On May 1st — or a few days later, if we observe “true” Beltaine — we celebrate Beltaine in the northern hemisphere and Samhain in the southern hemisphere. These are my favourite celebrations in the Celtic calendar, a time to tune in to the rhythms of Nature and celebrate the seasons, the elements, and the sacred dance with Gaia.
These celebrations divide our year into one long day, with Beltaine bringing in the Summer (the light) and Samhain marking the transition to Winter (the dark). At Beltaine we celebrate life and at Samhain we honour the dead, our ancestors.
On both days, the Celts — and modern Wiccans and Pagans — believe that on these dates the veils between the worlds is at its thinnest. Some call this “the time of no time”, a time when the physical world and the spirit world mingle freely and magick happens. In Faerie lore, it is believed that on Beltaine, Faeries come back from their winter homes, ready to make mischief in our world.
The roots of the word Beltaine are somewhat lost in time but scholars typically translate it as “Bael’s Fire” or “Brilliant Fire” (Bel was a Celtic god, and the Celtic word for “shining” is beal; tene means fire).
Beltaine is the third of the Celtic fertility festivals (Imbolc in February and Ostara in March) and is also considered one of the major Fire festivals held on the cross-quarter days of Imbolc, Lughnasadh and Samhain.
Beltaine falls evenly at the mid point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice, and is traditionally celebrated as the start of Summer, a time when the flocks were lead to pasture, and the fertility of crops and livestock were celebrated with bonfires (representing transition and purification); sipping May Wine; celebrating the symbolic union of the Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine; decorating with garlands, rowan sprigs and boughs of spring flowers, especially Hawthorn aka The Queen of the May; and — in more recent times — dancing around the May Pole. Many communities would also have an honorary May Queen and her consort, the Green Man.
The May Pole tradition is rooted in early fertility rites. Typically the pole (representing male fertility) would be placed in the village green, decorated with red and white ribbons (representing female and male fertility, respectively) and then celebrated with a ribbon dance around the pole by the village maidens. And often the May Pole would be created with Hawthorn (“The Queen of the May”, so symbolic of Beltaine), one of the three Faerie Trees (Oak, Ash & Thorn),
The kindling for the Beltaine fire is typically drawn from the Nine Sacred Woods, which traditionally include Birch, Rowan, Ash, Elder, Willow, Hawthorne, Oak, Holly and Hazel.
The lovely old Scottish poem in our header image names only eight (and is slightly different to those in the Rede). The Wiccan rede cautions us against burning Elder:
Nine woods in the Cauldron go, burn them quick a’ burn them slow. Elder be ye Lady’s tree; burn it not or cursed ye’ll be…
The ancient ritual of Beltaine can serve as a reminder to us all to think about our own transitions and intentions, asking these Soul Questions:
- What are the changes that I seek and wish to manifest in the new light of Beltaine?
- What are the commitments and values that I will continue to honour?
- What are the new directions that I can explore?
- As I turn away from the dark of Winter, what else can I let go of? Clutter, self-limiting beliefs, excess?
- What can I do to live a life of simplicity and purpose and ease, in alignment with my values and with the flow of nature?
You may also choose to celebrate Beltaine in the traditional ways: with an altar, crafts and recipes, and creating spells or prayers or affirmations to honour the day.
Over the next few days, I will share some of my favourites such as this Beltaine Incense formulation from Magical Recipes Online.
This can be used as an incense (in which case, use the actual flowers, and orris root):
It may also be used as an essential oil master blend for your diffuser, or for use in a carrier oil (where “parts” equal “drops”), without the orris root.