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. Traditionally, 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, with young couples following to pledge themselves to each other. Jumping the fires was done 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 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 important 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.
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 impregnate 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. We humans were completely reliant on nature until very recently in evolutionary terms, the Green Man personified this close relationship, one that many stone masons were very reluctant to give up - even in the face of increasing pressure from the church.
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, weaving 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 with bees being strongly associated with Beltane themes, their golden colour suggestive of the sun and fire.
Here are some delicious, superfood recipes to 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:
Celebrating Beltane Glastonbury Style
Beltane is growing in Glastonbury, each year gets bigger and better, with this year celebrating the weekend in the run up to Beltane with the Glastonbury Dragons putting on a May Fayre: Glastonbury Dragons May Fayre Celebrations
Glastonbury Abbey has kindly allowed free access to the area surrounding the Abbots Kitchen where there will be stalls, morris dancing, drumming, a mummers play and more. Another highlight of the weekend is a Dragon Conference, where local historian and artist Yuri Leitch will be hosting speakers on all things Dragon; Dragon Lore, Communications with Dragons, Hunting Dragons in Somerset to mention but a few.
As for Beltane itself, on Monday May 1st, many Avalonians will be heading up the Tor for sunrise, 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. Entertainment, music and poetry ensues before the maypole procession begins. It will first make its way to the Red and White Springs where the marriage is blessed by the sacred 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, leading into the evening, when anybody who still has the energy to party can choose from 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/
The Stations of the Sun - Professor Ronald Hutton