Beltaine – Stories & History
Meet & Greet at 930ish at the Main Fire Pit! May 7th for Betaine Stories & History with Tamare White-Wolf
Beltaine is the last of the three spring fertility festivals, the other two are Imbolc and Ostara. Beltaine marks the arrival of summer, the SUN as well the return of the mating/fertile season.
“At Beltaine the Pleiades star cluster rises just before sunrise on the morning horizon, whereas winter (Samhain, the arrival of winter) begins when the Pleiades rises at sunset. The Pleiades is a cluster of seven closely placed stars, the seven sisters, in the constellation of Taurus, near his shoulder. When looking for the Pleiades with the naked eye, remember it looks like a tiny dipper-shaped pattern of six moderately bright stars (the seventh can be seen on very dark nights) in the constellation of Taurus. It stands very low in the east-northeast sky for just a few minutes before sunrise.” *
Beltaine, and its counterpart Samhain, divide the year into its two main seasons, winter (Dark) and summer (Light). Samhain honours the Death aspect, Beltaine honours the Life aspect, both having extreme relevance, to the pagan community. It is the time when the sun returns and is fully engaged in the creation of life once again. When the Green Man revisits the Earth Mother.
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 fairy mischief and fairy delight. On the night before Beltane, place rowan/cedar/sage brush branches at your windows/doors for protection from chaos or negative influence. Other worldly occurrences could transpire during this time of “no time” too. Traditionally in some areas the youngest member of the family gathers primroses or other brightly coloured flower on the eve before Beltaine and places 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/burned or left as an offering to the fairies instead. Much like the tradition of leaving treats or whatever is not harvested from the fields to ward of tricks at Samhain.
When these veils are so thin it is an incredible magical time. In fact, it is said that the Queen of the Faeries will ride out on her white horse on Beltaine night. Legend has it that if you sit beneath a tree, you may see the Faery Queen or hear the sound of her horse’s bells as she rides through the night. It is said that if she SEES you, she will take you to the Summerland in Faeryland so hide your face and she will pass you by but if you look her in the eye, she may take you, so be careful. It might be wise to carry a bundle of rowan/cedar/sage for added protection. There is a old Scottish ballad called “Thomas the Rhymer”, in which Thomas chooses to go with the Queen and has not been seen since.
We need Beltaine, as the earth needs the sun, for our very Spirit cries out for the renewal of summer jubilation. We have grown weary of winters’ isolation and lack of outdoor activities. Beltaine marks the winter’s journey passing and summer’s beginning, “it is a festival of rapturous gaiety as it joyfully heralds the arrival of summer in her full garb”. Beltaine, a precarious time due to crops youth and tender susceptible to frost. Ancients believed, the Wheel would not turn without human intervention. The Earth will not produce without our love and attention to the Sun fires. Celebration and rituals were an important part of the Beltaine festivities, to insure that the warmth of the Sun’s light would warm the earth promoting the fecundity of her to the male consort which would then produce our crops. This time when the pleasures of the earth and self are fully awakened marks the passage into the growing season. Mayday is a time when flowers & trees bloom, life returns to the barren landscape, bountiful harvests, not too far away.
Beltaine translated means “fire of Bel” or “bright fire” – the “bale-fire”. (English – bale; Anglo-Saxon bael; Lithuanian baltas (white)) Bel (Bel, Bile, Beli, Belinus, Belenos) is known as the bright and shinning one, a Celtic Sun God. Beli is the father, protector, and the husband of the Mother Goddess.
On Beltaine Eve two large fires, Bel Fires, are lit from nine sacred woods. The Bel Fire is an invocation to Bel (Sun God) to bring His blessings and protection. All were ritually passed between the two needfires (fein cigin), built on a knoll. This was thought to purify, bring luck and protect to all as well as to insure fertility in all areas.
The Bel fire is such a sacred fire with healing, cleansing and purifying powers. The fires celebrate the return of life, fruitfulness to the earth and the burning away all remnants of winter. The ashes of the Beltaine fires were smudged on faces bodies as well on anything else one wishes to make sacred as well scattered in the growing fields. Household fires would be extinguished and re-lit with fresh flames of the newly lit Bel Fires.
Celebration includes frolicking throughout the countryside, maypole dancing, leaping over fires to ensure fertility, circling the fires three times (sun-wise) athletic tournaments, feasting, music, drinking, 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 the second most important symbol of Beltaine, they signal the victory of Summer over Winter and the blossoming of sensuality sexual energy in all of nature and the bounty of it, will bring good luck in the coming year.
May birching or May boughing, began in the Eve, fastened garland and boughs on the windows and doors of your loves’ interest. Mountain ash leaves and Hawthorne branches indicated love whereas thorn meant disdain. This perhaps, is the forerunner of old May Day custom of hanging bouquets hooked on one’s doorknob?
Men and women wandered into the woods before daybreak with garlands of flowers and branches of trees. Arriving rumpled from joyous encounters ready to dance the maypole for the Beltaine celebrations. Pagan society’s thoughts and feelings regarding sexuality and fertility are not consumed with guilt and sin, instead are joyous expressions of human passions. Life was a joyful dance, rich in all the beauty it can afford. In ancient Ireland there was a Sacred Tree of Life named Bile Pole, which was the center of the clan, or Tuatha it represents the connection between the people and the three worlds of Bith: The Skyworld (heavens), The Middleworld (our world), and The Otherworld. The Bile pole has survived as the Beltaine Maypole.
The Maypole (often Birch to represent a new beginning)is the third most important element to Beltaine festivities, this tall pole is decorated with long brightly colored ribbons, leaves, flowers and wreaths. The young at heart celebrate each holding the end of a ribbon, and dance around the base of the pole, interweaving the ribbons. The circle dancers begin, as far out from the pole with the ribbons taut. An even number of males and females should participate. Males face clockwise and females counterclockwise. Each move in the direction that they face, 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 dancers revolve around the pole the ribbons will weave creating a pattern, it is said that the pattern will indicate the abundance of harvest year.
The Maypole itself is not only phallic in symbolism but also is the connector of the three worlds. Dancing the Maypole during Beltaine is a 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.
Today in some cultures a mummer called Jack in the Green (drawing from the Green man), wears a costume made of green leaves as he dances around the May pole. Mumming is a dramatic performance of exaggerated characters and at Beltaine a number of characters are included. Such being ones like The Fool, and the Fool’s journey, due to the symbolism in relation to Beltaine as it references the beginning, and the emergence from the void of nothingness (winter), also the green man as the re-greening of the world.
Other traditions speak of the Morris dancers and can be found in church records in Thame England going back to 1555. Morris dancing is thought to have originated many centuries ago as part of ancient religious ceremonies and became associated with Mayday during the Tudor times although the originating history is not easily traced, as is the way with many traditions.
There is also a Queen of May. She is said to have worn a gold crown with a single, gold leaf at its front, also a crown 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 (bride) and King(groom) 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. 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.
As Beltaine marks this handfasting (great wedding) of the Goddess and God, it also marks a reawakening of the earth’s. This is the union between the Great Mother and her 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 fertility of the growing season.
It is customary that these unions last for a year and a day. 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 commit to a legally binding wedding. It seems ancient wisdom understood that one does not really know one another until they have lived together. With this understanding unions were entered upon, first as a test period, and then if desired, a further commitment could be taken.
May, however, according to old folklore is not the most favorable time for marriages in any legal or permanent way. There is reference in the old books and according to the ancients, woe is to be had by those who do. May is the Goddess and God’s handfasting month, all honour should be focused on them.
Water is also associated to Beltaine, as it is refreshing and rejuvenating, it is imperative to all life. It is said thought if you bathe in the dew gathered before dawn on Beltaine morn, ones youth, beauty, health and happiness will be revived for the year long. Other customs such as drinking from a witch well before sunrise on Beltaine will insure over all good health and fortune.
Many colours are represented at this time of year. The main colour of Beltaine is of course green, being the colour of growth, abundance, harvest, fertility, healing and good luck. White is another colour that is customary, white brings cleansing, peacefulness, spirituality and has the ability to dispel negativity. Red brings energy, strength, sex, vibrancy, health and family. Yellow brings the obvious energies of the Sun and the life force, as well happiness, faith and will are brought to Beltaine.
Blues, purples, pinks are other vibrant colours used for various reasons during this awesome spring season. Bake colourful fruit or spiced filled breads for this festivals. Bannock “Bonnach” another commonly loved bread filled with currents and maples cooked on the fires on the eve before Beltaine day, it is advised that the bread should not be allow to come in contact with steel during preparation, as the steel is harmful and deadly to the faery folk/little people.
Bannocks are actually uncut scones originally cooked on a griddle. Wheat does not grow well in the Highlands, originally bannocks were made with oat or barley flour made into dough with little water and no leavening. Traditionally, those that received a portion of this burned and marked with ashes cake jumped over a small fire three times to purify and cleanse themselves of any negativity. Offerings of cake and drink left on doorsteps and roadways for Faeries is considered a blessing.
May, the month of sensual and sexual revitalization, will reawaken all her children. It is the time of honouring energies and frequencies in colours, scents, breezes, and feeling the rapture of summer life. Expressions of earthly enchantment, a love for animals and nature come about within our very being, can you feel it?
The excitement, joy and beauty of Beltaine is best expressed through the gaiety of our children. Unbridled energy charged and ready to go add richness and merriment. Their unrestrained expression of bliss and delight that is what Beltaine is all about. Running through fields, picking flowers, absorbing the sunlight, breathing the fragrance of spring, while dancing in the dew covered grass. This is the “spring fever” energy! Our children guide and show us how to take pleasure, in the gifts of Beltaine.
I would like to give thanks a special to Christina Aubin, for the bulk of this Beltaine article!