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Beltaine Rituals & Reference

Beltaine – May Eve
Various works from: Tryskelion

Beltaine is one of two Celtic fire festivals, a cross-quarter sabbat, and is sometimes referred to as Cetsamhain, meaning “opposite Samhain,” because it falls opposite to Samhain in the Wheel of the Year. Likewise, where Samhain is a festival recognizing and honoring the necessity of Death, Beltaine is a celebration of life and fertility returning to the world.

In the Celtic countries the festival was known by other names, such as Beltaine in Ireland (which means in Irish Gaelic “May”), Bealtunn (which means in Scots-Gaelic “May Day”) in Scotland, Shenn do Boaldyn on the Isle of Man, and Galan Mae in Wales. The Saxons called this day Walpurgisnacht, the night of Walpurga, Goddess of May. Like Brigid, the Church changed this goddess into St. Walpurga and attached a similar legend to her origin. Also known as May Eve, this festival marks the beginning of Summer – the growing season.

The word “Beltane” literally means “bright” or “brilliant fire,” and refers to the bonfires lit by a presiding Druid in honor of the proto-Celtic god variously known as Bel, Beli, Balar, Balor or Belenus. Bel, the god of light, fire and healing, had Sun-like qualities, but was not purely a Sun god, as the Celts were not specifically Sun worshippers.

They celebrated Beltaine with dancing, feasting, and “greenwood marriages.” Men and women would disappear into the woods throughout the night for their own personal celebrations; these being understood to be unions through which the Horned God impregnated the Goddess and brought fertility to the earth, through the physical forms of man and woman. These unions were a celebration of life and love, accomplished to ensure the fertility and fruitfulness of the land, animals, and of themselves. Further, any babies born of greenwood marriages were considered children of the Lord and Lady, specially blessed by Them, and were seen as children of the whole village, rather than of just two parents.

For modern Pagans, Beltaine is the time of union and pleasure; of celebrating the returning warmth of the sun, and the greening of Earth. It is about the reconciliation of opposites through love, and the fruitfulness that arises from this reconciliation. It is a time of bonfires and feasting, drumming and dancing; a time of brightly colored ribbons woven around that ancient phallic symbol, the maypole. And it is a time to renew our commitments to the land, to love, and to each other. 

Basic Requirements

Altar/Altar Cloth/Altar Candles: The altar should be in the center of the circle area, facing the Eastern quarter. The altar cloth should always be yellow for the High Earth Rite of Balemas. (This is only if you are using a regular rectangular altar.) The two main altar candles should be yellow.

Other Candles: The four quarter candles should be blue in the West, red in the South, yellow (or gold) in the East, and green in the North. All other secondary candles used for extra lighting in the ritual area should be of various shades of forest green or suited to personal taste.

Special Items: A small wreath of flowers will be needed to serve as a crown for the May Queen. These can be easily made. Another optional item is the May pole and its ribbon streamers. A large candle will be needed for the cauldron as a symbol for the balefire unless the rite is held outdoors, in which case kindling in preparation for a small balefire will be needed in the area of the Southern quarter.

Circle Area/Casting the Circle/Assemblance of the Quarters

Prepare the circle with decorations of cut flowers or greenery, as appropriate. (The author recommends hawthorne blossoms.) The circle should be cast according to you or your coven’s preference and the Quarters will be called in accordance with the coven’s or your personal needs (the author reminds us that East has preeminence for Balemas).

Invocation of the Goddess

Priestess:

Hallowed Lady of the Hawthorn,
Godddess of the greenwood groves,
we call upon Thee in the season of Thy Sensuality,
as Thy blossom opens to the amorous advances of our Lord, Thy Lover.
In Thy union is the fertility of Spring,
and the beckoning whisper of young desire.

Touch us with the breath of Thy passion,
that we might seek for the ectasy of life!
Inflame us with the fever of Thine inmost longings
that we not be satisfied until our oneness
with the God is consummated!

Capture us with the fragrances of Thine allurement,
that we may be overwhelmed with an obsession for Thy presence!
Bright Maiden of May, be here among us as we celebrate
the Beltane blessings of Thy bridal-bed!
Blessed Be! 

Invocation of the Satyr Lord

Priest:

Horned God of power and play,
we hear the music of Thy melodious pipes
enchanting our ears upon the evening wind!
Beneath the fullness of the May-night Moon
Thy silhouette plays hide-and-seek
among the shadows of silver-tipped trees;
Thy hooves striking sparks like shooting stars
as they step in spritely patterns
to the rhythm of the Ways of the Wild.

Holy Pan of the shepherds’ shrine,
Goat-footed God, Faunus of the forest glades,
we beseech Thee to be here among us
as we revel in Beltane abandon
beneath the swirling streamers of Thy phallic staff,
dancing by the light of the balefire’s glow!

Sovereign Satyr Lord, be pleased within this Circle to remain,
as we celebrate Spring and the beginning of Thy reign!
Blessed Be! 

Kindling of the Balefire

The preistess and the priest will go to the kindling prepared for the fire (if the rite is held outdoors) located near the Southern quarter of the circle. Otherwise, a candle within the cauldron is substituted. The priest will light the balefire as the following incantation is recited by the priestess:

Priestess:

Strike the fire and let it rise,
Beltane flames ‘neath Spring-night skies!
Ancient customs we now renew,
‘Tween dusky dark and evening dew!
Fire with warmth of Summer shine,
Invoking Gods from Older Times
For fertile crops with Sun-fed rays,
Gardens of plenty and golden days! 

Crowning of the May Queen OR Floral Offering to The Goddess

At this point, the priest (or acting Satyr Lord) shall go to the altar and take up the garland-crown of flowers. He will then stand facing the priestess (or acting Maiden), lifting the crown above her head as he speaks the words of her coronation as the May Queen.

The Satyr Lord:

I give priase to Thee,
vibrant Goddess of youth and sensuality;
Lady of Spring, exuberant Earth maiden,
dancing in joyous abandon across hillside and field
in vivacious hues of brightness,
exuding the wondrous essence of waving wildflowers.

Wherefore I offer unto Thee
this floral crown of Thy creation,
laid now upon Thy daughter’s head
as the woven splendor of Nature’s art;
the many-colored Crown of May,
scented with the mystery and majesty
that is the Maiden!

All Hail, Lady Fair,
with flowered garlands for Thy hair! 

All:

All Hail, Lady Fair,
with flowered garlands for Thy hair! 

A solitary alternative is the Floral Offering to the Goddess. The garland of flowers will be initially placed in the Eastern quarter of the circle. At this time, the solitary celebrant will pick the the flower-crown, and standing or kneeling before the altar, will begin this prayer:

Solitary:

We give praise to Thee,
vibrant Goddess of youth and sensuality;
Lady of Spring, exuberant Earth Maiden,
dancing in joyous abandon with the goat-footed God
across hillside and field in vivacious hues of brightness,
exuding the wondrous essence of waving wildflowers.

Wherefore we offer unto Thee
this floral crown of Thy Creation,
laid now upon Thine altar as the woven splendor of Nature’s art;
the many-colored Crown of May,
scented with the mystery and majesty
that is the Maiden!

All Hail, Lady Fair,
with flowered garlands for Thy hair! 

The crown of flowers is then laid upon the altar as an offering to the Goddess.

The Great Rite

If this is a custom practiced within your coven, please follow your traditions.

Parting Prayers

Priestess:

Maiden Lady, Queen of May,
bestow upon us in overflowing measure
Thy youthful passsion for love and life
as we rejoice in the sensual stirrings of the season.

All Hail, Farewell, and Blessed Be! 

Priest:

Sovereign Satyr Lord, Pan of the Pagan Ways,
at this Sabbat of Springtime’s warmth,
bestow upon us the heated breath of Thy lust for living
as we depart this sacred space with the joyous blessings
of Thy Beltane benediction.

All Hail, Farewell, and Blessed Be! 

Dismissal of the Quarter-Regents/Releasing the Circle

At this time the quarters can be dismissed and the circle released, per your tradition. It’s time for the the Beltane festivities to begin! The priestess may close with this benediction.

Priestess:

This rite of Balemas is ended!
May the love of the Maiden and the Satyr Lord
go with us as we venture onward
into the warming fullness of Summer’s promise!

Merry Meet and Merry Part! 

This ritual has been adapted from information obtained from The Crafted Cup by Shadwynn.

History and Modern Celebration in Wicca in America

The celebration of May 1st, or Beltane as it is known in Wicca Circles, is one of the most important festivals of our religious year. I will attempt here to answer some of the most often asked questions about this holiday. An extensive bibliography follows the article so that the interested reader can do further research.

  1. Where does the festival of Beltane originate?
    Beltane, as practiced by modern day Witches and Pagans, has its origins among the Celtic peoples of Western Europe and the British Isles, particularly Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. 
  2. What does the word Beltane mean?
    Dr. Proinsias MacCana defines the word as follows: “… the Irish name for May Day is Beltane, of which the second element, `tene’, is the word for fire, and the first, `bel’, probably means `shining or brilliant’.”(1) The festival was known by other names in other Celtic countries. Beltaine in Ireland, Bealtunn in Scotland, Shenn do Boaldyn on the Isle of Mann, and Galan Mae in Wales.(2) 
  3. What was the significance of this holiday to the ancients?
    To the ancient Celts, it symbolized the coming of spring. It was the time of year when the crops began to sprout, the animals bore their young, and the people could begin to get out of the houses where they had been cooped up during the long dark cold winter months. Keep in mind that the people in those days had no electric lights or heat, and that the Celtic counties are at a much more northerly latitude than many of us are used to. At that latitude, spring comes much later, and winter lasts much longer than in most of the US. The coming of fair weather and longer daylight hours would be most welcome after a long cold and dark winter. 
  4. How did the ancient Celts celebrate this festival?
    The most ancient way of observing this day is with fire. Beltane, along with Samhain (Nov. 1), Imbolc (Feb. 1), and Lughnassadh (Aug. 1), was one of the four great “fire festivals” which marked the turning points of the Celtic year. The most ancient records tell us that the people would extinguish all the hearth fires in the country and then relight them from the “need fires” lit by the druids (who used friction as a means of ignition). In many areas, the cattle were driven between two great bonfires to protect them from disease during the coming year. It is my personal belief, although I have no documentation to back up the assumption, that certain herbs would have been burnt in the fires, thus producing smoke which would help destroy parasites which might make cattle and other livestock ill. 
  5. In what other ways was this festival celebrated?
    One of the most beautiful customs associated with this festival was “bringing in the May.” The young people of the villages and towns would go out into the fields and forests at Midnight on April 30th and gather flowers with which to bedeck themselves, their families, and their homes. They would process back into the villages, stopping at each home to leave flowers, and to receive the best of food and drink that the home had to offer. This custom is somewhat similar to “trick or treat” at Samhain and was very significant to the ancients. John Williamson, in his study, The Oak King, the Holly King, and the Unicorn, writes, “These revelers were messengers of the renewal of vegetation, and they assumed the right to punish the niggardly, because avarice (as opposed to generosity) was dangerous to the community’s hope for the abundance of nature. At an important time like the coming of summer, food, the substance of life must be ritually circulated generously within the community in order that the cosmic circuit of life’s substance may be kept in motion (trees, flocks, harvests, etc.).”(3) These revelers would bless the fields and flocks of those who were generous and wish ill harvests on those who withheld their bounty. 
  6. What about maypoles?
    The maypole was an adjunct to the festival of bringing in the May. It is a phallic symbol, and as such represented fertility to the participants in the festival. In olden days, the revelers who went into the woods would cut a tree and bring it into town, decking it with flowers and greenery and dance around it, clockwise (also called deosil, meaning “sun-wise”, the direction of the sun’s apparent travel across the face of the Earth) to bring fertility and good luck. The ribbons which we associate with the maypole today were a later addition. 
  7. Why was fertility important?
    The people who originated this custom lived in close connection with the land. If the flocks and fields were fertile, they were ableto eat; if there was famine or drought, they went hungry. It is hard for us today to relate to this concept, but to the ancients, it was literally a life and death matter. The Celts were a very close tribal people, and fertility of their women literally meant continuity of the tribe. 
  8. How is the maypole connected with fertility?
    Many scholars see the maypole as a phallic symbol. In this aspect, it is a very powerful symbol of the fertility of nature and spring. 
  9. How did these ancient customs come down to us?
    When Christianity came to the British Isles, many of the ancient holy sites were taken over by the new religion and converted to Christian sites. Many of the old Gods and Goddesses became Christian saints, and many of the customs were appropriated. Charles Squire says,” An ingenious theory was invented after the introduction of Christianity, with the purpose of allowing such ancient rites to continue with a changed meaning. The passing of persons and cattle through flame or smoke was explained as a practice which interposed a magic protection between them and the powers of evil.” (4) This is precisely what the original festival was intended to do; only the definition of “evil” had changed. These old customs continued to be practiced in many areas for centuries. “In Scotland in 1282, John, the priest in Iverkething, led the young girls of his parish in a phallic dance of decidedly obscene character during Easter week. For this, penance was laid upon him, but his punishment was not severe, and he was allowed to retain his benefice.”(5) 
  10. Were sacrifices practiced during this festival?
    Scholars are divided in their opinions of this. There is no surviving account of sacrifices in the legends and mythology which have come down to us. As these were originally set down on paper by Christian monks, one would think that if such a thing had been regularly practiced, the good brothers would most certainly have recorded it, if for no other reason than to make the pagans look more depraved. There are, however, some surviving folk customs which point to a person representing the gloom and ill fortune of winter being ostracized and forced to jump through the fires. Some scholars see this as a survival of ancient human sacrificial practices. The notion that animals were sacrificed during this time doesn’t make sense from a practical standpoint. The animals which had been retained a breeding stock through the winter would either be lean and hungry from winter feed, or would be mothers nursing young, which could not be spared. 
  11. How do modern day pagans observe this day?
    Modern day pagan observances of Beltane include the maypole dances, bringing in the May, and jumping the cauldron for fertility. Many couples wishing to conceive children will jump the cauldron together at this time. Fertility of imagination and other varieties of fertility are invoked along with sexual fertility. In Wiccan and other Pagan circles, this is a joyous day, full of laughter and good times. 
  12. What about Walpurgisnacht? Is this the same thing as Beltane?
    Walpurgisnacht comes from an Eastern European background, and has little in common with the Celtic practices. I have not studied the folklore from that region and do not consider myself qualified to write about it. As the vast majority of Wiccan traditions today stem from Celtic roots, I have confined myself to research in those areas. 

FOOTNOTES

  1. MacCana, Proinsias, Celtic Mythology, The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, London, 1970, p.32.
  2. Squire, Charles, Celtic Myth and Legend, Poetry and Romance, Newcastle Publishing Co., Van Nuys, CA, 1975, p.408.
  3. Williamson, John, The Oak King, the Holly King, and the Unicorn, Harper & Row, NY, 1986, p.126.
  4. Squire, p.411.
  5. Hole, Christina, Witchcraft In England, Rowman & Littlefield, Totowa, NJ, 1977, p.36.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • # Bord, Janet & Colin, Earth Rites, Fertility Practices in Pre-Industrial Britain, Granada, London, 1982.
  • # Danaher, Kevin, The Year in Ireland, The Mercier Press, Cork, 1972.
  • # Hole, Christina, Witchcraft in England, Rowman & Littlefield, Totowa NJ,1977.
  • # MacCana, Proinsias, Celtic Mythology, The Hamlyn Publishing Group, Ltd., London, 1970.
  • # MacCulloch, J.A. Religion of the Ancient Celts, Folcroft Library Editions, London, 1977.
  • # Powell, T.G.E. The Celts, Thames & Hudson, New York, 1980.
  • # Sharkey, John, Celtic Mysteries, the Ancient Religion, Thames & Hudson, New York, 1979.
  • # Squire, Charles, Celtic Myth, Legend, Poetry, and Romance, Newcastle Publishing Co., Van Nuys, CA, 1975.
  • # Williamson, John, The Oak King, The Holly King, and the Unicorn, Harper & Row, New York, 1986.
  • # Wood-Martin, W.G., Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, Kennikat Press, Port Washington, NY, 1902.

Beltane Lore

One of the two great fire festivals, May Eve was always very Bacchanalian in content. As I have remarked, country people are very earthy and close to nature; May Eve epitomised these rural qualities.

The Circle was 18 feet, and the hay stooks were placed around the outside at the Quarters. Green branches were laid to form a pathway to the Circle. A fire burned in its centre as well as on the hilltops all around.

That year’s May Queen was not present. She would be crowned the following morning and had to be what is politely called a “maiden”. It was thought that if she went to the Belfire, she might not be “virgo intacta” the next day. So she had to stay at home!

Garlands were set up on the May pole during the daylight hours in readiness for the next day; the garlands the May Queen’s attendants would wear were also made at this time. May Eve and May Day are very busy times from a Craft point of view.

The Sabbat cakes were special: round, not crescent shaped and we ate sponge finger-type cakes as well. We wore our green robes.

Flowers were abundant, and both Tines were decorated with many blossoms. Sometimes pets were brought in to be blessed by the Elements.

We cast the Circle and called the Quarters in the normal way, and immediately afterwards, the Cakes and Wine ceremony was held, whereupon spiral and back to back dances were performed–all very jolly!

Sometimes we jumped the fire, and if a couple leaped together they were considered betrothed. If a single girl jumped alone, it was believed she would be fertile, not a very desirable attribute at Beltane!

When the fire started to die down, or when everyone thought it time, a doorway was cut into the circle, and all the young ones went off “a-maying.” They returned at dawn, bringing fresh greenery for May Day. The girls all bathed their faces with dew. Then, the stooks were moved to the green where the May pole was, and all went home to get a few hours of sleep before the May Day festivities began.

I would like to make one small comment on this very modern attitude towards young people and their morals during Beltane celebrations. When I was a young girl, I never saw a farmhand marry until his girlfriend was pregnant. In later years I asked my mother about this; she said that the idea seemed to be that a girl had to prove herself fertile before marriage. Because country people needed children during those days (country children worked very hard), a man and a girl needed to assure themselves of a family before the married.

From West Country Wicca, A Journal of the Old Religion, Rhiannon Ryall)

Beltaine Traditions

The celebration of May 1st, or Beltane is one of the most important festivals the year. The word Beltane literally means, “shining fire.” This is one of the most exciting festivals of the Wheel of the year. It is also one of the only holidays that is usually celebrated in the light of day.

The collecting of spring flowers is one of the popular customs of this day. For thousands of years, people would go into the fields to collect the pretty flowers and exchange them. Towns people would often proceed through the village streets putting flowers on all the houses and buildings. People inside the homes would offer them wonderful food and goodies to eat as sort of a spring version of “trick or treat.”

Another benchmark tradition of this holiday is the Maypole. In tradition, a fir was used. The young, unwed men would go to the forest and return with the tree that would be fashioned into the pole. The pole was brought to the center of the village to be guarded through the night until the first day of May. On that day, the people would come and dance around the maypole clockwise to bring fertility and good luck. Later, brightly colored ribbons were woven around the pole by the dancers as they wove around eachother. This symbolizes the balance of masculine and feminine energies and the duality of life. The ribbons would then be removed and kept in a safe place to be burned in the Beltane fires of next year. This action represents the old dying to give birth to the new.

Fertility is a central theme of Beltane. The people lived in close connection with the Earth. To have food to eat, the crops and the beasts of the fields would have to be fertile. In the time of the ancients, this was a life and death matter. For this reason, we have a number of holidays and rituals that are connected with fertility. The maypole is connected to this theme by way of the view point of it being a phallic symbol.

Another fertility representation is the custom of jumping the cauldron. Couples wishing to conceive children will jump the cauldron together. Fertility of all areas of life are invoked during this holiday as well as sexual fertility. This is the day for Wiccans to laugh and banter about having the most joyous of times!

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