Beltane, also known as May Day, which is derived from the Irish Gaelic 'Bealtaine' or the Scottish Gaelic 'Bealtuinn', meaning 'Bel-fire', the fire of the Celtic god of light (Bel, Beli or Belinus). He, in turn, may be traced to the Middle Eastern god Baal.
May Day , of course resides in the month of May which is named of the goddess Maia, a Greek mountain nymph. Maia is identified as the most beautiful of the seven sister, the Pleiades, which as we will see is important to timing Beltane. Her parents we Atlas and Pleione, a sea nymph. Maia is also mother to Hermes, by Zeus. (1
Other names for May Day include: Cetsamhain ('opposite Samhain'), Walpurgisnacht (in Germany), and Roodmas (the medieval Church's name). Roodmas came to us by way of Church Fathers who were hoping to shift the allegiance of the common people's from the Maypole (Pagan - symbol of life) to the Holy Rood (the Cross - Roman instrument of death).(1)
Dating or Timing Beltane, can be a little tricky as there are several accepted methods for determining the date.
- Astrological Beltane: Following the suns track via astrology, this would be 15 degree Taurus. Many traditions and covens within witchcraft and wicca use this method.
- Astronomical Beltane: The time at which The Pleiades constellation rises in the morning horizon. The seven sisters or The Pleiades, is a cluster of seven closely placed stars in the constellation of Taurus. On Beltane, the rise just before dawn on the morning horizon, where as Samhain begins with The Pleiades rise at Sunset. Astronomical Beltane occurs around May 5th, however it can move within a few days in either direction.
- Lunar Beltane: The first full moon in the month of May. This moon is also referred to as Full Flower Moon. In most areas, flowers are abundant everywhere during this time. Thus, the name of this Moon. Other names include the Full Corn Planting Moon, or the Milk Moon.
- May Day or the Static Calender Beltane: On our modern calender this is celebrated on May 1st. Celebrations usually from sundown on April 30th to sundown on the 1st of May. The Static Calender date came about in 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII moved the date back 11 days in most European Countries. Previously, Beltane was celebrated between May 11th and May 15th, when spring, in Europe was more noticeable, the weather warmer and dryer, flora was in full bloom , the animals wakened from their den and, newborns thriving.
- Natural Beltane: The Blooming of the Hawthorn, or May Flower.
- Solar Beltane: (Cross Quarter) The calculation of the date and time of Beltane, is derived as the midpoint between Ostara (vernal equinox) and Litha ( the summer solstice) from the Wheel of the Year.
What it is
Beltane and it's counterpart Samhain divide the year into a light and dark half. Beltane (light half) celebrates Life. The land is released from the cold clutches of winter and spring is in full bloom. This is the beginning of summer, as the heart warms the land, drawing forth plants, tree and crops from the warm fertile soil. This is a most important time, the depression and exhaustion of the long winter gives way to the sun and warmth, the rebirth not only of the land but of the renewal of the love, laughter and light in our souls.
Beltane also marks the official passage into the growing season. While, for some such as myself in Florida, the earth has been growing for sometime, in the Northern climates of Europe, the earth is waking , and the beauty of her bounty can be seen, from the blossoms of the fruit trees, to the freshly turned soils, awaiting their seed! The desolate white landscapes, had given way, to the dreary muds of the thaws, and finally, the trees are green, the lands dries, hope springs forth, with the plant life, and we awaken to pleasure, both of the earth and ourselves.
Like it's counterpart Samhain, Beltane is also considered to be a time when the veils between the two worlds are at their thinnest. This is a magickal time, when the Faeries return bent on mischief and laughter! The Queen of the Fairies rides out on a snow-white horse, looking for mortals to lure away to Fairyland for seven years. Folklore says that if you sit beneath a tree on this night, you will see Her or hear the sound of Her horse's bells as She rides by. If you hide your face, She will pass you by but if you look at Her, She may choose you. It is a wonderful time to include Faery work in your rituals, or to honor them, as to avert mischief being directed towards you! Much like Samhain, food left over from May Eve's celebrations must not be eaten, rather bury it or better yet leave it as an offering to the Faery instead.
Lore and Legend
There is much lore and legend associated with Beltane from all across the world. Rather than an exhaustive list of lore and legend, I will include a few examples here.
Tuatha de Danaan
"Beltane has been an auspicious time throughout Celtic lore, it is said that the Tuatha de Danaan landed in north-west Connacht on Beltane. 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, the Sidhe, Tir na nOg."
Lleu and Blodeuwedd
"'Let us use our magic and enchantments to conjure up a woman out of flowers.' Math and Gwydyon took the flowers of oak and broom and meadowsweet and from these conjured up the loveliest and most beautiful girl anyone had seen; they baptized her with the form of baptism that was used then, and named her Blodeuwedd."
- The Mabinogion
Lleu is the son of the Goddess Arianrhod, through the misadventure of his birth, he is cursed thrice by his mother. Lleu's final curse, bars him from marrying a mortal woman. His uncles Gwydion and Math, conspire against Arianrhods curses, from the flowers of Oak, broom and meadosweet, they create the Goddess Blodeuwedd, bride of Lleu. Bloudeuwedd is the Goddess of Spring Growth, the May Queen given in sacred marriage to Lleu. Their marriage rites are celebrated on Beltane.
Gwyn, Gwythur and Creiddylad
Where as many western tradition is witchcraft celebrate the mythic battle between the light and the dark on Litha and Yule, the Celts celebrated it on Beltane and Samhain, as the battle between the winter and summer! No place is that better illustrated then with this legend.
Gwyn ap Nudd, King of the Tylwyth Teg (fair folk) and ruler of the Annwn (welsh underworld) abducted his sister Creiddylad ( an incredibly beautiful maiden) from her betrothed Gwythur ap Greidwal. Gwythur raises a great army and leads a vicious battle between the two of them. Gwyn was victorious, however he captured and tortured several of Gwythur's nobemen. King Arthur intervened between the two, and an agreement was struck, that the two would battle each May Day for the hand of Creiddylad, until Judgement Day, at that time the winner would at last take Creiddylad.
The myth is a variation of the Oak King/ Holly King battle, as a contest between summer and winter.
The abduction of Guinevere
Queen Guinevere rode forth one early May morning, in the company of her knights to go a- Maying, as was customary for her to do. She was kidnapped by Sir Mellyagraunce, from whom she must be rescued by Sir Lancelot, chief of her Queen's Knights.
In "Ladies of the Lake"Caitlin and John Matthews write about Guinevere. They say she has been wronged in successive retellings of her story, often portrayed as a weak and adulterous. They see her as the British Venus, a woman who is beautiful and perilous in her own right, "one who is totally aware of the effective nature of her sexuality." (3)
Guinevere follows her own true nature when she accepts other lovers than her husband. She has a free, otherworldly quality. She cannot be expected to be faithful to the contract with one husband when her brief is to be faithful to the inner harmonic of the Goddess of the Land. The Flower Bride is the beautiful face of the land, to be eternally fought over.The law of the Goddess of the Land is that she must be guarded by the most worthy knight and by he alone. When the man whom she has made king fails in his duty, she is at liberty to find another, more worthy champion. It is this aspect of the Flower Maid that causes most trouble. (3)
In yet another retelling of the same legend, the kidnapper is Mewas, the Lord of the Summer Country, who dresses himself in leaves (Jack the Green) while waiting for her to come along. Like the legends of Blodeuwedd, Creiddylad, Isolt, a maiden in the middle of a triangle with an older, established man (usually King, her husband) and a new, younger, stronger, more handsome suitor. the men maybe seen as representing the light and dark, winter and summer, battling for the love of the goddess. The winner, of the battle ensures his kingship through marriage to the land, as personified by the Goddess/Maiden/ Priestess/ Queen. Waverly Fitzgerald points out the old expression of May- December Marriages, a match between a young woman and an older man.
Walpurgisnacht is named for St. Walpurga, a German Abbess who came from England in the 8th century. In Germany it is believed that on April 30th, Walpurgisnacht, that witches flew on their broomsticks to mountain top gatherings where they danced round bonfires all night. Waverly Fitzgerald observed that,
It seems a little hard to believe that this holy woman would have her name associated with such licentious rites until you consider that early monasteries evolved from pagan colleges of priests and priestesses. On this night, St. Walpurga and her followers went up into the mountains to perform sacred rituals. (2)
Beltane is a time when the veil between the worlds is indeed very thin, and that contact with supernatural spirits is possible. It is considered to be very much like Samhain. Today it is mainly celebrated in Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latavia and Germany. The Christianized version of the holiday today, is a time to drive out evil spirits - usually with loud noises!
Walpurgisnacht on Heidelberg
Traditionally on the eve of Beltane all fires were extinguished and then relit from the embers of the Beltane Fire. The fires, were actually two large bonfires created from the nine sacred woods. (Apple, Cedar, Dogwood, Holly, Juniper, Oak, Pine, Poplar and Rowan). It is believed that the Bel fires were an invocation to Bel, the Sun God, for His blessings. the herds were ritually driven between them to ensure their fertility, as well as to purify and protect them. they were then taken to their summer grazing grounds.
The fires are a celebration of the return of life and fruitfulness to the earth, offering protection, healing and purification to anyone that passes by or jumps over them.
Today , The Beltane Fire Society, holds a festival as a spectacular revival of Beltane. It takes place on the 3oth of April every year on Calton Hill. It is an amazing festival.
Beltane Customs and Celebrations
There are many customs and celebrations for Beltane, some include; "beating the bounds" or walking the circuit of ones property, repairing fences and boundary markers, relighting the hearth fires from the bel fire. To ensure the fertility of the crops and groves, women heavy with child (pregnant) would walk through the fields and groves bestowing their blessings.
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, athletic tournaments feasting, music, drinking, children collecting the May: gathering flowers. children gathering flowers, hobby horses, May birching and folks go a maying". Flowers, flower wreaths and garlands are typical decorations for this holiday, as well as ribbons and streamers. Flowers are a crucial symbol of Beltane, they signal the victory of Summer over Winter and the blossoming of sensuality in all of nature and the bounty it will bring. (4)
Bringing in the May
Most May Day customs and celebrations revolve around flowers and green branches, May Birching or Boughing for example involves flowers woven into wreaths , hung on door, placed in baskets or exchanged between those whom have a love interest in one another. Hawthorn (the May Flower) is most honored, as it begins to bloom as soon as the weather is warm enough for planting. Anyone finding bloom hawthorn branches in the woods would bring it triumphantly into the village, thereby bringing in the May!
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 joyous encounters, in many areas with the maypole for the Beltane 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 beauty it can afford. (3)
However, the woods were reserved not simply for the young! It was also a custom in some areas, for those who were older and married to also enter into the woods. Since Beltane like Samhain, is a time outside of time, what occurred there was outside of the marriage. Children born of these "greenwood marriages" were often seen as gifts from the gods or children of the gods, they were also called merry begots, Jackson Hodsson or Robinson, referncing Jack the Green, Hod ( a woodland spirite) or Robin Goodfellow (robin Hood or another form for the Green Man).
The May Queen
The Queen of the May is typically a young woman or girl chosen on the eve of Beltane. She was crowned with a wreath of flowers and presided with the May King over the festivities and celebrations of the day. The symbolism of the Queen and King however, hearken unmistakably back to the roots of Beltane, the sacred union of the goddess and her consort, which are venerated by the festivities.
The May Pole
The Maypole is perhaps the most recognizable symbol of Beltane. It is a tall pole, decorated with long brightly colored ribbons, leaves flowers and wreaths. The pole itself, is a symbol of the phallus of the God, buried deep within the warm, fertile, earth of the goddess. In many traditions the ribbons are red and white, red symbolic of the menstrual blood, and white of the life giving sperm. Wrapping the ribbons in a dance around the pole, is accomplished with two circles of dancers, standing far from the pole at the length of the ribbon. The dancers weave the ribbons, one group moving clockwise, the other counterclockwise, until the weave has reached the base of the pole. As the dancers, dance gaily around the pole, energy is raised and sent down into the earth's womb, bringing Her full awakening and fruitfulness (4)
Morris dancers are also traditionally found dancing around the Maypole in many places. Morris dancing is thought to have originated many centuries ago as part of ancient religious ceremonies, however it seems that Morris dancing became associated with Mayday during the Tudor times, and its originating history is not all that easily traced. However, it is the though the height of the leaps of the Morris dancers, is an indication of the height of the crops of the coming year.
Beltane celebrates the sacred marriage of the Goddess to the God, it heralds to re awakening of the earths fertility, to its fullest, culminating in the union from which springs forth all life.
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. (4)Handfasting, or trial marriages, occurred at this time. One thing to note, real marriages were discouraged in May, this is where the adages of June Brides came from. It was considered bad luck to marry in May. However, a trail marriage was something a bit different.
Trial marriages, are today often referred to as engagements, in more ancient times, they were in fact marriages. Handfastings would occur , for the space of a year and a day, upon the statement of intent by the couple. It was not legally binding. the couple would then live together as man and wife for the a fore mentioned space of time. Any children ensuing from the marriage are considered legitimate. If the trail was favorable, the couple would then enter into the legal and committed marriage, usually in June. However, should it prove unfavorable, the couple could part and move forward to find more suitable mates.
Beltane and May are a time of reawakening, revitalization, quickening, unbridled desire, rapturous abandon and joy, it is the invigoration of our spirits, a vibrancy to all of our senses. Life has sprung forth anew and we with it! No matter what observances you make, renew your connection with the earth, welcome in the summer and celebrate life! As much as this renewal is a gift from the gods, lets us share it with each other, and in the sharing be renewed spirit and soul!
Included within I will add some correspondences and ideas for Beltane, what is most important I think! Is the celebration of life!
I wish you the joy of the season!
Happy and Blessed Beltane!
Beltane Correspondences and Activities:
Beltane: Also known as :May Day, Bealtaine, Beltane, Bhealtainn, Bealtinne, Festival of Tana (Strega), Giamonios, Rudemass, and Walburga (Teutonic), Cetsamhain (opposite Samhain),Fairy Day ,Sacred Thorn Day, Rood Day, Roodmas (the Christian term for Rood Day, Old Beltane, Beltain, Baltane, Walpurgis Night, Floriala (Roman feast of flowers from April 29 to May 1), Walpurgisnacht (Germanic-feast of St. Walpurga), Thrimilce (Anglo-saxon), Bloumaand (Old Dutch)
Date: May 1
Animals: Swallow, dove, swan, Cats, lynx, leopard
Deities: Flower Goddesses, Divine Couples, Deities of the Hunt, Aphrodite, Artemis, Bast, Blodeuwedd, Cerrnunos, Diana, Faunus, Flora, Lleu, Maia, Pan, the Green Man, the Horned God, Oak King, Sun King, Venus, and all Gods and Goddesses who preside over fertility.
Tools: broom, May Pole, cauldron
Stones/Gems: emerald, malachite, amber, orange carnelian, sapphire, rose quartz,
Colors: green, soft pink, blue, yellow, red, brown
Herbs and Flowers: almond tree/shrub, angelica, ash, blessed thistle, bluebells, broom, cinquefoil, clover, daffodil, daisy, damiana, Dittany of Crete, dogwood, dragons blood, elder, fern, foxglove, frankincense,hawthorne, honeysuckle, rowan, sorrel, hawthorn, ivy, lilac, lily of the valley, marigold, meadowsweet, mint, mugwort, nettle, oak, primrose, rose, thyme, woodruff
basically all flowers.
Incense: frankincense, lilac, rose, ylang-ylang
Symbols and Decorations: maypole, strings of beads or flowers, ribbons, spring flowers, fires, fertility, growing things, ploughs, cauldrons of flowers, butterchurn, baskets, eggs
Food: dairy, bread, cereals, oatmeal cakes, cherries, strawberries, wine, green salads.
Magick: Spells to ensure prosperity, conservation, purification, safety, and love.
- Decorate your altar, with a green cloth, and an abundance of flowers!
- Jump the balefire.
- Ashes from the balefire can be scattered in the fields as a fertility charm. Modern pagans can ritually purify tools or other things in the balefire. Jump the dying embers of the fire for summer blessings.
- Dance around the maypole
- Gather the first wild herbs of the season.
- Go a-Mayin' by going to the woods and fields to gather flowers. Take a picnic.
- Make paper baskets (use yarn as a handle) and place real or silk flowers in each basket. Hang them on door knobs of neighbors and family members but don't let them know you did it!
- Wash your face in dew at sunrise on Beltane for beauty in the coming year. (Traditionally the dew from the hawthorn tree, but dew from grass and flowers will do.)
- Make daisy chains and fresh flower wreaths and chaplets (head dresses) to wear and to place atop the maypole. Braid flowers in your hair. Make and wear leafy green masks to represent the Green Man who has returned.
- Fertilize, nurture or boost your existing goals with magick.
- Plant seeds, begin a garden.
- Walk your property, bless it's boundaries.
- Make a wish at the hawthorn tree, a tree associated with faeries. Place strips of cloth symbolizing your wish in the tree (the color should be appropriate to the nature of your wish, i.e. blue for health, pink or red for love, green or gold for prosperity). Take some time to attune to the tree. When you feel you have contacted its spirit, visualize your wish coming true as you hook the cloth on one of the tree's thorns, chanting your wish. When you have finished, leave a gift for the tree.
- Make love in the woods. Beltane is the time of year when the Goddess and God consummate their passions.
- Hold a Handfasting, a trial marriage for lovers of a year and a day. If the feel they a ready for a commitment, the marriage can be planned for June.
- Make a dish of fruits, berries, nuts and leave in the wood for the animals and fae folk to enjoy
- Mark the boundaries of your circle with oatmeal, a traditional Beltane grain.
- This is a night for bonfires, torch-lit processions and the high revelry of witches, preferably in high places.
Nichols, Mike " A Celebration of May Day" , Micromuse Press, ftp://ftp.lysator.liu.se/pub/religion/neopagan/Rituals/Holidays/Beltane/nichols_about
Fitzgerald, Waverly, "Celebrating May Day" School of the Seasons, http://www.schooloftheseasons.com/mayday.html
Mathews, John and Caitlin, "Ladies of the Lake" Aquarian Press, 1992
Aubin, Christina "Beltane", Witchvox, 2000