The Neopagan “Wheel of the Year” is a modern creation. No historical culture included all eight of our Sabbats in their festival calendar, though each is built around a likely historical Pagan holiday. Principally, our holidays are drawn from either Celtic or Germanic sources. The four “cross-quarter” days are Celtic and usually come with somewhat more historical attestation than the other four. Though Samhain was arguably the most important festival to the Celts, Beltane (also written Beltian, Beltine, Beal-tine, or Bel-tien) was perhaps even more widespread in observance.
Neopagan Beltane celebrations are somewhat different from how the occasion would have been honored by its Celtic originators, though. In modern Paganism, Beltane’s most recognizable festive element is probably the dance around the maypole, but to the Celts, it would have been the ceremonial extinguishing and
relighting of the fires of the tribe. This was kind of like hitting a metaphysical reset switch in order to ensure that the incoming summer season had a potent start. Cattle were often driven between a pair of the newly kindled bonfires as a rite of purification and to encourage fertility. The maypole itself is actually believed to be of Germanic origin.
In fact, our Beltane customs are really a mix of influences from multiple cultures and time periods. Like the Wheel of the Year itself, Neopaganism’s Beltane is a modern construct. But it’s not just a random assortment of bits and pieces. There is a unifying core theme, or characteristic, to Beltane, and that theme is fertility. Nearly everything that we associate with the holiday is linked to fertility in some way.
For Wiccans (and Wicca-derived Neopagan traditions) Beltane is seen as the marriage of the God and Goddess, often personified as the King and Queen of the May. English Mayday customs, like the traditional enactment of “The Marriage of Robin and Marian,” are a likely source for this association. The symbol of the Hieros Gamos (“sacred marriage”) is an old and powerful one, with examples appearing in both early Sumer and Ancient Greece. The union of Masculine and Feminine Divine principles is a central component of the religion of Wicca, where it is symbolized in the performance of the Great Rite. The Great Rite can be seen as an expression of Wicca’s core Mystery, and Beltane’s Sacred Marriage can be seen as that Mystery cast into a grand mythopoetic context.
Of course, Beltane’s ubiquitous maypole carries obvious phallic symbolism, and the associated dance (in which tightening ribbons allow a floral wreath to gradually lower itself down the length of the pole) provides an unmistakable visual suggestion. This is an overt, though abstracted, enactment of sexual coupling. Because of its abstract nature, though, it lends itself to a more expansive symbolic meaning. The pole is not just a phallic representation; it can also be seen as the axis mundi, the center of all creation. The wreath passing along its length can be said to represent the creative principle achieving physical manifestation. In a Mythic sense, a maypole dance is not only recreational but “re-creational”, a symbolic re-making of the world itself. Just like those early Celts, snuffing and re-lighting their fires, modern Pagans still use Beltane as a time to hit a metaphysical reset switch to jump-start our creative juices (and promote fertility).
Visit our Website at http://www.churchofwicca.org/beltane
Tony Brown is a High Priest Emeritus of the North Carolina Piedmont Church of Wicca. He is proud to have been a founding member of NCPCOW. He has been an Eclectic Wiccan for about twenty years and has served as clergy for the last dozen or so of those.
Tony is a devotee of Dionysos, the Greek God of rebirth, transformation, tragedy, comedy, unresolved paradox and wine.
While you’re at the big Beltane Brouhaha, feel free to stop by the Piedmont Pagan Pride Day booth and purchase one of our new T-Shirts, find ways to get involved, or talk to volunteers. We will also have more information regarding our fundraisers, such as the upcoming Desserts and Divinations on June 3rd at Aries Moon and GenBenCon, our gender-bending contest coming up on July 1st!