On the night of April 30th through to May 1st, wherever Pagans and Wiccans gather together there will be much feasting and merriment. Bonfires will be lit (where permitted) and dancing, singing and celebration will be the order of the day.
The reason? They will be welcoming summer at the annual festival of Beltane. Nowadays, it is a purely joyous affair but in times gone by, much darker events have blotted Beltane's reputation.
To ensure the fertility of their crops, Highland Celts in ancient times sacrificed animals on this feast day and it has been alleged that, every five years, human sacrifice would take place. Those who perished were allegedly prisoners of war or convicted criminals and they would be sacrificed by Druids in a variety of ways. Some were apparenlty shot with arrows, others burned alive. You may remember the book and the film The Wicker Man:
There is little evidence that such wicker men were used to sacrifice humans, but there is certainly evidence of ritual slaughter at this time of the year as Iron Age bodies have been discovered, buried and well preserved, in bogs both in the UK and Northern Europe. All showed signs of having been murdered - by strangulation, blows on the head, throat cutting or a combination of any of the above).
Beltane is also known as Walpurgisnacht (after Walburg - the Teutonic name for the Earth Mother). The festivals of Hades and Pluto, God of the Underworld also took place on this day.
In more recent times, it became traditional to have a spring clean by throwing all the winter bedding on the bonfire. This must have been eagerly awaited when you consider the infestations with which the old bedding would have become rife! In the Scottish Highlands, it also became a tradition for young people to bake an oatmeal cake (bannock) in the embers. This cake was then cut into pieces, and one segment marked with a cross of charcoal. Whoever then received that piece of the cake had to jump over the flames three times. Other traditions have it that whoever received the marked piece of cake was considered a symbolic sacrifice and was treated as 'dead' for the rest of the evening.
In Ireland, it was customary to hang May Boughs on doors and windows - may being another name for hawthorn, although sometimes rowan was used.
Today, there has been something of a revival of the old traditions and bonfires will be lit in various parts of the UK, including Edinburgh, where the annual Beltane Fire Festival will take place on Tuesday April 30th from 9.30p.m. You can find out more by clicking HERE
Beltane is regarded as the most sexual of the festivals because it represents the union of the god and goddess and is a celebration of fertility and new life. But don't go along to your local Beltane Fire Festival expecting an orgy. When people leap over the Beltane fires now, they are looking to attain good fortune in mind, body and spirit, and the Beltane Fires are seen as important in cleansing and purifying - not keeping naked bodies warm on a chill spring evening! Contrary to popular belief, pagans rarely use sex overtly in their ritual, although, of course, there can be symbolism and imagery to imply fertility. The Maypole is an example of this - the pole itself representing the god and the multicoloured ribbons, the goddess. The danced Maypole represents their union.
So, may you enjoy a blessed and happy Beltane and if you want to know more about some of the rituals and customs, visit this page Two Pagans.com