Beltaine is an ancient Gaelic celebration of fertility and fire. In fact, Beltaine means “bright fire”. As with all holy “days” in ancient Irish and Scottish culture, this sun celebration traditionally begins on the night of April 30 and carries over to May 1 because the ancient Gaels started their “days” at night due to the rising of the Moon. Beltaine is opposite the most sacred holy day in Gaelic spirituality, Samhain, and is thought to be a time when the veil between this side and the Other Side is very thin.
With modern versions of this fire festival, Beltaine brings out the pagan in everyone who attends — and rightfully so! The famous Beltane Festival in Scotland is renown for fiery showmanship of reinvented revelry.
While the Romans were not pagan, the Romans loved a raucous festival whenever they could have one. The Roman celebration of Floralia, in honor of the goddess Flora, began on April 27 and lasted six days. This twist put an emphasis on flowers because of the new Spring blooms, so wearing flowers is a common accessory for Beltaine attendees…. But then, wearing vegetation and animal talismans is common throughout paganism.
The Beltaine fire is lit in a very particular way from several, specific woods. Some traditions re-enact the birth of the May Queen from the sacred fire, as she transforms from the Maiden of Spring into her newly awakened, newly fertile sexual self, ready to make love with her male partner. The May Queen then births four maidens from the fire, and these each represent the four directions and the four elements, and all their correspondences. Yes, the emphasis is on the woman and all her representations, including the Moon, the land, even fire, which represents spirituality, passion, and creativity.
According to tradition, the flowers blooming and the crops growing in the ground are a sign of the Goddess and the God creating new life. At Beltaine, the God expresses his love for the Goddess, resulting in a sacred union between the Sun and the Land. For some, this joining is between the May Queen and the Green Man, the guardian of the animals and the forest. Or you can get very specific and envision this union between specific deities in the Gaelic pantheon. (A particular favorite of mine is Cernunnos, pagan stud-muffin of the forest that he is.) The May Pole, with which most people are familiar, is actually a phallic symbol of the God, a.k.a. Green Man, Oak King, antlered stud-muffin. Decorating the May Pole and dancing around it honors the male divine as he prepares his erect self for making love with the female divine, a.k.a. the Goddess, May Queen, etc. This consummation of the life-affirming love between the Goddess and the God is enacted in the Great Rite, a sex ritual that can be conducted between a high priestess and a high priest or by any in attendance, in public or in private as the festival rules allow.
This divine marriage is symbolically represented by couples in the special joining ritual known as a Handfasting, called such because of the custom of the two lovers having their hands “fastened” by a strip of cloth or ribbon. The couple would also jump over a besom (broom) to mark the transition from single life to being handfasted. A Handfasting lasts for 366 days, sometimes called “a year and a day”, and at the end of this time (at the next Beltaine), the couple would choose to stay together or to part — no ill feelings, no shame, no messy divorce. (We could learn a LOT from this!)
Other customs for a Beltaine celebration include building two bonfires and having a processional between them as a portal from Spring to the traditional first day of Summer. In the Old Times, the clan would process the cattle between the bonfires and lead them out to the wide open grassy areas for the first time that season. Cattle (and oxen) were vital to the clan’s survival. Similar fire celebrations for Mayday exist in most of the modern northwestern European cultures, especially Ireland, Scotland, and Scandanavian countries.
The May Queen, indeed all women, represent the land — the entire earth, and the survival of all we know. Honoring the sacred feminine is paramount, and yet 2,500 years of patriarchy and institutionalized religion would prefer women be subordinate and mere chattel to the wills of the patriarchs who plunder the earth for financial profit. Pagan rituals such as Beltaine not only honor the sacred feminine but help restore balance between the male and the female in our society.
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