Beltane: Traditional Time for a Pagan Handfasting

by JoHarrington

There's a reason why so many Pagans are handfast at Beltane. That's the Sabbat that celebrates the Great Wedding of the Goddess and the God.

Beltane is life. Beltane is fire, passion and fertility. Beltane is that bright, shining moment when barren winter is finally put to past, and all that lies ahead is summer.

The Celtic cry of Sovereignty heralds the start of the Wild Hunt. Gwyn ap Nudd pursues his elusive white hart. In Maiden form, the Goddess awakes from Her cold, crone slumber; Her young and virile Consort awaits Her coming. The Green Man mates with Mother Earth. Gwenhwyfar's May Tree blooms white flowers amid the thorns. Nature's buds begin to open. Signal the Hunt for Eostre's eggs!

In the greenwood, young men and women search all night for a Maypole. A sturdy shaft to erect in the center of their village green. They don't do much looking. Between giggling, song, and the rustling in the hedgerow, the ritual is done before the interweaving dance is ever performed in public.

Nobody asks too many questions in the dark. All is allowed on this May Eve night; when the veil between the worlds is thin, and everything in nature is in accord. And if a baby's cry pierces the air in nine months' time, then it is blessed and welcome.

Erect your bone-fires, dance between them; take your King to ride the White Horse. Enter enchanted the Greenwood Wedding. Wrap your ribbon around the pole, up and down, up and down. Choose your May Queen to parade in flowers with Her King. Tie the knot in a Beltane handfasting.

The Great Wedding of Goddess and God is enacted again; as above, so below.

Why Do So Many Pagans Get Married at Beltane?

As auspicious times to marry go, Beltane is generally seen as the big one. All of nature is engaged in unions of creation; and the Goddess is with Her Consort.

There is nothing subtle about how Beltane has been celebrated through the ages.

My frenzied hurtling through the traditions above covered many centuries. The rites may change, as cultures change, but the underlying message is always the same.

Fertility. Union. Mating. Nature is blooming and so are you. There's an energy buzzing in the world, triggering every spiritual compass to point due procreation.

In the old Celtic calendar, there were only ever two seasons. Summer gave way to winter at Samhain; then six months later, Beltane marked the reverse.

Spring and autumn were added much later, facilitating an utterly non-magical restructuring of Roman administration. It's much easier to keep on top of data as quarterly returns. Plus more festivals could be squeezed into the new configuration, keeping all the Empire happy.

Some Pagans celebrate Beltane as New Year's Eve, contemplating a brand new beginning in the awakening of the natural world. It's an obvious time to handfast then, entering a changed life too brought about by your union.

Pagans tend to act in sympathy with the energy of the season - slowing down in winter, rushing around in summer; sowing seeds at Imbolc, looking to harvest them at Lughnasad - and Beltane as the dawning of a fresh year bodes well for a couple newly enjoined.

This is also the impetus for a Beltane wedding that you can tell your non-Pagan friends and family, if you think they'd be shocked by the reality.

It's all about fertility. You know it's about fertility. Though you could add for the muggles that Pagans marry on May Day, as the new growth and flowers look wonderful in the background of the wedding photographs. It's as good a lie as any, rooted in truth and hinting at the reasons why.

As energy goes, Beltane handfastings are practically mandatory, except for those too young or old to feel its pull.*  Sap is rising in the woods; see it in the flirting on the green. The birds and the bees are soaring; feel it flush your body in heat. Plant stems are pushing harder, higher, thrusting through the Earth, rewarded at last by experiencing that glorious burst of sunshine. Hear an invigorated passion for society and life, as people all around you make plans to meet up over the summer.

Pagans handfast at Beltane, because all instinct carries them that way. They're riding a tide much bigger than themselves. Obeying a call that has nothing to do with reason, and all to do with life and a fire burning inside.

Everything is blatant in how Beltane has traditionally been celebrated. A handfasting at least casts a mantle of respectability over proceedings, and commits the marriage more than a mere dalliance in the greenwood.


* Or the Irish. Though I should qualify that before someone sets Morrighan on my tail.  The Irish are perfectly capable of celebrating Beltane. They've have centuries of practice, not forgetting the fact that they named it.  It's more the handfasting thing that the Gaels treat with caution.

There are many Irish (Pagan or otherwise) who do not view Beltane as a good time for a wedding nor, indeed, any date in May. Those unions tend not to last very long. I did have an Irish witch explain to me that the Lord and Lady don't like the competition, and this is their big month.

Short-term handfastings (a year and a day or greenwood) are fine. They aren't meant to last anyway.

Green Lady Goddess and the Green Man

Behind any legend involving the Green Man is a Beltane tale of fertility. The natural world personified is enflamed into life by his union with the Goddess.
Beltane is a time of fertility, renewal and fire. It's between the end of darkness and the beginning of light. The veil is very thin.
Traditionally, Beltane bridal dresses are green, red or white/silver. To match the Lady as a May Queen bride, you will need to don a green handfasting gown.

The Great Wedding of the Goddess and the God

Wiccan circles everywhere act out the divine stories during each turning of the wheel. If you get married at Beltane, you'll be pulling off the ultimate in deity role-playing!

There are so many iterations of this story, that I could either write two lines or a novel. I'll try to aim for somewhere in the middle, providing a basic outline for those new to the concept.

However, please be warned that I've come up with a version of the legend that probably won't be familiar to anyone. 

This is due to me tying together common themes in a single story, rather than focusing on any one in particular.

I believe that I've pretty much hammered home the point that Beltane is all about fertility (and fire). However, this is a slightly bigger deal than some goddess getting up the duff after a quickie, and causing half the world's mortal women to invest in a Baby Name Book too.

Beltane marks the moment when the Great Mother is reunited with the Great Father. As the archetypal parents of all creation, there isn't a thing alive that doesn't feel the impact of their union. This is the Great Wedding of the Goddess and the God, that completes one circle, represents another and becomes the beginning of a third.

Though circles being circles, we do have to ask ourselves whether any start or end; and if the aforementioned three aren't really just one, as seen from different angles.

Their divine love-making releases the life-force kept dormant in the Mother's womb, since late last year, when she bid her Consort farewell. This is the spark that rushes in a frenzy through all of nature, sounding the clarion call for hibernating seeds to stir and grow for summer; reinvigorating the hedgerows; and generally producing that burst of energy that brings a lot more color into the world.

Though remember that all of this IS the Great Mother too. Arising fully from Her slumber and now being utterly fertilized by Her Consort God.

For the moment we're at the very dawn of summer. It's not only the Mother and Father who have been in exile. We're all feeling the effects of a long, dreary winter and ready to shake off the cobwebs and run wild again. Beltane is our big moment to do that, when all temporary bouts of madness can be blamed on the intoxication of spring. In sheer relief at breaking on through the cold, dark months, we may lose our inhibitions with impunity.

It's only the Great Mother and Great Father working their rejuvenating magic through us. Sing, dance, laugh, shout, scream your barbaric yalp from the rooftops of the world, celebrate, party, pretend you're an aeroplane with arms outstretched, and embark upon reckless, ill-advised flings. All such behavior merely proves that you're in tune with nature.

Though, of course, if you're choosing this Sabbat to be handfast, that last one might be more ill-advised than usual. Go for another glass of mead instead.

Some of the Fertility Goddesses Going Slightly Crazy This Season

That's Sheela Na Gig, Gaia and the Venus of Willendorf throwing off their glad rags and heading out for the universal party.

Divine Couples Enjoying the Great Wedding of God and Goddess

These aren't all of them. There's probably a thirteen volume reference guide to be written that lists all of them. It's certainly not within the scope of a mere Wizzley article!

Mother Earth and Father Sky. This IS the big union for most Pagans.

Mother Earth fully awakens deep underground, and pushes Her shoots towards the surface of the soil. Father Sky (aka the Sun) was been busy in the other hemisphere. But now He is ready to give us some long days of sunshine.

The Great Wedding occurs when the Goddess's flora burst free of the ground and Father Sky greets Her with sunlight.

May Queen and May King. Not actually divine, as this involves human representatives of Mother Earth and Father Sky. Their symbolic union is also called Heiros Gamos.

The Goddess of Sovereignty and the King.  Only one is actually divine, though you wouldn't know it to read half of the Welsh and Irish legends.

Beltane was the traditional time for a ruler to become ritually wedded to the land. This often involved a white mare for reasons that I'm way too young to know about, let alone repeat here. Some have pointed towards this as the origin for the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss and the Welsh Mari Lwyd.

Great Mother and her Young Consort. In some ways, this is very similar to Mother Earth and Father Sky, but also vastly different. (It's the Great Wedding coupling that I was taught when I was a baby noob witch, so it's the one that I still mentally default to considering.)

The Wheel of the Year sees the Goddess changing aspect but never dying. Conversely, the God is annually born anew, lives a full life in one year and is ritually sacrificed at harvest time. It helps if you think of Him as corn, which - on some level - He is.

Right now, the God is BOTH the Horned One, running wild in the forest, hunter and hunted, AND the dormant seed ready to spring into life upon contact with the Goddess. Beltane is pretty much contact being made, vigorously.

However, that union also brings together the Divine Feminine and the Divine Masculine. This duality theme also turns up a lot in Beltane rituals, particularly in men dressed as women to represent it. All things in one - darkness/light; winter/summer; this world/Otherworld/Underworld; life/death; death/life (yes, there is a distinction) etc. - perfectly aligned.  (And duality, particularly at Beltane, also explains why Celtic fertility and death deities tend to be the same divine individuals.)

Their coupling creates more than a buzz in nature. It unleashes consciousness too. It makes all things possible, and facilitates the bringing together of new ideas. It's hope on the cusp of summer.

Cords for a Beltane Handfasting

Looking to emulate the Divine Force and become handfast this Beltane? I'm going to assume that you're not Irish, as you check out these Beltane Handfasting Cords.

More Wizzley Articles about Pagan Handfastings

Tying the knot is very precisely applied in the Pagan world. Buy a handfasting cord for your Wiccan wedding, which unites not only the happy couple, but above and below as well.
I first officiated at a Wiccan Handfasting in 1998. As a High Priestess, I get to see all of the background stuff which makes up the big day.
For centuries, Welsh women have got the message when presented with a hand-carved wooden spoon. It means he's very interested indeed.
Wiccans aren't very good at being told what they can and can't wear, especially when it involves their own handfasting. Anything goes! (But especially red wedding dresses.)
Updated: 04/30/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 05/01/2014

Awww! Thank you. :) I've been a High Priestess for a very long time, and fortunate to have chatted with some great people too. Plus I tore my religion to shreds for my MA, then put it back together again afterwards. Sometimes you have to do that to see how things work.

And in Wicca, you should ALWAYS question everything.

frankbeswick on 05/01/2014

This article could have been written only by one who genuinely believes in what she is saying. The reason that I say this is that it is so full of genuine enthusiasm for the belief system that it proclaims. Truthfulness/honesty has a certain spirit/character about it. Sincerity shines through it.

JoHarrington on 05/01/2014

No, Beltane is at this time, with Samhain in the autumn, but right at the end of it. I really enjoyed Rosemary Sutcliffe's books.

Guest on 05/01/2014

I remember Rosemary Sutcliffe's books, where her characters jumped through the Beltane fires. At least I think it was the Beltane fires and not the Samhain ones. For some reason I always had Beltane at Autumn Equinox though it makes more sense for it to be Spring.

JoHarrington on 04/13/2014

It sounds like your Shamans used it in the same way that the British did. Beltane is about cleansing too. The Celts used to have two fires, which they drove their cattle between for blessing. I've jumped over plenty of Beltane fires myself for the same reason.

Tolovaj on 04/13/2014

Burning stuff has many effects and side-effects. It' helps us cleaning the mess and create some space for something new. It gives us warmth (nights in April can be still pretty cold). It can make us dizzy (several tribes use this to inspire shamans). We (and many other nations) used bonfires to warn people in neighborhood against invasions (in our case Turks). And there are of course smoke signals ... Fire has so many powers!

JoHarrington on 04/13/2014

The original bonfires involved burning bones, that's why we call them bonfires. It's not a typo. <3

And glad that you liked it. :D

Fargy on 04/13/2014

Lovely article. Bone-Fires? In the first paragraph.

JoHarrington on 04/12/2014

I so did. :) I did have much more on the Statue of Liberty in there, but it wasn't really that relevant, so I took it out. I've put it aside for a future article, as I think I promised you one on that ages ago.

Ember on 04/12/2014

I hope you had as much fun writing this as I has reading it.


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