Understanding Beltane

April’s showers have given way to rich and fertile earth, and as the land greens, there are few celebrations as representative of fertility as Beltane. Observed on May 1st (or October 31 – November 1 for our Southern Hemisphere readers), festivities typically begin the evening before, on the last night of April.

Beltane is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature, and it is associated with important events in Irish mythology. It marked the beginning of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures.

Beltane honors Life. It represents the peak of Spring and the beginning of Summer. Earth energies are at their strongest and most active. All of life is bursting with potent fertility and at this point in the Wheel of the Year, the potential becomes conception. On May Eve the sexuality of life and the earth is at its peak. Abundant fertility, on all levels, is the central theme. The Maiden goddess has reached her fullness.

Beltane, the Celtic May Day. It officially begins at moonrise on May Day Eve, and marks the beginning of the third quarter or second half of the ancient Celtic year. It is celebrated as an early pastoral festival accompanying the first turning of the herds out to wild pasture. The rituals were held to promote fertility. The cattle were driven between the Belfires to protect them from ills. Contact with the fire was interpreted as symbolic contact with the sun. In early Celtic times, the druids kindled the Beltane fires with specific incantations. Later the Christian church took over the Beltane observances, a service was held in the church, followed by a procession to the fields or hills, where the priest kindled the fire. The rowan branch is hung over the house fire on May Day to preserve the fire itself from bewitchment (the house fire being symbolic of the luck of the house).

This is a holiday of Union–both between the Goddess and the God and between man and woman. Handfastings (Pagan marriages) are traditional at this time. It is a time of fertility and harvest, the time for reaping the wealth from the seeds that we have sown. Celebrations include braiding of one’s hair (to honour the union of man and woman and Goddess and God), circling the Maypole for fertility and jumping the Beltane fire for luck. Beltane is one of the Major Sabbats of the Wiccan religion. We celebrate sexuality (something we see as holy and intrinsic to us as holy beings), we celebrate life and the unity which fosters it. The myths of Beltane state that the young God has blossomed into manhood, and the Goddess takes him on as her lover. Together, they learn the secrets of the sexual and the sensual, and through their union, all life begins.

Beltane is the season of maturing life and deep found love. This is the time of vows, handfastings and commitment. The Lord and his Lady, having reached maturity, come together in Perfect Love and Perfect Trust to celebrate the joy of their union. This is a time to celebrate the coming together of the masculine and feminine creative energies. Beltane marks the emergence of the young God into manhood. Stirred by the energies at work in nature, he desired the Goddess. They fall in love, lie among the grasses and blossoms and unite.

The flowers and greenery symbolise the Goddess and the Maypole represents the God. Beltane marks the return of vitality and passion of summer. Another common focal point of the Beltane rituals is the cauldron, which represents the Goddess. The Welsh goddess Creiddylad is connected with Beltane, often called the May Queen, she was a Goddess of summer flowers and love.

In the early Irish literature, we learn that Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops, and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke, and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire or between two bonfires and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast, and some of the food and drink would be offered to the aos sí. Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire. In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush: a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons and bright shells. Holy wells were also visited, while Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness. Many of these customs were part of May Day or Midsummer festivals in other parts of Great Britain and Europe.

Beltane is a Fire Festival. The word ‘Beltane’ originates from the Celtic God ‘Bel’, meaning ‘the bright one’ and the Gaelic word ‘teine’ meaning fire. Together they make ‘Bright Fire’, or ‘Goodly Fire’ and traditionally bonfires were lit to honor the Sun and encourage the support of Bel and the Sun’s light to nurture the emerging future harvest and protect the community. Bel had to be won over through human effort. Traditionally all fires in the community were put out and a special fire was kindled for Beltane. “This was the Tein-eigen, the need fire. People jumped the fire to purify, cleanse and to bring fertility. Couples jumped the fire together to pledge themselves to each other. Cattle and other animals were driven through the smoke as a protection from disease and to bring fertility. At the end of the evening, the villagers would take some of the Teineigen to start their fires anew.” (From Sacred Celebrations by Glennie Kindred) Green Man – Beltane

Some Special Things To Consider For Beltane:

A MAY BASKET

Prepare a May basket by filling it with flowers and goodwill and then give it to someone in need of healing and caring, such as a shut-in or elderly friend. Form a wreath of freshly picked flowers, wear it in your hair, and feel yourself radiating joy and beauty. Dress in bright colors. Dance the Maypole and feel yourself balancing the Divine Female and Male within. On May Eve, bless your garden in the old way by making love with your lover in it. Make a wish as you jump a bonfire or candle flame for good luck. Welcome in the May at dawn with singing and dancing.

Handfasting

As Beltane is the Great Wedding of the Goddess and the God, it is a popular time for pagan weddings or Handfastings, a traditional betrothal for ‘a year and a day’ after which the couple would either choose to stay together or part without recrimination. Today, the length of commitment is a matter of choice for the couple, and can often be for life. Handfasting ceremonies are often unique to the couple but include common elements, most importantly the exchange of vows and rings (or a token of their choice). The act of handfasting always involves tying the hands Handfasting (‘tying the knot’) of the two people involved, in a figure of eight, at some point in the ceremony and later unbinding. This is done with a red cord or ribbon. Tying the hands together symbolizes that the two people have come together and the untying means that they remain together of their own free will.

Another common element is ‘jumping the broomstick’ – this goes back to a time when two people who could not afford a church ceremony or want one, would be accepted in the community as a married couple if they literally jumped over a broom laid on the floor. The broom marked a ‘threshold’, moving from an old life to a new one.

Mead and cakes are often shared in communion as part of the ceremony. Mead is known as the Brew of the Divine, made from honey which is appropriate for a love ceremony (and is the oldest alcoholic drink known to humankind).

Going A-Maying

Handfasting or not, both young and old went A-Maying… Couples spent the night in the woods and fields, made love and brought back armfuls of the first May or hawthorn blossoms to decorate their homes and barns. Hawthorn was never brought into the home except at Beltane – at other times it was considered unlucky. Young women gathered the dew to wash their faces, made Flower Crowns and May Baskets to give as gifts. Everyone was free to enact the Sacred Marriage of Goddess and God, and there was an accepted tradition of Beltane babies arriving nine months later…

Maypole

The Maypole is a popular and familiar image of May Day and Beltane. A phallic pole, often made from birch, was inserted into the Earth representing the potency of the God. The ring of flowers at the top of the Maypole represents the fertile Goddess. Its many colored ribbons and the ensuing weaving dance symbolize the spiral of Life and the union of the Goddess and God, the union between Earth and Sky.

The colors of Beltane are green, red and white/silver. Green represents growth, abundance, and fertility. Red represents strength, vitality, passion, and vibrancy. White represents cleansing and clearing and the power to disperse negativity.

Photo by donald judge

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