THE FESTIVAL OF PASSION
By Yasmine Galenorn
(from Dancing With the Sun*)
Daisy chains and lilacs, champagne with strawberries and sweet woodruff, sun filtering into a field of young fern and bracken, a doe and her fawns peering out of the woods, a hint of chaos in the air…it is April 30, Walpurgis Night (the Night of the Witches), and we joyfully await the mayhem and passion of the coming day.
A celebration of fertility, Beltane is the time of the rut, when the King Stag races through the woods to join in marriage with the Goddess of Sovereignty.
Our ancestors celebrated Beltane through sex, sacrifice and fire. It was not a ceremony for those weak of heart, for the sacrifice was both human and animal, made as a plea for abundant harvests.
Those sacrificed in the fires were often criminals, although an occasional holy person might be chosen to represent his/her community. It was considered an honor to serve the Gods with one’s life. The Lindow Man was one such Druid Priest, and the story of his discovery in the bogs is a fascinating glimpse into the ancient practices of this holiday.
Beltane is also a time of Faerie Magic (as is Midsummer) and the Queen of Faeries is represented by the Queen of the May. Along with her consort, she rules over the festivities and serves as representative of the Goddess.
The bonfire is an integral part of Beltane Festivities and although you can always celebrate indoors when circumstances dictate, the balefire on the hill is one of the oldest and most potent magickal symbols of the Sabbat.
Beltane is a time of chaos, of the wild energy and passion found in the Greenwood. Be careful when you walk abroad on Beltane night–you never know what you’re going to encounter.
The Colors of Beltane
Bright colors abound at this time of year. I especially connect the colors of purple and green with Beltane. The deep plum of grape wine, the peridot and hunter greens of the forest, and the gold of the sun shining through the trees are, to me, natural choices for Beltane.
Incenses, Herbs & Woods
Incenses used for Beltane should be intoxicating, heady and erotic. Rose, jasmine, ylang ylang, peach, musk and vanilla are all appropriate.
If you want to use herbs to make an incense or spell powder or to throw on the fire woodruff, fern, rose, chamomile, wormwood and galangal come to mind.
Often you will read about the nine sacred woods used in kindling the balefire. Obviously, the trees should all have strong connections to magick but substitutions can be made depending on where you live.
Oak would be the first choice, the backbone of the fire, so to speak. To that add eight other types of wood. Any and all of these are acceptable: apple, hawthorn, birch, elder, ash, thorn (blackthorn), grape vine, rowan (also known as mountain ash), holly, willow, cedar, yew and hemlock.
A large bonfire, known as the balefire (from Bel, the Celtic God of Light) or the need-fire, is one of the oldest traditions on Beltane. Originally used for sacrifices to get the attention of the Gods, we can retain the old symbolism while keeping within modern ethical standards.
When you lay your fire, use nine of the sacred woods. Try to use as little lighter fluid, etc., as you can to retain the integrity of the magic.
Make a big batch of incense to go in the fire–chamomile and wormwood, rose petals and jasmine flowers, galangal and dragon’s blood. Wrap in a white linen cloth and tie with purple and green cords. When the balefire is roaring, toss the bundle into the fire and watch the herbs spark as the flames release their magic.
If you happen to own cattle or other livestock, build two fires and drive your cattle between them on Walpurgis Night. This helps protect them from disease and theft for the coming year.
Make a wicker man earlier in the month and when the flames are highest, toss him into the fire to represent all that you wish to purge from your life.
When only the embers are left shed any clothing that might drape low enough to catch the flames and take turns jumping the balefire–make a wish and then run and leap over the embers. If you and your partner want a child, focus on fertility and jump hand-in-hand, then withdraw to a bower to begin work on the project!
Celebrating Fertility in the Modern Age
On Beltane night it was traditional for young men and women to slip away into the woods and have sex. Any children conceived at this time were known as merry-begets, and were considered children of the Gods.
In this age of AIDS and STDs and rape we must be careful. Remember: just because someone is Pagan doesn’t mean they’re a nice person. There are psychos in all religions and ours is no exception. And just because someone is Pagan doesn’t exclude them from carrying something you don’t want to catch.
I was at a Pagan gathering a few years ago where a man would not leave me alone. He followed me around, tried to touch me when I didn’t want his attention, kept saying he felt karmically linked to me and wouldn’t accept the fact that I was married, monogamous and not interested until a friend and I confronted him. Sadly, that ended my naivetè about the safety of Pagan festivals and now when I go to public festivals I’m always on guard.
Unplanned pregnancy is another very real, very endemic problem in the Pagan community as well as America in general.
For the sake of the women who end up raising those children alone, for the sake of the Earth who can’t support many more people, we must be responsible and use birth control every time we have sex, unless we have planned out a pregnancy. We don’t have time to undo the damage already inflicted because of overpopulation, but we can slow down the rate. Celebrating the fertility of the Earth doesn’t mean we all need to bear children–there are many species whose babies are just as cute as our own and they are losing the battle against extinction.
If we just remember a few simple rules, then we can enjoy the sensuality of the season. Remember:
Condoms, Mutual Consent, Awareness
Bowers of Love & Lust
It’s fun to create bowers for outdoor Beltane celebrations. If you have a large private area in which to celebrate, take small tents or tarps and discreetly place them in the woods. Decorate with flowers and ribbons, and place a bowl of different colored and textured condoms in the tent next to a small plastic sack for the used love tokens. Add vases of flowers, wreaths, etc.. Mark the bowers and have a sign for when they’re being used.
Remember, it’s nobody’s business who uses the bower except those directly involved. On the same note, if you run off to the bower with someone other than your regular partner, it’s only respectful to have your partner’s permission first–use your common sense, and then have fun!
Daisy Chains & Flower Wreaths
Daisy chains and flower wreaths are fun to make and require little else save long-stemmed flowers, floral tape and scissors. It’s especially fun to gather a group of girls and women and sit on a hill in the sun while fashioning the headdresses.
If you want to make weaving the chain easier, bring floral wire and measure a piece that will fit securely around your head. Twist the ends together.
Begin with a base of daisies or carnations–they have long stems and hold up well. Twist the stem around the floral wire and tape so that the flower is firmly in place. Add the next flower, close behind the first, and continue until your basic wreath is made.
Then add other touches–different flowers, ivy vines, you can weave in ribbons and bows. Use your imagination. Wear the wreaths all day and after your ritual, toss them into the balefire as an offering to the Goddess.
Beltane Dew Ritual
A very old tradition involves waking up before sunrise on Beltane morning and washing your face in the dew from the grass and flowers. This promises that your beauty will grow strong during the coming year.
We held our wedding in an apple orchard and a group of our friends camped out with us there on Walpurgis Night. At six o’clock on Beltane morning, I led all the women to run naked through the orchard, rolling in the dew, while the men were banished inside the tents. It was cold and raining, but the grass sparkled and our skins turned blushing red from the chill. It was fun and I’m glad we didn’t let the opportunity go by.
It’s easy to think of Beltane games for children, but games for adults prove a bit more tricky. For one Beltane ritual, I came up with two games and they resulted in a lot of laughter, a bruised nose, ripped pants and general mayhem.
#1: No Truth, Just Dare
Depending on how many people you expect at your gathering, cut out three times that many slips of paper. On each paper write a suggestive, outrageous or silly activity. During play, everyone forms a circle. The bowl of slips is passed, each person draws one and acts it out. The bowl goes around three times and at the end, people vote for the best performance and that person wins a small prize.
- Kiss the third person on your left with your chin.
- Sing us an original song entitled “Ode To A Duck”.
- Dance the fourth person on your right around the circle.
- Give us your impression of a scampering deer.
#2: Catch A Kiss
Men and women divide into separate groups. One by one, each woman tries to make it across a goal line a short distance away. All the men try to be the first to catch a kiss from her before she reaches her goal, but the other women block their way and try to shield her.
Then the tables are turned and the women try to be the first to catch kisses from the men.
This can be a rough game–rougher than football, so I urge you to wear clothing you don’t care about and to utilize some caution around the others. It’s not meant to be tackle football, though it easily winds up that way, with trying to beat out all your friends for kisses!
Perhaps nothing symbolizes Beltane so much as the Maypole, the origins of which lie in fertility and sex.
The Maypole represents the phallus of the God. The wreath around the top represents the vagina of the Goddess. As the Maypole is danced, the ribbons wind around the pole and the wreath lowers, symbolizing the Divine Marriage, the sexual union of God and Goddess.
To make your Maypole, find a very tall, slender tree. It needs to be straight and it should be at least 12′ tall. The men should cut down the tree and de-limb it. Always ask permission, and always leave something in return when you do this. You are taking a life, the tree feels pain and suffers even as it falls. So leave an offering of flowers, food and wine for the spirit of the tree and for the Goddess, who nurtured it to life.
You need to decide how many people are going to be able to dance your tree. The taller the tree, the more dancers. At our wedding, we had two Maypoles, each with twelve ribbons. The number of ribbons (and dancers) should be even for best results.
Cut the top of the tree flat and then divide the number of ribbons you plan to have by two. Make that number of cross-cuts evenly on the top of the tree, approximately 3″ deep.
For each ribbon, you will need at least 7 yards (make it 8 for extra slack) of 1″ thick ribbons. You can choose a variety of colors or you can coordinate them (for example, half the ribbons purple, half green). Tie a triple knot (so the knot is thick) six inches down from the top of each ribbon.
Slide the ribbons into the cross-cuts on the top of the tree. Do both sides of each cross-cut before moving onto the next one. The knots will keep the ribbons from sliding out of the cuts.
While the men prepare the Maypole, the women dig the hole, focusing on the womb of the Goddess, the passion that throbs under the soil.
The men lift the Maypole into the hole and everyone cheers as the women fill in the dirt and pack it down.
The women should have already prepared the flower wreath that will sit atop the ribbons.
When it is time for the dance and the ribbons are outstretched and the dancers are ready, one person will scurry up a tall ladder and place the wreath over the pole to rest on the taut ribbons. The opening of the wreath should not be more than twelve inches wider than the tree, so that it rides the ribbons down as the dance progresses.
Dancing The Maypole
Whether you incorporate it as part of your ritual or as a fun activity during the day, dancing the Maypole is easier than it looks. It just involves a simple set of starting instructions. It helps if you have two colors of ribbons and if those ribbons alternate.
Let’s say your ribbons are purple and green.
When all dancers are in place, everyone holding a purple ribbon takes one step away from the Maypole and turns around. They will be holding their ribbons in their right hands.
Everyone with green ribbons stays in place, holding their ribbons with their left hands.
As the dance starts, the Purple Ribbons will weave under the Green Ribbons first, then over the Green Ribbons, then under…etc..
The dance stops when the weaving stops because everyone is flat against the pole! Tie off the ribbons and let the wreath finish dropping to the ground. Celebrate.
“Oak and Ash and Thorn”
Perhaps one of the best known songs sung at Pagan festivals and Beltane gatherings is a variation of Robert Burn’s Oak and Ash and Thorn. The well-known verse goes:
“Oh, do not tell the priest of our Art
For he would call it a sin
But we shall be out in the woods all night
A-conjuring summer in!
And we bring you news by word of mouth
For women, cattle and corn
Now is the Sun come up from the South
With Oak and Ash and Thorn.”
What better song to sing during when we go A-Maying than this beautiful melody from by-gone days?
*Copyright Yasmine Galenorn 1999, and 2020
You may print this out but you do NOT have permission to post it on other websites, etc. Or to use it in your own writing.