Beltane sits opposite to Samhain on the pagan Wheel of the Year, with the former celebrated on May 1st and the latter on October 31st. The two rituals are the most important rituals on the wheel. They are both celebrated at a time when the veil between this world and the next thins, and it is easier to connect to those in the spirit world.
But while Samhain is more solemn and is part of the transition to the long dark of winter, Beltane is joyous and part of the transition to the bright light of summer.
Beltane a Fire Celebration
Beltane means “fires of Bel” or “bright fires” and is Irish Gaelic in origin. Bel is a reference to the God Bel. Other names for Beltane are “Beltaine,” “May Day,” “Walpurgis,” “Roodmas,” or “Cethsamhain.” Beltane fires (fires of Bel) are used to symbolize the return of the sun, to bring fertility, and for luck. In the past, cattle would be driven between bonfires, for blessings as well as, according to Jeff McQueen, first-degree priest with the Wiccan Church of Canada, to rid them of pests such as lice. Cattle were then driven out to pasture for the summer and would remain there until Samhain.
McQueen describes the Beltane fire celebrations as a time when “the world is warming up and everything starts to sprout and leaves turn green. You’ve got this richness to the world around you, so you can feel this tangible warming and you can see the sun. You can feel the power coming onto it. It’s not the intense heat you get at the summer solstice. It’s in between [the equinox and the solstice]. It’s very warm, a very wrapping and hugging kind of heat. It’s got a different quality [than it’s opposite, Samhain].”
Thinning of the Veil at Beltane
As at Samhain, the veil thins at Beltane, allowing easier communication and connection with beings on the other side. However, the energy of Samhain is dark and slow, while the energy at Beltane is light and quick. McQueen says that at Beltane, “It’s now not the dark side that is doing the wandering — it’s the light and bright side. So you can consider that fairies are from the light and bright side as opposed to the dark. A lot of the dark you associate with gnomes and things of the earth, granted, but it’s a darker kind of less active energy.”
At times, it can manifest in giddy ways, as at the 2010 Beltane ritual, when the Priest and Priestess became uncontrollably giggly as they led the ritual, at a moment when I felt strong fairy energy in the circle. The energy at Beltane is infectiously happy and joyful, as is fairy energy. McQueen describes it as an outward directed energy: “As opposed to hunkering down and introspection [as at Samhain], you’ve got this out-going energy. It is high energy that is extroverted as opposed to introverted. The focus is no longer on us, but on what’s going on around us, and the excitement to be there.”
Dancing the Maypole During Beltane Ritual
Many are familiar with the Maypole as a symbol of Beltane, and this symbol continues the theme of fertility and joy. Obviously, it is a very phallic symbol and, as this is a time for the God and Goddess to marry and procreate, dancing around the Maypole is used to represent that union.
According to Louise Bunn, in her Book of Shadows: Participant’s Handbook for Wicca 101, the Maypole can also be said to represent the world tree, which takes a shaman to either the upper or lower world. The dance around the Maypole, according to Bunn, also symbolizes the dance of death and rebirth.
The Beltane ritual is such a happy, light, and fun ritual that many people allow their children to participate in it. We dance around the Maypole and as the ribbons get shorter, the laughter and merriment increase. One by one, people run out of ribbon length. They tie off the end to the pole and step away. The effect is always a beautiful crisscross of colour, the result of a breathlessly joyful spiral dance.
Ostara precedes Beltane on the pagan wheel of the year. Ostara is celebrated at the spring/vernal equinox and is a time of hope and renewal, as the world begins to awaken from its long winter sleep. Litha follows Beltane on the wheel and celebrates the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Litha sits opposite to Yule, which celebrates the longest night of the year.
Image: A May Day Celebration — William Powell Frith via Wikimedia Commons
Bunn, Louise, Book of Shadows: Participant’s Handbook for Paganism 101, Vancouver: Louise Bunn, 1998.
Cunningham, Scott, Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, First Edition, revised, Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2006.
Farrar, Janet and Stewart, A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches’ Handbook, Custer: Phoenix Publishing inc., 1996.
McQueen, Jeff, Priest, 1st degree, the Wiccan Church of Canada.
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