Image from FC Nikon on Flickr (CC 2.0)
The “cross quarter” day of Beltane occurs on or around 1 May, in line with the folk tradition of May Day which is still celebrated throughout Britain and Europe with May fairs and the crowning of May Queens. This day marks the point halfway between the Vernal (Spring) Equinox and the Summer Solstice, and celebrates high spring.
At this time, flowers are in full bloom and trees in leaf. Birds sing loudly from every hedge and bush, declaring territory and calling to impress a mate. Philip Carr-Gomm writes: “However old we are, springtime can make us feel young again, and at Beltane we jump over the fires of vitality and youth and allow that vitality to enliven us”. Jumping over the fire here refers to a folk-tradition of doing just that at Beltane, which is often considered a “fire festival”. The flames symbolise life and fertility as well as the growing warmth of the sun at this time of year.
Higginbotham writes that, in modern Paganism, Beltane is “an exuberant holiday that celebrates sexuality, fertility, energy and the unfolding of spring”. While a narrow literal emphasis on heterosexual procreation is undoubtedly outdated for the 21st century, sexuality and sensuality are still a major focus of this High Day, which marks a noted difference between Paganism’s celebration of embodied human sexuality and the Christian concept of sex as “sinful” except in certain, restricted, circumstances.
“Fertility” can also be understood metaphorically, as Carr-Gomm states: “we might use this time as an opportunity to connect to our sensuality in a positive creative way”. ADF also state that fertility, one of the nine Virtues, can refer to “Bounty of mind, body and spirit, involving creativity…[and] an appreciation of the physical, sensual, nurturing”.
Maypole dancing. Image from Geograph (CC 2.0)
A particularly well-known Beltane tradition that is still practiced today is the Maypole dance. The pole, possibly originally a phallic symbol, is danced around by men and women with intertwining ribbons. Higginbotham sees the dancers as representing the forces of life and death being interwoven together, as Beltane balances out Samhain, so life balances out death. Hutton suggests that the Maypole was a late introduction to British folk tradition, possibly arriving from Scandinavia in the 14th century, and was not linked to early Pagan tradition. Either way, it is part of modern Pagan customs and folklore.
Much of the mythology surrounding Beltane, such as the first settlement of Ireland by Partholan, and the later invasion by the Tuatha de Danaan, can be interpreted as having to do with “the forces of light/safety defeating the forces of darkness/danger” (Bonewits). Beltane can be seen as a time for uniting opposites, for connecting to the light and dark of the year, and for celebrating the beauty and bounty of high spring.
ADF. Our Own Druidry: An Introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.
Bonewits, Isaac. Bonewits’s essential guide to Druidism. New York: Citadel, 2006.
Carr-Gomm, Philip. Druid mysteries: ancient wisdom for the 21st century. London: Rider, 2002.
Higginbotham, Joyce and River. Paganism: an introduction to earth-centered religions. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2008.
Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.