Spring is in full swing. Greens, yellows, pinks, and vibrant reds dot the land and birds chirp in the sunlit trees. Ostara, with her gentle awakening has turned to the warmer Beltane, a time of ripeness, aliveness, and beauty. It is almost as if the colors of the Earth returned in a celebration of life, sprouting quickly overnight into a array of of bright, beautiful bountifulness. Animals are everywhere, new calve and kittens, chicks and geese. It is a time of brightness and of rejoicing in the return of summer and brightness and warmth.
Beltane is a fiery time of year, full of love and passion, fairy magick and fire. Its energies mimic those of Samhain, yet at this sabbat we celebrate life instead of honoring death. The veil is thin at this moment, with the energy of the fae. Trickery, fun, love, and lust are all afoot at Beltane. Celebrated on or near May 1, Beltane is tied to youth, beauty, love, fertility, and optimism.
Origins of Beltane
Beltane originates as a Gaelic festival, one of the four mean celebrations of the year (the others being Lughnasadh, Samhain, and Imbolc). Originally, Beltane was celebrated as the beginning of summer when livestock would be let out into the higher summer pastures, however over time it became associated with Mayday and other Anglo-Saxon and Christian traditions.
References to Beltane are found in ancient literature from Ireland. These references state that Beltane is the beginning of summer and a time to perform bonfire rituals to protect cattle from harm. There is also evidence that there were gatherings at Uisneach, a large hill, to celebrate the god Belenus, a sun god in Celtic mythology. Archeological digs have found charred bones and evidence of large fires at the site, proving that these rituals did indeed take place.
The origin of the word “Beltane” is up for debate. Some scholars say it comes from Celtic “belotepnia” which means “bright fire”, which relates to the English word “bale-fire” which means “white” or “shining”. In Irish, Beltane has been called “Céadamh(ain)” meaing “first of summer”. Finally, “Mí Bhealtaine” translates to “month of Beltane” or month of May.
Rituals & Customs
During Beltane rituals, two bonfires would be lit. Herdsmen would drive cattle between the fires to cleanse and protect them for the summer. This sometimes involved cattle and people jumping over or through flames or embers, or allowing the smoke to cleanse and protect them. Another traiditon involved using the ashes from the bonfires by sprinkling them in the fields or rubbing onto a part of the body. In addition to cattle rituals, people participated in a ritual that involved putting out their hearth fires and relighting them with flames from the ritual bonfires.
Of course feasting was a major part of the Beltane festival. Lamb dishes were popular, as was a dish called caudle, which used eggs, oatmeal, milk, and butter and was cooked on the ritual fire. There was also the Beltane bannock, an oatmeal cake that was eaten as a form of protection.
As a form of divination in Scotland, an oatmeal cake was sliced and marked with charcoal. The pieces were placed into a cap or bonnet and everyone took a piece without looking. Whoever picked a slice with charcoal on it would jump through the fire three times to mimic a human sacrifice.
Visiting holy wells was popular at Beltane. People prayed for health and leave coins at the well. Another customer was for young maidens to be the first to draw the well water on Beltane morning and to wash their faces with dew that would increase their attractiveness and youthful appearance.
Flowers and bushes held special significance at Beltane. Yellow flowers particularly played a large part in celebrations and rituals because of their association with fire and sun. Primrose and marigold were place at entryways in the home, or made into crows, garlands, and bouquets and fastened onto livestock and pails used for milking and making butter. Woods such as hawthorn, gorse, and hazel were also important.
A “May Bush” was a popular custom and can still be seen today. A small bush or tree or branch was decorated with ribbons, shells, flowers, bells, and other trinkets. These resemble a kind of summer Yule log. Oftentimes one town would steal the other’s may bush. The May Bush was thought to bring blessings to a household from the tree spirit or fairy.
Although the Maypole did not originate with the Gaelic festival of Beltane, the custom has made its way into Beltane celebrations. The Maypole is most likely of Germanic origin and originated with Germanic paganism from the Iron Age. The practice was adopted by a Christianized Britain in the 14th century and celebrated the happy times of warmer weather and natural beauty.
Handfasting and the joining of the Lord and Lady are more modern Wiccan traditions, however they have become synonymous with Beltane in many modern circles.
Beltane & Fairies
Just as the costume tradition at Samhain revolved around the aos sí, Beltane traditions focused on rituals that appeased these fairies or spirits. Milk especially was placed at the thresholds of houses or near trees that were though to have fairy living nearby. Fairy forts, which are earthen mounds with circular markings that are deemed sacred spaces, played a part in cattle protection rituals. Cattle were brought to fairy forts and blood was drawn. This blood was then poured out as an offering to the fairies.
Themes of Beltane
As with all of the sabbats on the Wheel of the Year, the themes can be found by meditating on the energies of that time of year. As we’ve already seen, Beltane is associated with the following themes:
Symbols of Beltane
Symbols associated with Beltane are:
- Flowers (especially yellow ones)
- Hawthorn, birch, rowan trees
- garlands and crowns made of greenery/flowers
Correspondences of Beltane
Some of the correspondences for are:
Stones: Emerald, bloodstone, carnelian, rose quartz, malachite
Colors: silver, green, yellow, red, blue, pink (bright vibrant hues)
Herbs: Mint, mugwort, marigold, honeysuckle, rose, cornflower, hibiscus, thyme
Foods & Drinks: Bread, honey, oatmeal, cakes, dairy, strawberries.
Magick: Fertility and love magick. Sex magick (oooh la la). Divination, fairy magick, spells for abundance, unity, and celebration and rejoicing magick.
Ways to Celebrate Beltane
As modern witches and pagans, we have to find new ways to celebrate the Sabbats. Surprisingly, it is really fun and easy to come up with ways to celebrate that honor Imbolc and also fit into our busy lives. As with all magickal practices it is the intention that counts. If you are able to center in on the energies of Beltane by meditating on its themes, colors, stones, and other correspondences, you don’t need a flashy ritual (although there’s nothing wrong with it if you want to do one!) to celebrate.
Here are some celebration ideas. I’ve made them as simple as possible, so you can add on your own touches as your practice allows.
- Make an egg talisman (see the original idea and instructions here)
- Decorate your Beltane altar with fresh flowers, fairy figurines, and Beltane colors
- Make a fairy garden and leave out milk and honey
- Beltane has a crazy party energy, so feel free to party all night with others and tap into the lust and vitality of life
- Decorate a May Bush. If you do it in nature, be sure to stay away from items that will liter the area if they blow off
- Do a Maypole dance
- Meditate on the energies this time of year and allow the thinness of the veil to help you communicate with the otherworld or perform divination
- Have a bonfire and safely reenact some of the original Beltane rituals
- Seek out the fairies by spending time in nature and asking to communicate with them
- Have a dance party with friends
- It is still a great time to plant a garden!
- Drink some Beltane Tea
The Beltane recipes I chose harken back to the caudle and bannock cakes served during the Gaelic festival. Caudle is like a less-eggy version of eggnog and the bannock cake is like a dry oatmeal cake. Some sites suggested pouring your caudle over your bannock cake, which sounds delightful. Feel free to pour caudle onto the ground as a libation or leave some out for the fairies at Beltane. Enjoy!