I have been reading about pagan fertility rituals lately…concerning plants and crops, (as I don’t have the energy for another child! ) and realised that Beltane will soon be upon us. Beltane falls on the 1st of May and is a date on the pagan calendar which some people may otherwise call May day. In England, May Day rituals and customs involved dancing around the Maypole, and were strongly linked with sexual fertility for both crops and humans.
Beltane marked the beginning of Summer on the Celtic calendar, and it is a time when the herds of cattle and sheep were put out to pasture. Rather than using the Maypole, Rituals took place which involved lighting two fires which the cattle would be led between to ensure their wellbeing and fertility for the remainder of the year. The fires were symbolic of the sun, which would also guarantee an abundant crop, and in some areas the ashes were thrown between crops to protect them.
I had seen a book called The Golden Bough (1922), by Sir James George Frazer on Amazon a while ago, and thought it could be useful to my studies, and lo and behold, last night I realised that it is available to read online free of charge. It gave detailed accounts of Beltane, and I found it especially interesting that Beltane customs were widely practiced in Perthshire, in many locations which I was very familiar with. Chapter 62 is about the Fire Festivals of Europe, with a subchapter 4 on The Beltane Fires.
The fires may also have had a more sinister side to them however – ancient Romans, amongst them Julius Caesar claim that the Celts offered human sacrifices to the Sun god or Oak god to ensure abundant crops. No one can be entirely sure that this was true, or just Roman propaganda…but it certainly makes the whole thing seem more mysterious, and also makes for a great story line.
One of my favourite films – The Wicker Man (1973) by Anthony Shaffer, starring Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee, has a plot which is based around a Beltane sacrifice, which involves the unknowingly “willing” participant to be imprisoned in a giant wicker man and burnt alive. The victim is a policeman who is called to an island to investigate the disappearance of a child, and in doing so he stumbles upon an entire population who are practising shocking pagan rituals in order to keep their island a fruitful place to live.
I have been researching types of plants associated with Beltane rituals and some of these include :
- Hawthorn – said to be one of the most magical trees and included in the Druidic tree alphabet. It was used as a decoration around the home and also worn at Beltane
- Rowan – sprigs of it were worn, and branches placed above doors at Beltaine to protect from Faeries
- Birch – traditionally used to make brooms and maypoles
Other plants include: primrose, yellow cowslip, roses, nettles, dandelions, rosemary, lilac, bluebells, daisies, ivy and marigolds. These plants could be used in a wicker man ritual, to decorate him, or to be placed upon an alter, or used to make dyes to represent the plants of spring.