Friday, May 7, 2010

Sing the May Song of Beltane

May 1st marks one of the most beloved, and perhaps one of the most misunderstood Sabbats in pagandom - Beltane. This Sabbat has its origins in Europe, primarily from the Celtic regions. It means, literally, Fire of Bel – Bel, Belen or Belinos being just one name of the Sun God who we honor this day. In the Pagan calendar, this is one of the eight stops/holidays on the cycle we call the "Wheel of the Year". Beltane is known as a "fire festival", which means it is not connected to a solstice or equinox - it's a day chosen outside solar or lunar calendars.

Whether you spell it Beltane, Beltaine, Beal-tinne, Bealtine, whether you call it Beltane or Roodmas or Walpurgisnacht or whether you celebrate it on April 30, May 1 or May 2, is no matter. It remains an honored and enjoyed tradition in Wiccan practice. Beltane is a celebration about fertility in all its forms, personified through the sacred marriage of the God and the Goddess. It honors the power of growth and the importance of balance. The Lady is all grown up and the Lord is rited into manhood. They are ready to imbue the Earth with their blessings.

When we talk about the marriage between the Lord and Lady, it is not about the marriage of our contemporary understanding, but rather a carnal & spiritual joining between the male and female Divine. From their union comes abundance and fertility which is shared with the Earth and those of us on it. Using the axiom "as above, so below", this fertility is drawn into our world and feeds the summer and fall months – and we see this abundance manifested in our autumnal harvest. One of the most popular customs associated with Beltane is the Maypole. It is a strong and tall tree trunk representing the God, which is affixed with ribbons on the top. Over the extended ribbons lay a wreath of flowers, representing the Goddess. As the maypole ribbons are woven by dancers each holding a ribbon, the wreath is lowered symbolizing the union between the God and Goddess. Sometimes, the Maypole becomes the fodder for the Midsummer or Samhain fires later that year.

This sacred union of the Lord and Lady spawned many customs and taboos about marriage – some which survive to this day. Some say the first full moon span after the wedding was when the Lord and Lady would remain sequestered together, drinking only wine and eating only honey. Of course, this led to the concept of the “honey-moon” that most married couples partake in. However, May was considered the month of the God and Goddess’ wedding – so if you wanted to marry, it was expected that you would kindly respect the Divine Couple’s month. Hence, May became an unlucky month to marry in. This is one of the reasons why getting married in June became popular. The exchanging of rings has a Beltane component, symbolizing infinity and longevity. Another belief was that the God & Goddess give boons to those of us who came to celebrate their union. In Europe, it’s still very common to see newlyweds leaving their ceremony tossing candy or money out the back of their vehicle (car, carriage, etc.) throughout the village for the children to chase after and collect.

Yes, there were and are still many carnal associations to Beltane, and they can be quite sacred with consenting adults and in appropriate ways. Certainly, Beltane can be one of the most sexual of all the Sabbats, but that aspect doesn’t need to be emphasized in your practice. Understand that it is a spiritual and symbolic act. It is never wanton or vulgar. It is a celebration of the gift of love on many levels – spiritual and physical. In ages past and until the 19th Century, “Greenwood marriages”, (or as we call them today, “one-night-stands”) were popular on Beltane. Consummating such a marriage in a field would ensure fertility and success for that harvest. Today, spending the Beltane night with your significant other mimics the Sacred Marriage and ensures a year of luck & love to come. Fertility, however, is more than just physical. It is spiritual and mental as well – and spurs our creativity and abundance as much as anything else.

There are many traditions associated with Beltane. Women and young ladies braided flowers in their hair, as would befit someone attending a wedding. Young ladies would wash their faces with the morning dew to ensure a beautiful complexion. Wells and sacred water were visited and honored. Flowers would be strewn all over homes, people, animals and anything which was sacred and special, in the belief that the more you honored the God & Goddess, the more abundance you would draw to yourself. Fires are extinguished the night before Beltane and relit from the “Need Fire” which is started at dawn, sometimes from the Yule log which was kept burning since Winter Solstice. The Beltane fire was especially potent. Women who wished to get pregnant would jump over the Beltane fire – and those who didn’t want to become pregnant would gladly take the long way around! Some people acted out the Great Hunt, whereby the Lord and Lady chase each other. First the Lady is the one pursued by the Lord and then the tables are turned and he becomes the happy prey who would gets tangled up in the Maypole dance.

This is the time of year that cattle were put into their summer grazing fields and therefore beginning to enjoy the bounties of late spring. People in Europe used to drive their cattle through the Beltane fire (quickly, of course) to bring blessings on their livestock. As this is also the time for fairies to be very active – especially the mischievous ones – the cattle and homes were sprinkled with water from a sacred well to keep the fairies from turning milk sour and from causing mayhem in the home. Fairies were considered to be especially active during the first 3 days of May, and people feared that they would steal their children and bewitch cattle – so all the doors were locked and children were kept very close at night.

What does this mean for us as pagan practitioners? It means we bring a time of abundance into our personal worlds. We look for fertility in all aspects of our lives and take advantage of the Divine Couple’s boons. If you have a partner, share your love with them in honor of the Sacred Marriage. If you are single, raise a toast of mead, apple wine or apple cider to the Lord and Lady, wishing them a bountiful year. If you can’t participate in a Maypole Dance, a few twirls around your Circle (or living room) and some fresh flowers in your home in honor of the date is more than appropriate.

Beltane can be family friendly too – the Maypole is a great opportunity to dance and welcome summer into our lives. Even having kids walk around a park or house picking up litter to make a fitting place for the fairies to dance is a good way to celebrate! Perhaps a young child (or you!) can dress up like the May Queen or the Sun King and dance with the merrymakers. Making flower crowns/necklaces and adornments is a great way to welcome the Lord and Lady to the fullness of Spring.

And whatever you do, don’t forget to appease the Fairies! Make a basket of shiny things for them to play with, and if you wish, leave them cookies, milk and flowers, and put it near your home, perhaps in the garden. It will keep them busy long enough to forget to cause any mischief!

Beltane is one of my favorite Sabbats because it’s truly a festive time! It is a wonderful celebration, full of laughter, love, joy and blessings. Enjoy the bounty of the Gods, and be part of celebration! Take advantage of this time of year to connect with the Divine Couple and bring those blessings upon yourself and your home.