It’s official, summer is finally here! Well it is in pagan circles, and celebrated as such on May 1st – otherwise known as Beltane. Beltane is a festival of flowers, fertility, fecundity and fire, a day to revel in sensuality and delight. Thought to originate from the Celtic “Blessing Fires”, and named in honour of the Celtic Sun God “Bel”, it is a celebration of the fertility of the land as well as that of humans and animals, abundant fertility on all levels is the central theme. It is a hugely important fire festival, the sun has truly returned, spring has peaked and summer is well on its way. On this day herds were turned out to the wild pastures, with cattle being driven through the “Belfires” to protect them from harm. To show the corn how high to grow, the May Queen and Summer King jumped the Belfires, couples followed to pledge themselves to each other and jumping the fires was also thought to cleanse and purify oneself - contact with fire was interpreted as symbolic contact with the sun.
The Beltane morning dew was thought to possess magical properties - to wash one’s face in it guaranteed a flawless complexion for one year – not only that, it was able to remove spots, freckles and pimples too!
The fair maid who, the first of May
Goes to the fields at break of day
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree
Will ever after handsome be
Traditionally this was a lusty time of year – morals were given the night off during Beltane celebrations. In ancient Celtic times, young couples would spend the night in the woods “A-Maying”, gathering flowering hawthorn and making love, this was known as a “greenwood marriage”. Babies conceived at this time were believed to blossom into both powerful healers and spiritual adepts having been conceived in a powerful, sacred energy – these babies would invariably be born around Imbolc, another Celtic Fire Festival.
In the “Wheel of Life”, the energy of Beltane can be likened to that of our adolescent years – the time when our hormones kick in and we begin to awaken sexually. Although we might not be teenagers anymore, Beltane invites us to reconnect with that energy again, it symbolises the positive qualities of youthful energy.
The feminine and masculine aspects of nature are honoured in many different ways such as maypole dancing and the marriage of the Earth Goddess, the Queen O’ the May to the young Sun God, the Summer King. Let’s delve into some of the popular celebrations and traditions still happening today!
All Hail The Queen O’ The May!
Traditionally chosen by the villagers to represent the divine feminine, the May Queen is a symbol of beauty, spring and new beginnings. She is the personification of the “Maiden” aspect of the Triple Goddess (Maiden, Mother, Crone) and the manifestation of growth and renewal – springtime’s fertile energy in human form. She battles the Queen of Winter (the Crone) and sends her away for six months so the earth can bloom once again. She accepts the hand of the Summer King and conceives on Beltane and bringing forth life and growth in the natural world. She progresses onto the role of the Mother as the earth comes into full bloom and the lushness of nature reigns supreme.
The Green Man/Jack in the Green/The Summer King
Appearing under many guises is the embodiment of the sacred masculine aspect of nature, the Green Man. At Beltane, he takes on the form of the Summer King and is the god of vegetation and plant life. He battles with the Holly (winter) King to win the hand of the May Queen and together they represent the sacred marriage of the sun and the earth, the sacred masculine and divine feminine and the impregnation of the earth with fertility.
Before Christianisation, the Green Man represented such a powerful force – that of virility and growth – that many churches have a Green Man hidden in the ceiling or peering down from a darkened corner. Man was completely reliant on nature until very recently in evolutionary terms, the Green Man seems to have been an expression of this close relationship and one that many stone masons were very reluctant to give up, even in the face of increasing pressure from the church.
The Wicker Man
Made hugely popular by the 1973 film of the same name, the only accounts of burning a Wicker Man come from the writings of Julius Caeser’s “Commentary on the Gallic War”. Here he describes the Druids burning people alive in huge wicker effigies as sacrificial offerings. Now call me a little sceptical, but it was the prime intent of the Romans to stamp out all native religions - the Druids were eventually well and truly decimated by the Romans in a bloody crusade ending in their final massacre on the Isle of Anglesey. The evidence for Wicker Man human sacrifices is highly questionable, with Caeser’s writings possibly being part of a propaganda/smear campaign against the indigenous Britons and used as justification for their ultimate slaughter. In fact there is little archaeological evidence for Celtic human sacrifice and no evidence for the practices that Caeser described.
Despite this, the custom has been adopted in many modern Beltane celebrations, a particularly famous one being held at Buster Farm in Hampshire. Here they hold a big event on Beltane Eve, culminating in the burning of a huge Wicker Man to the resounding rhythms of the Pentacle Drummers as the effigy goes up in flames.
It was traditional for the Green Men of the village to go into the forest the day before Beltane to choose the Maypole. Birch trees symbolising purification were usually selected as the tree of choice, permission was asked before felling the tree and carving it with runes and symbols to further imbue magical powers.
In his book “The Stations of the Sun”, Professor Ronald Hutton suggests the origin of the maypole could be the Irminsul – the mighty pillar of Odin. The maypole itself is a phallic symbol, used to represent the planting of the God’s phallus into the womb of Mother Earth. The ribbons are red and white – red to represent the female menstrual blood and white representing the male’s semen. The maypole dancers took their respective ribbons and weaved them together in a dance to create a new element representing sexual union and the promise of healthy offspring. The energy raised by this dancing is sent down into the womb of the earth, bringing about her full awakening and fruitfulness.
Outlawed in 1644 by the Puritans then repealed in 1660 by Charles II, the custom of maypole dancing resumed in earnest, with many towns and parishes erecting permanent maypoles in celebration – some of which boasted 80 – 90 feet!
Food for Love
No celebration is complete without a fine feast to go with it. Unsurprisingly, traditional Beltane foods tend to be of the aphrodisiac variety! Oysters, chilli peppers, avocado, chocolate, honey, almonds and bananas are all in the order of the day. Spring green salads incorporating asparagus as one of the first greens of the season are very popular, as are Beltane Bannock’s – a traditional oatcake which is said to guarantee abundance for your crops and livestock if eaten on Beltane morning. All things sweet and spicy can be incorporated, the spicier the better as this relates to the fire aspect of the festival, with candied ginger and flower petals being favourites, all washed down with honey mead. Honey is especially relevant, bees are strongly associated with Beltane themes, its golden colour suggestive of the sun and fire.
Here are some recipes you can incorporate into your Beltane celebrations:
Wild and Sensual Scents for Beltane
Incense, oils and herbs play a big part in any celebration of the passing of the Wheel of the Year. Houses and out-buildings were decked with budding green branches and flowers were gathered and exchanged on Beltane Eve or presented before sunrise in the morning. Baskets of flowers and spring treats were arranged and secretly left on friends’ doorsteps in the hope they would believe them to be a gift from the faeries.
Living spaces were cleared of stale energy using incense of the season, this was also used to wash away any negativity and to create space for the fresh new energy of Beltane.
Magical Beltane Incense
3 Parts Frankincense
2 Parts Sandalwood
1 Part Vanilla
1 Part Jasmine Flowers / Jasmine Oil
1 Part Rose Petals / Rose Oil
Visualise what you wish to manifest for the coming season whilst mixing together, focus on your intent whilst burning this beautiful incense.
Beltane herbs include; woodruff, all-heal, blessed thistle, dogwood, marjoram and meadowsweet. May Wine, traditionally known as Maibowle, uses sweet woodruff as its base:
From "Dancing with the Sun" by Jasmine Yalenorn
1 cup sweet woodruff
2 bottles rose' wine
4 dozen rose petal ice cubes
1 quart strawberries
1 quart chopped peaches
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup white rum
2 bottles champagne
1 bottle white wine
1 liter lemon-lime soda
Two weeks before serving: clean woodruff and pack into one bottle of wine. Cork and let sit.
The day before serving: make four dozen ice cubes by placing rose petals in the compartments before adding water. Freeze until solid.
Hull and wash the strawberries. Slice. Mix peaches and strawberries. Add sugar and rum. Marinate overnight.
An hour before serving: Strain woodruff out of wine and discard leaves. Mix champagne, all remaining wine, lemon-lime soda, and fruit in a large bowl. Stir.
Add ice cubes 15 minutes before serving. Serves 20.
Goddesses & Green Men – Celebrating Beltane Glastonbury Style
This Beltane in Glastonbury promises to be the biggest one yet and a spectacle to behold! We have our May Queen and Summer King, handmaidens, morris dancers, dragons, drummers, mummers and more….
The morning generally begins with sunrise on the Tor, followed by a meditation around a blazing fire in Chalice Well. The first maypole dance of the day happens here at 8.30 am, accompanied by live music.
At midday, the ceremony begins at Market Cross where the marriage of the May Queen and Summer King takes place. Our Green Men will have been to the woods on the preceding day where the maypole will have been chosen, carved and dressed. There will be entertainment, music and poetry before the procession begins with red and white dragons in combat, morris dancers, drummers and of course the maypole. It will first make its way to the Red and White Springs where the marriage is blessed by the waters, then on up to Bushy Combe where the maypole will be placed in the hole especially dug by the Goddesses and handmaidens.
Here, further ceremonies and blessings for the land take place followed by the famous maypole dance. Picnics, music and frivolity commence for the afternoon culminating with a “Grand Finale” at the Abbey in the evening! And for anybody who still has the energy to party, there are many bands and bards performing all over town with the festivities lasting well into the night….
And of course Indigo Herbs wishes you a joyful, abundant Beltane!
Here’s a video of some previous years, enjoy!
“Attend this night of Crystal Fire
When Sweet Delight weds Wild Desire
Tis the Greening of the year…
Beltane, Beltane, Beltane’s here!
Feel the world’s Regeneration.
Dance the pole with Veneration.”
Sources for this article and images:
May Queen Image: www.paganspace.net
Green Men Images: Licensed under public domain via Flickr commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/132952433@N02/with/17357275972/
Wickerman Images: Courtesy of Butser Farm: http://www.butserancientfarm.co.uk/ Photographer: Phillip Watts