This Celtic festival of summer is also called Bel-fire, the festival of Belenus, Celtic god of light.
Time: Sunset 30 April-sunset 2 May (31 October-2 November in the southern hemisphere)
Focus: The fertility of the Earth, creatures, crops, people and animals; the instinctive energies that can be manifest as passion whether in sexual terms or for any cause; the interconnectedness of all existence and the mutual dependency of one life form on another.
Beltain, which has survived as our modern May Day festival, marked the beginning of the Celtic summer when cattle were released from barns and driven between twin fires to cleanse them and to invoke fertility as they were released into the fields.
Sundown on May Eve heralded the signal for Druids to kindle the great Beltain fires from nine different kinds of wood by turning an oaken spindle in an oaken sockets. This was carried out on top of the nearest beacon hill, for example Tara Hill, County Meath, in Ireland, home of the Tuatha de Danaan, the hero gods of old Ireland. Every village would have its Beltain fire, which was attributed with both fertility and healing powers.
Winter was finally dead at midnight on May Eve, when Cailleac Bhuer, the old hag of winter, cast her staff under a holly bush and was turned to stone. She would be restored six months later on Hallowe'en.
Young men and girls made love in the woods and fields on May Eve to bring fertility to the land as well as themselves; they gathered flowers and blossoms from the magical hawthorn tree to decorate houses and to make into may baskets which were left as gifts on doorsteps. This custom lasted well into Victorian times and is recalled in Rudyard Kilping's poem Oak, Ash and Thorn, which begins:
Do not tell the priest our plight, For he would think it a sin, For we have been in the woods all night, Bringing summer in.
This echoes the woodland wedding of the Goddess, the first May Queen, whose name came from Maia, the Greek goddess of flowers, whose festival occurred at this time and who also gave her name to the month of May. She married Jack o' Green, the god of vegetation -another form of the Green Man - and the deity of the green crops as yet unripened. He became Robin Hood to her Maid Marian. Once again, there is also a Christian connection here: the name Marian is a form of the name Mary, and St Bridget was called Mary of the Gaels.
The maypole, which we still recognise today, once symbolised the ancient cosmic tree and was the focus of fertility dances whose origins are unknown. Red, blue, green, yellow and white ribbons, representing the union of Earth and Sky, winter and summer, Water and Fire, were entwined and the spiralling dance stirred up the life force and fertility of the Earth. The maypole formed a central phallic symbol that could be 40 foot high and echoed the rising potency of the Sun, or Corn, God and the growing corn. Fires were lit and it was believed that the height the young men could leap over the fires would indicate the height the corn would grow and, since for safety reasons this deed was performed without clothes, the festival was one of joyous, unbridled sexuality.
In modern times, this festival has a global significance and survival issues are to the fore. These may concern endangered species or the fight for the rights of indigenous peoples, for freedom of speech, action and belief everywhere. Also involved are the struggle to discover more natural forms of medicine and Earth-friendly products with fewer side effects, and all matters of the countryside.
On a personal level, Beltane is a festival potent for fertility magick of all kinds, whether to conceive a child or aid financial or business ventures to bear fruit. It is good for an improvement in health and an increase in energy as the Sun's light and warmth also gain intensity, and for enthusiasm and creative ventures of all kinds. It will assist the consummation of love matches, travel and job moves and all matters concerning young adults, especially those making commitments.
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