Beltane, or May Day, is a Celtic festival celebrating spring and fertility with fire, food, dancing, sex, and ritual intended to bring good luck, health and fertility to people and their livestock as well as a bountiful harvest for the coming year. It is both a time of relief at having successfully survived the winter just past, and of concern about the success of the coming season.
In Irish, Beltane means “fire of Bel” or “bright fire” – the “bael-fire.” Bel is known as the bright and shining one, a Celtic Sun God. Bel is the father, protector, and the husband of the Mother Goddess. In modern paganism, Beltane is the last of three spring fertility festivals (following Imbolc, Feb 2nd, and Ostara, March 21st) and has Samhain (Oct 31st) as its counterpoint on the wheel of the year. Both Beltane and Samhain are times when the veil between the worlds is thin, and one who listens can more easily hear the words of the divine. While Samhain is a festival honoring death, Beltane is a celebration of life that is celebrated approximately halfway between Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. Today we celebrate Beltane on May 1st, but astrologically, Beltane actually occurs closer to the 5th of May.
The earliest 10th century Gaelic accounts describe hearth fires being extinguished and Need Fires being lit on surrounding hillsides by Druids “with great incantations” and, most often, elaborate ceremony. All other fires were then reignited from the community Need Fire. There is also a long tradition of lighting two large bale-fires and then running one’s cattle between them “as a safeguard against the diseases of the year.” Walking thrice around a bale fire clockwise (deosil) was said to bring health and good luck, and insure a plentiful harvest, as was jumping over the balefire, or running between a pair of fires three times. Jumping the bale-fire is still considered good luck. You can jump the fire with magical intention, as a spell to bring your intention into reality.
Beltane is also a celebration of fertility and spring, and as such the phallic Maypole plays an important role in our rituals today. The Maypole has its origins in the worship of sacred trees, and was historically popular throughout Europe. Today it represents the union of earth and sky conjoined to bring fecund abundance to the fields and fruits of the earth. Historically, the young people of the village went into the forest and cut a tall tree and which was stripped of all but uppermost foliage and was then brought back to the village, decorated with flowers, erected and danced around. In some villages the Maypole was permanent. In Britain there is a long-standing tradition of Morris Dancers dancing around the Maypole. Maypoles were banned in the 16th century in England, but became popular again after the Reformation
under Queen Mary I.
Some historical celebrations included a May Queen and sometimes May King, most often in the character of the Green Man or Jack in the Green. Every year our community celebrates with the selection of a new, non-gender specific May couple. The May Queen represents the springtime’s fertile energy in human form. She also symbolically represents the Queen of Faeries, Flower Bride, or Goddess of Spring. The role of the May Queen was generally to lead a May Day parade or procession or to make a speech prior to the beginning of festivities, and to bless the fields by making love in them, to ensure a good harvest. The May King also represents the fertility of the greening earth in human form, and the concept of the sacred seed. He serves as guardian to the Queen, and together they work to mediate the forces of life into our community for the duration of their reign.
Other Beltane traditions include “Bringing in the May” wherein the young people would spend the night of April 30th in the forest or surrounding fields gathering flowers and greenery, and at dawn they would return and decorate the village. Most accounts include a strong suggestion of sexual activity taking place in the forest during this night. It was also believed that bathing or drinking from the well or from the dew of Beltane morning could bring health and or fertility in the coming year. Characters such as the Jack in the Green, the Fool and the Hobby Horse were also prevalent and represented fertility and/or spring and new life. Of interesting note, babies conceived over Beltane or in the month May were often said to be babies of the Jack in the Green or the Green man and were named accordingly. It was also thought that to legally marry in the month of May was bad luck, or maybe just in bad taste given that that was the month devoted to the union of the Lady and her Consort.
Hobby Horse (’Obby ’Oss)
The ancient, revered and most potent of the Beltane characters, the Hobby Horse comes to us from living tradition in English May Day festivities, where he has been capering in procession with Jack-in-the-Green and the Sacred Fool since medieval times. His companions tease him until he wilts to the ground, and tease him more until he rises up again, full of life and vigor and springtime! Those who are captured beneath the Hobby Horse’s skirts are blessed with luck – and fertility! – for the coming year.
The Fool brings the power of the unexpected to awaken us to the wonders of our internal Spring. He comes with gifts of joy, tomfoolery, buffoonery, and playfulness in all their forms. Laughter, mischief, and the Unknown are his province. He unites in himself the dynamic polarities of life. Guileless and pure of heart, he is a bringer of dreams and messages from the land where there is no time. He is the beginning, the end, and the power of change. He is the power of transformation, the vital spirit rushing through us.
Salmon of Knowledge
The Salmon of Knowledge comes into our story through her role in Irish mythology as the holder of widsom. The flesh of the salmon could be eaten, and yet she would continue to live. Ancient and eternal, the Salmon of Knowledge pulls us with her on her journey through the many changing currents of the river. The oldest ceremony, the most primal pull of nature, is her province: the cycle of life, death and rebirth, the plunge into the depths in order to open to the sweet release of new life again. She asks us to surrender to the flow, to follow the ever-moving, ever-changing track of divine illumination.
Jack-in-the-Green and Jill-in-the-Green
The Green Man/Green Woman is the embodiment of the vegetative cycle, the growth, flowering, fruiting and dying back of the plants in time with the seasons. Representations of the Green Man in architecture go back to pre-Medieval times. Deep in the earth, the Green One lies, awaiting the first rush of sun-warmed air to draw her forth. He is the power of new life drawn up from the seed. Flowers and grasses burst from the ground where she passes. Trees tremble and unfurl new leaves to greet him. She is the secret council of the wild wood, the wisdom of the trees.
The ancient Greek god Pan, ruler of beasts, god of the wild, god of fertility, is an icon highly suited to the sexual and fertile focus of Beltane festivities. Great, Pan, god of the Wild and ruler of beasts! The world is yours and everything reflects you, your light ensouls the earth. Pan inspires us with love and life, protects us from all fears. Representing the male fertilizing force, Pan is splendid as any cloudless sky, obscure as the deepest cave, and sweet as ripened fruit upon the lips. He is subtle as the snake and wise as the wolf upon the hill. Those who experience his energies are lifted, excited and inspired. Yo, Pan!
Because of its high libido, and abundant offspring, the hare is sacred to Aphrodite and Eros, ancient Greek gods of love and sexuality. Hares used to be presented as gifts of love, in ancient Rome. Re-emerging into the warm sunshine, the sacred heart of Flora, Roman goddess of flowers and patron of the earliest documented May ceremonies, the Sacred Hare has come to spread the joyous spirit of spring, in the form of fun, light-heartedness, play, and rampant sexual interest. He is much like Dionysus, reintroducing us to the lusty month of May after many months of cold.
The Faery Queen
Beltane and Samhain are known to be feast days in Faery as they are here, times when the veil between this world, and others half-glimpsed beyond it, grows thin
enough to see, and sometimes, step, through. In Faery lore, Beltane is a great feast day, and a time when the fair folk are often seen on this side of the veil. The Faery Queen and her entourage ride today! For this is a feast day of Faery as it is for us. Queen of dreams, queen of the unseen world, sprightly and elegant, capricious and beautiful, she is as soft and mutable as a flower petal blown in the breeze, and as unchanging and eternal as the ancient stone of the Earth herself.