Beltane: a Neopagan seasonal
of celebration that welcomes
arrival of the warm season:
Dancing around a maypole: a common activity at Beltane.
While most people observe four seasons each year, the ancient Celts -- who lived in what is now Western Europe, the UK and Ireland -- observed only two. They were referred to as the warm and cold seasons. Beltane (a.k.a. Beltain, Beltainne, Beltaine, Bealtaine, Beltany, May Eve, May Day, and Walpurgis Night) was held on MAY-1 at the start of their warm season.
In Ireland, Beltain is called Lá Bealtaine; in Scottish Gaelic Là Bealltainn; in Manx Gaelic, Laa Boaltinn/Boaldyn; on the Isle of Man, Shenn do Boaldyn; and in Wales, Galan Mae.
Beltane is referred to as a "cross quarter day." Its location in the calendar is roughly half-way between the date of the Spring Equinox -- circa MAR-21 -- and the Summer Solstice -- circa JUN-21 for the Northern Hemisphere, Dates are offset six months in the Southern Hemisphere.
The name "Beltane" originated from Bel, the Celtic deity, and "teine" which is the Gaelic word for fire.
It was, and remains, a joyous celebration. Christina Aubin, posting on The Witches' Voice, eloquently writes:
"The beginning of summer heralds an important time, for the winter is a difficult journey and weariness and disheartenment set in. Personally one is tired down to the soul. In times past the food stocks were low; variety was a distant memory. The drab non-color of winter's end perfectly represents the dullness and fatigue that permeates on so many levels to this day. We need Beltane, as the earth needs the sun, for our very Spirit cries out for the renewal of summer jubilation." 1
Followers of ancient Celtic Pagan religious would light bonfires on hill tops. They would extinguish the fires in their homes and relight them with fire that they brought from the main bonfire. People, with their cattle, would often walk around the bonfire or walk between two bonfires. They believed that this would provide them and their animals with good health during the following year.
Many Beltane observations include a Maypole as shown in the above image. This was traditionally a fir or birch tree cut on May Eve (APR-30) by young, unmarried males. The branches were removed, ribbons were attached to the pole top, and and it was placed in the town square. Sometimes, participants will dance around the maypole in the deosil direction (sun-wise; clockwise). Sometimes, the dancers will be divided by gender into two groups. The women form a circle and dance clockwise while the men form a second circle inside the women's circle and dance counter-clockwise. They intertwined the ribbons so that they wrapped around the poll -- starting at the top.
In olden times, young couples would often pair up after the dance was over and disappear into the woods. Early the next year, a number of babies would be born in the village who had been conceived on Beltane. They were called "Sons of Robin" after Robin Hood. That is the origin of the surname "Robinson," which happens to be the name of the compiler of this essay.
These pagan religious celebrations have largely died out since the arrival of Christianity. However, Beltane is still celebrated by two groups:
Modern-day Wiccans and other Neopagans revived the celebration of the eight Sabbats during the late 20th century. Neopagans in the Northern Hemisphere generally observe Beltane from sunset on APR-30 to sunset on MAY-01. Some Neopagans prefer to observe the Sabbat on the day midway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Still others celebrate it at the day of the full moon closest to this midway point.
In ancient times, Beltane was associated with the Great Wedding of the Goddess and God. It was a traditional time for a handfasting ritual, when a human couple would marry for a year and a day. At the end of this interval, they could choose to either part, or stay together. In modern times, Wiccan couples often marry -- hopefully for life -- in a handfasting ceremony that contains sufficient legal components so that it can be recognized and registered by the government as a marriage.
In the Southern Hemisphere Beltane is generally observed between sunset on OCT-31 to sunset on NOV-01. 3,4,5
Cultural Beltane celebrations are held in some countries. Perhaps the largest is the Edinburgh Beltane Fire Festival held annually on APR-30 in Scotland. 6 Over ten thousand people typically attend.
The 2010 Beltane Festival in Ulster County, NY:
The 2011 Beltane celebration at Circle Sanctuary, in Barneveld WI .
Featured are the May Court, the Oak Apple Morris Dancers, and the Circle Sanctuary Community dancing the May Pole:
Related essays on this web site that you might find interesting:
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Image source is unknown. In the original photograh, the dancers appear to be all dancing in the same direction -- counter-clockwise. So I reversed the image to show them dancing clockwise, which is the more likely direction.