Beltane is a time to celebrate fertility and life. Ostara, the previous festival, also celebrated fertility, but at that time we were just beginning to set the potential for abundance in motion. Beltane is about embracing the full potential for growth in every aspect of our lives. It’s a beautiful concept. We draw the promise of future abundance to us through a bold celebration that focuses on bringing things to life. We can see the Beltane fire, traditionally a bonfire, as encouraging this life force. The Beltane fires were essentially symbols of the sun, without which there would be no life on earth.
Christina Aubin wrote a detailed article on Beltane for Witchvox in 2000. She tells us
[f]lowers are a crucial symbol of Beltane, they signal the victory of Summer over Winter and the blossoming of sensuality in all of nature and the bounty it will bring.
Even when it’s gray and wet outside, we can appreciate the bright colors and gentle shapes of the flowers that are just starting to come up in patches this time of year. They’re symbolic of the potential for future blessings to blossom.
The fertility theme of Beltane is encouragement to move beyond “maybes” and put in some serious work on our goals. The harvest from our labor still lies in the future, but we can rest assured that if we do the hard work now, we’ll see results of some kind. In these cynical times, many of us are terrified of working hard towards a goal only to find that we can never achieve it because of our own shortcomings. Beltane celebrates the journey towards the goals and the rewards that come from the journey.
We’re taught that if we don’t achieve a goal then we’ve failed, like it’s some permanent judgment on us. If we work towards a goal then we always achieve something. If we don’t achieve the goal then we’ve learned a lot about what we really want, need, or are capable of at one particular point in our lives. Even if we begin the work and leave off on it, we can learn a few things. Perhaps it wasn’t the right goal for us, or it was the wrong way towards that goal, or it was the wrong time for that particular goal. These are also rewards.
“Beltane 2016” by Rainbow Gryphon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
During Samhain, the Celts believed that the boundaries between the physical world and the spirit world were thin, allowing the spirits of the dead to communicate with the living. Celtic lore also tells us that Beltane is a time for boundary blurring, this time between our physical, material world and “the other world” of magical beings, particularly fairies or the fey.
Heather Shaw wrote an article on Beltane in 2001 for the speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons. She writes about the legend of the Fairy Queen riding around on her horse, looking for naive or curious humans to take back to Fairyland. Marion Zimmer Bradley also played off of this legend in Mists of Avalon when she had Morgaine spend a vague amount of time in Fairyland where she basically partied all the time. No one knew where she was or for how long she’d been gone. She really had to fight with herself to leave and get back to the real world, where she still had goals to achieve.
Folktales, however, tell us that those who go off to Fairyland never return. Yeats, for instance, wrote about the legend of fairies stealing children in “The Stolen Child.” We can see these fairy legends as a warning that the fun of May Day is a special time, but if we persist in it, we’re children who’ve been stolen by the fairies to party all the time but never accomplish anything significant. As adults, we soon grow sick of that and recognize that in order to fulfill our potential, the fun eventually has to be set aside and work needs to be done.
Sex and the Maypole
A big part of fertility at this festival is, of course, sex. Sex in general is celebrated in Neo-Paganism through the balance of “male” and “female” energy during rituals, particularly when the athame or knife is lowered into the chalice or cup. What might disturb a lot of people about sex at Beltane is that it’s not about a cerebral honoring of our ability to produce new life through a biological act. It’s about enjoying the full pleasure of sex as symbolic of the pleasure of life. The maypole is essentially an in-your-face sexual symbol. We have a phallic pole stuck deep into the earth, which is a classic symbol for the womb. It doesn’t get more obvious than that!
There may, however, be another layer of meaning to the maypole. Aubin at Witchvox claims that the maypole is a survivor of the Bile Pole, which was a sacred tree that was of central importance to the clans of ancient Ireland. It represented the World Tree where this world connected to other worlds, notably one above (Skyworld or heavens) and one beyond or below (Otherworld or Underworld).
Joesph Campbell wrote in The Hero with a Thousand Faces that the World Tree symbolizes not only this connection between the worlds but also the place where knowledge between these worlds can be communicated. We can link this to the central theme of Beltane, the creation of life. In spite of scientific advancements, the process is still mysterious, and yet we’re constantly experiencing it all around us. Anything that we bring to life, whether it’s a tomato plant, a child, or a work of art, is this mysterious knowledge of creation being communicated to us.
One final message of Beltane that perhaps isn’t so often discussed is about the Fool’s Journey. Tarot enthusiasts may be familiar with this concept. The Fool is us in a naive state. When we set out to achieve a goal, we’re essentially like kids because even if we’ve gone through the process before, we’re still going to experience surprises because we’ve never gone through the process of achieving this goal before.
Christina Aubin writes that at Beltane, the Fool emerges from the darkness of the womb (winter) and is full of possibilities. In previous festivals, we (hopefully!) cleansed ourselves of burdens from the past and established a foundation for nurturing our goals. We’re now moving from a time of darkness to a time of unlimited potential. We deserve to be optimistic, follow our inner wisdom, feel joy in the present moment, and trust in the future, all characteristics of the Fool.
Interestingly, Heather Shaw also mentions a Fool involved in Beltane rituals, though in a different capacity. He’s viewed not as the innocent coming into a new world but as a scapegoat to absorb all misfortune so as to spare others in the community. I still see this linking to beginning our journey to abundance and growth. The Fool knows he’s a fool and so isn’t bothered when he looks like a fool. When we venture out of our comfort zone, we’re going to make mistakes and feel (though not necessarily look) like idiots. We might as well accept this because not accepting it either causes us and others unnecessary grief or stops the potential for growth altogether if we’re too afraid to do anything new because we might make fools of ourselves.
Von Del Chamberlain wrote an article about May Day for the Clark Foundation in Utah, which educates the public about science. He writes that Beltane
is a good time to look around at earth and sky with greater sensitivity and appreciation of emerging abundance that initiates the harvest we will surely enjoy in a few short months.
This is a time for us to shove aside our society’s cynicism and look hopefully to the future. But when we’ve had our fill of optimism and pleasure, it’s time to get back to work so that we cooperate with the rhythm of the Universe to fulfill the promise of success that’s set in motion at this time.