Today, May 1st, marks the first day of Summer, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. Halfway between the Equinoxes, its counterpart is October 31st/September 1st, which likewise marks the beginning of Winter (once again, only North of the Equator). For the pre-Christian Gaelic people of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, this day was significant enough to deserve a proper name: Beltane.
James Frazer, in his classic The Golden Bough, took a stab at the importance of this time of year: he noted that while it would be irrelevant to an agricultural people, it would be crucial for pastoral societies, since this would be the date to drive the herds out unto the fields. Indeed, there are Old Irish textual references to Druids lighting two bonfires, and driving their cattle between them while reciting blessings to protect their herds from disease.
What today’s Beltane bonfires lack in cattle, they often make up for with Neo-Druids. However, even for the not-so Pagan inclined, the holiday has lived on, now as May Day.
May Day is typically celebrated through sharing and decorating with flowers – specifically yellow flowers, like primroses and marigolds – perhaps as a reminder of the sun, and/or the bonfires.
Another tradition is dancing around the May Tree (or bush), which may hearken back to the practice of Tree Worship, intimately associated with Druid practices.
In a previous post, we encountered the Aos Si; another Beltane practice involved offerings of food and milk to appease (or drive away) the many spirits that could plague herds and herdsmen alike.
Wells have also been a part of Beltane celebrations, with water from holy wells considered especially sacred when gathered on this day. The same was true of Beltane morning dew, whose fabled restorative powers cured many a malady.
Many Wiccan groups have included dancing around a May Poll, and rituals involving the May Queen and King, though these are not traditionally Gaelic customs.
While it’s too stormy where we live to enjoy a bonfire, or dance around the trees, there are always yellow flowers to share.
And at least for us, lots of sacred waters…
Enjoy a safe (and hopefully dry) Beltane!