A Blessed Beltane to You
It’s the Beltane season for our Northern Hemisphere readers, and the traditional time to begin observing the fertility celebrations. If you lived in rural England a few centuries ago, you’d be preparing your bonfire, and figuring out which of your lusty neighbors you wanted to pair off with for the evening. In Germanic countries, they’re busy getting ready for Walpurgisnight, and the ancient Romans were gearing up for their annual Floralia party.
Set up your Maypole and get ready to welcome the greening of the earth. No matter how you choose to observe it, Beltane is a time to honor the fertility and rebirth of the land, the abundance of life that returns to us each year after the cold winter months have passed. May you and yours have a fruitful and blessed Beltane.
Beltane Rites and Rituals
There are a number of ways you can celebrate Beltane on May 1. Hold a bonfire ceremony, a traditional Maypole dance, or even a Handfasting celebration! Beltane is a time to celebrate fertility and the greening of the earth. Try some of these celebrations and ritual ideas at Beltane to honor the arrival of spring and new life.
Okay, so we know that Beltane is a fertility festival… but how do you translate that into altar setup? Here are some tips about how to set up your altar to celebrate the Beltane sabbat.
Beltane is a celebration of fertility and fire, and a number of our readers have shared their altar decorations with us. Check out this image gallery to see how other Pagans and Wiccans set up their altar for Beltane.
Celebrate Beltane with a Maypole Dance
The Maypole is one of the traditional symbols of Beltane, and let’s not kid ourselves about its purpose: it’s a giant phallus. Because Beltane festivities usually kicked off the night before with a big bonfire, the Maypole celebration usually took place shortly after sunrise the next morning. This was when couples (and probably more than a few surprised triads) came staggering in from the fields, clothes in disarray and straw in their hair after a night of bonfire-inspired lustiness. Here’s How:
- The pole was erected on the village green or common, or even a handy field — thrust into the ground either permanently or on a temporary basis — and brightly colored ribbons attached to it. Young people came and danced around the pole, each holding the end of a ribbon. As they wove in and out, men going one way and women the other, it created a sleeve of sorts — the enveloping womb of the earth — around the pole. By the time they were done, the Maypole was nearly invisible beneath a sheath of ribbons.
- To set up your own Maypole dance, here’s what you’ll need:
- A pole anywhere from 15 to 20 feet long, preferably made of wood
- Guests who like to have fun
Dig a hole in advance, a few feet deep. You don’t want your friends to wait while you hunt for a shovel. The hole should be at least three feet deep, to keep the pole from flopping over during the ceremony.
- Ask each participant to bring their own ribbon — it should be about 20 feet long, by two to three inches wide. Once everyone arrives, attach the ribbons to one end of the pole (if you put a metal eyelet screw in the pole beforehand, it makes it a lot easier — you can just tie each ribbon to the eyelet). Have extra ribbons on hand, because inevitably someone will have forgotten theirs.
- Once the ribbons are attached, raise the pole until it is vertical, and slide it into the hole. Be sure to make lots of bawdy jokes here. Pack dirt in around the base of the pole so it won’t shift or fall during the dance.
- If you don’t have an equal number of male and female guests, don’t worry. Just have everyone count off by twos. People who are “1” will go in a clockwise direction, people who are “2” go counterclockwise. Hold your ribbons in the hand that is closest to the pole, your inside hand. As you move in the circle, pass people by on first the left, and then the right, then the left again. If you’re passing them on the outside, hold your ribbon up so they pass under it. You might want to do a practice round beforehand. Keep going until everyone runs out of ribbon, and then knot all the ribbons at the bottom.
- One thing that’s always welcome at a Maypole Dance is music. There are a number of CDs available, but there are some bands whose music have a May theme to them. Look for the phrase “Morris music” or traditional pipe and drum tunes. Of course, the best thing of all is to have live music, so if you have friends who are willing to share their skill and sit out the dance, ask them to provide some musical entertainment for you.
Tips: If you’re doing a kids’ Maypole, it’s probably easier just to have them all go in one direction with their ribbons. It doesn’t look quite as fancy when it’s done, but it’s still pretty. You may want to have a crown of flowers attached as well — put that at the top once all the ribbons are in place, but before you raise the pole.
What You Need: A pole, Lots of ribbon, Friends who like to have a good time
Hold a Beltane Bonfire Rite
The Beltane bonfire is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. The fire was more than a big pile of logs and some flame. It was a place where the entire community gathered around — a place of music and magic and dancing and lovemaking. It was customary to light the fire on May Eve (the last night of April) and allow it to burn until the sun went down on May 1. The bonfire was lit with a bundle made from nine different types of wood and wrapped with colorful ribbons. Once the fire was blazing, a piece of smoldering wood was taken to each home in the village, to ensure fertility throughout the summer months.
- This was typically the time of year when fairs and markets were held, and as most country villages had a common or a green of some sort, there was always room for merriment. Depending on where you live, you might not have enough space for a big bonfire or dancing — and that’s okay. Just make do with what you have. An alternative to a large bonfire might be a small fire bowl (they’re usually available at discount stores and home improvement chains) or even a tabletop brazier. If you’re in an apartment and space is at a premium, consider building your fire in a small cauldron or other heat resistant bowl.
- Beltane is the spring counterpart to Samhain. While in the autumn, everything is dying, in spring it comes alive, glorious and bursting free from the earth. Beltane is about fertility and sex and passion and life. This ceremony is designed for a group, and includes a symbolic union of the May Queen and the King of the Forest. Depending on the relationship between the people playing these roles, you can get as lusty as you like. If you’re doing a family-oriented Beltane celebration, you may choose instead to keep things fairly tame.
- For this ritual you’ll need the following:
- A bonfire — set it up ahead of time, and designate someone to be in charge of lighting and tending it
- A May Queen — if possible, select a woman to play this part who is still within her childbearing years
- A King of the Forest — any adult man can play this role, but it’s even better if he’s someone who is actually partnered with the woman playing the May Queen
- Drums and other noisemakers
- Optional: a crown of flowers for each of the females present
- Optional: a headdress of antlers for each of the males present
- First, have the group circle around the fire, with the May Queen and the King of the Forest on opposite sides. The High Priest (HP) or High Priestess (HPs) should welcome everyone with something like this:
Beltane is here! It is a time when the earth is fertile and full.
Long ago, our ancestors planted their fields at Beltane.
The fields that lay fallow for months are now warm and waiting.
The soil that was dormant for the winter now begs us to plant our seeds.
The earth is awakening and ripe, and this is a season of love and passion.
It is a season of fire.
- At this point, the fire starter should begin lighting the bonfire. The HP or HPS continues:
As our fires grow, lighting up the night sky, the fire within us grows stronger.
It is the fire of lust and passion, knowing that like the earth, we too are fertile.
Tonight, the God emerges from the forest. He is known by many names —
he is Pan, Herne, Cernunnos, the Green Man. He is the God of the Forest.
Tonight is the night he will chase and capture the maiden.
She is the Queen of the May, Aphrodite, Venus, Cerridwen.
She is the Goddess of fields and flowers, she is Mother Earth herself.
- As the HP introduces the God of the Forest and the May Queen, they should each step forward into the circle. The HP says:
Bring fertility to the land! Let the hunt begin!
- At this point, the May Queen and the God of the Forest begin the chase, traveling sunwise around the circle, weaving in and out of the other participants. Remember, the May Queen wants to make love to the God of the Forest. This is a fun chase, a joyful courtship, not a mock rape; make sure both parties understand this and prepare accordingly. She can even allow him to get close to her, pretending she’s ready to join him… and then slipping away at the last second. They should travel the circle three times in the chase, and finally stop at a point in front of the bonfire — hopefully, it will be burning well by now.
- While the God of the Forest is pursuing his lady love, everyone else in the circle starts drumming. Start of slowly — after all, a courtship can take some time to get started. As the couple begins to speed up, increase the tempo of the music. If you’d like to chant instead of or in addition to drumming, go ahead. There are many popular traditional chants in Wicca and Paganism, and nearly all sound good when you sing them with a group. When the May Queen and the God of the Forest finally complete their three-times journey of the circle, the drums should stop abruptly.
- The HP says:
Fire and passion, love and life, brought together as one.
At this point, the May Queen says to the God of the Forest:
I am the earth, the womb of all creation.
Within me, new life grows each year.
Water is my blood, air my breath, and fire is my spirit.
I give you honor, and shall create new life with you.
The God of the Forest replies to her, saying:
I am the rutting stag, the seed, the energy of life.
I am the mighty oak that grows in the forest.
I give you honor, and shall create new life with you.
- The couple kisses, long and passionate. If they’re feeling really lusty, they can fall to the ground and roll around for a while — feel free to cover them with a blanket if you like. This kiss (or more) is the symbolic union of the male and female spirit, the great rite between man and woman. Once the embrace is broken, the HP calls out:
The earth is once more growing new life within! We shall be blessed with abundance this year!
- Everyone else in the circle claps and cheers — after all, you’ve just guaranteed that your village will have hearty crops and strong livestock this year! Celebrate by dancing around the bonfire, drumming and singing. When you are ready, end the ritual.
Tips: If you have a woman in your group who is trying to conceive, she is absolutely the best choice for the role of May Queen. Her partner or lover may act the part of the God of the Forest, or another man may stand in as a symbolic consort.
What You Need: A bonfire, A couple willing to play the parts of May Queen and God of the Forest, Drums and noisemakers
Handfastings: A Pagan and Wiccan Wedding Primer
More and more Pagans and Wiccans are turning to handfasting rituals, rather than traditional weddings. Here’s where you’ll find information about the history of the custom, as well as proper handfasting etiquette, and ideas for ceremonies.
Are you Pagan clergy with services to offer our readers, such as handfastings, baby blessings, or memorial celebrations? You can post your listings here! Readers, if you’re looking for Pagan clergy in your area, be sure to check our listings to see who’s near you.
Handfasting was common centuries ago in the British Isles, and then vanished for a while. Now, however, it’s seeing a rising popularity among Wiccan and Pagan couples who are interested in tying the knot. Find out where this custom came from, and what brought it back.
All Excerpts from Patti Wiginton on about.com