The Witchy Lifestyle: Beltane
Once again, the Wheel of the Year turns and we come to another milestone in the holidays that many of us witches celebrate! And here at the peak of spring and the beginning of summer, we have perhaps one of the most beautiful (and fun, if ya know what I mean) of the Celtic seasonal festivals: Beltane, or May Day.
Like Imbolc, Beltane’s history (at least in Ireland) is linked to the cultural livelihood: cattle. It’s at this time that the cattle would be driven out to the summertime pastures, and as such, it was necessary to protect the cattle in some way. Beltane was an opportunity to work rites that would protect the cattle during the summer months as they grazed.
Bonfires were lit, a new flame welcoming the warm months ahead and meant to help encourage growth, fertility, and protection. These bonfires were more than just celebratory, and weren’t really meant for the California tradition of roasting hot dogs and hamburgers. These fires were a representation of passion and the energy of life at its most potent. They were also fires that were built in honor of the Sun. This is one of the Celtic fire festivals, and so the flame has ritual significance. When the fire had burned down enough, couples and individuals would leap the flames and embers - an act of purification and encouraging fertility, and an act of love as it was a way for couples to pledge their loyalty to one another.
Cattle would be driven through the smoke. Again, this was an act of cleansing and protection. By walking the very livelihood of the village through the smoke and ashes of a solar fire, the farmers were petitioning the solar deities for continued health and success of the community. Other customs made use of two bonfires, in which the cattle would be driven between the two flames. Regardless, the cattle were meant to be protected from disease and malevolent spirits through the use of this ritual.
Later on, embers would be gathered from these flames and brought to the home. In a time without electricity, fire was life-giving. A “need-fire” was ever-present in the home, to be kept throughout the year for cooking and warmth. If one’s fire were to go out, it would be considered a bad omen and a sign of bad luck on their doorstep. Traditionally, the need-fire would be put out only once during the year: on Beltane. At this time, a new need-fire would be kindled from the embers of the Beltane fire, a way of bringing the summer sun into the home for the remainder of the year.
In Celtic Britain, Beltane was a festival with similar themes and motifs, but the deity associated with Beltane was non other than Belenus, a deity of the sun. Like Apollo, Belenus was believed to drive a horse-drawn chariot across the sky, bringing the sun along behind him.
Today, Beltane continues to be celebrated primarily as a fertility festival. Various practices are done on Beltane, including the dance of the maypole (the pole itself is a phallic representation, thrust in to the Earth; the ring of flowers near the top symbolize Mother Nature; the ribbons wound around the pole during the maypole dance represent the spiral of life); the Beltane bonfire, to be leaped for cleansing, protection, and luck; and often handfastings.
The Turning of the Wheel
In the story of the archetypal gods that helps teach the Wheel of the Year, it’s at this time that the Goddess is sexually mature, as well as the Oak King (often depicted at this time of the year as the Green Man). They come together in marriage and consummate that union. The Goddess on this day transitions from the Maiden to the Mother, and the Earth reflects that in its mass floral blooms and productive crops, as well as the arrival of many baby animals at this time of the year.
At this time of the year, it’s sensible for fertility magic as well as cleansing and protection magic to be worked, as well as marriage and handfasting ceremonies to be performed. However, it’s also a great time to honor the spirits of nature, including the Faerie, for whom this festival is also dedicated. Like Samhain, it’s believed that the material world and the spiritual world are particularly close this time of the year, so it’s appropriate to honor ancestors, as well.
So Josh, What Will You Be Doing to Celebrate?
Well, given that this is a fertility festival, my boyfriend and I have… plans (wink wink, nudge nudge). However! My coven is getting together to have a Beltane bonfire at one of the local beaches, complete with a rite to honor all of our gods, as well as the local faerie folk. We’ll be making this a big, fun occasion!
May your Beltane fires be bright, and your year blessed!
Blessed Be! )O(