Episode 70 - Beltane

Episode 70 - Beltane

Beltane is our second of the four Celtic fire festivals on the Wheel of the Year. It occurs on May 1, which is about the midway point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. Like all Wiccan holidays, modern Beltane celebrations are inspired by older Pagan rituals and traditions. In the case of Beltane, it’s inspired by the historic May Day celebrations that occurred throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.

History and Traditions of Beltane

Beltane is a Celtic word, meaning “the fires of Bel.” Bel likely referred to the Celtic sun god, Belenus. Beltane was first mentioned in an Irish text from the 10th century, where it describes how cattle were driven between two bonfires on Beltane as a magical means of protecting them from disease before they were led into their summer pastures. While this is the first written account of Beltane, it’s likely that Beltane was celebrated long before as Beltane is incorporated throughout Irish Folklore.

While the modern Wiccan calendar has 8 divisions in the wheel of the year, in Irish lore the year was divided into two main seasons, winter and summer. The beginning of the year and the start of winter was celebrated on Nov 1st, which is Samhain, and the beginning of Summer was celebrated on May 1st, which is Beltane. These two dates were viewed to be times when the veil between the human and supernatural world was thin and fairies and spirits could easily cross into our realm.

For Beltane decorations, people would adorn their doors and windows with yellow spring flowers, such as primrose, rowan, and hawthorn. Also, in parts of Ireland people would create a May bush, which was a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons, and shells.

Fire is a huge component of Beltane. On this day all household fires would be extinguished and then re-lit from a big community Beltane bonfire. These special bonfires were believed to have protective powers and people would walk around, between, or even jump over the bonfires.

Like many Pagan festivals Beltane included much feasting, drinking, and toasting to the Gods and spirits. At these feasts people ate oatmeal cakes, and a drink called caudle which is made of eggs, butter, oatmeal, and milk cooked over a bonfire. During the process of making this drink some was spilled on the ground as an offering to the spirits.

The oatmeal cakes people ate for the feast were called the Beltane bannock. There is a simple folk magic ritual where the practitioner throws a piece of the bannock over their shoulder as an offering as a way to placate certain animals that might harm their herds, such as foxes and wolves.

The Flower Crown and May Day

The history of the flower crown begins with the placement of a laurel wreath on the head of a victor in Ancient Rome.  Awarded to heroes and emperors to signify respect and success, this simple crown of leaves soon became a powerful and regal symbol.  You can see it today across our museums, a halo of marble or bronze resting atop names that have lasted throughout history.

The plebeian masses of our ancient world donned these natural crowns and added flowers to honor their Gods and Goddesses during special occasions.  Upon May Day, flowers ringed the heads of youthful maidens as the Romans celebrated Flora, the Goddess of flowers and fertility. This festival was called Florialia and is the earliest known May celebration.

Wiccan Traditions

Unlike Celtic Reconstructionism and a few other religions, Wicca does not strictly follow the ancient Beltane traditions and instead celebrates a holiday that is a mix between Beltane and May Day.

On May Eve, the sexuality of life and the earth is at its peak. Abundant fertility is the central theme. The Maiden goddess has reached her fullness. She is the manifestation of growth and renewal, Flora, the Goddess of Spring, the May Queen, and the May Bride. The Young Oak King, as Jack-In-The-Green and as the Green Man, falls in love with her and wins her hand. The union is consummated and the May Queen becomes pregnant. Together the May Queen and the May King are symbols of the Sacred Marriage and the union of Earth and Sky, and this union has been re-enacted by humans throughout the centuries.
Beltane is a popular time for pagan weddings or Handfastings, a traditional betrothal for 'a year and a day' after which the couple would either choose to stay together or part without issue. Handfasting ceremonies are often unique to the couple, but include common elements, most importantly the exchange of vows and rings. The act of handfasting always involves tying the hands Handfasting ('tying the knot') of the two people involved, in a figure of eight, at some point in the ceremony and later unbinding. This is done with a red cord or ribbon. Tying the hands together symbolises that the two people have come together and the untying means that they remain together of their own free will.
Another common element is 'jumping the broomstick' - this goes back to a time when two people who could not afford a church ceremony, or want one, would be accepted in the community as a married couple if they literally jumped over a broom laid on the floor. The broom marked a 'threshold', moving from an old life to a new one.

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