Beltane is a festival held on the first day of May, celebrating the beginning of summer and open pasturing. Beltane was one of two turning points in the year, the other being November 1 (Samhain), the start of winter. At both, the bounds between the human and supernatural worlds were erased. On May Eve, witches and fairies roamed freely, and measures had to be taken against their enchantments. As late as the 19th century in Ireland, cattle were driven between two bonfires on Beltane as a magical means of protecting them from disease.
Bel (Belenos) is the Celtic Sun God, the deity of light, health and healing. Belenos was thought – in some parts of northern Europe – to drive a chariot carrying the Sun’s disc. In his healing aspect, he is associated with healing waters, wells and springs. His cult spread from northern Italy to southern Gaul and Britain. The prefix ‘Bel’ means shining and was often linked with solar and aquatic deities. His name was given to the May festival of Beltane, which means ‘the fire of the God Bel’, and part of the seasonal festival celebrating the rise of the Sun. The wheel, sunburst, head with penumbra or halo are the symbols and associations of Bel.
His ‘wife’ is the goddess Belisama. A Gaulish goddess, she is known from Romano-Gaulish inscriptions that equate her with the Roman goddess Minerva… In Gaulish mythology she is the consort of the god Belenos and this (along with her name) has led to the proposition that she is a goddess of all types of fire (including sun- and moon-light) as well as of crafts. However, her equation with the Roman goddess Minerva and the fact that she seems to be bearing serpents in her statue representation would indicate that she was a goddess of wisdom and healing and as a light-bearer she might have been the goddess of the forge (which again is not incompatible with her association with Minerva as a goddess of crafts)… Belisama’s name can be interpreted as being formed from the reconstructed proto-Celtic elements *belo- (bright) and samo- (summer), yielding the interpretation ‘Summer Bright’.
May Day, also known as Beltane in the Pagan calendar, is traditionally a day steeped in herbal lore. May 1st marks the end of the colder months and heralds the start of summer. It is a fire festival day where fires were burned on hill tops to encourage the sun’s warmth down to the earth. Beltane is half way through the Pagan year, it is strongly linked to fertility and many enduring customs pertain to this.
May Dew: At sunrise on Beltane it is customary to rush out into the garden or fields and wipe your face in May Dew, particularly dew gathered on a Hawthorn tree. This is thought to have magical properties, including the ability to beautify the complexion for the coming year.
Hawthorn: This beautiful and helpful herb tree is known by some as the May Tree. Hawthorn boughs were often harvested at Beltane and the flowers used as gifts and to beautify homes.
Herb Gathering: Herbs start to flower a-plenty at this time of year hence Beltane is traditionally a time to go out with family and friends, a simple picnic, a basket and gather some wild herb flowers. If you like the idea of this, please remember that annuals rely solely on those precious flowers to create seed for next year’s plants. Leave plenty, harvest just a few (perennials) and avoid rare and protected plants. Try to use the herbs you harvest in some way or give them away to someone in need.
Flower Garlands: It is also customary to make beautiful flower garlands on May Day. Why not choose plentiful daisies and dandelions? Both are useful herbs, you may like to use when you get home or toss your flower garlands away with a wish, into flowing water.
May Bowl: This is a delicious drink made from Woodruff (Galium odoratum – it looks very like cleavers (Galium aparine) but it is in flower at the moment, looking like swathes of sugary white froth across woodland floors – when you can find it!).
Oat Cakes (Bannocks): An old Scottish custom is to make a Beltane Oat Cake and to share it between friends who would stand around the Beltane fire and each break off a small piece of the nobbly cake. They would then cast it over their shoulder whilst saying a line, asking that something precious be protected by something usually linked with it’s destruction (such as chickens or sheep to be protected by the wolves or foxes).