By Louise Clover
For practicing Wiccans, the end of April and beginning of May is when the traditional holiday of Beltane falls. The word ‘Beltane’ originates from a combination of Celtic and Gaelic words that brings the meaning, ‘Bright Fire’. This is important to know as one of the main activity of Beltane is lighting bonfires.
The rough time for Beltane celebration is between the sunset of April 30th to the sunset of May 1st.
Originally known as ‘Gardanarian’, the Beltane festival is a celebration of life. Don’t be surprised to find Beltane decorations to include plenty of seedlings and flowers. Colors associated with the holiday are lush greens and bright Spring colors; yellows, purples and blues. This is a time when we hold the agriculture and fertility Gods and Goddesses in higher esteem than usual. Some of those Gods and Goddesses are Gaia, the Triple Moon Goddess, and the Green Man. We dedicate rituals, prayers, and spells to Them so that worshipers may reap their abundance come Litha (the summer equinox).
Beltane is a time when the Maiden Goddess, or the May Queen, has reached sexual maturity. Verdant soil is a physical manifestation of Her. The Green Man or the May King, falls in love with the Maiden Goddess. He then wins her heart and asks for her hand in a sacred marriage. This ‘heiros gamos’ (Ancient Greek for ‘holy marriage’) is one of the major causes for celebration amid Beltane.
There are of course several ways to celebrate Beltane and the wonderful union between the May Queen and May King. So the next time Beltane shows up on the Wheel of the Year, you’ll be better prepared to celebrate it.
Setting Up A Beltane Altar
First, readers should stay reminded that there is no such thing as a ‘right’ altar. Use objects and crystals that speak to you and the occasion. Listed here are some guidelines of what someone might find on a typical Beltane altar.
Light Brown and light green candles are a great way to incorporate a fire element to your altar. If your space doesn’t allow for candles, you could also use a small cauldron on a fireproof tile.
Don’t forget to include elements to symbolize the May King and Queen. These elements include acorns, antlers, and seeds to represent the May King’s fertility. Circular objects such as a ring or flower wreath represent the May Queen. Of course one can also use statues to depict the May King and Queen.
Beltane is also known as the celebration of fairies in certain regions. So feel free to include fairy garden plants or figures to your altar. Flowers for this particular holiday include hyacinths, daisies, tulips and forsythias.
One of the most fulfilling things about practicing Wicca is the ability to personalize your rituals and prayers. You can adjust them to what calls to your soul the most. Remember that there is no rigid set of prayers to follow. Your needs will shape your ceremonies.
Some of the well known deities across Beltane to include in your prayers are:
- Cernunnos (Celtic),
- Flora (Roman),
- Hera (Greek)
- Bes (Egyptian)
- Pan (Greek)
- Bacchus (Roman)
- Mbaba Mwana Waresa (Zulu)
You could also send a prayer up to the May Queen herself with this well known prayer:
The leaves are budding across the land
on the ash and oak and hawthorn trees.
Magic rises around us in the forest
and the hedges are filled with laughter and love.
Dear lady, we offer you a gift,
a gathering of flowers picked by our hands,
woven into the circle of endless life.
The bright colors of nature herself
blend together to honor you,
Queen of spring,
as we give you honor this day.
Spring is here and the land is fertile,
ready to offer up gifts in your name.
we pay you tribute, our lady,
daughter of the Fae,
and ask your blessing this Beltane.
For many religious rites, fire represents cleansing, rebirth and renewal. This still rings true for Beltane. Yet, it is also a physical manifestation of the May King and Queen’s courtship and union.
Bonfires are a great group activity for celebrating Beltane. Firewood for the bonfire is usually wrapped in multi-colored ribbons. These ribbons represent different colors of Spring. Depending on the participants of the ritual, it can be quite tame to explicit.
This is a voluntary experience. The ceremony begins with the choosing of the two roles, the May King and Queen. Of course, these participants do not have to obey heteronormative rules. Two May Queens or two May Kings does not change the ritual at all. Their purpose is to ‘court’ and celebrate their union. Participants clap and play drums or other types of noisemakers.
Someone volunteers as the High Priest or Priestess. Their role is to assure the bonfire ritual runs according to plan.
On the evening of April 30th, the May Queen and King will stand on opposite sides of an unlit bonfire. The High Priestess/Priest will introduce them to the crowd of participants, then light the ceremonial bonfire to begin the ritual.
Blessings and prayers are often repeated during this process.
The May Queen and King run in a clockwise circle. Do keep in mind that this is a ‘joyful courtship’. The running is meant to be coy and flirtatious. This is a consenting relationship and the consent should be clear to all participants.
As the two begin their courtship, the drummers and clappers will begin their music. It should begin with a slow tempo, with a gradual increase in speed towards the middle. After completing three rounds around the bonfire, the ritual ends in an abrupt crescendo with the meeting of the May Queen and King.
The High Priestess/Priest will then ask the May Queen and King to proclaim their love for each other. After such proclamations of love and honor, the May Queen and King will share a kiss.
Do not feel pressured to turn this into a long, lusty ordeal. The kiss is symbolic of the union between the May Queen and King. Although if the participants are willing, it is fine to allow them to fall and roll on the ground for a few minutes.
Concluding The Ceremony
After the symbolic union, the High Priest/Priestess will declare the Mother Earth fertilized. This is where the drummers and clappers are then beckoned to join in dancing and celebrating around the bonfire. These fires are burnt all through the night until the sunset of May 1st.
The Maypole Dance is hardly new. Famous throughout England and Germany, it’s celebrated on the 1st of May. This tradition dates back to ancient religions. Back then they used to dance and plait ribbons around whole trees. There is an agreement between historians that the Maypole Dance originated as a fertility ritual in Germany. The custom spread throughout Great Britain through passing of generations, travel, and conquering.
There is a similar festival celebrated by the Ancient Greeks known as Floralia. They would dance around a pole or tree, cleaned of its leaves and branches. Often wrapped in garlands of ivy and violet instead of ribbons. Floralia falls on the 28th of April for the Ancient Greeks as part of their Spring celebration.
Planning in advance is an essential step to the maypole dance. The first step is to dig a hole to the appropriate depth. A maypole can range anywhere from 15 to 20 ft. Participants will often bring their own ribbons. The ribbons measure the same length of the pole and the more colorful the better. Running out of ribbons in the middle of a maypole dance is a very disappointing feeling indeed.
Participants are often single young adults. The young adults wear flower crowns to represent the May Queen and King. The maypole itself represents the symbol of male fertility. The ribbons woven around the pole are an actualization of the love and warmth provided by the female. Of course your maypole activity doesn’t have to conform to this. This can be a family-friendly activity without any mention of its history.
Time to set up your maypole. When every participant has arrived attach their ribbons to the top of the pole. Slide the pole vertically into the prepared hole. Don’t forget to pack dirt around it so that it doesn’t topple over on unsuspecting participants. Pro Tip: keep extra ribbons around in case somebody forgets theirs.
There are of course plenty of variants to plaiting the ribbons around the maypole. More complicated maypoles will achieve a weave that resembles a May Basket. Keep in mind that an intricate weave will make it difficult to unwind after the dance is over.
It is tradition to have live music playing in the background for the Maypole Dance. If you don’t have access to that, you could also use Germanic folk music or anything that falls within the “Morris Dance Music” category. These dedicated musicians specialize in playing instruments that were popular 400 years ago. That includes the pipe and tabor.
Since Beltane is a celebration of the May Queen and King’s marriage, many Wiccans choose to hold their own weddings during this magical time. Known as ‘handfasting ceremonies‘, there are those that disagree with this practice. Those opposed believe that hosting a handfasting ceremony at the same time is ‘competing against’ the May Queen and King’s ceremony.
There is of course no ‘right’ answer. It’s always advised in Wicca that rituals and ceremonies are sacred and tailored to an individual’s needs.
So for those wanting to have an alternative to traditional organized religion weddings, handfasting is a great way to do this.
What is the difference?
Handfasting at its core is a couple declaring their love for one another in a non-legal setting. This means no marriage license or state approval required.
In more modern twists, there are ways to host a handfasting ceremony while still having a ‘legal marriage’ in the eyes of the law.
It’s dependent on the person leading the handfasting ceremony. These days there is plenty of easy access to become an ordained minister online without any religious attachment. So one can always find someone that fits the criteria of an officiator.
From handfasting cakes and personalized vows, to bonfires and drum circles. Handfasting gives plenty of freedom to the couple to create a ceremony meaningful to them.
Do inform non-pagan guests of the ceremony and what you have planned as a form of courtesy. That way they are not placed in a situation that is uncomfortable to them. They may choose to opt out of certain rituals.
If you’re not one for group activities, there are ways for you to celebrate Beltane. One of the easiest being the sacred planting rite. This is an activity you can perform on a small scale (in a box planter or even small potted plants). If you have the space for it, this would be a great time to start a garden.
What you will need:
Trowel or a small spade
It is often a good idea to meditate and focus your thoughts on your chosen god or goddess of agriculture. Some usual deities for this ceremony are Lugh (Celtic), Adonis (Assyrian), Demeter (Greek), and Osiris (Egyptian). Focus on the energies and elements around you as you are loosening the ground and planting the seeds into the soil . Notice the feel of the sun against your neck and the scent of freshly tilled soil. Appreciate any creature or insects you might find along the way. Spiders are one of the frequent visitors in my garden. Their protective web catches pests that would otherwise destroy my plants.
Send up prayer to your chosen deity with dirt before covering the seed or your plantling.
A simple prayer could for example look like this:
[Prayer to the fertility God, Cernunnos, also known as the May King]
Hail, Cernunnos! God of the forest, master of fertility!
Today, we honor you by planting the seeds of life,
Deep within the womb of the earth.
Hail, Cernunnos! We ask you to bless this garden,
Watch over it, and grant it abundance,
We ask that these plants grow strong and fertile
Under your watchful eye.
Hail, Cernunnos! God of the Greenwood!
Don’t forget to water your seeds when they have been safely planted. While you can always use a hose, a good conservation tip is to use a rain barrel that can collect any rain water for future waterings.
Also another activity to do as a solo project is preparing May baskets! Originally these baskets were made out of readily weaveable material. They were filled with flowers, baked goods, and springtime food. The springtime food hadn’t been available through the long winter months in their villages. The tradition has started to catch on throughout the world. Modern day May baskets can be quite grand, consisting of imported fruits, bouquets of flowers, and candy.
For those looking to include their children in Beltane’s festivities, May baskets are a great introduction to the holiday. Themed May baskets around their favorite food or color could definitely attract their interest.
Hopefully this piece has managed to share and enlighten you with some of the traditions surrounding this festival of life. Good luck for the next time the wheel of the year rolls towards Beltane.