There are four Major High Days in the Neopagan Druid year, most of which are celebrated by Wiccans and other pagan religions who draw their influences from the Ancient Celts. The methods of celebration will vary from religion to religion, but one factor that is universal to the Beltane festivities is the use of fire. Beltane is one of the four major High Days and its importance in the pagan calendar cannot be underestimated. Let’s take a look at the origins of this festival, how it is celebrated and what it means to 21st Century pagans.
Here comes the sun!
Beltane takes place on May 1st and is one of the most extravagant celebrations in the pagan Wheel of the Year. Little is known of the origins of the festival, but it is thought that it was primarily to signify the end of winter and to welcome in the warming, live-giving power of the sun. Huge bonfires were lit as a symbol of the sun and revellers would dance around them, following the direction that it was tracing through the sky. However, in addition to acting a symbol for the longer days to come, the fires also served another purpose.
The Ancient Celts saw fire as a sacred element in itself; it was the closest thing to having the sun incarnate in their immediate environment. Bonfires were lit to represent a time of transition and a means through which pagans could conduct purification rites, to give themselves protection from disease and ill-fortune in the year ahead. Eminently practical, the Ancient Celts would even drive their livestock were driven through the smoke of these impressive furnaces, which was thought to have protective and purifying qualities, accompanied by incantations.
Fire and evil spirits
In addition, fire was used to prevent spirits from the Otherworld from doing anyone harm. There are two points in the pagan Wheel of the Year in which the Otherworld is thought to be more accessible or closer than at others. The most obvious is Samhain, which has been absorbed into modern culture as Hallowe’en. However, Beltane was also thought to be a time in which spirits were able to walk the Earth - and not all of them were benign.
The Aos Si were, according to Celtic mythology, a race of fairies or elves living in the Otherworld and fairy mounds. Among their numbers, they included creatures such as the Banshee – a woman who would tell of impending death through wailing and keening, the Sluagh Sidhe – a race of cursed or restless dead and the Siabhra – race of airborne spirits with an evil or mischievous disposition. Alongside using fire to ward these creatures away, the Celts would also paint themselves in bright and garish colours to hide their identities – a practice that is still carried out today.
In a similar way to Samhain being adopted as part of modern culture, there are certain traditions associated with Beltane that have made their way into the calendars of people who may not realise their pagan origins. A prime example is the Maypole. The Maypole is widely used at fairs and festivals to celebrate the Bank Holiday, May Day. As parents watch their children skipping around the central pole and holding into ribbons, they may not be aware that this was actually a fertility rite.
It dates back to the times when tree spirits were worshipped and the first Maypoles were very tall trees, usually Birch, with most of their branches removed. The Ancient Celts would dance around the tree in the hope of increasing their fertility and, once the dance was over, courting couples would put the theory to the test. The Maypole represents the planting of the Sun God’s seed into Mother Earth’s womb, therefore bringing new life with the arrival of spring.
In some Wiccan traditions, Beltane is the day in which the May Queen, crowned by festival goers, and the Queen of Winter battle it out for dominion. This tradition seems to have its origins in the Isle of Man and is a spectator sport. The two Queens assemble their armies of followers, and the two teams try to capture each other’s monarch. If the May Queen is captured, she must be ransomed before she can be returned to her team. Although this is now little more than a fun-filled game to many, the symbolic battle between the forces of light and darkness are still obvious.
Fairies, fertility and cakes
Given the stories of the Aos Si, it’s not uncommon to find modern pagans leaving out gifts of food and treats for the fairies that are thought to be active at this time. Often, garden trees and shrubs will be decorated with garlands of flowers and even tinsel, to show the sprites that they are welcome and to encourage them to pass on their way, without doing any harm. In many Wiccan groups, these creatures, known as The Fae, are still thought to be able to work evil and mischief.
Beltane is also a time to acknowledge the fertility of Mother Earth, and many do this by simply planting seeds. Others will create a Beltane Altar over their hearths or on a windowsill – a part of that altar is likely to be a small pot, filled with soil, in which a seed in planted, as a less-boisterous way of marking the passage of winter. Some will go out on the morning of Beltane and collect the dew that has formed on the grass; it is thought that if you wash your face with this natural and fertile water, you will have a perfect complexion for the rest of the year.
No pagan festival would be complete without food, to aid the celebrations and there are many traditional foods eaten at this time of year. Most use either ingredients newly yielded from the soil, such as light spring soups while others, such as the Scottish Bannock Cake, use the last of the ingredients from the previous year’s harvest. Bannock cakes are made from oats and animal fat, before being roasted on the embers of a fire and eaten in the belief that you will guarantee the abundance of your crops and livestock in the year ahead.