April’s showers have given way to rich and fertile earth, and as the land greens, there are few celebrations as representative of fertility as Beltane. Observed on May 1st, festivities typically begin the evening before, on the last night of April. It’s a time to welcome the abundance of the fertile earth, and a day that has a long history. The Celts honored the fertility of the gods with gifts and offerings, sometimes including animal or human sacrifice. Cattle were driven through the smoke of the balefires, and blessed with health and fertility for the coming year. In Ireland, the fires of Tara were the first ones lit every year at Beltane, and all other fires were lit with a flame from Tara.
The Romans, always known for celebrating holidays in a big way, spent the first day of May paying tribute to their Lares, the gods of their household. They also celebrated the Floralia, or festival of flowers, which consisted of three days of unbridled sexual activity. Participants wore flowers in their hair (much like May Day celebrants later on), and there were plays, songs, and dances. At the end of the festivities, animals were set loose inside the Circus Maximus, and beans were scattered around to ensure fertility. The fire festival of Bona Dea was also celebrated on May 2nd.
May 6 is the day of Eyvind Kelve in Norse celebrations. Eyvind Kelve was a pagan martyr who was tortured and drowned on the orders of King Olaf Tryggvason for refusing to give up his pagan beliefs. A week later, Norwegians celebrate the Festival of the Midnight Sun, which pays tribute to the Norse sun goddess. This festival marks the beginning of ten straight weeks without darkness.
Also in May, the Greeks celebrated the Plynteria in honor of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and battle, and the patroness of the city of Athens (which was named after her). The Plynteria includes the ritual cleansing of Athena’s statue, along with feasting and prayers in the Parthenon. On the 24th, homage is paid to the Greek moon-goddess Artemis (goddess of the hunt and of wild animals). Artemis is a lunar goddess, equivalent to the Roman moon-goddess Diana – she is also identified with Luna, and Hecate.
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. In some parts of England, a Green Man is carried through town in a wicker cage as the townsfolk welcome the beginning of summer. 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.
Today’s Pagans and Wiccans celebrate Beltane much like their ancestors did. A Beltane ritual usually involves lots of fertility symbols, including the obviously-phallic Maypole dance. 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.
In some Wiccan traditions, Beltane is a day in which the May Queen and the Queen of Winter battle one another for supremacy. In this rite, borrowed from practices on the Isle of Man, each queen has a band of supporters. On the morning of May 1, the two companies battle it out, ultimately trying to win victory for their queen. If the May Queen is captured by her enemies, she must be ransomed before her followers can get her back.
There are some who believe Beltane is a time for the faeries — the appearance of flowers around this time of year heralds the beginning of summer and shows us that the fae are hard at work. In early folklore, to enter the realm of faeries is a dangerous step — and yet the more helpful deeds of the fae should always be acknowledged and appreciated. If you believe in faeries, Beltane is a good time to leave out food and other treats for them in your garden or yard.
For many contemporary Pagans, Beltane is a time for planting and sowing of seeds — again, the fertility theme appears. The buds and flowers of early May bring to mind the endless cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth that we see in the earth. Certain trees are associated with May Day, such as the Ash, Oak and Hawthorn. In Norse legend, the god Odin hung from an Ash tree for nine days, and it later became known as the World Tree, Yggdrasil.
Beltane is a time of great fertility — for the earth itself, for animals, and of course for people as well. This season has been celebrated by cultures going back thousands of years, in a variety of ways, but nearly all shared the fertility aspect. Typically, this is a Sabbat to celebrate gods of the hunt or of the forest, and goddesses of passion and motherhood, as well as agricultural deities.
Artemis (Greek): The moon goddess Artemis was associated with the hunt, and was seen as a goddess of forests and hillsides. This pastoral connection made her a part of spring celebrations in later periods.
Bes (Egyptian): Worshipped in later dynasties, Bes was a household protection god, and watched over mothers and young children. He and his wife, Beset, were paired up in rituals to cure problems with infertility.
Bacchus (Roman): Considered the equivalent of Greek god Dionysus, Bacchus was the party god — grapes, wine, and general debauchery were his domain. In March each year, Roman women could attend secret ceremonies called the bacchanalia, and he is associated with sexual free-for-alls and fertility.
Flora (Roman): This goddess of spring and flowers had her own festival, Floralia, which was celebrated every year between April 28 to May 3. Romans dressed in bright robes and floral wreaths, and attended theater performances and outdoor shows. Offerings of milk and honey were made to the goddess.
Hera (Greek): This goddess of marriage was the equivalent of the Roman Juno, and took it upon herself to bestow good tidings to new brides. A maiden about to marry could make offerings to Hera, in the hopes that she would bless the marriage with fertility. In her earliest forms, she appears to have been a nature goddess, who presides over wildlife and nurses the young animals which she holds in her arms.
Kokopelli (Hopi): This flute-playing, dancing spring god carries unborn children upon his own back, and then passes them out to fertile women. In the Hopi culture, he is part of rites that relate to marriage and childbearing, as well as the reproductive abilities of animals. Often portrayed with rams and stags, symbolic of his fertility, Kokopelli occasionally is seen with his consort, Kokopelmana.
Priapus (Greek): This fairly minor rural god has one giant claim to fame — his permanently erect and enormous phallus. The son of Aphrodite by Dionysus (or possibly Zeus, depending on the source), Priapus was mostly worshipped in homes rather than in an organized cult. Despite his constant lust, most stories portray him as sexually frustrated, or even impotent. However, in agricultural areas he was still regarded as a god of fertility, and at one point he was considered a protective god, who threatened sexual violence against anyone — male or female — who transgressed the boundaries he guarded.
Sheela-na-Gig (Celtic): Although the Sheela-na-Gig is technically the name applied to the carvings of women with exaggerated vulvas that have been found in Ireland and England, there’s a theory that the carvings are representative of a lost pre-Christian goddess. Typically, the Sheela-na-Gig adorns buildings in areas of Ireland that were part of the Anglo-Norman conquests in the 12th century. She is shown as a homely woman with a giant yoni, which is spread wide to accept the seed of the male. Folkloric evidence indicates that the figures are theory that the figures were part of a fertility rite, similar to “birthing stones”, which were used to bring on conception.
Xochiquetzal (Aztec): This fertility goddess was associated with spring, and represented not only flowers but the fruits of life and abundance. She was also the patron goddess of prostitutes and craftsmen
Legends & Lore
Like 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 — if you visit the Faerie Realm, don’t eat the food, our you’ll be trapped there, much like Thomas the Rhymer was!
Some Irish dairy farmers hang a garland of green boughs over their door at Beltane. This will bring them great milk production from their cows during the coming summer. Also, driving your cattle between two Beltane bonfires helps protect your livestock from disease.
According to a legend in parts of Wales and England, women who are trying to conceive should go out on May Eve — the last night of April — and find a “birthing stone”, which is a large rock formation with a hole in the center. Walk through the hole, and you will conceive a child that night. If there is nothing like this near you, find a small stone with a hole in the center, and drive a branch of oak or other wood through the hole — place this charm under your bed to make you fertile.
If you go out at sunrise on Beltane, take a bowl or jar to gather morning dew. Use the dew to wash your face, and you’re guaranteed a perfect complexion. You can also use the dew in ritual as consecrated water, particularly in rituals related to the moon or the goddess Diana or her counterpart, Artemis.
In the Irish Book of Invasions, it was on Beltane that Patholan, the first settler, arrived on Ireland’s shores. May Day was also the date of the defeat of the Tuatha de Danaan by Amergin and the Milesians.
Eating a special oatcake called a bannock or a Beltane cake ensured Scottish farmers abundance of their crops for the year. The cakes were baked the night before, and roasted in embers on a stone.
A Prayer to Cernunnos
God of the green,
Lord of the forest,
I offer you my sacrifice.
I ask you for your blessing.
You are the man in the trees,
the green man of the woods,
who brings life to the dawning spring.
You are the deer in rut,
mighty Horned One,
who roams the autumn woods,
the hunter circling round the oak,
the antlers of the wild stag,
and the lifeblood that spills upon
the ground each season.
God of the green,
Lord of the forest,
I offer you my sacrifice.
I ask you for your blessing.
Am Beannachadh Bealltain (The Beltane Blessing)
In the Carmina Gadelica, folklorist Alexander Carmichael shared with readers hundreds of poems and prayers that he had collected from residents in various areas of Scotland. There is a lovely prayer in the Gaelic entitled simply Am Beannachadh Bealltain (The Beltane Blessing), which pays tribute to the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This is a much shorter version, and has been adapted for a Pagan-friendly format.
Bless, O threefold true and bountiful,
Myself, my spouse, my children.
Bless everything within my dwelling and in my possession,
Bless the kine and crops, the flocks and corn,
From Samhain Eve to Beltane Eve,
With goodly progress and gentle blessing,
From sea to sea, and every river mouth,
From wave to wave, and base of waterfall.
Be the Maiden, Mother, and Crone,
Taking possession of all to me belonging.
Be the Horned God, the Wild Spirit of the Forest,
Protecting me in truth and honor.
Satisfy my soul and shield my loved ones,
Blessing every thing and every one,
All my land and my surroundings.
Great gods who create and bring life to all, I ask for your blessings on this day of fire.
(Sourced from About ~ Internet)