Intro to the Sabbats – Beltane

May 1st

After the long dark winter months, it is time to relinquish the Earth to nature once more. This is when you see grass really starting to grow, flowers and trees have begun to show their wonder, and you tend to notice birds singing their songs of excitement. So with all of this going on, it is small wonder that we choose to celebrate Beltane as a fertility sabbat.

Cultural Lore

 

Beltane, is the sabbat that falls directly opposite Samhain and was recognized as one of the two most important sabbats of the Celtic calendar. Samhain and Beltane marked the beginning and the end of the two seasons that they acknowledged. It is a fertility sabbat but it also is one that allows us to celebrate the sanctity of life in all areas. One popular school of thought believes that the name for the sabbat was derived from the words “bale fire”. Indeed this may be true, and even to this day bale fires are lit in Ireland and Britain on May eve. The royal family is even said to observe this tradition to ensure the continuance of the family line.

 

Part of the Scottish tradition is for these bale fires to be lit from the “need fire”, otherwise known as tein-eigin, which was in turn created by using a wheel to create friction. Why this source fire was called “need” was due to the fact that it was only used to cook with, and was the sole type of fire that was allowed to burn on the sabbat, apart from ritual fires. It is an old Swedish custom for the bale fire to be lit by two individuals striking two flints together, in a symbolic act of the sexual union of the God and Goddess. Still another piece of lore is that just prior to sundown, Slavic men travel between households collecting items for fueling the fire. It is not uncommon for wreaths to be included, as those who wished for healing used them. This sabbat fire is not just for that day’s celebration – you might see some taking a smoldering piece of it home to light the first cook fires of the season, and this small portion of the fire was considered to bring blessings to your home.

 

Faeries

Faeries are a large part of this celebration, and it is interesting to note that even Arthurian legend mentions this. It is said that Queen Guinevere rode out on May Day (Beltane) to collect white hawthorn for protection from mischievous faeries. Another method of protecting someone that you thought was particularly susceptible to the antics of a faerie (or faeries) is to have them wear a daisy chain, and even livestock was given fresh dillweed to eat to curtail and happenings that might come their way. It was also customary to include a hot coal in the butter churn to avoid the fresh butter from turning (I don’t know what is involved in churning butter, but it would seem that the coal might have the opposite effect - Athena). This is not to say that the faeries that are prevalent at this time are bad – but being a part of nature, they too are feeling the excitement of life springing anew and perhaps this is how they expressed themselves.

 

If you do have faeries that try to derail your celebrations, one of the best-known ways to discourage them is to use bells. Bells are typically a part of various altar set ups, but for Beltane, they were worn on ribbons that were tied around the ankles of the Morris Dancers. These Morris Dances were fertility dances that were traditionally performed around the Maypole (more on what exactly that is in a little bit). It is not difficult to construct your own Beltane bell anklets – simply string some jingle bells (several for each foot) on two three-foot lengths of ribbon (traditionally red and white ribbon are used). String these bells to the center of each ribbon and wrap each ribbon and bell set up around your ankles and tie in a bow.

 

Primrose flowers were also believed to repel faeries and in Ireland it was tradition to have primrose blossoms strewn over the front porch of the house to prevent their entrance. However most lore states that faeries are attracted to this flower, so perhaps they are attracted to it, but due to their love of primroses, they never get beyond the front porch because they are enjoying them so.

 

Other Traditions

 

In other places this sabbat was not celebrated as it is today. It was used to honor the deities that held a special place in their hearts. For instance, Floralia the ancient Roman holiday to honor the goddess Flora (Goddess of flowers) and Bacchanalia, to pay homage to the God of Frolic and Wine (Bacchus). In one particular region of Italy, Floralia is celebrated with festivals, games, dancing, singing, and the consumption of a particular sweet potent wine made from the flowers and plants that were picked during the previous years’ May Day. It is believed that all of the old wine must be consumed prior to midnight of May 1st, and also have all of the blooms gathered for the next year’s batch.

 

Wine is not the only place you see the usage of fresh flowers though. They are the primary decoration at these festivals, and the young single women in particular find them useful in this way. In fact, any young man wishing to express his “regard” for one of the single women may seek to obtain the elusive Edelweiss flower by braving the alpine slopes to collect this delicate white flower. If a man brings it back to the festival and presents it to his beloved and she accepts this gift, then they are considered as good as engaged. A good example of this type of festival (if you are unable to go to the Italian Alps) is to rent the movie, “The Bride Wore Red”.

In Germanic lands, the sabbat was referred to as Walpurgisnacht, after the name of a christianized Teutonic goddess named Walpurga who was thought to be married to the God on sabbat night & at Yule become impregnated with her son/lover.

 

The Great Rite & other Fertility Traditions

 

This is often the most misunderstood ritual in pagan tradition, but is one of the elements that make up Beltane celebrations. This rite shows the symbolic union of the God and Goddess, who are the origin of all creation. It can be performed by one male and one female who symbolize the male/female aspects of deity. One method is to place a knife (symbolic of the male – phallic symbol) into a cup or chalice (symbolic of female – the womb) to show the sexual unity of the two. However it is up to the participants as to whether this portion is symbolic, as mentioned in the sentence before, or an actual sexual re-enactment. In some traditions all participants leave the circle save the two performing the ritual, but the choice is yours. This symbolic union of the God and Goddess is appropriate at this time to invoke the power of creation and fertility for the crops, livestock, continuance of the family line.

 

As this was the time that final spring planting took place, this was one method of ensuring that the new shoots/sprouts would grow into adulthood. Besoms were ridden over the fields and pastures by the women as another means to draw the energy necessary to have that successful growing season. In fact, menstruating women were considered very desirable for this act, as they believed that their menstrual blood was sacred simply because this was the source of how all life is made. In some cases, a cow about to give birth was taken out into the fields to do so, as it also reinforced the type of energy that they wished to be drawn. Still another tradition is taking chalices filled with sheep’s blood and milk and pouring them out over the crops to encourage strong growth.

 

Ashes from the balefire were scattered over the fields as a protection and sacred blessing, and it is interesting to note that ashes are high in nitrogen content, which is well known for its benefits in agriculture.

The May Pole

One of the most well known customs is that of the maypole. It might surprise you when you take a look at your own childhood celebrations – many communities still have May day celebrations and still utilize the use of the may pole, although I am sure that the meaning has been long forgotten by most.

 

Traditionally, the pole was made from a pine tree – in fact in many cases the same tree that was part of the Yule celebrations. All but the top branches were stripped off and eight red and white streamers were attached to the top. It was also not uncommon to see a decorative wreath hanging from the top of the pole also. It was then that eight dancers – 4 male and 4 female- would each take a streamer (men take the red, women the white) and proceed around the pole, weaving under the other dancers’ arms until the streamers are woven almost completely around the pole.

 

The pole is another phallic symbol; representative of the God, and it is thought that the red and white streamers are woven together in a representation of the Goddess’ womb from which the God is birthed. Also note that red=male/God and white=female/Goddess. In another school of thought, the red stands for the mother aspect and the white for the Virgin Goddess. They are woven together to show the transition of the Virgin Goddess into motherhood, by way of the impregnation by the phallus (the pole).

 

Flowers

 

While seasonal flowers and plants are part of any sabbat celebration, during Beltane the fresh flowers & plants gathered can be used to make wreaths (also called chaplets). The wreath is an incarnation of the crown, and in the Celtic tradition was worn by the elders of the clan or town. You can easily make one today from artificial flowers and this ensures that your wreath will be available for as long as you wish it to be. In Rome, the cult of Flora focused on the meaning of various flowers. This information was nearly lost until it re-emerged during the Victorian era.

 

May Basket

 

This is another powerful fertility symbol used in this sabbat. The basket is symbolic as the Goddess’ womb and of the sacred marriage. It was filled with plants and flowers, and would seem that life “sprung forth” from it.

 

 

Correspondences

 

Other Names: Bealtaine, May Day, Walpurgisnacht, Walpurgis Eve, May Eve, Rudemas, Celtic Summer, Floralia, The Great Rite, Giamonios, Bhealtainm

Symbols: Eggs, Flowers, Chalice, May Pole, Butterchurn, Flower Chaplet, May Baskets, crossroads

Colors: Red, Green, White, Dark Yellow

Deities: Marriage/Sexual union of deities, all Mother Goddesses

Goddesses: all Virgin-Mother Goddesses, all Goddesses of Song and Dance, all Flower Goddesses, all Goddesses of the Hunt, all Fertility Goddesses, Aima, Aphrodite, Ariel, Artemis, Baubo, Blodewedd, Chuang-Mu, Cupra, Cybele, Damara, Devana, Diana, Erzulie, Fand, Flidais, Flora, Freya, Hilaria, Ilamatecuhtli, Kaikibani, Lofn, Mielikki, Perchta, Prithvi, Rainbow Snake, Rhea, Rhiannon, Sarbanda, Shiela-na-gig, Skadi, Tuulikki, Var, Venus, Xochiquetzal

Gods: all Gods of the Hunt, all Fertility Gods, all Gods of Love, all Young Father Gods, Arthur (King, Welsh/Cornish), Baal, Bel/Belanos, Beltene, Cernunnons, Chors, Cupid/Eros, Faunus, Frey, Herne, The Great Horned God, Lono, Manawyddan, Odin, Orion, Pan, Puck, Robin Goodfellow, Telipinu

Activities: Wrapping the May Pole, The Great Rite, Gathering Flowers

Taboos: Giving away fire, Giving away food

Animals: Goats, Rabbits, Honey Bees

Stones: Sapphire, Bloodstone

Foods: Dairy Foods, Sweets, Honey, Oats

Plants: Primrose, Cowslip, Hawthorn, Rose, Birch, Rosemary

Sabbat Meaning: Union of God and Goddess, Sacred Marriage, All New Life, Fertility for All Living Things, End of Winter (Celtic)

Attunement Teas: Burdock, Damiana, Hibiscus, Rose Hips, Saffron

Ritual Oils: Passion Flower, Rose, Tuberose, Vanilla

Mythical Creatures: Faeries, Pegasus, Satyrs, Giants

Key Actions: Take Action

Sources -

"Ancient Ways" and "Wheel of the Year" by Pauline and Dan Campinelli

"Sabbats" by Edain McCoy

"Wicca Handbook" by Eileen Holland