Beltane approaches in the Northern Hemisphere on May 1st. And in the Southern Hemisphere on October 31st. We prepare for the fire of Summer rising within our hearts and souls. Beltane calls us to purify, protect and prepare ourselves and our practices for the Summer season ahead. It’s an exciting and enchanting time – the perfect sabbat to celebrate the earth’s blossoming, as well as the blossoming in our lives. Learn all about the ancient history and traditions of Beltane, it’s other names, and how to celebrate in modern times.
Beltane is a pagan Celtic fire festival dating back to ancient times. It occurs officially upon moonrise on April 30th, lasting through the next day, May 1st, in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, the dates are reversed: so it begins October 31st and lasts through November 1st. In ancient Celtic times, our ancestors split the year into two halves – Summer and Winter. So Beltane was the official beginning of Summer. And hence the light half of the year. A definite cause for celebration in a time without running water, heat, electricity, etc.
Although Beltane is Celtic in origin, there are literally hundreds of other fire and fertility festivals celebrated around the world at this time. In England, Beltane is known as May Day. In Germany, it’s Walpurgisnacht (aka the Witches Night). Etc. Beltane is also called Cet Samhain, which means “Opposite of Samhain” (as it is directly opposite the Samhain sabbat on the Wheel of the Year).
The word Beltane, which in traditional Irish is spelled Bealtaine, means “Fire of Bel” or “Great Fire”. Bel or Belenos is a Celtic fire god who may have been the catalyst for this sabbat thousands of years ago. When we translate Bel’s name, we get “Shining One”. Interestingly, not only was Bel associated with fire and fertility, he was also a well-loved healing god whose cult stretched all the way from Italy to the British Isles, at its peak. Bel was also a sun god who rode the sun like a chariot across the sky each day, led by his sacred, most powerful totem – horses. There are those who believe Beltane originates in honor of Bel, and those who disagree. We’ll let you decide.
First and foremost, Beltane was and is a fire festival. In ancient times and all the way up to the nineteenth century, farmers in Ireland drove their cattle downhill and between two large fires. This act purified the cattle from disease and protected them for the Summer. This had two purposes: spiritual and physical. Spiritual purification is obviously by way of the power of fire. But the fires also worked as a fumigant. According to author Linda Raedisch, “both Germans and Celts observed it by building bonfires and burning pungent herbs: fennel, rue, chervil, thyme…these smouldering bouquets of herbs acted as powerful fumigants” to be rid of fleas, lice, and other pests that collected over the Winter months. So, therefore, the cattle were treated for pests, as well as the humans who gathered near the balefire.
We know that Beltane was a fire festival, but where does the associated with Fertility come in? At the beginning of Summer, we see the earth bursting forth with fruit and bounty. The Great Mother is fertile and beginning to bear fruit at this time. Therefore, if the Earth is fertile, so are human beings and animals. As above, so below. And the Sun’s return to the sky, kissing the earth with its life-giving rays, provides us with the male counterpart to the feminine earth. And so comes the Great Rite, or union of male and female to bring life (Sun + Earth = New Life).
The Morrigan, while often thought of as purely a warrior goddess of death, becomes the fertile earth on Beltane and unites with the Dagda to birth new life. Fertility rites have been a popular activity on Beltane for centuries, for this reason. I also assume it has to do with people being pent up indoors for many months.
After the Church rose to power, Beltane was condemned and anyone who celebrated it was liable to be called a witch or pagan. In Frazer’s The Golden Bough, “every woman who gathered fires on May Day was considered a witch in sixteenth century Ireland”. For many years, all customs including the purifying fires were discouraged and outright forbade. If a child was born near Imbolc, they were considered Beltane babies as they were thought to have been conceived on or near Beltane the year prior. This meant they had extrasensory abilities. And therefore, if you were conceived on or near May 1st, you would be considered a powerful witch.
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How you choose to celebrate Beltane will depend on your beliefs, tradition, and whether you’re in a coven or solitary. It may also depend on whether you celebrate by yourself or with friends or family members. And whether you want to do something simple or an elaborate Beltane ritual. Tailor the ideas below to fit your preferences and personal practice.
As you already know, Beltane is a fire festival. So it’s only right, if you have the resources, to build a fire. It doesn’t have to be a huge bonfire, if you don’t have the ability. But a fire in a fireplace, fire pit, or otherwise is the perfect way to celebrate Beltane. This is a modern custom stemming from ancient traditions. The Celts built large bonfires, sometimes 2 to be exact, then drove their cattle between the two fires to purify and protect them through the season. Scottish farmers were still carrying on this tradition in the nineteenth century.
The Maypole has been a traditional May Day activity for centuries. What better way to celebrate Beltane, and honor your ancestors, than to make your own Maypole? The Maypole is obviously a phallic fertility symbol, but if you’re planning on having a tame family party, your Aunt Margaret doesn’t need to know that. Learn how to make your own Maypole here.
There’s no way our ancient Celtic ancestors weren’t having parties around those giant fires. And what is one thing people do at parties? They dance! Even if you are by yourself this Beltane, throw on some of your favorite Celtic music (or any music you like) and dance like no one is watching. If you’re having a party or get-together, get the crowd fired up (pun intended) and shake that thang.
We’ve talked at length about the purification rituals our Celtic ancestors have performed on Beltane for thousands of years. So it should come as no surprise that another great way to celebrate this sabbat is to perform your own purification rituals. Ritual baths, house and altar cleansings, smoke-cleansing rituals and more are all appropriate on Beltane.
If you know me, you’ll know one of my favorite ways to celebrate Beltane is to cook. And FEAST. Then again, that’s literally my favorite way to celebrate EVERY holiday. Since Beltane marks the beginning of Summer, we see a variety of fruits and veggies beginning to be available. As well as fresh herbs and SPICES. Since Beltane is a fiery, fertility festival, any SPICY food is appropriate and encouraged: hot peppers, hot sauces, chili, etc. I also enjoy baking with edible flowers on May Day. In addition, any aphrodisiac is also good. Check out our favorite Beltane Foods here.
Another great way to celebrate any sabbat is by partaking in a drink. Traditionally, mead was likely drank by the Celts on Beltane. But wine, ale, and all sorts of booze works fine. And if you’re not a drinker, make a special batch of sun tea or virgin fruit punch. If you’re celebrating May Day in a more Germanic way, May Wine is traditional on this day.
Wild flowers have always been a big part of the Beltane celebrations. In older times, specific white and yellow flowers were gathered and hung over the doorways in Ireland to celebrate the day and invoke fertility and abundance. If you have a wild area or a farm you can go and pick wildflowers, Beltane is the perfect day for it! Then return home and make a bouquet. Or if you’re feeling really crafty, make flower wreaths, crowns or garland to decorate yourself and your home.
Another tradition I almost always recommend on the sabbats – cleanse and refresh your altar. This is particularly beneficial if you have Celtic ancestors or Celtic gods you honor. Use water or fire to cleanse, then decorate with wildflowers, images of the fae and Green Man, and Beltane colors like white, red, yellow and gold.
In ancient times, and up to the modern era, the Celtic people believed strongly in the faery folk, also called the good folk or sidhe. Every Beltane, great care was taken to appease the fae, to prevent them from whisking away all the butter and milk. By leaving out faery offerings on Beltane, you’re carrying on this tradition and starting a working relationship with the fae. Or make a witch’s ladder with intention of appeasing the fae. Make faery houses and a space for the garden.
My grandmother used to say washing your face in morning dew would “get rid of the freckles.” Later, I’d discover this custom goes way back, and more specifically originates on Beltane. I’ve never collected dew myself, but I know a few practitioners who have. It’s not an easy process and you’ll have to expect to get grass and dirt mixed in with the dew. But I suspect Beltane morning dew is a particularly powerful potion to use in cleansing and beauty rituals. Which leads us to…
As we just discussed, washing one’s face with Beltane dew is customary. But it doesn’t necessarily get rid of freckles so much as it is supposed to highlight one’s beauty. In addition, any beauty rituals performed on Beltane are amplified by the fiery, Summer magick on this sacred day. Take a ritual milk bath, drink an herbal beauty concoction, and craft your own magical beauty products.
Not everyone can have a big fire on Beltane. So for those of us who want to invoke the power of the fire element, simply lighting a few candles is enough. Casting candle spells on Beltane is also a potent way to send your intentions into the ether. Particularly if you’re looking to increase fertility, prosperity and creativity in your life.
Beltane is considered my modern Wiccans to be one of the days of the Great Rite. This is essentially the union of man and woman (either literally or metaphorically…or both). In Irish Celtic lore, The Morrigan unites and couples with the Dagda on Beltane. This is an act and tradition of fertility, especially of the earth. If your intention is to be fertile and have a baby, Beltane is a great day to cast fertility spells.
Speaking of the Great Rite and fertility, many modern pagans celebrate Beltane by making love with a partner. By indulging in the “sins of the flesh”, we are honoring the god and goddess, as well as the fertile earth and its bounty. What better way to celebrate a fire fertility festival?
The Green Man is a legendary figure in Celtic lore and throughout Europe. He is a guardian of the forest and likely a type of elemental. When he’s seen, he is typically covered from head to foot in leaves, branches, flowers and moss. Some believe he is an ancient god of the wilderness, who protects the wildlife and sacred, unspoiled places in nature. In modern pagan Beltane celebrations, like the Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh, the Green Man takes center stage along with the May Queen. Work with the Green Man’s energy on Beltane by hiking in the woods, or even by creating space for him on your altar.
If you’re solitary or just want a simple Beltane ritual, we have one for you here. Feel free to adapt it to your preferences and lifestyle.
There’s a crisp hint of magic in the air. And a sense of warmth and …September 21, 2023