Beltane

1 MAY – MAY DAY/BELTANE

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 know 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.” [1]

Cormac derived the name Beltane from ‘lucky fire’ though elsewhere in the text he speculated it might come from ‘Bial, an idol god’. [2] 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) manuscriptTochmarc 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. [3]

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. [4]

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:

Ihonour 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 for 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. [5]


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

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

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

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

[5] 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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