La Baal Tinne, Beltane, Beltain, all are names for the ritual which was traditionally held on May 1st, also known as May Day. The astrological festival occurs when the Sun reaches 15 ° Taurus, which lately has been happening more towards May 4-6th. Either the traditional date or the astrological date can be used to determine when to hold your festival as both will have significant energies for the season.
And the season is Spring! The lusty month of May is called so for a reason! Watch the animals, they are “rutting” now, looking to attract mates to raise their families. Butterflies and insects are pollinating flowers all over, and trees are bursting into blossoms and new green growth. In spring, “the young man’s fancy turns to love..” and the young girls fancies turn to young men!
Beltane, named for the Celtic Sun God, Bel, or Bal, or Baal, also means Bale, to banish, as in the bale fires, which are lit on Beltane to cleanse and purify. Cattle were led between two fires to cleanse them, and I have heard theories that the Druids quite possibly may have put purifying herbs on the fires to physically help the process along, but there is no actual proof of this. Couples would jump the fire to bless their union and to make it fruitful. You can jump the fire to leave behind bad habits or thoughts. Or stand close enough to the fire so that it’s heat can “burn out” sickness. You may call upon the flames to burn away whatever you want to be free of by mentally casting it into the fire.
Virgin women would jump the fire to be blessed by a child of the fire, an immaculate conception, as it were. The fire symbolizes life, passion, love and sex, and can also protect you for the coming year. To gaze into the flames and become “firestruck” is to cause an altered state of consciousness that is useful for divination.
“Nine woods in the Bale fire go, Burn them fast and burn them slow…” (from the Wiccan Rede) Those nine woods were usually:
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
Now of course if you live in an area, such as South Florida, where there is a definite lack of some of these woods (such as apple) you can always substitute another wood – as long as this wood is also known for the same properties! So do some research, and make intelligent substitutions.
Probably the most memorable and obvious symbol of Beltane is the May Pole. A phallic symbol, it represents the male regenerative force in nature, and is used to show the Sacred Union between the Goddess and God that takes place at this time. The pole represents the God of course, and the earth represents the Goddess. Red and white were the traditional colors of the ribbons on the pole, and there are different explanations for them, one being that they represent the male semen and the female menstrual blood, and are a reminder that this is a “game” that only men and women enjoy, and is not for children. The other is that the red and white represent the two fluids that women safely give, milk and blood, of which men are in awe.
Either way, these can still be seen in the cadaceus, the symbol of healing and also the red and white barbers pole. In ancient times, the Doctor was also the Barber, hence the similar symbolism!
Today we choose a ribbon color which represents something we wish to “weave” into our lives as we weave it onto the 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 an appropriate ritual ceremony, 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 raise their ribbons and the people going widdershins 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.The only other 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.
In our groups, we have men and women, and there is a lot of playing that goes on in the Maypole dance. We kiss, we stroke, we nuzzle a neck here or an outer thigh there, or we give a quick pat on the posterior as we pass by the person. These are all welcome and perfectly expected in our group, and we announce ahead of time, that if anyone is uncomfortable with that then please let us know now so we will not invade their space. You can tell when someone is “unapproachable”, they will let you know that these advances are not welcome, and you should honor that. Some groups I know have asked participants not to do any touching or kissing as they dance, and while that may make all the cowans more comfortable, it also leaves the energy of the dance flat.
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. Keep that in mind, and the pats, hugs, kisses, and squeezes, are simply affection between friends and NOT sexual harassment! Please bear in mind that this is a Sabbat about sexual fertility, and it was very important to our ancestors, and it is a lot of fun for us today. One of the biggest taboos in mainstream religions is about sex, and we as Pagans have always understood the real power behind sexual energy. Please let’s not let a “sue happy” society ruin this aspect of our religion and take this away from us! Keep it joyous as it was intended.
Another Beltane traditon is that of electing a King and Queen of the May, a young women and man, who may not necessarily be a couple already, or they can be newlyweds. They are crowned with flowered wreaths, and paraded before everyone, while people cheer “Hurrah for the King and Queen of the May!” In ancient times, this couple would be expected to go into the woods and consummate the energy of the circle for abundant hunts during the coming year, or in the fields for abundant crops. It was not unusual for young ladies and young men to pair off in the forest, and was called a “green wedding”. Any child which was a result of those unions was considered a great blessing. This is also the reason for so many June weddings, and why the period after the wedding is call the “Honeymoon”, after the Moon in June, which is also called the Honey Moon.
The “scarf chase” is another Beltane tradition, which the couple who are the King and Queen of the May or the couple who are the Lord and Lady, will start. The Lady teases the Lord with a green scarf, and then drops it as his feet as a signal for him to pursue her. She eludes him successfully for a few rounds, then allows him to catch her and rewards his efforts with a kiss. The scarf can then be passed on to another women to do the same to a man of her choice. This originated as a courtship ritual and was a way for a woman to tastefully let a man know that she was interested in him in a publicly acceptable manner.
Another variation is to use a wreath with flowers in it, and the woman walks around the circle parading it before her, as men attempt to take a flower out of the wreath. Whoever is successful is rewarded with a kiss, and the wreath is them passed on to another woman. These “chases” can be used to lead into the Spiral dance, which is another Beltane ritual dance, but is used at other Sabbats as well.
The Spiral dance is especially appropriate at Beltane, in that it is reminiscent of the DNA chain. (Which of course they tell us our ancestors knew nothing about!) To do the Spiral dance, one person starts by taking the hand of someone next to her, and they take another hand, and so on until all are holding hands and moving in a circle. Usually, the step done with the feet is called the “grapevine” step, and involves one foot crossing in front of the other, then the other foot crossing behind, and the knees are kept flexed for balance. However, the main reason why this is a Spiral dance is that the first person leads the dancers in a tighter and tighter ring toward the center, then abruptly turns inward to face the other dancers, and still everyone follows. The end result is that all the dancers face another person, and the circle then spirals outward again. This sometimes takes practice, but remember not to duck under anyone’s arms, for this will only end up in a knot! (Knots can be fun, too, but they do interrupt the flow of energy in the dance!)
Beltane is the exact opposite of Samhain on the wheel of the year, and just as Samhain is an acknowledgment and celebration of death, so Beltane is an equally powerful reaffirmation of life. Other societies have had traditions in the same manner, and have myths that equate with ours regarding the Sacred Union of Lord and Lady; indeed that of all nature, without which life on this planet would cease to exist. Beltane and Samhain are considered the two most powerful, most important Sabbats, and there were cultures that celebrated only those two for many centuries. Today we have the Solar Sabbats and the Agricultural Sabbats, that were the celebrations of two types of culture which were “married” together to form the wheel of the year we know. And of these Sabbats, still the two most powerful and most important are Samhain and Beltane.