Herbalism Paganism

A History of Beltane: How Modern-Day Pagans Celebrate

Beltane has a long been celebrated due to its association with fertility and the success of agrarian cultures. In the northern hemisphere it is celebrated on May 1st (October 31st in the Southern hemisphere). It marks the halfway point between the Spring Equinox (Ostara) and the Summer Solstice (Midsummer).

Beltane has a long been celebrated due to its association with fertility and the success of agrarian cultures. In the northern hemisphere it is celebrated on May 1st  (October 31st in the Southern hemisphere).  It marks the halfway point between the Spring Equinox (Ostara) and the Summer Solstice (Midsummer). So what exactly was being celebrated. The simplest answer is a celebration of rebirth. Even those disconnected from nature sense the energy shift this time of year. This is because the Earth’s energy is strongest and most active now. We can see the Gaia’s vitality all around us with the explosion of new growth. 

Ancient people saw this and knew you could not have new life without both male and female energies. Beltane is celebrating the union of the May Queen and young Oak king. It is from their passion that spring growth abounds. 

The Celts honored the god and goddess with gifts and offerings, sometimes this included both human and animal sacrifices. Great bonfires were lit (balefires). These fires were made from 9 specific trees; oak, apple, hawthorn, birch, grape vine, mountain ash (rowan), holly, willow, cedar and yew.  Cattle were driven through the smoke to assure abundance and fertility for the coming year.  Ashes from the fires were scattered throughout the fields.  Women wishing to have a baby would tie a bag of the ashes around their necks.

In Ireland, Beltane marked the beginning of summer. The bonfires were lit, marking a time of purification and transition. They offered gifts and offering for the promise of abundance and for protection from otherworld realms. They celebrated at Beltany, a stone circle where the circle was aligned with the center stone so that when the sun rose it was perfectly atop the center stone. Beltane was a time dedicated to planting and cultivation, especially associated with ash, oak and hawthorn trees.

The Greeks celebrated the sun god Apollo. Cypresses were decorated with flowers, fruits and offerings.  These items were also used to adorn the doors of houses and temples, as well. They were left to dry and then burnt in the cleansing ritual that followed.  Dionysus and Demeter were also honored.  Cypress wreaths were made of seven flowers to empower magick, with garlic for general protection from the dead and evil spirits.

The Romans celebrated both Lares, the god of households, as well as Floralia, a feast of flowers. This festival consisted of three days of unbridled sex, Participants adorned themselves with flowers in their hair.  There was music and dancing and the blessing of animals. Beans were scattered to ensure fertility. Another fire festival of Bona Dua was celebrated at a temple on Aventine hill.  This was a woman’s festival, celebrated by priestesses.  They sacrificed a sow in the goddess of fertility’s honor.

Even Carnival, one of south America’s biggest and most loved festivals. Though celebrated earlier, historians argue that it has its roots in ancient Greek or Egyptian celebrations honoring the rebirth of nature, and spiritual passages from dark to light.

Though many Native American traditions were lost due to colonialism and westward expansion, some have survived. Like the Ute Bear Dance. A time to celebrate spring, and for courtship and mating held in late May. It is suggested that this celebration was to coincide with the bears coming out of their dens from hibernation. 

There were many pre-Christian figures associated with celebrations in the month of May. In Britain, it was the green man or jack of the green (related to the god Cernunnos).  Jack o the Green celebrations were noted as late as the 16th century, until the bishops put a stop to it.

Whomever the people, the essence of the time is the same. Sexuality, sensuality, passion, vitality,fertility, abundance and joy. A time to bring ideas, hopes, and dreams into action……

Today’s pagans celebrate much like their ancestors did (minus the blood sacrifices, of course).  Many cultures erect a maypole, decorated with long ribbons.  It is a representation of the Winter Queen fighting with May Queen for dominance over the season. The sowing of seeds, the trees and flowers pushing out their buds, the signs of fertility and abundance and prosperity are all around you and this is the season to work with those energies.

How can you celebrate the coming season? Drape your altar with green cloth, decorate it with blooming flowers and herbs. Many specific flowers are associated with Beltane.  Dogwood, thistle, fern, nettle, hawthorn, meadowsweet, rose and elderflower to name a few.  This is the time to work spells to ensure prosperity, conservation, safety and love.  Use candles or, better yet, light your own balefire. Jumping the balefire ensures summer blessings.  Pagans use this as a time to purify their tools and crystals. Spring cleaning is a perfect way to usher in the season.

Dance around a maypole, gather the first fresh herbs of the season, gather wildflowers, have a picnic, make daisy chains, flower wreaths or braid blossoms into your hair, make masks of leaves to represent the Green man, or even make love in the woods. Hawthorn trees are loved by the fairies. Make a wish at a hawthorn tree and tie a ribbon to the tree. Take time to attune to the tree so that you will feel when your wish has been granted. Commune with the fairies. Oats and dairy products are especially traditional offerings. Sweets evoke the sweetness of love …and who doesn’t love the sweet taste of chocolate. Spicy foods correspond the element of fire and the Sun. Aphrodisiacs like oysters, figs, strawberries abound. Many celebrate with sweet wines filled with fruits and herbs. Musical instruments like drums, bells and pipes are played. It is time to CELEBRATE!

There are many similar themes throughout all cultures.  It is a beautiful time of year.  The sun is out more often, the days are warm, and nights are still chilly.  Get out into nature and enjoy mother earths blessings.  We have survived another winter to see life renew itself yet again.  It is a time for courtship and romance, protection and purification, abundance and prosperity.  Who couldn’t use some of that!

By Danielle Savage

I am a lifelong learner. I have lived experience in many, many forms but what I hold dear is my connection with the land, my spirituality, my ancestors and teaching others that there is another way to live besides the current offering!

3 replies on “A History of Beltane: How Modern-Day Pagans Celebrate”

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