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By Shadowalker
(Written for Ecclasia)


"The Sabbats are the eight points at which we connect the inner and the outer cycles: the interstices where the seasonal, the celestial, the communal, the creative, and the personal all meet. As we enact each drama in its time, we transform ourselves. We are renewed, we are reborn even as we decay and die. We are not separate from each other, from the broader world around us; we are one with the Goddess, with the God. As the Cone of Power rises as the season changes, we arouse the power from within, the power to heal, the power to change society, the power to renew the Earth." This is the explanations of the Sabbats according to StarHawk in “Spiral Dance”, but I want to talk about one particular Sabbat, a Greater Sabbat, Beltane.

There are four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year and the modern Witch's calendar. The two greatest of these are Samhain (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 two halves. Halloween (also called Samhain) is the Celtic New Year and is usually 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 begins the fifth month of our 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. And 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 which is derived from the Irish Gaelic "Bealtaine" or the Scottish Gaelic "Bealtuinn", meaning "Bel-fire", the fire of the Celtic god of light (Bel, Beli or Belinus). He may also 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 lingham - symbol of life) to the Holy Rood (the Cross - Roman instrument of death).

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 sky-clad Witches would jump through the flames to ensure protection. Often, cattle would be driven between two such bon-fires (oak wood being a favorite fuel for them) and, on the next day, they would be taken to their summer pastures.

Other May Day customs include: walking the circuit of one's property ("beating the bounds"), repairing fences and boundary markers, 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 principally a time of "...unashamed human sexuality and fertility." Such associations include phallic symbolism of the Maypole and riding the hobbyhorse. Even seemingly innocent children's nursery rhyme, "Ride a cock horse to Banburry Cross..." retains 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 quickly stamped out the custom. Many May Day customs are 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.

There are other, even older, associations with May 1st in Celtic mythology. According to the ancient Irish "Book of Invasions", the first settler of Ireland, Partholan, arrived on May 1st; and it was on May 1st that the plague came which destroyed his people. Years later, the Tuatha De Danann were conquered by the Milesians on May Day. In Welsh myth, the perennial battle between Gwythur and Gwyn for the love of Creudylad took place each May Day; and it was on May Eve that Teirnyon lost his colts and found Pryderi. May Eve was also the occasion of a fearful scream that was heard each year throughout Wales, one of the three curses of the Coranians lifted by the skill of Lludd and Llevelys.

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 (usually around May 5th). 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, they can still throw a viable Beltane bash as long as it's before May 5th. This may also be a consideration for Covens that need to organize activities around the week-end (like ours). This date has long been considered a "power point" of the Zodiac, and is symbolized by the Bull, one of the "tetramorph" figures featured on the Tarot cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune. (The other three symbols 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), and these naturally align with the four Great Sabbats of Witchcraft. Christians have adopted the same iconography to represent the four gospel-writers.

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 wrote 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 lay
Will heed this song that calls them back.

And so in closing, Beltane is THE day of fertilty, the great sacrifice made by the Oak King that we all may prosper and be well protected in the year to come. The Bel fire is re-lit and all is good and prosperous once again. It is the Great Celebration and a time of beauty, sensuality and love. It is the time when things are new and full of life and sexual creativety.


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This page last updated March 30, 2004