By Eric Francis
When in the springtime of the year
Fountain, Museum of Erotic Art, Paris. Digital photo by Eric Francis.
When the trees are crowned with leaves
When the ash and oak, and the birch and yew
Are dressed in ribbons fair...
-- Loreena McKennitt
BELTANE, traditionally celebrated the first week of May, is one of the four High Sabbats (days of worship) of the Pagan calendar, a calendar closely intertwined with astrology. This is the pre-Christian cycle of the seasons that is based on what some call the Natural Religion or Earth-based practice. In some places Beltane is referred to as The May, and historically in many locales, the celebration lasted an entire month. Also known as the Midspring holiday, Beltane is traditionally celebrated at the time the Sun reaches the middle degrees of Taurus, the first Earth sign of the horoscope, in early May.
It is the celebration of renewed life after the long winter, as well as a celebration of sexuality, abundance and community. This is the traditional time to 'fertilize the fields'.
Beltane is one of the 'cross-quarter days', the four central holidays that make up the cycle of the seasons. There are also the 'quarter days', which are the beginnings of the seasons -- the equinoxes and the solstices. The cross-quarter days fall exactly six weeks after the quarter days. They always occur when the Sun is at the midpoint of a fixed sign: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, or Aquarius. For example, Beltane falls exactly between spring equinox and summer solstice, with the Sun in Taurus.
Readers down under, please note that these holidays are based on the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. There are different theories as to how the seasonal changes may be applied to the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons run opposite than the north. But the initial story and the placement of the holidays is based on the European climates.
Each spring, the Earth's life is renewed, and we are given a fresh chance to live. This is the simplest meaning of Beltane. While we may view this metaphorically today, in earlier times there were no guarantees of surviving winter. Harsh climates throughout Europe and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, and many unchecked diseases, compounded by lack of supplies and medicine, provided long and challenging months. Emerging with one's life intact in the warmth and renewal of spring was something to celebrate.
Many forms of Paganism, which is an Earth-based, natural religion that predates Christianity by thousands of years, involved tree worship. Trees grow in and from the Earth, and provide us with fruit, as well as wood to build our homes, and to warm them. They are the 'cow' of the Earth -- providing all the basic needs of humanity. In honor of spring, trees were dressed in garlands, wreaths, and ribbons.
There is an element of tree worship associated with Beltane, symbolized in the May Pole dance. There is also a not so subtle phallic symbol alluded to in the May Pole. The May Pole, an ancient symbol of fertility, was celebrated in a dance involving the interweaving of ribbons, symbolic of the entwined fabric of the human family. Today this kind of woven intertwining is known to exist in the genetic codes contained in DNA.
It is interesting that Christian tradition has taken over the holiday as Holy Cross Day (May 3, right in the heart of Beltane season) and that in political tradition it's a holiday about labor and productivity (May Day) rather than of sexuality and procreation. There is a relationship, of course, but it's a generation abstracted.
Traditionally, both phallic symbols and their opposite, yonic symbols, have been part of Beltane. When I visited Avebury Henge last year in England, a 5,000 year old stone circle just outside of London, the Keeper of the Stones explained that at one time there was an obelisk (shaped kind of like the Washington Monument) at the center of one of the circles, which at Beltane cast a shadow on something called the 'vulva stone'. The male and female polarities would make contact, via a shadow. Since sex is the basis of reproduction and thus all life and all abundance, this is a time of year when sexual symbolism (and reality) are acknowledged openly.
In other words, the basic property of nature was given a space in the mind and in human affairs.
"Marriage vows were temporarily forgotten during this honey month," writes Donna Henes in her revered book, Celestially Auspicious Occasions
. "People coupled freely in the woods and fields, fertilizing the soil and each other, sharing a fervent participation in the regenerative magic of the Earth."
"In pre-Christian Europe, sexual activity was considered sacred, and Beltane was literally a night of love," comments Marion Weinstein in The Ancient Modern Witch
. "Women and men met in the dark, and paired off under groves of tress, or lay on the newly-sown fields. This was believed to create healthy babies, and simultaneously provide a blessing for the crops. Any child conceived on Beltane Eve was considered a child of The Goddess and The God."
Beltane is the Taurus holiday, so by studying its themes, we can find out something about this particular sign of the zodiac.
Like Beltane, each of the cross-quarter days has a different theme. I will go over them briefly, for context. The first Sabbat each year occurs in February, and is called Imbolc or Midwinter holiday, which means 'in the belly' or 'in the milk', depending on who you ask. This is the Aquarius holiday of the four.
It celebrates gestation before birth, and the life contained within apparent stillness and darkness. This occurs when it's still dark and cold outside and we are contained deep within the night-world of the cosmos. It's traditionally a celebration of light, with candles lit in each window. Hence, the Christian version of the holiday is called Candlemas. Each of these holidays has a Christianized version, much like every cathedral in the UK and Europe is placed on a former Pagan place of worship -- which many of their tourist guides openly acknowledge.
Next comes Beltane or Midspring holiday, which, as explained above, is about birth and rebirth, when plants are coming out of the ground, and young animals are being born.
Then in early August, Lammas or Midsummer holiday is known as the 'first harvest'. This is the Leo holiday. Sometimes called 'second planting', Lammas is obviously a holiday of abundance and of celebrating the successful fruition of the Earth. The earlier name is Lughnasadh, which is difficult to spell and more difficult to pronounce, so the Christianized name seems to have stuck. Of the four, this is the one that has faded into the deepest obscurity, though the word 'Midsummer' is preserved in the name of a Shakespeare play, so it's familiar to us.
Last is Samhain (usually pronounced sa-wen), known to us as Halloween. Whereas Beltane is the celebration of birth, rebirth, fertility and passion, Samhain is, throughout much of the world, a time when death is acknowledged. Apparently, the imagery of skeletons so commonly seen at this time of year in the United States, England and Europe, goes back as far as ancient Egypt and as far south as Mexico and Central America, where people celebrate Days of the Dead and prepare feasts in cemeteries. Samhain is considered by some scholars to be the longest continually celebrated holiday in existence.
Now, however, it's time for Midspring holiday, when Old Man Winter finally goes away for good, when the trees are lined with leaves, and when the ash and oak, the birch and yew, are dressed in ribbons faire.
Happy Beltane to ye.