Beltane

The extended hours of daylight are very noticeable here by May, and the weather is getting much warmer, so the month has brought a full flush of fresh green growth and a plethora of wild flowers. All the hedgerows become white and fragrant with hawthorn blossoms, the grass in the fields is lush and tall, and the woodlands are carpeted with bluebells. It is a month of blue skies and cotton wool clouds, of bonfires, maypoles and May queens, of fairies and enchantments, of milk and honey, fledgling birds and the buzzing of the bees. In the solar calendar, May marks the real coming of summer, and all the folk customs and rituals of May reflect this.

 The Romans called this month Maius, meaning ‘mother’ or ‘nursing mother’, named after the Greek Goddess Maia, the eldest of the Pleiades, one of the seven sisters represented by a bright cluster of stars in the constellation of Taurus the Bull. For the Romans, Maia embodied the concept of growth, as her name was thought to be related maius, maior meaning ‘larger’ or ‘greater’, identifying her with the Earth goddess Terra, and Bona Dea the Good Goddess. The Pleiades were important seasonal markers in the ancient world, rising heliacally (with the Sun at dawn) in early May, after being invisible for forty days, and again appearing on the western horizon at the beginning of November. This twofold division of the year, according to the position of the Pleiades, heralded the seasonal work on the land of planting and harvest, as well as safe summer sailing and the coming of the winter rains and storms, closing channels of navigation on the Mediterranean. [1]  Indeed, the Pleiades were important seasonal markers in the cultures of both the northern and southern hemispheres. [2]

In England, the customs and games of May Day were called going ‘a-maying’ or ‘bringing in the May’ and reached their heights during the Middle Ages. There are records of towns and councils spending significant amounts of money on public celebrations. [3] Villagers would go out into the woods and fields to collect armfuls of flowers and greenery for decoration, a custom Kipling described in his poem A Tree Song:

Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,

Or he would call it a sin;

But–we have been out in the woods all night,

A-conjuring Summer in!

And we bring you news by word of mouth-

Good news for cattle and corn–

Now is the Sun come up from the South,

With Oak, and Ash, and Thorn! [4]

Maypoles, usually made of stripped birch trees, were cut and set up on the village green and hung with ribbons, ready for dancing. [5] Many communities elected a young girl to become the May Queen to preside over the festivities. Sometimes she was accompanied by a May King. In Elizabethan times, the king and queen were called Robin Hood and Maid Marian. There might be a Jack-in-the-Green, a man wearing a wicker cage covered in fresh greenery, to represent the opulent growth of the season.  We can speculate that he is connected to the foliate heads (green men) found on architecture, and that he perhaps represented a vegetation or woodland spirit.

May Day bonfires blazed across the hilltops, and jumping the fire was thought to offer protection, blessing and fertility. Even the ashes of the fires had special powers, and were spread on the fields to protect them and bring fruitfulness. In Ireland, cows were driven through the ashes to guard them from the attentions of fairies. [6]

The Puritans were outraged at the immorality that often accompanied the drinking and dancing, and Oliver Cromwell’s Parliament banned maypoles altogether in 1644, describing them as “a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness”. [7] Condemning the custom of going out into the woods to feast and gather greenery, Christopher Featherstone declared  “Men doe use commonly to run into woods in the night time, amongst maidens, to set bowers, in so much, as I have heard of ten maidens which went to set May, and nine of them came home with childe”. [8] Philip Stubbes complained that, of the girls who go into the woods, “not the least one of them comes home again undefiled”.  [9]

The birth of summer obviously means the death of winter. Death and rebirth is a theme enacted in many seasonal mumming plays and in the May Day dance of the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss (hobby horse) in Cornwall, England. The evening before the dance, the village is decorated with green branches and flowers. The sinister black ‘Oss, led by the Teaser, parades through the town to the accompaniment of drum and accordion. Now and then the drum falls silent, and the ‘Oss gradually falls to the floor, only to rise again. At midnight the ‘Oss dies, only to be reborn again next summer.

As the death of winter takes place, so did many European festivals of the dead, in order to make a purification before the summer began. [10] For the Romans, May was generally an unlucky month, when marriage was forbidden. It was also the time of the Lemuria, a festival to placate the Lemures, the wandering spirits of the dead, which St. Augustine described as evil and restless manes that tormented and terrified the living. [11] The Lemuria was a three day festival (May 9, 11 and 13) when the head of the household rose at midnight and cast black beans behind him for them to feast on saying: “These I cast; with these beans I redeem me and mine”. This had to be said nine times, without looking back.

As the wheel of the year turns to summer, we honour the Goddess as the Flower Bride who seeks her groom, the Green Man, in the greenwood. Their passion and fire will bring in the summer and dispel the forces of winter and bane, and the Goddess will become the fertile Mother. Now is the time of growth, for the blossoming of the Earth, for warmth and celebration. So we kindle the Beltane fires, raise the maypole and dance! 

May begins with the modern Pagan festival which is usually called Beltane. We know that, in Pagan Ireland, the first of May was called Beltane (alt. Bealtaine/ Beltene), though we don’t much about how they celebrated it. The earliest reference to it is believed to be in the tenth century CE Samas Chormaic, or Cormac’s Glossary, which describes cattle being driven between two fires the Druids made for luck:

Belltaine. i.e. May Day i.e. ‘lucky fire’ i.e. two fires which the Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle (as a safeguard) against the diseases of the year to those fires, they used to drive the cattle between them.” [12]

 Cormac derived the name Beltane from ‘lucky fire’ though elsewhere in the text he speculated it might come from ‘Bial, an idol god’. [13] White tene means ‘fire’, bel could be translated as ‘bright’ or ‘lucky’, or it could be connected to the Gaulish sun god Bel or Belenos whom Julius Caesar identified with the Greek/Roman sun god Apollo.  We can safely assume that bonfires played a part in the celebrations, a continuing custom well documented in succeeding centuries, well into the nineteenth century.

Though the Pagan Irish left no written records, the Christian chroniclers tried to record earlier customs and myths (though often not without inserting Christian messages and classical myths). From these we know that the early Irish had a twofold division of the year. In the fifteenth or sixteenth century CE (probably transcribed from an earlier tenth century source) manuscript Tochmarc Emire (‘The Wooing of Emer’), the hero Cúchulainn explains: “For two divisions were formerly on the year, namely, summer from Beltane the first of May, and winter from Samhain to Beltane,” making it clear that Beltane was considered the start of summer. In the early fifteen-hundreds, a quatrain says this of Beltane, describing it as a time of increase and plentiful milk:

I relate this to you, a surpassing festival,

The privileged dues of Beltane:

Ale, roots, mild whey,

And fresh curds to the fire. [14]

Beltane certainly seems to have been the Pagan feast that the Irish church feared most. The Book of Armagh described Beltane as ‘an idolatrous ceremony’, featuring ‘the Druids, singers, prophets’, and attended ‘with manifold incantations and magical contrivances’. Beltane was also the first Pagan festival to have been suppressed, according The Life of Saint Patrick, where the fires of Beltane and the Easter fires were said to be in direct opposition until the Pagan ones were defeated. [15]

Many of our present May Day customs come from the Roman Floralia, such as fetching in armloads of greenery and flowers. It lasted several days spanning the end of April and the beginning of May, and was a feast of joy and unrestrained merriment, with the whole city bedecked in blossoms and people wearing flowers in their hair, and wreathing their animals in garlands. Offerings of milk and honey were made to Flora, the goddess of flowers and blossoms, of the flower of youth and its pleasures, with prayers for the prospering of the ripe fruits of the field and orchard.

As always, with our spiritual practice, we look to Nature for our inspiration and direction, and at the beginning of May celebrate the Lady of Flowers and the Green Man coming together in love, the most powerful force in the universe,  which binds spirit and matter together, creating the world from opposites. This union is the God and Goddess at the point of their sacred marriage, an act which brings about all of creation with the reconciliation of duality.

Beltane Ritual

Two pillars of wood are set up in the centre of the circle, three feet apart. One is decorated with a green lady mask and flowers, the other with a green man mask and oak leaves. A small green candle in a glass jar stands atop each. In the north the altar has a single red candle.

Take three breaths…Together with the Earth beneath you…Together with the Sky above you…Together with the circle around you.

Say:

With Beltane, we celebrate the coming of summer when life is in full flow, and the primal forces of creation join in union.

Go to Goddess pillar and light the candle saying:

I honour the Goddess, and open myself to the Goddess within.

Go to the God pillar and light the candle, saying:

I honour the God, and open myself to the God within. 

Here burn the twin fires of Beltane, male and female, God and Goddess, Sky and Earth, Sun and Moon, body and spirit, each flame burning in each one of us.

This is the time of purification by fire. As you pass between the pillars with their candles on top, know that you leave behind winter, negativity and pain. Step forward between the flames, saying:

I leave winter behind and move forward into the work of summer.

 Pause fort a while as you reflect on this and say:

We now celebrate the most ancient of magics, the magic of joining. The Lady of the Land takes the hand of the Green Lord, and their marriage brings life to the world.

Pick up the God candle: This is the fire of the Lord.

Pick up the Goddess candle:  This is the fire of the Lady.

The two candles are used to light the single red candle on the altar

United in life and abundance. Blessed Be!

Lord and Lady, illuminate me from within. Fill me with the light of creation. Help me to radiate light upon the world. I ask this in the name of the Lord and Lady. Blessed Be.

I take with me the energy of Beltane, when the spirit fully manifests within the material world, and we are blessed. 

This rite is ended, blessed be.

Don’t forget to wash your face in the May Day morning dew:

The fair maid who, the first of May

Goes to the fields at break of day

And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree

Will ever after handsome be. [16]

© Anna Franklin from the forthcoming Hearth Witch’s Ritual Year, Llewellyn, 2021

Illustration © Anna Franklin from The Pagan Ways Tarot, Schiffer 2015

[1] Dr. E.C.Krupp, Beyond the Blue Horizon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992

[2] Dr. E.C.Krupp, Beyond the Blue Horizon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992

[3] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, 1996

[4] Online at http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_treesong.htm, accessed 15.1.20

[5] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, 1996

[6]  Whitley Stokes (ed.), John O’Donovan (trans.), Sanas Cormaic: Cormac’s Glossary, Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society, O.T. Cutter, 1868

[7] The Retrospective Review, Vol. VIII, Charles Baldwyn, London, 1823

[8] Quoted in Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, 1996

[9] Quoted in Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, 1996

[10] Ronald Hutton, Halloween? It’s more than trick or treat, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/28/halloween-more-than-trick-or-treat-origins?fbclid=IwAR13rqBx10qclv4giBmWmYstGVhsyM9GxrOxP8Q8Jo7e0_j3zBs2xsZ0o6U, accessed

[11] St. Augustine, The City of God, 11.

[12] Cormac’s Glossary, Translated by John O’Donovan, Calcutta, 1868

[13] Cormac’s Glossary, Translated by John O’Donovan, Calcutta, 1868

[14] Kuno Meyer’s translation as found in Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson’s Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry

[15] The Life of St. Patrick and His Place in History, p. 104-106.

[16] Traditional

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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