I don’t know about you but I love this time of year. The sun is just starting to get stronger and brighter and now blesses the day with its presence for longer. The promise of summer is in the air but not quite here yet. The anticipation for long summer nights along with the light and joy that this season brings is felt strongly by all.
It is at this time that Beltane is celebrated, an ancient Celtic festival that marks the opening of summer on the 1 May. Like Samhain and Imbolc, it is one of the cross-quarter days and lands between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. It originated in ancient Gaelic Ireland but the celebrations ultimately spread to Scotland and the Isle of Man as well.
In more recent centuries it became known as May Day and has become associated with customs such as dancing around the Maypole and crowing the May Queen. However, these customs have nothing to do with the original Beltane festival that was celebrated in ancient Ireland.
The Origins of Beltane the Fire Festival
The original festival of Beltane was about blessing and protecting the cattle as they were moved up to the summer pastures. The cattle were made to walk through two protective fires that would bless the cattle and protect them from the feared aos si (fairies). Cows were also made to leap over lighted straw or wood to prevent their milk from being stolen by the fairies whilst rowan branches were hung over milking equipment for the same effect. Rowan branches were also hung over doorways, cows and house fires.
Not only this, the fire was used to bring luck as well as protection. The fire was thought to bring good fortune and bless those who jumped over it and as such, it was a common custom at Beltane for couples, young men and even pregnant women to leap over some of the embers of the fire. The rest of the embers were then sprinkled by the sprouting crops in order to protect them and ensure a good yield for harvest time.
Interestingly, the name Beltane is possibly thought to have been associated with a deity that may or not have been worshipped during the festival. Ronald Hutton explains that some attribute the name to the Northern deity Belanus and or to the god Bel (Bil or Bial) which according to the Sanas Chormaic (an early medieval Irish glossary) “a fire was kindled in his name at the beginning of summer always”. However, this is contended by historians with little evidence to support this theory. Hutton also points out that the preface ‘bel’ meant ‘bright’ or ‘fortunate’, which corresponds exactly with the rituals and essence of Beltane, giving us another possible origin to the name.
Like Samhain, (which is celebrated exactly the other side of the year) the veil is thought to be at its thinnest during Beltane. This was thought to mean that spirits from the Otherworld could easily cross into our reality during Beltane as well as it being a time for heightened magic and extraordinary events.
How Can We Celebrate Beltane?
Today I was sitting in my garden, listening to the birds tweeting and feeling the warm energies of summer arriving. I realised that every time I have written an article about the cross-quarter days, such as my articles on Samhain and Imbolc, I have felt more connected to nature. I have paid more attention to the natural cycles that nature goes through and have seen how the energies of each of these seasons are reflected in my own life.
For example, I realised that I always seem to undergo some deep spiritual awakening at this time. My big spiritual awakening actually happened this time 8 years ago and even last year around this time I had another big rebirth.
I think whenever we consider celebrating any of these ancient Celtic festivals it is important to really look at what is happening in nature and try and incorporate those themes into however we choose to celebrate this time.
For me, during Beltane, nature is almost in full bloom. The maiden goddess has reached her fullness and is ready to transition into her aspect as the mother goddess. This is a time of sexuality and conception in nature as the land begins to turn green again.
In the same way that Imbolc was a time to plant seeds and start new projects as spring returned, Beltane is the time to take action upon those projects and bring them to fruition. Similarly, Imbolc was a time of life subtly returning to nature whereas Beltane is a time for nature to be full of life
Some ideas for celebrating Beltane could be to:
- Connect with nature – Do a meditation in nature to harness the special energies of this time. Enjoy the warmth and the sweet smell of flowers starting to bloom.
- Create a fire to cleanse and protect – Summer is a joyous season so burn away what no longer serves you (in a safe way of course!) to make room for the love and joy of this season. You can also use this fire for a protection ritual or anything you want to manifest in your life as well.
- Call upon the fairies and nature spirits – The veil is at it’s thinnest during this time so it could be a great time to connect with the elemental realm and receive any wisdom from them. Maybe you can also make an offering for them. Tess Whitehurst has some wonderful ideas for Beltane that you can use.
- Spend time with friends and loved ones – Beltane and May Day was also a celebration of life and summer. What better way to celebrate the beginning of summer than to spend time outdoors with those who make you feel joyful.
For the ancient Celts, winter would have been well and truly over at Beltane. The dark half of the year had now passed and nature was about to bloom in all her glory. For me, this is the essence of Beltane and I think this what we should be celebrating at this time. Our Earth is so beautiful and her natural cycles deserve our attention. So for Beltane, I will be spending time in nature, celebrating the beginning of summer and absorbing all these beautiful energies of new life that our Earth gifts us with at this point of the Wheel of the Year.