Sunny, floral scented days were a time of enchantment. Chiefly, the feast day of Beltane (pronounced Bell-teen or Bell-tawn) or the more modern May Day. Beltane meant Bell’s fire in honor of Belenus, the Celtic sun and healing god. Invoking Belenus’ blessings, nine men gathered nine pieces of wood from nine of the sacred trees, such as oak, elm, ash, birch, holly, rowan, apple, alder, maple, and hawthorn. The tribe piled more wood on top, building two huge bon-fires which were called the needs fire. Druids kindled the blazes with sacred incantations.
Each family extinguished the center fires in their round hut and in rapt silence relit them with a torch of the new, needs fire. The Celts also smudged their faces with ashes from the Bell’s fires. Further, they ritually drove their livestock between the needs fires. No small feat, for though cows and oxen are somewhat manageable, sheep can be difficult, and horses are more than skittish when goaded between blazing infernos. As the animals passed between the hot amber fire, Belenus purified them from all disease so they would fatten on the new grass, rather than grow sick from the cold, wet ground still under foot. Once the ceremony was finished, men and dogs drove the herds to summer pasture.
In baking bread or small cakes for Beltane, the Celts burned or marked one with ashes. In mock sacrifice, the person who drew the blackened cake had to jump over a small fire or in some celebrations perform the sword dance and in others they would walk across hot coals.
A tree in the woods was chopped down for the maypole or a tribal tree was used each Beltane. Men and women grabbed the soft colored feminine ribbons tied around the masculine, phallic pole and danced in an intertwining fashion, symbolizing the union the of the god and the goddess, the hand fasting of sun to earth. To the music of fife, harp, and bagpipe, Celts sung ancient mating songs. Between leaping, twirling dances, they fasted on boiled boar and gulped cupfuls of ale and mead.
Along with fire, Druids held that water was powerful. The most potent appeared magically. So Celts collected the dew before dawn on Beltane. Those sprinkled with May dew were insured health, happiness, and lasting beauty.
May was the month of reawakening of the earth after a long, dormant winter. Picking wild flowers, basking in sunshine, dancing in the dew cover grass were some of the things to enjoy at Beltane.
It was also a romantic holiday. The May Queen led the Beltane procession with her ritual courtship of the Green Man. These symbolic marriages of the god and goddess, in the form of King and Queen of the May, were mirrored in human courtship. One of the most popular May Day traditions was to set a basket full of spring flowers or other small gifts at a neighbor’s house without them seeing you. If you got caught, they would chase, then kiss you. Courtships for the ancient Celts would often begin at Beltaine and the marriages would be held at Samhain (Sah-van), which in modern times we call Halloween.
I hope you all have a Happy May Day next week.
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Cornelia Amiri writes Celtic/Romances - perfect May Day reading. Visit her at http://CelticRomanceQueen.com