Blessèd Beltane and welcome to my inaugural blog post! Since this is a time of sowing seeds to bear fruit, it felt an important moment to begin this new venture. To learn more about this sacred time of year, read on and please feel free to leave a comment below.
In ancient Celtic times, the peoples of the North Atlantic Isles observed this period of time as the beginning of the summer pastoral season marking the halfway mark between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice. Beltane, or Lá Bealtaine in Irish (a Gaelic word I still struggle to properly pronounce, much to my Gealetacht beau’s dismay) is one of the four Celtic “fire festivals” that mark the shifting seasons, the other three being Samhain (end of autumn/Halloween), Imbolc (beginning of Spring), and Lughnasadh (end of summer/first harvest). Though Ireland was largely Christianized after the era of Saint Patrick, there is a growing interest in the ancient festivals that were never truly extinguished. In the rugged southwest of Ireland, far from Dublin, the British were less capable of enforcing their rule (which included suppressing the native language and customs). There are still communities of Irish speakers (known as Gealtachts) and Beltane is still observed. In fact, Beltane is a several-day festival celebrated in Dingle, County Kerry, and includes a celebration of the arts and a traditional burning of an effigy in mumming garb. There are similar, larger Beltane festivals across the isles, including Scotland.
As the term fire festival would suggest, bonfires have traditionally played a large role in Beltane. Cattle were driven to their summer pastures by passing between two large fires meant to bless their wombs and protect them from illness and malice – the latter being from either human or the otherworld. The Aos Sí, or sí (“shee”), commonly referred to now as the “faeries,” often meddled with the wellbeing of mortals, both human and animal. Feasts ere held and dances around the flames. Even the ashes were thought to be protective.
The tradition still sometimes observed in the modern world of decorating a May pole also comes from this ancient belief of merging with the land in its time of fertility. The pole was once a tree, decorated and venerated (it doesn’t take much imagination to understand what an erect tree or pole symbolizes) and the “May Queen” often a virgin – a symbol of the goddess’ transition from maiden to mother. The May pole symbolizes the union of the feminine and masculine – two forces coming together, celebrating each other’s respective power.
In ages, past, couples would join together in lovemaking, either sneaking away to their own abodes or to the fields and plains and groves where they wished to add their fertile energy to that of the landscape, and vice versa. To this day, we often excuse distracted, flirtatious behavior as “spring fever.”
This coupling, both literal and symbolic, brings forth fruitfulness and ensures survival. It is as natural as the budding leaves and the blossoms pollinated by the bees, gifting us future sustenance. It is the way of the world, and all too often, we are taught to suppress this natural state of being, rather than to venerate lovemaking, whether with the goal of a child or not, as something powerful, sacred, and giving.
Beltane marks the waxing of the sun – the source of all life on our planet. That is no trivial thing, nor is this a time lost to the annals of folklore. The suntides are as alive and well in all of us as the turning of the seasons. We have only to learn to listen.
While we may no longer live agrarian lives, and while the pandemic is greatly restricting our ability to come together and to visit places of natural beauty, there is still much we can do to observe this time of hope, optimism and growth. Instead of a bonfire, lite a candle with the intention of blessing the growth both in your life and in the world. Take a moment to meditate on the endeavors in your life which you wish to bear fruit and take a symbolic step toward achieving those goals. Even those of us in the most urban areas can find a tree on the street. Observe the new leaves, so fair and green, thin and fresh, ready to absorb the gifts and energy of the sun.
Let the golden light fill your heart and run in your veins. Today is Beltane.