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Beltane Customs and History

Guest Author - Leslie Ravenwing

The Sabbat of Beltane is celebrated on this date by Witches worldwide. Beltane is also known as Cetsamhain (opposite Samhain), May Day, Walpurgisnacht, and Rood Day. Roodmas, the medieval Church's name for the holiday, came from Church Fathers who were hoping to shift the common people's allegiance from the Maypole, Pagan symbol of life, to the Holy Rood - the Cross - Roman instrument of death. Beltane ushers in the fifth month of the modern calendar year, the month of May. This month is named in honor of the goddess Maia, originally a Greek mountain nymph, later identified as the most beautiful of the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. By Zeus, she is also the mother of Hermes, god of magic. Maia's parents were Atlas and Pleione, a sea nymph.

Beltane is the old Celtic name for this holiday (in its most popular Anglicized form), and is derived from the Irish Gaelic "Bealtaine" or the Scottish Gaelic "Bealtuinn.," each meaning "Bel-fire." Bel-Fire is the term for the fire of the Celtic god of light (Bel, Beli or Belinus). In turn, He may be traced to the Middle Eastern god Baal.

Although some traditions have taken to this, there is no historical justification for calling May 1st "Lady Day". For many centuries, that title was proper to the Vernal or Spring Equinox (approx. March 21st), due mainly to that date's associations with the fertility Goddesses Eostre and Ostara. The non-traditional use of "Lady Day" for May 1st is quite recent (within the last 20 years), and seems to be mainly confined to America, where it has gained widespread acceptance among certain segments of the Craft population. A glance at a dictionary ("Webster's 3rd" or Oxford English Dictionary), encyclopedia ("Benet's"), or standard mythology reference (Funk and Wagnalls' Standard Dictionary of Folklore & Mythology") confirms the correct date for Lady Day as the Vernal Equinox.

Beltane was originally a Celtic or Druidic festival of fire, celebrating the union of the Goddess and the Horned God, and the fertility in all things. In ancient days, cattle were driven through the Beltane fires for purification and fertility. In Wales,

Creiddylad was connected with this festival and often called the May Queen. The Maypole (originally a phallic symbol) and it's dance are remnants of these old festivals. Although for Pagans of old, this was a 'floating' holiday, it is May 1 that Neo-Pagans consider the great holiday of flowers, Maypoles, and greenwood frivolity.

Other May Day customs include: processions of chimney-sweepsand milk maids, archery tournaments, morris dances, sword dances, feasting, music, drinking, and maidens bathing their faces in the dew of May morning to retain their youthful beauty.

Long after the Christian form of marriage (with its insistence on sexual monogamy) had replaced the older Pagan handfasting, the rules of strict fidelity were always relaxed for the May Eve rites. Names such as Robin Hood, Maid Marion, and Little John played an important part in May Day folklore, often used as titles for the dramatis personae of the celebrations. And modern surnames such as Robinson, Hodson, Johnson, and Godkin may attest to some distant May Eve spent in the woods.

Some of these customs seem virtually identical to the old Roman feast of flowers, the Floriala, three days of unrestrained sexuality which began at sundown April 28th and reached a crescendo on May 1st.

Modern day Pagan observances of Beltane include the maypole dances, bringing in the May, and jumping the cauldron for fertility. Many couples
wishing to conceive children will jump the cauldron together at this time. Fertility of imagination and other varieties of fertility are invoked along with sexual fertility. In Wiccan and other Pagan circles, this is a joyous day, full of laughter and good times. It is still versed and sung about to this day. As recently as 1977, Ian Anderson included the following lyrics in his May Day song on the Jethro Tull album "Songs from the Wood" which contains many references to Pagan customs):

"For the May Day is the great day,
Sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did ley
Will heed this song that calls them back."

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Content copyright © 2014 by Leslie Ravenwing. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Leslie Ravenwing. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Ro Longstreet for details.

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