The Wheel of the Year has turned once again, and Beltane is upon us. The Pagan name for May Day is Beltane which means “Day of Fire” and it marks the coming of summer and a season of fertility. This fire festival has its roots in fertility rituals that can be traced back to Greco-Roman religions. It is a day of flowers, dancing, bonfires and general merrymaking. For those who may not know what the Wheel of the Year is, it is a Neopagan term for the annual cycle of the Earth's seasons. It consists of eight festivals, spaced at approximately even intervals throughout the year. These festivals are referred to as Sabbats.
Beltane is the last of the three spring fertility festivals, the others being Imbolc and Ostara. Beltane is the second principal Celtic festival, the other being Samhain. Beltane traditionally marked the arrival of summer in ancient times. Beltane, and its counterpart Samhain, divide the year into its two primary seasons, winter (the Dark half) and summer (the Light haf). Just as Samhain is about honoring Death, Beltane, is about honoring Life. It is the time when the sun is fully released from his bondage of winter and able to rule over summer and life once again. Beltane is a time to devote energy to growth and integration and appreciate the gifts of nature.
Festivities typically begin the evening before May Day, on the last night of April, which is also called Walpurgis Night. It's a time to welcome the abundance of the fertile earth. We celebrate on May 1 with bonfires, Maypoles, dancing, and lots of frivolity. A number of pre-Christian figures are associated with the month of May, and subsequently Beltane. The entity known as the Green Man, strongly related to Cernunnos, is often found in the legends and lore of the British Isles, and is a masculine face covered in leaves and shrubbery. Impressions of the Green Man’s face can be found in the ornamentation of many of Europe’s older cathedrals, despite edicts from local bishops forbidding stonemasons from including such pagan imagery.
A related character to the green man is Jack-in-the-Green, a spirit of the greenwood. References to Jack appear in British literature back as far as the late sixteenth century. Sir James Frazer associates the figure with mummers and the celebration of the life force of trees. Jack-in-the-Green was seen even in the Victorian era, when he was associated with soot-faced chimney sweeps.
Today's Pagans celebrate Beltane much like their ancestors did. A Beltane ritual usually involves lots of fertility symbols, including the obviously-phallic Maypole. The Maypole is a tall pole decorated with flowers and hanging ribbons, which are woven into intricate pattern by a group of dancers. Weaving in and out, the ribbons are eventually knotted together by the time the dancers reach the end. The Maypole is always depicted as masculine and then decorated with the femininity of the flowers and ribbons. The Maypole dance is an important aspect of encouraging the return of fertility to the earth.
Beltane, like Samhain, is a time of "no time" when the veils between the two worlds are at their thinnest. There are some who believe Beltane is a time for the faeries and the appearance of flowers around this time of year heralds the beginning of summer and shows us that the Fae are hard at work, having returned from their winter respite…carefree and full of faerie mischief. Some people believe that this is the time that they are most active and the helpful deeds of the Fae should always be acknowledged and appreciated. Beltane is a good time to leave out offerings of food and other treats for them in your garden or yard. Like at Samhain, the holiday of Beltane is a time when the veil between the worlds is thin. Some traditions believe that this is a good time to contact the spirits, or to interact with the Fae. Be careful, though. Don't step into a Fairie ring!
Beltane is also a time of great magick, a good time for divinations of all types, and for establishing a woodland or garden shrine. The household guardians should also be honored at this time. Do spells that insure prosperity, conservation, safety, fertility and love.
Incenses associated with Beltane are intoxicating, heady and erotic. Rose, Jasmine, ylang ylang, peach, musk and vanilla are all appropriate. If you want to use herbs to make an incense or spell powder to throw on the fire, good choices would be woodruff, fern, rose, chamomile, wormwood, and galangal.
Beltane is the day to laugh and banter about, having the most joyous of times! During this Light Half of the year, our work is to make real and manifest the seeds of our intentions. There is wonderful, joyous energy in the air which will bring to fruition our inward hopes and dreams.