Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess—NO, stop right there. Tales like this do not require princesses. Let’s try again. Once upon a time there was a sturdy young woman who lived in a small town in Mitteleuropa not too far from the castle of the Holy Roman Emperor.
The girl’s name is Madchen. Her parents are a Farmer and a Cunning Woman. She is proud to say that just last fall she actually saw the Emperor, who is a stiff, elderly man who always wears a fussed-up military uniform and a pince nez and has enormous sidewhiskers. The Emperor did not, of course, notice the girl as he sat in his carriage and waved stiffly to his subjects. But what Madchen doesn’t know is that Crown Prince Rufus, whose uniform and sidewhiskers are considerably more modest than his father’s and who was riding on a great red stallion in the parade behind his father’s coach, noticed her immediately. That girl, he said to himself, is a girl I must have!
The Empire by this time is no longer either holy or Roman, and republics and revolutionaries are springing up on all sides. Which explains why Crown Prince Rufus spends most of his time at war. Madchen, who has no interest in the royal family, spends most of her time on the farm, learning how to care for the failing crops and their few remaining animals. She is also learning that the lives of the land and its ruler-steward are closely interrelated. It is obvious, at least to country people, that the health of one is echoed in the health of other. The Emperor is a proud old man who has occupied his throne for so many years that only his eldest subjects remember his father and uncle who sat on that throne before him. Crown Prince Rufus is young and healthy, but he is also known to be debauched and careless with money and the lives of his men. All around the Empire, money and goods are scarce, farmers and merchants alike are failing, and the younger generation seems to be going to hell in a hand basket.
And now it is Springtime, and all around the Empire, the Shamans and Cunning Women of the countryside and small towns and the Priests in the urban churches are doing their various kinds of magic to prepare to welcome the Summer on Beltane Day. Their hope is to return prosperity and abundance to the Empire, though many people are skeptical that any kind of magic can work and that no Gods on Earth or Above care for their Emperor anymore. Holy Beltane Processions led by Gods and Goddesses and Priests and Priestesses are nonetheless being planned. The wells are being cleaned in preparation for being dressed for Beltane by the women, who will tie strips of white cloth to the trees around the water. Implements of all kinds are being cleaned, machines are being oiled and repaired, and homes and stores are being scrubbed until they shine. Highways and roads are being swept and highwaymen are being chased and captured. Yes, Summer is coming, and the people want to bring all its blessings to the Empire. They are even praying for the health of the old Emperor, though many of them ask, “Whatever for? He’s a foolish old man. Where’s his power gone to? How can he bless us like he used to?” To which others reply, “Well, at least he’s better than that son of his. May the Lady preserve us from that Crown Prince Rufus!”
At this point, Crown Prince Rufus reenters our story. He and a dozen of his men are sweeping through the forest in pursuit of a band of robbers. It just so happens that Madchen is at the edge of the forest collecting herbs and pronouncing blessings to the birds in their nests, the rabbits in their holes, and the new leaves growing in the trees.
Rufus pulls his stallion to a halt. “You! Girl! Come over here to me!”
Madchen sets down the basket she is carrying and turns to face the handsome Prince, for he is indeed handsome. But she doesn’t remember that he’s the Crown Prince. “Are you speaking to me?”
“Yes, Girl. I am speaking to you. Come over here.” When Madchen comes closer, he says, “Girl, do you know who I am?”
Well, now they have a conversation of sorts, during which he tries to charm and/or seduce her, but the magic of her innocence is strong, and at last he dismounts and walks with her to her parents’ house. She’s trying to explain why Beltane is so important, but he is sure there is nothing as important as his desires. Which center on her virginity. As it happens, Madchen’s mother, who immediately recognizes Rufus, is sitting outside the house weaving. She continues to weave, but now the words of her chant change. She finishes another row just as they arrive, and with a few more words cast into the air, she rises and bows before the Crown Prince.
“Welcome, Your Highness,” she says, and Rufus can’t help but notice that her greeting is entirely lacking in awe.
The Crown Prince gives a regal nod. “I am thirsty,” he says. “Give me something to drink.”
The mother smiles and sends her daughter inside for the Special Cup they use only on Holy Days. “Only that Cup is worthy of Your Highness,” she says. When Madchen comes out bearing a large, shining, bronze Cup with an Antlered Man and a Pregnant Woman etched in it, the mother takes it and murmurs words of blessing, then goes to the well herself to fill it. “Your Highness,” she says, “take and drink. May you always be blessed with good health and happiness.”
Rufus, who is accustomed to people groveling before him, is suddenly struck speechless. No one has ever spoken such words to him before. “Uh…um…thank you,” he manages to say, and as he drinks he looks again at Madchen. I must have that girl, he says to himself. Aloud, he says, “What an interesting Cup this is! Where did you get it? And why is it not in the royal treasury?”
“Oh, Your Highness, this Cup, though beautiful and highly symbolic, is worthless. It’s just an old Cup passed down through the generations. We have a family story that it was given to us by the Fairies. But who can believe such a story? They said the Cup assists in the rebirth of one in need who drinks from it. But who can believe such a story?”
Rufus is not sure what to believe. Surely the peasants of his father’s Empire are simple, illiterate, and superstitious. But as he swallows the pure water from the old Cup, he feels a slight tingling inside him. He drains the Cup and holds it out. “More.”
This time mother nods to daughter and gestures, and Madchen takes the Cup, being sure to touch the Crown Prince’s hands as she does. She walks to the well and ties a strip of white cloth she just happens to have in her apron pocket to the hawthorne hanging over the water. Then she dips the old Cup into the water three times and carries the brimming Cup back to their visitor. This time, Rufus is much quicker with his thank you.
And so, to make a potentially long story shorter, Mother and Maiden and Prince engage in conversation. Strangely enough, the Prince does more listening than talking. With further thanks to these peasants for their stories, he mounts his stallion and gallops back to the city and the palace. The next day, he finds that he’s thirsty again. Only pure water will quench his thirst. And where else to find it? He gallops back to Madchen’s house. This goes on from one full moon to the next, and each day he listens to the old stories, no longer, in his mind mere superstitions and household tales. The Cunning Woman speaks of the secret truths of astronomy, geometry, and ethics, and he learns that the land and the people are connected. He learns that if the King or Queen (yes, in the olden days the rulers were mere Kings and Queens) is unwell, so is the land unfertile. If the ruler is not courteous, the land does not flower. If the ruler is proud, the land is poor.
“Great Balls of Zeus!” Rufus exclaims. “That explains a lot about the situation in Mitteleuropa! I must resolve be a better Crown Prince than I have been.” He drinks more pure water from the magical Cup. “I must resolve to be a better ruler than my recent ancestors. I must resolve to do what I can to restore the land.”
The Cunning Woman nods. And then she shares the greatest holy secret with the Crown Prince…and that is why, when Beltane Eve comes, not only do the peasants go into the fields to lie down in the furrows to fertilize the land (and each other, both physically and metaphysically), but also, while the Emperor and Empress hold a great feast in the castle and—wonder of wonders—the Emperor comes down from his throne and dances a vigorous waltz with his prime minister’s wife, the Crown Prince and his Maiden go out into the fields, too. An old custom and an old prophecy are fulfilled that night, and the next day, those with eyes to see can see the new flowers and crops and those with ears to hear can hear the clucking of the chickens and the mooing and baaing of the cattle and sheep. A rich season is coming.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.