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“In Celtic tradition, the night of April 30 was thought of as the darkest of the year, when witches flew to frighten, spawning evil throughout the land. In response, people pounded on kettles, slammed doors, cracked whips, rang church bells and made all the noise they could to scare off the corruption they imagined to be moving on the moist air. They lit bonfires and torches and witch- proofed their houses with spring boughs. Such vigils were kept throughout the night until the rising of the May-dawn.”
Ah, what horrors were told about us over and over throughout history. Little did they know nor did they want to know, the truth about our Sabbat, Beltane…..
Beltane (a greater Sabbat named for a Celtic God, which is otherwise known as May Eve or May Day) hails the coming-together of the Horned God, now the Phallic Lord, and the irresistible Goddess in a rapturous celebration of light and life. It is as though all of nature–not least the birds and bees–is abuzz at this time of year, energized by a potent combinations of irresistible physical attraction and an equally compelling urge to procreate.
Beltane History – Celebrating May Day
The Fires of Tara:
Beltane kicks off the merry month of May, and has a long history. This fire festival is celebrated on May 1 with bonfires, Maypoles, dancing, and lots of good old fashioned sexual energy. The Celts honored the fertility of the gods with gifts and offerings, sometimes including animal or human sacrifice. Cattle were driven through the smoke of the balefires, and blessed with health and fertility for the coming year.
In Ireland, the fires of Tara were the first ones lit every year at Beltane, and all other fires were lit with a flame from Tara.
The Romans, always known for celebrating holidays in a big way, spent the first day of May paying tribute to their Lares, the gods of their household. They also celebrated the Floralia, or festival of flowers, which consisted of three days of unbridled sexual activity. Participants wore flowers in their hair (much like May Day celebrants later on), and there were plays, songs, and dances. At the end of the festivities, animals were set loose inside the Circus Maximus, and beans were scattered around to ensure fertility. The fire festival of Bona Dea was also celebrated on May 2nd.
A Pagan Martyr:
May 6 is the day of Eyvind Kelda, or Eyvind Kelve, in Norse celebrations. Eyvind Kelda was a Norwegian martyr who was tortured and drowned on the orders of King Olaf Tryggvason for refusing to give up his Pagan beliefs. A week later, Norwegians celebrate the Festival of the Midnight Sun, which pays tribute to the Norse sun goddess.
The Greeks and Plynteria:
Also in May, the Greeks celebrated the Plynteria in honor of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and battle, and the patroness of the city of Athens (which was named after her). The Plynteria includes the ritual cleansing of Athena’s statue, along with feasting and prayers in the Parthenon. On the 24th, homage is paid to the Greek moon-goddess Artemis (goddess of the hunt and of wild animals). Artemis is a lunar goddess, equivalent to the Roman moon-goddess Diana – she is also identified with Luna, and Hecate.
The Green Man Emerges:
A number of pre-Christian figures are associated with the month of May, and subsequently Beltane. The entity known as the Green Man, strongly related to Cernunnos, is often found in the legends and lore of the British Isles, and is a masculine face covered in leaves and shrubbery. In some parts of England, a Green Man is carried through town in a wicker cage as the townsfolk welcome the beginning of summer. Impressions of the Green Man’s face can be found in the ornamentation of many of Europe’s older cathedrals, despite edicts from local bishops forbidding stonemasons from including such pagan imagery.
A related character is Jack-in-the-Green, a spirit of the greenwood. References to Jack appear in British literature back as far as the late sixteenth century. Sir James Frazer associates the figure with mummers and the celebration of the life force of trees. Jack-in-the-Green was seen even in the Victorian era, when he was associated with soot-faced chimney sweeps. At this time, Jack was framed in a structure of wicker and covered with leaves, and surrounded by Morris dancers. Some scholars suggest that Jack may have been a ancestor to the legend of Robin Hood.
Ancient Symbols, Modern Rites:
Today’s Pagans celebrate Beltane much like their ancestors did. A Beltane ritual usually involves lots of fertility symbols, including the obviously-phallic Maypole dance. The Maypole is a tall pole decorated with flowers and hanging ribbons, which are woven into intricate pattern by a group of dancers. Weaving in and out, the ribbons are eventually knotted together by the time the dancers reach the end.
In some Wiccan traditions, Beltane is a day in which the May Queen and the Queen of Winter battle one another for supremacy. In this rite, borrowed from practices on the Isle of Man, each queen has a band of supporters. On the morning of May 1, the two companies battle it out, ultimately trying to win victory for their queen. If the May Queen is captured by her enemies, she must be ransomed before her followers can get her back.
There are some who believe Beltane is a time for the faeries — the appearance of flowers around this time of year heralds the beginning of summer and shows us that the fae are hard at work. In early folklore, to enter the realm of faeries is a dangerous step — and yet the more helpful deeds of the fae should always be acknowledged and appreciated. If you believe in faeries, Beltane is a good time to leave out food and other treats for them in your garden or yard.
For many contemporary Pagans, Beltane is a time for planting and sowing of seeds — again, the fertility theme appears. The buds and flowers of early May bring to mind the endless cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth that we see in the earth. Certain trees are associated with May Day, such as the Ash, Oak and Hawthorn. In Norse legend, the god Odin hung from an Ash tree for nine days, and it later became known as the World Tree, Yggdrasil.
If you’ve been wanting to bring abundance and fertility of any sort into your life — whether you’re looking to conceive a child, enjoy fruitfulness in your career or creative endeavors, or just see your garden bloom — Beltane is the perfect time for magical workings related to any type of prosperity.
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Legends and Lore of Beltane
In many cultures, there are different legends and lore surrounding the Beltane season – after all, it’s a time that marks fire and fertility, and the return of new life to the earth. Let’s look at some of the magical stories about this spring celebration.
- Like Samhain, the holiday of Beltane is a time when the veil between the worlds is thin. Some traditions believe that this is a good time to contact the spirits, or to interact with the Fae. Be careful, though — if you visit the Faerie Realm, don’t eat the food, our you’ll be trapped there, much like Thomas the Rhymer was!
- Some Irish dairy farmers hang a garland of green boughs over their door at Beltane. This will bring them great milk production from their cows during the coming summer. Also, driving your cattle between two Beltane bonfires helps protect your livestock from disease.
- The pious Puritans were outraged by the debauchery of Beltane celebrations. In fact, they made Maypoles illegal the mid 1600’s, and tried to put a halt to the “greenwood marriages” that frequently took place on May Eve. One pastor wrote that if “tenne maiden went to set (celebrate) May, nine of them came home gotten with childe.”
- According to a legend in parts of Wales and England, women who are trying to conceive should go out on May Eve — the last night of April — and find a “birthing stone”, which is a large rock formation with a hole in the center. Walk through the hole, and you will conceive a child that night. If there is nothing like this near you, find a small stone with a hole in the center, and drive a branch of oak or other wood through the hole — place this charm under your bed to make you fertile.
- If you go out at sunrise on Beltane, take a bowl or jar to gather morning dew. Use the dew to wash your face, and you’re guaranteed a perfect complexion. You can also use the dew in ritual as consecrated water, particularly in rituals related to the moon or the goddess Diana or her counterpart, Artemis.
- In the Irish Book of Invasions, it was on Beltane that Patholan, the first settler, arrived on Ireland’s shores. May Day was also the date of the defeat of the Tuatha de Danaan by Amergin and the Milesians.
- Babies conceived at Beltane are considered a gift from the gods. They were sometimes referred to as “merry-begots”, because the mothers were impregnated during Beltane’s merrymaking.
- In Cornwall, it’s traditional to decorate your door on May Day with boughs of hawthorn and sycamore.
- Eating a special oatcake called a bannock or a Beltane cake ensured Scottish farmers abundance of their crops for the year. The cakes were baked the night before, and roasted in embers on a stone.
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Fertility Customs and Magic
The Beltane season is a time of fertility, not only for people but for the land as well. If you plant a garden each summer, Beltane is a good time to do some fertility magic so that you will have an abundant crop by the time the harvest rolls around. There are many different methods of ensuring the fertility of the land, and you can incorporate any of these into your rituals and ceremonies.
- In ancient Rome, it wasn’t uncommon for the master of the land to take his wife out to the fields and have sex right there on the ground. If you had a lot of land, this could take all day, but it was practically guaranteed to ensure that the field would be fertile and productive once your slaves got the planting done.
- In some traditions, menstruating women add a bit of their blood to the soil to add potency. It’s a scientific fact that blood contains a lot of nutrients, so it makes sense to blend this in with the dirt before planting.
- Farmers in the Congo region of Africa make offerings to the spirits of the land before they begin clearing it for planting. In addition to the offerings, there is also a great deal of chanting, drumming and singing, and it is only after the spirits indicate that they are pleased with the gifts and performances that the farmers may plant their crops.
- The Algonquin peoples of the mid-Atlantic region performed ritual dances to ensure a bountiful agricultural crop each year. Dances involved a lot of noise, in order to wake the sleeping earth.
- In Crete, a sword dance called the Kuortes was held each spring. During the Kourtes, a group of men gathered together, moving in unison with sticks or swords. Although it sounds warrior-like, it wasn’t a martial dance but one that scholars say promoted fertility, instead. If you think about it, banging a stick or sword on the freshly plowed earth has quite a bit of fertility symbolism.
- Roman women paid tribute to Flora, the goddess of flowers, in order to ensure fertility of both the land and the womb. A woman who was having trouble conceiving a child might offer flowers at Bona Dea’s temple on the Aventine Hill. In an interesting paradox, Bona Dea was a goddess of both virginity and fertility, and was represented by the snake, often connected to fertility as well.
- In Nagoya, Japan, residents still celebrate the annual Honen-sai festival. This is held each year in the spring, to make sure the crops will be plentiful, and includes a parade – the highlight of which is a giant penis on a float (the penis, carved from a cypress tree, is about fourteen feet long and quite impressive indeed).
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Fertility Deities of Beltane
Beltane is a time of great fertility — for the earth itself, for animals, and of course for people as well. This season has been celebrated by cultures going back thousands of years, in a variety of ways, but nearly all shared the fertility aspect. Typically, this is a Sabbat to celebrate gods of the hunt or of the forest, and goddesses of passion and motherhood, as well as agricultural deities. Here are a list of gods and goddesses that can be honored as part of your tradition’s Beltane rituals.
- Artemis (Greek): The moon goddess Artemis was associated with the hunt, and was seen as a goddess of forests and hillsides. This pastoral connection made her a part of spring celebrations in later periods.
- Bes (Egyptian): Worshiped in later dynasties, Bes was a household protection god, and watched over mothers and young children. He and his wife, Beset, were paired up in rituals to cure problems with infertility.
- Bacchus (Roman): Considered the equivalent of Greek god Dionysus, Bacchus was the party god — grapes, wine, and general debauchery were his domain. In March each year, Roman women could attend secret ceremonies called the bacchanalia, and he is associated with sexual free-for-alls and fertility.
- Cernunnos (Celtic): Cernunnos is a horned god found in Celtic mythology. He is connected with male animals, particularly the stag in rut, and this has led him to be associated with fertility and vegetation. Depictions of Cernunnos are found in many parts of the British Isles and western Europe. He is often portrayed with a beard and wild, shaggy hair — he is, after all, the lord of the forest.
- Flora (Roman): This goddess of spring and flowers had her own festival, Floralia, which was celebrated every year between April 28 to May 3. Romans dressed in bright robes and floral wreaths, and attended theater performances and outdoor shows. Offerings of milk and honey were made to the goddess.
- Hera (Greek): This goddess of marriage was the equivalent of the Roman Juno, and took it upon herself to bestow good tidings to new brides. A maiden about to marry could make offerings to Hera, in the hopes that she would bless the marriage with fertility. In her earliest forms, she appears to have been a nature goddess, who presides over wildlife and nurses the young animals which she holds in her arms.
- Kokopelli (Hopi): This flute-playing, dancing spring god carries unborn children upon his own back, and then passes them out to fertile women. In the Hopi culture, he is part of rites that relate to marriage and childbearing, as well as the reproductive abilities of animals. Often portrayed with rams and stags, symbolic of his fertility, Kokopelli occasionally is seen with his consort, Kokopelmana.
- Pan (Greek): This agricultural god watched over shepherds and their flocks. He was a rustic sort of god, spending lots of time roaming the woods and pastures, hunting and playing music on his flute. Pan is typically portrayed as having the hindquarters and horns of a goat, similar to a faun. Because of his connection to fields and the forest, he is often honored as a spring fertility god.
- Priapus (Greek): This fairly minor rural god has one giant claim to fame — his permanently erect and enormous phallus. The son of Aphrodite by Dionysus (or possibly Zeus, depending on the source), Priapus was mostly worshiped in homes rather than in an organized cult. Despite his constant lust, most stories portray him as sexually frustrated, or even impotent. However, in agricultural areas he was still regarded as a god of fertility, and at one point he was considered a protective god, who threatened sexual violence against anyone — male or female — who transgressed the boundaries he guarded.
- Sheela-na-Gig (Celtic): Although the Sheela-na-Gig is technically the name applied to the carvings of women with exaggerated vulvae that have been found in Ireland and England, there’s a theory that the carvings are representative of a lost pre-Christian goddess. Typically, the Sheela-na-Gig adorns buildings in areas of Ireland that were part of the Anglo-Norman conquests in the 12th century. She is shown as a homely woman with a giant yoni, which is spread wide to accept the seed of the male. Folkloric evidence indicates that the figures are theory that the figures were part of a fertility rite, similar to “birthing stones”, which were used to bring on conception.
- Xochiquetzal (Aztec): This fertility goddess was associated with spring, and represented not only flowers but the fruits of life and abundance. She was also the patron goddess of prostitutes and craftsmen.
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How To Celebrate Beltane with a Maypole Dance
The Maypole is one of the traditional symbols of Beltane, and let’s not kid ourselves about its purpose: it’s a giant phallus.
Because Beltane festivities usually kicked off the night before with a big bonfire, the Maypole celebration usually took place shortly after sunrise the next morning. This was when couples (and probably more than a few surprised triads) came staggering in from the fields, clothes in disarray and straw in their hair after a night of bonfire-inspired lustiness.
The pole was erected on the village green or common, or even a handy field — thrust into the ground either permanently or on a temporary basis — and brightly colored ribbons attached to it. Young people came and danced around the pole, each holding the end of a ribbon. As they wove in and out, men going one way and women the other, it created a sleeve of sorts — the enveloping womb of the earth — around the pole. By the time they were done, the Maypole was nearly invisible beneath a sheath of ribbons.
To set up your own Maypole dance, here’s what you’ll need:
- Dig a hole in advance, a few feet deep. You don’t want your friends to wait while you hunt for a shovel. The hole should be at least three feet deep, to keep the pole from flopping over during the ceremony.
- A pole anywhere from 15 to 20 feet long, preferably made of wood
- Guests who like to have fun
Ask each participant to bring their own ribbon — it should be about 20 feet long, by two to three inches wide. Once everyone arrives, attach the ribbons to one end of the pole (if you put a metal eyelet screw in the pole beforehand, it makes it a lot easier — you can just tie each ribbon to the eyelet).
Have extra ribbons on hand, because inevitably someone will have forgotten theirs.
Once the ribbons are attached, raise the pole until it is vertical, and slide it into the hole. Be sure to make lots of bawdy jokes here. Pack dirt in around the base of the pole so it won’t shift or fall during the dance.
If you don’t have an equal number of male and female guests, don’t worry. Just have everyone count off by twos. People who are “1” will go in a clockwise direction, people who are “2” go counterclockwise. Hold your ribbons in the hand that is closest to the pole, your inside hand. As you move in the circle, pass people by on first the left, and then the right, then the left again. If you’re passing them on the outside, hold your ribbon up so they pass under it. You might want to do a practice round beforehand. Keep going until everyone runs out of ribbon, and then knot all the ribbons at the bottom.
One thing that’s always welcome at a Maypole Dance is music. There are a number of CDs available, but there are some bands whose music have a May theme to them. Look for the phrase “Morris music” or traditional pipe and drum tunes. Of course, the best thing of all is to have live music, so if you have friends who are willing to share their skill and sit out the dance, ask them to provide some musical entertainment for you.
- If you’re doing a kids’ Maypole, it’s probably easier just to have them all go in one direction with their ribbons. It doesn’t look quite as fancy when it’s done, but it’s still pretty.
- You may want to have a crown of flowers attached as well — put that at the top once all the ribbons are in place, but before you raise the pole.
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Want to know more? Click on the above Maypole for more information on Beltane