As one of the ancient Celtic Fire Festivals, the celebration of Beltane (pronounced – Bell ^ Tay-N) the Sabbat embraced on May 1st or the first Full Moon in Taurus. Is also the word for May’s Eve and Fire of Bel in the Irish language. The Festival of Beltane is a celebration of the beginning of the second half of the ancient Celtic year, and the return of the harvest season in Gaelic culture. It is the beginning of the Mother’s rule and is one of the two most important Sabbats of the year. This is the compliment of Samhain, or All Hallow’s Eve, the other time in the year that the veil between the Earth and the Otherworld is thinnest. At Samhain, the Otherworld visits us, at Beltane we can visit the Otherworld.
The word Beltane consists of two parts. Bel the patron God of this High Holy Day. Bel is recognized as the son of Light or the first Light of the Universe; associated with a combination of pagan and Christian deities. Bel and Ba’al (meaning ‘master’) who is found in the Old Testament. His association as the son of light may be the reason behind his secondary label as the divine Holly King who battles during the year with the wise Oak King. The second part Tan, meaning fire is associated with the God and the ceremony itself. Beltane is the last of the spring festivals, but it rings in the start of summer as well. On the eve of Bealtaine, large bonfires were (and still are today) to purify the land from the devastation of winter.
Beltane is also seen as the union of the God and the Goddess in matrimony. May 1st marks the anniversary that the first human beings set foot on Irish soil. Ireland was considered to be the Lady, the Mother of life-giving gifts and sustenance. Some speculate that this event symbolizes the union of the people (The Sons of Mil Éspáine) with Maiden Ireland. The symbolism of this union is presented in the form of the God (the son of light, the sons of Mil Éspáine) with the Goddess (the maiden soil of Ireland).
As a spiritual holiday, Beltane is the celebration of life, the land, the union of mankind with mother earth, and the purification and rebirth of all things. This High Holy Day is the festival of union and commitment.
All fires were extinguished on the eve of Beltane. This is one of the fire festivals at which Balefires would be started across the country with a new fire that had been started by the Druid. All hearths would be rekindled with the fresh flame at sunrise using the nine sacred woods used for the kindling of the fire. At dawn, the Bel-fire or Need-fire would be started and then torches fit from it to be carried home to relight the hearth fires. Irish traditions call for the first Beltane fire to be lit by the Head Druid and the other kingdoms were lit in an East, West, South, and North direction, by Druids or Lords of the area to form a circle of protection around the Island.
Celebrated as an early agricultural festival accompanying the first turning of the herds out to wild pasture. The rituals were held to promote fertility. The cattle were driven between the Bale fires to protect them from ills and to ensure fertility. Contact with the fire was interpreted as symbolic contact with the sun. People also jumped the fire for fertility and prosperity
Being a fertility festival, symbols of the God and Goddess can be used as decorations. The Maypole as a symbol of Mayday is a representation of fertility that survived Christian opposition over various attempts to end its practice. The concept of a central tree or pole as the center point of the cosmos is widely found in many cultures. Representing the masculine energy of the universe (a phallic symbol), the pole is decorated with brilliant colored ribbons representing the Goddess. Dancing around the pole with the ribbons represents the flowing energy of the cosmos or the waters of the world which bring life to the frozen land.
Bonfires played a large part in the festivities celebrated down through the last several centuries, and up through the present day in some rural areas of the Celtic nations. Villagers were said to have cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. Often two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification. Sometimes the cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires, as well.
According to Celtic lore, this is considered as the coming together of the God and Goddess in the fertile union to add new life to the crops and hasten their growth. The Sun God whose ascension feast we now celebrate. Bel or Belinos, being associated with the Apollo and Baal.
As summer begins, weather becomes warmer, and the plant world blossoms, an exuberant mood prevails. The wild hunt returns to the land in a time of unabashed sexuality and passion. Young people spend the entire night in the woods “a-maying”, and dancing around the phallic Maypole the next morning. Older married couples may remove their wedding rings (and the restrictions they imply) for this one night. May morning is a magical time for “wild” water (dew, flowing streams, and springs) which is collected and used to bathe in for beauty or to drink for health.