The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days
See also Floralia, May Eve, Roodmas, and Walpurgis.
Beltane is the conventional modern spelling. Bealtaine is the traditional Irish spelling.
Beltane officially begins at moonrise on the evening before the first day of May. It is the Celtic festival corresponding to May Eve, which is metaphysically understood as the moment when Earth’s generative, reproductive, and sexual energies are at their peak. Beltane, thus, is among the many May festivals celebrating Earth’s sexual and reproductive powers; however Beltane has added resonance in Celtic lands as it also inaugurates the second half of the year.
Rituals are held during Beltane to enhance and increase the fertility of land, people, and animals. A celebratory feast welcomes the newly awakened Earth. Witches and fairies are out and about tonight.
The modern Western year is divided into quarters (spring, summer, fall, and winter). However, as well as can be understood based on limited surviving information, the ancient Celtic year was divided into halves:
The dark half is initiated with the festival of Samhain, which corresponds to October 31st on the modern calendar or Halloween.
The bright half is initiated by the festival of Beltane, corresponding to April 30th on the modern calendar or May Eve.
One may visualize this calendar as akin to a yinyang symbol, with Beltane proclaiming the start of the bright yang portion.
Much of what we know of Celtic festivals (and most of what has been incorporated into modern Wicca) derives from Ireland, although the Celts once dominated a good part of Europe. There are indications that similar festivals were held elsewhere in Celtic Europe, not least by the prevalence of May Day celebrations throughout the entire continent.
Known as Calan Mai in Wales, Beltane is the Celtic fire festival marking the beginning of summer. The name may derive from “bel” (light) or “bil” (luck) and the general consensus is that Beltane means “bright fire.” There have also been suggestions that the name honors someone named Bel or Belenus who may or may not be a Celtic deity. There was possibly a Celtic deity from Austria named Belenus. Another possibility is that Bel is either derived from or identical to the pan-Semitic fertility deity Baal.
Fire may be understood as a little bit of the sun on Earth. In the spirit of the metaphysical adage “as above, so below,” the magical power of the sun was rekindled and enhanced by the Beltane bonfires. These bonfires were known as “bel-fires” or bale fires. They joyfully celebrate and proclaim the return of fertility (life) to Earth. Beltane bonfires were ritual fires and were traditionally kindled by friction or by sparks from a flint. (To this day, some traditionalists resist the allure of matches or lighters and insist that others do so as well.)
The bonfires convey the magical, healing, energizing force of fire. In order to benefit from this positive magic radiant energy, people dance around the fire, jump over it, crawl through it once it gets low and also drive their livestock through. Although any animal can benefit from the magic of the bale fires, cattle, the sacred cows so intrinsic to Irish myth, are especially associated with Beltane. If there are twin fires or multiple fires, people will dance between them and lead animals between. The ultimate goal of these rituals is disease prevention and the termination of bad luck, as well as the renewal of fertility and creativity.
Although a sacred day, Beltane was a happy, raucous holiday, not a serious, solemn one. It is impossible to celebrate Earth’s sexuality with-out simultaneously reveling in human sexuality too. Beltane was one of those anarchic festivals where everyday constraints were thrown to the winds. The Christian Church would eventually condemn the carnal licentiousness of Beltane rites, accusing the populace of indiscriminate copulation. Although defamatory, these accusations weren’t without a vestige of truth (although it’s unlikely that sexual activity was ever as indiscriminate and random as the Church postulated), however disapproval stems from perspective and perhaps a wee bit of jealousy. After all, some people were having fun when others weren’t. (See May Day, page 211, for further information.) Children whose birthdays fell near the Celtic festival Imbolc, which occurs precisely nine months later, were affectionately known as “Beltane babies,” and were considered to be special children with strong psychic powers and favored by the fairies.
According to Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, “every woman who fetches fire on May Day” was considered a witch in sixteenth-century Ireland.
Beltane was understood as a witches’ festival, when witches came out to play, as well as a day that was sacred to devotees of the Fairy Faith. Perhaps their very visibility on this date made those with magical or pagan inclinations vulnerable to those with other orientations. Notions of sacrifice, and especially of sacrificial witches permeate many historic Beltane traditions, and May became a time when witches and their animal allies were persecuted.
Cats and rabbits discovered in the fields in Ireland during Beltane were traditionally understood as witches in disguise and frequently killed on the spot, often by being tossed into the bonfires.
Litters of kittens born during the entire month of May were feared as potential witches’ familiars and summarily drowned.
A tradition known as “burning the witches” persisted in the Scottish Highlands into the eighteenth century. Young men took bits of the burning Beltane bonfires onto pitchforks. They then ran through the fields shouting “Fire! Fire! Burn the witches!” The fire is scattered through the fields to enhance their fecundity—which, in fact, it does.
The joyful aspects of Beltane have been incorporated into contemporary Wicca. Aspects of the festival devoted to the sun, human sexuality, and the regeneration of life and magic power are emphasized.