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The Old Ways: Beltane

by Doug and Sandy Kopf

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Beltane (April 31-May 1), is, like Spring, a fertility festival, but this is the fertility festival par excellence! Beltane, the first day of Summer, is indeed an extravagant holiday. At this time of year, roses are in full bloom, peaches and berries are ripe. In Britain, the countryside is filled with the delicate may-blossoms of the Hawthorn tree. This is the Love Dance of the Gods, the Wedding of Heaven and Earth, the Bridal feast of the Goddess! At Beltane, our energies are turned toward the animal Kingdom:

the fertility of livestock and humans, and the Love and Union that brings a Harvest of new life among us.

Beltane is heralded by the rising of the constellation Pleiades on the dawn horizon. The Pleiades are also known as the Seven Sisters and the first born and most beautiful of the Sisters is named Maia. The month of May is named for Maia. This festival is the time of Her wedding to the God.

The most familiar custom at Beltane is, of course, the Maypole. Today, on May Day, children in some school-yards still dance merrily around the Maypole, weaving pretty patterns, being given no hint of the original purpose of the festival. (The motion picture, 'The Wicker Man', portrays school children being instructed that the Maypole is a phallic symbol! Not likely, in real life!)

Originally, the festivities began on May Eve, when the young people of the villages would go off into the woods or forest in search of the perfect Maypole. Throughout the night, they would sing, dance, and make love, to hasten the arrival of Summer. At Dawn, they would return to the village, bearing with them a living tree.

This tree was then erected in the center of town, in hopes the Tree Spirit would come forth to make fertile the women and animals. The people would join hands and dance around the tree to call forth its Spirit, which wouldmake them fruitful.

Of course, to the Christians, these May Day activities were seen as sinful. In 1583, Philip Stubbes wrote the 'Anatomie of Abuses', stating about the Beltane festivities: "all the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies with all. And no marvel, for there is a great Lord present amongst them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sports, namely, Sathan, prince of hel. But the chiefest jewel they bring from hence is their Maypole..."

Later on, a permanent pole was erected in most villages, and some are still standing today. The tallest surviving Maypole is at Barwick, in Elmet, West Yorkshire, England. It is 86 feet tall and painted, according to tradition, with red and white spiral stripes (red for generative life, and white for new beginnings). Beltane was celebrated as New Years Day, in England, from the 12th to the 18th century. It is safe to assume that the true meaning behind the Maypole had, at least partially, been forgotten by then, since a re-usable dead pole would hardly serve the same purpose as a living tree! Very few old Maypoles have survived. They were demolished by fanatical Puritans, including at least one in the U.S., destroyed in the year 1660. The story of 'The Maypole at Merry Mount' (Mt. Wollaston, Massachusetts) can be found in Nathaniel Hawthorne's collection of short stories, 'Twice Told Tales'. This is a fictionalized account of an actual incident!

In 1644, Christmas and May Day were both outlawed in England. An ordinance was passed forbidding "the profanation of the Lord's Day by May Poles". All Maypoles were ordered taken down and "no May Pole shall be hereafter set up within this Kingdom of England or dominion of Wales". The Maypoles returned with the Restoration and Pepys described the beginning of King Charles' reign as " The happiest May Day that hath been many a year in England".

Since Beltane was primarily a Fire Festival, fires are prominent among the early customs. The Sun is the prime promoter of life on Earth, so at this life-oriented celebration, fires were lit in recognition of its vital radiation and to enhance its waxing powers. Bonfires were kindled on hilltops and the revelers danced around them until dawn. Since this was the time of the annual migration from the Winter home to the Summer home for some Celts, the fires were divided into two parts and the flocks and herds driven between them for purification and fertility. People ran between them, too, especially new brides (of which there were many!) and childless women. It was said that a girl who danced around nine bonfires would see the face of her husband-to-be in the flames.

In Scotland, all the young boys would meet out on the moor and toast oat cakes in a fire while they feasted on egg-custard (egg-fertility). When the oat cakes were ready, they were broken in pieces and placed in a bonnet, one piece blackened with charcoal. A lottery was held and the holder of the blackened piece was the 'devoted person' to be sacrificed in the fire. In later times, the 'devoted person' was simply required to jump through the flames three times. (Even this sounds a little bit dangerous. One would guess that if he landed in the fire, the older custom would be suddenly revived!) The next day they would go around with their faces blackened with ashes from the fire.

Cakes played a major role in many Beltane customs. A popular one was called the 'knobby cake'. A cake was baked with nine lumps or 'knobs' on it, each one dedicated to a Deity, or Supernatural Being, or to an animal which threatened livestock. Each participant broke off a knob and threw it over the left shoulder, into the fire, saying, for example: "This is for you, gnomes, don't steal my milk," or "This is for you, fox, spare thou my lambs."

This is fun to do even now. Since we (most of us) don't live in an agrarian society, we might say something like: "This is for you, (name of employer), spare me my job!" Just remember, when you re-create an old custom, it should have valid meaning today.

The traditional drinks for the Beltane holiday are May wine and honey mead. You can make your own May wine by placing several sprigs of sweet woodruff into a large bottle of white wine several weeks before Beltane, or it is often available in specialty liquor stores. These days, many supermarkets carry mead. For a real treat, serve strawberries in your May wine. They look pretty, taste great, and add a really festive touch.

Two strange figures were seen in the Beltane festivities of long ago and both can still be seen today in some places. First, we have the she-male: a man dressed in women's clothing, who was called Betsy, Bessie, Maggie, Molly, Cadi, etc. He is not just the comic character he appears to be. He is a representation of the First Cause, encompassing every thing and every polarity, a symbol of not just the Duality, but of the Totality Itself.

The other popular Beltane character is the Hobby Hoss (or 'Obby 'Oss'). The 'Oss is, in actuality, a man who carries a framework draped with a black skirt. It has the head and tail of a horse. (The horse, among the Celts, was a fertility symbol.) The underside of the skirt is smeared with blacking. The 'Oss dances and prances through the streets, now and then leaping upon some unwary young woman and smearing her with blacking. The recipient of the 'Oss's attentions will get married or become pregnant during the next year. The 'Obby 'Oss can be seen every May Day, even now, at the Padstow Fair, Padstow, Cornwall, England. Closer to home, they are usually part of the entertainment at the many Renaissance Faires held annually around the United States. Both of these symbolic representations are traditionally accompanied by mummers and musicians, as they process through the streets. Representations of Robin Hood and Maid Marian are also often seen during these elaborate pageants.

The May Day festivities were often presided over by the May King and May Queen, who represented the Sacred Marriage of Father Sun and Mother Earth. The May King was chosen by contest, either a race to the foot of the Maypole, or a climb up it. Later, the May Queen was chosen by popular>consent and chose her consort. In recent times, the May King is a thing of the past, while the custom of crowning a May Queen still lives on. A similar custom, The Battle of Summer and Winter, is explored extensively by Frazer in 'The Golden Bough'.

It is often thought that the customs of Beltane have their roots in the Roman Floralia, but the customs and lore surrounding this date in Germany and Scandinavia may give us a clue as to the source of the customs in Britain.

The German festivities also begin on May Eve, with the celebration of Walpurgisnacht. Walpurgisnacht is said to be celebrated in honor of a Christian Saint, a nun named Walpurga. However, there are many indications that Walpurga, like Brigid, is much older than the Christian religion that adopted Her as it's own.

St. Walpurga lived in the 8th century and was Abbess of a Cloister known as 'Heidenheimer Kloster', which means 'Heathen-home Cloister'. This account of Walpurga, as told by E.L Rocholz, describes her as much more a Goddess figure, than a nun!

"Nine nights before the first of May is Walpurga in flight, unceasingly chased by wild ghosts and seeking a hiding place from village to village. People leave their windows open so she can be safe behind the cross-shaped windowpane struts from her roaring enemies. For this, she lays a little gold piece on the windowsill, and flees further. A farmer who saw her on her flight through the woods described her as a white lady with long flowing hair, a crown upon her head; her shoes were fiery gold, and in her hands she carried a three-cornered mirror that showed all the future, and a spindle, as does Berchta. A troop of white riders exerted themselves to capture her. So also another farmer saw her, whom she begged to hide her in a shock of grain. No sooner was she hidden than the riders rushed by overhead. The next morning the farmer found grains of gold instead of rye in his grain stock. Therefore, the Saint is portrayed with a bundle of grain."

Fires are kindled on Walpurgisnacht, even today, and revels and dancing are held throughout the night. In Blocksberg (in the former East Germany), Walpurgisnacht is celebrated by climbing to a remote mountain glade, where fires are lit and, it is said, a Witch can be seen dancing in the shadows. According to the father of a friend, who lives in that area, the fires will be lit again this year, as they have been for many centuries.

In Bavaria, each village will erect it's Maypole on May 1st, just as they always have, but the Maypole will be decorated in blue and white, rather than the red and white found in other areas.

There are so many delightful customs and so much lore associated with Beltane, or Bel-Tein (Tree Fire), that we could not possibly include them all here. So, when you light your fires, drink your May wine and dance around your Maypole, you can be assured that you are continuing in The Old Ways. (However, in the case of Beltane, many of The Old Ways have never been lost and continue now, as ever!)

"Oh, do not tell the Priest of our art
For he will call it sin,
But we shall be in the woods all night,
conjuring Summer in!
We bring good news by word of mouth For women and cattle and corn The Sun is coming up from the South By Oak, and Ash, and Thorn."

Rudyard Kipling


See also: The May-Pole of Merry Mount

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