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 History/Culture: The History and Traditions of Beltane/May Day

Holidaysby Sherlyn Meinz aka Blue1moon
AlienLove Editor

Beltane is considered one of the most important of the ancient holidays. It’s history goes back further than records exist. It is a time for renewal, regrowth and fertility - for the land, livestock, wild animals, and humankind. It welcomes summer, the awakening of the earth and personal growth. The holiday begins at sundown on April 30th and continues through sundown on May first. However, due to calendar changes over the centuries, in years past, it was actually celebrated several days later allowing for more plants to be in bloom. Celebrations of this holiday are held as late as May 5th.

The holiday has many names: Beltaine, Beltane, May Eve, May Day, Walpurgis Night, Roodmass, to name a few. Many try to stay up all night on Beltane Eve to welcome the dawn with singing and dancing. It is also said that if you sit under a tree, you may be lucky enough to hear or see the Queen of the Faeries as she rides her white horse.

The horse’s bells ring as she rides through the night. Legend has that if you hide your face, the Faery Queen will pass you by, but if you look upon her she may choose you to accompany her to Faeryland. This is a time when the ‘veil’ between worlds is at it’s thinnest, as it is at Samhain (Halloween). It is considered to be the time when Faeries return full of mischief and delight, and rowan branches were often placed over doorways and windows for protection.

May Day is also acknowledged as the world’s first ‘workers’ holiday. Red (the color of fire) is associated with both holidays. In the celebration of the International holiday of May Day, red (flags) represent the splash of blood as organized workers lost their lives while fighting for basic rights. Traditional Beltane colors are red, white and green. Red is thought to have represented a woman’s menses; white either mother’s milk or a man’s semen; and green - growth and abundance. ...


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Beltane is the third, last, and most sensual of the spring fertility festivals and it heralds summer. The word Beltane translates to ‘fire of Bel’, ‘bright fire’ or ‘bale fire’. Bel (a.k.a. Bile, Beli, Belinus, Belenos) is the Celtic Sun God, and known as the ‘bright and shining one’, this holiday marks his coronation feast. Beltane’s date reflects the Pleiades star cluster, which rises just before the sun on the morning horizon. At Samhain (Beltane’s opposite) the Pleiades rise at sunset. This star cluster represents the ‘seven sisters’ and is located in the constellation of Taurus. Beltane is considered a ‘Cross quarter day’ and falls on the day which is midpoint between the Vernal Equinox and Summer Solstice.

The month of May was named for Maia, Goddess of Increase. “Maia Majesta” is the “Great Mother,” and is said to be one of the “Seven Sisters of the Pleiades.” Beltane is a Fire Festival, the earth has warmed and is bursting forth in fertility, just as our passions rise (spring fever) as the fire (spring energy) burns within us. Ancient peoples honored the Earth and did everything they could to encourage the Sun’s growing light and warming of the Earth; for this reason fire (representing the sun, warmth) is central to the celebration of this holiday. To encourage the Earth’s hoped for/needed fertility in the coming months, fertility rituals were held. Couples who spent Beltane Eve “A-Maying” danced around the maypole in the morning. Singles participated and married couples were allowed to remove their rings (and the monogamy this implied) for this one night.

May Day (Beltane) celebrations were banned during the 16th century by the Church for being immoral, although the customs remained in many areas. Festivities became widespread again not many years later, but generally with much less focus on the sexual aspects implied by a fertility celebration. One of the earliest written records regarding Beltane festivals was recorded in 1240 A.D. by a bishop in Lincolnshire, who complained that the local priests, “demeaned themselves by joining games which they call the bringing-in of May.”

Beltane traditions are similar to those of the Roman festival of Floralia, which was a six-day long celebration in honor of the Goddess of Spring and Flowers, Flora. The festival was a time of feasting, singing and dancing - fresh blooms were brought in to decorate the entire city. Flora was also considered the patron saint of prostitutes, who performed naked in theatres during their patroness’ festival. Some believe that when Rome invaded the Celtic countries the holidays were meshed.

Bel Fires (Bale Fire):

Fire is and has been used in many ways to celebrate this “fiery” holiday. The custom of lighting Beltane Fires was first recorded by Julius Caesar, but began long before the Roman invasion. Ancient Celts lit two large fires from nine sacred woods. These ‘need fires’ (fein cigin) were built on a knoll and livestock were driven between them for purification, protection and fertility - to receive from Bel, the Sun God, his blessings for the tribe, it’s herds and fields. Sheep led the procession, followed by cattle, then goats, with horses last. Livestock was traditionally put out to summer pasture after this ritual was completed. People also passed between the Bel-fires to receive blessings. Torches made of sedge, heather or gorse were lit from the Bel Fire and carried around stables and other areas to purify the air.

Bel is also called Belenos, Bal or Baal, which means to banish (evil spirits), and although he was heavily associated with the sun, he was not considered to be the sun. In the British Isles it was traditional to extinguish all household fires on Beltane Eve (bad luck during the rest of the year.) The bel-fires could be seen for miles around and hearth fires were relit from these, to be kept burning continuously until the next Beltane. The special and protective properties of the various magical woods used to create the bel-fires would bring their power to the home hearths lit from their flames. Women wishing to become pregnant performed fertility dances in front of the Bel Fire, dancing sunwise (clockwise) around the fires.

"Nine woods in the Bale fire go, Burn them fast and burn them slow..." (from the Wiccan Rede)

The nine woods frequently used were:
Oak for the God; Birch for the Goddess; Fir for birth; Willow for death; Rowan for magic; Apple for love; Grapevine for joy; Hazel for wisdom; Hawthorne for purity and for May.

(Other woods may be substituted, including but not limited to: alder, ash, elm, gorse, holly, maple, and thorn.)

May Pole

A Sacred Tree called “Bile” was the center of the clan in ancient Ireland. The Bile Pole was considered to be the Irish Tree of Life, and represented the connection between the people and the “Three Worlds of Bith.” These were the Skyworld (the heavens), the Middleworld (the world people inhabit) and the Otherworld. It is thought that the Bile Pole eventually came to be represented as the Maypole. Some people have a permanent Maypole, which is used year after year, others cut a fresh pole yearly and burn last year’s pole at that time.

The Maypole is considered a phallic symbol, representing the male regenerative force, and represents the God, the Spirit of Summer, and new growth. It is planted in the Earth, which represents the Goddess, and the marriage of the two.

In Eastern Europe, young men go into the woods on Beltane Eve to chop down a young fir tree, then decorate it with ribbons and colored eggshells before planting it outside the bedroom window of their loves. In Germany and Scandinavia, “May trees” are set up in front of doors and for animals in the stables. In Italy, Maypoles are decorated with cheeses and money on the tops, then men try to climb the greased pole to receive the prizes. In England, maypoles are often decorated with a broom or bush, and girls ‘ride’ it into the village.

The maypole dance raises energy in a focused and patterned way, as dancers weave the ribbons around the pole.

***For traditional Maypole dance instructions, see below.***

Handfasting

Handfastings, often held on Beltane, are trial ‘marriages’ that last a year and a day. If no child or pregnancy comes of the u.nion within a year, either party may choose to end the relationship. The ancients seemed to understand that a night’s passion did not always result in a beneficial or fruitful marriage. If both desired to remain together, further commitments could be made. And while handfasting during the month of May was common, it was not considered a good time for a legal marriage. Recently wed couples and brides performed fertility rights on Beltane eve night to bring fertility, those not wed also took part in the festivities and theses unions were called “greenwood marriages.” For already attached couples, the rules of monogamy were relaxed and women who had previously had difficulty getting pregnant often found themselves with child after participating in a fertility festival. Children born of this night were considered lucky and blessed, whether there was a legal marriage or not. In some cultures it was traditional to wait for legal marriage until after a pregnancy was well-established.

Superstitions/Cautions:

Leftover food from MayEve celebrations should be left as a gift for the faeries or buried. It is bad luck for spring cleaning not to have been accomplished by this time. Be sure to blow out the candles used to celebrate Beltane with your love, before falling asleep. It is considered unlucky (especially for men) to marry in May, as it is considered the ‘woman’s month” and is suggested that he would fall prey to lust, allowing his wife great power over him. An old UK rhyme goes “Marry in May and rue the day!” It was also thought that this was the time that changelings might be substituted for human children. Village elders left offerings of food (butter, eggs, milk cheese) for the fairies or poured milk into the ground for protection from faery mischief and from natural events like storms, flood and disease. Native Americans also watched the skies and sang songs to bring themselves into harmony with the fertility of “Mother Earth” and “Father Sky”, and were rewarded with spring rains and increased sunlight. The Navajo refered to the Pleiades as “Dilyehe” and had a saying, “Never let Dilyehe see you plant.” When the Pleiades were gone from the evening sky, it was time to begin planting, which was to be accomplished before Dilyehe returned to the skies just before dawn. Cats born in May are considered to be good “mousers.”

Ancient Legends related to this Holiday:

The yearly battle between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwythur ap Greidawl for Creudylad found in Welsh mythology, relates to the cyclical battle between winter and summer for Mother Earth. Beltane is also related to the myth of Pwyll and Rhiannion, and the theft by a hand of darkness of their son, Pryderi, at this time when the veil between worlds is so thin. It is also reminiscent of the fact that while winter is technically over, winter (weather) can still strike out unexpectedly. (Living in Vermont I have seen snow in May!)

Bloudeuwedd, who some think of as the original Queen of May, was said to have been created from nine flowers – bean, broom, cockle, chestnut, meadowsweet, nettle, oak, primrose, and trefoil. Lilith, the Goddess of Women and Wisdom, who appears in owl form is celebrated on April 30th. There are of course, many other goddesses from many cultures and times associated with this day.

The holiday honors the sacred marriage of the God (Bel) and Goddess (Maia), the marriage of Sun and Earth. The God is often represented as the Horned God of the Woods, the Green Man, and in later times as Robin Goodfellow or Robin Hood, and is associated with hunting. Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, became the Queen of May, who represented the life of the fields. Today, a King and Queen of May are still elected for many celebrations.

In very ancient times, it is thought that a human sacrifice may have been made at Beltane in some cultures, representing literally the death of winter, so that spring/summer could arrive. Over time these traditions evolved into sacrificing effigies to the Bel-fires. People also worried about witches causing harm during this period. However, those that we now consider witches were actually the wise women who worked their magic against the perceived evil forces for their communities.

May Day

Previous celebrations became associated with a working class holiday, when the struggle for an eight-hour day in 1886 resulted in national strikes in Canada and the United States on May 1st. Chicago police killed six striking protestors and the next day a bomb exploded in Haymarket Square that killed eight police, it was never clear if the bomb was thrown by the strikers, or was planted by sabotagers trying to end the strikes. A number of “anarchist trade unionists” were arrested and convicted. In 1887 socialistic countries proclaimed May 1st as a holiday for working people. In Russia it is a day of political speeches and military parades (seemingly a far-cry from the day’s original meanings.) In 1889 May 1st was declared an international working class holiday in commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs, by the International Working Men’s Association in Paris. A red flag became the symbol of the blood shed by the martyrs of the working class who battle for worker’s rights.

Flowers as messages:

Flowers are inevitably used in Beltane celebrations as their appearance signals Summer’s victory over Winter.

Hawthorne (May) was thought to be particularly auspicious at this time, but was not brought into homes as it also invited the faeries in. Some ways that flowers were used as messages: Plum was given to the glum; Elder for those who were surly; Thorn for the ‘prickly’; and Pear indicated popularity. Flowers are often braided into women’s hair for this holiday; homes and altars are usually decorated with flowers.

A Few Ways to Celebrate

There are many ways to celebrate this holiday, like taking a walk in the woods, jumping a bonfire (or candle, where bonfires are unfeasible), blessing your garden, renewing the passion between yourself and your love. Traditionally, couples made love outside in the woods or in their fields to bless them, and to reinforce the fertility of the land.

Circling the Beltane fire three times (sun-wise or clock-wise) brings good luck during the coming year. As you jump over (or stand close to the fire,) you can call upon it to “burn out” that which you want to leave behind, be these bad habits, plaguing thoughts, or sickness (of spirit – which usually affects the body). Cast that which you no longer need into the fire!. Gazing into the flames can lead to an altered state of consciousness, called ‘firestruck’.

In Scotland (and other Celtic lands) a sweet bread, called bannock , is made without leavening from oat or barley flour and served on Beltane day. The bannocks are not supposed to touch steel during their preparation as steel is thought to be deadly to the faery folk. They are often left on roadways and doorstops as an offering to the Faeries in hopes of receiving their blessings.

Today, Catholic traditions include placing flower crowns on statues of Mary. Some believe that Mary was made the Queen of May to promote chastity on this fertility festival.

Since ancient times, flowers and other greens were gathered before dawn on Beltane and used to decorate/bless self and loved ones, homes, barns, fields, wells, ponds, etc. Rolling in the morning dew at Beltane, or washing your face with it, continues to be practiced, to bring beauty, health and luck. Drinking from a well before dawn on Beltane morning is also said to bring good health and fortune.

A Beltane Fire Festival is held on Calton Hill in Endinburgh, Scotland and attended by approximately 15,000 people. This revived Beltane celebration has been held yearly since 1988.

Jethro Tull, "Cup of Wonder, " from the 1977 album "Songs From the Wood":

"For the May Day is the great day,
Sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did ley
Will heed this song that calls them back...
Pass the cup, and pass the Lady,
And pass the plate to all who hunger,
Pass the wit of ancient wisdom,
Pass the cup of crimson wonder."


Mother Goose Rhyme:

“The fair maid who, the first of May
Goes to the fields at break of day
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree
Will ever after handsome be”


************

Maypole Dance Instructions

from “Beltane Introduction,” by Lady Bridget
http://www.ladybridget.com/r/mayi001.html

“Today we choose a ribbon color which represents something we wish to "weave" into our lives as we weave it ontothe pole, hopefully something that will also benefit the community as a whole, since this is a communal dance. Yellow for wisdom and inspiration, orange for success, blue for peace, or peace of mind, pink for friendship or patience, green can be healing or financial gain, white for health, and protection, etc. I have even seen rainbow ribbons, and also plaid ribbons! They certainly do stand out in the pattern.

The pole is erected, with appropriate ritual ceremony (see the file containing the ritual for this Sabbat for details), with the ribbons all tied to the top of the pole. The dancers stand in the circle around it each holding to the ends of the ribbon. Typically this is done with the males and females alternating around the circle, but we almost never have an exactly even number, and it doesn't matter that much. If you do have an almost equal number, then you can have all the males go deosil, and the females go widdershins (clockwise and counter-clockwise) as they go around the pole. If your numbers are too uneven, then have the participants count off by twos, with all the number "ones" going one way and the number "twos" going opposite.

It is better to have some lively music to dance to, we use celtic jigs and reels, and have a half hour tape with just that on it, which is easy to leave on the player, so it can be unattended. 30 minutes is quite sufficient, even a bit long! Believe me, unless you are a professional dancer, you will be tired out long before 30 minutes are over. You can also use Louisiana cajun zydeco, or Tennesse bluegrass, as well as the celtic songs, since all of these have a similar beat, and are very lively. That is the most important thing for a successful dance, because we have found that chanting leaves you out of breath very quickly.

To start the dance, have all the people facing deosil [clock-wise] raise their ribbons and the people going widdershins [counter clockwise] will go under them. Then the widdershins group will raise their ribbons and the deosil group will go under them. So it continues, over and under, over and under, as you progress around the pole. Very quickly a beautiful pattern will emerge, as these bright ribbons are woven together. Don't worry if people forget which way they were supposed to go, this often happens when you have first time dancers, or an uneven number of people, someone is bound to go under when they should have gone over, no matter. It is the enjoyment of the dance that matters most, not whether the weave comes out perfect, and no one can tell the difference anyway!

When the ribbons become too short to allow for comfortably continuing, then it it time to tie off. Tie the ribbon to the pole at the end of the weaving, and you can leave the ribbon hanging loose below the knot. Some groups leave the ribbons on year after year, and simply allow them to build up on the pole, until they decide a new pole is needed, then the old pole with all the layers of ribbons, is ritually burned during the Beltane circle. Other groups will carefully work the old ribbons off the pole just prior to this years dance, and these ribbons will be ritually burned in the balefire. Of course, you could use a new pole each year, and ritually burn the old pole with ribbons intact. Another exception I have seen is where a wheel was used at the top of the pole, and this group actually "unwove" all the ribbons, and left the pole bare again. Personally, I think that it is undoing the magick of weaving into your life if you unweave the ribbons after the dance, but each group must decide for themselves what works best for them…

For this is a dance for fertility! For abundance of the fields! For abundance in our lives! It was meant to be a courtship dance and to raise the libido of both those dancing and those watching, and to add to the sexual flavor that permeates this Sabbat…”


************

References:

“Celebrating the Seasons, Lore and Rituals,” by Selena Fox
http://www.circlesanctuary.org/pholidays/Beltane.html
“Beltane – Holiday Details and History,” by Christina Aubin
http://www.witchvox.com/holidays/dt_holidays.html?a=usma&c=holidays&id=2765
“You Call it May Day, We Call it Beltane,” by Peg Aloi
http://www.witchvox.com/holidays/dt_holidays.html?a=usma&c=holidays&id=3382
“May Day Announces the Onset of Summer,” Von Del Chamberlain
http://www.clarkfoundation.org/astro-utah/vondel/crossquartermay.html
“Beltane” from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beltane
“Celebrating MayDay,” by Waverly Fitzgerald
http://www.schooloftheseasons.com/mayday.html
“May Day: more than just another workers rights holiday,” by Elysia Gallo
http://news.xenomusic.com/culture/culture_20020430.html
“Beltane,” by Herne
http://www.wicca.com/celtic/akasha/beltane.htm
“Heritage of Beltane,” by Lark
http://www.webofoz.org/heritage/Beltane.shtml
“The Origins and Traditions of MayDay” by Eugene W. Plawiuk
http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/5202/mayday.htm
“Raise High the Maypole and let the carline burn – sex and sacrifice at Beltaine,” by Maren M. Ulberg
http://www.widdershins.org/vol2iss1/b9604.htm

************

[30 April 2015 - previously posted on Alienlove.com]





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