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For the ancient Celts, there were only two seasons: summer and winter. Beltaine ushered in the light half of the year while Samhain (modern Halloween) ushered in the dark half. The mid-points of the year were Imbolc, the Fire Festival of mid-winter that celebrated the lactation of the ewes, and Lughnasad, the festival of mid-summer that celebrated the first fruits of the harvest.
The date of Beltaine was calculated in at least two different ways, and neither of these has anything to do with the modern calendar. One way was to wait for the first blooming of the local hawthorn trees (Crataegus spp.), because the hawthorn knows when the weather has finally turned and all danger of frost is over. A second method was to wait until the Pleiades star cluster "disappeared into the sun" (that is, the stars were no longer visible after sunset).
If you go by these calculations, astronomical Beltaine happens on April 26 or 27 of the current Gregorian calendar. But the blooming of the hawthorn varies from area to area (in my part of New England the trees don’t blossom until mid-May).
In times past the correct calculation of the date was supremely important because at Beltaine the cows were led to their summer pasture in the hills. Baby calves had to be kept safe, and the women and children who followed the herds to camp in the fields and tend the cows, sheep, and goats had to be comfortable. But before the herd could be led into the hills an all-important rite of purification had to occur. Two large fires were built, so close that when a white cow walked between them her hair would be singed brown. These two fires became a portal from one state of being (winter) into another (summer). There is also the thought that the fires actually removed parasites from the cows in some way.
In Indo-European cosmology (the common religious heritage that stretches from Western Europe to India) the cow is a lunar animal and a creature of water. She produces a liquid (milk) from her body. When a cow is passed between two ritual fires, the two basic building blocks of creation (fire and water) are brought together. Where these two elements come together there is the strongest potential for magic.
Modern Pagans can emulate this ritual by dancing between two fires. It is also a good idea to "jump the fires," because the grain will grow as high as revelers can leap the flames. (Always be careful to remove long, flowing clothing when doing this. The elderly of the community can step over the fire once the coals have died down).
It is very lucky to clean out your hearth and start a new fire with embers from the ritual fires. It is traditional to scoop up the dew on May Morning and to wash your face with it as a magical beauty aid. Holy wells also have a special potency on May Morning; it is said that the first person to scoop up the water as the rising sun's rays enter it will have special luck.
It is considered lucky to climb a hill on Beltaine morn to watch the sun rise. Be sure to leave an offering for the Spirits of Place such as fresh flowers, bread, cheese, or a libation of cider or honey. A caudle was once poured onto the ground or into a votive pit as an offering; the drink was yellow in honor of the sun.
To make a Caudle
In Scotland, oats, salt, and nutmeg (and sometimes eggs) were made into a brew: 1 pint milk
A Beltaine Bannock is a ritual bread that was baked with nine raised nobs on the top. The family would walk across their field, breaking off one knob at a time and throwing it behind saying, "This is for you fox, preserve my hens; this is for you crow, preserve my corn; this is for you forces of blight, stay out of my fields," etc. Alternatively, the bannock could be broken into as many pieces as there were celebrants. One piece was charred in the fire and then all the pieces were put into a pot. Everyone reached in for a portion and the person who drew the charred section had to leap the flames three times.
Rowan trees (Sorbus aucuparia), or Mountain Ash, were especially associated with the festival in Scotland. Rowan twigs were gathered on Bealltan (this is the Scottish spelling of the festival) morn and bound with red thread to make small, equal-armed crosses that were considered very protective against ill-intentioned sorcery. The crosses were hidden in clothing or placed in the house and barn.
Animals were made to walk over a rowan branch or passed through a large hoop of rowan twigs as a form of protection. Rowan branches were tied to animal collars or hung over the entrance of the house and barn.
(Please note: the European Mountain Ash was the one used by the ancients; it has red berries. The American Mountain Ash has orange berries and the exact same magical and medicinal properties. Women of the Highlands once made necklaces from the berries as a form of protection, and simmered the ripe berries with apple slices and honey to make a syrup for coughs and colds. [The berries are only available in the fall, of course].)
Modern Pagans have adopted the custom of dancing the Maypole, which is an English tradition (later adopted by the Lowland Scots). While it is traditional to decorate the top of the Maypole with hawthorn blossoms, the blooming hawthorn sprays must never be brought into the house—otherwise a type of mischievous Fairy will follow them into your dwelling.
In Ireland everyone danced around a May Bush (or a large bonfire). The May Bush was a blooming holly tree (Ilex spp.) decorated with hawthorn or whitethorn (Crataegus monogyna) blossoms, yellow flowers such as the Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), yellow ribbons, and egg shells died yellow. Candles were placed in the bush and lit on May Eve.
Blackthorns (Prunus spinosa) were never cut on Beltaine, lest the lunantishee, a type of Fairy, be offended.
Seanachies, or traditional story tellers, stopped their tales at Beltaine. Story telling resumed at Samhain, when the dark of the year commenced.
These customs and others are explored in a trilogy of Druid novels: Priestess of the Forest: A Druid Journey; The Druid Isle; and Priestess of the Fire Temple: A Druid's Tale. Each book explores one of the three sacred realms of the Celts (Land, Sea, and Sky), and each is written as a bardic teaching tale embedded within a Celtic romance. Inside you will find prayers and rituals for every life passage and holy day.
The astute reader should be able to construct a Druid path by studying the books. May they inspire your spirit.
Ellen Evert Hopman (Massachusetts) has contributed to several Pagan journals and is a popular author of Druidry-related titles. A former teacher at the Grey School of Wizardry, Hopman has been active in American Druidism ...