Beltane: Celtic Fertility Festival

“It’s May, it’s May, the lusty month of May! That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray.” Yes, I’m channeling Guinevere in the legendary musical, Camelot. Who better to introduce the festival of Beltane (May 1) than the controversial queen? After all, Lerner and Loewe were right. Beltane is all about sex and fertility. And the Celts, unlike the Victorians, weren’t shy about it.

When we looked at Samhain and Imbolc, two of the other high holy days on the Celtic calendar (Lughnasa is yet to come), I took you through them in an experiential way through a short piece of fiction. The reason I’ve chosen not to do so with Beltane is that there is a long section of Book 1 that takes place on Beltane and I’m afraid anything I do here would too closely mirror what’s in the book. So I’m going to cover the festival on a more theoretical basis.

Beltane is the second most sacred of Celtic festivals, just behind Samhain (October 31). In some ways you can think of these two festivals like Christmas and Easter for some Christians. Even if you didn’t practice the rest of the year, you celebrated these two holidays. Beltane is on the opposite end of the wheel of the year from Samhain, and celebrates the light half of life, the life-giving, nurturing fertility of this time of year. (It’s actually the first day of summer on the Celtic calendar.) Like Samhain, Beltane was celebrated with great bonfires and revelry (and still is in parts of the world; check out the Beltane Fire Society to learn about modern celebrations in Edinburgh). Cattle were driven between bonfires as a way of blessing and purifying them, and many young couples daringly leapt over the flames or danced among them.

Taking it to its most basic level, you could say Beltane was an excuse to party. It was a celebration of the sexual union of the God and Goddess, and the creative energies born from their love-making. These energies were thought to bless the land, animals and people, bestowing health and fertility on all. And so the people of the Celtic tribes, unencumbered by prudish morals, took the opportunity to emulate the gods and spent Beltane night in feverish coupling. According to many sources, it didn’t matter if the partners knew one another previously or not, for on that night, all women were the Goddess incarnate and all men, the God. But it wasn’t just sex; it was a holy union blessed by the gods. Sometimes, a May Queen and May King were chosen to partake in these erotic roles in an especially sacred way or, in tamer times, to reenact the wedding of the God and Goddess in a non-sexual pageant before the whole village.

Another common Beltane theme, one that mirrors Samhain, is the hunt. At Samhain, you have Herne the Hunter, the dark god who rides the autumn sky with his red-eyed hell hounds in supernatural hunt. But on Beltane you have the image of the Great Hunt, of either a wild boar, or as beautifully depicted in The Mists of Avalon, the King Stag. Similarly, some branches of Celtic belief attach the story of the triumph of the Oak King (summer) over the Holly King (winter) to Beltane (although many neo-pagan groups associate this story with Midsummer, instead). No matter which mythology you choose, the idea is the same. Just as the light overpowers the darkness on Beltane, so does the younger generation topple the old in the hunt, giving reign to the powers of life and fertility once again.

Beltane is the other festival in which the veil between our world and the spirit world is virtually nonexistent. At Samhain, spirits of the dead roamed the lanes, but on Beltane, faeries and other nature spirits rule the day. While some invoked the tamer nature spirits, the Celts knew a dark side to the fey as well, so many used talismans against changelings (faerie babies put in place of stolen human babies) near this festival. Faeries could easily beguile people and animals on this night, taking them under control and leading them away to their mounds, where one day was equivalent to centuries in the mortal realm. To ward off such danger, the bonfires were made of nine sacred woods, and offerings of wine, milk or a pottage of oats were left outside the festival areas to divert and appease any fey who might be attracted to the revelry.

Today, Beltane lives on in Maypole dances (an ancient fertility rite in which the pole is phallic, the ribbons represent its union with the feminine, and the dance the act of intercourse), May Day and Catholic May Crowning ceremonies (which many point to as a form of veiled Goddess worship). Then again, in some parts of the world, it hasn’t changed at all. Check out this article from The Telegraph on the resurgence in popularity of the feast.

Do you celebrate Beltane? If so, how? What traditions live on in your part of the world? Have you read about Beltane festivals in books (fiction or non-fiction)? What are your favorite portrayals?