Beltane – May Day – Lady’s Day – May 1st or the 1st Full Moon of Taurus or when the Sun reaches 15 degrees relative to Taurus for the Northern Hemisphere and October 31st or 1st Full Moon in Scorpio or when the Sun reaches 15 degrees relative to Scorpio for the Southern Hemisphere. Most Celebrations starts at sundown on April 30th ending at sundown on May 1st for the Northern Hemisphere or starting at sundown on October 30th and ending at sundown on October 31st in the Southern Hemisphere. Alternative, you might determine the date by observing nature or when the Sun reaches ecliptic longitude of 45 degrees.
Beltane is the last of the three Spring Fertility Sabbats. It is the cross-quarter day falling roughly halfway between Ostara and Litha. The days are waxing in length and the Sun is gaining in strength. It is exactly six months after Samhain, another cross-quarter Sabbat. Like Samhain, the veil is thin at this time and many believe that it is a good time to contact those that have passed over. It is the time of the Horned God and the Lady of the Greenwood. Also, time to honor the house guardians. This is when people, plants and animals prepare for the warm months; a time of growth and fertility and the protection of cattle, crops, dairy products, and people; a time for love, light, union and dancing the Maypole; a time to join two halves to make a whole. This is also the time of youthful exuberance. This particular Sabbat represents the Divine union of the Lady and Lord. The God is a young man ready for his mate and the Goddess is in her Maiden aspect, ripe and fertile.
Beltane is the time of the Oak King, the symbolic image of the earth god’s lighter aspect. It is His supreme time and He has ruled ever since He defeated the Holly King, the symbolic image of the earth’s god’s darker aspect, at Yule and will reign till Litha when the Holly King will win the bi-annual battle. The story of the Oak and Holly Kings is not a Celtic story, but seems to come from Robert Graves book “The White Goddess”. This is simply the story of the continuing battle between Summer and Winter. Each King rules for six months of the year giving over at that time to the other. The Oak King rules over the time of the waxing of the Sun, where the Holly King rules over the time of the waning Sun.
Some of the Deities that are honored at this time are: The Green Man, Cernunnos, Bes (an Egyptian god), Bacchus, and Pan are just a few of the gods that are honored. And Athena, Artemis, Hera and Flora are a few of the goddesses that are honored.
The modern Neo-Pagan name of Beltane is borrowed from the early Pre-Christian Celtic celebration of Beltaine. Beltaine was celebrated at the midpoint of the year which began at the end of October with Samhain. It is the beginning of summer. The ancient Celtics recognized only two seasons, winter and summer, so the new year began with winter on Samhain and summer began on Beltaine, six months later. At the time of Samhain, many of the cattle were slaughtered for food for the winter months and the rest were pastured in the winter fields. At Beltaine, the cattle were taken to the open summer fields where they will thrive and prosper.
Beltaine was originally celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Many of its customs spread to other areas of Great Britain and Europe. In Ireland, it was called Bealtaine and in Scotland it was called Bealltainn. Both words in the common Celtic meant “bright fire”.
Some believed that Beltaine may have been connected to the worship of the Celtic god Belenus. He was considered as a god of healing and was also associated with fountains and the pastoral lifestyle. He has been considered to be closely related to the Roman god Apollo. Belenus’ symbols are the phallic shaped stone, the bull, the horse, and the oak. He was considered one of the Celtic high gods and was known in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy, Spain, England and other places. He was variously known as Belen, Belenos, Belinus, Bellinus, Belenos, Belennos, Bel, and by other names as well. Belenus’ name has been found in many places, primarily in France and Italy, but in other places in Europe as well. His name has been found also in North America at a site in New Hampshire called Mystery Hill. There they found a ritual site and a stone tablet written in Ogham that said : “Dedicated to Bel”. This is just one more proof that Celtic explorers had been to North America long before Christopher Columbus ever set sail looking for a shorter route to India.
To the ancient Celts, fire seems to have been a very important part of Beltaine celebrations. One of the earliest recordings of this celebration comes from a medieval text written by Cormac, bishop of Munster in Ireland. It reports of a festival held on May 1st and that it marked the beginning of summer. Described in the text was a fire ritual performed by the Druids. Two large fires were made, incantations were spoken and the cattle were driven between the two fires. Another accounting of a Beltaine celebration was written by historian Geoffrey Keating in the seventeenth century describing a similarly large gathering on the Hill of Uisneach in Ireland also involving two large fires. The cattle were also driven between the fires and a sacrifice was made to the god Bel. Both celebrations were held to promote the protection of the cattle from disease which was very important to the Celts as cattle and their milk and meat products was very important to their diet.
In Ireland, the first fire that is lighted on Beltane is the fires of Tara. All other fires were lighted from it. Traditionally for the Celts, the household fires were extinguished on Beltane and then re-lit from the communal bonfire called the needfire. This needfire could only be kindled by friction. It was traditional also for the people to run between the two bonfires, or to circle one bonfire, or to even jump the fire (not recommended) as a magical act. This was to bring protection, health, and abundance to not only the animals and people but to the crops as well. This was done at this time when farmers are moving the cattle from the winter fields to the summer grazing fields. Once the needfires have died down and cooled off, the ashes were scattered over the fields to increase the earth’s fertility.
Water was also thought to have special powers. It was believed that the Beltane’s morning dew was capable of preserving one’s youthful appearance, sex appeal, beauty and to clear skin ailments. The Druids would gather this Beltane’s morning dew and those what were sprinkled with it could expect health and happiness. Sometimes the dew was collected and stored in a glass jar and set in the sunlight. It would be filtered and saved to be used throughout the year to promote beauty, healing and much more. Holy Wells were also visited on Beltane morning. It was believed that the first of the water drawn from the well would be very potent and magical. Small tokens and coins were tossed into these wells with the hope that the spirits of the wells would grant their favors and blessings, including the healing of those who were ill.
Of course, many will wish to do fertility spells at this time. One such legend in Wales and England was for women who wish to conceive, the woman would go out and find a “birthing stone” which was a very large stone with a very large hole in it. The woman was to then walk through the hole in the stone and that night she would conceive. If the woman couldn’t find a large “birthing stone” then she could look for a smaller stone with a hole in it and then pass an oak branch or other tree branch through it and then take the stone home and put it under her bed. She should conceive that night.
On Beltane, colorful yellow flowers were scattered on the threshold of one’s home and used as decorations throughout the home as a means of magical protection. Cows were decorated with flower garlands as well as the equipment used in milk and butter-making process also for protection. This is because the sidhe (pronounced sheed), a type of faery-like spirit, was believed to cause much mischief on this day with all dairy products. As an added precaution and to appease them, small offerings of food and drink were placed where the sidhe could find them. Other ways to fend off the sidhe was to wear one’s clothes turned inside out or to carry a small piece of iron which was believed to be protective against witchcraft. On the Isle of Man, shrubbery was put to blaze as it was believed that the faeries and witches hid in them.
The earliest known recorded May Day like festival held was actually in ancient Rome. It was called Floralia in honor of the goddess Flora. It was held at the end of April till the beginning of May. According to Ovid, the first Floralia festival was held in 238 BCE to commemorate the founding of the temple built for Flora. Flora is the goddess of fertility, vegetation and flowers. She is the goddess of all growing things. She was actually imported from Greece where her counterpart is Chloris, the goddess of flowers. It is said that Flora, being the goddess of flowering plants, was responsible for spreading seeds onto the monochrome earth and thus giving it color and variety. At first the festival was held only when the crops were in danger of not flourishing, but as time went and there were repeated times of danger to the crops, the festival was made an annual event to insure the flourishing of the crops, livestock and people. Offerings of flowers were made on the first of May to Flora. Other offerings were also made in the name of Maia, goddess of growth, which the name of the month of May comes from.
Flowers were used to decorate not only homes but people as well and for the festival of Floralia. People were encouraged to wear multi-colored clothing at this time instead of the usual white. The festival was generally quite boisterous as it is believed that they were helping to wake up Nature from its long winter nap. There was a lot of dancing and wine at these festivals and promiscuity was also encouraged.
As the Roman Empire spread, so did the May Day celebrations, blending with the local customs. For many of the Pre-Christian cultures, May was the beginning of the summer season and marked the time for fertility rituals. As time has passed, this celebration has become more secular than religious. May Day festivals and celebrations have spread all over Europe and America and are held to this day, blending the various customs and traditions of the areas with the ancient Roman festival of Floralia.
Of course, what is May Day without the Maypole. The Maypole is made from a tall straight tree that has been stripped of all its branches. It is considered a phallic symbol and represents the fertility energies of springtime. It is decorated with greenery and flowers. Traditionally it was set up in the center of town and the townsfolk of neighboring communities would try to steal it in a friendly kind of way of competition. Dances were held around it in the belief of promoting growth, fertility and other springtime blessings. Ribbons were added to the Maypole in the Victorian era and the dancing became more elaborate. Maypole dancing became more popular in Europe and eventually crossed over to America. However, the Puritans denounced it as being Heathen, wicked and superstitious. In 1627, Thomas Morton erected an eight-foot-tall Maypole in Boston but was soon arrested for doing so. The custom died down in America for quite some time, but during the Revolutionary War the Maypole was resurrected and called “Liberty Poles” and was a focus point on May Day eve with war dances and celebrations. Eventually, Maypoles became common place for May Day celebrations in America and can be seen all over the country to this very day on May Day.
Another May celebration that is a Germanic festival is Walpurgis Night, held April 30th or May 1st. This festival is celebrated throughout Central and Northern Europe. This festival actually has a Christian background in that it is named after a saint that was canonized on May 1st 870 CE, but because of the date it became associated with May rites and traditions. In the German and Dutch, it is called Walpurgisnacht and was celebrated with bonfires, dancing, and rituals intended to ward off malicious witchcraft and other perceived threats. It was believed that witches would gather at this time to light fires and usher in spring. To ward off the possibility of witches a “faux witch” would be made of cloth and straw and was burned in a bonfire. It was thought that this act would not only bring an end to winter but also banish any evil or supernatural influences that might cause harm. In Sweden, Walpurgis Night is celebrated as Valborg, and is traditionally celebrated with dancing, singing, bonfires, and trick-or-treating.
Like many of our modern Pagan celebrations, Beltane celebrations are a blending of various cultures, beliefs, and customs. It is a reflection of our need to celebrate the warmer weather and welcome the thriving of the vegetation. Celebrations tend to be lighthearted and raucous, and rituals generally are focused on health, purification, fertility, growth and prosperity. Spell workings tend to be about love, romance, passion and of course sex magic. Many Pagans gather for large celebrations that include music, dancing, singing and general merrymaking with picnicking, feasting and fireside rituals being incorporated into the celebrations. These celebrations and rituals are usually held outdoors where one can find an abundance of vegetation and flowers.
If possible, celebrate Beltane in or near a forest, near a living tree, or put a small potted tree within the circle. If you don’t have room for a potted tree and are doing your Beltane Ritual indoors as a solitary, then you might like to have a small potted plant on your altar, preferably one that is flowering. If you are celebrating Beltane indoors, then you won’t be able to have a bonfire, obviously. But your fireplace works well or you can have candles lighted.
Here are some suggestions for your Beltane altar. Start with the colors of spring; the yellows of daffodils and dandelions, the purples of lilacs, and the blues of a robin’s egg or the sky. These colors can be in your altar cloth, ribbons, and candles and of course your flowers. Don’t forget green foliage. The fertility of the God can be symbolized by antlers, acorns, seeds and of course a phallus. You can also use your athame or a sword for your God. The fertility of the Goddess can be symbolized by a cauldron, challis, bowls, baskets and other feminine items that represent the womb. You might leave an offering to the fae on your altar. Honey, oats and milk are a great offering, as well as many fruits like cherries, peaches, mangoes and pomegranates. Also, candles will be a nice alternative for the Beltane bonfire or you can use a tabletop brazier. Don’t forget that you can light a fire within your cauldron.
Rituals that you might consider for Beltane are: Abundance rituals, whether for only yourself or for your family or friends; this is a great way to celebrate the Sabbat. Abundance can be for your garden as well. And you might hold a planting ritual if you are still planting your gardens. You might also consider doing a ritual to honor the sacred feminine and the Goddess. When thinking about your Beltane ritual, think about all that the Sabbat represents. There are many things that you can do for your ritual.
A few things to consider when celebrating with children are : That abundance ritual can be a family abundance ritual. Share with the children about how to bring abundance into their lives. You can make those floral crowns with the children and drumming circles are great for children. Let them make hobbyhorses to ride about the yard. Share the outdoors with them by taking them on nature walks and show them how nature is springing up with life. If you are able, you might consider a family bonfire where you can sit around and tell stories about the Deities and the fae. When considering what you wish to share with your children, consider their age and whether they can safely grasp the different aspects of fertility and abundance. It’s up to you as the parent to decide what you wish to share with your child.
Handfastings are popular at this time. Many pagans prefer to do a handfasting instead of what is considered a traditional wedding in a church. Handfastings can be held outdoors but indoors as well. They are traditionally to last a year and a day at which time you can reconsider the relationship as to whether you wish to continue it; but there are those that will use this ceremony to make a more permanent commitment. In which case, you will need to find a person who is licensed in your area to do legal bindings to perform the rite. If having a handfasting is something that you wish to do, then do a bit of research as to the various traditions connected with it.
This is of course the perfect time to perform the Great Rite. However, few perform it as it was originally written. Most do what is called the Symbolic Great Rite. The symbolic ritual involves an athame and a challis. This change in how this ritual is performed has partially come about due to the rise of concerns with STDs and HIV that has spread all over the world. There are those that still insist that the original ritual is the only way to do it; but many disagree with this opinion.
Create small tokens or charms in honor of the union of the Goddess and God to hang on a tree. These tokens can be bags filled with fragrant flowers, strings of beads, carvings or flower garlands to name a few suggestions. Flower petals strewn about the circle and later swept into a pile and distributed around the perimeter of the house for protections, is good. This is a time of creativity and the spirit of innovation. The common theme is that of growth and protection.
Weaving and plaiting are traditional arts at this time of year for joining together two substances to form a third is in the spirit of Beltane. Ribbons of bright blue, lavender, warm pink, lemon yellow and white represents the season, but the traditional colors are red and white. You might want to decorate a tree with ribbons and bows. House decorations can include a large bowl of floating flowers and candles; or simply small groupings of candles. Baskets of fresh flowers picked just before dawn can be hung on the front door. The mantle can be laden with green leaves and flowers. You might also make a floral crown for yourself and those that are attending the celebration. Flowers and vegetation can also be found at the local florist or you can use silk flowers. When considering your altar, use the best that you can find and afford.
You might include in your household decorations things like, bird nests with eggs and even a bird (not a real stuffed one please). Butterflies are also a great symbol of the season not to mention bees.
Foods traditionally coming from the dairy and dishes such as marigold custard and vanilla ice cream are good. Oatmeal cakes and cookies are also appropriate as well as early greens such as dandelion, plantain and spinach is good for your Beltane meal.
Herbal Incense for Beltane
3 parts Frankincense
2 parts Sandalwood
1 part Woodruff or Vanilla
1 part Rose Petals
A few drops of Jasmine Essential Oil
A few drops of Neroli Oil or Orange Oil
Use for Beltane rituals for fortune and favors and to attune with the changing of the season.