As the end of April approaches, it is almost time for the yearly celebration of Beltane. Currently known as the popular Fire Festival that takes place on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, this traditional Celtic event has a long and fascinating history that dates all the way back to the Iron Age.
“Beltane” can roughly be translated as “bright fire” (from the Celtic God “Bel” = “the bright one”, and the Gaelic word “teine” = “fire”). People used to light bonfires in honour of the Sun, in the hope that its light would nurture the crops and support their growth. The festival always takes place on the night before May 1st, a celebration of the peak of spring and beginning of summer, a representation of fertility, growth and renewal. In pagan mythology, Beltane is the Great Wedding between the Goddess Flora and the Green Man (May Queen and May King), the union of Earth and Sky.
There are three main colours associated with Beltane: green, red, and white (/silver). These represent, respectively, growth and fertility, strength and passion, cleansing and clearing. They are also the colours of the Maypole: a pole made from birch and inserted into the ground with a ring of flowers at the top, it represents the power of God and the fertility of the Goddess.
In honour of the Great Wedding and the union of God and Goddess, a lot of people would celebrate pagan weddings or Handfastings around this time. Handfastings traditionally lasted for a year and a day, after which the couple could decide whether they wanted to stay together or part. Even though not as popular, these ceremonies still take place to this day, and the couple can choose the length of their commitment. A similar event was “jumping the broomstick”: when couples could not afford a ceremony, they would simply jump over a broom which lay on the ground, symbol of crossing a threshold and starting a new life. A more popular -and somewhat less official- tradition was to go A-Maying. Couples of all ages would spend the night in woods and fields and in the morning bring back flowers, often hawthorn blossoms, to decorate their homes. Young women would wash their faces with the morning dew and make flower crowns and May Baskets.
Needless to say, many of these traditions got lost along the centuries, but sometimes it can be good to be reminded of how our ancestors lived, and even bring back some of these celebrations. This is probably how a small group of enthusiasts managed to bring back the festival in 1988, with the help of the University of Edinburgh. For over thirty years now, on April 30th the streets of the capital have been coming to life through an animated procession, which culminates in a dramatic stage performance and the lighting of a huge bonfire. More information on the event can be found on the official Beltane Fire Society website.
Copyright Vince Graham for Beltane Fire Society. All Rights Reserved. www.beltane.org