Saturday, 13 April 2013

Beltane, Beltain. Pagan Wheel of the Year. Myths, history and legends.

Beltain or Beltane is one of the four cross quarter Pagan fire festivals. It is the opposite of Samhain in the Pagan Wheel of the Year. Beltane is traditionally celebrated from sundown on 31st April until the 2nd May.  There are many myths and legends surrounding Beltane. Beltane brought the coming of the summer and as such it was a very important time and much merry making can be found when you start to explore ancient customs. Many of these customs still survive through to today, and still others are being revived as a way of going back to our roots and honouring all of nature and all that she provides for us.

The name Beltane is derived from the Celtic “Bel” meaning good, and “Tan” meaning fire. The ancient Druids used to celebrate by lighting large bel-fires made from 9 types of wood, on local beacons on the eve of 31st April. Beltane, Beltain  or Beltaine is also known as the Celtic May Day. The Bel-fire was considered to be the fire of the Gaelic God of Light.

These Pagan Bel fires were symbolic of many things: they were filled by the ancient Druids with highly scented herbs and sacred plants and the fragrant smoke was used to purify the cattle and sheep before the journey to new pastures began. The cattle were driven between the Bel fires at Beltain to protect them from ills. Contact with the fire was interpreted as symbolic contact with the sun. The Bel fires were often burnt on hilltops, and used as a symbol of strengthening the sun, which would bless the earth for fruitful crops at this very important time in the agricultural calendar. Beltane fires would often create a chain of beacons on hilltops across the land.

The soil was also blessed with fertility at Beltain when the ashes of the Bel fires were scattered upon it. Household fires would be extinguished and then re-lit with a branch from the Beltane fire to bless peoples’ homes and lives. This central fire was called the ‘Tein-eigin’ or ‘need fire.’ People ran between the fires too, as well as jumping them, especially new brides and childless women hoping to get pregnant. The Bel fire symbolised fertility and new beginnings . It was also believed that a girl who danced around nine bonfires would see the face of her husband-to-be in the flames.

Beltane or Beltain celebrates the beginning of the summer in the Pagan Wheel of the Year, all around us we see trees and plants springing to life and there is greenery everywhere. Historically, at the time of Beltane, cattle were driven to summer pastures to feed on the fresh and fruitful grasses and flowers. This is also a time for the flowering of the hawthorn bushes which are decked with a proliferation of pure-white, highly scented blossoms. Houses were often decorated with boughs  from the Hawthorn bushes in a mark of the celebration of summer
Traditional Beltane Headdress

Traditionally, Pagan Beltane festivities started on May Eve (April 31st), when the young people of the villages would search for the perfect Maypole. The night would be spent celebrating, singing, dancing and making love. First unions were often made on the night of Beltane or Beltain. At Dawn, these young people would return carrying the tree that would be made into the Maypole.  The tree was then erected in the hope that the Tree Spirit or Dryad would bless the women, crops and animals with fertility.

In later times, permanent maypoles could be found erected in most villages, and many were painted with red and white spiral stripes (red for life, and white for new beginnings). Many people arose at dawn to gather flowers and green branches from the fields and gardens, using them to decorate the village Maypoles. The maypole itself is considered a very potent fertility symbol and those wanting to get pregnant would often touch the maypole at Betaine and offer a blessing. Some maypoles for Beltain were
painted red white and blue these were for the Triple Goddess: white for the pure maiden, red for the fertile Mother, and blue (or sometimes black) for the Wise Crone. The community would all dance around the Maypole, wearing  ribbons, and mayflower headresses, and would dance the dance of the spiral of life. The intertwining of the mayploe ribbons can be seen to represent the joining of male and female energies.

The young people in the towns and villages at Beltain would often go singing from door to door throughout the town or village carrying flowers of the May tree. They would ask for donations for their singing in return for the "blessing of May". This is symbolic of bestowing and sharing of the new creative energy that is stirring in the world at this wonderful spring time of Beltane. The origin of the song ‘here we go gathering nuts in may’ probably refers to ‘knots of May’ rather than nuts. These would be the decorations that adorned each household. Often in villages and towns a mummer called Jack in the Green, originating from the Green man, wears a costume made of green leaves as he dances around the May pole. Mumming is a dramatic performance of exaggerated characters and at Beltane the characters include Jack in the Green and the Fool.
Greenman in Glastonbury

Morris dancing was also popular at Beltane and still survives today. Morris dancing can be found in church records in Thame England going back to 1555, apparently being popular at Beltane or Mayday during Tudor times.
Beltane is also a Pagan festival celebrating the union of the god and goddess, often symbolised as the Greenman and the May Queen. The flowers and greenery symbolise the Goddess and the Maypole represents the God These two figures are often crowned as part of the Beltane celebrations. The myths of Beltane state that the young God has blossomed into manhood, and the Goddess takes him on as her lover. The God at Beltane is also represented by the Horned God: Herne the hunter. He chases the fertile Goddess in the form of a White Stag, the Goddess being represented by a white deer. There have been many representations of the Horned God throughout history. Examples are Pan the Goat, Zeus the Bull and Amen the Ram.  The May King was often chosen by a contest, usually dash to the foot of the Maypole. The Beltane May Queen was chosen by popular consent and crowned with a garland of may-blossom.

The Welsh goddess Creiddylad is connected with Beltane, often called the May Queen,
she was a Goddess of summer flowers and love. The Goddess Rhiannon is also a very popular representation of the May Queen at Beltane, she rides her horse across the sky and represents love and fertility. In the myth of Rhiannion and Pwyll, it is on the evening of Beltane, that Rhiannon gives birth to their son.

In parts of France there is a Beltane custom of a jilted youth who will lie in a field on May Day and pretend to sleep. If any village girl is willing to marry him, she goes and wakes him with a kiss; the pair then goes to the village inn together and lead the dance which announces their engagement. The boy is called "the betrothed of May."

In Padstow, Cornwall on Beltane morning a procession is led by the "Obby Oss" a costumed horse figure, in a large circular banded frock and mask. The procession is full of song, drums and accordions. the The first account of the Padstow May Day 'Obby 'Oss revelries has been found to be written in 1803.

At Beltain, as at it’s counterpoint on the Wheel of the Year, Samhain, the veil between the worlds is very thin. On the night before Beltane, our ancestors would place rowan branches at their windows and doors for protection when the veil is at it’s thinnest. This connection with the otherworld can be felt particularly strongly at dusk and dawn. Connecting with Spirit at this time of Day can bring about increased intuition and awareness. When the veils are so thin it is an extremely magical time, it is said that the Queen of the Faeries rides out on her white horse, trying to entice people into the faery realm. There is a Beltain legend that if you sit beneath a tree on Beltane night, you may see the Faery Queen or hear the sound of Her horse's bells as She rides through the night. The Legend says that if you hide your face, She will pass you by but if you look at Her, She may choose you. There is a Scottish ballad of this Beltane Legend called Thomas the Rhymer, in which Thomas chooses to go the Faeryland with the Queen and has not been seen since. Enjoy therefore this extremely potent and magickal night and dawn at the time of Beltane.

Beltane has always been an important time in Celtic legend, it is said that the Tuatha de Danaan landed in north-west Connacht on Beltane. The Tuatha de Danaan, it is said,
came from the North through the air in a mist to Ireland. After the invasion by the Milesians, the Tuatha faded into the Otherworld, the Sidhe, Tir na nOg. In ancient Ireland there was a Sacred Tree named Bile, which was the center of the clan, or Tuatha. As the Irish Tree of Life, the Bile Pole, represents the connection between the people and the three worlds of Bith: The Skyworld (heavens), The Middleworld (our world), and The Otherworld.  Some say that the Bile Pole is the origin of the maypole.

Beltane is also important in Welsh mythology. Beltane is the time of the yearly battle between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwythur ap Greidawl for Creudylad. Gwyn ap Nudd the Wild Huntsman of Wales is a God of death and the Annwn. Creudylad is the daughter of Lludd (Nudd) of the Silver Hand (son of Beli). She is the most beautiful maiden of the Island of Mighty. The myth of their battle demonstrates the battle between light and dark, summer and winter.

Beltane stands for the sacredness and spirituality of love and sexual pleasure, and deep connections of the heart.  “Handfasting” is a traditional custom at this time, and is the pagan version of marriage. It is a celebration of loving union in which both parties are equal. Handfasting is the origin of the term ‘tying the knot’ as the couple would have their hands tyed with the handfasting cord or ribbon. Sometimes a Handfasting is a commitment made for "a year and a day," perhaps before a couple make their “full” commitment to each other. At the end of the rite, hands still corded, the couple jumps a broom laid on the ground. This is the origin of the term jumping the broom.

The earth’s amazing energy is particularly potent at this time of the year. You can feel it if you stand with your barefeet on the ground, particularly if close to an ancient Ley line. This is a perfect time of the year for walking along ley lines or the dragon paths that snake the countryside.

All of nature is growing and nurturing at this time of year, it is a time for celebrating unions and fertility either in conceiving a child or for improvements in career and other areas of life.  It is a time of creative inspiration and for improved health and increased energy. We look at the fertility that is all around us and bring that into our daily lives, fertilising our health and home and encouraging new projects to spring into life.

Photography AstarteAlison
A Ceremony for Every Occasion: Siusaidh Ceanadach
Sacred Celebrations: Glennie Kindred


  1. ...blessed be! ~ dear kindred!...(0:

  2. Beautiful post, and very informative! Thank you o)

  3. Fantastic, thank you for this post. I just wanted to let you know that April only has 30 days. Blessings