Beltane (meaning “bright fire” (Grimassi)) is probably one of the most popular of the Sabbats, second only to Samhain and falling directly across the Wheel of the Year from it.  While Samhain is an acknowledgment and celebration of death and the end of a cycle, Beltane honors birth and life.  Warmer times are upon us; we’ve shed our heavy winter attire for lighter apparel.  The flowers are in full bloom and love is in the air.  Lust too. ;) 

     Beltane marked the beginning of summer and the pastoral growing season for the ancient Celtic people, though in our calendar it falls between spring and summer. The Sabbat is one of four original Celtic fire festivals.  Some believe the bonfires of Beltane were symbolic of the growing sun and attribute the holiday to the Celtic sun god, Belenus or Bel. A major theme of the celebration was the promotion of fertility for humans, live-stock, and crops.  On the eve of Beltane, all the fires in the village were extinguished to be lit again from the flame of the sacred “need-fire” which was said to be lighted on hill tops and used as a means of purification and blessing.  The Celts used a specific process in the building of their need-fire – they began by cutting a circle or square shape into the turf.  In the center of the shape they laid out a cross hatched pattern of wood which was decorated with ribbons of wool and hawthorn flowers (Grimassi).  Though it is said that the druids built the need-fire in earlier years, the task was later taken up by lay people after the islands became Christianized.  Often two fires were built near one another and the cattle driven between them or even over a fire to purify, protect them from disease, and insure fertility in the coming year.  People also walked between the fires of leapt over for the same purpose.  Some even bathed in the smoke (“Beltane”). There was a feast complete with Beltane Bannocks (oat cakes) along with singing and dancing around and over the fires.  When the celebration was over and the ashes cooled, they were spread across the fields to ensure the fertility of the crops (Grimassi).

     The ancient Romans had their own version of Beltane, a festival beginning near the end of April and ending a few days into May.  Floralia was something of a religious holiday in that it was dedicated and celebrated in the name of the flower and plant goddess, Flora.  Celebrants replaced their white garments for more colorful attire.  The festival included games of sport, theater and miming.  The prostitutes performed theater in the nude and even fought nude in the gladiatorial ring.  “In the Circus Maximus, deer [some translate goats] and hares, symbols of fertility, were let loose in honor of the goddess as protector of gardens and fields… Chickpeas (garbanzo beans, another symbol of fertility) also were thrown to the people in the Circus” (Grout).

     Many believe the celebration of Beltane and Floralia inspired our more modern observances of May Day which also center around spring’s abundant bounty and fertility.  One of the more well-known aspects of May Day is the maypole (revered as a phallic symbol or perhaps a throwback of sacred tree worship) and the dances performed around it.  In ancient times, the maypole was a living tree, decorated with ribbons, greenery, and flowers (Grimassi).  Our modern poles tend to be manufactured and mobile to some degree, though they can be permanent fixtures.  The top of the pole is often adorned with a wreath, also covered in ribbons, greenery, and flowers, a nod to nature’s fertility and the vibrancy of the spring and summer months. 

     It is customary to dance around the maypole.  You should probably begin with simple dances such as taking up the ribbon and moving forward and backward without actually plating the ribbons.  You can graduate to a circle dance, wrapping the ribbons around the pole in a single direction.  Make sure that no one dancer overtakes another.  Graduate to what is called The Grand Chain.  My group tried The Grand Chain years ago and our maypole looked a hot mess when we finished.  We had a great time, just the same!  Make sure everyone is aware of their job before you begin.  Divide the dancers into two equal groups – A and B.  Space everyone out around the pole equally, alternating between a team A person and a team B person, with each participant facing a person of the opposite team.  All dancers are to hold a ribbon in their right hand and gather the excess in their left.  When the music beings, “each of [t]eam A should pass right shoulder with their first [t]eam B dancer and then left with the next (do not turn back on yourself), carrying on alternately until the ribbons are…exhausted. As dancers pass each other, they should raise and lower their right arm rhythmically to guide the ribbon over the other dancer. To unwind, remember to retrace your steps accurately, passing your last dancer first and then alternate shoulders until the ribbons unwind. Make sure that everyone dances at a constant pace and that no one overtakes” (Stradling).

     The maypole isn’t the only custom of the May Day celebration.  Often the maypole dancing is preceded by a parade or procession through the town or village.  At the head of the procession is the May Queen, usually a young girl, crowned and dressed in white.  Some newer traditions allow the May Queen to crown a May King and others even a private, physical reenactment of the Great Rite (with participants being consenting and of age, of course) (“About”).  Mummer’s plays are also a component of the festivities.

     The hobbyhorse plays its own part in May Day celebrations, though where exactly it originated and why is a mystery.  One may extrapolate that the connection between the hobbyhorse and the rights of May originated with the Celtic God Belenus and the depictions of the god on a horse drawn chariot or riding a horse.  This, however, is my own personal musing and I can offer no historic accounts to back the claim.  The hobbyhorse costume usually consists of black material stretched over a large hoop with the snapping wooden head of a horse mounted on top of it (Grimassi), though there are variations.  Sometimes the head of the horse is the actual skeleton of a horse and other times the man inside the costume is made to look as if he were riding the horse instead of being hidden inside it.  The procession begins in a tavern and includes a teaser, a silly jester-like character holding a wand.  The hobbyhorse runs, dances, and chases maidens through the streets, sometimes capturing one beneath the hoop.  The woman is released from the skirt with a black mark upon her face, a symbol of good fortune.  The mark promises a marriage for a single lady or a baby for a married woman (Grimassi).

     Though the tradition is observed less frequently now, a May Doll, some say symbolic of the goddess Flora or perhaps of the season itself, was carried through the village.  The doll’s face was hidden under a white piece of cloth and people would pay to have her face uncovered, as seeing the face of the doll (or perhaps being seen BY her) was considered lucky (Grimassi). 

     Fairies play a major role during this time of the year, and I’m not talking about the cute, happy little winged variety.  If we look to folklore, the fairy people were a helpful sort, but could also be a terrible nuisance if disrespected.  Some believe that the ancient Celtic god-like race of the Tuatha de Dannan are fairies.  It is said that at Beltane and Samhain, the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest.  While the souls of the dead move into the realm of the living during Samhain, the fairy folk become more active during Beltane.  With the understanding that the fairy folk are the stewards of nature and all things growing, it’s no wonder this belief persists.  If you’re looking to forge a relationship with the fairy spirits or plant devas in your local area, this is the perfect time to begin.  Leave an offering of honey or coins in wild places, but be sure you are consistent.  It isn’t wise to anger the fae.    

     In the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, Beltane is a celebration of the joining of female and male energies as seen through the consummation of the green god of the harvest and the maiden goddess.  Through their joining we are insured a successful and bountiful harvest.  Beltane is a time for fertility or abundance work, love magick, and to commune and work with nature and the fairies if you so choose.  With such a vibrant and expansive history as Beltane, you have no end of inspiration for making your own celebrations.

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“About the May Queen and King”.  Beltane in the Grove.  http://www.beltaineinthegrove.com/about/the-may-queen-king/. Accessed 29 Apr 2017.

"Beltane." New World Encyclopedia.  13 Dec 2016.  http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Beltane&oldid=1001941.  Accessed 28 Apr 2017.

Grimassi, Raven.  Springtime Rituals, Lore & Celebration – Beltane.  Llewellyn Publications, 2001, St. Paul, MN.

Grout, James. “Floralia.”  Encyclopaedia Romanahttp://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/calendar/floralia.html.  Accessed 29 Apr 2017.

Stradling, Rod.  “The Maypole Dance”.  All About Maypole Dancing.  2015.  http://www.maypoledance.com/maypoledance.html.  Accessed 29 Apr 2017.