History, Customs and Magic: Beltane by Sue Perryman



The first of May has always been a festival to welcome the Summer in many countries. It is one of the four great Cross Quarter fire festivals in the Wheel of the Year. The Celts celebrated it as Beltane, 'Bel' meaning 'the bright one', and representing the Sun God Belanus, who is known by various names in many parts of the world, including: Bel, Beli, Balar, Balor, Belenus, Baal and Belial; and the Gaelic word 'teine' meaning fire, together it means 'Bright or Goodly Fire'. It is a celebration of fertility, the potency of the life force, growth, sexuality, life and the union of the Goddess and God.


Beltane is celebrated from sundown on April 30th until sundown on May 1st. It heralds the first day of Summer when all of life is bursting with fertility and the earth is at its peak. It is said that throughout Spring, the young God has pursued the maiden Goddess, until at Beltane when she reaches maturity and allows him to catch her! She is the manifestation of growth and renewal, the May Queen, and the virile god is Jack-in-the-Green, the Green Man. Together they are symbols of the sacred marriage (Heiros Gamos) the union of the Sky and the Earth.


Some villages in the UK still choose a May Queen who rides or walks at the front of a parade as part of their May Day celebrations. She usually wears a white gown to symbolise purity and is ceremoniously crowned with flowers.


Beltane is a fire festival. Traditionally people would extinguish their hearth fires, and re-light them from the Bel or need fires. Cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires to protect them from disease and to bring fertility, and as the fires died down, people would jump them to purify, cleanse and bring fertility. Couples would jump the fire together to pledge themselves to each other. A feast would follow with offerings left for the Fair Folk or Sidhe who were known to be afoot at Beltane when like Samhain, the veil between the worlds thins.


Beltane was the night of the Greenwood marriage, also known as 'Going A-Maying'. when young people would spend the night in the woods making love to re-enact the union of the god and goddess, they would bring back armfuls of hawthorn flowers and greenery to decorate their homes. It was considered unlucky to bring these flowers into the home at any other time of the year. Young women would wash their faces in the morning dew - said to make you beautiful, and make flower crowns, garlands and baskets as gifts of May.


The Maypole was central to the Beltane celebrations. The pole was made from a tree trunk, often birch, inserted into the ground on the village green. It would be decorated with flowers, a ring of flowers placed at the top would represent the goddess, the phallic trunk symbolised the God. Many long coloured ribbons would be attached to the top ring and young girls and women would hold onto one ribbon each and perform a dance, weaving the ribbons around the trunk, symbolising the spiral of life and the joining of male and female energies.


Beltane is a popular time for Pagan Handfastings (weddings). A traditional handfasting would be for a year and a day, after which the couple would decide to either stay together or part. Today the length of commitment is a matter of choice for the couple but is often for life. Handfasting are usually unique to the couple, but often include traditio