A Beginner's Guide to Beltane: Ways to Celebrate the Pagan Fire Festival
Foraging for Fire Festival Festivities
Beltane, (also spelled Bealteine, Bealtane, Beltain, or Belatine), marks the start of Samos, or the light half of the year. Pagans all over the Northern Hemisphere are gearing up for the Fire Festival festivities, including me! As with any Pagan holiday, I begin researching the history, folklore, and activities a few weeks before the big day. I have yet to find a single source that includes all the listed details, so I am going to publish my research in hopes that it will help a fellow Pagan in their preparations.
This Exuberant Holiday Has Been Celebrated for Centuries
Background of Beltane
The ancient Celts divided their year into two seasons: the Dark Half, which consisted of harvesting crops, cold weather, and conserving food stores to last them until the Light Half of the year. Beltane marked the beginning of the warm, bright half of the year. The cows were sent to pasture, and the crops were planted. Rather than celebrating on a set date like we do in modern times, Beltane was celebrated when the Hawthorn trees started to bloom, which usually happened at the end of April or at the beginning of May. The holiday marked the beginning of the bright, fertile half of the year. It was a “time of open gates when the Noble Ones go abroad”. They held the Feast of the Greenwood, honoring non-human powers, such as the Great Goddess and the Great God, the ancestors, and the King and Queen of the Noble ones—commonly known today as Fairies. It was a time of the power that draws people together, inspiring hearts and planting offspring into wombs. It was a time to rejoice in the returned light. Folk tradition remembers Beltane as “Walpurgisnacht when witches gathered for their great revels on the mountaintops.”
The meaning of Beltane is that it derives from the Celtic god Bel, meaning ‘the bright one’. The Gaelic word ‘teine’ means fire. Put them together and you get ‘Bright Fire’. Bonfires are lit to honor Bel and the Sun’s light, encouraging it to protect the community and nurture the freshly planted crops. Down in the villages, all fires were extinguished and two balefires were lit atop the highest hills in the town. The balefires were special fires, kindled specifically to appease Bel—it took an effort to win him over. The sacred fire was called the Tein-eigen—the ‘need fire’. The cattle were run between them as they were herded to pasture. The thought behind this was that going between the sacred fires would cleanse and protect the animals of illness, and bless them with health and fertility. Fire jumping was a favored activity as well—for essentially the same reason. Couples would jump the fire together to pledge their love and loyalty to each other. Celts were known as lovers of liquor so I can imagine that burn scars were a common reminder of the holiday. At the end of the festivities, each person in the village would light a torch from the balefires and bring the revered fire back to their homes to light their hearth.
Young people in the village would do their part in ensuring fertile crops by sympathetic magic. They would go “a-maying”-lovemaking in the fields and in the wood. Unions at this time were called green wood marriages, and the children conceived that night were considered especially lucky. The sexual energy of this holiday was intense, and anyone of childbearing ages would partake. People would even frolic with others outside the bonds of marriage. Incidentally, this was the season of marriage. Handfastings were popular traditions, where a couple would become betrothed for a year and a day. At the end of that time, they could either finalize the marriage (either through a formal ceremony or by exchanging rings and jumping the broom), or they could end the relationship without repercussions.
There were several activities during the daylight hours. The people would dance around the maypole—an ultimate phallic symbol. Several dancers would gather around the maypole in a circle, each holding a ribbon that was attached to the top of the pole. As they danced they would wrap the ribbon around the pole. It was also tradition to partake in an activity that was sort of like reverse Trick-or-Treating but without the trickery. People would go around the village leaving baskets of flowers and home-cooked foods at the threshold of their neighbors, friends, and family.
This was a time of magic as well. As I said before, it was a time when the Good Folk, or the People of the Mounds, would leave their homes from underground or within trees and run to different mounds/trees. It was a common fear that if you came across a Fairy they could grab you and take you to the Otherworld. That is why they would honor them and give them generous offerings. Beltane is directly across from Samhain on the Wheel of the Year, and just like Samhain, the veil between the realms was at its thinnest. Because of this, the ancient folk would take the opportunity to communicate with the ancestors, Noble ones, elemental spirits and the Deities, seeking their wisdom and blessings for a fruitful, lucky year.
Legend of the Selkies
Of all the folklore I came across in my research, Druidcraft, by Phillip and Stefanie Carr-Gromm had, in my opinion, the most interesting myth. It is the tale of the Silkies or Selkies. Every year on Beltane Eve, at midnight, twelve seals would come to shore. They would scoot up onto the rocks, then, they would take off their silvery skins. Inside the seal skin was a man or woman—there were six of each. They would walk up onto the beach and be greeted by a mysterious old man—a wizard. They would stand in a circle, and the magician would begin to chant and lead the rhythm to a magical dance with his staff. When the chanting faded, the wizard would turn and walk away, disappearing into the darkness. Then the men and women would pair off and walk hand in hand to different parts of the beach. When they found the perfect spot, they would lay down and intertwine themselves in a passionate embrace. When the lovemaking was over, and the women now pregnant with the next brood of magical seals, they would walk back over to the rocks, climb back into their silvery skins, and dive back into the ocean. They would swim out and disappear until the following year.
~Fast forward hundreds, even thousands of years...every year millions of Pagans celebrate this Sacred Fire Festival in millions of unique ways~
My Celebration: Celebration Selfie and Ritual Space
A popular name for Beltane is May Day, and the central activity of May Day is dancing around the May Pole. According to James Tapper of The Guardian, maypole sales have skyrocketed this year, whereas the past few years fewer and fewer people partook in the ancient tradition. The Maypole dance consists of twelve to twenty-four dancers. They all stand around the pole in a circle, and each holds a ribbon that is attached to the top of the pole. Then they perform a dance, the exact steps vary in complexity, and as they dance, they are wrapping their ribbon around the pole. I don’t know about any Mayday festivals in New Hampshire (where I’m from), or even in New England for that matter, but I do know of a fun activity you could do at home! It is even family friendly, which is wonderful for such a sexually charged holiday.
Mini May Pole
What you need:
- Empty paper towel roll
- A small piece of flat cardboard
- Paint and paintbrush
- Wrapping paper
What you do:
- Paint the empty paper towel roll in any spring-related color you’d like (I painted mine with three different colors, and used a painters’ sponge to swirl them around the roll. Feel free to make yours as unique or as simple as possible!). Set aside to dry. (I recommend using Acrylic paint. It’s affordable, water-soluble, non-toxic, and it dries very quickly! Great choice for those with little kids, like me, who’s 2-year-old couldn’t wait to grab the roll and try to attach it to the base himself).
- Wrap the cardboard in the wrapping paper. If you don’t have any bright colors, you could wrap it so the plain white inside of the paper was on the outside. Then paint the paper. (It’s what I did because I only had Mickey Mouse and dark red and green plaid wrapping paper)
- Using the tape secure the roll to the base so it stands up straight.
- Tape the ribbon to the inside of the top of the roll. You could wrap a few ribbons around the pole or just leave them hanging. I didn’t have ribbon either so I actually used yarn, and it made for a very pretty maypole I will give to the Good Folk as an offering!
Mini Offering Baskets
What you need:
- Empty toilet paper roll
- One hole punch
- Pipe cleaners
- Construction paper
- Flowers (either real or fake)
What you do:
- Cut the toilet paper roll in half so you have 2 small cylinders.
- Cover one end of the roll with construction paper, then wrap construction paper around the rest of the roll.
- With the hole punch, make 2 holes across from each other near the top of the open end. Thread the pipe cleaner through the holes to make the handles.
- Fill the baskets with flowers
I found these fun ideas in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wicca Craft. It includes craft ideas for every Sabbat in the Wheel of the Year, as well as ideas for Esbats (full moon rituals), altar tools, and many more. I would definitely suggest getting this book if you are like me, a crafty witch on a budget!
My Beltane Crafts
A Few More Fiery Festivities
As I said earlier, Beltane is a great time to honor the Fey folk. Working with fairies can be dangerous, and it is not something I recommend doing unless you have done a lot of research, consulted with an expert, and then conducted more research. But, a good opportunity to honor the Good folk, and introduce yourself, so to speak, would be Beltane. You will have the Gods in the circle to protect you, and you won’t (and shouldn’t) ask them for anything. The crafts above are great offerings to the Fey. They love sweets, and they love shiny things, so putting candies and sparkly trinkets in the mini baskets will make a great first impression.
On Beltane, we celebrate the renewed fertility of the earth, creativity, and sexuality. Personally, the best way for me to own my sexuality is to recognize my strength and freedom to express myself however I want. Tomorrow evening I will be honoring the sultry Fairy Queen, Aine. In keeping with the theme of honoring my sovereignty, I will also be honoring Branwen. The Young Hero aspect of the Great God is honored alongside the seductive maiden. Those of us who follow the Celtic tradition often honor Mac Oc as Aengus the Harper.
Wiccans often focus on the marriage of the God and Goddess. When you perform your Beltane rites, do it either by a tree or have a small potted tree in the middle of the ritual space. Create mini charm bags to hang on the tree to honor the union. You can make one or ten, it’s up to you. What you put inside them is also totally up to you. Some put flowers, others herbs, a few may toss in a rune or two. I’m not Wiccan, so I’ve never done a ritual like this, but it sounds like a fun and wonderful way to get in touch with nature, to do some arts and crafts, to honor the Gods, and an opportunity to meditate and commune with the Deities. If you choose to honor the Great Goddess and the Greenman, one activity for kids is to make floral crowns and Greenman masks for them to wear during your celebrations.
As it is a time of renewed fertility, and marking the coming of warm weather, there are quite a few outdoor activities. One thing I will be doing is starting a flower garden. On Beltane eve I will ask the Fairy Queen and the Lord of the Wildwood to bless my seeds, so they will germinate and grow into healthy and strong flowers. The act of planting flowers, or anything else actually, is a great way to spend the day. If you don’t have a green thumb, no worries! Simply put appropriate footwear on and go out for a walk! If you find the right spot, sit on the ground, peel off your socks and shoes and rub those feet right into the dirt! Sit there for a few minutes focusing on how the soil feels on your feet, and then go a step further in the meditation trying to feel the energy of the earth. Does it pulsate against the soles of your feet? Does it feel warm or cold as it enters the chakras of your feet and climbs up your legs?
If you can’t spend the day meditating in the dirt, then spending the evening by a fire is an equally wonderful way to celebrate the holiday. The veil is just as thin as it is on Samhain, so this is the perfect time to connect with ancestors and departed loved ones. You could concentrate on sending out vibes infused with love and respect, or you could focus your energy on asking Spirit for advice. You could either say the question, think it really hard, or write it down on a piece of paper and throw it into the fire. If you don’t have a fireplace or fire pit, then a candle and a fire-safe bowl are perfectly suitable substitutions.
If you don’t like fire, then you could have a Silent tea party with Spirit. Dumb Dinners are common practices on Samhain, and since the veil is just as thin then there is no reason not to have a similar practice on Beltane. Decorate the table with bright floral bouquets, wear light colors, make a floral wreath to wear on your head or hang on your door. There is no wrong way to do this. What matters is you sit silently, sending out respectful and appreciative energy and be open to receiving messages in reply.
As you can see, there are a lot of options when it comes to choosing how to celebrate Beltane!
What about you?
What will you be doing on Beltane?
Beltane | The Goddess & The Green Man. (2018). Goddessandgreenman.co.uk. Retrieved 30 April 2018, from http://www.goddessandgreenman.co.uk/beltane
Carr-Gomm, P., & Carr-Gomm, S. (2013). Druidcraft: The Magic of Wicca and Druidry. The Oak Tree Press.
Corrigan, I. (2009). Sacred Fire, Holy Well: A Druids Grimoire of Lore, Worship & Magic. Tuscon, AZ: ADF Publishing.
Cunningham, S. (2017). Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
Ellison, R. L. (2005). The Solitary Druid: Walking the Path of Wisdom and Spirit. New York: Citadel Press
Lugh, Master of Skills. (2013). The Celtic Journey. Retrieved 30 April 2018, from https://thecelticjourney.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/lugh-master-of-skills/
Meet the Pagan Fertility Deities of Beltane. (2018). ThoughtCo. Retrieved 30 April 2018, from https://www.thoughtco.com/fertility-deities-of-beltane-2561641
Witchwood, L. (2015). 5 Awesome Beltane Celebration Ideas for Solitaries. Witchesandpagans.com. Retrieved 30 April 2018, from http://witchesandpagans.com/pagan-culture-blogs/the-magick-kitchen/5-awesome-beltane-celebration-ideas-for-solitaries.html
Woodfield, S. (2012). Celtic Lore & Spellcraft of the Dark Goddess: Invoking the Morrigan. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
Tapper, J. (2018). Maypole sales are up as May Day celebrations come back into style. the Guardian. Retrieved 29 April 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/apr/29/may-day-celebrations-morris-dancing-maypoles-sales-increase
© 2018 Amanda Wilson