The Great Wheel turns again! Today, May 1st, marks the midway point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. It is the peak of Spring, where we celebrate the longer days, warmer nights, and the blooming of flowers.
It’s a holiday with, as it turns out, a bit of a complex background. Like the Easter bunny doesn’t fit with the Christian celebration of Easter (but it does with the New Age Ostara festival), there are two elements of Beltane that seem to conflict: Fire and Flowers.
So where do they come from? And why are they celebrated together? More importantly, how can I include them both in a way that is both honoring the day and makes me feel a little better during this crazy time in human history?
What is Beltane?
Beltane derives its name from the Celtic God Bel or Belenos, the God of the Sun and healing. Similar to the Greek and Roman Sun deities, he was thought to haul the sun around in a chariot through the sky. The “-tane” part come from the Gaelic word “teine,” meaning fire. Together, the word “Beltane” means “fire of the God Bel.”
Fires were lit in the fields, most likely to burn away the dead brush to prepare the fields for the summer planting, but, as happens, the stories were shifted to suggest that the fires were a symbolic cleansing of the fields that would protect them and help the harvest to be more bountiful. Similarly, the cows and people would walk between the fires to let the smoke wash over them in order to cleanse and protect them. The fires would be lit on the Eve of May 1st, and then, the next day when the fires had burnt out, the ash would be spread in the fields to bless them for a bountiful harvest.
Science tells us that fire does actually help plants to grow. Rather, the ash brings important nutrients to the soil. I love it when science and spirituality meet!
That’s fire, but where do the flowers come in?
So jump a small ways forward to the Roman empire where there is the festival of Floralia, a celebration to honor the Goddess Flora who reigns over fertility and, yep, flowers. Celebrations included singing, dancing, feasting, stripteases and other displays of overt sexuality.
Now, the two are celebrated together, and are more openly expressed than you might think: May Day celebrations with the Maypole and the dancing and singing and wrapping ribbons around a giant pole? Yep, this is where it comes from.
Look at those sweet, young, innocent virgins (using the original definition meaning “unmarried woman”) decorating that phallus, and look at how happy they all look! It’s not as sweet and innocent as it looks, or at least it didn’t used to be. Sometimes the celebrations would involve coupling in the fields, with the sexual act representing the pairing of God and Goddess and symbolically fertilizing the fields.
You’ve seen this before, I bet. Did you see the Mists of Avalon made for TV movie with Julianna Margulies? There’s a scene where a young Arthur ends up sleeping with his half-sister, Morgaine, as part of a celebration where he wore a mask representing the Horned God, and she wore a mask to represent the Goddess. It may have been Beltane, or it may have been the next holiday on the list, but, either way, this isn’t as taboo an idea as most would think.
How can this help me during Quarantine?
So, maybe you aren’t ready to jump head on into the Wicca/New Age/Pagan route, but that doesn’t mean you can’t embrace some of the ideas that stem from some of the celebrations. After all, at the end of the day, all these holidays are about is the cycles of the seasons and nature, which is something that we as a species have been kind of neglecting up until the Pandemic forced us all into hiding in our houses.
I have a theory about how part of what’s wrong with the world and society is directly related to how we’ve stepped away from some really important aspects of the old ways, but that’s for another post. If you’re curious why I think it’s important to reconnect, the easiest place to start is to look at how the linear way of thinking and more cyclical way of thinking clash and need to learn to coexist.
Here’s a TED talk that is actually about business, but he explains my point using a story about Alexander the Great meeting a gymnosophist in India (to get to the story, start at 3:09)
Meanwhile, back to Beltane. Here are a few suggestions of things you can do today (or this weekend, since I’m behind schedule) to really connect with this particular cycle of the seasons:
Meditate: Use this time to clear the mental clutter similar to how they would burn the old dead brush from the fields. Take some time to pray or sit in silence and focus on your health and prosperity. Light a candle, stare at the flame, let it focus your thoughts.
And speaking of fire: Light a small fire in a fire pit in your backyard or a candle, if there’s not a backyard or a fire pit available. Write on paper what you want to release/remove/let die from your life and put the paper in the fire. Want to take that to the next level?
Plant something: Plant a flower or a garden. You can use the ashes from the fire to help enrich the soil, just like in a traditional Beltane festival. You might even “plant” a wish. Write down what you want to bring into your life (more money, better job, a lover, protection from the CoronaVirus, etc.) and bury it in your little garden or flowerbed. Then, by sprinkling the ashes, you are symbolically helping life to spring from death.