The Story of Beltane
The name Beltane, Bealtaine (Irish), and Bealltainn (Scottish) come from a common Gaelic phrase meaning "bright fire," with strong associations to the Celtic god Belanus. While there is very little historical record to detail this ancient festival, we know that Beltane honors life and focuses on protecting cattle, crops, and people, and also underscores fertility and growth! As a holiday, it was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man. Many of its themes and customs were echoed in Germanic tribes (Walpurgisnacht), the Roman Empire (Floralia), and even in Jewish traditions (Purim),
Ancient Celtic traditions included driving cattle between two balefires, extinguishing all fires in the community and re-lighting them from a central friction fire, the selection of nine sacred woods for kindling, the collection of the May Day dew by Druids, etc. The Maypole, one of the most well-known traditions that still exists today, is the symbolic phallis of the Greenman. It is braided in ribbons by the young female virgins of the community through a beautiful and complex dance. The "Greenwood Marriage" was a popular practice, where young lovers would spend the night together in the woods and emerge in the morning with greenery to spread throughout the town.
The Floralia celebrations in Rome were marked by games, striptease, feasting, dancing, and revelry, in honor of Chloris/Flora in April, and Maia in May. Floralia was a sacred holiday for prostitutes. There was also a ceremony in which a number of hares and goats were released into the community arena to be hunted, the sexually active and ambitious animals believed to symbolize fertility. Flowers, especially flower crowns, are a prominent feature in all the older cultural traditions.
Walpurgisnacht in Germany and Denmark (Valborg in Sweden) is named after an English missionary who was canonized in 870 CE. Celebrations on April 30th to May 1st focus on banishing malevolent witches and other Winter evils. Dolls and effigies of witches were lit on fire during this time, to destroy Winter and usher in the Spring. Their traditions also included dancing, revelry, and the gathering of greenwood in the forests to decorate homes.
In our modern-day U.S. Pagan celebrations, we understand it is the transitional time between Winter and Summer, when the active energies of the Earth grow and seek to reproduce. On Beltane, sexuality and abundant fertility are the central themes. The manifestation of growth and renewal is the maiden goddess, or May Queen. The young Oak King, or Jack-In-The-Green, is the embodiment of virility. Together, they represent the consummate acts of nature that lead to new Summer life and Fall bounty. This dynamic is also reflected in many ancient pantheons (Celtic, Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, Roman, Chinese, Indian, Slavic, etc.).
At our festival, we have married old and new traditions to create a
event as unique as it is appealing to the modern Pagan! Our Beltane Hunt, like Floralia, is a passion play (like a game of “hide-and-seek”) reflecting the fertility theme of the season. Our hunters (dressed in red and black) strategize and pursue the holies, answering challenges and riddles, using their cunning to discover who the May Queen is. The holies, dressed in white, are the chased. They represent the priests and priestesses charged with protecting the identity of the May Queen. Like our spiritual ancestors, who knew that a hunter must be blessed by the holy women and men of the temples, the hunter who discovers the May Queen will become Oak King, and the two will embody the union of Sun and Earth as nature blooms forth.
Like Walpurgisnacht, we will light up the Wickerman to purge the past that weighs us down. The coldness and stagnant energy of Winter, the sorrows of a year immersed in doubt and fear, the anger we felt at the injustice of the world around us… all will be burned to ash. We will use this sacred fire to light the campfires of Gryphon’s Nest just as our ancestors kindled village fires in Ireland. We will transmute that flame to kindle a fire that welcomes those around us, that draws us near, and allows us to connect to one another in a warm orb of light.
Elements of our Beltane ritual on Saturday night are pieced together from traditions around the world. The morning after ritual, couples that went a’maying will emerge from the tree line with collected flowers, seed pods, and branches to decorate our sacred spaces. In the Louisiana swamps, we descendants and inheritors of Cajun culture embrace and honor the spiritual traditions that course through the world.
We wish to grow our Beltane event with the same fervor that has made the Beltane Fire Festival of Edinburgh, Scotland so popular. We want to create more opportunities for community involvement, including incorporating values that reflect our hope for society as a whole. We wish it to become a flow art and burn "mecca" that will be known as "The Burning Man of the South." And we wish to create a celebration that draws people from many faiths who might embrace the spiritual truths that nature and its cycles of life have to teach.