May 1st falls midway between Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice, it’s a quarter day in the Celtic calendar and is celebrated with the festival of Beltane, however it has other names in different parts of Europe (for example Walpurgis nacht in Germany) and is celebrated in much the same way.
It’s seen as a gateway, Winter is gone and there’s a hope and looking forward to the warmth and abundance of the long days of Summer. It’s also understood to be a gateway between the worlds, this one and the Otherworld, a time when the veils between life and death are thin and can be easily crossed or seen through. The Otherworld is the world of ancestors and spirits; the Celts and other European indigenous religions saw time as cyclical not linear, all worlds exist simultaneously. Its sister festival, coming midway between Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice is Samhainne – now more commonly celebrated as Hallowe’en. There the veils are thin too. It was believed that at Beltane and Samhainne there was a movement in the Otherworld as spirits and ancestors moved to their Winter or Summer locations (as the people in this world moved their flocks): it was possible for humans to be ‘caught’ in these great migrations and processions of the Otherworld. This is where the Hallowe’en celebration comes from – it mimics the processions and parties of the Otherworld inhabitants.
Beltane can be very loosely translated as bright fire, a time when the sun brought enough warmth and light to germinate grasses and bring blossoms or the first leaves. A time for change, stirrings of the inner fire and new life. All over Europe and into Asia (Japan has similar festivals) re-enactments of the struggle between the forces of Winter and Summer, always with the May Queen triumphing over the Winter Hag or King (depending on the culture) are celebrated. She would often ceremoniously couple with the Green Man – a figure of vitality and vegetative strength. These festive re-enactments would be vigorously taken up by the community and there would be much lovemaking out of doors to bring fertility into the land.
As a liminal time (between Winter and Summer) there was a need for protection and blessings. Cattle and children would be driven between 2 fires or passed through Rowan hoops for protection. Rowan twigs would be tied to the tails of cattle with red thread, or hung in the doorways and windows of houses, or kept in pockets. In rural communities it was also a time for movement with cattle or sheep being moved to their summer pastures. Traditionally it was the women and children who moved with the animals, the men staying behind to plant and tend to crops. Perhaps this too was a reason for much of the celebration of lovemaking: couples would be separated for the coming 6 months. That it is the women who moved with the animals and the men that stayed at home is interesting and something that we will look at elsewhere. It links back to the Old Goddess religions and animal/woman associations.
Several birds and plants are deeply connected with Beltane:
The May Tree
Hawthorn, Crataegus oxacantha. Associated with fairies and transformed witches, the Hawthorn was used to both promote fertility and strengthen chastity. It brings happiness and good luck, and guards against evil and storms. The tree erupts into beautiful white blossoms around Beltainne and into May. Traditionally infusions are taken by the drop for every type of heart condition including heart failure. Used as a tonic for the nerves, urinary system and circulation, it is also believed to bring a general sense of well being. Associated with Mars and the element of fire.
Mountain Ash, Sorbus acuparia. Associated with protection and an increase in psychic powers. Rowan wood protects and rowan berries or bark help the healing process and bring luck. Highly astringent, the fruit has been used as an antiseptic and to treat diarrhea, hemorrhoids, kidney disease, menstrual disturbances and improve metabolism. The seeds must be removed in any preparation. Associated with Sun and the element of fire.
Furze, Ulex europaeus. Associated with strength, adaptability, endurance and protection. A bright yellow flower that smells of coconut atop a dense spiny bush. Yellow is the colour most associated with Beltainne. The flowers are edible and taste like almonds (but don’t overeat!), they can be pickled like capers. The wood and roots make an ash that can be used for lye making and as a great compost or treatment for acidic soils. Considered mildly astringent. Also gives a yellow dye. In old reports it was used physically and energetically to attract gold. Associated with Mars and the element of fire.