Beltane: Celebrating the Arrival of Summer in Wicca

by JoHarrington

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.

All hail the start of summer! We're into the light half of the year now; and the buzz of energy is building!

So pile those Beltane fires high and let's jump over them. It's a blessing from deity and a purification of soul and self. Dance the May Pole, ribbons interweaving; up, down, in, out, gasping, sliding over the shaft.

Our whole world has awoken in fertility. So much plenty in the seeds that we've sown. We're walking in the warmth again; and winter is a long way away.

What is the Wiccan Beltane?

An introduction to one of the Eight Sabbats in the Wiccan Wheel of the Year.

I was once in conversation with a fellow Wiccan and heard him say that if you could only pick two Sabbats to celebrate, they should be Beltane (pronounced Bel-tin) and Samhain.

He was wrong, of course, because they're all important in their own ways; and they each have a function on the Wheel of the Year. But I could see what he was saying.

Go back a couple of millennia and there were only ever two seasons - summer and winter, the light and dark halves of the year.  The turning point between them was marked by the two major Sabbats: Beltane (May 1st) and Samhain (November 1st).

Except we have a second consideration too. The Celts celebrated their days from sunset to sunset, hence the Sabbat celebrations start on what we'd think of as the eve.  Beltane begins at sunset on April 30th; and Samhain at sunset on October 31st.

They've entered the Christian calendars as May Day and Halloween. In Gaelic, the word for May is Beltane, hence May Day being a direct translation.

There is a lot of hope and energy at Beltane. The perils of darkness and cold are behind us. The seeds have been planted. The summer is here.

Fertility plays a major role in this festival (it has a reputation for greenwood marriages and couples emerging from quiet corners straightening their clothes). Nature is bursting with new growth and the promise of a future harvest. The ubiquitous May Poles are highly symbolic of this, with their brightly colored ribbons woven around an upright shaft.

Beltane is a fire festival too. The old wood and bones are burnt to make way for the new. Leaping over them is a blessing. It tells you that you're on your way into the bright, renewed year. You have entered the light.

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The Time Between the Times - The Thinning of the Veil

Beltane is also celebrated as a period when the wall between this world and the rest can be breached.

To truly grasp the significance of Beltane, you must first understand the ancient Celtic view of reality.

The here and now, the physical world, was not all that there was. The dead went to another plane of existence - Annwn in Welsh and Tír na nÓg in Irish Gaelic. But there were other worlds too. The Otherworlds where even more ancient Gods and Goddesses dwelt; or the realm of fairy. The two were not necessarily different places.

These endless realities spiraled around each other, as evidenced in the Celtic knotwork of the time. Separate strings interwoven, but never usually open to each other. Unless, that is, one waited at the time between the times.

The edges of things were sacred to the Celts; or, should I say, those aspects which are neither one thing nor the other. 

Take, for example, a shoreline, which is neither the ocean nor land. Or sunsets, which were neither day nor yet night. The same could be said for the dawn. New Year is another one. It's not one year or the other.  This is the origin of midnight being the Witching Hour. It's between two days.

This brings us nicely to Beltane. It stands at the junction between one half of the year and the next. It's the border of two seasons, whose celebration dates from a time when there were only two seasons.

At sunset (neither day nor night) at Beltane (neither winter nor summer) is the boundary between dark and light. This is a triple edge; thus a time between the times.

When realities thin, then the dead can be glimpsed or the denizens of the Otherworld can ride into our own. The prevalence of the May Queen can be seen in terms of the Mother Goddess or as the Queen of the Fey.

More than anything else, this is why Beltane is so special to Wiccans.

Books about Beltane

Buy these books to gain more insight into the depth of this most special Sabbat.

Beltane at the Chalice Well in Glastonbury

This footage gives you a glimpse of what happens at a Beltane celebration in Britain's most Pagan of towns.

How Witches Celebrate Beltane

Beyond the rites, there's a reckless abandon. All in their finery in a party atmosphere. Regardless of our years, we are all young at Beltane.

There is a sense at Beltane that the abnormal and strange becomes commonplace. The opening of the veil makes visions more acute; hauntings better perceived; and things happen.

Last year, in the lead up to Beltane, I was very stressed. I needed to get away. I didn't know where or what I was going to do, I merely needed a break. I packed my car up with camping equipment and took to the road.

By now, my journey wasn't entirely aimless. The night before, a foreign friend, who didn't know my country at all, had decided that I really should turn this into a quest. She gave me directions off the top of her head. I was to drive south for 75 minutes, take the third left, then the first road beginning with the letter 'G', then the next left after that. Wherever I ended up, I was to stay there for Beltane.

There was little traffic on the road and I made good time. I didn't cheat; then was stunned to discover that those directions led me straight into Glastonbury. There are few towns in Britain where Beltane is more widely and openly celebrated in huge community events.

I heard music and found what appeared to be half of the town congregated in the garden of the Goddess Hall. They danced around the May Pole, men in one direction and women in the other. Each dancer held a ribbon. They ducked under, then reached over, each brightly colored strand grasped by the people they encountered.

The ribbons wrapped around and around the stiff pole in their center. The drums beat time; the fiddles and pipes played a wonderful melody; we all sang until the whole shaft was engulfed in tightly bound color.

Beltane May Pole in Glastonbury
Beltane May Pole in Glastonbury

This wasn't the only May Pole in Glastonbury that Beltane. There were at least three more. In some ways they symbolized the wheel of the year itself, meeting at a junction at this Sabbat.

Mostly though they represented exactly what the innuendo implied. The duality of the energy - male and female, god and goddess - interweaving in throbbing fertility.

Once the pole was secured in its ribbon sheath, it was time for the Beltane fires to be lit. In the old days, these would be two enormous bonfires with cattle and other livestock driven in between to bless them.

In our days of fire health and safety, the Beltane flames tend to be smaller. After all, we are all about to leap over them.

They come alone or in pairs. Couples holding hands to jump, then landing in a hug and a kiss. Friends and strangers reaching out in fondness, grasping fingers together to make the leap.

The woman before me in the queue, as we awaited our moment to leap, turned and asked me if I would take the jump with her. I agreed. We got chatting. Her name was Alexandra which, incidentally, is also the name of the friend whose off-the-cuff directions had brought me to this place.

This was Beltane and the parties went on throughout the night. There were rituals, yes, but it was the energy and atmosphere that made that festival. The May Poles and the fires; and the wildness in the air. The carefree times had arrived.

Beltane Ritual Items for a Wiccan Altar

As one of the two major Sabbats, every Pagan will be celebrating Beltane. These pieces will look great on your altar.
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.
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.

Beltane and Me

The wheel of the year turns again, bringing a bright tomorrow and a burst of Sabbat energy.

It's almost cliched to approach Beltane with optimism, but that's precisely how I find myself at this time.

There's hope in the future and a path which I can take.  At Yule, I considered all that I wanted from my life. Work enough to fund travel; and a job that involved writing lots of articles.

By Imbolc, I had several options open, seeing which would work best.

By Ostara, I knew the way forward and it was merely a matter of fine tuning the most promising routes.

Now it's Beltane; and all of that preparation and energy is coming together. At this very moment of writing, I've just refreshed my traffic statistics. For the second time in a week, I've just had one thousand people reading my articles in a solitary day.

One thousand is the golden mean for on-line writers. It means that you're on your way.

I've had a couple of day-trips and, in the near future, a friend is taking me on holiday. The travel is falling into place. And are the articles paying? My Runescape ones have earned me a tour inside the hallowed Jagex Studios. That will happen at Beltane.

So yes, writing for Wizzley has brought me travel. The Beltane energy merely cut out the middle means and linked the two directly.

It feels like something is building. A life that is both bright and full of promise and potential; and that, for this festival, is exactly right.

Blessed Beltane all!

The Annual Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill

A Performance at the Annual Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill

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Articles about the Wiccan Wheel of the Year

With the day and night of equal length, this is the time of the greening. The Goddess Eostre is free of the cold Earth and all is fertile.
The height of summer - the longest day - is a time of great celebration, but it also means that the dark days are coming again.
Lughnasadh occurs exactly half a year after Imbolc. What happened to all of those seeds that you planted then?
Day and night are of equal length, and the harvest moon sees the last crops in. A new phase of repose begins, as the wind carries the winter chill.
Updated: 04/16/2014, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 04/23/2012

It sounds like the old traditions are going on there, though it can't be all that Celtic, if it's happening in Sweden too!

Thanks for the insight here, especially where our traditions differ. I find this stuff fascinating.

Guest on 04/23/2012

We do Walpurgis night in Sweden April 30 or May 1. For most of Sweden it's just big bonfires and singing and people just do it as tradition with no real meaning anymore, but for college students it's and excuse to get little nutty with the partying, especially in Uppsala. We do a pole at the summer solstice, midsommar, here.

JoHarrington on 04/23/2012

You're welcome. I look forward to reading more, when you have your words back in order. :)

JSheaForrest on 04/23/2012

Well that's because I wrote that yesterday, and in doing so, used up all my pretty words. :P I can't even think of the word for knowing the right word to say, lol. But thank you, that means a lot to me. <3

JoHarrington on 04/23/2012

Having just read your Wizzography, I beg to disagree. <3

JSheaForrest on 04/23/2012

That's a really admirable, interesting way of thinking! I wish I knew a better way to word that, but words are not working well with me today.

JoHarrington on 04/23/2012

You know, that's a really good question. I believe that the energy that you put into something often results in the energy that you take out. I suppose that you could call it karma or cause and effect, but that doesn't quite encompass what it feels like.

It's like some mingling of the time of year; the presence of the God and Goddess (with me still believing that I have free will here); me working with the natural energies of the world; and me working full stop towards what I want to happen with my life. That's real magic, none of this waving sticks around nonsense. :)

JSheaForrest on 04/23/2012

I'm neither atheist nor Wiccan, but I do believe in an Orchestrator of No-Mere-Coincidence (God.) Just wondering, if I can ask without sounding rude, who or what do you believe ... for lack of a better phrase... caused that no-mere-coincidence?

JoHarrington on 04/23/2012

I have Atheist friends who would be calling coincidence right around now. They'd also be pointing out that we all LOOK for things to add up at Beltane, so naturally we'll find them.

But I'm not an Atheist, I'm a Wiccan. I see Beltane. :D

JSheaForrest on 04/23/2012

That is really neat. The coincidences in your quest are really thought-provoking-- is there something that orchestrated all that, I wonder? =)

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