Beltane
A Celebration of May Day
by Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols website

Document Copyright © 1983 - 2009 by Mike Nichols. The original document can be viewed
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"Perhaps its just as well that you won't be here...to be offended by the sight of our May Day celebrations."
                                                --Lord Summerisle to Sgt. Howie from "The Wicker Man"

There are four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year and the modern Witch's calendar, as well.  The two greatest
of these are
Halloween (the beginning of winter) and May Day (the beginning of summer).  Being opposite each
other on the
wheel of the year, they separate the year into halves.  Halloween (also called Samhain) is the Celtic
New Year and is generally considered the more important of the two, though May Day runs a close second.  Indeed,
in some areas -notably Wales - it is considered the great holiday.  

May Day 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.  

The old Celtic name for May Day is Beltane (in its most popular Anglicized form), which is derived from the Irish
Gaelic "Bealtaine" or the Scottish Gaelic "Bealtuinn", meaning "Belfire", the fire of the Celtic god of light (Bel, Beli or
Belinus).  He, in turn, may be traced to the Middle Eastern god Baal.  

Other names for May Day include: Cetsamhain ("opposite  Samhain"), Walpurgisnacht (in Germany), and Roodmas
(the medieval Church's name).  This last came from Church Fathers who were hoping to shift the common people's
allegiance from the Maypole (Pagan lingam - symbol of life) to the Holy Rood (the Cross - Roman instrument of
death).  

Incidentally, there is no historical justification for calling May 1st "Lady Day".  For hundreds of years, that title
has been proper to the
Vernal Equinox (approx. March 21st), another holiday sacred to the Great Goddess.  The
nontraditional use of "Lady Day" for May 1st is quite recent (within the last 15 years), and seems to be confined to
America, where it has gained widespread acceptance among certain segments of the Craft population.  This rather
startling departure from tradition would seem to indicate an unfamiliarity with European calendar customs, as well as
a lax attitude toward scholarship among too many Pagans.  A simple glance at a dictionary ("Webster's 3rd" or      
O.E.D.), encyclopedia ("Benet's"), or standard mythology reference (Jobe's "Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore &
Symbols") would confirm the correct date for Lady Day as the Vernal Equinox.  

By Celtic reckoning, the actual Beltane celebration begins on sundown of the preceding day, April 30, because the
Celts always figured their days from sundown to sundown.  And sundown was the proper time for Druids to kindle
the great Bel-fires on the tops of the nearest beacon hill (such as Tara Hill, Co. Meath, in Ireland).  These
"need-fires" had healing properties, and skyclad Witches would jump through the flames to ensure protection.  


       Sgt. Howie (shocked):  "
But they are naked!"
       Lord Summerisle:   "
Naturally.  It's much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!"
                               from "The Wicker Man"


Frequently, cattle would be driven between two such bon-fires (oak wood was the favorite fuel for them) and, on the
morrow,   they would be taken to their summer pastures.  

Other May Day customs include: processions of chimney-sweeps and 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.  

In the words of Witchcraft writers Janet and
Stewart Farrar,  the Beltane celebration was principly a time of
"...unashamed human sexuality and fertility."  Such associations include the obvious phallic symbolism of the  
May-pole and riding the hobby horse.  Even a seemingly innocent children's nursery rhyme, "Ride  a cock horse to
Banburry Cross..." retain such memories.  And the  next line "...to see a fine Lady on a white horse" is a reference
to the annual ride of "Lady Godiva" though Coventry.  Every year  for nearly three centuries, a sky-clad village
maiden (elected  Queen of the May) enacted this Pagan rite, until the Puritans put  an end to the custom.  

The Puritans, in fact, reacted with pious horror to most of  the May Day rites, even making Maypoles illegal in 1644.  
They  especially attempted to suppress the "greenwood marriages" of  young men and women who spent the entire
night in the forest,  staying out to greet the May sunrise, and bringing back boughs of  flowers and garlands to
decorate the village the next morning.   One angry Puritan wrote that men "doe use commonly to runne into woodes
in the night time, amongst maidens, to set bowes, in so  muche, as I have hearde of tenne maidens whiche went to
set May,  and nine of them came home with childe."  And another Puritan  complained that, of the girls who go into
the woods, "not the  least one of them comes home again a virgin."

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.  

These wildwood antics have inspired writers such as Kipling:

                                                    
Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
                                                            Or he would call it a sin;
                                               But we have been out in the woods all night,
                                                            A-conjuring Summer in!

And Lerner and Lowe:

                                                              
 It's May!  It's May!
                                                          The lusty month of May!...
                                                Those dreary vows that ev'ryone takes,
                                                               Ev'ryone breaks.
                                                     Ev'ryone makes divine mistakes!
                                                           The lusty month of May!

It is certainly no accident that Queen Guinevere's "abduction" by Meliagrance occurs on May 1st when she and the
court have gone a-Maying, or that the usually efficient Queen's guard, on this occasion, rode unarmed.  

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.  

By the way, due to various calendrical changes down through the centuries, the traditional date of Beltane is not the
same as  its astrological date.  This date, like all astronomically  determined dates, may vary by a day or two
depending on the year.   However, it may be calculated easily enough by determining the  date on which the sun is
at 15 degrees Taurus.  British Witches  often refer to this date as Old Beltane, and folklorists call it  Beltane O.S.
("Old Style").  Some Covens prefer to celebrate on  the old date and, at the very least, it gives one options.  If a
Coven is operating on "Pagan Standard Time" and misses May 1st  altogether, it can still throw a viable Beltane
bash as long as  it's before this date.  This may also be a consideration for  Covens that need to organize activities
around the week-end.  

This date has long been considered a "power point" of the  Zodiac, and is symbolized by the Bull, one of the four
"tetramorph" figures featured on the Tarot cards the World and the Wheel of Fortune.  (The other three are the
Lion, the Eagle,  and the Spirit.) Astrologers know these four figures as the symbols of the four "fixed" signs of the
Zodiac (Taurus, Leo,  Scorpio, and Aquarius, respectively), and these naturally align with the four
Great Sabbats of
Witchcraft.  Christians have  adopted the same iconography to represent the four gospel-writers.  

But for most, it is May 1st that is the great holiday of flowers, Maypoles, and greenwood frivolity.  It is no wonder
that, as recently as 1977, Ian Anderson could pen the following  lyrics for Jethro Tull:

                                               
  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.