I am sorry for the old King’s death least year. He was much loved and very wise. He was a true King of the people. A powerful sacrifice was he; someone beloved offered up willingly. The two men met deep in the forest. The Stag King and the One-Who-Would-Be-King. They wrestled and fought naked in a grassy clearing completely circled by tall evergreen trees. From a safe distance we all held our breath, some in excitement, some in fear, and some in hope this would be the year the Stag King would again triumph in single combat to reign for one more year before meeting his fate. Such a thing had happened in years past. But, alas, our hopes were crushed as the supplicant put the Stag King in an arm lock and broke his neck, roaring out in triumph like a wild beast.
There was a moment of stillness and silence among the gathered people, and the creatures of the wood as we watched the spirit of the dead Stag King walk deep into the forest and join those fallen before him. He is our willing sacrifice to the forest to pay for all we take. He is our dark tithe to Hel. When his spirit disappears we all shout: “The King is dead, long live the King!” solemnly and joyfully at once. The new King is crowned with antlers and a buck’s hide.
Still naked, the new Stag King is mounted astride the maypole and carried up on it by our men. He must prod and force his way through the throng of women protecting the newly crowned May Queen chosen in a sacred rite of women’s mysteries. We hide her well beneath layers of veils and with our bodies, but the men break through and the Stag King with his maypole finds her as he does every year. We rejoice at their meeting and the Stag King and May Queen are wed in holy union. We rejoice and celebrate. We erect the maypole with its ribboned crown and dance around it. Men and women weave in and out with their ribbons, kissing and singing bawdy songs. With the pole newly covered in colourful woven ribbons we feast on table upon table of delectable delights and pass around bottles of home-brewed mead and wine toasting often the King and Queen.
We wait until dusk when the sun has sunk below the trees and the stars appear in the blue-black sky. We gather to pay our respects to the dead King at his body laid out by the feast tables. Some whisper blessings and wishes in his ear, others tuck notes or rags into his clothes of things they want released, illnesses they want healed, or notes for the King to carry to their beloved dead. I blow the breath of life into his mouth and heart and say farewell to my dear friend. Adorned with branches of fresh evergreens we burn him on the belfire of sacred woods, chanting and singing, and then watching in silence as his body burns crisp and black in the flames. Soon, the black turns to white ash and falls into the fire.
The newly crowned King looks on and knows he will share the old King’s fate. He does not shed a tear or try to run away, but instead leaps across the six-foot flames to purify and bless himself to ensure the fertility of the wood and of our people. Others follow him, leaping over the ashes of twenty years of sacrificed Kings.
A year has passed. His time is up. The new King is now the old and in one month’s time it will be him burning on the funeral pyre. The preparations for the rite of Beltuin have begun.
Note: this is a work of non-fiction describing my group’s Beltuin ritual last year. No photos since it’s a private group. Thought I should clarify in case anyone thought it was a fictional story. If you’re a local man and someone invites you to our rite –be afraid, be very afraid…