Bright Blessings, Witches! In this post, we’ll be going over the history of the Pagan Sabbat of Beltane. What is it? Where was it originally celebrated? Who partook in the holiday? All of this and more will be covered. Let’s go!
WHAT IS BELTANE?
A Pagan holiday and one of the eight Sabbats, Beltane is the Celtic May Day festival. Typically celebrated on May 1st (in the Northern hemisphere), it lands roughly between Ostara, the Spring Equinox, and Litha, the summer solstice. Beltane is also included as one of four seasonal Gaelic festivals, with the others being Lughnasadh, Samhain, and Imbolc. It’s also comparable to the Welsh Calan Mai and the Northern European and Scandinavian Walpurgis Night.
In ancient times, the change of seasons was literally a matter of life and death. Without the modern conveniences that we enjoy today, Celtic people would mark these changes so that they could track critical times in the community. This particular Sabbat celebrated the sun’s growing power and furnished a cleansing opportunity for both humans and animals who had remained indoors during the dark months.
WHAT DOES IT CELEBRATE?
Beltane celebrates the Spring season at its highest peak. It also marks the coming summer months and the turn of the Wheel of the Year. Celebrants give appreciation to Mother Nature making her way through the seasons through various commemorative acts.
Also known as May Day, this Sabbat strongly corresponds with fertility amongst Pagans and others who observe the holiday. And in various Pagan belief orders, Beltane marks a time when the veil between our realm and the Fae’s Otherworld is at its thinnest.
WHERE DOES BELTANE ORIGINATE?
Celtic for “the fires of Bel” – presumably in reference to the Celtic sun god Belenus – Beltane was originally observed in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.
“In Irish the name for the festival day is Lá Bealtaine ([l̪ˠaː ˈbʲal̪ˠt̪ˠənʲə]), in Scottish Gaelic Latha Bealltainn ([l̪ˠaː ˈpjaul̪ˠt̪ɪɲ]) and in Manx Gaelic Laa Boaltinn/Boaldyn.”SOURCE
HOW WAS BELTANE ORIGINALLY CELEBRATED?
There were quite a few different ways in which celebrants would honor the Beltane Sabbat. Some traditions are still observed while others – not relevant to a lot of lifestyles today – fell by the wayside.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FIRE
Holding root as one of the four Fire Sabbats, also known as a “Greater” Sabbat, Beltane focused on bonfires, dancing, grand feasts, maypoles, and conducting fertility rites. Using fire both physically and symbolically was a principal facet of celebration, if not the most important.
Branded as the start to the pastoral summer season – AKA Cétshamhain or “first of summer” – livestock and cattle were driven to summer pastures. One bonfire ritual in particular carried out by the Celts was lighting two bonfires – whose flame, smoke, and ash were believed to hold shielding and protective abilities – for cattle to be led between to purify and to secure the herd’s fertility. People themselves would walk between the fires or leap over them as a means to do the same thing.
Fires burning in Celtic homes would be put out and re-lit from the flames of the Beltane bonfire. In this same vein, the Fires of Tara in Ireland were the first ones lit for Beltane. The other fires of this celebration were lit using a flame from Tara.
The Fae, referred to as the aos sí, were believed to be exceptionally lively during Beltane as the veil between realms was thought to be at its thinnest. Because of this, the aim of many rituals was to keep the peace with them. Some food and drink from the Beltane feasts were offered to the aos sí as well.
The act of decorating for the Sabbat was also a big part of celebrating it. Yellow and white May flowers were traditionally used, possibly because they conjure thoughts of fire. The windows and doors of homes were decked out with these flowers, as well as byres and the livestock itself. May Bushes – customarily a thorn branch or bush adorned with flowers, rushlights/torches, ribbons, and shells – were made in parts of Ireland.
THE POWER OF WATER
Another way in which celebrants would honor this Sabbat had to do with water. People would visit holy wells and pray for the health of their family as they walked sunwise – going from east to west- around them. Offerings were left in the form of coins or what’s known as clooties, narrow pieces of cloth wet with the holy well’s water and tied to the branches of a nearby tree. Prayers were spoken to the spirits of the wells in hopes their pleas would be answered. It was also believed that the first water drawn from a holy well on Beltane was particularly powerful and would bless the person who drew it with good luck.
The dew of Beltane morning was also believed to hold special powers. Good health and luck as well as the ability to grant beauty, deflect sun damage, increase sexual charm and prolong youth were all promised to those who used it. This was typically done by young maidens who would wake before sunrise and roll around in the dew. Or, they would wash their face with the collected water.
OTHER HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS
Holidays and celebrations rooted in observing agricultural events span all kinds of different cultures. As Beltane honors the sun’s growth and the return of the land’s fertility, so too does other seasonal festivals.
In Rome, the first day of May was spent paying tribute to the gods of their home, or Lares. Alongside the tribute was the celebration of Floralia, meaning “Festival of Flowers”, which lasted for five days and involved lots of unrestrained sexual acts that parallel the fertility rites of Beltane. With the eventual Roman takeover of the British Isles, the rituals of Floralia intertwined with Beltane by and by.
The parallel of the Beltane bonfire element can be seen in the Bona Dea fire festival held on May 2nd. The Temple of Bona Dea, erected in the 3rd Century BC and dedicated to the goddess of the same name, was the ancient sanctuary where the festivities were held. The festival honored women, who acted as priestesses and sacrificed a female pig to pay respect to Bona Dea.
THE DAY OF EYVIND
The Norse celebration of a Pagan martyr may not parallel the fire or fertility elements of Beltane, but it remains important nonetheless. May 6th marks the day of Eyvind Kelda – or Eyvind Kelve – who lost his life after refusing to capitulate his Pagan beliefs.
As the story goes, King Olaf Tryggvason made it known that after he became a Christian convert, everyone under his rule were required to follow in his wake. Eyvind, a known powerful sorcerer, was able to flee Olaf’s troops and land on an island accompanied by others who refused to give up Paganism. However, they all met their fate when the troops arrived on the island at the same time. Eyvind attempted to cast protective magick for himself and his men, but they were ultimately captured, tortured, and drowned.
The Norwegians celebrate the Festival of the Midnight Sun a week later. The Norse sun goddess, Sol or Sunna, is paid tribute during this festival and it marks the start of 10 straight weeks sans darkness. In modern times, this festival is a popular Spring celebration of nature, art, and music.
THE GREEN MAN
The Green Man is a prominent figure found in British Isles legend and lore. He is depicted as a manly face covered in shrubs and leaves. To welcome the start of summer, some parts of England carry a Green Man through the village in a wicker cage. Older European cathedrals sport impressions of the Green Man’s face, even though local bishops forbade stonemasons from incorporating Pagan symbolism.
Well, there you have it Witches! Do you celebrate Beltane? If not, do you plan on partaking in it this year? Let me know in the comments! And as always, Bright Blessings and Happy Crafting!