The festival of Beltane is celebrated from dusk on 30th April to sunset on 1st May. It is a fertility festival that celebrates love, life and the union of the masculine and feminine. In the ancient past, young men and women would spend the night in the woods re-enacting the blessed union of the God and Goddess so that the fertility of the land was ensured. This act was known as “going a Maying” and any children that were conceived during these Green Marriages were known as “merry begots” and were seen as a blessing from the Divine.
The name Beltane originates from the Irish Gaelic Bealtain. There are many more variants of this name which I list at the end of this post. It is believed to be linked to the Celtic sun God Bel. In England Beltane was only celebrated in Cumbria and the far South West.
May Day is the beginning of the Merry Month when people wore green to honour the abundant life that surrounded them. Many villages would elect a young girl to be their May Queen (symbolising the Goddess) and she would lead a procession through the local community while songs were sung and her consort would have been a young man who was called Jack in the Green, the May Groom or the May King (symbolising the God).
After extinguishing their hearth fires, people would climb to the hilltops and light two fires. Cattle would be driven between them to cleanse the animals as well as to ensure their fertility. Afterwards the cattle were put out into the fields.
It was also traditional for newly wed couples to jump over the fire to attract good luck and conceive healthy children. Others would jump over the fire to attract a partner into their lives and for some it would ensure them safety on their travels. The fire would also ensure the safe delivery of a pregnant woman’s baby.
The young couples that took part in the Green Marriages would, the following morning, lay flowers underneath the Maypole and on the doorsteps of those who were unable to join in with the bonfire festivities.
The symbol of the Maypole represents the male phallus that is thrust into the earth, while the ribbons that are wrapped around it represent the wrapping around of the womb. While dancing around the Maypole, the men go anti clockwise, symbolising death and the sacrifice of the God and the women go clockwise symbolising life and the abundant Goddess.
At this time of year people would visit sacred wells, drink their healing waters and decorate them with greenery and offerings. They would also dip torn pieces of cloth into the water and hang them on nearby tree branches for healing prayers. They believed that when the cloth completely rotted away the illness would leave the person’s body.
On the Isle of Man it was customary for the youngest member of the household to go and pick primrose flowers and throw them at the front door.
Young men would go May Birching, placing Mountain Ash and Hawthorn branches on girls’ doors that they loved. Sadly if you were a girl that a boy didn’t love , you might have woken up to find thorns on your doorstep instead.
Crop fertility was extremely important to our ancestors as it was a matter of life and death and some women would ride brooms hobbyhorse style across the fields to ensure the crops success during fertility rites, as well as have menstruating women dance naked in newly sown fields.
The 180 foot Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset England is believed to be a Celtic hill carving where couples used to lay on his 8 foot penis in the belief that this would help them conceive a child. Some historians believe that this act was part of a Celtic fertility rite because the sun is directly in line with the figure at this time of year.
With the arrival of Christianity the month of May became Mary’s month and the wild and fertile goddess was transformed into the pure and chaste virgin.
Beltane like Samhain is a time when the veil between the two worlds is at its thinnest and it is said that the fae folk are able to show us glimpses into their world. However, mortals beware, because if the Queen of the Fae rides past you on her pure white horse while you are sitting under a Hawthorn tree then you must close your eyes and turn your head away, for she can lure you away for seven long years.
It was said that Faery children were often substituted for human children and were called “May Changelings”. To protect their home from faeries on May Eve, people would place Rowan branches around the doors and windows. Bannock cakes and left over food were then left outside for the fae in the hope of winning their favour.
For the rest of Europe the month of May was dedicated to many different Goddesses and festivals.
The Greeks celebrated Plynteria a festival that honoured the Goddess Athena. The festival included the ritual cleansing and dressing of her statues, which was only carried out by women. Feasting and prayers in the Panthenon also took place.
The Romans celebrated a festival called Lemuralia (9th, 11th and 13th May) where they would cleanse their homes of ghosts and appease the wandering spirits of the unburied dead. It originated from Romulus calming the restless ghost of his murdered brother Remus. It was customary to walk barefoot and throw beans over the shoulder. Pots and pans were banged on while they chanted,”Ghosts of my fathers and ancestors be gone”, nine times. It was therefore unlucky to get married during May which made June very popular for marriages. The full moon in June was sometimes called the Honey Moon due to its colour and the name has stuck ever since for weddings.
On 1st May, the Romans would also honour their house Gods and on 2nd May it was the fire festival of Bona Dea, the good Goddess. She is a Roman fertility goddess who was especially worshipped by women. She presided over women’s fertility and virginity. She is the daughter of the God Faunus and she was often called Fauna. She had a temple on the Aventine Hill, but her secret rites on 4th December, were not held there, but in the house of a Roman magistrate. Only women were admitted and even representations of men and beasts were removed. At these secret meetings it was forbidden to speak the words ‘wine’ and ‘myrtle’ because Faunus had once made her drunk and beaten her with a myrtle stick. Her festival was observed on 1st May. No men were allowed to be here either.
She was also a healing goddess and the sick were tended in her temple garden with medicinal herbs. Bona Dea was portrayed sitting on a throne, holding a cornucopia. The snake is her attribute, a symbol of healing and consecrated snakes were kept in her temple at Rome. Her image was often found on coins.
Floralia was a flower festival which lasted three days, where the Romans would wear flowers in their hair and singing, dancing and plays took place. On the last day animals were let loose in the Circus Maximus and beans were thrown on the ground to ensure fertility.
Thargelia was a time of release and purification, of reconciliation and balance. On the island of Delos, Latona the goddess of motherhood and her children Apollo the God of light, medicine and poetry and Diana the Goddess of the hunt, the moon and women were honoured with offerings of the first fruits. It was a festival of prophecy, music, medicine and poetry. A young person whose parents were both alive was chosen to carry an olive branch entwined with white and purple wool and decorated with figs and a goblet of wine to the temple of Apollo. The branch was left there until the following Thargelia. Diana’s days were 6th-7th May and Apollo’s were 24th-25th.
The Anglo-Saxons called this time of year Thrimilci, the ‘three-milk month’ because this was the first time after the long cold Winter that the cows could be milked three times a day. It was a celebration of having a full larder and the end of having to ration food supplies.
Warlpurgis Night was a Germanic holiday and here is a really interesting article about it.
Some Norwegians on 6th May honour Eyvind Kelda, a Norwegian martyr who was tortured and drowned on the orders of King Olaf Tryggvason for refusing to convert to Christianity.
I think I have covered most of the customs of ancient Europe, but if you know of any folklore or customs attaining to Beltane that I haven’t mentioned then I would love to hear them, so please share.
Brittany- Kala Hanv
Wales-Calan Mai or Dydd Calen Cyntefrm
Isle of Man-Shenn Do Boaldyn
And other names are May Eve, May Day, Beltaine, Belltaine, Beltain, Beltine and Cetshaman (Kentu Saminos meaning the first of Summer)