In the Celtic tradition, the two greatest festivals of all are Bealtaine and Samhain - the beginning of Summer and the beginning of Winter.
All of life is overflowing with potent fertility and at this point in the Wheel of the Year, the potential becomes conception. On May Eve the sexuality of life and the earth is at its peak. Fertility, on all levels, is the central theme of Beltane.
The Maiden goddess has reached her fullness and she comes forward as the manifestation of growth and renewal. She is Flora, the Goddess of Spring and the May Queen. The Young Oak King is also the May King and the Green Man. He falls in love with the Goddess as May Queen and wins her union. The coupling is consummated and the May Queen becomes pregnant.
Together the May Queen and the May King are symbols of the Sacred coupling. This union has been re-enacted by humans throughout the centuries. For this is the night of the Greenwood Marriage. Beltane is the celebration of sexuality and sensuality, passion, vitality and joy. It is conception. A brilliant moment in the Wheel of the Year brings ideas, hopes and dreams into action. It is a night to celebrate freedom, passion, love, romance and to have fun.....
The Scottish Gealic word for May Day is Bealtuinn (pronounced 'B' yal-ten, with the 'n' like 'ni' in onion) The original meaning is Bel-fire after the Celtic God Bel, Beli, Balar. Beltane honours life, the peak of Spring and the beginning of Summer.
In the Highlands of Scotland as late as the eighteenth century fires were lit on the hilltops to celebrate the return of life, light and fertility to the world. Robert Graves tells us (The White Goddess, p.146), fire was kindled by drilling an Oak plank, "but only in the kindling of the Beltane need-fire, to which miraculous virtue was ascribed...." Earth energies are at their zenith.
A feature of the Beltane fire festival was jumping over the fire. Young people jumped it to bring them husbands or wives; intending travellers for a safe journey; pregnant women to ensure an easy delivery, and so on. Cattle were driven through the ashes of the Beltane fire to ensure a good milk yeild. 1st of May was also the day that women, children and herdsmen took the cattle off to the summer pastures until Samhain.
The custom of lighting fires at this time has come through in place names such as Tarbolton in Ayrshire ("tor" meaning hill and "bolton" from "Beltane").
Beltane is the Great Wedding of the Goddess and the God as such it is a popular time for Handfastings, a traditional betrothal for 'a year and a day' after which the couple would either choose to stay together or part without recrimination. Today however the length of commitment is a matter of choice for the couple, and can often be for life. Handfasting ceremonies include common elements, most importantly the exchange of vows and rings (or a token of their choice). The act of handfasting always involves tying the hands Handfasting('tying the knot') of the two people involved, in a figure of eight, at some point in the ceremony and later unbinding. This is done with a red cord or ribbon. Tying the hands together symbolises that the two people have come together and the untying means that they remain together of their own free will.
Another common element is 'jumping the broomstick' - this goes back to a time when two people who could not afford a church ceremony, or want one, would be accepted in the community as a married couple if they literally jumped over a broom laid on the floor. The broom marked a 'threshold', moving from an old life to a new one.
Handfasting or not, both young and old went A-Maying. Couples spent the night in fields, made love and brought back armfuls of the first May or haw thorn blossoms to decorate their homes and barns. Hawthorn was never brought into the home except at Beltane - at other times it was considered unlucky. Everyone was free to enact the Sacred Marriage of Goddess and God, and there was an accepted tradition of Beltane babies arriving nine months later!
The Maypole is a popular and familiar image of May Day and Beltane. A phallic pole, often made from birch, was inserted into the Earth representing the potency of the God. The ring of flowers at the top of the Maypole represents the fertile Goddess. Its many coloured ribbons and the ensuing weaving dance symbolise the spiral of Life and the union of the Goddess and God, the union between Earth and Sky
Hawthorn is a deeply magical tree and is one of the three trees at the heart of the Celtic Tree Alphabet, the Faery Triad, 'by Oak, Ash and Thorn'. Traditionally Beltane began when the Hawthorn, the May, blossomed. It is the tree of sexuality and fertility and is the classic flower to decorate a Maypole with. It was both worn and used to decorate the home at Beltane. The hawthorn, once known simply as ‘May’, is naturally enough the tree most associated with this month in many parts of the British Isles.
Decorating the home with Hawthorn and similar customs to welcome in the summer flourished in rural places until quite recently. In some villages, mayers would leave a hawthorn branch at every house, singing traditional songs as they went. The seventeenth-century English poet Robert Herrick wrote:
There's not a budding boy or girl this day,
But is got up and gone to bring in May;
A deal of youth ere this is come
Back, with whitethorn laden home.
For May was the month of courtship and love-making after the winter's cold; and so the hawthorn is often found linked with love-making. In ancient Greece the wood was used for the marriage torch; and girls wore hawthorn crowns at weddings. One writer has even gone so far as to suggest that the ‘stale, sweet scent from the trimethylamine the flowers contain, makes them suggestive of sex.’ (Geoffrey Grigson: The Englishman's Flora, Phoenix House, 1956)
But while hawthorn was a propitious tree at Maytime, in other circumstances it was considered unlucky. Witches were supposed to make their brooms from it, and in some parts it was equated with the abhorred elder, as in the rhyme:
Hawthorn bloom and elder-flowers
Will fill a house with evil powers.
Hawthorn is also considered sacred to the faeries, and thus to be regarded with fear at the least, respect at most. As such, it often stands at the threshold of the Otherworld. In the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, the Scots poet is taken away by the Queen of Elfland as he sits beneath an ancient thorn known as the Eildon tree. In another old rhyme, the Ballad of Sir Cawline, a lady dares the hero to go to Eldridge Hill where a hawthorn grows, to await there the faery king.
A report of a fairy ride from 19th century Scotland illustrates how prevalent this tradition was years after these ballads were written: an old woman, sitting with a neighbour under a hawthorn tree one evening heard loud laughter and saw the fairies by their own unearthly light. She recounts that,
A beam of light was dancing owre them mair bonnie than moonshine: they were a wee wee folk wi' green scarves on, but ane that rade foremost, and that ane was a good deal larger than the lave wi' bonnie lang hair, bun' about wi' a strap whilk glinted like stars.....Marion and me was in a brade lea fiel' where they came by us; a high hedge o' haw trees keepit them frae gaun through Johnnie Corrie's corn, but they lap a' owre it like sparrows and gallopt into a green know beyont it.
Ideas for Your Altar
Dress your Altar in Hawthorn and Elder (always ask the trees permission, only take what you need and always be rspectful of your surroundings). Drape your altar in bright Yellow, Orange and red to reflect the fires lit to celebrate Beltane. Create an Altar outdoors, maybe beneath a Hawthorn to honour both the tree as well as the little folk. Spend all night outdoors, celebrating, making love and bringing in the May. Above all celebrate!
*If you are burning candles, incense, oils or any other naked flame do remember that in the interests of safety they should be attended at all times!
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