From Maypole dancing to ancient engagement ceremonies, this festival has everything!
By Rebecca Bell
What is Beltane? More recently known as International Workers’ Day, or May Day, Beltane honours life and marks the true start of summer — and in some countries, it marks an extra day off work! Sounds good so far. Traditionally, Beltane celebrates the moment the Earth and all her creatures are at peak fertility, and the air is full of more sexual tension than a K-Drama! Ok, so a bit more information please… and really, you’ve asked for it, this is a BIG celebration across many cultural backgrounds.
Beltane Traditions & Festivities
Beltane falls on the first of May, and is the fourth festival on the Neo-Pagan calendar, the Wheel Of The Year. Named for the ancient Celtic celebration, it is a time to thank spring for its growth and welcome summer, the season of sowing seed for autumn’s harvest, whilst the ground is full of fertile potential. It is said that the Horned God (sometimes identified as the British Herne, the Irish Cernunnos, the German Belenos, or Norse Odin) and Goddess (the Welsh Ceridwen, German Holle, or Norse Freja) come together in physical union at this time, having reached full maturity in their growth over the spring months. You may remember that they married at the festival of Ostara… well, now it’s time to do what comes after marriage! The Goddess then enters her Mother aspect, and the God comes into the height of his power.
Neo-Pagan and Wiccan versions of the festival mirror this coupling with the crowning of a May Queen and King. But the tradition of crowning a May Queen goes back much further into the folk traditions of May Day. From as early as the Middle Ages (and probably before, as this is just the first record of the tradition we have), village May Day celebrations would feature the crowning of a May Queen. This was usually a young woman, and the tradition persists into modern day in the UK, with some British primary schools crowning a May Queen from hopeful young girls.
Maypole dancing has also been a part of May Day celebrations for centuries, along with Morris Dancing, and both have been folded into the Neo-Pagan and Wiccan festivities. Young men and women would dance around the Maypole in a form of courtship. It was common for couples to be made this day — after many tankards of sweet mead, in the summery evening light it was tempting to steal away into the lush greenery, and lay together on the soft grass. Afterwards, they would return with hawthorn blossoms in their hands to decorate homes. This was known as Going A-Maying, and it was the only time it was less frowned upon to make love outside marriage — the Beltane babies were an accepted tradition arriving nine months later. It was, and still is to this day, a popular time for pagan weddings or Handfastings (similar to engagement).
Gaelic & Celtic Beltane
In the Gaelic calendar of the seasons, it is the third seasonal celebration, and is a key part of the farming calendar, and everyone would hope for a fruitful year for their families and fields. It marks when the risk of frost is over, and it is safe to sow seeds and work the land. In addition, cattle were passed between two fires, so that the properties of the flame and smoke would bless the cattle and bring fertility to the herd, as well as preventing illness and connecting them with the sun.
Gods, Spirits, and Symbols
Many deities and spirits around the world are associated with the Beltane, as there are many who are champions of fertility. Understandably, most religions have someone assigned to looking after wishes for fertility of both procreation and propagation. You could say that fertility symbols and deities are some of the earliest in human history! Here are some to name a few:
- Flora – from Roman polytheism. Flora was celebrated at Floralia (April 28 – May 3). Romans would dress in bright robes with floral wreaths to honour the goddess. At her shrines, Flora would be offered milk and honey, so that she would protect the blossoms each spring.
- Cernunnos – from Celtic Mythology. Cernunnos relates to fertility, and his associated imagery is that of a stag in rut, full of sexual energy. He is depicted as a shaggy-haired lord of the forest, with great horns on his head, and the occasional erect phallus. He has been oft misrepresented as a symbol of Satan.
- Kokopelli – from the Hopi people, is a flute playing, dancing, trickster god. Who, in one legend, was travelling though the land, turning winter to spring with the beautiful music of his flute, and calling the rains to come for a good harvest.
How Beltane Became May Day
Some of the earliest known celebrations of May lead back to ancient Rome with the Floralia, festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. Floralia would see revellers drink, dance, and preform theatrical extravaganzas. Goats and hares were released, and crowds pelted with beans, before concluding with a sacrifice. There was going to be blood somewhere in this blog post!
In the 2nd century AD, Maiouma was instead celebrated in Rome. This was a nocturnal dramatic festival held every three years. According to one 6th Century chronicler, this celebration honoured Dionysus and Aphrodite, and was also known as “Orgies.” (The fact that Dionysus and Aphrodite were Greek gods, with their own designated festivals, seems to have slipped this chronicler’s notice — although admittedly, there were many overlapping festivals throughout the ancient world.) During this time, the government put money aside for the expenses of this the thirty-day, all-night revellry! After many hangovers, Emperor Constantine suppressed this festival.
In 900 AD, in Germanic countries the word Beltane came to life, (lucky fire) where the celebrations focused on the use of fire to bless cattle and other livestock. These traditions would have influenced existing Celtic/Gaelic festivities once the Saxons and Vikings settled in the UK.
Catholics in the 18th century began to observe May Day with devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who at this time would have been adorned with flowers in a May crowning. It is also marks the start of feasting in respect of St Joseph the Worker. You’d think that would be connected to May Day’s current identication as International Workers’ Day, but actually May 1st was chosen in 1889 by socialist activists, to commemorate the Haymarket Affair — a protest in 1886 Chicago that started peaceful but ended in a vicious skirmish between police and protestors.
So that brings us to today, wherein May Day is a bank holiday, and May Day festivals, usually conjured as school fetes, involve young children dancing around the Maypole, creating crowns of flowers for the May Queen, and of course eating cake!
Rituals and Traditions
Like many festivals on the ‘Wheel of the Year’, Beltane does not fall short on things to do! Here’s some of the major rituals and traditions you may well know of:
Maypole – May Queen
Though less prevalent now, Maypole dancing still occurs in many parts of rural Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and England. Traditionally, a pole is erected in the centre of the festival site, a local green space, and from that pole trail lengths of ribbon. These ribbons are held by the dancers, who move around the pole to plait the ribbons neatly without getting in a tangle. This is often practiced weeks in advance at school. Then there is the May Queen, who is crowned at the event and gets to sit on a thrones to view the festivities. This is usually done though nominations, or a panel of judges will choose who to crown.
Because the festival has been long associated with fertility, marriages or Handfasting ceremonies would often take place on this date. Handfasting are unique to the couple involved, wherein they exchange vows, and give each other rings or a token of their choice to represent their unique connection. The ceremony involves tying the couple’s hands with red cord or ribbon in a figure of eight, and later unbinding them once the ceremony is complete. This symbolises the coming-together of two people of their own free will — even with the ties undone, they still stay together. Handfasting betrothal usually lasts ‘a year and a day,’ after which time the couple can chose to stay together, or part. Traditions like these may have inspired the modern wedding proposal, with an engagement ring marking a couple’s betrothal before the wedding ceremony.
So there you have it: Beltane, a festival of fertility and togetherness! Yes, there was a bit of sex and bloody violence in the past… but it’s hard to find a festival that doesn’t have that kind of history. However you celebrate Beltane, we wish you a fruitful year!
(Pssst…if you’re in the UK it might be worth getting these guys in Scotland on your radar for a future Beltane celebration!)