May Day by Jami Shoemaker – Part 1

Ancient Customs

Beltane (Anglicized spelling) is a fire festival, and was dedicated to the god of light, called variously Bel, Balor, Belenos, and Baldur. It marked the beginning of the summer season, and the return of the Sun to light and nourish the earth. Among the customs associated with the Celtic celebration of Beltane (literally “Bel’s fire”) is the lighting of two fires on a hilltop. The Druids gathered gathered wood from nine different trees to make their fire every year on top of Tara Hill in County Merath, Ireland. Traditionally, all other fires were extinguished, and relit from these sacred “need fires” as an act of renewal. Before cattle were taken into the open pasture for the summer they were driven either between the fires or through the ashes to purify them of disease, and men and women would leap the flames for protection, and for luck in matters of fertility, romance, and home.

This brings us to perhaps the most significant part of the Beltane customs—that of fetility and growth. With the return of light and warmth, the earth’s fertility was assured for another season. This mystery was seen as the union of the earth and sky, or Goddess and God. The fruit of the union was seen as greening of the countryside, and in the harvest to come. This coming together of the forces of nature was honored as the “Sacred Marriage” of the Goddess and God. Imitating their union was the ultimate act of the community.

In light of this “marriage of the gods,” Pagan weddings or “handfasting” were popular at this time of year. This was the commitment of a year and a day. giving the couple sort of “trial run” at marriage and after that time both parties could agree to a long-term relationship, or could go their separate ways without remorse.

For those only looking for a night of frolicking, the “greenwood marriage” was popular. Young men and women would spend the night at the Beltane fires, or would go into the woods on Beltane Eve, gathering garlands and flowers, making love, and staying up to greet the Sun. If a woman were lucky, she would find herself with child, as children conceived on May Eve were considered favored by the the gods. These “greenwood marriages” continued long after Christian form of marriage replaced the peasants’ handfasting. May Eve was a time to drop all inhibitions and enjoy unbridled sexuality. No rules applied. even married or handfasted couples would relax their commitment for this night.

Symbols of fertility abounded at May time—the greening of the woods, the flowering of plants, the mating of animals. Perhaps one of the most blatant symbols of fertility is the Maypole, traditionally cut and carried from the forest by the villages most viral young men. Though the symbol of the Maypole is universal (the living tree representing the growth that awakens with spring), the tradition of erecting a Maypole may stem from an ancient Roman tree-giving custom. It has been said that the erection of the Maypole, which includes burying one end in the earth, is yet another representation of the union of the gods.

Beltane falls exactly opposite Hallows,which marks the beginning of the dark half of the year. These two turning points were seen as powerful times in the wheel of the year. They fell on the “in-between” times, embodying the mysteries of light and dark, life and death, and the transitions between. It is at these times when the veil between the worlds of spirit and matter, the dead and the living, are the thinnest. Beltane was then associated with great magic. This was a time for divination, and for spells that would bring love and prosperity. It was also a time when the faery folk were more easily seen. Their appearance could bring good fortune, or, if a mortal were enticed by their mischievous ways, he or she might fall into a trance and be taken to a place beyond time.

Copyright Llewellyn’s Witches’ Datebook 2001 Pages 21 to 25