Beltane is one of the eight pagan festivals in what’s called the ‘wheel of the year’. It takes place on the first day of May (often called May Day) and signals the beginning of summer and the end of spring. There are a few theories of the origins of the Beltane festival but there is some agreement that it’s the anglicised spelling of Old Irish ‘Beltaine’ or ‘Beltine’ from a Common Celtic word meaning “bright fire”. In some Neopagan groups Beltane is one of the eight Sabbats, or festivals, between ‘Ostara’ in March and ‘Midsummer’ in June. It’s also a ‘cross-quarter’ day meaning it’s the mid-point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.
Celebrating Beltane is often a raucous and lively affair, especially in comparison to the more contemplative Sabbat of Samhain (which most people know of as Halloween) where thoughts lead to our ancestors and people that have passed on. By contrast, Beltane embodies the burgeoning summer and for some people the Goddess at Beltane is now in her aspect of the ‘Maiden’.
There are a lot of traditions at Beltane from many different sources. Most will have heard of the Maypole; its phallic representation is no mere accident as many see it as the potency and fecundity of The God. To further the representation; the Maypole is often topped with a ring of flowers to represent the fertile Goddess. In fact this was considered so offensive by The Puritans that they banned Maypoles during the 17th century. While for some the representations of ‘fertility’ is associated with reproduction, fertility in this sense is understood as the birth of ideas and loves too and to think of it as male/female reproduction only is to hugely misunderstand, and underestimate, the meaning. (As a personal aside; to think of things in a male/female binary is also to very much misunderstand the meaning too). Often there is a May Queen and sometimes a Green Man; a couplet possibly drawn upon for the characterisation of Maid Marion and Robin Hood.
Beltane traditions also include going ‘A-Maying’ which meant staying out all night to gather flowering hawthorn, watching the sunrise and having sex in the woods — something I heartily recommend! You may also have heard about Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss festival which has to be experienced! In Scotland, a custom from the Highlands was to mark a piece of oatmeal cake with charcoal. The person who got the marked piece was compelled to leap over the flames three times to prevent a curse. People leap over the Beltane fire to bring good fortune, fertility (of mind, body and spirit) and happiness through the coming year. It is also said that the dew on the May Day morning has magical properties; you will stay fair all year if you wash your face and body in it. In fact some collect the dew for later use, as a top-up through the year maybe. But no talk of Beltane would be complete without mentioning the Beltane Fire Festival; a spectacular ritual drama held on Calton Hill in Edinburgh – it’s truly an amazing event!
For my group, my plans centered around a character called Jack-in-the-green. So — in relative secrecy — I planned the event and found the raw materials to build my Jack and we carried him into place in the woods. We all made garlands out of ivy with red and white thread woven through them and then made our way through the trees to where Jack was sitting in a small clearing. While processing to the space, we sang our Beltane song:
Oh, do not tell the Priest of our Art,
Or he would call it sin;
But we shall be out in the woods all night,
A conjuring summer in!
And we bring you news by word of mouth
For women, cattle and corn
Now is the dun come up from the South
With Oak, and Ash and Thorn!
Surrounding the 7-foot Jack, we sang and danced in a circle getting louder and louder. Jack started to sway until he was leaping and dancing around in a whirl with us! It was a surprise to those who had assumed Jack was just going to sit there, but with some magic (and a willing volunteer); he lead us through the woods back to the Beltane Fire. There, our May Queen — who had been selected by picking the Empress Tarot card earlier — had some words for us before inviting us to leap over the purifying fire of 9 woods; Birch for The Goddess, Oak for The God, Hazel for knowledge and wisdom, Rowan for life, Willow for death, Fir for birth & rebirth, Apple for love & family and Vine for joy & happiness. We followed this with a wonderful evening of eating, singing and laughing in the woodland…
…and with that, summer had come!
This post was written by a RWL Guest Blogger – Beth is a witch, vegan and queer and probably doesn’t need any more labels. She will be writing more at The Wytch Wyrd.