Beltane - The Lovers' Holiday

by Gordon Ireland

ABOUT BELTANE

Beltane is celebrated on May 1st and is one of the original Celtic festivals, Samhain being the other one. Beltane or May Day is also known as the Lover's holiday. Beltane is pronounced bel-tene, "a goodly fire" or bel-dine, the offering of cattle, dine to the God Bel. Though the latter is thought to somehow have been connected to the Celtic god Belenus, though this has not been proven.

Beltane is one of the four Celtic Fire festivals, and is probably the second most important festival next to Samhain. Beltane is primarily a sun festival and was performed during the day.

The most important part of Beltane was the kindling of the fires. The Irish Celts would extinguish their fires the night before and would eat a cold meal to insure that all fires were out. Then they would attend the ceremony, returning with an ember to once more start their fires. The fire festival later evolved into the Celts driving their cattle through two fires to purify the herd. This was done to insure the good health of the cattle for the coming year. Modern day pagans will jump over the Beltane fires, though very few actually know why they do so.

The Beltane role in fertility rites is not as old as some people think. They were however a natural extension of the planting season. May Day was the time when the crops planted earlier would begin to sprout. The story goes that Beltane marks the wedding of the Goddess and God, and that their coupling brings new life to the earth. The awakening of spring marks the end of winter. It is also the custom that this is the day of handfastings.

The use of the May pole also has sexual implications, the pole representing the phallus and the ribbons that are tied to it connect oneself to the Goddess. As they dance around the Pole, the wreath (the Goddess) would descend down the pole, thus consummating their marriage.

Beltane is also a Tree festival; many of the fires were lit under a sacred tree. For the Celts, this use of the Tree represents death and rebirth. The tree, appearing dead in the winter, would begin to spout new branches and leaves during this time, signifying the coming of summer. This use of the tree later evolved into the May pole festival. It should also be also noted that The Celts would also tie rags and pieces of personal articles to the tree in attempt to connect themselves to the spirit of the tree.

The other myth that is tied to Beltane is that of Shapeshifting. Beltane, like its counterpart, Samhain, has mystical implications. Once more the veil to other world is thinned and thus strange doings happen on this day. In Ireland, Hags, or witches, are given to shapeshift into hares and steal all the butter from the cattle. Even in Ireland today, the men hunt down and kill all the hares in the fields with the cattle. The epic chase of Ceridwen and Gwion, which resulted in producing Taliesin, is a prime example of the changes of seasons and consummation of the Goddess and God.

RITUAL

The following was created using poems by John Herrick and Caitlin Matthews plus parts of a Ceremony found in The Book of Druidry. This ceremony is designed to be generic and for the use of those who do not have a specific God or Goddess to call upon, but who nonetheless feel connected to the Celtic festivals. Some of the poems have been altered to fit the general concept of Beltane.

The ceremony shall be as follows:

First: All will enter from the East in honor of this being a solar festival. All hold an unlit candle.

Second: Everyone who is participating will pick up a ribbon. Those who are playing parts of East, South, West, and North will stand in their perspective positions.

Third: The leader will open up the ceremony by lighting the fire and saying the following:

LEADER:
In the beginning gleaming fire was I
Grant, O Spirits of our Celtic ancestors, thy Protection,
And in protection, Strength
And in strength, Understanding
And in understanding, Knowledge
And in Knowledge, Knowledge of Justice
And in Knowledge of Justice, the Love of it
And in the Love of it, the Love of all Existence
And the Love of all Existence, the Love of Ourselves

ALL MOVE ONE FULL TURN CLOCKWISE
ALL SAY: MAY THERE BE PEACE IN THE EAST

EAST:
We will go as wren in spring,
With sorrow and sighing on silent wing,
And we shall go in our Ancestors’ names
Aye, till we come home again

Then we shall follow as falcon's grey
And hunt thee cruelly for our prey
And we shall go in your good names
Aye, to fetch thee home again

ALL MOVE ONE FULL TURN CLOCKWISE
ALL SAY: MAY THERE BE LOVE IN THE SOUTH

SOUTH:
Then we will go as a mouse in May
In fields by night, in cellars by day,
And we shall go in our Ancestors’ names
Aye, till we come home again

Then we shall follow as black tom cats,
And hunt thee through corn and vats,
And we shall go in your good names
Aye, to fetch thee home again

ALL MOVE ONE FULL TURN CLOCKWISE
ALL SAY: MAY THERE BE HARMONY IN THE WEST

WEST:
Then we shall go as an autumn hare,
With sorrow and sighing and mickle care
And we shall go in our Ancestors’ names
Aye, till we come home again

Then we shall follow as swift grey hounds
And hunt thy tracks by leaps and bounds
And we shall go in your good names
Aye, to fetch thee home again

ALL MOVE ONE FULL TURN CLOCKWISE
ALL SAY: MAY THERE BE TRUTH IN THE NORTH

NORTH:
Then we shall go as winter trout
With sorrow and sighing and mickle doubt
And we shall go in Our Ancestors’ names
Aye, till we come home again

Then we shall follow as otter's swift
And snare thee fast ere thou canst shift
And we shall go in your good names
Aye till we fetch thee home again

ALL MOVE ONE FULL TURN CLOCKWISE

LEADER:
Come; let us go while we are in our prime,
And take the harmless folly of the time.
And, as a vapor or a drop of rain
Once lost, can ne'er be found again
So when or you or I are made
A fable, song, or fleeting shade,
All love, all liking, all delight
Lies drowned with us in endless night.
Then while time serves and we are but decaying
Come, my friends, come, and let’s go a-Maying!

ALL SAY:
WE SWEAR BY PEACE, LOVE, HARMONY AND TRUTH TO STAND
HEART TO HEART AND HAND IN HAND
MARK, O SPIRIT, AND HEAR US NOW
CONFIRIMING THIS OUR SACRED VOW

ALL EXIT WEST BY JUMPING OVER THE FIRE AND LIGHTING THEIR CANDLE

FOODS

MEADE

1/2 gallon water
1-1/2 cups raw honey
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon allspice

Heat all ingredients together over medium heat in a large pot.
As the honey melts, an oily crust forms at the top.
DO NOT REMOVE.
When it is well blended, remove from the heat, stirring occasionally as it cools. This is the non-alcoholic version.

FARLS

3 cups real mashed potatoes
2 cups dry oats
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
Pinch of pepper
Pinch of rosemary

Soak oats in warm water for 15 minutes until soft and swollen.
Mix them with all other ingredients in a large bowl.
Knead till mixture is like thick dough.
Make patties, fry in hot oil until brown.
Serve immediately.

BELTANE CREAM PIE

1 cup milk
1 cup cream
1/2 cup butter
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1-1/2 cups sugar
1-1/4 teaspoons vanilla
Ground nutmeg
Prepared piecrust, already cooked.

Melt butter in pan over medium heat.
In separate bowl add milk to cornstarch, making sure it is fully dissolved.
Add this and all other ingredients to pan, except vanilla and nutmeg.
Stir till mixture becomes thick.
Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.
Pour mixture into piecrust and sprinkle with nutmeg.
Serve chilled.

OATCAKES - IRISH

6 ounces Oatmeal (preferably fine)
2 ounces flour
1 teaspoon Salt
10 fluid ounces warm water

Mix flour and salt together.
Slowly add warm water.
Roll out on a floured board to 1/4 inch thick.
Cut into triangles.
Cook on a pan or griddle until golden on both sides.
Dry out in a cool oven (300º) until crisp.
These cakes are eaten buttered, with a glass of milk, for supper, but are also terrific with wine and cheese.

OATCAKES - SCOTS

1/2 cup Shortening
1 cup Oats or quick-cooking oats
1 cup All-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon Baking soda
1/4 teaspoon Salt
2 - 3 Tablespoons Cold Water

Cut shortening into next four ingredients until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Add water, 1 Tablespoon at a time, until it forms stiff dough.
Roll until 1/8 inch thick on lightly floured surface.
Cut into 2-inch rounds or squares.
Place on un-greased cookie sheet and bake at 375º until they just start to brown - 12 to 15 minutes.
Bake on a hot griddle or frying pan until the edges begin to curl.
Turn over and cook the other side.
Do not let the oatcakes brown; they should be a pale fawn color.
Put on a wire rack to cool.
They are delicious served with cheese.

IRISH SODA BREAD

1-1/2 cups All-purpose flour -- unbleached, enriched
1-1/2 cups Whole wheat flour -- stone-ground
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon Baking soda
1-1/4 cups Buttermilk

Set the baking rack in the center of the oven and place a baking stone (if available) on the rack.
Preheat the oven to 375º.
In a mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients.
Mix to incorporate.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the buttermilk.
Mix quickly to incorporate the milk evenly.
It may be easier to mix with the hands than with a spoon.
Form the dough into a loaf shape and place in a nonstick 8-1/2 x 4-1/2 x 2-1/2" loaf pan.
Place in the preheated oven and bake for 50-55 minutes, until well browned and a skewer inserted in the center comes out dry.
Remove from the oven and the baking pan.
Place on a wire rack to cool.

SAND TARTS (OLD GERMAN STYLE)

2-1/2 cups Sugar
2 cups Butter
2 each Egg, well beaten
1 each Egg white
4 cups Flour
Pecans
Cinnamon

Cream the butter and sugar together.
Slowly add the flour, working it in well.
Add the well-beaten eggs and mix thoroughly.
Chill over night.
Roll out thin on lightly floured board.
Brush cookies with the egg white that has been slightly beaten.
Sprinkle with sugar and a little cinnamon.
Press 1/2 pecan into center of cookie.
Bake at 350º for about 10 minutes.

Sources:

Bord, Janet & Colin - Earth Rites, Fertility Practices in Pre-Industrial Britain, Granada, London, 1982.
Carr-Gomm, Philip - The Elements of the Druid Tradition Element Books, Rockport, MA 1998
Danaher, Kevin - The Year in Ireland, The Mercier Press, Cork, 1972.
Henes, Donna - Celestially Auspicious Occasions: Seasons, Cycles & Celebrations, A Pedigree Book. NY, NY 1996
Hole, Christina - Witchcraft in England, Rowman & Littlefield, Totowa NJ, 1977.
Holleston, T.W. - Celtic Mythology: History, Legends and Deities, NewCastle Publishing, Van Nuys, CA 1997
MacCana, Proinsias - Celtic Mythology, The Hamlyn Publishing Group, Ltd., London, 1970.
MacCulloch, J.A. - Religion of the Ancient Celts, Folcroft Library Editions, London, 1977.
Matthews, John - The Druid Source Book: Complied and Edited by John Matthews, A Blanford Book, London, England, 1997
Matthews, John and Caitlin - The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom, Element Books Rockport, MA 1994
McCoy, Edain - The Sabbats: A New Approach to living the Old Ways, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN 1998
Nichols, Ross - The Book of Druidry, Harper-Collins, London, England 1992
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Sharkey, John - Celtic Mysteries, the Ancient Religion, Thames & Hudson, New York, 1979.
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Williamson, John - The Oak King, The Holly King, and the Unicorn, Harper & Row, New York, 1986.
Wood-Martin, W.G. - Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, Kennikat Press, Port Washington, NY, 1902.