Beltane and the Union of Opposites


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I’m joining the Tarot Blog Hop on the theme of the Beltane and the Union of Opposites.

More and more I have a challenge with opposites, or more specifically, binaries. Here’s what I mean. I think that they can be useful way to frame things, and in fact, I think people naturally think in binary terms. However, binary also creates black/white thinking. We humans get too used to the boxes, the pendulum swing…and we forget about the spectrum in the middle. This causes us no end of problems; typically when I write about that it’s in one of my leadership blog posts, but it finds its way into our magical and personal growth work as well.

On the other hand, there is some seriously powerful magic when we find that centerpoint, that balance of opposites.

The balance of opposites in the Tarot is often represented by the Lovers card, which is also the sixth card. The sacred geometry used to represent the balance of opposites is two triangles overlapping–a six-pointed star. In the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, this is represented best by Tiphareth,, which holds a position of balance of extremes. It is in the middle pillar holding the balance between Strength/Judgment and Mercy/Compassion. It’s also midway between Earth/Manifestation and Transcendant Spirit. Tiphareth is associated with beauty, balance, and love. It’s represented by a golden sun.

Now…what I think is sort of interesting–just to go on a metaphysical-nerd tangent–is that Venus (the planet/deity) is associated with a different sphere, but Venus is so often associated with beauty and love. Further, Venus (the planet) is the brightest object in our sky, after the Sun and the Moon, and thus held a lot of importance for our astronomy/astrology-obsessed ancestors. I’ve gone into some depth on this topic and how it connects to my own experience of divine communion in an essay published in the anthology “A Mantle of Stars.”

In fact, Venus is crucial for star observation and rectifying (aligning/correcting) the calendar. Every 8 years Venus sketches a wide looping spirograph around the Sun in the form of a rose-shaped pentacle. And every 8 years, you can use Venus to correct your solar, lunar, and sidereal (star) calendar to within a few minutes. Every 40 years you can correct your calendar to within a few seconds.

So we have a five-pointed star very clearly associated with the Goddess of Love. Roses, if you didn’t know, have 5 petals. Or at least, their petals are patterned in fives. Roses have continued to be associated with love and with Goddesses–in cathedrals you have rose windows, and Mary’s rosary, and you also have the rosy cross. In fact, the rose is often a symbol of the heart in the West, and occasionally it’s a metaphor for the Grail. The lotus would be the Eastern equivalent. The heart chakra is roughly in the center of our bodies and you can look at the heart as the meeting place of our various body functions–all blood must enter and leave the heart, so it is literally our center.

The Grail is another fantastic example of the union of opposites. Going back to that six-pointed star, this is actually a great visual for the Grail. The upward pointing triangle is typically associated with fire (active) whereas the downward pointing triangle is associated with water (receptive). Look at a chalice with a base; the cup part is the downward-pointing triangle. The base holding it up is the upward-pointing triangle.

And yet–here we get some mixed symbols again. The cup is usually associated just with water and is thought of as feminine, passive.

Here is where we start to run into some problems with those opposites and those boxes, where the symbolism starts becoming too rigid to be useful.

The Dangers of the Gender Binary
I’ve written in the past how I work to make rituals more inclusive for participants with diverse sexualities and allow for the entire spectrum of gender. In other words, I don’t really do the Wheel of the Year making the great heterosexual union of Goddess and God the focus of my work. I’ve written more about that in my Ritual Facilitation book, however, when I do a Beltane ritual I don’t focus so much on heterosexual sex.

It’s not because I think sex is bad or dirty…it’s that I don’t think that’s all there is to Beltane.

I can see how in an agrarian society–perhaps a village or a tribe where your entire group’s survival depended upon the fertility of the plants, the animals, and the humans–that maybe there needed to be a lot more magical and intentional work around fertility. Or at least the illusion of some control over fertility. For me, there are so many other avenues to explore in rituals. If I’m doing public ritual work, my job is to support the community with spiritual work that will serve and fill the group, and usually I’m focusing more on personal transformation work. In fact, nobody ever takes me up on sending them actual fertility energy.

I do work as an activist to support moving beyond the gender binary, and I’m also a supporter of non-dualist religious and spiritual work. I find that we often get caught up in those binaries and I think rather a lot of the problems with our society come out of the philosophical idea of dualism.

Actually, one of my challenges with most ceremonial magical traditions and orders is the fairly rigid binaries, often based upon the gender binary.

Do I think that the Sun is masculine and the Moon is feminine? Do I think that male is active, female is passive? Nope. Dualism is actually one of the really core problems I have with a lot of the dominant religions, because once you start going into that binary, that dualism, you eventually have the idea that there’s Good and Evil. And somehow, it always works out that Good is “up” and Bad is “down.” I like to call this the “gravity-based spiritual model.” Up is sky, masculine. Down is earth, feminine.

So you can see where dualism and gender binary-ism starts to cross over into a problematic area, because once you get your black/white dualism going, ultimately someone has to end up in the “evil” or “bad” box. Usually it’s women and people with darker skin. Dualism also makes bodies/the flesh/needs of the flesh “bad,” and transcendence/rising above the body “good.”

The good/evil dualism is how you end up with misogyny, sexism and racism. It’s how you end up with a sex-shaming culture, among a host of other cultural shadows.

Value of Opposites
I think there is some value to opposites, to binaries, because it’s an easy way to articulate a complicated concept. The problem comes in that we see everything fitting into those easy categories and we forget that there is a spectrum between. People are really terrible at holding paradox, at holding gray area, at holding the balance point.

And yet–maybe that’s the magic of this particular six pointed star, this particular balance of opposites.

Maybe that’s why the idea of the Union of Opposites holds so much allure for us–because it’s darned hard to do. Imagine holding two conflicting truths and not losing your mind. Imagine two people who both believe something that conflicts with each other’s beliefs, and yet, not making the other person wrong, holding the idea that their truth, and the other’s truth, could both be true without cancelling each other out.

Fire and Water
I tend to get pretty irked at the idea of assigning gender to metaphysical concepts or to planetary bodies, or anything that begins that quick slippery slope into dualism. Yes, I’m female, and yes, I’m heterosexual. In no way does that mean I’m supposed to hold a passive role, or any of the other gender associations with being female. Nor does that mean that my body is somehow bad. Or that my desire for sex is sinful or bad.

However, I do tend to like working with the concepts of Fire and Water, particularly around the idea of the Grail as well as the shamanic three worlds/tree of life. Fire and Water are opposites I can work with, as are Sky and Earth. I think of the water that falls from the sky to seep down into the ground, into the great cauldron of the waters below the ground that rise up through sacred springs to flow back out into the world, to rise up from the heat of the sun into the sky and fall again. I think of the fire that is the sun, that is the stars, the life-giving heat. I think of our bodies–gravity-bound as they are–and how we naturally reach up. When we think about reaching for something just out of reach, when we think about setting a magical intention to reach for a dream, we reach up, like the branches of the trees reach up for the sun. It’s instinctive.

And when we are working with our own shadows, our own inner darkness, it’s the closeness of the earth, the cave into the Underworld that calls us to that work. Under the earth in the cave, by the roots of the World Tree, the darkness isn’t bad. Down isn’t bad. Down and Darkness is depth, it’s the cycles of composting. Leaves composting are no more evil than our bodies are. Down and deep are the mysteries of decomposition and death. It’s the less-than-pretty things that we don’t always want to look at, and yet are part of the mysteries of life if we’d stop disowning them.

Fire and water is also the mystery of the cauldron, which was the precursor of the Grail. Without fire, you can’t heat up the cauldron. Without heat, there isn’t movement, there isn’t energy. For me, fire isn’t about gender, it’s about action. Water is about depth and dreaming.

I often think of water as that mysterious pool that holds the deep magic if I dip my hands in and reach down. It’s the waters of inspiration, the waters of life.

Grails, Service, and The Beloved
One of the mysteries of the Grail–which is a water-bearing vessel, and yet holds the properties of the Union of Opposites–is that it calls people to serve it. People often seek the Grail wanting to drink of the waters of inspiration and immortality, but the true Grail question isn’t asking the Grail what the Grail can do for you.

The Grail chooses its bearers based upon their ability to serve it. The Grail question is always, “How can I serve thee?” The Grail chooses those who are worthy to bear the vessel, those who will bring healing and inspiration. Like the heart, the mystery of the Grail is not about holding onto energy, but rather, systole and diastole–the heart must pump all the blood out of itself before it can refill.

I see that as part of that mystery of the Union of Opposites–the pulse of life, filling and refilling. The Union of Opposites is not static. It’s not a place we can stay. We get to be there for that brief moment, for that heartbeat, that moment of balance before we have to start over again. We can reach the fingertips of the divine, we can connect with that something beyond, but only for those briefest of moments.

The poetry of Rumi has often been an inspiration to me; Rumi often refers to the divine as “Beloved,” and the poems refer to that relationship with the divine as like a relationship with a lover.

But if you’ve experienced true mysticism–that is, direct communion with the divine, by whatever name you call it–you know that it’s a fleeting moment. You don’t get to stay there. You can hold onto that union for the briefest of moments. For me, it is often an ecstatic rapture, a weeping. For me it is a nondual state–grief and joy and sorrow are all one. My body is divine, it is a vessel of service, and I am simultaneously inside and outside my body. I am connected to the all-that-is. Most recently, this felt like being cradled in a great ocean, being held and told, “You are not alone. You were never alone.” I could feel that sense that the veil of flesh between us all is such an illusion. And that the separation from the Greater Whole that is the divine is just as painful for the divine as it is for us, but that there is some reason for it.

Finding that balance in the Union of Opposites, that divine connection, is the moment that inspires me. And it goes so far beyond gender and binaries.

Metaphysical Maps
All the metaphysical and cosmological models we have–the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Tarot, correspondence tables, Astrology–I think all of it is an attempt to come up with a model and a metaphor for something that is really a lot larger and a lot deeper than that. And yet, we are human. We are compelled to design models to understand the universe. Just like mystic poets are compelled to try to capture their experience of divine communion by writing about it, even though nobody can actually convey a mystery–we can only live it for ourselves.

Our ancestors tracked the path of Venus in the sky over decades and centuries. And, other ancestors came up with the esoteric wisdom contained within the Tarot. Other ancestors figured out the wheel of the year, the cycles of equinoxes and solstices and connected those to the cycles of hunting and planting, and somewhere in there also mapped them to the cycle of human fertility, which is how we have come to associate Beltane with sex and fertility. Our ancestors have worked hard to understand the underpinnings of the universe and the cosmos, and to understand the the outer and the inner, the movement of the stars and the depths of ourselves and our shadows. Our ancestors have tried to put words to that divine communion, that perfect Union of Opposites that is so elusive.

So too can each of us work to understand ourselves. Can we find a way to find that point of balance and beauty and love without the “othering” of dualism? Without relying too much on that binary, particularly the gender binary?

It’s tough work. But then, I figure if my ancestors can spend 40 years tracking the cycle of Venus to align calendars, I can do a little bit of intensive personal work on my part to challenge some of my assumptions about the world and how things work.

What is a Union of Opposites for you? What does the Lovers card mean? And are there binaries you hold onto that perhaps no longer serve?


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Filed under: Personal Growth Tagged: beltane, Kabbalah, Lovers, magic, Personal growth, personal transformation, Quaballah, Union of Opposites