There is a poem fragment that repeats in my head yearly as days lengthen and landscapes metaphorically morph from bony hag to voluptuous maiden “…sun has won and spring’s begun, pushing through thawing soil, bonfires lit this night; elements delight…” Poetry predates psychotherapy, retail therapy, and solace via chocolate or alcohol. Poetry was and is a vital component of the bardic tradition. Like music, it may sooth or incite a savage beast. Like a holiday, it can put us in a different state of mind; like nature and the esoteric, it can leap us from the mundane to the metaphysical. It provides comfort and discomfort, and helps articulate the inexpressible. Beltane feels poetic and joyfully philosophical; in fact, it may be: 1 part soil and seed; 2 parts blossoms; 1 part blood, sweat, and dew; 1 part joy and pain; 1 part sun, 2 parts rain; 9 trees from birch to willow…
Beltane falls midway between the spring equinox (Ostara) and summer solstice (Litha). It is heralded by the rising of the Pleiades (7 Sisters) constellation. The eldest sister is Maia and May might be named for Maia. This powerful cross-quarter event occurs when the sun is at mid-point of the fixed signs (Taurus, Scorpio, Leo and Aquarius). Ancient Celts and Druids considered this mid-point event magical, a ‘gate of power’ in time. The word Beltane may mean ‘bright or brilliant fire,’ or ‘lucky fire’ (bil tene) since part of the event included passing between two bonfires to assure good fortune, health and prosperity. As with the other three cross quarter events, it begins the evening of the preceding day and ends at twilight the next day.
As this was a time of community, hiring and bartering fairs were held. People looking for work came to these fairs carrying symbols of their skills, a pitch fork, spade, sickle or spancel. In the agricultural past, it was also a time when tenancy began or ended and typically ½ a year’s rent was due. Weather predictions were made, as well as offerings to ensure good weather (wet and windy). In some villages in Ireland, prizes were given to any lad who could climb to the top of the (greased) Maypole. Races were run, lads and men wrestled and hurled festooned May balls, and there was much dancing—and perhaps romancing. This was a time to gather medicinal herbs, and enjoy seasonal cheeses, May wine and Mead, wild mushrooms, knobby cakes, egg custard, nettle and leek soup, and the first berries of the season.
This really is a time of 50 shades of activities: mammals are rutting, butterflies and insects are pollenating, trees blooming, birds and beasts warbling love songs in the note of ooo yeah, Floralia Festivals are held, and furrows are plowed anew. But what specifically did Druids do? Did they originate the bonfires, and if so, did these fires once serve a different purpose? Or did they adapt rites from Sumer or Egypt? We know little of their rituals; what we do know was largely written by those who conquered them (Julius Caesar, Cicero). What deep understanding of nature, of the sun’s yearly path and annual return was conveyed and applied? What incantations were uttered? What happened when the sun was largely absent, and storms and germs ruined crops and sickened livestock and people?
Beltane is not usually linked to death, but to rebirth and renewal. It’s not described as a goodbye event; it’s a time of hellos and new initiatives to assure fruitfulness and prosperity. But historically, it’s also a time of offerings and sacrifices, cleansing and purifying. It was when a festival was held for Hades, God of the Underworld, and the return (to earth) of Persephone/Core.
I had to wonder—was Beltane part of an eternal return or something else? Would a learned, educated class of people go 50 shades in another direction at Beltane? Did they find an expedient way to get rid of criminals and send a strong message to their community? Did they recognize sacrificing ill or weak members of the community would allow the rest to survive when crops failed? There are no traces of Wicker Man (or animal) burning remains, however ritually killed bodies have been uncovered from Iron Age bogs in the British Isles and Northern Europe. Irish historian Dr. Geoffrey Keating (16th century) wrote of druidic Samhain bonfires and sacrifices, and we know at Beltane fires were extinguished and relit. Is the burning of effigies a remnant of an earlier practice, by Druids and other groups, to assure fertility? The 10th century manuscript, Commenta Bernensia makes reference to Roman poet Marcus Lucanus (Lucan) and a threefold sacrificial death ritual. Blood oaths, bloodletting, sacrifices and auguries have been common to nearly all civilizations. Or were the Druid’s enemies overzealous in assuming foreigners were blood crazed barbarians?
We are informed by Sir James Frazer, Katharine Briggs, Ross Nichols, Margot Adler, and others that village youth once headed into the woods to select the best Maypole tree. They hoped the spirit of the tree chosen would make women and animals fertile. Was it symbolic of the world tree and more ancient messages? Were purification rituals necessary because our ancestors weren’t very sanitary, and had to be induced to burn old bedding, sweep floors clean, and inhale herb infused smoke? If human sacrifices were made long ago, did this evolve into traditions like the sharing of the Beltane Cake? A charm, called a Carlene, was baked in the cake. The person who received the charm was dragged near the fire, and pretended to nearly fall into the fire. For the rest of the evening, and in some cases, three days after, that unlucky person would be poked or shunned. A similar tradition involved a cake cooked in the fire and divided into pieces equal to the number present. One piece was marked with charcoal. Whoever got the blackened piece became a victim of ridicule, a mock sacrifice, or ‘cailleach beal-tine. Sometimes the victim was forced to leap over the bonfire three times.
Every element was represented at Beltane. Holy wells were visited, morning dew was sprinkled on the lucky few, and potions and intoxicating libations were drank. Yellow flowers (gorse, marigold, hawthorn and primrose) were most prevalent, symbolic of the sun. Flowers were scattered over doorsteps, wrapped around maypoles and heads, and wreathed over animals. The maypole represents the element of earth and via dancing round it, air.
Fire, in the form of candles, bonfires or embers, warms, illuminates our immediate world, and may make us feel safe. And since the Sidle were active at Beltane, offering of food and drink were left at places the sidle favored. A Beltane fire could only be lit via use of friction; this was called a ‘sacred needfire.’ It was often started with the aid of a wheel and a spindle. A popular legend recounts that the collection of Beltane firewood involved nine specially selected men. They had to empty their pockets of all metal. A large circular hole was made in the sod and the nine sacred types of woods were placed in the middle, and lit with the needfire. The bonfire’s byproducts were said to be charged with magical “sympathetic’ properties (flames, embers, ashes and smoke). Beltane and maypoles were banned or went underground for many hundreds of years. Beltane was revived in the 18th century, and today is celebrated in many guises in many communities worldwide.
Some Beltane traditions may seem curious in the 21st century, and there is little archeological or historical evidence regarding what really occurred. Today, less than 2% of the American population is engaged in agriculture, and few observe and understand the movement of stars. In the European Union, according to a 2013 EU Agricultural Brief, about 5% of its people are employed in agriculture. Modern traditions present Beltane as a festival of reawakening, 50 shades of newness, a re-kindling of creativity, and the renewal of the life. Druids once harnessed natures vast powers, preserved its secrets, and orally passed on what they learned. Perhaps messages about Beltane’s original purpose or rituals await our discovery—on the isle of Mona (Anglesey), isle of Manx, or in a tucked away cave in France or Ireland? May the fires of Beltane kindle a desire in you to learn more about the significance of the eightfold festivals—to honor the conjunction of time and place, and the revival of sacred traditions. May you experience 50 shades of spring’s prosperity, abundance and joy at Beltaine, and strengthen your connection to nature’s renewing energies.
Dublin Book of Rights, 1847 (per T. D. Kendrick in book Druids and Druidism)
Works of Strabo. Julius Caesar, Cicero, Suetonius…
Various Authors, The Bern Scholia, translated 1869, Bern, Switzerland
Hutton, Ronald, Blood and Mistletoe, 2011, Yale University Press
Hutton, Ronald, Stations of the Sun: A history of the Ritual Year in Britain, 2001, Oxford Paperbacks
Walker, Barbara, The Women’s Encyclopedia, Harper and Row, 1982
Hole, Christina, British Folk Customs, 1976, Hutchinson and Cole, London
Ellis, Peter B., A Brief History of the Druids, 2002, Robinson Publishers
Philip Freeman, The Philosopher and the Druids: A Journey Among the Ancient Celts, 2010, Simon and Schuster