April 30th – May 1st
The word Beltane, Bealtaine or Bealltainn is pronounced bay-ul-tin-uh. Beltane means “Bel the bright one” or “bright or lucky fire”. Representative of passion, celebration, energy, sexuality and fertility.
Beltane marks the beginning of summer and the lighter half of the year as well as a time of rebirth. Cattle were driven out to pastures and rituals were performed to protect cattle, crops, people and to encourage continued growth. Bonfires were especially lit at this time as a very literal representation of the energy this festival signified. The towns people would likely have ritually extinguished their fires at home and rekindled them later with an ember from the central need fire. Many people would try to leap over the bonfire as it was deemed to have protective powers and be a sign of luck to make it across without getting burned. Others may have waited until the fire was nothing but embers to cross over. They may have chanted a phrase or song like the recorded “No fire, no sun, no moon, shall burn me.” According to the medieval texts Sanas Cormaic and Tochmarc Emire, “to protect cattle from disease, the druids would make two fires with great incantations and drive the cattle between them”. This practice has been documented all the way up into the 19th century. “They fed the fire from great bundles of sacred wood brought to the knoll on Beltane Eve. When the sacred fire became kindled, the people rushed him and brought their herds and drove them through and round the fire of purification.” –Carmina Gadelica An old Scottish rhyme preserves this idea of using “sacred wood” to build the Beltane bonfires that were considered more sacred than usual.
“Choose the willow of the streams,
Choose the hazel of the rocks,
Choose the alder of the marshes,
Choose the birch of the waterfalls,
Choose the ash of the shade,
Choose the yew of resilience,
Choose the elm of the brae,
Choose the oak of the sun.”
During Beltane… “It was customary for the Lord of the place, or his son, or some other person of distinction, to take the entrails of the sacrificed animal in his hands, and walking barefoot over the coals thrice, after the flames had ceased, to carry them straight to the Druid, who waited in a whole skin at the altar. If the nobleman escaped harmless, it was reckoned a good omen, welcomed with loud acclamations: but if he received any hurt, it was deemed unlucky both to the community and to himself. Thus I have seen the people running and leaping thro’ the St. John’s fires in Ireland, and not only proud of passing un-singed: but as if it were some kind of lustration, thinking themselves in a special manner blest by this ceremony, of whose original nevertheless they were wholly ignorant in their imperfect imitation of it.” -John Toland (1670-1722), A Critical History of the Celtic Religion and Learning
Doors, windows, byres and sometimes cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow or orange flowers. The Aos Sidhe were thought to be particularly active again as they were during Samhain. It was a time for mating of animals, for divorces and for sexual activity. Children conceived on Beltane were considered extremely lucky. In more modern times, “may bushes” were made by covering a bush with flowers, ribbons and other household decor. It was common tradition for young couples to go “a maying” and make love in the forests or fields on the night of Beltane eve or Beltane itself. A Saxon tradition of dancing around the May pole, a phallic symbol of fertility may have been used in rituals in Britain during this time, although there is no evidence this was an ancient Celtic practice. The tradition of the may pole dance was carried on through the generations and even brought to America with colonists, still being used in many spring celebrations today.
Alexander Carmichael tells us of a tradition in the Scottish hebrides called “the day of migrating”, which occurred on May 1st all the way up through the early 19th century. People traveled together from all over the countryside from their winter homestead to their summer sheiling. “The summer of their joy is come, the summer of the sheiling, the song, the pipe, and the dance, when the people ascend the hill to the custard bothies, overlooking the distant sea from among the fronded ferns and fragrant heather, where neighbor meets neighbor, and lover meets lover. All the families of the downland bring their different flocks together at a particular place and drive the whole away. This miscellaneous herd is called ‘trials’ procession and is composed of horses, cattle, sheep and goats. When the people meet they greet each other with great cordiality, as fi they had not seen one another for months or even years, instead of probably only a few days before. There are endless noises in the herd. The men give directions; the women knit their stockings and sing their songs. Ranged along on either side of the procession are bareheaded comely girls, and sturdy boys, and sagacious dogs, who every now and then, and every here and there hack a neck-and-neck race.”
“Ah Mary! Sonnie, it were worse for me to do that for thee,
Than to pass between the two great fires of Beall.
Bless, O Threefold true and bountiful,
Myself, my spouse and my children,
My tender children and their beloved mother at their head.
On the fragrant plain, on the gay mountain shelling,
On the fragrant plain, on the gay mountain shelling.
Everything within my dwelling or in my possession,
All kine and crops, all flocks and corn, from Hallow Eve to Bealtane Eve,
With goodly progress and gentle blessing.
From sea to sea, and every river mouth.
From wave to wave, and base of waterfall.
Be the Three persons taking possession of all to me belonging,
Be the sure trinity protecting me in truth.”
-Alexander Carmichael, (1860 – 1909) Carmina Gadelica
This festival is associated with the ancient Gaulish God Belenus or Bel who was a sun god and known as the “fair shining one”. He is equivalent to the Roman Apollo. In Wales, he may be associated with the god Beli Mawr. He was one of the most ancient and widely worshiped Celtic deities. He is associated with the horse and the wheel as well as healing among other things to be sure. Many Celticists feel that Bel and Danu or Beli and Don, were the original mother and father creator deities and there is an origination story involving their coupling that is lost in the sands of time. There are 51 known ancient inscriptions dedicated to Belenus. Belenus is mentioned in a 4th century Roman text describing him as being worshipped by druids in modern day western France. There are a number of places in Ireland containing the word Bealtaine, indicating these were places festival activities were held such as the Beltany Stone Circle in Ireland. He is the patron deity of the Italian city of Aquileia. Many sacred pagan hills associated with Bel and that faced the rising sun at Beltane were dedicated to saints later by the Christian Church such as Mt. Michael’s Mount, Brent Tor, Burrow Mump and Glastonbury Tor. Fertility being a central theme of Beltane, there are many stories in mythology that re-enact this symbolism of overcoming the hostile aspects of nature to attain the desired pairing and being able to fertilize the land/woman/Goddess. Many May day festivities are celebrated today by various secular and religious groups throughout the world. The essence of Beltane was to feel young again and passionately connect with life in the most primal of ways.
The Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland:
Ways to Celebrate:
Set up your altar accordingly: Decorate your home or space with seasonal symbols and colors of nature. Common decorations are symbols of love, the green man, Cernunnos or god Bel, a maypole (phallic symbol), birds, flowers and the color red, yellow and orange. Search for unique display items that have strong symbology for you.
Dancing: What better way to celebrate life than by dancing? Put on your favorite music and dance your cares away around this Beltane season and especially the morning and day of! Celebrate being alive, your passions, your fears and everything in between. All of it shapes you, and serves to make you stronger, broadening your story on your journey upward and onward to becoming your higher self.
Woodland Potpourri: Since this was the time to go “a maying” in the woods, it’s also a perfect time to make a woodland potpourri. Collect some natural objects such as bark peelings, moss, lichens, twigs, seed pods, needles, cones, berries and acorns. Everything should ideally be as small as possible. Let everything dry out in a warm place. After completely dry, mix them together in a bowl and add 20 – 30 drops of your preferred tree oil fragrance. Mix this well and store in an airtight container for a few days to allow the fragrance to soak in. Take it out and place in a decorative open container when you wish to use it. Place it back in a sealed container for storage or to add more fragrance.
Create a craft: Make something representative of the season! In the spirit of Beltane, create something that represents your passion for life. My favorite is painting rocks with symbolism that has meaning to me. Traditionally you could also create a flower crown intertwined with white lace or light colored ribbon.
Connect with others: Prepare a Beltane dinner. Listen to appropriate seasonal music. Light candles. Some common recipes are traditional bannocks or oatcakes, honeycakes, fresh summer salad, lemon tarts and traditional meade. Enjoy your family and friends. Cook something different you’ve never tried before or try a new wine! Go out to a restaurant you’e never been too. Call up and meet friends or family you haven’t seen in a while to encourage meaningful and new conversation. Attend a pagan social event. Mark this season with something unique to make it feel like more of a special occasion.
Write in your journal: Beltane is about the passion we feel for life and our loved ones. What are you most passionate about at this point on your journey? What ways can you manifest these things more often into your life?
Make an offering: Give back to nature by donating to a charity or participate in a community, park or coastal clean up program. Put out bird seed or a basket of fruit, berries or nuts for local wildlife. Prepare a basket of seasonal items or a small seasonal gift to give to someone in need, your neighbor, your child’s teacher, a community leader or the mail carrier. Buy someone’s coffee or meal. Be creative in your offering and method of “giving back”.
Kindle a bonfire: Have a bonfire outside if possible, although indoors is fine as well if you have a fireplace. The bonfire at Beltane is probably the most important aspect of this celebration. It represents continued growth, passion for life, purification, sexuality and fertility. Typically, one would jump over the fire to be purified by it while burning sacred wood or dried herbs. A drum circle would be a fun activity if possible with family or friends! Many people write a list of their goals or wishes for the coming season, then ceremoniously burn it in the fire sending those wishes into the Otherworld.
Nature walk and meditation: Take a meditative walk through nature enjoying the flowers and greenery. Take notice to the buzzing of life around you. If so desired, collect natural objects to build crafts at home, add to a spring/summer inspired altar or make a temporary nature mandala during your outing. This is a great time to go “a maying” and to make love in the woods if you and your romantic partner are so inclined or just have a picnic!
“Wherever you live in the world so wide,
We wish you a nook on the sunny side,
With much love and little care,
A little purse with money to spare,
Your own little hearth when day is spent,
In a little house with hearts content.”
Writer and Herbalist
A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.