Category Archives: Beltane

The Lighting of the Balefire

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The name “Beltane” has been traced back to an old Celtic word meaning “bright fire,” and is thought by some scholars to be related to the ancient Sun god Belenos, whose name has been translated as “bright shining one.” Belenos was worshipped throughout Celtic Europe and his feast day was on May 1st, so this connection seems logical, but is not universally accepted by historians.

For one thing, Belenos (also known as Bel or Beil) doesn’t make significant appearances in the mythology of the areas where Beltane was historically celebrated: Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Mann. In fact, he was much more significant to the Gaulish Celts of the European continent, where the May 1st festivals are known by different names. Nonetheless, the ritual importance of fire was a central focus of Beltane for the ancient Celts of the western-most islands, where the first references to the holiday are found.

The chief event at Beltane in ancient Ireland was the lighting of the balefire on the eve of May 1, the first fire of the light half of the Celtic year. In preparation for this event, every household hearth was extinguished.

Legend has it that tribal representatives from all over Ireland met at the hill of Uisneach, a sacred site where a giant bonfire was lit. Each representative would light a torch from the great fire, and carry it back to their village, where the people waited in the darkness. From the village torch, each household would then relight their home fires, so that all of Ireland was set alight from the same initial flame. In another version of this story, the fire at Uisneach could be seen from several miles away in every direction, signaling to the surrounding villages to light their own central fires, which was then spread throughout their communities. Either way, this act marked the beginning of summer, with hopes for plentiful sunshine throughout the season.

As a living symbol of the Sun, ritual fire was clearly seen as having magical powers. In many Celtic areas, the Beltane fires were also used for ritual purification of cattle before they were turned out into the summer pastures. The cattle were driven between two large bonfires, which were tended by Druids who used special incantations to imbue the fires with sacred energy.

The fire would clear the animals of any lingering winter disease and protect them from illness and accidents throughout the summer. People would also walk between the fires, or jump over them, for luck and fertility through the coming year. In some areas, the ashes from the smoldering fire would be sprinkled over crops, livestock, and the people themselves.

Over time, the annual Beltane fires grew into larger festivals, where people came to greet each other after the long winter. Dancing, music, games and great feasts became traditions, along with a free license for sexual promiscuity on this special occasion. Other customs observed at this time included eating “Beltane bannock”—a special oatcake that bestowed an abundant growing season and protection of livestock—and making a “May Bush,” a branch or bough from a tree decorated with brightly colored ribbons, flowers, and egg shells.

People would dance around the May Bush on Beltane, and then either place it by the front door for luck or burn it in the bonfire. This was believed to be a remnant of Druidic tradition, which held many trees to be sacred and possess magical qualities. A related custom was hanging a rowan branch over the hearth or weaving it into the ceiling to protect the house for the coming year.

Trees, herbs and flowers in general played a part at Beltane and at other May Day celebrations throughout Europe. Primrose flowers and hawthorne and hazel blossoms were gathered and placed at doors and windows, made into garlands, and even used to adorn cattle. Yellow flowers were prized for their association with the Sun.

Herbs gathered on this day were said to be especially potent for magic and healing, especially if gathered at dawn or while the morning dew was still on them. The “May dew” inspired a variety of traditions around beauty. Young women would roll naked in the dew or collect it to wash their faces with, as it was said to purify the skin, maintain youthful looks and help attract a love partner.

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Beltane

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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.

Celebrating Beltane

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Today’s Beltane celebrations draw from various traditions across the pagan landscape of Europe. And while bonfires are definitely a big part of most rituals, Wiccan and other Pagan observances don’t necessarily borrow as heavily from Celtic lore at Beltane as they do at Imbolc or Samhain.

More typically, the public celebrations incorporate traditions from Germanic cultures—especially dancing around the Maypole. This is the very tall, circular pole made ideally from wood that features in many May Day festivities, both Pagan and secular alike. At the top of the pole hang ribbons of various colors, and the participants each hold one ribbon as they circle the pole in an interweaving dance, until the length of it is decorated.

This practice is rooted in customs found in England, where the cross-quarter day is known as May Day. The Maypole would be erected in the center of the village, or in a nearby field, and decorated with flowers and branches brought in from the fields, gardens and forests. The villagers would rise at dawn to gather these symbols of summer, and used them to decorate their homes and their bodies as well. Women would braid flowers into their hair, and both men and women—especially those who
were young and unmarried—put extra effort into grooming themselves for the big day.

It was traditionally young people who did the dancing around the Maypole, and any woman who wanted to conceive a child was sure to be among them. In the earliest times, the dancing would have been a looser, simpler affair. The more intricately involved dance with the entwining ribbons came about relatively recently, in the 19th century.

Wiccans and other Pagans recognize the pole itself as a supremely phallic symbol, representing the God at the height of his powers. The garlands and greenery symbolize the Goddess and her fertility. As the dancers come together, the ribbons gradually encircle the pole until it is symbolically wrapped in the womb of the Earth. In this way, the union between the divine pair is enacted by the whole community.

This association with phallic symbolism is a somewhat recent development, however. Historians believe that the Maypole originated with fertility rituals of ancient Germanic tribes, who would at one time have been dancing around a young living tree as opposed to a cut pole. The tradition evolved over the centuries after being brought to England, where in the 17th century a mistaken association was made between the Maypole and the bawdier customs of ancient Rome. The phallic symbolism has been part of the lore of May Day ever since, especially among Witches.

Covens have bonfires when possible, often lighting a candle first to represent the ‘old fire’ of the past seasons. The candle is extinguished, and the bonfire ushers in the ‘new fire’—the new energies of the coming year. These energies are typically masculine, but there is also a focus on the cauldron as a symbol of the Goddess. The gender polarity of Wicca is especially evident at Beltane, and the sexual union of the God and Goddess is symbolically enacted through the joining of the athame with the chalice. Literal coupling—or the Great Rite—is also practiced, though not as commonly. It should be pointed out that as Wicca becomes more expansive, some traditions are less focused on gender polarity in order to accommodate the perspectives of gay and transgender people.

The rich lore surrounding Beltane makes for an abundance of ways to celebrate this Sabbat. A fire is appropriate, whether it’s an outdoor bonfire, a small fire in a cauldron or heat resistant bowl, or a host of lit candles. Decorate your altar and your home with green branches and flowers gathered in the early morning, and fill a cauldron or large bowl with water and float fresh blossom petals on top. It’s a good time for beauty rituals, so concoct a facial scrub or mask with dried herbs and fresh water from a stream or spring, or braid your hair to represent the coming together of the Goddess and the God. Make an offering of nuts, berries and fruit for the faeries and leave it under a tree in your yard or in the woods. Tie colored ribbons to young tree branches to make wishes for the coming season. Spend some time with your lover outdoors or work magic to bring a lover into your life. Above all, enjoy the warmth in the air and the accelerating growth of the natural world!

Beltane Correspondences

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Colors: light and deep greens, yellow, light blue, red and white for the God and Goddess
Stones: malachite, amber, orange carnelian, sapphire, rose quartz
Herbs: birch trees, hawthorn, honeysuckle, rosemary
Flowers: yellow cowslip, lily of the valley, lilac, hyacinth, daisies, roses
Incense: lilac, frankincense, jasmine, African violet, sage, mugwort
Altar decorations/symbols: Maypole, ribbons, garlands, spring flowers, young plants, Goddess and God statues
Foods: oatmeal cakes, bannock and other bread, dairy foods, strawberries, cherries, spring greens