Writing this post has a bitter sweet aspect to it to me. This is based on the last writing I did before my mum died on a book that was never completed. I tried to get back to it last year but failed so over the last six months I have used the material for posts here instead.
As many readers will know Beltane is often given the date of 1 May but its origin, like Imbolc, Lughnasadh and Samhain, is agricultural. This means that in the distant past it was triggered by seasonal changes in the local environment. Samhain has developed into the season of the ancestors and become fixed in our hearts and minds with the time of Halloween. Imbolc has a very strong focus on Brighid and has also become a fixed date festival more than one of the first signs of spring. For many, if not most, people Beltane has also made this transition from seasonal to calendar but personally I just don’t feel the energies of Beltane until I begin to see blossom on the hawthorn tree.
When I first wrote these words I had already taken part in a ritual for Beltane with the Tuatha de Bridget group I am a member of long before I had seen any hawthorn blossom. I think this was the first time the group ritual had taken place before I had seen a single hawthorn blossom and it just didn’t feel quite right to me. Spring was late that year, we had a long winter. I wrote this a week later than the ritual I attended and the last couple of days before I wrote had been warm and sunny, summer was finally on the way but still no hawthorn blossom. I’d heard from a friend in Ipswich that he had hawthorn blossom in his garden. I knew that soon the hawthorn would blossom around Glasgow but it wasn’t quite ready. This year as I walk round my local park I can see plenty of hawthorn leaves but the buds for the blossom are still very small. IT will be a while yet before the hawthorn blossoms round here even with the recent lovely weather we have been having. My fixation on the hawthorn blossom being the signal for Beltane is not one that has any foundation in any of the fragments of lore I have read. It’s not uncommon for Pagans in the UK to link hawthorn blossoms with Beltane but neither it is as fixed for many as it is for me.
What is known from the remaining fragments of lore gathered from across the UK is the Beltane marked the seasonal change into the summer months. We know that many places lit large communal fires, particularly in Scotland and Ireland but also in Wales, Devon and Cornwall. Often these fires were lit using methods that could have been recognised in neolithic times. In some cases in Scotland offerings of food were cast into the fires such as those referenced in F. M. McNeil’s Silver Bough volume two, in other cases the fires would be jumped by one as a symbolic sacrifice or by many for good fortune. In Ireland there are records of cattle being driven between two fires at this time. We also know that the making of crosses and other charms from Rowan wood was a widespread practice for this time of year, these were used to ward off evil influences.
In areas where livestock farming was widespread it was at this time of year that cattle and sheep would be taken to summer pastures. This is still a practice in some areas of Wales and Scotland although using less manpower and more vehicles to achieve. In past centuries some of the community would have to go with the flocks and herds to watch them over the summer living in purpose built shelters for that time. In Scotland these were called Sheilings, I know there were similar structures in part of Wales.
Another common feature found in records from a wide range of areas was to go “A’ Maying”. Ron Hutton’s Stations of the Sun gives several examples from a range of areas where officials paid for sections of the community to go out and gather flowers and greenery from the surrounding area. Hutton writes of a number of songs and poems that imply that young men and women regularly got up to sexual activities while out gathering flora but he goes on to write:
“It took until the late twentieth century, and the patient labours of demographic historians, to reveal that there was in fact no increase in the number of pregnancies at this season, in or out of marriage. The boom in conceptions came later in the summer.”
(Hutton, 1996 p229)
It seems the beginning of May was and still is a bit damp and chilly for certain types of outdoor activities after all.
At some stage Maypoles were introduced and my understanding is that the first records of them are from the mid fourteenth century but they may have been around before that. According to Hutton these were generally confined to “areas of English influence and language”. Like the fires more common in other areas the maypoles were a focal point for community festivities. By the end of the eighteenth century the use of maypoles began to fade but this symbol was rescued to some extent by the growing folk lore movement of Victorian times.
In fact many of the older traditions virtually disappeared from British communities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the mid to late twentieth centuries several areas began new versions of these older traditions and now there are vibrant Beltane and Mayday celebrations that take place across the UK.
Note that the hawthorn does not appear as an important part of any of the recorded Beltane traditions but still I cling to hawthorn blossom as the key marker of the season.
For me Beltane marks the final transition from the winter months to the summer months. Some myths, particularly the tale of the “Coming of Angus and Bride” in the Scottish Wonder Tales by Donald A. Macnkenzie, have the Cailleach being defeated at the spring equinox. To me the handover of power is not between Bride and the Cailleach but between Rigantona and the Cailleach at Beltane just as to me it is at Samhain the Cailleach takes up her sovereignty over winter once more. I also don’t see this as a battle but more like a dance. At this time I see the return of Rigantona (or Rhiannon to give Her the more modern name) from the Underworld to the land around my home. It is at this time, marked by the hawthorn blossom, I see Rigantona taking up Her cup of sovereignty for the summer just as at winter She passes it to Her Mother/Sister, the one I know as the Cailleach. So at Beltane on one level I celebrate the transition from winter to summer. On another level I mark the change in which of the goddesses I honour now holds the cup of sovereignty.
For many others this festival is one of fertility and sexuality, marking a marriage between masculine and feminine energies often represented by a maiden goddess and a youthful god. Handfastings, or marriages are popular at this time. Ceremonies often include some form of symbolic joining of sexual energies such as dancing with ribbons round a maypole or choosing a May King and Queen to crown. These are very heterosexual symbols and mythologies and such rites can make those who are gender fluid or non-hetrosexual feel excluded. My own personal symbolism for this time of year is not about sexuality but about sovereignty but the group I am part of is more eclectic in nature and the symbolism is usually more sexual in nature for that group. For the last couple of years though the group has attempted to balance these ideas with the addition of a spirit of change or mischief represented by a hare. This was inspired by a Beltane Faerie Story written by a dear friend of mine, Ferdiad and posted on his blog a few years ago. I encourage anyone writing a group ritual for this time of year to think carefully about the symbolism of what they are doing and think about making the ritual inclusive for a range of sexual and gender identities.
This year though across the world people are looking at different ways of celebrating Beltane due to social distancing or lockdown measures and the COVID-19 virus. There will probably be more online rituals shared and many people will be considering how to mark the season by themselves or with their households. I will be watching for the first signs of hawthorn blossoms locally as I do each year and then I will mark the dance of the seasons once more.
Hutton, R. (1996) The Stations of the Sun Oxford University Press
F. Marian McNeill (1959) The Silver Bough Vol Two: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals Candlemas to Harvest Home Stuart Titles Ltd