Beginning at sundown tonight through sundown tomorrow most Wiccans and Neo-Pagans will celebrate one of the oldest, bawdiest and most controversial nature-based holidays of the year: Beltane, commonly called May Day.
May represents the rebirth of the Earth in the saga that Wiccans celebrate through the Wheel of the Year (calendar.) The wheel has turned from Winter to Spring, and the God who was reborn at December’s Yule is now Jack-in-the-Green, the Green Man, or the Oak King – a young man stepping into manhood. The Great Goddess is now transforming herself from Maiden to Mother, preparing to conceive.
(In fact, celebration and acknowledgment of the union of the God and Goddess to conceive the sun-child takes place on this holiday – regardless of the tradition or path of Neo-Paganism followed.)
So, celebrate life, love and your sexuality, since it all began as a very ancient fertility celebration. It is also a time when Wiccans perform “magick” toward the success of plans and projects, the achievements of goals, prosperity, and of course, the conception and birth of healthy children.
But, modern Beltane is not just about orgies and sexual depravity. It is primarily a glad celebration and welcoming of the return of the Sun, of Spring, and the Summer to come with all the gifts nature provides during this time of green abundance.
It is one of the four "Fire Festivals" or "Greater Sabbats." Originally, all Neo-Pagan Sabbats (holidays) was celebrated from dusk one day to dusk the following, similar to some other religions.
Although the holiday may use features of the Gaelic Bealtaine (Beltaine), such as the bonfire, it bears more resemblance to the Germanic May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing).
Some Wiccans still celebrate 'High Beltaine' by enthusiastically enacting a ritual sexual union of the May Lord and Lady during outdoor coven meets. Generally, such a union involved the High Priest and Priestess of the coven. Some Solitary Practitioners also enact sexual celebrations on this holiday, but privately either inside or outside under the moon and stars.
Beltane is believed to have been named after the Celtic God, Bel, a fire God of fertility, love and passion, but the holiday eventually dissolved into folk custom and was renamed May Day.
Even some of the folk traditions which are still followed today can find their roots in the ancient celebration of love, sex and fertility. In fact, the maypole was originally designed for Beltane to celebrate the abundance of spring.
It was also on May Eve that the Tuatha Dé Danann (Tribe of the Goddess Danu) is believed to have arrived in Ireland. They are masters of enchantment, and in May their magic is the strongest. Brigid (Brighid), known in Ireland as the Goddess of fire and inspiration, also represents THE GREAT GODDESS, Danu. Brigid is also known as Queen of the Faeries.
Thus, Beltane begins the season of faerie magic, and the Faerie Queen (an aspect of the Goddess) is represented by the May Queen in many modern celebrations and festivities across the globe. Faeries are spirits of nature, also referred to by Neo-Pagans as Elementals. They are believed to reside in rocks and trees, flowers, meadows, every natural formation! Beltane is one of the three "spirit-nights" of the year when it is believed that these faeries can be seen. At dusk, it is suggested to twist a rowan sprig into a ring and look through it – celebrants might very well see them.
Like Samhain (Halloween,) this is a night when witches, faeries and ghosts wander freely because it is believed that veil between this world and the otherworld is unusually thin.
Legend maintains that the Queen of the Faeries rides out on a snow-white horse, looking for mortals to lure away to Faerieland for seven years. Folklore says that if you sit beneath a tree tonight, you will see Her or hear the sound of Her horse's bells as She rides by. If you hide your face, She will pass you by but if you look directly at Her, She may choose you.
To celebrate Beltane with the Fey Spirits, say:
Star light, star bright,
I call the faeries forth tonight,
Come and celebrate with me,
Dance and sing, so mote it be.
Beltane is the one holiday most discouraged by the Christians, who didn't even use it as a point for a holiday of their own because the type of natural power it raises. Still, even in Christianized Ireland the May Day dance of the maypole remained, as did the giving of flowers to those you love or care for as friends.
The maypole itself is a symbol of the union of the God and Goddess to create life, the pole a phallic symbol while the dancers and their streamers, ribbons or vines of flowers represent the fertile womb of the goddess as it takes in the Phallus of the god and his seed. The pole is planted in Mother Earth to represent balance to evoke fertility and prosperity during the coming summer.
Samhain (Halloween) is primarily a festival of death, a time for letting go and of mourning. May Day, on the opposite side of the Wheel of the Year, is about life, about falling in love and frolicking in the woods. As such, it is the start of the "light" half of the year. Death is an ending but also a beginning. Falling in love is a beginning which is also a death. It is believed, “the Goddess who manifests herself at May Day calls you out of yourself and you may never return, at least to the same world you knew.”
When the Druids and their successors raised the “Beltaine” fires on hilltops throughout the British Isles on May Eve, they were performing a real act of magic, for the fires were lit in order to bring the sun’s light down to earth. In Scotland, every fire in the household was extinguished, and the great fires were lit from the need-fire that was kindled three times by three men (underscoring the sacred and magickal number three) using wood from the nine sacred trees of Paganism. When the wood burst into flames, it proclaimed the triumph of the light over the dark half of the year.
When that was done, the entire hillside came alive as people thrust branches into the newly roaring flames and whirled them about their heads in imitation of the circling of the sun.
If any man in attendance was planning a long journey or dangerous undertaking, he leaped backwards and forwards three times through the fire for luck. As the fire sank low, the girls jumped across it to procure good husbands; pregnant women stepped through it to ensure an easy birth; and children were also carried across the smoldering ashes. When the fire died down, the embers were thrown among the sprouting crops to protect them, while each household carried some back to kindle a new fire in their hearth. When the sun rose that coming dawn, those who had stayed up to watch it might see it whirl three times upon the horizon before leaping up in all its summer glory.
Thus, it became Beltane and a time of fertility and unbridled merrymaking, when young and old would spend the night making love in the Greenwood. In the morning, they would return to the village bearing huge budding boughs of hawthorn (the tree associated with May), and other spring flowers used to decorate themselves, their families, and their homes.
As they slowly returned home, they stopped at each house on their way and left leave flowers, while they enjoyed the best of food and drink that the homeowner’s hospitality had to offer. In every village, the maypole – usually fashioned from a birch or ash tree – was raised, and dancing and feasting began anew.
Festivities were led by the May Queen and her “consort” representing the King (again representing Jack-in-the-Green, the Green Man, or the Oak King), the old god of the wildwood. They were borne in state through the village in a cart covered with flowers and enthroned in a leafy arbor as the “divine” couple whose unity symbolized the sacred marriage of earth and sun.
At Beltane, today’s followers open to the God and Goddess of Youth. However old, Spring makes us feel young again, and at Beltane celebrants jump over the fires of vitality and youth and allow that vitality to enliven and heal them. When young celebrants might use this time as an opportunity to connect to their sensuality in a positive creative way, and when older the mating sought might well be one of the feminine and masculine sides of everyone’s nature. Integration of the male and female aspects of the Self has long been seen as one of the prime goals of spiritual and psychotherapeutic work, and Beltane represents the time when celebrants can open to this work fully, allowing the natural union of polarities that occurs in nature at this time the opportunity to help them in their work – a work that is essentially alchemical.
In addition to a maypole, often a bonfire is present, and members of the group are encouraged to jump the flames for luck and their own fertility. Food, drink and love are the order of the evening. In most covens the celebration of unions of love are enacted. Beltane is the time of many marriages/handfastings in the pagan community (in some it is the point where one chooses to begin and end relationships of a physical nature).
Clothing is optional in some coven get-togethers on this holiday, as some do celebrate naked, referred to as “Skyclad” by Wiccans. Regardless, it is a sensual and colorful celebration. Even those coven that are prudish about things tend to accept the rules of the holiday, as it is the holiday of free love. It is said that a child conceived on this day will grow up to wield great power and knowledge and to be healthier than upon any other.
The month’s sacred tree is oak, known as “duir” to the ancient Celts, to whom it represented great strength, survival and to overcome the challenges placed before us. It is interesting to note that Druids were originally called that because they held the Oak Tree as sacred.
The following terrific, in depth account of Beltane, “A Celebration of May Day,” was published in 2005 by Mike Nichols, and is reprinted here in full with permission from the author:
“Perhaps it’s just as well that you won’t be here...
to be offended by the sight of our May Day celebrations.”
— Lord Summerisle to Sgt. Howie from The Wicker Man
There are four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year and the modern Wiccan (Witches’) calendar, as well. The two greatest of these are Halloween (the beginning of winter) and May Day (the beginning of summer). Being opposite each other on the Wheel of the Year, they separate the year into halves. Halloween (also called Samhain) is the Celtic New Year and is generally considered the more important of the two, though May Day runs a close second. Indeed, in some areas – notably Wales – it is considered “The Great Holiday.”
By Celtic reckoning, the actual Beltane celebration begins on sundown of the preceding day, April 30, because the Celts always figured their days from sundown to sundown. And sundown was the proper time for Druids to kindle the great Belfires on the tops of the nearest beacon hill (such as Tara Hill, County Meath, in Ireland). These “need-fires” had healing properties, and skyclad (nude) Witches would jump through the flames to ensure protection.
Sgt. Howie (shocked): "But they are naked!"
Lord Summerisle: "Naturally. It's much too dangerous
to jump through the fire with your clothes on!"
—from The Wicker Man
Frequently, cattle would be driven between two such bonfires (oak wood was the favorite fuel for them) and, on the morrow, they would be taken to their summer pastures.
Other May Day customs include: walking the circuit of one’s property (“beating the bounds”), repairing fences and boundary markers, processions of chimney sweeps and milkmaids, archery tournaments, morris dances, sword dances, feasting, music, drinking, and maidens bathing their faces in the dew of May morning to retain their youthful beauty.
In the words of Witchcraft writers Janet and Stewart Farrar, the Beltane celebration was principally a time of “unashamed human sexuality and fertility.” Such associations include the obvious phallic symbolism of the May Pole and riding the hobbyhorse. Even a seemingly innocent children’s nursery rhyme “Ride a cock horse to Banburry Cross…” retains such memories. And the next line, “to see a fine Lady on a white horse,” is a reference to the annual ride of Lady Godiva through Coventry. Every year for nearly three centuries, a skyclad village maiden (elected “Queen of the May”) enacted this Pagan rite, until the Puritans put an end to the custom.
The Puritans, in fact, reacted with pious horror to most of the May Day rites, even making Maypoles illegal in 1644. They especially attempted to suppress the “greenwood marriages” of young men and women who spent the entire night in the forest, staying out to greet the May sunrise, and bringing back boughs of flowers and garlands to decorate the village the next morning. One angry Puritan wrote that men “doe use commonly to runne into woodes in the night time, amongst maidens, to set bowes, in so muche, as I have hearde of tenne maidens whiche went to set May, and nine of them came home with childe.” And another Puritan complained that, “Of forty, threescore or a hundred maids going to the wood over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled.”
Long after the Christian form of marriage (with its insistence on sexual monogamy) had replaced the older Pagan handfasting, the rules of strict fidelity were always relaxed for the May Eve rites. Names such as Robin Hood, Maid Marion, and Little John played an important part in May Day folklore, often used as titles for the dramatis personae of the celebrations. And modern surnames such as Robinson, Hodson, Johnson, and Godkin may attest to some distant May Eve spent in the woods.
These wildwood antics have inspired writers such as Rudyard Kipling:
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 Lerner and Lowe:
It's May! It's May!
The lusty month of May!...
Those dreary vows that ev'ryone takes,
Ev'ryone makes divine mistakes!
The lusty month of May!
It is certainly no accident that Queen Guinevere’s ‘abduction’ by Meliagrance occurs on May 1 when she and the court have gone a-Maying, or that the usually efficient Queen’s guard, on this occasion, rode unarmed.
Some of these customs seem virtually identical to the old Roman feast of flowers, the Floralia, three days of unrestrained sexuality that began at sundown April 28 and reached a crescendo on May 1.
There are other, even older, associations with May 1 in Celtic mythology. According to the ancient Irish Book of Invasions, the first settler of Ireland, Partholan, arrived on May 1, and it was on May 1 that the plague came that destroyed his people.
Years later, the Milesians conquered the Tuatha Dé Danann on May Day. In Welsh myth, the perennial battle between Gwythur and Gwyn for the love of Creiddyled took place each May Day, and it was on May Eve that Teirnyon lost his colts and found Pryderi. May Eve was also the occasion of a fearful scream that was heard each year throughout Wales, one of the three curses of the Coranians lifted by the skill of Lludd and Llevelys.
By the way, due to various calendrical changes down through the centuries, the traditional date of Beltane is not the same as its astrological date. This date, like all astronomically determined dates, may vary by a day or two depending on the year. However, it may be calculated easily enough by determining the date on which the sun is at fifteen degrees Taurus (usually around May 5). British Witches often refer to this date as Old Beltane, and folklorists call it Beltane O.S. (Old Style). Some covens prefer to celebrate on the old date and, at the very least, it gives one options. If a coven is operating on ‘Pagan Standard Time’ and misses May 1 altogether, it can still throw a viable Beltane bash as long as it’s before May 5. This may also be a consideration for covens that need to organize activities around the weekend.
This date has long been considered a “power point” of the zodiac, and is symbolized by the Bull, one of the tetramorph figures featured on the tarot cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune. (The other three symbols are the Lion, the Eagle, and the Spirit.) Astrologers know these four figures as the symbols of the four “fixed” signs of the zodiac (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius), and these naturally align with the four Great Sabbats of Witchcraft. Christians have adopted the same iconography to represent the four Gospel writers.
But for most, it is May 1 that is the great holiday of flowers, Maypoles, and greenwood frivolity. It is no wonder that, as recently as 1977, Ian Anderson could pen the following lyrics for the (classic rock) band Jethro Tull:
For the May Day is the great day,
Sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did ley
Will heed this song that calls them back.
The Flower Maiden
Sir Thomas Malory wrote the following about the potent effect of May and the customs of King Arthur's court in La Morte d'Arthur:
It was the month of May, the month when the foliage of herbs and trees is most freshly green, when buds ripened and blossoms appear in their fragrance and loveliness. And the month when lovers, subject to the same force which reawakens the plants, feel their hearts open again, recall past trysts and past vows, and moments of tenderness, and yearn for a renewal of the magical awareness which is love.
Early one morning in May, Queen Gwynevere commanded ten of her knights to prepare to ride with her a-Maying. Each knight was to be accompanied by a lady, a squire and two yeomen, and all were to be decked in silk or other cloth of the freshest green, and decorated with moss, flowers and herbs. They were to ride into the fields and woods of Westminster and to return to King Arthur at the court at ten o'clock.
It was customary for the queen to ride forth only in a large company of knights, know as the Queen's knights – knights who were most young, lusty and eager to win fame, who wore plain white shields. Knights who were killed were replaced at the next Pentecost. Chief of them all, of course, was Sir Launcelot.
But this particular May Day, Launcelot is absent and Gwynevere is kidnapped by Sir Mellyagraunce, from whose clutches she must be rescued by Launcelot.
The following are some fun chants/poems to be used on Beltane:
Here we come a piping,
In Springtime and in May;
Green fruit aripening,
And Winter fled away.
The Queen she sits upon the strand,
Fair as lily, white as wand;
Seven billows on the sea,
Horses riding fast and free,
And bells beyond the sand.
Doreen Valiente: "Witchcraft for Tomorrow"; Phoenix Publishing 1985
Oh, do not tell the Priest of our Art,
Or he would call it sin;
But we shall be out in the woods all night,
A conjuring summer in!
And we bring you news by word of mouth
For women, cattle and corn
Now is the dun come up from the South
With Oak, and Ash and Thorn!
Janet and Stewart Farrar: "Eight Sabbats For Witches"; Robert Hale 1983
The men gather around the bon fire, next to their partners, and they repeat in unison:
I am the stag of seven tines;
I am a wide flood on the plain;
I am a wind on the deep waters;
I am a shining tear of the sun;
I am a hawk on a cliff;
I am fair among flowers;
I am a god who sets the head afire with smoke.
Robert Graves; "The White Goddess": Farrar 1970
A Modern Poem
A Meeting. Nighttime
Two people, separated by the waves
Minds linked by a keyboard
Neither knowing what to expect
The screens tell their story
But gladly welcomed
Time and space forgotten
They exchange pictures
Past memories resurface
Past lives remembered
The ancient ones smile on the meeting
Two paths crossing once more
Past, present, and future fixed on this moment
Reunited under the light of Awen.
by Sionnach 1998
Suggestions To Celebrate Beltane
Arise at dawn and wash in the morning dew: the woman who washes her face in it will be beautiful; the man who washes his hands will be skilled with knots and nets.
If you live near water, make a garland or posy of spring flowers and cast it into stream, lake or river to bless the water spirits.
Prepare a May basket by filling it with flowers and goodwill, then give it to one in need of caring, such as an elderly friend.
Make a wish as you jump a bonfire or candle flame for good luck – but make sure you tie up long skirts, pants first!
Make a May bowl – wine or punch in which the flowers of sweet woodruff or other fragrant blossoms are soaked – and drink with the one you love.
Creating Your Own Bower
Writter Waverly Fitzgerald suggests:
Bring the May into your life by bringing home green branches, flowers and branches of flowering trees. Transform your house into a bower. Make a wreath to hang on the door or to crown your version of the Goddess.
This is a time for giving gifts. Gather flowers with special messages for friends and relatives. Make up your own explanation of the meaning of each flower and give it along with the bouquet. For friends at a distance, send pressed flowers or May Day cards or packets of flower seeds. Barbara Walker in Women's Rituals suggests other appropriate gifts including perfume, incense, candied flower petals, herbs, sachets and artificial flowers.
If you can, stay up all night, preferably outdoors. At least go for a walk in the night on April 30th and listen for the bells that herald the approach of the Fairy Queen. And you can run around, under cover of darkness, leaving May baskets of flowers on doorsteps.
On the first of May, wear your most colorful clothes or dress all in green (the color of the fairies). Consider wearing a flower in your hair. If festivals were associated with decades, Ma Day would definitely be the 1960's because of its association with sensuality and free love, sweet smells and Nature, flowers and bells.
Make May wine by flavoring wine with herbs, berries, fruits or flowers. The traditional May wine is white wine flavored with sweet woodruff (soak the sprigs of woodruff in the wine for only 15 minutes or so to flavor the wine). If you don't drink alcohol, use the same technique to flavor milk or apple juice. Drink a toast to the glory of May. You might want to use this in a love ritual.
If you choose to celebrate or acknowledge this powerful holiday in any way, I bid you joy, love and that the beloved God and Goddess bestows prosperity, abundance, fruitfulness, health and well-being.
— Danu’s Daughter