When you think about May Day in modern times, your first thoughts are on the International Workers’ Day holiday. However, long before the labor movement, May Day was an important festival that different cultures in the world, from the Romans to the Celtics, observed.
For the Celts and other Gaelic cultures, this was when they celebrated Beltane at the beginning of summer. While the celebrations are no longer huge, neopagans and ordinary folks in countries like Scotland and Ireland still mark May 1 as a special day.
Beltane is one of the four festivals in the Gaelic calendar and, along with Samhein, is regarded as the two most important festivals. It is a time for celebrations associated with purification, especially for cattle, fertility, abundance, and protection. Modern-day pagans, as the ancient worshippers, honor the day as the coming together of the male and female energies to create new life.
Beltane Origins and History
Beltane first appears in written history in early medieval texts, so it is likely to predate the period. Historical texts also show that it may have initially held more importance to the herders than crop farmers, but most of the lands adopted the festival.
There is also evidence that Beltane later adopted elements of the Roman festival Floralia when the Romans came to the British Isles. Floralia is a 5-day celebration from April 20 to May 2 in honor of the goddess of flowers, Flora. It is a highly sensual celebration, some of which passed into Beltane. Thus the celebration moved from just having two bonfires, often on a hill through which cattle and humans were passed, to a multi-activity festival.
Beltane is an anglicized version of the Gaelic dialects Bealtaine (Irish) or Bealtuinn (Scottish). The standard agreement is that the name comes from Celtic words meaning Bright Fire, while other translations have it meaning ‘Fires of Bel’ after the Celtic sun/light god. Besides May Day, Beltane’s other names include Cetsamhain (meaning opposite Samhain) and Roodmas (from the medieval Christian Church).
Beltane Traditions & Celebration – How to celebrate Imbolc
There are numerous ways you can mark Beltane, and it all depends on how far pagan you want to get and your circumstances. Some ways include;
- Set up Beltane altar honoring the relevant deities and decorate the altar with plants, herbs, incense, and crystals.
- Light up a fire as large as your space allows it and hang out with friends and family engaging in dance and other fire rituals.
- Go camping: Modern-day environments may not allow for going a-maying, but you can still go camping with your partner to be out in the world and engage in romantic sensuality as the location allows.
- Wash with morning dew: It should not be difficult to accomplish this. You can collect morning dew from the grass and flowers and wash your face in it.
- Create a Maypole at your home and decorate it with flowers and ribbons. If you cannot, find trees around yourself to
- Decorate your home with candles to further keep the tradition of fires, and then use greenery and flowers to decorate it and attract the right energies.
- Wear Beltane colors from yellow to white and green to celebrate all the season’s themes. You can match the colors in your jewelry, shoes, and other dressing.
- Make May baskets with natural material like twigs and flowers, and fill them with baked goods and flowers ad other gifts.
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Beltane symbols make part of worship and activities around the festival. Often, they celebrate the sun and fertility concepts. Here are some of the significant signs to integrate into your celebration;
Fire is a dominant symbol as it is at the center of most activities. It calls back to the warmth and energy of the growing sun. Besides venerating the sun deities, fire also serves as a tool for purification. In the earlier times, the worshippers would pass cattle around or between fire gates to purify them and protect them from predators and disease. Worshipers can also jump over the fires and light furnaces for cleansing or have them at home to offer protection.
Handfasting is a traditional betrothal ceremony with couples committing for a year and a day following pagan traditions. It gets its name because one of the man’s hands and one of the woman’s hands are tied together (tying the knot), making a figure of eight. A red cord or ribbon is used, and the tying of hands shows the two people have come together.
When they untie it at some point in the ceremony, they choose to stay together of their own volition. Handfasting also replicates the marriage between the forest god and the forest goddess, the Divine May King and May Queen.
Flowers are blossoming at this point of the year, and they are a reminder that new life will always come and the abundance of mother nature. They also represent faeries believed to be present during this time. Flowers help in the decoration and making of wreaths and garlands. Flower garlands symbolize your connection with nature, especially the earth and your inner sexuality.
During Beltane, people cut a large straight tree, make it into a pole, and erect it in the ground; this is the maypole, an erect phallus that represents the potency of the masculine divine. The act of inserting it into the ground points to the unions between the goddess mother and the goddess father to bring forth life. The girls would then decorate the pole with flowers and rotate around it in a clockwise direction mimicking the sun’s movement. The maypoles also represented fertility and good luck.
May Queen and The Green man
The May Queen is the goddess of spring, and the green man is the God of Spring or forests. They are both the ideal standards of femininity and masculinity. Thus, during Beltane celebrations, a maiden would play the role of the May Queen and lead her court around the celebrations. Often there would be a May King too to represent the Greenman. Even when these are not present, figures and sculptures of the deities will represent them.
Other fertility symbols
Other fertility symbols are present during Beltane. For Male fertility, you have antlers, acorns, small phallic poles, and sticks. For female fertility, you have things that represent the womb-like cauldrons, cups, and baskets. Wreaths and rings also represent the goddess.
May Day Waters
On the morning of Beltane, people would wash their faces with the morning dew or early morning water in ponds. According to folklore, this practice brought good luck and health. It also preserved beauty and youthfulness.
The colors of Beltane reflect the sun’s warmth and the season’s sensuality. You need to look for bright colors and those that match the season’s abundance. You can then use the flowers to make wreaths and crowns in your colored candles and decorate your home and altar. You can also have the colors as part of your dressing. They help you attract the right energy and help you manifest your prayer requests.
Red symbolizes vitality, growth, and progress. It pays homage to the brightening sun and captures the passion and love found in the season. Red is also a fiery color that you can use to draw the sun’s energy. Finally, Red represents masculine energy. The color is valuable when making love spells to improve your love life or helping someone coming out of a depressing period.
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Green is a correspondence for growth in nature and inside us. It harnesses the power of growth nature as this time most flowers are blossoming, and new life in trees and plans is evident. Green is also associated with abundance and is helpful when making spells and rituals, praying for wealth and providence.
Yellow embodies the sun, and spiritually it represents the principle of light. It is a powerful color with several correspondences. Yellow is associated with wisdom, communication, knowledge, optimism, and happiness.
The color also represents new opportunities and protection. Adorning your house with this color helps you keep positive energies inside. You can also use the color in healing, cleansing, and forgiveness rituals.
Pink represents the divine feminine and her properties during Beltane. It signifies her fertility, beauty, and her feminine energies. Spiritually, it represents the heart chakra and the color of love, friendship, and passion. Pink is often used in love rituals and spells, and you can further use it in healing and wellbeing rituals.
White is a color with plenty of meanings, making it perfect for personalizing it for your circumstances. It symbolizes peace, youth, virginity, beginnings, and forces of good. It has a wide range of use in spells. For example, you can use it in spells seeking protection and healing, forgiveness and cleansing, and protecting and saving a relationship from failing. You can also use white to ward off negative energies and celebrate the vibrancy of life.
Related Reading: Tables of Magickal Correspondences – Opens in new tab
Beltane sacred plants & Herbs
Plants play an integral role in the belief and practice of the Sabbats. Some have magical properties, while others represent the divine presence. They all help harness the energies of the season. Some of the sacred plants for Beltane include;
The oak tree is a symbol of might, victory, and power. In Celtic mythology, there is an everlasting battle between the Oak King and the Holly King, and during Yule, the Oak King wins and reigns until Midsummer.
So, Beltane is under the rule of the Oak King. The Oaktree is also a symbol of masculine power as the Oak King is often depicted as a fertility god, lord of the forest, and even appears as the Green Man. Acorns and oaks are also believed to have magical properties.
The Birch tree serves many roles during Beltane. First, because it often grows straight, it is the preferred tree to make maypoles. It is also associated with rebirth and regeneration properties, given that it is the first tree to regrow during spring or after a forest area fire. You can also use the birch trees for rituals that seek to add extra energy or boost an endeavor. It is also associated with creativity, healing, protection, and fertility magic.
The yellow flowers of Forsythia make it a perfect representation of the sun. It is associated with anticipation, so you can use it in all activities involving things you expect to see in the long term. You can also use it in divination.
Dandelion leaves are excellent for ritual cleansing, healing, and purification. The yellow flowers are also valuable for divination, and growing the plant in the corner of your house will draw in good energy and facilitate positive change.
It is one of the first flowers that emerge in spring, and it is thus associated with new love. Other people also use it to enhance visions and obtain intuitive dreams.
Tulips symbolize prosperity both in how many they grow and their different varieties. You can use them in color magic, depending on the purpose and variation. For example, dark strain tulips work well with full moon rituals, while bright ones like redwork for love magic.
The violet flower offers peace and tranquillity. Violets leaves are also believed to provide protection, so you can have them at home or sew in a sachet or pillow. You can also carry the petals for luck or use them in nighttime magic.
The rowan tree is heavily associated with protection. In folklore, it protected people against malicious faeries. You can use it to create a protection talisman by tying two rowan twigs together in the shape X using a red cotton thread.
The hawthorn tree traditionally served as a herald for Beltane as it usually blooms at the end of April and the start of May. It is considered a potent magic tree, and it is associated with fertility and sexuality.
There are different deities for Beltane because you celebrate deities associated with several realms. The main ones are fertility gods and goddesses, spring gods and goddesses, forests and agricultural deities, sun and fire deities, gods and goddesses of passion, love motherhood, and more. The main deities across different cultures include;
- Artemis (Greek): Moon goddess, associated with virgins, the hunt, forests, and hillsides
- Cernunnos (Celtic): A horned god lord of forests, fertility, and animals. He also appears as the Green man.
- Flora (Roman): The goddess of spring who had her own festival called Floralia. The Gaelic cultures adopted her with the Roman conquest, and she is often venerated as the May Queen/Bride.
- Xochiquetzal (Aztec): She is a spring fertility goddess, represented by flowers and fruits.
- Belenus/Bel (Celtic): This is one of the most worshipped pagan Celtic deities. He is associated with pastoralism, fertility, and protection.
Other deities include Oya(Yoruba), Mbaba Mwana Waresa (Zulu), Pan and Hera (Greek), Apollo, Freya, Odin, Venus, and Diana.
Crystals can enhance your experience of the Beltane. You can use them during meditation, on the Beltane altar, add them to headdresses and wreaths in spells and rituals and place them with newly planted seeds and seedlings. The best crystals for the season include;
The Emerald is May’s birthstone. It is associated with successful love, and you can use it in rituals and spells for successful love, emotional wellbeing, peace, and happiness. It works well with the heart chakra and the earth element.
Fluorite is a stone for cleansing and stabilizing. It also resonates with the heart chakra and recharges all other chakras while balancing your hormones. You can also use it to better connect your intuition and rational mind. Fluorite is loved by the fey, so you can also use it if you indulge in faerie magic.
Fire Agate matches the fiery energy of Beltane thanks to its dashing blend of red, green, gold, and orange colors. It resonates with the root chakra, which makes it perfect for stabilizing your aura. It also boosts your physical strength and helps in sexual magic.
Green obsidian is a rare but potent crystal. It resonates with the heart chakra and works in the areas of intimacy, both physical and romantic kinds. Others also use it to remove psychic hooks and any other such future hooking.
Garnet is a well-known crystal and more popular as a red stone, but it can also be found in brown, orange, pink, and green colors. It has multiple functions, including helping you achieve balance, end negative habits and thinking, and helping you achieve your potential. Other uses are; boosting your vitality, passion, sexual potency, happiness, and stimulating desire.
The Moss Agate crystal is perfect for those working in agriculture or botany. It is also a stone for new beginnings, and it will help attract abundance while releasing blockages on your path. The crystal also boosts your confidence and strengthens your positive traits. Other people also use the stone to help lessen delivery pain and promote a good delivery.
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Like other items for Beltane, Runes help you harness the energy you are seeking and express your intention. To help you in your observance of Beltane, use the following rules;
The literal meaning of Sowilo is the sun which gives it the perfect background for use during Beltane. It is associated with wholeness, magic, healing, and navigation. It is especially excellent to use if you want to find your true purpose.
Mannaz means humanity, and it is a multi-layered rune with so much meaning. It is associated with enlightenment, self-sovereignty, and wisdom of the world. You can use Mannaz when seeking personal growth in knowledge and understanding. It allows you to have a deeper connection to the spark within yourself.
Ehwaz is a rune of bonds, and given that Beltane is a season for wedding and love, it is an excellent rune for rituals and prayers around related issues. It is associated with teamwork, harmony, friendship, unity, and crossing boundaries.
Gebo means gift, and it is associated with love, partnerships, reciprocity, and equilibrium. As such, it is also a rune of consequence to keep everything in balance. It helps you stay attune with your consciousness and the unseen results of your choices/actions, which are inevitable.
Wunjo means Joy, and it is associated with harmony, family, and wellbeing. All these are themes of Beltane, and it means you can integrate the rune in numerous rituals and practices. It also promotes healing since it seeks harmony between the mind and body.
Flip Cards: Runes – Meanings and Magickal Correspondences – Opens in new tab
FAQ about Beltane
What is Beltane also known as?
Beltane is also known as Cétamain in Gaelic, which translates to the first summer. In some places, it is also called May Day.
What is a Beltane blessing?
A Beltane blessing is a prayer or expressed wish paying tribute to the deities of the Beltane festival and seeking their providence, blessings, and protection, among other things. It can also be used as a greeting wising other people the good fortune that comes with the season.
What is the opposite of Beltane?
The opposite of Beltane is Samhain because while Beltane is the start of summer, Samhain marks the start of winter and the end of summer. They also sit at opposite points on the wheel of the year.
Who is Cernunnos’s wife?
There is no evident wife for Cernunnos, though, in his role as the Green Man, he is associated with the goddesses of spring-like Flora, all who can play the part of the May Queen.
What is a Beltane wedding?
A Beltane wedding is a traditional betrothal ceremony where the couple will stay together for a year and a day, after which they can continue with the marriage or part ways without any blame to either person. It involves fasting the couples’ hands together, which gives it its traditional name Handfasting ceremony.
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Featured image: “Pagan Beltane Altar DSC_7913” by Kam’s World is licensed under CC BY 2.0