends up sleeping with her, it’s like ‘Sorry, you’re doomed. Incest is an unforgivable sin, you’ve just sown the seeds for the destruction of your reign. ’”
Well, I can’t say for certain that he was a virgin—he would have likely had plenty of opportunities to cure that little problem in Brittany. But for the rest of it, I’d say you’ve summed it up accurately.
“Well, that totally sucks.”
And when have the gods ever been fair? Sometimes they demand the sacrifice of a king to sate their bloodlust. Perhaps that’s exactly what happened in this case, and the legends are just our puny mortal attempt to understand their godly whims.