Northern Hemisphere: April 30 or May 1
Southern Hemisphere: Oct 31 or Nov 1
Pronounced: bee-YAWL-tinnuh, or BELL-tinnuh
Themes: passion, mischief, sensuality, sexuality, beauty, romance, fertility, vitality, abundance
Also known as: May Day, Walpurgisnacht, Floralia, Calan Mai
By the time May 1st arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, spring is truly in full swing and the balance is tipping toward summer. The heat of the Sun increases with each day, and the Earth turns ever-deepening shades of green as buds and blossoms give way to the emerging new leaves. Flowers seem to explode along the roadsides while birds, bees, and other flying creatures fill the air. And even if a stray chill sneaks back in for a day or two around this time, there’s still no going back—winter is decidedly over.
In fact, May 1st marked the official beginning of the light half of the year in pre-modern times, making this day the official beginning of summer for our Celtic ancestors. Indeed, Beltane—or May Day as it is also known—is a time for exuberant celebration, as the long, warm days and the lush abundance of the growing season are ramping up. The hopeful feeling that was kindled at Imbolc and built upon at Ostara now comes into full fruition.
Wiccans recognize Beltane as a time to celebrate the return of passion, vitality, fun and frivolity, and the co-creative energies of Nature that are so evident at this time of year. By this point all living creatures have come out of hibernation and are enjoying the sunshine and the mild days.
“Spring fever” is at its peak, as people find themselves unable to concentrate on their work or studies and long instead to spend all their time outdoors. Primal urges toward lust and wildness become stronger and we see both animals and humans pairing off, sparked by that most basic of instincts: to reproduce. This life-giving relationship between masculine and feminine energies is honored now, perhaps more directly at this Sabbat than at any other point on the Wheel of the Year. In the cyclical story of the Goddess and the God, this is the shift between their mother-child relationship to that of partners in co-creation.
Over the spring months, the God has matured into his young manhood, and the Goddess is again ready to step from her Maiden aspect into the life-giving Mother. In their prime of life they fall in love and unite, and the Goddess once again becomes pregnant, ensuring the rebirth of the God after the current growing season comes to an end in the autumn.
This is the act that brings about new life in the form of abundant crops, healthy livestock, and forests full of wild game and healing herbs. It is the fundamental building block of the continuation of life, and so is celebrated joyfully at this time by Wiccans and other Pagans alike. In some traditions, the union between the Goddess and God is seen as a divine marriage, and so handfastings—or Wiccan weddings—are customary at this time.
In addition to the Sun God and/or the Horned God, many Wiccans and other Pagans recognize an aspect of the God in the Green Man, an archetypal image of a male face camouflaged by leafy foliage. This mysterious face is found carved into very old buildings throughout Europe, including cathedrals, and is often connected with the Celtic god Cernunnos; however, variations of the image have been discovered all over the world. In early May, as leaves begin to emerge from the trees and shrubs, the return of the Green Man is imminent.
Soon the summer foliage will hide all that was visible during the bare months of winter, and we are reminded of the divinity hidden within plain sight that this greenery so often evokes. Perhaps for this reason, Beltane is also a time of the faeries, who are considered to be more active on this day than any other except for Samhain, which sits directly opposite the Wheel from Beltane.
Faery traditions can be traced back to the Irish Aos Sí, a name often translated as “faeries” or “spirits,” but are found in various forms throughout ancient pagan cultures. They are said to inhabit various places in Nature, from hills and forests to small plants and flowers. Wiccans who are sensitive to the presence of faeries will leave offerings for them on Beltane Eve.