Beltane – Fire, fire, burning bright, in the forest, in the night

From: “The Witches Year” ~  by Lucy Cavendish

A murmur of fairy voices, the jingling bells of the fairy queen’s horse, the smell of fires across the land, of lovers leaping the fire together, making love all night, coupling with who they choose, the sympathetic magic of fertility, to bring life and lusty crops, bountiful animals, strong young life, a future generation, a pole, made of a sacred tree, with men and women weaving intricate patterns from the berry red and sea green ribbons, and the Queen, a fair young woman crowned in flowers, dressed in white, her breasts exposed. The queen of the land. The Goddess, who will lie with the God, to bring forth new life…and the fairy folks, intermingling and mating with menfolk, in order to merge our races and create new and magical life. Upon all this gazes the fairy Queen, who searches for a lover she can take for seven long years to her kingdom between the worlds.This is the scene that has played itself out from Roman fertility festivals through to pagan variations of this day. Despite all attempts to ban Beltane — and it was banned, strictly, and distorted during the Burning Times in an attempt to stamp out the ancient and sacred customs, the purifying fires of Beltane were never truly put out.

Beltane is engrained in the consciousness of our culture. Its disguises are manifold: Spring fever, summer holidays, all night parties, fires on the beach, flowers in hair, jasmine in gardens, lovers pleasuring each other in the deep of the forest marriages in high spring. Remember children’s rhymes, like Jack be nimble, Jack be quick – Jack jumped over the candlestick — yes, that’s referring to Jack o’ the Green, a Beltane nature figure, and the jumping of the Beltane fires. I was walking through the woods one day — in the merry merry month of May… yes, that’s about Beltane, too.

All these things and more are Beltane, the third and most powerful of the three great spring festivals.

Tracing the development of a ritual

  • Roman times — Flora festival
  • Celtic culture — the May festival, Beltaine, the movement of cattle and villagers to the summer fields. Beltaine fires lit
  • Roman empire — Flora festival merges with Beltane
Christian May Day — celebration of the virgin. May day Beltane fires banned, maypole banned
  • Catholics May Day  — Mary bedecked in wreaths
  • Mother’s day — Held in May in western culture in both southern and northern hemispheres, direct descendant of Mayday.
  • Beltane — Celebrated seasonally in the Southern hemisphere
Beltane fires lit in 2002 after being banned for some years, many believe the earth and farms in Britain need the purification after the disasters of mad cow disease and foot and mouth which have ravaged Britain’s farmers.

Single at Beltane?

If you are single and wondering how to go about indulging in the Beltane erotic fever, remember, this is one time of the year when it is considered natural and right to have sex without strings… Also, you can indulge in sex rites with yourself. Whether you are single and wish to have sex with another, or prefer to indulge yourself, there are no rules at Beltane – except to celebrate your sensual self.

The Fairie Queen

At Samhain and at Beltane, the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. Both these ceremonies merge the worlds of the spirit, and magic, and the world of men and women. But while the atmosphere and influences of Samhain are about the underworld, and the going into the earth, Beltane is about new life springing from it, so it is at this time that we engage with the elementals, or the nature spirits. This is the time when you may go out at night on Beltane, and, under an oak (a moreton bay fig or an old gum would also be sacred) wait to hear the fairy bells ringing as the fairy queen passes. Don’t look if you hear her bells, unless you wish to perhaps be chosen as her consort for seven years. As she looks upon your face, she may choose you, and you could wander, lost, I the world between worlds for seven years.

In the northern hemisphere she is known as the May Queen – but obviously, we hear in the southern hemisphere can speak of her as the Beltane bride, or the fairy queen.

Celebrate this queen and goddess’ ever-nearing approach by weaving fresh flowers into your hair. In Welsh mythology, a lady is made from flowers to be the consort of the old king – her name is Blodeuwedd. But she is transformed, as she loves another, younger man.

This myth, reflected in the Arthurian legends, where an older, powerful man loses his love to a younger, fresher youth, represents Beltane’s height of struggle: do we stay with winter, which can still send its frosty breath across the fields, or do we yield to the temptation of the new season, and the fertile times that will bring? It’s inevitable that the young stag will triumph – else the Wheel of the Year would cease to turn.

How to celebrate the coming of the Lady? Weave flowers into your hair. Her flowers are jasmine, gardenia, and rose. And, for beauty, it is said that if you find dew under ivy or oak (though grass will do too) bathe your face and eyes in it, to be beautiful all year long.

Safe sex at Beltane

You need to be very aware when celebrating Beltane that although it’s a celebration of Fertility, and although having sex outside, preferably on the grass, preferably covered in the Beltane dew, its also a time when you may be inclined to throw caution to the winds. Please be careful; use safe sex at all times, unless you fully intend to take the Beltane process all the way and have children in the following year.

In ancient times, under Celtic tradition, those who were joined at Beltane were in fact married in the eyes of the God and the Goddess – this was called a green marriage. If, however, either partner decided to end the union, this was permissible after one year and one day, and also if children had not been born. This is carried through both in Wiccan handfastings (where the union is renewed every year and a day) and in Christian wedding ceremonies, which are often held in springtime, at the very height of the fertile season.

The great rite of the fires

As the wheel of the year turns, we move through the eight Witches Sabbats. Now we are turning towards one of the twin celebrations that have always defined Witchcraft. Beltane.

Your Beltane altar

  • Your altar should be covered in green cloth, silk if possible as it is a natural fibre, and a luxurious one. It is possible to pick up inexpensive silks from Chinatowns in all major cities.
Decorate your altar with green and white candles — in multiples of three, to represent the God, the Goddess, and the children that they will bear.
  • If you can, move your altar out of doors, or set one up in a natural place.
  • If you wish to recreate this indoors, use flowers, branches of flowering trees.
  • Wear green, or cherry or berry hues, to reflect the berries and fruits of the earth.
  • Wear a flower wreath in your hair — the Beltane crown — and flavour your wine with the herb sweet woodruff — soak in your wine or mead for fifteen minutes. You can drink this potion with your lover, if you wish, to enhance the Beltane ecstasy to come.
  • Adorn your altar, and fill your cauldron with the following sacred tree twigs: oak, ask, thorn, rowan, apple, birch, alder, maple, elm and hawthorn. (Obviously this is going to be tricky as we do not live in the northern hemisphere – so – use native plants if you wish – gum, bottlebrush and wattle – create your own sacred plants. Consult any of Ian White’s bushflower works for more help. Use your imagination!)

Ideal plants and herbs for your Beltane altar could be: Allheal, Daffodil, Dogwood, Marjoram, thistle, broom and rose.

The Beltane Ritual

Wash, and dress in your ceremonial garments.
  • Stand with your back to your altar and outstretch your right arm, pointing your index finger.
  • Walk deosil, saying: It is now the sacred space between the worlds is made.
  • Visualize a sacred shield of white light of etheric energy at the boundaries of your circle.
  • Light your candles and incense.
  • Raise a candle, and say: 
This circle is blessed by Fire.
  • Hold up the incense and say: 
This circle is blessed by Air.
  • Hold up the bowl of salt or earth and say
: This circle is blessed by Earth
  • Last, hold up your bowl of water (dew, collected would be powerful) and say
: This circle is blessed by water
  • Chant the following invocation three times:
 Oh Mother Goddess, Queen of the night and of the earth, 
O father God, King of the day and of the forests
. We celebrate our union as nature blooms with bounty and hues
. We anoint and worship thee.
  • Burn your twigs in the cauldron, and feel the fires burning away old cares, old worries, all disturbing elements. This is the new time, the blooming time, and the Goddess wishes you to resonate with the life-force of the rich and splendid earth and the summer joy she brings.
  • Write down your wishes for the new season if you wish at this time.
  • Allow the fire to burn itself out, safely.
  • Close the circle.
  • Now it’s time to celebrate!

A Beltane celebration

The Maypole is a somewhat controversial symbol of Beltane. It has been banned and revived many times, in cultures across Europe. It has its roots in the Flora festivals of ancient Roman times, and is controversial currently because some Witches claim it is a symbol of masculine oppression. Gay male witches don’t have problems with the imagery, but gay female witches object to the notion of phallic worship.

It’s more constructive to view it as the great symbol of the tree of life; from which all life in all it’s forms can spring. A Maypole is incomplete without its winding ribbons, and so, should you actually wish to view it as a symbol of the priapic God, you could simply address that perceived imbalance by viewing the ribbons the blood ties of women. Some witches even use white, red and black ribbons, to represent the maiden, mother and crone.

You do not have to actually fell a tree, either. Some people find this not only impractical, but would rather celebrate a live tree. If you do feel a small tree, you can use the wood for burning during festival rites later in the year.

Green ribbons, at least two metres in length. Find all hues of green, to sea green to spiky limes, to soft greeny greys.

You can do this on your own, or you can gather together with others, and wind the ribbons round and round the Winding Tree, the Beltane Pole, or the Maypole, whatever you may wish to call it. It’s traditional for men and women to stand next to each other and dance through in a shape, which causes the ribbons to intertwine. Now you don’t actually have to get truly worked up over this issue: some covens allow their winding to actually be spontaneous, others like to create a formal pattern. Whichever way you do it, it is important that you keep a part of the braid from the Beltane pole, and keep it on your altar.

  • Breathe on your Beltane braid – for air
  • Lick it — for water
  • Wear it around one ankle – for one day – for earth

For into it is woven the hopes and dreams and magical wishes for the new season of summer. Be with others tonight – stay up and watch the day come in. It’s a great time to consummate a relationship.

Erotic rituals

  • Beltane is perhaps the sexiest celebration. Celebrate it by indulging your senses and feasting on each other.
  • Strew rose petals on your bed, or in the garden, then make love on them on Beltane night.
  • Drink wine flavoured with meadowsweet.
  • Make love three times and stay up all night.
  • Bathe in jasmine oil.
  • Skyclad, leap over a lit bonfire together, or a small green candle. (Remember Jack be nimble?)

Spell to find a lover at Beltane

  • Weave a garland of flowers, made from jasmine, ivy, rose, (other flowers are fine — growing wild is actually best so Australian natives will be perfect.)
  • Hang it on the door of the one you desire. (You could email your intended an e-garland if they are a long way from you.) Make sure this arrives on Beltane Day, November 1, and you can be sure you will receive a sign over the next four weeks indicating their feelings for you.
If you wish to pledge your love, jump together over a Beltane fire!