In my novel Cailín, Book I of the Anam Céile Chronicles, the heroine of my story, Aislinn was born on May 1st, Beltaine. This is significant in the length of the entire series as she slowly unravels who and what she really is and her origins. With May 1st fast approaching, I decided to give a bit of history surrounding the Pagan holiday of Beltaine for those who are uninformed. It is a rather interesting one, to say the least! I hope you will enjoy reading about it.
Beltaine is one of eight solar Sabbats.
The celebration of Beltaine on May 1st is one of the most important festivals of the year for many Wiccans and Pagans. Beltane is a Celtic word which means 'fires of Bel’ or ‘shining fire'. This is one of the most exciting festivals of the Wheel of the year.
It is a fire festival which celebrates the coming of summer and the fertility of the coming year. Celtic festivals often tied in with the needs of the community. In spring time, at the beginning of the farming calendar, everybody would be hoping for a fruitful year for their families and fields.
This holiday incorporates traditions from the Gaelic Bealtaine, such as the bonfire, but it bears more relation to the Germanic May Day festival, both in its significance of focusing on fertility, as well as its rituals, such as May pole dancing. Some traditions celebrate this holiday on May 1st commonly known as May Day, while others begin their celebration the eve before or April 30th.
Beltaine is the last of the three spring fertility festivals, the others being Imbolc and Ostara. Beltaine is the second principal Celtic festival (the other being Samhain). Celebrated approximately halfway between Vernal (spring) equinox and the midsummer (Summer Solstice). In ancient times, Beltaine traditionally marked the arrival of summer.
Beltaine, and its counterpart Samhain, divide the year into its two primary seasons, winter (Dark Part) and summer (Light Part). As Samhain honours Death, its counterpart Beltaine, honours Life. It is the time when the sun is fully released from his bondage of winter and able to rule over summer and life once again.
Beltaine, like Samhain, is a time of "no time" when the veils between the two worlds are at their thinnest.
‘No time’ is when the two worlds intermingle and unite and the magic abounds! It is the time when the Faeries return from their winter respite, carefree and full of faery mischief and delight. In times past, on the night before Beltaine, folks would place rowan branches at their windows and doors for protection, many otherworldly occurrences could transpire during this time of ‘no time’. Traditionally on the Isle of Man, the youngest member of the family gathers primroses on the eve before Beltaine and throws the flowers at the door of the home for protection. In Ireland it is believed that food left over from May Eve must not be eaten, but rather buried or left as an offering to the faery instead. Much like the tradition of leaving of whatever is not harvested from the fields on Samhain, food at the time of ‘no time’ is treated with great care.
When the veils are so thin it is an extremely magical time, it is said that the Queen of the Faeries rides out on her white horse. Roving about on Beltaine eve she will try to entice people away to the Faeryland. Legend has it that if you sit beneath a tree on Beltaine night, you may see the Faery Queen or hear the sound of her horse's bells as she rides through the night. And if you hide your face, she will pass you by, but if you look at her, she may choose you.
Beltaine has always been an auspicious time throughout Celtic lore. Leegend has it that the Tuatha de Danaan landed in north-west Connacht on Beltaine. The Tuatha de Danaan, it is said, came from the North through the air in a mist to Ireland. After the invasion by the Milesians, the Tuatha faded into the Otherworld, Tir na nOg.
The beginning of summer heralds an important time, for the winter is a difficult journey and weariness and disheartenment set in, personally one is tired down to the soul. In times past the food stocks were low; variety was a distant memory. The drab non-color of winter's end perfectly represents the dullness and fatigue that permeates on so many levels to this day.
Beltaine marks that the winter's journey has passed and summer has begun, it is a festival of rapturous gaiety as it joyfully heralds the arrival of summer. Beltaine, however, is still a precarious time, the crops are still very young and tender, susceptible to frost and blight. Fires, celebration and rituals were an important part of the Beltaine festivities, as to insure that the warmth of the Sun's light would promote the fecundity of the earth.
Beltaine marks the passage into the growing season, the immediate rousing of the earth from her gently awakening slumber, a time when the pleasures of the earth and self are fully awakened. It signals a time when the bounty of the earth will once again be had. May is a time when flowers bloom, trees are green and life has again returned from the barren landscape of winter, to the hope of bountiful harvests, not too far away, and the lighthearted bliss that only summer can bring.
Fire is still the most important element of most Beltaine celebrations and there are many traditions associated with it. On Beltaine eve the Celts would build two large fires, Bel Fires, lit from the nine sacred woods. The Bel Fire is an invocation to Bel (Sun God) to bring His blessings and protection to the tribe. The herds were ritually driven between two needfires (fein cigin), built on a knoll. The herds were driven through to purify, bring luck and protect them as well as to insure their fertility before they were taken to summer grazing lands. People would leap over the Beltaine fire to bring good fortune, fertility (of mind, body and spirit) and happiness through the coming year.
The Bel fire is a sacred fire with healing and purifying powers which cleanse and revitalise. The fires further celebrate the return of life, fruitfulness to the earth and the burning away of winter. The ashes of the Beltaine fires were smudged on faces and scattered in the fields. Household fires would be extinguished and re-lit with fresh fire from the Bel Fires.
Beltaine Sensuality Customs
Beltaine has long been celebrated with feasts and rituals. Belinos being one name for the Sun God, the father, protector, and the husband of the Mother Goddess whose coronation feast we now celebrate. As summer begins, weather becomes warmer, and the plant world blossoms, an exuberant mood prevails. In old Celtic traditions it was a time of unabashed sexuality and promiscuity where marriages of a year and a day could be undertaken, although it is rarely observed in that manner in modern times.
Celebration includes frolicking throughout the countryside, maypole dancing, leaping over fires to ensure fertility, circling the fire three times (sun-wise) for good luck in the coming year, feasting, music, drinking, children gathering flowers, hobby horses, May birching. Flowers, flower wreaths and garlands are typical decorations for this holiday, as well as ribbons and streamers. Flowers are a crucial symbol of Beltaine, they signal the victory of Summer over Winter and the blossoming of sensuality in all of nature and the bounty it will bring.
May birching, began on Beltaine Eve, it is said that young men fastened garland and boughs on the windows and doors of the young maidens upon which their sweet interest laid. Mountain ash leaves and Hawthorne branches meant indicated love, whereas thorn meant disdain.
Young men and women wandered into the woods before daybreak of May Day morning with garlands of flowers and/or branches of trees. They would arrive— most rumpled from the previous overnight’s trysts— in many areas with the maypole for the Beltaine celebrations. Pre-Christian society's thoughts on human sexuality and fertility were not bound up in guilt and sin, but rather joyous in the less restraint expression of human passions. Life was not an exercise, but rather a joyful dance, rich in all the beauty surrounding us.
Another benchmark tradition of this holiday is the Maypole. It is a tall pole decorated with long brightly colored ribbons, leaves, flowers and wreaths. Traditionally, a fir was used. The young, unwed men would go to the forest and return with the tree that would be fashioned into the pole. The pole was brought to the center of the village to be guarded through the night until the first day of May.
On that day, the people would come and dance around the maypole clockwise to bring fertility and good luck. Young maidens and lads each hold the end of a ribbon, and dance revolving around the base of the pole, interweaving the ribbons. The circle of dancers should begin, as far out from the pole as the length of ribbon allows, so the ribbons are taut. There should be an even number of boys & girls. Boys should be facing clockwise and girls counterclockwise. They each move in the direction that they are facing, weaving with the next, around to braid the ribbons over-and-under around the pole. Those passing on the inside will have to duck, those passing on the outside raise their ribbons to slide over. As the dances revolve around the pole the ribbons will weave creating a pattern, it is said that the pattern will indicate the abundance of harvest year.
This symbolizes the balance of masculine and feminine energies and the duality of life. The ribbons would then be removed and kept in a safe place to be burned in the Beltane fires of next year. This action represents the old dying to give birth to the new.
The Maypole dance as an important aspect of encouraging the return of fertility to the earth. The pole itself is not only phallic in symbolism but also is the connector of the three worlds (the physical, the spiritual and the Otherworld). Dancing the Maypole during Beltaine is magical experience as it is a conduit of energy, connecting all three worlds at a time when these gateways are more easily penetrable. As people gaily dance around and around the pole holding the brightly colored ribbons, the energy it raises is sent down into the earth's womb, bringing about Her full awakening and fruitfulness.
There is also a Queen of May. She is said in many areas to have worn a gold crown with a single, gold leaf at its front, in other areas her crown was made of fresh flowers. She was typically chosen at the start of the Beltaine festival, which in time past was after sundown on the eve before Beltaine day. Many accounts mention both a May Queen and King being chosen, whom would reign from sundown the eve before the Beltaine day to sunset on Beltaine. Among their duties would be to announce the Beltaine games and award the prizes to the victors.
The rudimentary base of this practise can be drawn back to the roots of Beltaine festivities, the union of the Goddess and Her Consort, the joining of earth and sun, the endowment of summer. The Goddess has many guises: Danu (The Great Mother), Blodeuwedd (the Flower Bride), Isolt (Iseult, Isolde) and many, many others. The consort can also take many forms including the Green Man, Cernunnos or Tristan.
Fertility is the central theme of Beltane. Fertility of all areas of life are invoked during this holiday. The people lived in close connection with the Earth. To have food to eat, the crops and the beasts of the fields would have to be fertile. In the time of the ancients, this was a life and death matter. It is for this reason that there are a number of holidays and rituals connected with fertility. Another fertility representation is the custom of jumping the cauldron. Couples wishing to conceive children will jump the cauldron together.
Beltaine rituals would often include courting. For example, young men and women collecting blossoms in the woods and lighting fires in the evening. These rituals would often lead to matches and marriages, either immediately in the coming summer or autumn. As Beltaine marks the hand fasting (wedding) of the Goddess and God, it too marks the reawakening of the earth's fertility in its fullest. This is the union between the Great Mother and her Young Consort, this coupling brings new life on earth. It is on a Spiritual level, the unifying of the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine to bring forth the third, consciousness. On the physical, it is the union of the Earth and Sun to bring about the fruitfulness of the growing season.
It is customary that trial unions, for a year and a day, occur at this time. More or less these were statements of intent between couples, which were not legally binding. The trial marriages (engagements) typically occurred between a couple before deciding to take a further step into a legally binding union. It seems ancient wisdom understood that one does not really know another until they have lived with them, and when you live together things change and we change, as well. With this understanding unions were entered upon, first as a test period, and then if desired, a further commitment could be taken. It is through always knowing that it is only by the choice of both to remain, that the relationship exists favorably.
May, though ironically, is not a favorable time for marriages in the legal and permanent sense, according to old folklore. There are countless references in the old books of this belief, and according to the Irish ancestors, May is not the month to marry, “woe is to be had by those who do”. The premise of this folklore is that May is the Goddess and God's handfasting month, thus all honor should be Hers and His.
Water is another important association of Beltaine, water is refreshing and rejuvenating, it is also imperative to life. It is said that if you bathe in the dew gathered before dawn on Beltaine morn, your beauty will flourish throughout the year. Those who are sprinkled with May dew are insured of health and happiness. There are other folk customs such as drinking from the well before sunrise on Beltaine Morn to insure good health and fortune.
Beltaine is rich in vibrant color, lighting the eyes and cheering the Spirit as we leave the dreariness of winter behind. The central color of Beltaine is green. Green is the color of growth, abundance, plentiful harvest, abundant crops, fertility, and luck. White is another color that is customary, white brings the energies of cleansing, peace, spirituality, and the power to dispel negativity. Another color is red who brings along the qualities of energy, strength, sex, vibrancy, quickening, health, consummation and retention. Sun energy, life force and happiness are brought to Beltaine by the color yellow.
May is the month of sensuality and sexuality revitalised, the reawakening of the earth and Her Children. It is the time when we reawaken to the vivid colors, vibrant scents, tingling summer breezes, and the rapture of summer after a long dormant winter. It is a time of extraordinary expression of earth, animal, and person a time of great enchantment and celebration.
In the old Celtic times, young people would spend the entire night in the woods "A-Maying," and then dance around the phallic Maypole the next morning. Older married couples were allowed to remove their wedding rings— as well as the restrictions they imply— for this one night.
Women traditionally would braid flowers into their hair. Men and women alike would decorate their bodies. Beltaine marks the return of vitality, of passion. Ancient Pagan traditions say that Beltaine marks the emergence of the young God into manhood. Stirred by the energies at work in nature, he desires the Goddess. They fall in love, lie among the grasses and blossoms, and unite. The Goddess becomes pregnant by the God.
Although Beltaine is the most overtly sexual festival, Pagans rarely use sex in their rituals although rituals often imply sex and fertility. The tradition of dancing round the maypole contains sexual imagery and is still very popular with modern Pagans.
The largest Beltane celebrations in the UK are held in Edinburgh. Every year on 30th April on Calton Hill thousands of people come together for this huge festival. The evening begins with a procession to the top of the hill led by people dressed as the May Queen and the Green Man (ancient God and Goddess figures representing fertility and growth).
The May Queen crowns the Green Man, in a ritual similar to that carried out by Wiccan Pagans (who follow a structured set of rituals). The winter ends when the Green Man's winter costume is taken from him and he is revealed in his spring costume. A wild dance takes place and the Green Man and the May Queen are married.
The main element of any Beltane celebration is fire. On Calton Hill torchbearers carry purifying flames and fire arches are used to represent the gateways between the earthly world and the spirit world.
Most of the imagery used in the costumes and rituals comes from the Celts and from Scottish folklore. Other influences come from indigenous people worldwide. Due to the eclectic nature of the celebrations, Edinburgh's Beltane is not recognised as a religious ritual by many practising Pagans.
- The blue paint of the Blue Men represents that used by Celtic warriors.
- The May Queen's male consort is the Green Man, sometimes called the May King, Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood or the woodland faery Puck.
- The Red Men represent mischief makers, Pan-like figures who live for the moment without a care in the world or inhibitions.
- The White Woman and her handmaidens protect the May Queen and attend to her later in the evening. They are the order and discipline in the face of the Red Men's chaos.
- Torch Bearers are an important, trusted group. Dressed from head to foot in black, with blacked out faces, their hair covered, they are protected from fire and other elements.
A Blessed Beltane to you and yours and a Happy Earth Day!
© 2013 Rosalind Scarlett
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