Beltane: The Spiritual Significance Behind the Bewitching Fire Festival
Updated On: January 30, 2023
Have you ever heard of the Beltane festival? It is a pagan festival, one of the eight Sabbats. It is also known as “Cétamain” and May Day. For pagans, this event has a profound connection to fertility, marking the beginning of the forthcoming longer, lighter days.
According to the old Celtic calendar, Beltane, a Cross Quarter Day, falls halfway between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice that welcomes the beginning of summer. It usually begins on 30 April at dusk and lasts through the night into 1 May.
There were celebrations throughout Britain’s Celtic nations, including Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. Bonfires were lit to commemorate the occasion, and animals were moved to summer pastures. There are many practices that distinguish the Beltane Festival, but first, let’s explore its history.
History of Beltane
The ancient Celtic festival of Beltane served as the contemporary Beltane Fire Festival model. The word “Beltane” is a combination of the name of the sun god “Bel” and the Gaelic word “teine.” The first time the word was mentioned in writing was in the glossary by Cormac, Bishop of Cashel and the murdered monarch of Munster in 908. Cormac described the custom of the animals moving between the bonfires, a ritual believed to protect them from disease before being led to summer pastures. In the 19th century, however, celebrating Beltane fell out of practice in many regions.
The historical tradition was revived in 1988 by Angus Farquhar, a former member of the industrial music band Test Dept. The first performance was created in collaboration between choreographer Lindsay John and folklorist Margaret Bennett of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies, using the existing Beltane traditions —with the exception of some antiqued rituals, such as using livestock— as inspiration to maintain the spirit of the old ancestors and forge a connection to the cycles of nature.
Most Famous Modern Beltane Practices
Since 1988, the Beltane Fire Festival has been held on the 30th of April in the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh, on Calton Hill, first led by Angus Farquhar and later by the Beltane Fire Society. In 1992, the festival had attracted ten thousand attendees, and in 2001 it hired its first production manager to handle the expanding event. Some of the more well-known customs are listed below:
All other fires were put out before the Beltane fire was kindled, marking the celebration. Even today, it remains one of the most popular customs of the pagan festival. It originates from the annual ceremony performed for the fire god “Bel” in the Iron Age. Besides representing both purification and the change of seasons, people undertake protective rituals for their crops and cattle. They pray to the fire deity to shield the animals from illnesses, disease, and paranormal forces.
The Maypole Dance
One of the traditional symbols of Beltane is the maypole. The maypole celebration typically takes place shortly after sunrise the following morning because celebrations naturally begin the previous evening with a giant bonfire. Ribbons are affixed to the top of a pole set up. In traditional May Day custom, a garland of flowers is hung from the top of the maypole to represent the goddess‘ fertility.
Young men and women circle and dance around the pole, weaving ribbons of various colours in and out to create a sheath that encircles the maypole and symbolises the earth’s womb.
Crafting Floral Wreaths & Crowns
As a smaller-scale alternative, many individuals prefer to commemorate that day by making floral wreaths, crowns, and bouquets to adorn their houses and entrances. Wearing flower wreaths is a simple way to celebrate new life and fertility, as well as the arrival of spring. It represents the relationship with nature, inner strength, sexuality, and abundance.
Making a goddess ritual is one option to commemorate Beltane. People use the springtime blossom to honour their female ancestors and friends while celebrating the mother goddess archetype. Modern May Day customs include crowning a symbolic May Queen from among the village’s young women and decorating her with flowers and wreaths. Men and women can jointly conduct this simple rite.
Beltane is a fantastic time for weddings since it is a time to celebrate fertility and abundance. So, many individuals choose to get married or have handfastings at Beltane. Recently, hand-fasting has become popular as more couples explore methods to personalise and add symbolism to their wedding ceremony.
The expression “tying the knot!” refers to the pair standing face to face when their hands are knotted together. The couples recite phrases that signify their commitment to one another as their hands are tied with a ribbon or a lengthy piece of fabric. Couples can choose to utilise one, two, or several cords. The ribbon may be tied in various ways, from a basic knot to an intricate wrist wrap that creates an eye-catching infinity knot.
In this solitary ritual, people plant their intentions in the ground to nurture them and watch them grow. It is a simple ritual that honours the planting season’s fertility. Although it is mainly for solitary practitioners, the ritual can be adapted for small groups. Practitioners use soil-filled pots in place of a garden plot if there is no private yard. To ensure a plentiful harvest, they seek the blessings of their chosen fertility deity.
As April ends, individuals gather flowers, sweets, and other treats to include in May baskets. They then hang the basket on the doors of friends, neighbours, and families on 1 May.
The baskets have changed from being filled with meals that weren’t available in the winter to paper-cone baskets filled with delicate flowers and candies. Modern May baskets can be as elaborate or as simple as the sender prefers; the important thing is that the basket is made with care and good intentions.
A Beltane Feast
Large feasts are frequently present at Beltane festivals today as they were in ancient times. Having a banquet to honour Beltane with family and friends is a lovely way to celebrate this special time of year. The possibilities are unlimited when baking with aphrodisiacs, such as fig tarts or pies with asparagus and garlic.
Cows and goats would make the ideal main course for the feast because they were frequently included during Beltane celebrations. The magic of herbs is well-known to people; thyme, rosemary, sage, and parsley are excellent cooking ingredients. The perennial mint is mainly symbolic during Beltane.
Besides the main course, according to legend, eating an oat cake on Beltane morning ensures a surplus of livestock and crops. Beverages are also a great addition to the table. Because Beltane is the official start of summer, people often make a pitcher of cocktails using the most incredible summer cocktail recipes.
The approach of summer and the fertility of the upcoming year are two of Beltane’s concepts represented by its symbols. The sun, flowers, and anything associated with fertility are the most common of these symbols. More symbols include:
- Planting seeds
- Using yellow, red, green, white, silver, blue, and pink colours
- Using herbs like yarrow, mint, and mugwort.
- Using crystals like garnet, amber, and rose quartz.
Although the pagan festival’s core has evolved, the connection to fertility remains the same. Many rituals are performed to celebrate Beltane to greet the summer and the new life it brings. You can join the celebration if you are in the UK during this time of the year. For a more eventful vacation, enjoy other attractions and festivals in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.