Beltaine is a Celtic holiday traditionally celebrated around May 1st. It is a day to celebrate the return of fertility to the Earth as well as the beginning of summer. In regards to the etymology of the word, linguists are fairly certain that the “-tain” refers to the word tene, meaning “fire”. The “bel-” is less certain among linguists. Some believe it refers to the Gaulish God Belenos or that it derives from the word bel – “brilliant” (Freeman 135).
Beltaine is one of the most important holidays in the Celtic year. It is associated with specific events, invasions, and monsters that appear on Beltaine in Celtic myth (Ellison 129). According to Mara Freeman, “events that mark the end of an old order and the beginning of a new frequently take place at Beltaine” (136). For example, the invasion of the Tuatha Dé Danann of Ireland occurred on a Beltaine, as did the invasion of the Míl, the ancestors of the Irish who conquered the old Gods (136).
Beltaine is also associated with fire, as is implied by the name. The druids would gather on hills to create grand bonfires which would help to purify the community and their livestock for the summer (Freeman 137). In fact, Beltaine was the day the cattle were brought to pasture in the fields until the beginning of winter on Samhain (Ellison 129). The cattle would be driven between two such bonfires to ensure their health and fertility for the coming year.
This holiday is also associated with love and fertility. Couples or whole groups of people would go off into the forests or fields to “bring in the May”, or have sex. It was believed that, in doing so, the fertility of the couple would be transferred to the Earth and aid in the upcoming harvest (Ellison 130).
Having been a practicing Pagan for several years now, I’ve been exposed to a few Beltaines and, as I grow and learn about the path I am on, I have come to love and anticipate this holiday. Many groups in my area dance the May Pole for Beltaine, a traditional fertility ritual. It, along with bringing in the May with my partner, has become something I look forward to every year.
Folk customs aside, the transition of the natural year has always been most noticeable around May 1st. The trees are budding, the ground is moist and filling out with green life, the song birds have returned, and wild flowers paint the land with color. It is such a joyous time of the year for me.
In the future, if I have a family, I would love for my children to anticipate Beltaine as much as I do, although they probably won’t understand its full meaning until adolescence. I would love to give them tenfold of what I have experienced so far: ample feasts, dancing, singing, flower gathering, and love-focused rituals. I would like Beltaine to take a higher precedence over Valentine’s Day for my own family, as Beltaine is less focused on material gifts and more on love and growth. It is a positive holiday – one of my favorites.
On the 28th of April, 2007, I attended the Beltaine ritual at Muin Mound in Syracuse. It was my first experience at a Druid ritual. The ceremony began at 7 PM.
The Beltaine ritual was lead by Skip Ellison. I think he did a wonderful job. He was both welcoming and powerful seeming. Everyone in the grove was also very welcoming. It felt like a big family! Skip’s daughter also took on an important role by leading the songs and chants as the bard. Two other girls also did a lot to invoke the three Kindreds and make offerings. Everyone else (about ten or so people) participated in minor ways such as singing, chanting, making offerings, and participating in the “toast and boast.” I was amazed at the amount of group participation that occurred.
The gatekeeper for the ceremony was Manannan Mac Lir. The deities honored were Angus the Young God and a Goddess I wasn’t familiar with called “Flower Face.” Angus was celebrated because of his summer ties with love and fertility, while “Flower Face” is also associated with love as well as new growth.
Skip’s method of divination was ogham stones. If I recall correctly, he drew three different discs – one for each kindred. One was ivy, and one was oak. I cannot remember the third! I do remember that the oak was an omen for the Gods. Skip said it was a very good message.
Before the actual ritual, we performed a May pole dance. The beautiful May pole was made using the previous year’s Yule tree. Skip explained that it’s part of how they keep in tune with the cycle of the year. Each Yule, they get a Yule tree. Come Beltaine, part of the old Yule tree is added to the Beltaine pole. When the pole has been danced, it is placed in the grove to give fertility to the Earth all summer long. Come Samhain, the beginning of sleep and rest for nature, the May pole is burned to represent the death of the green until spring. I thought it was really beautiful and I would love to start such a tradition with my own family some day. So, we danced the pole and leant our energy to the land for a good, fertile growing season.
As stated, I really liked the grove and the ritual. I felt it was structured very well. I liked the emphasis on the Gods as well as the ancestors and nature spirits. I felt like I was really honoring the Gods rather than abstract concepts. I liked all of the offerings people gave. I was really impressed when one member offered a song on a flute! Being my first time, I did not make a special offering. I hope to next time.
I had trouble with chants and responses. I could hum along with the melody, and pick up some. I was really confused when we invoked water, earth, and sky. Everyone began to chant something I didn’t know. Eventually I realized that they were referring to the three great fears of the Celt. They were asking that the sky not fall, the earth not open up, and that the sea not swallow them.
When we got to the “Toast and Boast” part of the ritual, I thanked the Gods for the wonderful community I found to worship with. I explained that when I started out on my spiritual path, I was alone. Now I have a wonderful mate who worships with me, Pagan friends, and I celebrated Beltaine with two different groups!
I really enjoyed the ritual. I felt a lot of energy there. I especially felt Manannan’s presence. It felt like tickles down my back. I just knew he was there with us. I definitely plan to go to the grove again.