Beltane, literally, “fire of the god,” or “fire of Bel.”
Beltane was the second most important festival of the ancient Celts (the other being Samhain, or Halloween). Samhain came November 1 and Beltane, May 1, so they fell exactly six months apart. And, as Samhain was the Celtic New Year, Beltane was the mid-year festival.
Bel is a generic name for the male deity who is simultaneously the sun and the crops ripening because of the sun. The Semitic cognate was Baal and is usually translated “lord.” In northern Europe, he was called Balder as well as Bel.
The religion of the ancients was built around the theme of the cycle of the year. Consider the following:
Samhain was the new year, the time when the veil separating this world from the next was the thinnest. It was the end of the warm times and the beginning of winter.
Yule (December 25) was the time of the “turning” of the sun. The rebirth of the sun as it began mounting ever higher in the sky.
Brigid or Oimelc (or mid-winters — around the first of February) was the first stirring of the earth. Its name, Brigid, is “bride” or “virgin” and recognizes the re-stirring of the earth, personified as the goddess.
Lady Day or Ostara (the first full moon after the spring equinox) marks the fullness of the earth and the triumph of the sun over the winter. At this time, the sun and earth mate to produce the crops.
Beltane (May 1) marks the beginning of summer and the fullness of crops. The “son” of the union of sun and earth is Bel .
Midsummer’s (around June 21) is the middle of summer and the time of full flowering. Earth and sun are triumphant.
First Fruits (August 1) is a time of harvest, and the time to kill Bel (or John Barleycorn) by harvesting the grain.
And Harvesthome (September 21) is the final festival of last harvest.
Traditionally at Beltane, several events took place.
First was the planting of the May Pole into the earth. Streamers from the top of the maypole would be wrapped ceremonially around the pole in a two-way dance by participants. The Maypole is, of course, the phallus of the god (the same thing in India today is called “the great lingam.” In Roman time, this phallic pillar was called a “Hermes” and the festival of May Day was called the Floralia — the festival in honor of the goddess Flora.
Second, a Queen and King of the May would be elected by the people, to lead the festivities. They stood in for the god and goddess. Traditionally, the queen of the May would ride a white horse and king of the May would ride a black one. The old English name for the Maypole was “hud” and the King of the May would be called the “master of the Maypole.” The word “master” was rabbin (cognate of the Semitic rabbi) so this title has come down to us as “Robin Hood.” The Queen of the May was called the virgin mother: the English word for virgin was “maid” and “maria” was the word for mother, so she would be known as “Maid Marian.”
Third, a bonfire would be lit, called a balefire or “Balder’s balefires,” and
cakes in the shape of Balder or Bel would be “sacrificed” by throwing them into the fire. The myth was that Balder died in the spring and was reborn in the new crops in the fall. Often, people would jump through the balefire (a symbol of passing through death unharmed). Couples leaping through the bonfire hand-in-hand would be assured of another year together.
The fourth thing the ancients would do would be to go out in the fields as
couples and make love on the ground — a form of sympathetic magic, calling on the crops to be fertile. May was known as the “honey-month” or honeymoon and people were permitted to make love virtually at random.
Today, the first three traditions are kept all over northern Europe. Maypoles once were common even in this country, but mobility, concentration of the population in urban centers, and puritanism have conspired to virtually eliminate it from the American way of life. Balder’s balefires are lit on Mayday all over Scandinavia and in Scotland.
An English tradition at Beltane is the Morris Dancers, men who dress up, put bells on their ankles and dance on tops of hills (sacred to the mother goddess). They strike the earth with their staves to “wake up the earth.”
The Church tried unsuccessfully for many years to stamp out Beltane in Europe. In the seventh century the church condemned Beltane as sinful and forbade all good Christians to celebrate it. In the 17th century, the festival was so widespread that church bells in parts of France would be rung all night long throughout the month of May to “protect the city from flying witches.”
In Germany, May Eve is called “Walpurgisnacht,” the night of Walpurga, the goddess of May. The Church couldn’t stamp out the worship of Walpurga so they made her a saint, claiming that she had been the abbess of a double monastery in a town called Heidenheim. The word Heidenheim, of course, means “home of the heathens.” The church made a fortune in the medieval times by selling a healing oil, “Oil of St. Walpurga,” which was supposed to exude from the holy rock under which the saint’s bones were buried. There is, of course, no historical record of a “St. Walpurga.”
Some traditions of the holiday.
When you dance around the Maypole, take a color that symbolizes what you want to “ripen” in your life in the year to come. Green for money, say, or growth. Red for love. Blue for happiness. Orange for serenity. Or choose a color based on what you feel it might mean to you.
When you throw the balder-cake into the fire, think about what you want to give up for the year to come. This is a symbolic sacrifice of something. It could be an old habit, a resentment, an old anger.
And last, jumping through the bonfire is a symbol of passing through death. It means a willingness to change your life into something better.
Beltane was a traditional time for “making magic.” The magic of making changes in your life is still possible today.