There are four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year and the modern Witch’s calendar, as well. The two greatest of these are Halloween (the beginning of winter) and May Day (the beginning of summer). The Celts were fascinated with duality and alternating opposites-light and dark, night and day, life and death-and accordingly divided the year into two parts. Beltaine was the feast that marked the end of Winter and the beginning of Summer. In many romance tales that have Celtic roots, Summer overtaking Winter was viewed as a contest between two rivals to win a desired Lady, a contest which took place over the three days of Beltaine festivities.
May Day ushers in the fifth month of the modern calendar year, the month of May. This month is named in honor of the goddess Maia, originally a Greek mountain nymph, later identified as the most beautiful of the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. By Zeus, she is also the mother of Hermes, god of magic. Maia’s parents were Atlas and Pleione, a sea nymph.
By Celtic reckoning, the actual Beltaine celebration begins on sundown of the preceding day, April 30, because the Celts always figured their days from sundown to sundown. And sundown was the proper time for Druids to kindle the great Bel-fires on the tops of the nearest beacon hill (such as Tara Hill, Co. Meath, in Ireland). These ‘need-fires’ had healing properties, and skyclad Witches would jump through the flames to ensure protection.
By the way, due to various calendar changes down through the centuries, the traditional date of Beltaine is not the same as its astrological date. This date, like all astronomically determined dates, may vary by a day or two depending on the year. However, it may be calculated easily enough by determining the date on which the sun is at 15 degrees Taurus (usually around May 5th). British Witches often refer to this date as Old Beltaine, and folklorists call it Beltaine O.S. (‘Old Style’). Some Covens prefer to celebrate on the old date and, at the very least, it gives one options. If a Coven is operating on ‘Pagan Standard Time’ and misses May 1st altogether, it can still throw a viable Beltaine bash as long as it’s before May 5th. This may also be a consideration for Covens that need to organize activities around the weekend.
But for most, it is May 1st that is the great holiday of flowers, Maypoles, and greenwood frivolity. It is no wonder that, as recently as 1977, Ian Anderson could pen the following lyrics for the band Jethro Tull:
For the May Day is the great day,
Sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did ley
Will heed this song that calls them back.
The old Celtic name for May Day is Beltaine (in its most popular Anglicized form), which is derived from the Irish Gaelic ‘Bealtaine’ or the Scottish Gaelic ‘Bealtuinn’, meaning ‘Bel-fire’, the fire of the Celtic god of light (Bel, Beli or Belinus). He, in turn, may be traced to the Middle Eastern god Baal.
Other names for May Day include Cetsamhain (‘opposite Samhain’), Walpurgisnacht (in Germany), and Roodmas (the medieval Church’s name). This last came from Church Fathers who were hoping to shift the common people’s allegiance from the Maypole (Pagan lingham-symbol of life) to the Holy Rood (the Cross-Roman instrument of death).
The Celts celebrate Beltaine as the day the Tuatha De Dannan (the children of the Goddess Danu) landed on Irish shores. It is said that they brought the sun to the land, and are celebrated as the “light” aspect of Celtic Mythology. The Tuatha De Dannan live in the otherworld, in mounds under the earth called Sidhes. The veil between this world and the otherworld is thin at this time of year (like at Samhain), and the two worlds intermingle easily on this day.
Since Beltaine is one of the main transition points of the Celtic year, its gap in time and existence is very wide-just like at Samhain. There is now a “crack between the worlds” and the veil between the Otherworld and the mundane world thins to gossamer fineness, allowing for a glimpse of or even access to the other side. Now the unseen becomes the seen and all manner of fairy beings pass through the wide-open doorway leading from the land of spirits into the land of mortals.
The central figure in May Day celebration is the May Queen, a girl specially chosen for the honor who, dressed in white and crowned with garlands of flowers, is carried in procession around the village. This flowery maiden is no mere simple beauty, however, but a representative of the Goddess that presides over this season of fruitfulness and fertility.
Beltaine is the celebration of two powers joining to bring creation, in this case, the Goddess and the God. The two form a sacred union, from which comes creation, growth and harmony. The God, now grown, becomes enraptured with the Goddess and from their love all of nature grows and flowers.
At Beltaine, male and female come together, whether they are the God and Goddess or mere mortals. The May Queen and her partner embody the divine pair, whose sacred union ensures growth and fertility. In joyful celebration and imitation of the divine marriage, human beings, too, join together in their own union of love. If May is the time of love, it is the extra-marital kind. In this case, love and marriage definitely do not go together-after all, the Love Goddess is hardly likely to follow convention, but goes where Her heart and passion lead Her. May is then the merry month of elopements, trysts and illicit meetings in the Greenwood. For Welsh poets of the 13th century, May was the time of a secret rendezvous in the lover’s’ bower, which often stood below a birch tree.
As well as the flames of love, real fires played a central part of the Beltaine festivities. The kindling of the Beltaine fire, often on a hilltop where it would be visible for miles, was an important part of the ritual. So that the magic of the flames might not be scattered and that the new fire alone would exert its influence over the season to come, all house fires still burning would have to be extinguished. Much ceremony then attended the lighting of the Beltaine fire, which had to be kindled in a special way with the nine sacred woods (birch, oak, fir, willow, rowan, apple, ash, hazel and hawthorn). In Wales, those present had to ensure they had no metal about their person, especially iron, which counteracts the powers of magic and is much disliked by fairy folk. Then, nine men would place a piece of each of the nine woods crosswise inside a circle marked on the ground.
Livestock were driven between two fires for purification…the early Celts, like the ancient Persians, associated fire with ritual purification and healing. Livestock emerging from the rigors of winter would, indeed, tend to be sickly and prone to disease, particularly if the ground underfoot were still very cold or wet. The animals were herded and driven between two fires, which was probably much harder than it sounds. Cattle can be prodded in just about any direction, although they can be very stubborn when frightened. Sheep will follow a leader, but need considerable urging and prompting, usually assisted by dogs, to be persuaded where they are supposed to. Horses are naturally terrified of fire and will run away at the sight of it, even into apparently greater danger. So, the actual gathering and driving of the flocks and herds must have been quite an enterprise, probably requiring the cooperation of the whole tribal community. Once the ceremonial was completed, the grazing animals were taken out to new pastured, often on higher ground, where they would thrive on nutritious new grasses.
Today we can adapt the old ritual of the bonfire by using a very small fire or candle to represent the cleansing aspect of fire. People literally leap the fire, leaving behind negative behaviors or influences.
Of all the May Day activities, the image of people dancing around a Maypole is probably the one that first comes to mind. The Maypole, representing the Green Man who personified plant life(or the God and his love for the Goddess), was a powerful fertility symbol. It both embodied the vegetation spirit and contained His seed. Placed phallus-like into the womb of the Earth, the seed it held could then be given life so that all forms of life might flourish. To strengthen the Maypole’s magic, a group of dancers, holding on to its ribbons, would circle round and round it, binding it with the ribbons. All manner of dancing is done at this festival in keeping with the theme of the celebration – love, lust, joy and fertility. The Maypole represents the rebirth of fertility for the land and it’s inhabitants. It also symbolizes the central tree or pole at the axis of the cosmos. This idea is very ancient and widely found in many cultures.
The most common ribbon colors are red and white: white ribbons for death, red for the blood of life; red for the sun god, white for the virgin goddess; white for the maiden and red for the mother (as you can see there are many variations depending on your tradition). The ribbons are woven together, traditionally by an equal number of men and women.
In the words of Witchcraft writers Janet and Stewart Farrar, the Beltaine celebration was principally a time of ‘…unashamed human sexuality and fertility.’ Such associations include the obvious phallic symbolism of the Maypole and riding the hobbyhorse. Even a seemingly innocent children’s nursery rhyme, ‘Ride a cock horse to Banburry Cross…’ retains such memories. And the next line ‘…to see a fine Lady on a white horse’ is a reference to the annual ride of ‘Lady Godiva’ though Coventry. Every year for nearly three centuries, a sky-clad village maiden (elected Queen of the May) enacted this Pagan rite, until the Puritans put an end to the custom.
The Puritans, in fact, reacted with pious horror to most of the May Day rites, even making Maypoles illegal in 1644. They especially attempted to suppress the ‘greenwood marriages’ of young men and women who spent the entire night in the forest, staying out to greet the May sunrise, and bringing back boughs of flowers and garlands to decorate the village the next morning. One angry Puritan complained that, ‘Of forty, threescore or a hundred maids going to the wood over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled.’
The Green Man
The villagers gather as the gay procession swirls and undulates down the dusty road. An eight-foot-tall Jack-in-the-Green, surrounded by his Green Men, gyrates close to the villagers. The women shriek, the men roar, and the children giggle, clutching at their mother’s’ skirts. A few brave boys skitter at the head of the procession, or tag along beside the Green Men. As the Green Men flail stag horns and wooden sticks, symbolic of the battle between the forces of winter and the energies of summer, villagers try to steal a leaf from the Jack in the Green’s costume; a prize that offers luck for the coming year. At the end of the dance, the Green Men symbolically stick their swords into the Jack-in-the-Green, who, amid howls from the crowd, falls over dead.
The Green Man, Sir Gawain (The Green Knight), Jack-in-the-Green, and Robin Hood coalesce into the energies of the vegetative god mythos who dies and experiences rebirth. Half man, half tree, almost always male, with leaves and foliage sprouting from his mouth, ears, and eyes, Green Man images hide in ancient Christian churches, carved on roofs, pillars, and posts inside and outside the buildings. In the visage of the Green Man lies the Pagan fertility spirit of the earth. Archeologists tell us that the first Green Man image appeared after the Norman Conquest, then experienced an upsurge of interest in fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Lady Raglan, in “The 1939 Folklore Journal”, gave rise to the name Green Man, and also claimed that the Green Man may connect, through the mythos of the sacrificial king, to James Fraser’s theory in “The Golden Bough”.
The Green Man mythos vanished at several points throughout history, including the Puritan Age, and in some of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century repressions (Martin Luther denounced the Green Man as being part of the Pagan mindset, which is correct). In literature, one finds many associations between the Green Man and Robin Hood (Robin of the Green). Images of the Green Man were found in Sherwood forest at the fourteenth-century chapter house in Nottinghamshire (a religious retreat). Twelve stone Green Man heads, all individual in design, form a distinctive energy pattern on the land. Each head merges with sacred plants such as hawthorn, maple, and ivy.
The Green Man primarily influences agriculture, and therefore fulfills the archetype for the god of farmers or any individual who works with the land. Where the Horned Lord rides at Samhain, the Green Man would manifest through Beltaine and succeeding growing seasons; however, his symbol of the evergreen means “knowledge everlasting,” for which there can be no real death. This message encompasses the depiction (to an extent) of the battle between the Holly King and the Oak King, where twice a year one dies and one becomes the victor. The Horned Lord and the Green Man represent two sides of the world (animal and vegetable) connecting through the human.
With the rebirth of Paganism and the inception of Neo-Paganism, the Green Man becomes a link between the animal and vegetable world, symbolizing the rebirth of sound ecological thought and practices, as seen in the Green Movement. Today, the ever-vigilant Green Man symbolizes the connection with nature as manifest in the human. When you see his carved face in ancient churches or modern fountains with leaves of stone eternal, know that the energies of the Green Man still live within our society, waiting to help you unlock the healing energies of the earth’s sacred vegetation.
May Day Activities
Going “a-Maying”-visiting the Greenwood to collect flowering hawthorn-became synonymous with the pleasures of love. In medieval times, ladies of the court and their knights would ride in pairs into the woods, led by the Queen of May on a white horse and her consort on a black horse. Ordinary people, too, enjoyed such seasonal visits to the Greenwood. On May Eve, large parties of both sexes would venture forth to gather may and would spend the night outdoors, love-making amongst the trees.
It is certainly no accident that Queen Guinevere’s ‘abduction’ by Meliagrance occurs on May 1st when she and the court have gone a-Maying, or that the usually efficient Queen’s Guard, on this occasion, rode unarmed.
Because of the significance of fertility at this time of year, it has increasingly become known as a time for Handfastings. This is because Beltaine is seen as the time when the Maiden marries the young God, they consummate the marriage on Beltaine, and she conceives.
Long after the Christian form of marriage (with its insistence on sexual monogamy) had replaced the older Pagan handfasting, the rules of strict fidelity were always relaxed for the May Eve rites. Names such as Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and Little John played an important part in May Day folklore, often used as titles for the dramatis personae of the celebrations. And modern surnames such as Robinson, Hodson, Johnson, and Godkin may attest to some distant May Eve spent in the woods.
The gay abandon of May was out of keeping with a settled married life by the domestic hearth, and those who chose to wed now in May did so at their peril. It was the time of the Sacred Marriage, not a time for mortal weddings. It was said that marriages made in May would only last one Summer. An old Irish book of law even went so far as to cite Beltaine as the most common time of divorce (although if everyone was trysting with their lovers at Beltaine, it might have been the cause of such a high rate of divorce!).
In this month of love, it was the unloving, unkind and mean-spirited, not the unmarried, who were scorned. In Wales, young men would fix be-ribboned bunches of flowers to the houses of the young women they loved. To the houses of prudes or of women who had jilted their lovers they attached a straw effigy of a man or a horse’s skull.
Some of these customs seem virtually identical to the old Roman feast of flowers, the Floriala, three days of unrestrained sexuality which began at sundown April 28th and reached a crescendo on May 1st.
As well as being an effective beauty treatment, bathing in the May Day morning dew and making a wish at the same time is a magical ritual to perform. It is especially potent if the dew is collected from the grass under an oak or hawthorn tree or from the leaves of the ivy plant. It has also been said to be a way to preserve your beauty, and have healing properties.
“The fair maid who, on the first of May
Goes to the fields at break of day,
And bathes in dew from the hawthorn tree,
Will ever strong and handsome be.”
Other May Day customs include: walking the circuit of one’s property (‘beating the bounds’), repairing fences and boundary markers, processions of chimney-sweeps and milk maids, archery tournaments, Morris dances, sword dances, feasting, music, drinking, and maidens bathing their faces in the dew of May morning to retain their youthful beauty.
You might like to place fresh flowers on your altar and in your cauldron. If you are not able to make a large Maypole, you may like to make a small version for your altar to remind you of the season. Now is the time to take action on the dedications you made or planned at Ostara. The seed has now germinated and needs your help to grow to its full potential.
It is traditional to give May baskets at this time. Children would hang the basket on the doorknob, knock, then run and hide leaving this anonymous gift behind.
Appropriate rituals for this holiday include those outlined above, as well as rituals celebrating love between yourself and your partner. You may also want to do work in the physical world to help nature grow, such as tree planting, working in a garden, or other ecological volunteer work.
A General Beltaine Blessing Chant
Oak and May,
On This Day,
Will both Heed
Those in Need.
God of Sun,
Bless your Children
‘Till our days are done.
On May 1st, get up before dawn to see the sun rise and gather may (the flowering hawthorn), bathe in the fresh May dew, wear green in honor of the fertile Earth and, above all, enjoy the pleasures of love, sexuality and sensuality.
Herbs associated with Beltaine are:
Almond: Magical wands are made of the wood from the Almond tree. Almond is also a Greek symbol of true love transcending Death.
Belladonna: *This herb is poisonous, do not use if you don’t know what you are doing, please!* Belladonna was used by Germanic witches in “Flying Ointments”, or potions of various psychoactive herbs, said to allow witches to ‘fly’ on the astral plane by leaving their bodies.
Clover: Clover is an herb of protection. Clover blossoms are tinctured in vinegar for three days, then sprinkled around a dwelling to ward off unwanted entities. Carry Clover flowers in a pouch or purse as a protective charm. The white clover also counteracts hexes.
Frankincense: A highly spiritual herb of purification and protection.
Hawthorn: The classic flower to decorate the Maypole. It is an herb of fertility used in Handfastings and weddings.
Ivy: Equated with Fidelity, Ivy is woven into marriage wreaths and used in charms to bind luck and love to your person.
Marigold: Sprinkled on a mattress, Marigold is said to promote prophetic dreams. Used under the bed, it is said to make dreams come true. Marigold can be added to bath water to attract admiration.
Meadowsweet: Used in love spells, and also strewn about the home to bring peace and joy to all that dwell there.
Orchid Root: Can be used in love potions, the fresh root to encourage true love, the dried withered root to abort misguided passions. Also, burning the powdered root with musk oil is said to increase sexual passion.
Rose: The rose is a pure herb of love.
Rowan: An herb used for protection and healing. The branch of the Rowan is used for making Magic Wands, and the leaf and berry are used in incense to increase psychic powers.
Sorrel: (Also known as shamrocks) An herb of health and healing, place in a sickroom. The dried leaf is a charm for luck, and is said to allow its wearer to see fairies. The three-leafed shamrock is sacred to the Triple Goddess.
Woodruff: This herb attracted wealth and victory to athletes.
Candle colors that are good for Beltaine Ritual are:
Silver – Representing the Goddess
Gold – Representing the God
Red – For Strength and Health
Light Blue – For Tranquility and Health
Orange – For Encouragement
Traditional Beltaine food come from dairy, and Marigold Custard (below) and Vanilla Ice Cream are good. There is also a traditional Oatmeal Cake that is appropriate. For meats, the Pig is considered an animal sacred to the goddess, and was said to protect Witches on May morning. Old lore says a pig should only be slaughtered when the moon is waxing, and that they should not be slaughtered on a Monday, a day sacred to the moon. A Beltaine meal of pork would seem appropriate to the day.
Beltaine Marigold Custard
2 cups milk 1 cup marigold petals
1/4 tsp. salt 3 Tbsp. sugar
3 egg yolks, beaten slightly 1/8 tsp. allspice
1/8 tsp. nutmeg 1/2 tsp. rose water
1 to 2 inch piece of vanilla bean (around 1 Tsp. I think)
Using a mortar and pestle or a spoon, crush marigold petals. Mix salt, sugar, and spices together. Scald milk with the vanilla and the Marigolds. Remove the Vanilla bean and add the egg yolks and dry ingredients. Cook on low heat. When the mixture coats a spoon, add the rose water and let it cool. Serve in bowls, garnished with Whipped Cream and fresh marigold petals.