It seems that for every High Day accounted for so far I have reason to say that it's been different from each previous one, and legitimately so each time. It is no different for this Beltane, for a couple of reasons.
To begin with, it started out differently. For prior high Day rituals, the Grove has begun planning often three to four weeks in advance, sometimes less. In a way, it began even before Ostara. A few weeks after Imbolc, one of our members came in on a Sunday and said that Epona had "kicked him in the head", and made clear to him that after all the focus that we'd placed on Brigid for Imbolc, She wanted some of our time. He suggested that we consider honoring Her for Ostara, however we were already well into planning our telling of the Descent Of Inanna, so that was out.
Ostara came and went, and the day after during Rites Of Caffeina, we were sitting out in the Sanctuary when another member of the Grove announced that he thought that we should start planning for Beltane immediately because it was almost the end of March, and Beltane is the first of May...and April was going to be a busy and Chaotic month for many Grove members. So it ended up that a small group of us stayed there for three hours batting ideas around...who to honor, what our purpose would be. As we did this, I recalled Rorik's suggestion of Epona. None of us had any idea why she had shown up (Further speaking to Rorik only revealed that he felt that she had indicated that she wanted some of our time and had not given any particular purpose or desire). Well, we decided to honor Epona...but was that going to be Epona the Gaulish-Celtic horse goddess? Or Epona Regina the goddess revered by Roman military and cavalrymen? (It is interesting to note that of the Celtic deities that the Romans assimilated, only the name of Epona remained unchanged saved for appending of the title Regina- "Queen" After another Sunday or two of discussing and hammering it out, we settled on the Gaulish Epona and along with Her, we would honor Belenus- also known as Bel, for whom the day Beltane is named, when cattle was driven between two balefires for purification and fertility. We could not find a Gaulish gatekeeper or crossroads deity, so Elen of the Ways, a Welsh goddess was added. Our next objective was to find a connection between Epona and Belenus: a myth, a legend, a fragment of something but after several weeks, none who tried were successful.
A few weeks before the High Day, the ritual team was set. One of our members, who is rarely able to come to the Grove, was asked to was asked to make the trip down from Pennsylvania to call in Epona- Devon and her husband Drey have a small horse farm and Epona is naturally a patron of theirs. Caryn would call for Elyn and for my affinity to fire, I was asked to invite Belenus. It's not the first- and won't be the last time I've said it: I am not a Celtic pagan. Feet planted firmly in the Hellenic camp, I am not the ideal choice to invoke an Irish-Celtic god...and I knew even less about the Gaulish deities. However, I had read in a few places that Belenus was likened to the Roman Apollo (even called Belenus Apollo sometimes), and the Hellenic Apollo is a patron of mine...and Belenus is a fire god so I could work something out. As this was a decided, someone asked if I would spin my firestaff in praise offering? Of course I would. Then someone else...either Caryn or Will I think asked if I could do the invocation while spinning...I can spin and talk at the same time, I would just need to make sure that I spoke loud enough. And could I do it *inside the circle*? That I couldn't say for sure...I had only spun in the empty area outside the circle in the past. I thought I could but would not say for sure without trying in an empty sanctuary.
In the weeks before Beltane, I was very close to losing my job- the contract for the company I was doing tech support had been cancelled and business was dwindling to nothing as the last days were coming. I had the internet at my disposal and plenty of time to do research, learn about Belenus and try to find a common thread to Epona. One day abut a week and a half before, Beltane, I had taken my copy of the Encyclopedia of Gods to work with me and was lounging my my desk, reading its (very short) articles on Epona and Belenus. I noticed that both articles mentioned worship as healing deities at a sanctuary of Saint Sabine in what is now the Cote d'Or...so I started Googling. Several search strings later, I had found a few websites with citations of small horse statues being consecrated and buried in honor of both Epona and Belenus Apollo. I had found the elusive connection that we were looking for! After that, writing my invocation was a breeze- the words seemed to fall from my pen to the paper.
The Saturday before Beltane, Jack Will and I ventured up to Devon and Drey's farm to meet their horses and learn more about Epona from their experience. We helped to feed the horses and groom them a bit, and Devon told us about her working with Epona, some of her experiences and what she'd learned. She suggested that we think of Epona as the Lead Mare for our herd. She also taught us a bit about horses in general- breeds, care, riding. We left armed with more information and a bit more ready to honor Epona in our ritual.
The next day, I took my firestaff and some lamp oil to the Grove for a test run in the sanctuary. The space was more than enough for what I needed, even so I erred on the side of caution and asked that during my invocation, everyone present stand just outside the outer circle of stones until my wicks were out. (The sanctuary has two concentric circles of flagstones to mark it.) Given the situation and purpose, I felt that it would be extremely inappropriate to extinguish them and would continue until they went out on their own. Once I finished speaking, because my wicks would burn longer than my invocation would last, Stephanie would then lead the Grove in a chant.
The next Saturday rolled around, Stephanie and Jesse picked me up on their way to the Grove to get ready. We got there before anyone else, and none of us had eaten, so we went out for lunch. When we got back, more people had arrived and we all worked on preparing the space. A fire was built- we had been afraid that a burn ban might keep us from having the fire, but it rained a lot the week or so before, so the ban was lifted.
People gathered and we processed into the circle, called on the Earth Mother and Kindreds, and sang the Portal Song as a small group of us circled the Well. the Fire and the Tree during its respective verse. Caryn called Elyn to open the Gates, Devon delivered a beautiful invocation to Epona, inviting her into our Grove sanctuary, which for the occasion had been decorated with dozens of horse statues in every crevice and corner we could get them. I was wrapped in a fire-printed skirt, bedecked with bells around my ankles, got up and called on Belenus Apollo- I chose that incarnation of the god because He was most familiar to me, and because He was most connected to Epona. I actually forgot the last two lines of the invocation that I had written, but I think the only one who realized this was Stephanie because I had read it to her beforehand so she would know when I was finished speaking to start the chant. When she realized, after only a short moment that I was not going to continue, she picked up and the Grove chanted to the god while I continued to spin- the wicks burned for about twice as long as they should have lasted and the second wick just would not burn out, so when it was down to a barely visible flame, I took staff in both hands, held the flame outwards and turned it in a circle around me, projecting the fire outwards to all present. Instead of a beverage as a welcoming offering, I poured what remained of the oil in the cup that I had used for soaking my wicks. Until now, we had kept the fire smaller than normal due to my spinning and the group circling the gates. The entire ritual went smoothly, perhaps a bit quicker than most. I spun once again during the praise offering segment- as I said at the time, I could not entice a fire god into our celebration and not offer Him a bit of performance for his pains, now could I?
After the ritual closed, and the last guest went home from revels, a few of us stayed for the night to keep the fire going- we would let it burn out in the morning, We sat up talking about the evening and various non-related things and somewhere in the middle of all that, it occurred to me that I had gained a good bit in the past few weeks- of more knowledge and understanding of the feast of Beltane, a new interest in the Gaulish-Celtic mythology, and a more thorough understanding of the virtue of fertility- an idea which I had previously mostly tried to avoid (but I've covered that in my virtue essay, so I'll avoid redundancy here), and as some other things came up which I have not discussed and are not related to the topic of Beltane, a much clearer idea of where I am going spiritually.
As I said at the beginning, I've said that every ritual has been different from the others. I have put more time and effort into Beltane than previous High Days, but with the possible exception of Mabon, I have gotten more in return than any of the others.
Invocation to Belenus:
I call to the bright and shining God Of Fire,
Brilliant Ruler of the Sun that shines warm on our faces
Belenus Apollo, Lord of Healing at St Sabine's sanctuary
Who is also called Bel
This evening we celebrate your feast
We ask you to be present among us
That we may praise you
That you may light our days
That we may exhalt you
That you may impart wisdom
And incite the flames of our spirits
As we bask in your rays