Ancient Celebrations – Part 12 – Beltane and May Day

Bel from whom Beltane receives its name is also known as Belenus and is one of the most widely worshipped Celtic deities. He is a sun god known as “The Shining God”. Like the Norse Sol he was thought to ride the sun across the sky in a horse drawn chariot. In the 3rd century, Bel was the patron deity of the Italian city of Aquileia. Some ancient images of Belenus show him to be accompanied by the Gaulish Goddess Belisama.

Of the four main Irish celebrations, Beltane and Samhain were the most important. In the story of the “Wooing of Cu Chulainn”, the ancient celebration of Beltane is described. The year is described as being in two divisions of summer from Beltane (the first of May in our modern calendar to Samhain and winter from Samhain to Beltane. At Beltane Druids used to make two fires and made magical incantations as they drove the cattle between them every year. This was to protect the cattle against plagues. The young ox and cows were entrusted to the God Bel, whose protective powers were believed to be in the flames, smoke and ashes of the fires.

The people of ancient Ireland would also walk between the bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. People would take embers and re light their home from the Beltane
bonfires. They would feast and offer food and drink to the Aos Sí. Homes would also be decorated with yellow May flowers. People used morning Beltane dew on their faces to stay young and beautiful. When Christianity arrived, many of these customs and more became part of May Day. Beltane is also a celebration of love and this harks back to the ancient tale of Cúchulainn and Emer, or the divine pairing of Belenus and Belisama.

The May Pole

Primarily found within the nations of Germanic Europe and the neighbouring areas which they have influenced, the May Pole maypoles are believed by scholars to have been erected “simply” as “signs that the happy season of warmth and comfort had returned.” They are of ancient Germanic pagan origin and the true meaning has been lost in the midst of time. Their shape allowed for garlands to be hung from them and were first seen, at least in the British Isles, between AD 1350 and 1400 within the context of medieval Christian European Culture.

The May Queen

In the British Isles and parts of the Commonwealth, the May Queen or Queen of May is a personification the May Day holiday, and of springtime and the coming of summer (the transformation of maiden to sexual maturity). The May Queen is a girl who rides or walks at the front of a parade for May Day celebrations. She wears a white gown to symbolise purity and usually a tiara or crown. Her duty is to begin the May Day celebrations. She is generally crowned by flowers and makes a speech before the dancing begins.

A May Day festival is held on the village green at Aldborough, North Yorkshire on a site that dates back to Roman times and the settlement of Isurium Brigantum. A May queen is selected from a group of 13 upward girls by the young dancers. She returns the next year to crown the new May Queen and stays in the procession. The largest event in this tradition in modern Britain is the Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.

A May Day celebration held annually since 1870 in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada, has the distinction of being the longest running May Day celebration of its kind in the British Commonwealth.

Morris Dancers

Morris dancing is common during Beltane and May Day celebrations. Morris dancing is a form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers, usually wearing bell pads on their shins. Implements such as sticks, swords and handkerchiefs may also be wielded by the dancers. They clap their sticks, swords, or handkerchiefs together to match with the dance.

Illustration of William Kempe Morris dancing from London to Norwich in 1600

While the earliest (15th-century) references place the Morris dance in a courtly setting, it appears that the dance became part of performances for the lower classes by the later 16th century. In 1600, Shakespearean actor William Kempe Morris danced from London to Norwich, an event chronicled in his Nine Daies Wonder (1600).

As you can see there are many ways to celebrate Beltane and May Day. It is a time of the turning of the seasons. Beltane and Samhain are also both times when the veil between Annwn, Mag Mell and Tír na nÓg are at their thinnest.

At Samhain the veil between the worlds of the living & the dead is thin enough that we can connect & convene with our beloved dead.

At Beltane it’s the veil between the human world, and the world of the fae, aes sídhe & nature spirits that has grown thin. These spirits & faeries are thought to be especially active at this time of year. Offerings can be left at the ancient faerie forts, the wells and in other sacred places in an effort to appease these nature spirits to ensure a successful growing season.

Wherever you are, celebrate in whatever way you can. Honour your ancestors and ancestral spirits and keep old traditions alive.


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