Celebration of Beltane

Beltane is one of the four Fire Festivals during the year (the other three being Imbolc, Samhain and Lughnasadh). The word “Beltane” comes from the Celtic Sun God “Bel,” or “Bellenos,” and “tene,” meaning “fire.” So “Beltane” means “Bel’s Fire.” Beltane and its counterpart, Samhain, are the two times of the year when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. It is a good time to commune with nature spirits.

Beltane occurs on May 1, or May Day, halfway between the Vernal Equinox (Alban Eiler or Ostara) and the Summer Solstice (Yule or Alban Heruin). It is a celebration of fertility and of the light of the Sun. The Fire Circle of Beltane celebrates music, lovemaking, fertility, and life. Traditionally the Belfire is lit at sunset on April 30, and kept going until sunset on May 1. The Belfire is lit with a sacred bundle of nine different types of wood. These woods are tied into a bundle with colored ribbons and are lit ceremoniously at sunset.  The Nine Sacred Woods of the Belfire are birch, oak, rowan, willow, hawthorn, hazel, apple, grapevine and fir.

Once the fire is lit, most Groves have drumming, singing and dancing around the fire. This sometimes lasts all night. One of the fertility rites of Beltane is jumping over the fire. Young unmarried people jump over the Belfire while wishing for a lover. Young married women would leap the fire in hopes of becoming pregnant.

In modern times, Beltane includes drum circles, hoop dancers and fire spinners and fire dancers. These rites often go on all night and into the next day. If you’re invited to a Beltane celebration at a campground, don’t expect to get a lot of sleep that night!

Spiritual Significance of Beltane

The concept of sovereignty in The Way of the Druid and most other forms of Celtic Paganism is the idea that “the land and the king are one.” This means that the Goddess, represented by the Earth herself, unites with the King, or the God, represented by the Sun. This also represents the union of telluric (Earth) energy with solar energy and the powers of Chaos with the powers of Order. The uniting of these energies makes all creation possible, just as a plant needs both earth and sunlight to grow.

Beltane is a time for appreciating life and abundance. The first day of May is considered a magical time, especially if you are near a source of wild, running water. It is a time to begin new acts of creativity and growth.

Symbols of Beltane

The Maypole is a well-known symbol of Beltane.  It is of course a phallic symbol rooted in the Earth and pointing towards the Sun. As the dancers weave the ribbons around the Maypole, they enact the Great Marriage, or Great Rite. This dance also symbolizes the weaving of the telluric energies, from below the Earth, with the solar energies, from the sky.

Flowers associated with Beltane include primrose, yellow cowslip, hawthorn, roses, rosemary, and ash trees. This is also the time of year for making new brooms (besoms), weaving baskets, and making new butter. Any of these may be used for decorations at this time of year.

Gods and Goddesses of Beltane

Beltane is associated with the Celtic God Bel, also known as Balor or Belenus. Bel is the Celtic God of fire and light. Beltane is also associated with Cernunnos in his Green Man aspect, who mates with the Goddess in her role of the May Queen. There are also figures throughout the British Isles called “Sheela Na Gigs.” These figures, probably medieval in origin, depict a woman with an engorged vulva. Some scholars believe that these figures represent a lost fertility Goddess, and many Pagans and some Druids have taken to associating the Sheela Na Gig with Beltane celebrations.

Colors of Beltane

White represents the Goddess and the May Queen. It also represents the return of light to the Earth as the Sun waxes. Green represents fertility and the return of plant and animal life to the land. Green is also a healing color associated with the Green Man. Red represents romantic love, sex, and the Great Rite at this season.

Traditions of Beltane

Jumping over broomsticks and the Belfire are common traditions for this holiday. Many Groves and Circles also elect a May Queen and King who officiate for the day. Sometimes a Wild Hunt is enacted in which attendees select one or more persons to be the “prey.” The rest then hunt this person. Colorful animal costumes may be used for the prey and for the hunters. In some more sexually liberated Groves, this hunter and prey scenario takes on a more sexual theme, with partners “stalking” each other during the Wild Hunt prior to a sexual conquest (mutually agreed upon, of course) after the hunt. This enactment of the Wild Hunt is more playful than the darker performance of the same event at Samhain. The Samhain Wild Hunt focuses on the journey of the dead. While the Samhain Wild Hunt is about death and dying, the Beltane Wild Hunt is about birth, fertility, and sexual union.

In ancient times, people went “a-Maying,” meaning that young couples took their partners off into the woods for an evening of wild sex. Some modern Beltane celebrations also observe this rite, but most are a lot more family-friendly. Just in case you are invited to a Beltane celebration for the first time, you may want to clarify which type you will be attending!

Traditional foods for Beltane include sweets and dairy desserts such as custards and ice creams. Honey and oats are also common fare, both as foods and as offerings to the Gods and Goddesses. Red foods such as strawberries and cherries, or green foods such as salads and leafy vegetables, are also common. Oatmeal or barley cakes, known as “Beltane Cakes,” are also eaten quite often at this season. 

Winter SolsticeAlban ArthanYuleRebirth
February 1ImbolcImbolcQuickening
Vernal EquinoxAlban EilerOstaraYouth
May 1BeltaneBeltaneYoung Adulthood
Summer SolsticeAlban HeruinLitha or MidsummerAdulthood
August 1LughnasadhLughnasadh or LammasMaturity
Autumnal EquinoxAlban ElvedMabonOld Age
November 1SamhainSamhainCroning