We stand now upon the beginning of Summer. The light half of the year is firmly established and the dark banished. The crops have been planted. While harvest season lies in the future, but we can take comfort in knowing our plans are set in motion. Now is not a time for introspection. Rather it is an occasion for celebration.
Of course for most people today, early May is still considered spring time. Historically, such was not always the case. In many parts of the world it was celebrated as a holiday. Examples include the Roman holiday Floralia and the Germanic festival Walpurgis 1. However many people, especially modern pagans, are probably most familiar with Beltane. It has its origins in the British Isles where it traditionally marked the beginning of summer. The holiday was primarily celebrated in Ireland and Scotland with bonfires and other rituals of protection 2.
As one might expect, then, the name is of Irish origin. The earliest references come from a tenth century glossary known as the Sanas Chormaic 3. There are a great many ways to spell it including Bealtaine, Bealtainn, Beltine, and Beltaine 4. The modern spelling originated with Sir James Frazer, most widely known for publishing The Golden Bough. Of all the varieties available, he chose “Beltane” an anglicized version of one of the Scottish names for the festival. It has been popular ever since 5.
The meaning of the name refers to fire in one way, shape, or form. The Sanas Chormaic lists it as “lucky fire”. However the true origins of the name are not clear. In the work above, Beltane is also said to mean “fire of Bel”. As shall be seen below, fire did play a large role in the celebration of Beltane. However there is no evidence for the existence of any deity named Bel. Instead the word was a prefix meaning “bright” 6. Therefore Beltane may also have meant “bright fire”.
Either way Beltane was an important day in many parts of the British Isles. In addition to being the start of warm weather, it marked the point at which herds were sent to their summer pastures. There they would stay until November when they would return to their winter quarters 7. Here we have a reminder that Beltane sits opposite Samhain on the wheel of the year. From a pastoral point of view it meant May was the start of the most important time of the year.
So the presence of various rituals and tradition to ensure the protection of one’s livelihood should come as no surprise. The main method of doing so was to light a bonfire. Once lit, cattle would be driven between them for blessing and protection. The Sanas Chormaic refers to such a practice. Unlike many pre-Christian traditions it continued through the Middle Ages. Even in the Nineteenth century, references exist to cattle being driven between two bonfires or made to leap over them. People did likewise. If one was to take a long journey or about to marry, it was customary to leap over a Beltane fire to ensure the success of the activity 8.
Similar customs were observed in Scotland as well. As in Ireland, all fires were extinguished on the night before Beltane and relit from a central bonfire. Cows and people moved through those same fires. Oatcakes were baked around this time as well with some thrown into the fire as an offering for protection of one’s herds 9.
There were other Beltane customs as well. Some involved flowers. Specific plants, including primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorsh, and hazel were set in doors or windows. Sometimes, people would decorate a small tree and call it a May Bush. It would be adorned with various ornaments including flowers and painted shells. In some places, people would even dance around the May Bush. Beltane was also said to have been a good time to visit Holy Wells. Once there, people would leave offerings or perform prayers 10. All of these customs were supposed to protect people and animals from fairies, witches, and other such forces which were believed to be active around this time of year 11.
None of the above seems very celebratory. Given the modern emphasis on enjoying the beginning of summer, one would expect the historic rituals to have been more entertaining. However for the areas in which what is now known as Beltane emerged, the beginning of May was an important time. Livestock only moved twice a year. Furthermore they were presumably more vulnerable to loss due to theft or other factors when away in the summer pastures. So rituals of protection involving fires and flowers were performed to ward off such problems 12.
Elsewhere it was different. The traditions described above were primarily found in the more “Celtic” areas of Britain and Ireland whose economies were pastoral in nature. Similar rituals existed in other parts of Europe, Scandinavia for example, were herding was an important activity. In places such as England, where agriculture was more critical, summer was greeted with great joy and happiness 13.
It is from there which much of our modern associations with Beltane derive. Firstly, May 1st is often known as International Workers Day. However the placement of it is a coincidence and does not relate to Beltane 14. More importantly, May Day meant the beginning of summer in much of Europe. It was often celebrated through gathering flowers 15. There also would have been Morris dancing, crowning of a May Queen, and various community gatherings 16. May Day is also stereotypically associated with young love. However it turns out that May 1st is not an especially fine day to make love as recent research has shown no rise in pregnancies after that time of year owing to the weather being too cold and damp 17.
The most famous element of May Day, however, is the maypole. The exact origins of it are a mystery. The custom of dancing around a pole seems to have been established in England by the end of the fourteenth century. However it was not as widespread in Ireland and Scotland where the aforementioned fire rituals were more prominent. Exactly what maypoles during medieval times symbolized is not very clear either. Various explanations have been put forth including that maypoles were phallic symbols, represented tree spirits, or were simply useful items around which to celebrate the season. Most of the known evidence supports the last conclusion. The types of dancing performed around maypoles during this time are similarly vague, but does not seem to have involved holding ribbons 18.
Our modern maypole is therefore just that – modern. While the object itself is clearly very old, it did not take on its current form until more recent times. Most of the festivities surrounding the beginning of summer in Britain were reinvented, along with Christmas, in the nineteenth century. As part of the process, the maypole also received something of a makeover. In 1836, a play in London performed a dance around one with the participants holding ribbons attached to the top. It soon after became popular and within fifty years had replaced the older forms of maypole dancing thus becoming embedded within popular imagination 19.
Thus Beltane is an interesting holiday. It epitomizes the nature of our sabbats. The name is Irish in origin yet much of the customs derive from England. At the same time it is one of the most well documented sabbats. More than any other, Beltane represents the merging of ancient customs with modern ones all given a contemporary face.
From a magickal point of view, Beltane is about honoring life. It is the last of the spring fertility festivals. We see the world around us truly blossoming. The crops, both literal and metaphorical, which were planted at Ostara are now beginning to sprout. Of course they are still fragile. Our carefully laid plans may still come to naught 20.
Whereas we celebrated the God’s growth at Ostara, now he is mature. Soon he will reach the height of his power at Litha. In the meantime we celebrate the wedding of the Goddess and God 21. Now is a time of spiritual union. We see not only our plans begin to take shape, but energy – male and female, dark and light – merge as well 22.
Beltane also marks the beginning of a shift. Being opposite Samhain on the wheel of the year, it is a time of “no time”. The veil between the worlds is thin once again 23. And like Samhain we are nearing a major turning point on the wheel of the year.
In the meantime there is celebrating to be done. As one author put it “No solemnity is permitted” 24. Beltane is all about joy and celebration so having a party makes sense now more than ever. The classic activity is the dance about the maypole. Morris dancing, whose history is beyond the scope of this essay, is also traditionally associated with Beltane. Either can be incorporated into a party 25. Given the historical emphasis on flowers one can also gather some of one’s own. They may be put around the house or perhaps given to someone you care about. Beltane is after all about the union of things on all levels spiritual and physical.
As with all sabbats, it is important to stay safe and find meaning in the celebrations. Beltane marks the start of the season of fun and revelry. For the next several months we can bask in the warm glow of the summer sun. Yet the light half of the year is reaching its peak. Good times may be here, but at Litha the wheel will turn once more and we will move slowly towards darkness.
River Loneruner is an active member of Hecate's Cauldron's Inner Circle and a second year student of the Temple Tradition.
1 “May Day.”
3 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 218.
5 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 218.
6 Ibid., 218 – 19.
7 Peg Aloi, “You Call It May Day, We Call It Beltane.”
8 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 218 –220.
9 Ibid., 219 – 22.
11 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 224.
13 Ibid., 224 –25.
14 “May Day.”
15 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 230.
16 “May Day.”
17 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 228.
18 Ibid., 232–34.
19 Ibid., 293–96.
20 Christina Aubin, “Beltane: Holiday Details and History.”
22 Robin Fennelly, “The Serpent’s Kiss: Beltane’s Fire.”
23 Christina Aubin, “Beltane: Holiday Details and History.”
24 Edain McCoy, Sabbats: A Witch’s Approach to Living the Old Ways, 148.
25 Ibid., 147.
“Beltane.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, February 18, 2015.https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Beltane&oldid=647721022.
Christina Aubin. “Beltane: Holiday Details and History,” April 30, 2000. http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usma&c=holidays&id=2765.
Edain McCoy. Sabbats: A Witch’s Approach to Living the Old Ways. 1st ed. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 1994.
“May Day.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, March 16, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=May_Day&oldid=651581698.
Peg Aloi. “You Call It May Day, We Call It Beltane,” April 8, 2001. http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usma&c=holidays&id=3382.
Robin Fennelly. “The Serpent’s Kiss: Beltane’s Fire,” April 28, 2013. http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=uspa&c=holidays&id=15410.
Ronald Hutton. Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996.