Beltane or Beltain (also Beltine or Beltaine) is the Gaelic May Day festival. Most commonly it is held on 30 April–1 May, or halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. It was observed in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Irish it is Bealtaine , in Scottish Gaelic Bealltainn and in Manx Gaelic Boaltinn or Boaldyn. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals; along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh.
Beltane marks the beginning of summer and was a time when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire, or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over flames or embers.
All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire. In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush; a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons and bright shells. Holy wells were also visited, while Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness. Many of these customs were part of May Day or Midsummer festivals in other parts of Great Britain and Europe.
According to 17th century historian Geoffrey Keating, there was a great gathering at the hill of Uisneach each Beltane in medieval Ireland, where a sacrifice was made to a god named Beil. Keating wrote that two bonfires would be lit in every district of Ireland, and cattle would be driven between them to protect them from disease. Bonfires continued to be a key part of the festival in the modern era, and were generally lit on mountains and hills. Such a fire was deemed sacred.
On Beltane Eve, all hearth fires and candles would be doused and, at the end of the festival, they would be re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. When the bonfire had died down, its ashes were thrown among the sprouting crops. From these rituals, it is clear that the fire was seen as having protective powers. According to one theory, they were meant to mimic the Sun and to “ensure a needful supply of sunshine for men, animals, and plants”. According to another, they were meant to symbolically “burn up and destroy all harmful influences”.
Flowers and May Bushes
Yellow flowers such as primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorse, hazel and marsh marigold were set at doorways and windows in 19th century Ireland, Scotland and Mann. Sometimes loose flowers were strewn at the doors and windows and sometimes they would be made into bouquets, garlands or crosses and fastened to them. They would also be fastened to cows and equipment for milking and butter making. It is likely that such flowers were used because they evoked fire, Similar May Day customs are found across Europe.
The May Bush was popular in parts of Ireland until the late 19th century. This was small tree, typically a thorn tree, that would be decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, painted shells, and so forth. There were household May Bushes (which would be set outside each house) and communal May Bushes (which would be set in a public spot or paraded around the neighborhood). In Dublin and Belfast, May Bushes were brought into town from the countryside and decorated by the whole neighborhood. Each neighborhood vied for the most handsome tree and, sometimes, residents of one would try to steal the May Bush of another. This led to the May Bush being outlawed in Victorian times. In some places, it was customary to dance around the May Bush, and at the end of the festivities it was burnt in the bonfire. Thorn trees were seen as special trees and were associated with the sí or fairies. The custom of decorating a May Bush or May Tree was found in many parts of Europe. Frazer believes that such customs are a relic of tree worship and writes: “The intention of these customs is to bring home to the village, and to each house, the blessings which the tree-spirit has in its power to bestow”. Sharon MacLeod writes that May Bushes were set outside farmhouses “to encourage and protect the abundance of milk during the summer. The practice of bedecking a May Bush with flowers, ribbons, garlands and coloured shells is found among the Gaelic diaspora, most notably in Newfoundland, and in some Easter traditions on the East Coast of the United States.
Holy wells were often visited at Beltane, and at the other Gaelic festivals of Imbolc and Lughnasadh. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking “sunwise”(moving from east to west) around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties. The first water drawn from a well on Beltane was seen as being especially potent, as was Beltane morning dew. At dawn on Beltane, maidens would roll in the dew or wash their faces with it. It would also be collected in a jar, left in the sunlight, and then filtered. The dew was thought to increase sexual attractiveness, maintain youthfulness, and help with skin ailments.
People also took steps specifically to ward-off or allay the sí (who are often likened to fairies). This included turning one’s clothing inside-out, carrying iron or salt, and leaving small offerings at the doorstep or at places associated with the sí. In Ireland, cattle would be brought to ‘fairy forts’ and bled. The owners would taste the blood and then pour it into the earth with prayers for the herd’s safety. Sometimes the blood would be left to dry and then be burnt. It was thought that dairy products were especially at risk from the sí. To protect farm produce and encourage fertility, farmers would lead a procession around the boundaries of their farm. They would “carry with them seeds of grain, implements of husbandry, the first well water, and the herb vervain (or rowan as a substitute). The procession generally stopped at the four cardinal points of the compass, beginning in the east, and rituals were performed in each of the four directions”.
Beltane and Beltane-based festivals are held by some Neo-pagans. As there are many kinds of Neo-paganism, their Beltane celebrations can be very different despite the shared name. Some try to emulate the historic festival as much as possible. Other Neo-pagans base their celebrations on many sources, the Gaelic festival being only one of them. Neo-pagans usually celebrate Beltane on 30 April–1 May in the Northern Hemisphere.
Wiccans use the name “Beltane” for their May Day celebrations. It is one of the yearly “Sabbats” of the Wheel of the Year, following Ostara and preceding Midsummer. In general, the Wiccan Beltane is more akin to the Germanic May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing). Some Wiccans enact a ritual union of the May Lord and May Lady.
This is a holiday of Union–both between the Goddess and the God and between man and woman. Hand-fastings (Pagan marriages) are traditional at this time. It is a time of fertility and harvest, the time for reaping the wealth from the seeds that we have sown. Celebrations include braiding of one’s hair (to honor the union of man and woman and Goddess and God), circling the Maypole for fertility and jumping the Beltane fire for luck. Beltane is one of the Major Sabbats of the Wiccan religion. We celebrate sexuality (something we see as holy and intrinsic to us as holy beings), we celebrate life and the unity which fosters it. The myths of Beltane state that the young God has blossomed into manhood, and the Goddess takes him on as her lover. Together, they learn the secrets of the sexual and the sensual, and through their union, all life begins.
Beltane is the season of maturing life and deep found love. This is the time of vows, hand-fastings and commitment. The Lord and his Lady, having reached maturity, come together in Perfect Love and Perfect Trust to celebrate the joy of their union. This is a time to celebrate the coming together of the masculine and feminine creative energies. Beltane marks the emergence of the young God into manhood. Stirred by the energies at work in nature, he desired the Goddess. They fall in love, lie among the grasses and blossoms and unite.
The flowers and greenery symbolize the Goddess and the Maypole represents the God. Beltane marks the return of vitality and passion of summer. Another common focal point of the Beltane rituals is the cauldron, which represents the Goddess. The Welsh goddess Creiddylad is connected with Beltane, often called the May Queen, she was a Goddess of summer flowers and love.
Incense: Lilac, Frankincense
Decorations: Maypole, Flowers, Ribbons