In keeping with Celtic tradition, there are always games at Lughnasad, challenging games for mind, body, and sense of humor. This year was no exception, and as is typical there we were assigned randomly into teams. We were also advised that each team needed to select a captain, but the only additional information we had about that role was that the captain of the winning team “would play a part in the main ritual” on Saturday night.
After sitting for some minutes with my teammates, many of whom were new friends, sharing looks that quietly pleaded, “don’t pick me,” I volunteered to be our captain. The sighs of relief lowered the pressure nearby so much that a microstorm was created, but it dissipated in less than two minutes.
So we matched wits and memories with the other teams, and competed in much-venerated games of skill as the pudding-feeding contest, and finally, it came down to a test of wills: two were left standing on the field of dodge ball, and one must fall. I had long since be eliminated by a brutal four-ball attack, but our remaining teammate took the day.
And it came to pass that I was crowned King of the festival, given a sceptre and throne, and made frequent and loud proclamations throughout dinner. Titles were conferred. Holidays created. Merriment was declared.
While the meal passed, attendees pondered the astrological significance of the planets, and upon colorful ribbons they wrote down aspects of themselves that governed by some or all of them, aspects they wished to be rid of. When time came for the ritual, I donned my royal cloak; as we processed up the woodland path to the ritual space, I accepted those burdened ribbons upon my cloak.
Being King can be awfully fun, when you make the youngsters into pages and send them o’er hill and dale in quest largely for the royal entertainment. But despite my actually saying, “It’s good to be the King,” the crown can be heavy at times. All through the meal I knew what was to come — I was to be the sacrifice, dying to release my people of what held them back. I swathed myself with merriment, and brought joy to the festival, because a King’s burdens must be borne alone.
That’s why I found that, even though it was just ribbons tied to my cloak, the weight grew heavier with each station. My steps grew more labored, and when I knelt before the aspect of each planet, bracing and grounding myself with the sceptre, it was harder to arise again each time.
I can’t say exactly what words were spoken when the procession arrived at the ritual space, high above the gates of Laurelin and deep within in sacred woodlands. All I could focus on was staying upright, and moving my feet forward when directed to do so. When they lay me down upon the altar, I still felt every bit as heavy.
What I do recall is the priestess, haloed in fire, who lifted her arms high in proclamation. Her hands dropped suddenly — I knew, but could not see, that she held a blade — and plunged the blade next to my ribs, but in that instant I truly was no more.
Symbolic sacrifice is part acting, but only part. The ritual had worked its power upon me, and when the blade dropped, my consciousness may as well have been snuffed out. It was as if the universe had paused between breaths, waiting to find out what would happen next.
Earlier I had been told that I would be resurrected as well, a plan which pleased me greatly. I wish I could speak of the methods used, but I simply wasn’t there to observe. What I do know is that when the universe released that breath, it went straight into me, and I found myself tumbling off the altar and back into self.
Sacred kingship is a rich and complex role, and I was deeply gratified to learn its lessons. How fortunate I am that it was my time to serve the community.