The Holy Day of Beltane– called Calan Haf or Calan Mai in Welsh — was revered by the ancient Celts as a sacred bridge between the hardship of winter and the abundance of summer. Thought to exist outside of time, it is said that the veils between the worlds are thinnest at the liminal periods of Beltane and Samhain, complementary Holy Days standing opposite each other on the Wheel of the Year. For the ancient Celts, there were originally only two seasons – Winter and Summer – and the transition points between each season were times of great power. Marking the boundaries between the Dark and Light Halves of the Year, these Holy Days truly straddled the worlds.
These in-between periods were of great importance to the Celtic peoples, whose entire social, economic and religious lives centered around – and were dependent upon — the rhythms of the pastoral and agricultural cycles. Beltane marked the beginning of Summer, and it was a time of purification, increased activity, and abundant fertility. The livestock that had been boarded up during the long winter months were passed between two bonfires both to bless and purify them as they were set out to pasture once more. Ritual lovemaking in the fields was thought to encourage a successful growing cycle and an abundant harvest. Social and economic intercourse during the great gatherings at clan central places were marked by religious observances overseen by Druids, all of which mirrored the lush return to life literally bursting forth in the natural world all around them.
It is easy to understand the importance of the seasonal rhythms to agricultural peoples whose very survival depended upon the strength of their harvest and the well-being of their livestock. It was critical to seek the blessings of the Gods and ancestors to grant increased fertility and good health, both for the land and for the tribe. Many of the Celtic celebrations that have survived the passage of time, some of which are still practiced in some form into the present day, concern the two major polar modalities of Death and Life – dark and light.
This fundamental reliance on the seasonal patterns is not the norm for most Neo-Pagans today who follow paths inspired by the beliefs and traditions of the ancient Celts. However, we can still benefit spiritually by looking at the great pattern revealed by the seasonal cycle through a symbolic filter. Finding insight and relevance in its core wisdom, we can look at this primal pattern as a powerful way to guide our inner process and soul growth. From this perspective, the theme of fertility that lies at the heart of the celebrations of Beltane can be transferred to the abundance of possibilities inherent in our own lives.
The rites of fertility which centered around the fires of Beltane need not be literal. There is great power in entering into a conscious relationship with the Self, and indeed, it is from this sacred union that the spark of creativity is birthed. In Welsh Druidic tradition, this creative spark is called Awen, the inflowing stream of divine inspiration that the Irish called Imbas. Through deep journeying ritual designed to pierce the boundaries between this world and the Otherworld, the ancient bards sought to obtain the gifts of Awen from the Cauldron of Ceridwen, their spiritual Mother. Awen could flow forth in the form of versed prophecy, it could open the gates of consciousness by allowing information to be obtained from objects through a form of psychometry, and it inspired powerful songs and poetry that could influence events by shifting the hearts and minds of those who heard it.
Welsh myth and legend is filled with stories of kings and heroes journeying into the Otherworld seeking magickal cauldrons of healing, wisdom and prophecy. The story of Ceridwen herself describes how over the course of a year and a day — a time marking device in Celtic mythology that indicated a sacred time that is outside of time — brewed an elixir of wisdom for her son. When the elixir was complete, it was stolen from her cauldron by a servant boy who tried to escape Ceridwen’s wrath by using his new-found wisdom to change his shape into various animals as the Goddess pursued him. In the end, the boy tried to hide from Ceridwen in the form of a grain of wheat lying among others on the threshing floor, but she transformed into a hungry hen that pecked at the wheat until she at last devoured him. Nine months later, the servant boy was reborn from her womb as a child with a Shining Brow, the wisdom-endowed babe who would become Taliesin, the greatest of all Welsh bards.
It is believed that this story is an encoded description of a Druidic initiation ritual, and that it represented a process through which Awen, the energy of inspiration that is described by the Celts as a Fire in the Head, could be obtained from the vessel of the Goddess. It teaches us, too, that wisdom is something that can only be earned, and that the greatest wisdom will inspire us to embrace change – especially in the face of the challenges and hardships of life. Awen is a deeply transformational energy, and the Shining Brow of Taliesin is a reflection that he had received the Fire Within the Head – a Celtic acknowledgment, perhaps, of the gifts of enlightenment.
Fire is an important aspect of Beltane; indeed, the four Celtic Holy Days — the “Cross Quarter” days of the Eightfold Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year — are considered Fire Festivals. Welsh folk tradition speaks of gathering together nine sacred woods to build the ritual fire. These woods were then kindled by rubbing together two oak staves until they sparked and set the fire lay aflame. From this sacred fire built on a hilltop, brands would be taken back into the village to re-ignite the household fires that had been extinguished on Beltane eve in anticipation of the renewing energies of the ritual fire that marked the passage from the Dark Half into the Light.
In many Celtic lands, two fires were built and as the livestock were brought to their summer pastures after their long winter confinement, they were passed between the two as an act of purification and in hopes of increased fertility. People too, sought the blessings of the fire, and in Wales a ritual drawing of lots occurred where oatmeal cakes were broken into pieces and placed in a bag. Everyone would have to draw a piece, and those who pulled pieces of burned cake would have to jump three times over the sacred fire as an act of purification and to ensure fertility both for the village and for the growing crops.
The tradition of the maypole is linked to May Day celebrations across Europe, and has survived to modern times as a secular dance to celebrate the spring. While the tradition itself is believed to be of Indian origin, it has taken root in Germanic and Celtic lands, where the dance of fertility may have occurred around living trees, or as in the case of some Welsh traditions, around flower garlanded birch trunks. The phallic symbolism of the pole is clear, and the interweaving of ribbons down its shaft symbolically fertilizes the earth in an act of powerful sympathetic magic. The pole becomes the World Tree, straddling the realms and creating a conduit to stream the life-bringing energies from above down to renew that which is below.
Like the maypole and the World Tree, Beltane is a bridge between the worlds, and we can use this sacred time outside of time to foster a connection between the Light and Dark Halves of the Self – what we more commonly call our conscious and unconscious selves. Manifesting this balanced inner partnership is, to me, the key consideration at Beltane. Without it, how can we know what needs to be released, or indeed truly, what spark of potential lies within us, waiting to be fanned to flame?
Here, at this threshold time, we can seek to come into Divine Union with the two halves of the Self – that which dwells unacknowledged in the land of the Unconscious and that which thrives, illuminated, in the realms of the Conscious self. How then can we bridge these aspects of the Self, which, by their very nature, are equal and opposite to each other? We see the repetitions of this coming together over and over again in Neo-Pagan thought and ritual; it can be literally expressed as with the Great Rite, or symbolically evoked as with the ritual union of Chalice and Blade. Yet even these are but sympathetic resonances of even deeper mysteries.
From a psycho-spiritual perspective, the Dark Half of the Self can be said to be the provenance of the Shadow – those experiences and memories that our psyche has deemed, for whatever reason, necessary to be filed somewhere other than the conscious mind. In my personal practice in the Avalonian Tradition, we spend the Dark Half of the Year seeking out those hidden parts of the Self in order to understand their significance and impact on our lives. We cannot rid ourselves of our Shadow side; it is irrevocably a part of us. Instead, our goal is to move energy from one end of the inner spectrum to the other, so that the gift is nurtured while the flaw is starved.
Casting light on the inner Shadow can be painful work, but it is a crucial step along the path to wholeness. There is a saying – “that which is unconscious, controls us.” If we do not know the nature of our Shadow, we cannot know in what ways it manifests itself in our lives. To come to a place of true inner Sovereignty, we must understand the source of the unconscious motivations for our beliefs and actions. We then work to bring these root causes out with us into the light of consciousness, so that we can see them for what they are and reclaim the energy that has been caught up in perpetuating patterns of limitation and negativity in our lives.
The Light Half of the Year, on the other hand, is when we focus on birthing forth and fully actualizing the potential we found hidden in the darkness – a potential that can be finally become realized now that we can see it for what it truly is. The greatest of gifts often lie at the heart of the Shadow; and like the Earth itself, all seeds of growth must germinated in the darkness. At the threshold of Beltane, then, we take the gift of that once-hidden seed out into the Light Half with us, while leaving behind all of the fears and limitations which had committed the seed to dwell in the darkness to begin with. We harness the liminal energies of Beltane to make conscious that which was once unconscious – and in doing so, we liberate the spark which underlies and supports all acts of creation.
It is this spark that fertilizes the new growth we seek to manifest; it is the energy that supports and empowers the work of the Light Half of the Year. In more concrete terms, we can take the energy freed up by the insights gained about ourselves and our negative patterns and beliefs, and direct it towards choices that reinforce the person we know we have the ability to become. As we step through the portal of Beltane, we pass through the symbolic fires of purification and embrace the fertile ground of our limitless potential. We leave behind that which has held us back, and move into a place of positive action which helps us to create the life we wish to live. Why greater act of creation can there be that to set the fires of transformation alight in our souls, and to use the resulting illumination to burn through any outer challenges and inner resistance that stands in the way of our ultimate goal — a whole and holy self that is balanced and expressing its greatest good and highest potential. A sacred flame indeed!