April 27th 2018
If you are keeping an eye on what is going on in Nature at the moment, you may have noticed that the world has just exploded in green. Within a matter of days in London, the Hawthorn leaves have emerged, as have the oaks, the rowans, and the plane trees. Just as we were beginning to wonder if the leaves would ever return this year, the natural world has taken root and blossomed. The sap has risen once more.
The lambs that were born at Spring Equinox are now growing fatter, and baby birds are just starting to show signs of life in the nest. The first crop of dandelions has bloomed, and the grasslands are now flush with daisies. In the woods, the bluebells and wild garlic are in blossom, and the buds on the Hawthorn are opening too, ready for ‘Bringing in the May’.
On the Pagan or Wiccan Wheel of the Year, Beltane is the sabbat that sits opposite Samhain, and in very simplistic, reductionist terms, they both offer the balance between sex and death – while Samhain is the time to honour our ancestors who have passed out of this life, Beltane is a time for celebrating the sexual union. While traditionally this was seen as the (heteronormative) coming together of the god and the goddess, however you experience sexual pleasure in your life, it is just as valid. This is about the celebration of sexual union and ecstasy, and all the myriad of (consensual) ways that can be experienced. Just as at Samhain, at Beltane the veil between the worlds is thin, so it is an opportune time for a little magical working.
Beltane is traditionally celebrated from sunset on the 30th April to sunset on the 1st May. But what are the traditions for this time of year?
Despite what you may have heard on the grapevine, in Wicca the sexual magic we perform in groups is largely symbolic. While outside folk may have fantasised about us having orgies, that isn’t what happens in circle. This is definitively a time for sex and fertility magic, but not necessarily in the most obvious ways. When you start to look at the traditional folkloric ways of celebrating Beltane, you will start to see why…
The word ‘Beltane’ means ‘bright fire’ and when our society was more traditionally rural or agricultural, Beltane was one of the points of the year when the fires inside the home would be swept out and re-kindled using the ceremonial Bale Fires. In the fields, fire would be kindled and the cattle would be driven between them in order to burn away impurities and protect them from infections for the coming months ahead.
THE MAY POLE
The traditional May Pole dance is symbolic of sex magic and was traditionally danced on May Eve by the young people in the village who had reached adolescence but were not yet married. The pole was made by the young men of the community (and celebrated manhood) while it was topped with the ribbons and a garland of flowers, that were gathered by the young women, and symbolised womanhood. As the maypole was crowned with the garland of flowers, it symbolised the coming together of the God (often represented as the Green Man or the Jack in the Green) and the Goddess.
This was also the traditional time for handfastings. May Eve was said to be the first night in the year when the weather was mild enough to sleep outdoors, so couples would often go out into the May Eve night and do what couples did naturally! Beltane babies that were conceived on May Eve were thought to be very special.
This was also the time that couples would officially be ‘handfasted’ – a traditional ceremony in which they were joined together and would commit to staying together for a year and a day. At the end of that period, they could then decide whether to remain together or part without rancour. Of course, when Christianity became more widespread, this practice was gradually phased out as it went against the teachings of the church. When the couples returned from the fields the next morning, they would bring back boughs of Hawthorn (or May Blossom) to decorate the house with.
TRADITIONAL FOLK CELEBRATIONS AROUND THE UK
Around the UK today, there are still some communities that celebrate Beltane, although sometimes the folk traditions have been separated from their original meanings, but they are still worth experiencing if you can. For instance, in Hastings there is a traditional May Day Procession with folk dressed as the Green Man, with their faces painted green and covered in leaves, while in Padstow there is the traditional celebration of the ‘Obby ‘Oss’ – where the Hobby Horse is followed around the town. In Edinburgh the Bale Fires are lit, and the Goddess makes an appearance. You will also see traditional crowning of the May King and Queen in some villages, who represent the God and the Goddess.
THE GAY GREEN GOWN
Traditional folk songs for Beltane focus on the colour green, as well as stories of maidens being carried off by the horned one. One of my group’s favourite songs is the Gay Green Gown. It is quite hard to find recordings of it, but a recent one has popped up on YouTube and is worth a listen... Here is the link to You Tube for it:
MAGICAL WORKINGS FOR BELTANE
If you don’t fancy celebrating Beltane in those ways, there are plenty of other ways to work magic. You could:
Gather the first dew on Beltane morning – this was seen to bestow great beauty on the user if it was used to wash the face
Bathe in a natural body of water, or dress a sacred spring with garlands of flowers, as is also traditional on Beltane. (Some follow a practice of placing ‘clooties’ on the trees, which are ribbons to represent wishes, but I have a real problem with this. It seems counter-intuitive to the ecological life to go and litter the trees by tying bits of synthetic cloth or ribbon on them, unless you are prepared to go back and remove them later.)
Decorate your living or altar space with some may blossom, rowan, or birch
Start a new project for the year ahead (or a year and a day if you want to be traditional)
Image Credit: 'Beltane' by Amanda Clarke