Beltane blessings from WOTC
You Call it May Day, We Call it Beltane
Author: Peg Aloi
The season of spring has arrived! The rites of fertility have begun! This is a holiday with a colorful past, and strangely enough, one of the only major festivals on the pagan calendar which has never been Christianized. But as we shall see, it is a holiday with two distinct flavors of celebration throughout history…
But first, some nostalgic wanderings…
April 30th, 1972.
Somewhere, I must have learned about May Baskets. I think my favorite third grade teacher mentioned them briefly in Social Studies class (she often talked about holidays and their origins), and then I wanted to find out more about this wacky custom. I was a precocious reader as a kid so it may have been almost anywhere: the Encyclopedia Britannica, Woman’s Day magazine, maybe even Playboy. I don’t recall where, but I know once I learned about the custom of giving them to some one special, I was determined to make one and leave it in secret for my favorite third-grade teacher, Miss V.
I took a small box (about half the size of a shoebox) and glued lavender construction paper to it. I also fashioned a handle out of the same paper, gluing it to both sides. I cut out flower petals shapes in different colors and glued those on, too. Very tasteful, I thought. I cut some daffodils and lilacs from the yard, and put them inside. I had already asked my aunt if she could drive me over to her house, having cleverly looked up her address in the phone book earlier. (Now, these days we would call such behavior something less innocent than childlike admiration; we might call it, oh, stalking). As we drove up with the basket to my teacher’s house, at around 6 pm, I found myself thinking, gee, what if she sees me? I got out of the car, ran on tiptoe (as if that would make me less visible) and put it on her porch. As I turned, the front door opened.
As luck would have it, I was busted: by Miss V. herself! She saw me, then the basket, and figured it out. She smiled and thanked me and said it was very sweet of me. I was mortified that she found me out. But then the next day in school, she made me a card with flowers on it. The front said “Thank you” and the inside said “for delighting my day with a May Basket.” So I got to put that card on my desk like a little teacher’s pet. Of course, I did not think that at the time; at the time I was simply very proud. And realized if I had not gotten “busted” she might never know who brought the May Basket, and I’d have my secret, but only that. This way, maybe the other kids would think of making May Baskets for someone: a teacher, a parent or grandparent. Of course, all I knew was I made something cool and gave it to someone special.
May 1st, 1988
I’m in graduate school. Living in a cool two-bedroom apartment above a funeral home. I have just started really getting into the whole paganism thing. Not in a coven yet, but doing the beginner stuff: practicing a bit of spellcraft, making little altars in my room, going to meetings of the Pagan Students’ Organization, buying books by Margot and Starhawk and Janet and Stewart… So I know it’s Beltane. But not to the extent that I know how to really celebrate it as a true pagan. (Not to worry, within a year or two I would be dancing ’round maypoles, washing my face in the dew and “going a Maying” like a veteran!)
So I get up in the morning and dress in something kinda frilly and festive, not all that atypical for me but I wanted to feel like I was observing the season today. I leave my apartment to go to class, and what do I find on my doorknob but a garland of flowers! Shaped like a crown to be worn. Wow. I don’t even have a clue who it might be from (but I have my suspicions). I take it with me and carry it around to classes that day. I finally run into a male friend of mine who knows I ma into this pagan stuff. He apparently knows a thing or two about May Day folklore, and I eventually find out he left it as a sign he was interested in dating me. Which was rather sweet. This was a very shy young man who I cannot imagine actually asking me out on a date. But his leaving a relic of ancient paganism on my door, well, that was impressive. We did date for a while. He was a nice guy and very smart. At the time all I knew was, he made something cool and gave it to me, so he must have thought I was special.
Beltane: a Pre-Christian Fire Festival
“But they are… naked!”
“Well, naturally, it’s far too dangerous to jumo through the fire with your clothes on!”
–Lord Summerisle explaining Beltane to Sergeant Howie in the 1973 film “The Wicker Man”
According to an article entitled “The Merry Month of May” on about.com (link) “The first day of May is still celebrated as a pre-Christian magical rite in some parts of England. Local people dance around a maypole (an ancient fertility symbol), in what was once one of England’s most important festivals of the year.” May Day and Beltane obviously have much in common, as both celebrate new growth and fertility. Even when May Day celebrations were banned in the late 16th century for being immoral, the customs died hard and it wasn’t long before the festivities were once again widespread. But long before the May Day celebrations, with their maypole dancing, garlands and dances became popular, the ancient fire festival of Beltane took place for centuries.
It is not clear where or how the festival of Beltane first came about; Ronald Hutton in The Stations of the Sun mentions the first recorded instance of a bishop in Lincolnshire complaining about local priests who “demeaned themselves by joining games which they call the bringing-in of May” in 1240. May Games were recorded in Scotland in 1432. There is some speculation that Beltane and May Day is related to the ancient Roman festival of Floralia. According to the about.com article, this was “a six-day party in honor of Flora, the goddess of Spring and Flowers, the Floralia was a time of singing, dancing and feasting in the ancient capital.” Dressed in bright colors in imitation of spring flowers, citizens would decorate the entire city with fresh blooms. “Hares and goats, symbols of fertility, would be let loose in gardens as protectors of Flora, and great singing and stomping would be heard in order to wake up Spring.” Of course, dancing is a large part of May Day celebrations as well. Apparently, Flora was also the patron of prostitutes, and during this festival the Roman “working girls” participated enthusiastically, performing naked in theatres and taking part in gladiatorial events. The themes of fertility and sexuality are obviously still very much associated with Beltane and May Day amongst modern pagans… but let’s look more closely at the ancient history of Beltane in the British Isles.
First of all, the origin of the name “Beltane” is disputed. The holiday was also known as “Roodmass” in England and “Walpurgisnacht” in Germany. Alternately spelled Bealtaine, Beltaine, and any number of Gaelic derived-spellings, it is also the Irish word for the month of May, and is said to mean anything from “Bel-fire” Feast of the god Bel” to “bright fire.” Janet and Stewart Farrar, in Eight Sabbats for Witches offer an excellent tracing of the holiday’s Irish roots, and particularly the European fire-god Belenus whom they believe this festival is named for (a name possible traced back to Baal, the bible’s only pagan god, whose name simply means “Lord”). Ronald Hutton states that since the Celtic word “bel” means bright or fortunate, this is adequate to explain the translation as being “lucky fire” or “bright fire.”
For FIRE is what this festival is all about. It is one of the two great fire festivals of the wheel of the year (the other is Samhain). It also falls upon the cross-quarter days, which mark the astrological movement of the sun. In ancient times, the calendar days for these holidays would have been roughly seven to eleven days AFTER we now celebrate them (usually on the first of the month). The way to know for sure is to observe when the sun reaches 15 degrees of the zodiac sign. For Beltane, this is Taurus, the Bull (the sun reaches 15 degrees Taurus on May 5th this year). At Lammas, Leo; at Samhain, Scorpio, and at Imbolc, Aquarius.
Samhain and Beltane divide the year into two distinct halves of great importance to agrarian-based societies (as in western Europe, where our Celtic calendar of eight major seasonal festivals originates). In F. Marian McNeill’s book The Silver Bough, she states: “At Beltane, flocks and herds went to their summer pastures; as Hallowmass (Samhain) they returned to their winter quarters. Beltane may be regarded as a day of Supplication, when a blessing was invoked on hunter and herdsman, on cattle and crops.” Whereas Samhain was a “Day of Thanksgiving, for the safe return of the wanderers and the renewal of the food supply.”
Fire festivals in ancient times were seen as times of propitiation and purification. Propitiation, says McNeill, “means sacrifice; to propitiate the mysterious forces of nature and ensure fertility in field and fold and on the hearth.”
“You’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice.”
–May Morrison to Sergeant Howie, “The Wicker Man”
Human sacrifice was still practiced in Gaul as late as the 1st century BC, and was later replaced by sacrifice of animals (most notably the Bull – another Taurus connection?), and later an offering of specially consecrated cakes or loaves, as in the sun-shaped loaf in “The Wicker Man.” “The life of the fields: John Barleycorn.” But of course, by the film’s end, more than bread was consumed by the flames.
(Never seen The Wicker Man? It’s a cult classic well-loved by pagans for its deliciously politically-incorrect sacrifice of a morally-uptight police sergeant when he visits and island renowned for keeping the “old ways.” The film’s events take place on the days leading up to Beltane.)
As for purification, fire has always been seen as its chief agent. Traditionally, all domestic fires in Irish, English and Scottish households were extinguished on Beltane Eve, after having been kept lit continuously all year. Just before dawn, villagers would process with their animals up the hillsides to the highest point where fires would be kindled and relit for people to see for miles around. It was also traditional to build these fires out of nine of the sacred woods from Druidic folklore, including oak, ash, thorn, rowan, apple, birch, alder, maple, elm, gorse, holly, hawthorn, and others.
The bonfires were lit so that a narrow passage existed between two fire, so that cattle and other livestock could be led between the fires, to purify them from disease or sterility for the coming year. Torches of dried sedge, gorse or heather were also lit and carried around remaining flocks or stables, to further purify the air.
Water, the other element of purification, also plays a strong role in Beltane custom. Spring was the traditional season of “well dressing” particularly in Ireland where wells were seen as holy places (even with the advent of Christianity, when many wells dedicated to pagan goddesses were re-dedicated to the Virgin Mary). But even more specific to Beltane, morning dew was seen as sacred and magical. To this day, young women all over the British Isles rise at dawn to wash their faces in dew (dew from oak and rowan trees is said to be particularly well-suited). It was and is believed doing so would enhance a woman’s beauty and health in the coming year, and if she uttered an appropriate charm while doing it, she might also meet her future husband in the coming year.
This poem was written by someone who observed young women engaging in this practice in King’s Park in Edinburgh:
“On May Day in a fairy ring,
We’ve seen them round St. Anton’s spring,
Frae (from) grass the caller dew-drops wring,
To weet their een (to wet their eyes)
And water clean as crystal spring
To synd them clean.”
Village elders also left libations and offerings of food to guard their flocks against any evil from the fairy folk, or from the ravages of storms, floods, or disease. Butter, eggs, milk and cheese were left in hollow stones, or poured into the ground. Alternately, ale or fresh-baked bread was offered, with the idea that a gift of the finest the household could provide was the most suitable offering.
In Aberdeenshire, McNeill tells of a custom of kindling fires on May 2nd, as it was believed “witches were abroad then.” Beltane, like Samhain, was the time when the veils between the worlds were thinnest, and like fairy folk, “witches” were thought to be fond of this time and to use it for magical rites. Keep in mind, in those days, the “witches” were the ones that country folk worked magic against, and those of us today who call ourselves “witches” are actually closer in spirit to those village wise women and cunningmen, who used folk magic and spells to protect their homes and families and flocks. The Aberdeenshire citizens believed witches would steal milk from cows, and ride stolen horses to their meetings. Fires were lit and villagers would hold hands and dance around them three times deosil (sunwise) – does this sound familiar? Except they would then yell out “Fire! Blaze and Burn the witches! Fire, Fire! Burn the witches!” Thanks goodness we have moved far beyond these, ahem, heathen customs!
Earth and Air…
Dancing was a common way to celebrate the season. The Maypole rites being an obvious example, but before this practice became widespread, dancing without benefit of a giant pole was also common. Dancing round the bonfires was seen as a way to partake of the purification of its flames. Women wanting to get pregnant would perform fertility dances at the fireside. Once the Beltane fires were relit on the hillsides, villagers would carry a flaming torch, the “need-fire, ” back to their homes and relight their hearthfires with it. On the way, it was customary to dance and sing the season in. Records of may dances and songs go back to well before the 16th century. The songs affirmed the purpose of the fire ceremonies: protection and purification. The protective power of the magical woods was thought to affect any who lit their households with their flames. The sight of the bright flames on the hills, and the line of people processing with torches in the dark, must have been an awesome sight to behold.
(This year in Ireland, a huge ritual will be held to re-kindle the ancient fires of Beltane. It was nearly cancelled due to foot and mouth disease, but now it looks like this ancient ritual of healing the land and its creatures will take place after all, and not a moment too soon.)
The most protective wood of all was rowan, and prior to the Beltane Eve bonfire lighting, branches of rowan were cut in huge amounts and used to decorate the homes of all. Branches tied with red thread (signifying the rowan berries, and a favorite color of fairies) were hung in doorways of homes, stables, barns and sheepfolds, and, as McNeill states, particularly “in the midden, which was a favourite of the black sisterhood.” (I think she meant witches.) In the Highlands of Scotland, girls tied sprigs of rowan in their hair or on their clothing just after washing in may dew. (Incidentally, in “The Wicker Man” the hapless Sergeant Howie is first sent for to investigate a missing girl, whom he believes intended for human sacrifice: her name is Rowan.)
Just as rowan branches were seen as protective, people also gathered armsful of tree branches in blossom to decorate their homes in honor of the arrival of spring. This custom was usually fulfilled the following day, on Beltane proper, after the midday sun brought the blossoms to the fullest size and fragrance. In later years, when May festivities spread to England, these branches were carried from door to door, offered with songs, in the expectation that gifts of sweets, money or food and drink would be offered. This in turn led to the “garlanding” customs popular in southern England, once the province of women but later an activity popular for young girls and sanctioned by local schools and parishes. No matter what the blossom, it was known as “gathering the May.” Hawthorn was most common, and so one of its folk names is “May.” (Rowan Morrison’s mother’s name is May, as well). “Going a Maying” innocently refers to the custom of young people gathering blossoming tree branches; but later became a common euphemism for what happened after the branches were gathered in the woods, and before they were brought home.
Once the fires were relit on Beltane Eve, and children put to bed, and the wee hours of Beltane morning arrived, the more adult festivities began. And that includes the traditional activities associated with fertility (remember Flora and her fondness for prostitutes? Kinda along those lines). Newly wed couples and new brides were expected to perform fertility rites around the bonfires, to take advantage of their potency and purification. Humans were much more closely connected with the rhythms of the earth in those days, to put it mildly, and no doubt the running of sap in trees, the blossoms and buds bursting forth, the scents of flowers and new growth and damp soil and rain, all stirred the senses and reawakened the body—these days we call it “spring fever, ” but in antiquity, indulging such urges was completely normal and expected.
Or, in the words of Lerner and Lowe, from the musical “Camelot”:
“It’s May! It’s May!
The lusty month of May!…
Those dreary vows that ev’ryone takes,
Ev’ryone makes divine mistakes!
The lusty month of May! ”
Naturally enough, unwed men and women would also partake of the spirit of these rites, and find themselves venturing off into the nearby fields or forest to perform their own fertility rites. Blessed by the gods on this sacred night, such unions were seen as wholly proper, even when not blessed by marriage; they were referred to as “greenwood marriages.” It is also true that betrothed couples would make love at Beltane, and if the union did not prove fruitful, i.e. no pregnancy resulted, they might dissolve the partnership before marriage without repercussion. In fact, the origin of the “year and a day” handfasting custom observed by modern pagans, in which they renew their vows after one year, dates back to this. If new marriages did not produce children within one year, couple often split and married others, with no penalty.
But why sex? If the point of these festivals was to preserve the land and the flocks, why not simply observe fertility in the birth of lambs, the growth of plants? Ah, but ancient peoples believed in sympathetic magic: that practice of a small, symbolic action representing a larger one. By making love in the fields, human beings believed they were helping make the earth more fertile, blessing it with their own activity of producing new life and abundance. And even if the ultimate goal of such unions was not pregnancy, it couldn’t hurt to help the magic along!
Which brings me to what is often considered a wholly sexual symbol, and main feature of ancient May Day and modern Beltane celebrations: the maypole.
Phallic Symbol? Or Tree Worship?
Beltane celebrations in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and parts of Britain later became intertwined with May Day rites derived from the Floralia (due to the Roman invasion of Britain, mostly). But more importantly, the different customs associated with May 1st became very diverse and widespread to such an extent that these practices were banned on a wide scale. Though complaints about “immoral” practices started early on (as in the 1240 reference from Hutton), the Protestant, well, protest against May rites came to a head in 1555, when May Day observances were banished by Parliament. This mainly had to do with the “Maying” rites, which uptight clergy believed were merely opportunities for fornication in the fields and defiling of young women (mistakenly believed to come away pregnant more often than not. Hutton notes that later demographic research showed no concomitant rise in pregnancy rates at this time of year; in fact, late summer was a much more common time for conception).
By 1565, the common practice of electing “an Abbott of Misrule” and other ritual roles, like Robin Hood, Maid Marian and others, was also banned by law. Such plays had become commonplace, as had Morris dancing, sword dances and other celebratory ways of “dancing in” spring. Margaret Murray, in “The God of the Witches” noted the similarity between Robin and his typical band of 12 men being modeled on a “Grandmaster and his coven.” Although it is just as clearly related to Jesus and his disciples. In any case, the traditional green costumes and elaborate dances, as well as Robin Hood’s association with Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, were also connected to fairy tradition and so seen as “heathen” by the clergy. Some have speculated that this tradition of using Robin and Marian as May Day “deities” actually has its origin in Diana and Herne: goddess of the hunt and forest creatures, and god of the wild hunt. Indeed, Herne is seen as one aspect of the Green man, and many May Day rites also featured The Green Man. Diana is also a predecessor of the Queen of the May, a role later usurped by Marian… but Diana’s virgin aspect makes her a likely model for such a role.
The maypole itself was banned in 1644. By 1660, when it became clear the monarchy would be restored, May Day rites were once again permitted and in fact spontaneously reappeared across the country. But by then the holiday had lost much of its earlier sexual significance; May Day had replaced Beltane, if you will. But it is also true that by this time, the dancing of the Maypole had become the central “ritual” of this holiday, not the bonfires. Only in remote parts of Ireland and Scotland did the fires apparently continue as the dominant feature.
It is not clear when the maypole first became part of the May festivities, or what its exact origin is. Our post-Freudian society naturally wishes to call it a “phallic symbol” and have done with it, and indeed this seems fitting. A wonderful scene in the oft-mentioned “The Wicker Man” finds the young male students dancing round the maypole, while the female students watch them from their classroom, in which they listen to a lecture about the rites and rituals of May Day (even their textbooks have a chapter on it!), and all the girls in unison know the answer to what the maypole represents: “phallic symbol.” The teacher, Miss Rose, says it is the penis, “revered in religions, such as ours, as the generative force in nature.”
But according to Ron Hutton, other explanations present themselves. Some authors, including Sir J.G. Frazer in The Golden Bough, refer to it as “the repository of a fertility-giving tree spirit.” Many years earlier, Thomas Hobbes suggested the maypole was meant to honor the Roman god of male potency, Priapus. Hutton himself suggests they are just as likely symbols of tree worship (particularly since the earliest maypoles were living trees, stripped of all leaves but for a tuft of greenery at the top). He also mentions the Northern European concept of the divine tree which connects the earth tot he world of the divine, and the maypole as a connection between them. Finally, he credits Mircea Eliade for his theory that it is “merely a way of rejoicing at the returning strength of vegetation.”
“For the May Day is the great day,
Sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did ley
Will heed this song that calls them back…
Pass the cup, and pass the Lady,
And pass the plate to all who hunger,
Pass the wit of ancient wisdom,
Pass the cup of crimson wonder.”
Jethro Tull, “Cup of Wonder, ” from the 1977 album Songs From the Wood
Modern pagans celebrate Beltane as a festival of reawakening spring, of fertility, of the renewal of the lifeforce, of creativity, or rebirth, of love and sexuality, or birth and regeneration. Janet and Stewart Farrar, whose work forms the basis for many Wiccan groups, offer a ritual for Beltane in their Eight Sabbats for Witches in which they feature the Oak King as a symbol of the death of the old season, and a “bel-fire” is rekindled to usher in the new season, along with lyrics from Rudyard Kipling’s famous song of tree worship in England, “Oak and Ash and Thorn.”
“Oh do not tell the priest our plight, for he would call it a sin,
But we’ve been out in the woods all night a-conjuring summer in;
And we bring good news by word of mouth, for women and cattle and corn,
For now is the sun come up from the South by Oak and Ash and Thorn.”
Some covens kindle their own bonfire, using nine of the sacred woods. Others celebrate the Great Rite, the sacred marriage of the god and goddess, in symbolic or actual fashion according to their tradition. Solitary practitioners often choose Beltane as a time to reaffirm their dedication to the path; and couples in a magical partnership might choose this auspicious time to work sex magick, to achieve a chosen goal.
Larger pagan gatherings feature maypole dancing; I have attended a number of these over the years and there really is nothing like a fifty-foot tall maypole with a hundred people dancing around it with ribbons!
May wine is a traditional drink of the season: to make your own, simply add dried or fresh meadowsweet to white wine. Let it steep for at least 24 hours. You can either leave the herb in the wine or strain it out. The herby, vanilla-like fragrance and taste are indescribable, and really say “Beltane!” I have also seen recipes for “May Cup” on the net. And this is a fine time to experiment with aphrodisiac brews, for example adding damiana to some white zinfandel.
Perhaps it is best to remember this as the time when Aphrodite, who rules the sign of Taurus, is coming into her own. She presides over the realms of love and sex and beauty, but also over the flowers and fruits which brig us such pleasure: delighting our senses with their colors and scents and tastes and juices. She fills blossoms with nectar, and her body is beneath us as we walk and dance upon the newly-yielding, softened earth, alive again after the dormancy of winter, full of new life. She is in the animals, the lambs born at Imbolc who frolic among spring meadow flowers, the other creatures who come into their mating seasons at this time. And she is in us, offering her discernment of beauty, blessing our eyes with new awareness of color and texture in nature. In our hearts which beat quicker with the warmth of the sun and the fires rekindled within us. In our minds, alive to possibility and creativity, awakened and reborn with new energy. And in our bodies, walking on hills and in meadows and forests, dancing around our own fires and in circles with like-minded loved ones, sharing laughter and song and love, enjoying and creating the feast, the celebration, the magical birthright that is life on Earth.
May your fires burn bright!
“Nature is often hidden; sometimes overcome; seldom extinguished.”
–Sir Francis Bacon
Common in Europe and North America, May Day is celebrated by the crowning of the May Queen; dancing around the maypole; and mumming from house to house carrying blossoms and soliciting gifts of food. Most of the activities that take place on May Day symbolize Spring, relating human fertility to crop fertility and rebirth. In the past it was common for young people to pair up, often by lot, and then gather in the woods all May Eve night.
In English folklore, May Day, Bringing in the May, and Going-A-Maying refers to the practice of going out into the countryside to gather flowers and greenery, much of which was used to adorn the May Queen. Bringing in the May remained a staple tradition throughout most of the 16th century, before it was banned by the Protestant reform-fundamentalists who took moral outrage at the unchaperoned activities of the young people. May Day was banned along with other traditional customs in the Commonwealth period, but returned after the Restoration.
Today, many of the old customs still prevail, such as woodland weddings and the gathering of morning dew for skin renewal. Horse racing, parades, and dancing around the maypole have made a comeback as have garland parties and mumming.
by Mike Nichols
The young maid stole through the cottage door, And blushed as she sought the Plant of pow’r; — “Thou silver glow-worm, O lend me thy light, I must gather the mystic St. John’s wort tonight, The wonderful herb, whose leaf will decide If the coming year shall make me a bride.”
In addition to the four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year, there are four lesser holidays as well: the two solstices, and the two equinoxes. In folklore, these are referred to as the four “quarter days” of the year, and modern Witches call them the four “Lesser Sabbats”, or the four “Low Holidays”. The summer solstice is one of them.
Technically, a solstice is an astronomical point and, due to the calendar creep of the leap-year cycle, the date may vary by a few days depending on the year. The summer solstice occurs when the sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer, and we experience the longest day and the shortest night of the year. Astrologers know this as the date on which the sun enters the sign of Cancer.
However, since most European peasants were not accomplished at reading an ephemeris or did not live close enough to Salisbury Plain to trot over to Stonehenge and sight down its main avenue, they celebrated the event on a fixed calendar date, June 24. The slight forward displacement of the traditional date is the result of multitudinous calendrical changes down through the ages. It is analogous to the winter solstice celebration, which is astronomically on or about December 21, but is celebrated on the traditional date of December 25, Yule, later adopted by the Christians.
Again, it must be remembered that the Celts reckoned their days from sundown to sundown, so the June 24 festivities actually begin on the previous sundown (our June 23). This was the date of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Which brings up another point: our modern calendars are quite misguided in suggesting that ‘summer begins’ on the solstice. According to the old folk calendar, summer begins on May Day and ends on Lammas (August 1), with the summer solstice, midway between the two, marking midsummer. This makes more logical sense than suggesting that summer begins on the day when the sun’s power begins to wane and the days grow shorter.
Although our Pagan ancestors probably preferred June 24 (and indeed most European folk festivals today use this date), the sensibility of modern Witches seems to prefer the actual solstice point, beginning the celebration on its eve, or the sunset immediately preceding the solstice point. Again, it gives modern Pagans a range of dates to choose from with, hopefully, a weekend embedded in it.
Just as the Pagan Midwinter celebration of Yule was adopted by Christians as “Christmas” (December 25), so too the Pagan Midsummer celebration was adopted by them as the Feast of John the Baptist (June 24). Occurring 180 degrees apart on the wheel of the year, the Midwinter celebration commemorates the birth of Jesus, while the Midsummer celebration commemorates the birth of John, the prophet who was born six months before Jesus in order to announce his arrival.
Although modern Witches often refer to the holiday by the rather generic name of “Midsummer’s Eve”, it is more probable that our Pagan ancestors of a few hundred years ago actually used the Christian name for the holiday, “St. John’s Eve”. This is evident from the wealth of folklore that surrounds the summer solstice (i.e., that it is a night especially sacred to the faerie folk), but which is inevitably ascribed to “St. John’s Eve”, with no mention of the sun’s position. It could also be argued that a coven’s claim to antiquity might be judged by what name it gives the holidays. (Incidentally, the name ‘Litha’ for the holiday is a modern usage, possibly based on a Saxon word that means the opposite of Yule. Still, there is little historical justification for its use in this context.) But weren’t our Pagan ancestors offended by the use of the name of a Christian saint for a pre-Christian holiday?
Well, to begin with, their theological sensibilities may not have been as finely honed as our own. But secondly and more mportantly, St. John himself was often seen as a rather Pagan figure. He was, after all, called “the Oak King”. His connection to the wilderness (from whence “the voice cried out”) was often emphasized by the rustic nature of his shrines. Many statues show him as a horned figure (as is also the case with Moses). Christian iconographers mumble embarrassed explanations about “horns of light”, while modern Pagans giggle and happily refer to such statues as “Pan the Baptist”. And to clench matters, many depictions of John actually show him with the lower torso of a satyr, cloven hooves and all! Obviously, this kind of John the Baptist is more properly a Jack in the Green! Also obvious is that behind the medieval conception of St. John lies a distant, shadowy Pagan Deity, perhaps the archetypal Wild Man of the wood, whose face stares down at us through the foliate masks that adorn so much church architecture. Thus, medieval Pagans may have had fewer problems adapting than we might suppose.
In England, it was the ancient custom on St. John’s Eve to light large bonfires after sundown, which served the double purpose of providing light to the revelers and warding off evil spirits. This was known as “setting the watch”. People often jumped through the fires for good luck. In addition to these fires, the streets were lined with lanterns, and people carried cressets (pivoted lanterns atop poles) as they wandered from one bonfire to another. These wandering, garland-bedecked bands were called a “marching watch”. Often they were attended by morris dancers, and traditional players dressed as a unicorn, a dragon, and six hobbyhorse riders. Just as May Day was a time to renew the boundary of one’s own property, so Midsummer’s Eve was a time to ward the boundary of the city.
Customs surrounding St. John’s Eve are many and varied. At the very least, most young folk plan to stay up throughout the whole of this shortest night. Certain courageous souls might spend the night keeping watch in the center of a circle of standing stones. To do so would certainly result in either death, madness, or (hopefully) the power of inspiration to become a great poet or bard. (This is, by the way, identical to certain incidents in the first branch of The Mabinogion.) This was also the night when the serpents of the island would roll themselves into a hissing, writhing ball in order to engender the “glain”, also called the “serpent’s egg”, “snake stone”, or “Druid’s egg”. Anyone in possession of this hard glass bubble would wield incredible magical powers. Even Merlyn himself (accompanied by his black dog) went in search of it, according to one ancient Welsh story.
Snakes were not the only creatures active on Midsummer’s Eve. According to British faery lore, this night was second only to Halloween for its importance to the Wee Folk, who especially enjoyed a ridling on such a fine summer’s night. In order to see them, you had only to gather fern seed at the stroke of midnight and rub it onto your eyelids. But be sure to carry a little bit of rue in your pocket, or you might well be “pixie-led”. Or, failing the rue, you might simply turn your jacket inside out, which should keep you from harm’s way. But if even this fails, you must seek out one of the “ley lines”, the old straight tracks, and stay upon it to your destination. This will keep you safe from any malevolent power, as will crossing a stream of “living” (running) water.
Other customs included decking the house (especially over the front door) with birch, fennel, St. John’s wort, orpin, and white lilies. Five plants were thought to have special magical properties on this night: rue, roses, St. John’s wort, vervain, and trefoil. Indeed, Midsummer’s Eve in Spain is called the “Night of the Verbena (Vervain)”. St. John’s wort was especially honored by young maidens who picked it in the hopes of divining a future lover.
And the glow-worm came With its silvery flame, And sparkled and shone Through the night of St. John, And soon has the young maid her love-knot tied.
There are also many mythical associations with the summer solstice, not the least of which concerns the seasonal life of the God of the sun. Inasmuch as I believe that I have recently discovered certain associations and correspondences not hitherto realized, I have elected to treat this subject in some depth in my ‘Death of Llew’ essay. Suffice it to say here, that I disagree with the generally accepted idea that the Sun God meets his death at the summer solstice. I believe there is good reason to see the Sun God at his zenith—his peak of power—on this day, and that his death at the hands of his rival would not occur for another quarter of a year. Material drawn from the Welsh mythos seems to support this thesis. In Irish mythology, midsummer is the occasion of the first battle between the Fir Bolgs and the Tuatha De Danaan.
Altogether, Midsummer is a favorite holiday for many Witches in that it is so hospitable to outdoor celebrations. The warm summer night seems to invite it. And if the celebrants are not, in fact, skyclad, then you may be fairly certain that the long ritual robes of winter have yielded place to short, tunic-style apparel. As with the longer gowns, tradition dictates that one should wear nothing underneath—the next best thing to skyclad, to be sure. (Incidentally, now you know the real answer to the old Scottish joke, “What is worn beneath the kilt?”)
The two chief icons of the holiday are the spear (symbol of the Sun God in his glory) and the summer cauldron (symbol of the Goddess in her bounty). The precise meaning of these two symbols, which I believe I have recently discovered, will be explored in the essay on the death of Llew. But it is interesting to note here that modern Witches often use these same symbols in their Midsummer rituals. And one occasionally hears the alternative consecration formula, “As the spear is to the male, so the cauldron is to the female.” With these mythic associations, it is no wonder that Midsummer is such a joyous and magical occasion!
by Muirghein ó Dhún Aonghasa (Linda Kerr)
Crataegus oxyacantha– English Hawthorn. Found in England and continental Europe.
The hawthorn is easily recognized by its branches, covered with long, sharp thorns. Its small, usually white flowers bloom in May, earning it the additional name of May or Mayblossom, although in the southern U.S. it usually blooms in April (the ship Mayflower was named after the hawthorn). Its generic name, Crataegus oxyacantha, is derived from the Greek work kratos, meaning hardness (of the wood), oxus , meaning sharp, and akantha , meaning thorn. The old German name for the tree, Hagedorn , means Hedgethorn; the word haw is also an old word for hedge (1).
The red fruit, or haw, which appears in late summer, resembles a miniature stony apple. The wood makes an excellent fuel, making the hottest wood fire known, and in the past was more desirable than oak for oven-heating (2).
To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the hawthorn was a symbol of hope and happiness, and was linked with marriage and babies. Hawthorn was dedicated to Hymen, god of marriages. The torches carried in the wedding procession were made of hawthorn. People would put a sprig of hawthorn in their corsages, while the bride carried an entire bough (3). This also helped to appease the goddess Cardea, who did not like weddings, especially in May. In England, May was considered a lucky month for engagements, though not for marriages.
Later, in Medieval Europe, it was thought to be an evil and unlucky tree, and foretold a death in the house if brought inside. The hawthorn was considered one of the witches’ favorite trees, and on Walpurgis (Beltane) night, witches turned themselves into hawthorns. “With a little superstitious imagination, the hawthorn’s writhing, thorny branches at night probably do look enough like a witch to have instilled fear in medieval folk (4).”
In Ireland lone hawthorns belong to fairies, who meet at and live inside them. Many dire things are predicted if a lone thorn were disturbed in any way, among them illness and death. The Irish believed the fairies spread their washing across the thorn to dry. Ireland also has sacred hawthorns at holy wells, on which rag offerings are left (5). According to Geoffrey Grigson, the haws are also called ‘hags, (6)’ and might be a connection with the old Irish Hag-Mother, whom it was said that the rags and clothes were meant for.
The most famous hawthorn of all is the Glastonbury Thorn. It is Crataegus monogyna var. praecox , putting out leaves and flowers in winter and again in May. According to the Glastonbury legend, the Crown of Thorns was made of hawthorn. Later, it was added that Joseph of Arimathea stuck his dry hawthorn stick into the hill, where it at once grew, and ever after bloomed on Christmas Day (7).
The hawthorn is associated with May Day more than any other plant. On most May Days the hawthorn was already in full bloom, before the British at last changed the calendar in 1752 and adopted the New Style. May Day now comes thirteen days earlier (8).
Hawthorn was gathered on May Day morning, interwoven, and placed on doors or windows. The interweaving was important, since the power of magical plants was always increased by weaving them into various shapes. The magic of the hawthorn had already been increased during the night by the dew, which the country people always considered a magic fluid, especially on May Day morn (9).
On May Day, fairies and witches were abroad, and just as excited as humans by the beginning of summer. Milk and butter were likely to be stolen or bewitched. In Ireland, the rowan was the surest protector against this, while in England and France, the protective plant was the hawthorn (10).
Sex and fertility were very much a part of the old May Day celebrations, and were symbolized by the hawthorn. The stale, sweet scent of the flowers makes them suggestive of sex. This same smell led to the belief that hawthorn flowers had preserved the stench of the plague. The flowers contain trimethylamine, which is an ingredient of the smell of putrefaction (11).
Today hawthorn may be the source of an important cardiac medicine. Scientific research has shown that hawthorn dilates blood vessels, allowing blood to flow more freely, lowering blood pressure. It also regulates heart action, acting directly on the heart muscle to help a damaged heart work more efficiently. It works slowly and seems to be toxic only in large doses, making it a relatively safe, mild tonic (12). When administered properly, hawthorn is good for a heart muscle weakened by age, for inflammation of the heart muscle, for arteriosclerosis, and nervous heart problems.
At home, the hawthorn flowers and berries can be decocted (boiled) and drunk for a sore throat. They are also helpful in kidney trouble, acting as a diuretic. The berries can be made into a tea, which is good for nervous conditions and insomnia (13).
An excellent liqueur can be made from the berries or flowers. This recipe using the flowers dates back to about 1775. May Blossom Liqueur: Try to gather the may blossom on a dry, calm day when there is no dust flying about. Pick as much as a preserving (quart) jar will hold. Fill it up with brandy or vodka. Close the jar and shake it 3 times a week for 3 months. Filter and if necessary add sugar to taste. The resulting liqueur is excellent in custards and sauces (14).Sources:
1 Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal (2 volumes). 1931. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY, pg. 385
2 Ibid, pg. 385.
3 Lust, John. The Herb Book. 1973. Bantam Books, New York, NY.
5 Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. 1955. Phoenix House LTD, London, England, pg. 169.
6 Ibid, pg. 166.
7 Ibid, pg. 170.
8 Ibid, pg. 168.
9 Ibid, pg. 168.
10 Ibid, pg. 167.
11 Ibid, pg. 168.
12 Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Edited by Claire Kowalchik and William H. Hylton. 1987. Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA, pg. 275.
13 J. Lust.
14 van Doorn, Joyce. Making Your Own Liqeuers. 1980. Prism Press, San Leandro, CA, pg. 72.
As Dictated by Epona to Imré
Huath – Hawthorn – is the sixth lunar tree/month of the year. The Yin or female energies have subsided and the yang or male energies are on the up- swing. This is the perfect time of the year for people to begin to utilize and collect the Yang that is needed, because the energy is not yet strong enough to blow us out of the water, but is just strong enough to begin using. Women will find that the men around them have become irritable and testosterone-ridden – be warned, ladies, that this is the last chance that you are going to get, before the cycle of Yin returns, to establish the balance in the home.
This is also a good time to practice abstinence; for Hawthorn is the moon of purification and creative (as opposed to fertility-oriented) uses of sexual energies. We have found that women who indulge in the increase in their sexual appetites will feel the repercussions of their actions during the summer (around the Summer Solstice in particular) as “female problems.” Use this increased sexual energy to form a stronger bond with Nature. You will find it easier to contact spiritual guides, or ‘the Masters.’ Just as your energies are easily released at this time, so are Nature’s.
Folklore tells us that at this time of the year priests would go out into their church- yards and beat the surrounding stones in order to form a boundry and to keep evil spirits away. However, according to myths that originated in times when standing stones commonly created the physical boundaries around magickal circles, that the stones were struck so as to “wake them” or charge them (see Needles of Stone Revisted, Tom Graves). This would create the astral boundries. What does this mean? Well, it is now the time to begin understanding who you are and how you are developing. This will begin to happen as you go to Nature, yet, along with your pilgrimage comes the need to realize your basic physical limitations brought about by this incarnation. You must transcend them by imploding, or going within your being and discovering how unlimited you are within. Discover the mysteries of You. This is that time of year.
For further research, look up these points:
(This is what we have come to know and understand. We would like to hear from those who have experienced it differently or would like to add to what we have. You never stop learning! – Epona, High Priestess of Faerie Faith)
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.
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.
Colors- Green, Yellow, Pink, Blue
Foods – Strawberries, Cherries, Fruits, Salads, Wine
Goddesses – Aphrodite, Asherah, Belili, Brigid, Danu, Freya, Flora, Gwenhwyvar, Hina, Ishtar, Maia, Mary, Oiwyn, Oshun, Ostara, Sappha, Tonantzin, Vesta
Gods – Beltene, Cernunnous, Cupid/Eros, Manawyddan and Pan
Activities and Rituals – fertilize, nurture and boost existing goals, games, activities of pleasure, leaping bonfires, making garlands, May Pole dance, planting seeds, walking one’s property, feasting
Stones/Gems – Emerald, malachite, amber, orange carnelian, sapphire, rose quartz
Other Names – Cetsamhain (opposite Samhain),May Day, Fairy Day,Sacred Thorn Day, Rood Day, Roodmas (the Christian term for Rood Day, Old Beltane, Beltaine, Beltain, Baltane, Walpurgis Night, Floriala (Roman feast of flowers from April 29 to May 1), Walpurgisnacht (Germanic-feast of St. Walpurga), Thrimilce (Anglo-saxon), Bloumaand (Old Dutch)
3 parts frankincense
2 parts Sandalwood
1 part woodruff
1 part rose petals
a few drops jasmine oil
a few drops neroli oil
-Make paper baskets (use yarn as a handle) and place real or silk flowers in each basket. Hang them on door knobs of nieghbors and family members but don’t let them know you did it!
-If you have children, make necklaces out of diasies and place them around their necks for the day to bring protection to them.
-Begin planting for the season.
-Create a MayPole and dance around it with your family or friends.
-Make a dish of fruits, berries, nuts and leave in the wood for the animals and fae folk to enjoy
– This is a night for bonfires, torch-lit processions and the high revelry of witches, preferably in high places. It is prime time for the Great Rite, a night (like Samhain) when the Goddess descends into women. Cailleach Beara (Cally Berry, Brighid’s crone aspect) turns to stone this night and does not to return until Samhain. Beltane Eve also marks the setting of the Pleiades
May Wine Cup – Makes 6 – 8 Glasses
1 Bottle White Wine (sweet or dry depending on your taste)
12 Sprigs Sweet Woodruff
1/2 cup Strawberries Sliced
Edible flowers (to be sprinkled on the top after all ingredients have been mixed together)
Method : Soak the dried woodruff overnight in the wine. the following day mix the wine, strawberries and woodruff in a large bowl and let it sit in the fridge for an hour. Strain out woodruff, add the decorative flowers and serve cold.
May is the fifth month of the year. Its astrological sign is Taurus, the bull (April 20 – May 21), a fixed earth sign ruled by Venus. The month is named for Ma’a, a Roman Goddess an Mother of the God Hermes. May is known as the Queen of Months. It is a month of lushness and beauty. The main holiday is May Day or Beltane. This Sabbat celebrates the sacred union of the Goddess and God. It is a celebration of growth and fertility. A traditional part of this holiday is the Maypole, usually a fir tree with the side branches removed – a symbol of fertility. Since growth is a theme of May, another central figure of the month is the Green Man, a male form covered with leaves and branches. He is an ancient nature spirit, who brings life to the fields and forests after the long winter. Flowers are popular during Beltane rites, which give May’s Full Moon its lovely name – the Flower Moon. Many flowers and trees that bloom this month are associated with magick. Lilacs were originally grown near the home to repel evil. Wild blue violets can be used in love magick. A streaming infusion made with dried dandelion root was used to contact spirits. The hawthorn tree is also associated with May folk magick. To make a wish come true, burn three hawthorn branches in a Beltane fire.
1st Week of May
2nd Week of May
3rd Week in May
Last Week in May
First or second Friday
By Patti Wigington
By Patti Wigington
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.
May 6 is the day of Eyvind Kelve in Norse celebrations. Eyvind Kelve was a pagan 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. This festival marks the beginning of ten straight weeks without darkness.
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.
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.
Today’s Pagans and Wiccans 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 concieve 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.
Gather Round the Maypole Friends
Twist and Turn and Back Again
Dancing, Laughing, Joyful Glee
Now pair off lovers, Secretly
In Love’s embrace
The Goddess Grace
The May Queen and Consort Lay
Entangled Limbs on this Sweet Day
Gather Round the Maypole Friends
Twist and Turn and Back Again
The Lovers Rest in Quiet Heaps
In Fall the Bountiful Harvest Reaps
The ancient Celts called this holiday Beltane and began celebrating at sunset on April 30th. It marked the beginning of summer, the time to move with the flocks up to the summer pastures. Other names for May Day include: Cetsamhain (‘opposite Samhain’), Walpurgisnacht (in Germany), and Roodmas.
In Germany, April 30th is Walpurgisnacht, the night when it was believed that witches flew on their brooms to mountaintop gatherings where they danced all night around bonfires. Like Halloween, this is a night when witches, fairies and ghosts wander freely. The veil between the worlds is thin. The Queen of the Fairies rides out on a snow-white horse, looking for mortals to lure away to Fairyland for seven years. Folklore says that if you sit beneath a tree on this night, you will see Her or hear the sound of Her horse’s bells as She rides by. If you hide your face, She will pass you by but if you look at Her, She may choose you.
Many May Day customs involve flowers and green branches. Flowers are woven into wreaths to exchange as gifts between lovers or to hang on doors as decoration. Hawthorn is particularly auspicious since it begins blooming when the weather is warm enough for planting. Anyone who went out into the woods and found a branch of flowering hawthorn would bring it triumphantly into the village and announcing the start of planting season. However there were warnings about bringing hawthorn into the house, since it would invite the fairies in.
The Maypole is a symbol with many meanings. Often celebrated as and considered a phallic symbol, it also resembles the garlanded trees associated with moon goddesses. In the Phrygian rites of Attis, celebrated around the spring equinox, a fir tree was chopped down, wrapped in a shroud and placed in a tomb. Resurrected three days later, it was decorated and danced around. In some places, May Day ceremonies took place beneath a sacred tree, which was not uprooted. These trees represented the world-tree, the axis between heaven and earth. The Maypole dance is a round dance of alternating male and female dancers, weaving in and out, plaiting ribbons as they go. Maypole dances fulfilled social and sacred functions. They helped people flirt and mingle socially and they also raised energy.
Bring the May into your life by bringing home green branches, flowers and branches of flowering trees. Transform your house into a bower by making a wreath to hang on the door or to crown your version of the Goddess. This is a time for giving gifts. Gather flowers with special messages for friends and relatives. Make up your own explanation of the meaning of each flower and give it along with the bouquet. For friends at a distance, send pressed flowers or May Day cards or packets of flower seeds.
If you can, stay up all night, preferably outdoors. At least go for a walk in the night on April 30th and listen for the bells that herald the approach of the Fairy Queen. And you can run around, under cover of darkness, leaving May baskets of flowers on doorsteps. On the first of May, wear your most colourful clothes or dress all in green (the colour of the fairies). Consider wearing a flower in your hair.
Treat yourself like a Goddess. Take a long luxurious bath in scented water. Anoint yourself with oils. Crown yourself with flowers. Indulge yourself. Sip your May wine. Honor your sexual choices. In your journal, recall the times when sex was magical, when you felt alluring or you fell in love. Write about smoldering glances, the times your body caught fire, the sweetness of a first kiss or caress. If you have a partner, celebrate sex as a sacred activity. Make the time you spend together and the space you inhabit special. Light candles or strew the bed with rose petals. Notice how your lover represents the God or Goddess to you. This is the time to celebrate attraction and pleasure.
As the sun set, the hilltops became alive with fire. The warm spring air filtered gently through the trees and caressed the lush green landscape as a blanket of night fell over the land. Happiness, hope and passion filled the night as the people danced and celebrated this sacred time, taking time to explore the forests, meadows and even each other.
This night, known as Beltaine, has been celebrated in many cultures and in many different ways. Today, it remains as one of the two most important holidays to modern pagans, the other being Samhain.
Also known as May Day or May Eve, Beltaine falls on the first evening of May, or on the last evening of April, as people once considered that the beginning of a new day occurred at dusk. Beltaine, a fertility Sabbat, marks the last day of the planting season, once a very important time before the advent of modern conveniences and inconveniences. Beltaine also celebrates life and renewal and a time of hope; from this time, things started would tend toward their fruition.
Among the customs of Beltaine, two stand out the most. These are the bonfire, also called the balefire, and the ever popular Maypole.
The balefire played such an important role that not only did certain rules cover its making and uses, but a law was even passed in ancient Ireland making it illegal for anyone to light a balefire until the king first did so himself. One of the balefire’s purposes was purification, a practice used for ages to remove negative energies such as disease and physical impurities and replace them with positive energies. In magickal work, purification mostly takes place between the act of banishment and the act of consecration, being a lesser form of each (though playing an important part connecting the two, which some modern practitioners of the magickal arts seem to overlook nowadays).
One of the many things that underwent balefire purifications was cattle, which were often led through the balefire’s smoke. Cattle held a very important place in those days, not only as food, clothing and whatever else can be made out of a cow, but also as a source of wealth and status. Irish sagas such as the “Tian Bo Cuailgne” demonstrate the important place of cattle. In this tale, the province of Connacht, led by Queen Maeve, goes to war with the province of Ulster, under the leadership of the unsuspecting Cuchulain, the only one able to defend his land as every other adult male in Connacht was undergoing labor pains (don’t ask, just read the story). The war, as it was, raged over a single bull, known as the Brown Bull of Quelgny. Odin’s runes also demonstrate the important role cattle once played in ancient society, which can be seen in the first rune of the aettir, Fehu or Fe, which literally translates as cattle but also symbolizes wealth.
Besides purifying, the balefire also consecrated. A couple who planned to marry on May Eve would jump over through the flames of the bonfire to seal their vows and consecrate the union (not to be confused with consummating the union, which did not take place over or in the fire). How it was regarded if the bride or groom burst into flames I don’t know; the interpretation was probably left to the officiating party.
In addition to the purifying and consecrating properties of the bonfires of May Eve, they served also as a method of insurance, allowing a family or way of life to continue. Traditionally, this was achieved by bringing glowing embers of the balefire into the house, where they would be used in blessings to bring joy and happiness to the family that resided there. The ashes were then taken to the fields, where they would be scattered about, thereby blessing the future crops. Such a blessing works magickally through a quality known as “inherent virtue,” where the properties of a known positive thing are applied to another to obtain a positive result. The result was a better crop yield, at least partly because the ashes made a fine growth supplement due to the nitrogen content of the ash.
Another belief behind the balefires concerned the inhabitants of the underworld, or the world of faery. Folk of ancient Europe once believed, and pagans of the faery faiths may still believe today, that the faery folk could not create fire and had to rely on humans to do it for them. Once the fire began, the faery would then cart coals off to the underworld, where they would be tended and nurtured by the inhabitants.
The holiday of Beltaine didn’t only serve as a fertility Sabbat, as it is commonly known today, but also as a time when the dead came out of the underworld to join the living, as on Samhain. At least, so believed the ancient Teutonic peoples, and without doubt also the modern practitioners of the Northern Mysteries. On Beltaine, the living invited deceased friends and relatives to warm themselves by the fireside and toast to a glorious past.
The other outstanding Beltaine tradition, the Maypole, still survives to this day. The Maypole dance is a fertility rite, which is made obvious by the symbolism of the pole itself, which sticks straight up out of the ground in phallic fashion. To the top of the pole are attached an even number of ribbons of varying color. The dancers, which usually consist of an equal number of males and females, hold high their arms, and with a ribbon in one hand circle the pole counter to the dancers next to them, weaving in and out and wrapping the ribbons down the length of the pole. Once done, the dancers turn, changing direction and unwrapping the ribbons.
The Maypole usually consists of a tall straight tree stripped of its branches. For this purpose, the pine is an excellent choice, though some consider the birch even better due to its qualities as a tree of birth and rebirth. These qualities can be seen in the rune Beorc or Birkana and the first letter of the Celtic Ogham alphabet, Beithe, which both represent the birch tree and the energy of birth and rebirth. However, the Maypole need not be made out of either pine or birch; it can be made out of any pole or beam planted in the ground.
Another Beltaine custom was the activity of going “a-Maying,” usually enjoyed by the young folk. Going a-Maying usually consisted of people going into the forest together looking for the blossoms of the hawthorn tree. The hawthorn, a sacred tree, had protective energies, but only on this night could one take branches and blossoms from the tree. The ancients also believed that sitting beneath a hawthorn on May Eve could result in the unfortunate sitter being abducted to the underworld. Fortunately, this event doesn’t appear to happen often, as I have been to the hawthorn on this day to collect wood for an amulet and was spared the experience. The hawthorn was not the only thing deflowered while a-Maying; those gone a-Maying into the forests and other secluded spots also took time to collect on their natural urges.
Once flowers were gathered, the gatherers created from them wreaths and garlands. These were brought back to decorate, bless and protect houses and people.
Flowers also figured in another May custom, that of the May King and his triumph over the winter. Until relatively recently in Sweden, the May King would parade down a town street, dressed head to toe in flowers, with a man dressed in furs. The man in the furs was the personification of winter, and this was his time to go. During the procession, the May King accosted the man in furs, pelting him with flowers, thereby driving him off. The May King, victorious, then began his reign.
Beltaine has many customs, many more even than I have mentioned. It is a holiday worth celebrating, a time of renewal and rebirth when the skins and troubles of the winter, both in the world and in ourselves, may be shed. At Beltaine, we can nurture new ideas and grow as individuals and as a community.
May Eve has survived for many, many years and shall continue to survive for many, many more. Through these years, we can expect a change in the customs, but never in the idea of hope and rebirth.
a guide to the symbolism
of the Wiccan Sabbat
by Arwynn MacFeylynnd
Date: April 30, May 1, or the Full Moon in Taurus, depending on your tradition.
Alternative names: Bealtaine (Irish Wittan), Bealtinne (Caledonii or the Druids), Celtic Summer, Floralia, Giamonios, the Great Rite, La Giornata di Tana or Tana’s Day (Aridian Strega), May Day, May Eve, Roodmas, Rudemas (Mexican Craft), Samhradh and La Baal Tinne (Faery Wicca), Walburga (Teutonic), Walpurgis Eve, Walpurgisnacht (German) and Whitsun or Old Bhealltainn (Scottish PectiWita).
Primary meanings: Beltaine honors the union of the God and Goddess and the beginning of the fertile Goddess’s reign. We see Her power in the flowering plants and warm days. This day marks the emergence of the God into manhood. The Goddess and the God unite, and the Goddess becomes pregnant. Flowers and greenery symbolize the Goddess, the Maypole the God.
Symbols: Many pagans represent Beltaine with fresh flowers all around and a cauldron filled with flowers. All of the following flowers are symbolic of Beltaine: roses, bluebells, marigolds, daisies, primroses and lilac. Mirrors are also appropriate. Altar decorations may also include a small Maypole or phallic-shaped candle and a daisy chain. Plaiting and weaving straw, creating in wicker and making baskets and fabrics are traditional arts. Other symbols are the traditional full-sized Maypole (about 10 feet tall), May baskets, crossroads, eggs, butter churns and chalices.
Colors: White and dark green particularly, also all colors of the rainbow.
Gemstones: Sapphires, bloodstones, emeralds, orange carnelians and rose quartz.
Herbs: Almond, angelica, ash trees, birch trees, bluebells, cinquefoil, daisies, frankincense, hawthorn, ivy, lilac, marigolds, primroses, rosemary, roses, satyrion root, woodruff and yellow cowslip.
Gods and goddesses: All virgin-mother goddesses, all young father gods and all gods and goddesses of the hunt, of love and of fertility. Some Beltaine goddesses to mention by name include Aphrodite, Arianrhod, Ariel, Artemis, Astarte, Cybele, Diana, Freya, Rhiannon, Shiela-na-gig, Skadi, Var, Venus and Xochiquetzal. Beltaine gods include Apollo, Bacchus, Bel/Belanos, Cernunnos, Cupid/Eros, Faunus, Frey, the Great Horned God, Herne, Odin, Orion, Pan, Puck and Robin Goodfellow.
Customs and myths: Wrapping the Maypole is a Beltaine tradition. In the old days, the Maypole was often made from a communal pine tree decorated at Yule, with most branches removed for Beltaine. In some traditions, the ribbons around the top are red and white; the white can represent the Virgin Goddess and the red the Sun God, or the white the Maiden and the red the Mother. The participants dance around the Maypole with the ribbons — the males holding the red and the females holding the white. As they dance, they intertwine the ribbons to form a symbolic birth canal around the phallic pole, representing the union of the Goddess and God. Many Wiccans choose this time to perform their own handfastings; others hold that the Goddess frowns on marriage in this month. Another great choice would be the next Sabbat at the Summer Solstice.
The Great Rite, jumping the balefire, blowing horns and gathering flowers are other Beltaine traditions. Solitary practitioners might weave ribbons as an alternative to dancing around the Maypole. It is considered taboo to give away fire or food on this day.
Beltane, often called May Day, is a time of fertility, merry-making and joy. The Fae are very active on this day as the Earth is blooming anew, bringing forth new life. All around, sexuality is in the air. Animals mating, birds building nests, flowers blooming.
For the Celts, Beltane began on April 30th at sundown. Fires were lit on the hillside made from sacred wood, couples went into the woods and made love rejoicing in the fertility of the Earth. Many customs surround this day, including the Maypole, May baskets, walking the boundaries of your land and the blessing of gardens.
Here is a blessing that I use each year on my gardens that hasnt failed me yet!!
You will need:
Cornmeal (representing the God)
Moon Water (representing the Goddess. Recipe follows)
Stand before your garden, freshly plowed or planted. Raise your hands in the air and say:
“Lady and Lord of the Green, I thank you for the renewed life all around me and I ask that you extend this blessing to my little patch of earth that I tend.”
Go to the center of the garden and pour alittle of the moon water and a pinch of the cornmeal.
Go to the East Corner of the garden. Thank the spirits of Air for watching over the garden and guarding it, for circulating freely and blessing. Say:
“The sun kisses the earth, and earth brings forth life. Blessed Be, Great Ones.”
Pour a bit of moon water and a pinch of cornmeal in the East. Next go to the South and repeat, thanking the spirits of Fire for sunlight to feed the plants and their blessing. Next, the West, thanking the spirits of Water for rain and their blessing, and finally the North, thanking the spirits of Earth for fertile soil and their blessing.
Return to the center, and thank Great Spirit for the fertility of the Earth and the blessing on your plants. Again sprinkle moon water and cornmeal. It is done!!
How to make Moon Water
On the night of the Full Moon, pour spring water into a silver or crystal bowl. Add a quartz crystal. After sundown, take the bowl outside and place it in a place where the moon can shine on it all night long. Hold your hand over the bowl, and pray, asking the Lady of the Moon to shine Her blessings on the water and fill it with Her energies. Be sure to bring the bowl in before sunrise. Store in a dark colored bottle.
About The Author: Morgana is an Ordained Minister, High Priestess, and Founder of The Daughters of the Greening, a sister branch and affiliate of the Order of The White Moon.
By Rowen Saille
Walpurgisnacht or the night of Walpurga is the Nordic tradition’s answer to Beltaine. The festival comes from the name of a saint born in Wessex in 710. Also known as Valborg, Walburga, Walpurgis, Wealdburg, and Valderburger, she was alleged to be the niece of Saint Boniface and the daughter of a Saxon prince. She was canonized on May 1, 779 and the Swedish calendar still bears her name for that date.
Pagan tradition associates the Feast of Walpurga or Walpurgisnacht with the fertility traditions celebrated around April 30 th on the modern calendar. Walpurga was honored with the traditional ways of celebrating the new spring: Bonfires, ritual dances, fertility charms and prank-playing. In German folklore, the celebration of Walpurgisnacht is the time when witches meet on Brocken Mountain and to hold revels to the gods and goddesses. In Sweden the young collect the new greens with which to adorn the houses and welcome the growing season.
For the Asatru, Walpurgisnacht is a night of mystery and magic. The lady of magic is Freya and as the Norse goddess of fertility she is particularly appropriate as a focus of rites to celebrate this season. Modern traditions include fertility dances, merriment, and fun during May Day. Freya is often honored in blot (sacrifice or ritual) to insure a fertile growing season and bring good wishes to bear. Walpurgisnacht (or May Day eve) often includes a rite particular to Freya called seidr (pronounced saythe). This holiday along with Winter Nights is a time when the folk look to the seidkona (seid-worker) or a vitki (rune-worker) to get a glimpse into what the year or season will bring.
This season of the year is a perfect time to scry in a fire or work with runes. Bonfires to purify and for luck are lit and danced round or jumped over. It is a time to purify and renew the self. Set up a maypole and dance with your family, friends or spiritual group to tie in wishes for the season. Drumming is an excellent way not only to keep time to dance the Maypole but also to raise the energy and focus the conscious mind.
Foods for celebration: Stews and the first fresh greens of spring are particularly appropriate. The ancients would have used some of the last of stored foodstuffs to create a stew base adding to it the new fresh greens available. “Stone Soup” (where individuals each bring an ingredient to add to the cauldron or stewpot), though also common at Freyfaxi feast, gives an opportunity for a group to gather and add their own ingredients to the soup with their energies for well-wishes. Sharing the “first fruits” imparts the luck of the spring while preserved food stores illustrate the “wealth” and wisdom of the folk for being good stewards and surviving the hard winter months. By eating the stew, the gathered kin internalize the good wishes for all.
Enjoy the Feast of Walburga and Walpurgisnacht. Bring joy to this time of new growth and renewal with your own celebrations, and share these traditions with love ones to bring luck and magic to the season of fertility.