Beltane - May Day

by Gabrielle Diana Laney
In the ‘Wheel of the Year,’ a concept that is becoming a tradition among neo-pagans, much has been written on the ‘cross-quarter’ days. These are the festivals that fall between the solstices and equinoxes. While the solstices and equinoxes mark the sun’s place in the wheel, the cross-quarter days, which were more important to the ancient peoples, are not merely halfway marks in the sun’s progress through the year.

Beltane is celebrated on May first, (in Scotland May 15th) but sometime around, May5th-11th, the goddess Brigit brought in the fire of rebirth, fertility, courtship, and the opening of Summer.

R.J. Stuart in his book “The Living World of Faery” states: “The rising and setting of the small star group of Pleiades is used worldwide to mark the pivot of the year, when they rise in the Northern Hemisphere they are setting in the southern hemisphere and vise versa. The modern dates for this relativistic event are close to May 1st and November 5th, the Celtic feasts of Beltane and Samhain, or May Day and Halloween, the two portal fire-festivals. These so-called Celtic, but truly pre-Celtic festival dates are not, as is often stated incorrectly, solar events. The Celts did not use solar calendar but a lunar one. Nor did the pre-Celtic and megalithic people base their time patterns on the seasons and the sun, but upon stellar and planetary patterns linked together.”

Samhain marks the tide of death and Beltane the tide of rebirth. At both of these times the veils between the worlds are said to be thin and that otherworldly beings such as faeries or spirits can be seen.

There is disagreement amongst scholars about where the name Beltane comes from. Some say it is named after the Celtic sun deity, Bel or Belenos who was the archetypal lord of life, healing and underworld spirits. Some say that the word ‘Bel’ could mean ‘shining or brilliant’ Perhaps the word described both the deity and the qualities the deity represented. There is agreement that the word ‘Tinne’ or ‘tene’ means fire, so the word means Bel-fire or bright-fire. Beltane is one of the four fire festivals (the others being Samhain, Oct. 31, Imbolc, Feb. 1, and Lugnassadh, Aug. 1)

An ancient tradition required all home fires to be extinguished at this time. A sacred fire or Bel-fire was kindled on behalf of the community by the Druids without flint or steel and was made with nine sacred woods. It was symbolic of the renewal of life after the cold winter. Embers from it were taken by each family to their homes to rekindle their own hearthfires. The people shared in the sacred, a communal blessing for a prosperous and fertile summer with a bountiful harvest to follow which would sustain them through the bleak winter months. Jumping over the fire could ensure health, for travelers, a safe journey or bring conception to a barren woman. Livestock were driven through it or between two fires for purification and fertility blessings. The custom of jumping over bonfires has survived to this day, also used are candles or cauldrons to symbolize the sacred fire.

Throughout the centuries there arose across Celtic Europe many other customs associated with Beltane, the time of year when the earth was most fertile. Beltane is a festival of flowers, fertility, sensuality, and delight. One of the well known symbols associated with Beltane is the maypole. It was made from a tall and straight tree, usually birch or ash, with the branches removed. It would be decked with flowers and ribbons. Dancers would hold the ends of the ribbons and the very specific pattern danced around the maypole. The danced Maypole represents the unity of the feminine and masculine, with the pole itself being a phallic symbol and the ribbons that encompass it, the womb. That and the lovemaking in the fields afterwards created the sympathetic magic that would ensure the fertility of fields, families and livestock .

Another May Day tradition is the May Queen, the elfin Queen of the Seelie Court, who represents the maiden aspect of the triple goddess (maiden, mother and crone). As the Maiden of Spring she overcomes the Cailleach of winter (the crone aspect), to become the Queen of May.

The May Queen leads the Beltane procession with her ritual courtship of the Green Man. During the procession the May Queen travels both counterclockwise (starwise) and clockwise (sunwise) around the hill, representing the closing of winter and the coming of summer, and is paid homage to by the Earth, Air and Water Spirits.

The May Queen lights the Beltane Fire to symbolize the coming of the summer, and the sun’s life giving warmth and purity. The May Queen then starts the final element of her courtship with the Green Man of Winter, spinning faster and faster, until her Hand Maidens tear the Green Man apart, killing him, and allowing the rebirth of the Green Man of Summer. The Death and Rebirth of the Green Man through the actions of the May Queen allow the onset of summer, and the fertile union between the May Queen (the female aspect of nature) and the Green Man (the male aspect). Their union ensures a fertile harvest, conceived at the dawn of summer.

As Christianity came to the British Isles, many of the ancient sites were converted to Christian sites. The ancient rituals were appropriated or discouraged so that many of the powerful rituals were gone or hardly recognizable, but many other May traditions took their place that had roots in the old ceremonies. One of these, is a tradition that is still enacted in the town of Cornwell. On May morning there is a procession involving the "Old Oss" or hobby horse. This could be an echo of an ancient Celtic Kingship custom involving the mating of the king with the Totem Horse Goddess of the tribe.

The early Celts saw nature as divine and marked the cycles by stopping in their daily pursuits to observe with reverence the changing seasons. And so are today, rediscovering traditions which reach back to the dawn of human life. It is a precious thing to stop and observe the day, to wash our face in the May morning dew, to bring some flowers and greenery into the house, and to be aware, for a while, of our place in the natural world.

Re-printed with permission from the Santa Cruz Arts Journal