“I am not afraid. I was born to do this.” – Jeanne D’Arch
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Nearly every group under the broad umbrella “Pagan” celebrates Beltane, stretching back into the ancient past. The central symbolism of this festival is fertility and virility. In other words, bringing opposites together and having some friction occur that produces a thing.
Beltane marks the halfway point between Spring Equinox (March 21) and Summer Solstice (June 21). The festival begins in earnest on the eve of the Sabbat, at the sight of the rising moon. True Solar Beltane – the actual halfway point on the Earth’s orbit, currently aligned with 15º Taurus in western astrology – falls on May 5th. Interestingly, some ancient groups mark this day, as with the Irish observance, the Veneration of the Thorn, which is, of course, the Holly King, who is coming into power at the next Sabbat, Summer Solstice.
Pagan groups witness the rise of Spring at Imbolc, Ostara, and Beltane, with more emphasis added to a particular Sabbat depending on where they are on the globe and how quickly or slowly the light and heat comes back. But no matter where they are, by Beltane, the Sun is rising, the warmth is returning, and the Earth is coming back to life.
Where Ostara embraces symbols of Nature’s return to life and the vitality of the flora and fauna world, Beltane brings that focus to the world of humans.
This is The Holly King, Jack-in-the-Green, The Green Man, Pan, Bacchus and dozens of other vegetation Gods. This is also the energy in all of us to thrust forward and push into the world. The portions of us that are extroverted that lust for results, and seek to assert our dominion in the world.
Sex and sexuality are at the forefront of much of Beltane symbolism. The Maypole is one example.
An apparent phallic symbol, the Maypole represents the form of God energy that is virile, rising, surging. Pagans often centered this around an evergreen tree, and the Maypole could be erected by individual families or the whole village. Some Maypoles were temporary, others permanent. Many times, it was the young unmarried men and boys of the town who cut down and raised up the maypole, staying up all night to guard it. The pole would be topped with a flower garland and streams of ribbons.
The unmarried youth of the village would then assemble in two circles and alternate weaving back and forth as they circled the pole, holding a streamer. The result was two-fold; the celebrants braided a lovely pattern down the outside of the pole, and as people wove the streamers, the circles became tighter and tighter, bringing these folks closer together.The flowers and streamers represent Goddess energies, enveloping and blessing the Godform.
The village chose the May Queen and May King from among these young people, to oversee the proceedings. Beltane, then, is an initiatory festival for youthful energy that is maturing, developing self-determination, and entering the world.
With all this sexy and sensual energy, it’s no surprise that marriage proposals are typical for this time of year, handfastings, which last a year and a day, as well as “Greenwood Marriages” which only last one beautiful night. Such trysts have any number of people involved, and exemplify the Wiccan phrase, “Perfect Love and Perfect Trust.” They are for the joy, pleasure, and vitality of anyone who wants to consensually join.
Flowers actually play a particularly important role in this holiday.
Marry making, or Going A-Maying was an ancient form of worship and is still one of the most traditional. Dressing up in colorful clothes, wearing flower crowns, and secretly leaving baskets of flowers for people are all in line. Picking wildflowers and then looking up their meanings when you get home is a form of Beltane divination.
Fairy, fae, and nature elemental energies are all closer and more natural to communicate with, creating an air for divination. There are many folktales about stepping into a circle of mushrooms of May Day and the Wild Hunt suddenly appearing to haul off the unwitting. These energies can sometimes be enticed to come closer and reveal themselves with homemade cookies, honey, mead, and bells. In fact, intoxicants like mead made from flowers, absinthe, and hallucinogens are also traditional for this Sabbat.
Another important symbol of Beltane is The Bonfire.
Welsh Pagans sometimes lit one, sometimes two fires. When two were lit, it was called the Eyes of Anu. Named for a Welsh Goddess who was a combination of Brigid and Callaich. A group of men who had no sin or guilt among them had to start the fire. And they had to light it using a form of friction, like rubbing wood together. Nine holy kinds of wood were used; Ash, Oak, Hawthorn, Holly, Rowan, Birch, Willow, Hazel, and Alder. Cattle would be driven through the fires twice; once to purify and protect, and the second time to ensure plentiful milk production. Counting the number of Beltane fires one could see on the horizon was another form of divination.
Last but not least, at the heart of Beltane symbolism is sensuality and abundance. Delighting the senses and revealing in the physical world. Eat, drink and be merry!