Beltane 30th April / May 1st
Beltane is a Celtic festival properly celebrated around the evening of 30th April / 1st May. It is a Fire festival celebrating the beginning of the pastoral Summer season, fertility, renewal and purification.
In the traditional craft Beltane or May Eve is the time for hand fasting and the symbolic 'sacred marriage' the between the Lord of the Greenwood and his Flower Bride. It is the time of mirth, joy and happiness because the faith is a religion of love and light. It is the festival where the Lady or Maid is crowned as the May Queen with a circlet of wild flowers.
The God represented by the stang garlanded with birch, hazel, hawthorn and willow, now relinquishes his dark winter aspect. He is no longer the Lord of The Wild Hunt, but becomes the Green Man, the Lord of the Woods. In this form he will rule through to the autumn.
Towards the end of April, and just a week before Beltane is St George's Day. George was Greek and it thought that the legend of St George was brought back to England by returning crusading knights. In the 13th century he replaces St Edward as patron saint of England by popular demand. In the legend St George is a brave knight who rescues a fair virgin or maiden from a dragon who is holding her prisoner in a cave.
The symbolism of the legend is connected with the coming of spring; the knight as the young God fully armed in his warrior aspect, the 'virgin' is the spring goddess and the dragon is the life force stirring in the cave, or the womb of Mother Earth. This symbolism is underlined by the story that St George is martyred then, Christ-like, rises from the dead. The medieval Christian legend of St George goes back to the myth of the Middle Eastern god Bel who slew the sea beast Tiamat. In the Canaanite myth it is Baal who killed the serpent, dies, went to the underworld and was rescued by his sister-consort Anat.
The Christians associated the dragon or serpent with Satan. In the Biblical myths of the War in Heaven, Michael battles Lucifer and his rebel angels. The archangel of light, first-born of God, is cast down to Earth and becomes Lord of the World. An emerald falls from his crown and is eventually carved into the cup which is used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Lucifer, wrongly associated with Satan, is described as 'the great dragon' or the 'old serpent'.
This battle between a male God and a serpent (seen as a symbol of the feminine) has been taken by modern feminists as typical of the subjugation of women by patriarchal societies. As in many cases, the truth is not so simplistic. The legend of St George is closely associated with the eternal battle between good and evil, death and rebirth, summer and winter, which lies at the heart of the mythic Wheel of the Year, and the pagan drama of divine kingship and the sacrificed god.
In the folklore calendar Beltane was not only a time for orgiastic revels to mark the beginning of Summer, but also a time for more serious rituals to protect the land and the livestock. Beltane was when the cattle and sheep were turned out to the summer pastures or taken up to the hills.
In Irish mythology, the beginning of the year for the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians started at Beltane, great bonfires would herald in the Summer in the hope of good harvest, prosperity and well being to all. Early Gaelic sources from around the 10th century state that the Druids would create a need-fire on top of a hill on this day and rush the village's cattle through the fires to purify them and bring luck. This was practice continued long after the Druids had gone, and village elders would take on the role of lighting the need fire for the village. People would also go between the fires to purify themselves. This was echoed throughout history after Christianization, with lay people instead of Druid priests creating the need-fire. The festival persisted widely up until the 1950s, and in some places the celebration of Beltane continues today. A revived Beltane Fire Festival has been held every year since 1988 during the night of 30 April on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland and attended by up to 15,000 people (except in 2003 when local council restrictions forced the organisers to hold a private event elsewhere).
Many people confuse Beltane and May Day, the two traditions are linked but quite separate. May Day derives from a Germanic festival and is more associated with dancing round the May Pole (an ancient fertility symbol), in what was once one of England's most important festivals of the year. May Day and Beltane obviously have much in common, as both celebrate new growth and fertility. Even when May Day celebrations were banned in the late 16th century for being immoral, the customs died hard and it wasn't long before the festivities were once again widespread. But long before the May Day celebrations, with their maypole dancing, garlands and dances became popular, the ancient fire festival of Beltane took place for centuries in the Celtic lands.
The holiday was also known as "Roodmass" in England and "Walpurgisnacht" in Germany.On Walpurgis Night or May Eve, the witches of Europe were said to attend the Grand Sabbat of the year at the Brocken Mountain in Germany. There, it was commonly believed, wild orgies were held presided over by the Devil. In reality the Brocken is sacred to Freyja and Holda. Near it's summit is a holy well, and ancient stone altar and a dancing ground. It was probably sacred to the old time witches and it can be compared with the Venusberg ruled by Dame Venus or Holda and the Hollow Hill of Craft mythology.
Beltane is said to mean anything from "Bel-fire" Feast of the god Bel" to "bright fire." Janet and Stewart Farrar, in Eight Sabbats for Witches offer an excellent tracing of the holiday's Irish roots, and particularly the European fire-god Belenus whom they believe this festival is named for (a name possibly traced back to Baal, the bible's only pagan god, whose name simply means "Lord"). Ronald Hutton states that since the Celtic word "bel" means bright or fortunate, this is adequate to explain the translation as being "lucky fire" or "bright fire."
FIRE is what this festival is all about. It is one of the two great fire festivals of the wheel of the year (the other is Samhain). It also falls upon the cross-quarter days, which mark the astrological movement of the sun. In ancient times, the calendar days for these holidays would have been roughly seven to eleven days AFTER we now celebrate them (usually on the first of the month). The way to know for sure is to observe when the sun reaches 15 degrees of the zodiac sign. For Beltane, this is Taurus, the Bull ). At Lammas, Leo; at Samhain, Scorpio, and at Imbolc, Aquarius.
Samhain and Beltane divide the year into two distinct halves of great importance to agricultural societies (as in Western Europe, where our Celtic calendar of eight major seasonal festivals originates). In F. Marian McNeill's book The Silver Bough, she states: "At Beltane, flocks and herds went to their summer pastures; as Hallowmas (Samhain) they returned to their winter quarters.
Fire festivals in ancient times were seen as times of propitiation and purification. Propitiation means sacrifice; to propitiate the mysterious forces of nature and ensure fertility in field and fold and on the hearth. In ancient times this meant human sacrifice as well as animal sacrifice, the spilling of blood to nourish the soil, the theme of the sacrificial king to generate good harvest. We have moved on from those days, and modern witches do not indulge in human sacrifice to propitiate the land. Life energy can be given in many ways rather than ritual killing. Giving etheric energy to the Land or the Universe, pricking our own finger and giving a drop of our blood, or offering libation to the soil.
As for purification, fire has always been seen as its chief agent. Traditionally, all domestic fires in Irish, English and Scottish households were extinguished on Beltane Eve, after having been kept lit continuously all year. Just before dawn, villagers would process with their animals up the hillsides to the highest point where fires would be kindled and relit for people to see for miles around. It was also traditional to build these fires out of nine of the sacred woods from Druidic folklore, including oak, ash, thorn, rowan, apple, birch, alder, maple, elm, gorse, holly, hawthorn, and others. The bonfires were lit so that a narrow passage existed between two fire, so that cattle and other livestock could be led between the fires, to purify them from disease or sterility for the coming year. Torches of dried sedge, gorse or heather were also lit and carried around remaining flocks or stables, to further purify the air.
Modern pagans celebrate Beltane as a festival of reawakening spring, of fertility, of the renewal of the life-force, of creativity, or rebirth, of love and sexuality, or birth and regeneration.
Larger pagan gatherings may feature maypole dancing, or the relighting of the Beltane Fire as has been carried out in Edinburgh for the last 20 years or so. What a wonderful tradition to rekindle, to renew and purify Earth, beasts and Humanity!
Whatever you do to celebrate Beltane, remember that Summer is a- coming in with the sun from the south and with oak, and ash and thorn.
© Traditional Witch 2006