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The Celtic Cross-Quarter Day of Beltane

Beltane is May Day – High Spring. The seed, which was planted last November at Samhain (Sow-an), and moved all by itself for the first time in February at Imbolc, is now up and growing. For the Celts, this was a time of fertility. The May Pole's phallic shape is but a mild hint at the kind of spring revels that went on during this day and night sacred to the Sun God Bel. The idea of the Sun being masculine is actually a relatively new idea - no more than four or five thousand years old. Originally in the British Isles (as was also the case in most of this Earth of ours), the Sun was a Goddess. (see McCrickard) Bridget, Brigid, Bride and Brigantia, the deity of Imbolc's names. She is where we get the word "bright." Another of her names was Grainne - Igraine, King Arthur's mother was certainly of that Sun Goddess lineage.

Greetings to you, Sun of the seasons,
As you travel the skies on high,
With your strong step on the wing of the heights.
You are the happy mother of the stars.

You sink down into the perilous ocean
Without harm and without hurt.
You rise on the quiet wave
Like a young queen in flower.

– Traditional Gaelic Prayer

Bel, Bil, Belinus and Baal

Beltane means "the fires of Bel." This Sun God Bel supplanted Bride in the British (hear her name again?) Isles. He was part of the patriarchal takeover of Europe. In Ireland, Bil, the God of the underworld, is the father of Miled. The sons of Mil (read: Miled), or the Milesians, were the Goidelic Celts who took over Ireland from the Partholanians. They came from Spain, the Gaelic land of the dead. Bel was honored at Beltane not only as a god of death, but also as a god of life as well, and was depicted as a solar deity. He gained victory over the powers of darkness by bringing the people to within sight of another harvest. At Beltane, all fires were extinguished, and Bel's fire was created from the sacred rays of the Sun, "the sacred fires of Bel." This Fire was then carried to all the hearths of the land.

Bel is found all over mainland Europe. Belgium. Caesar, who first met him in Gaul called him "Belenos," and saw him as comparable to Apollo (the Sun again). Down in what is now Lebanon, in the "Old Testament," we frequently hear of the Hebrew women leaving their homes to be with the Canaanite Goddess Asherah or Astarte and her lover consort Baal. (Incidentally, the Anglo Saxons called Astarte "Ostara" – the Goddess of the East. It's where we get the name "Easter" from. Real Christian derivation isn't it?)

Of Roots and Fertility

As a Sun deity, Bel is closely associated with Fire – indeed all of these four Cross Quarter Days are Fire Festivals, but in my article on Imbolc, I suggested that each of the four can also be associated with one of the four elements. For example, Imbolc was a Fire Festival associated with Water. As such, a bowl of water was used for scrying the future. Here in the height of spring, before the major burst of crop growth of May, June and July, it is time to look back - into the past. Beltane is a double Fire Festival, and Fire is a wonderful tool for looking into the past. The cycle is well up and needs fertilization for the next rush of growth, but here is a moment to remember the roots, where this cycle began. How many times have you sat around a camp fire or stared at the burning logs in a fire place and ruminated on the past? As one looks at the glowing embers at the base of the fire, the burning wood takes on all kinds of shapes and meanings - reflections of the past. Beltane is that time for one last look back, one final deep fertilizing breath before the time of massive growth in summer. Fire energizes that growth and fruitfulness, just as the heat of the returning Sun warms the Earth and nourishes the growing seedlings. At Beltane, the Celts used to drive cattle between two bonfires to ensure fertility. In Scotland it was also the time to then drive these cattle and the sheep up to the highlands for the summer.

Some say that if you leap sky-clad (nekkid) with your loved one over the Beltane Fire, it insures that you will have a baby in the coming year. Be warned about this! - I learned about the fertility aspect of the Beltane Fire at a week-long gathering I helped to organize just outside of Glastonbury in 1986 – the week after Chernobyl went up. Fire seemed to be everywhere at that camp - appropriately enough given the amount of excess radioactivity in the air. At night, young men were juggling burning logs of wood and making enormous flashes of fire by spitting mouthfuls of kerosene (in British it's called "paraffin") at a flame. Kooosh!

In the late eighties, at a meeting of OakDragon here in England, there was a very interesting, frustrating, lovable mountain of a man by the name of Sid Rawle. Sid is a traveler. At that time, he was one of Britain's unemployed who lived on the road in a big truck with his partner Jules, the mother of several of his children. He was in his forties and quite robust with red hair and beard, and at that Beltane Fire Sid assumed the role of Fire tender. He was forever putting on another arm load of wood or adjusting the already-burning logs to get just a bit more heat and light. At one point, he announced to us that his partner Jules had told him that he could play with the Fire all he wanted, but he mustn't under any circumstances jump over the flames - she didn't want to have a baby that year! (Actually, she did have a baby that year anyway. When you work with Fire, sometimes you get burned.)

Sid also taught me an interesting way of tuning into the element of Fire. The idea is to go up as close to the bonfire as you can possibly stand and stay there until the Fire physically drives you away. Try this the next time you are at a big bonfire (perhaps you'll have one for this Beltane).

Of course, Fire walking is a fantastic way to tune into the Element of choice for Beltane. Contact Patrick MacManaway if you are interested in having such an event in your area.

The Beacon Hills

All over Britain there are ancient beacon hills, high points where year after year, the Beltane Fires were lit. Each of these hills was so located that you could see at least one other beacon hill from it. Actually there used to be big piles of brush on those points at all times ready to light in case of emergency. It is said that when the Spanish Armada came, these beacons were used to warn all of Britain of the impending danger. At Queen Elizabeth's fiftieth birthday they lit one beacon hill, and when it was seen, others lit the next one, and so on. It was amazing how quickly the beacon hills all over Britain became lit. It was similar to the Native American smoke signals. Passing the light. Quite effective.

One way of thinking about the Earth energies that are found at sacred spaces all over the world is to think in terms of acupuncture. In this analogy, the standing stones become Earth acupuncture needles, the leys are the meridians, and the beacon hills, the points of Fire, would then be moxibustion points.

Goddess and May Poles = Fertility

The Goddess of the Celts manifested herself in three ways. At Imbolc we see her as the Virgin Bride. Here at Beltane, and again at Lughnasad in early August, the manifestation of the Goddess we see is the Mother - she becomes this, many times, as a result of Beltane lovemaking. She is woman in her prime. Lover. Fully aware. In her power. At Samhain around the first of November, we shall see her in the final phase of this trinity, the wise old woman or the Crone.

So at Beltane there is the crowning of the Queen of the May (the Virgin who may become Mother) and her King. In their honor, the people dance around the May Pole. You might want to try this. Cut a twenty foot pole remembering to honor the spirit of that tree and the spirit of the place (genius loci). Ask your friends to each bring twenty feet of one to two inch-wide ribbon – any color. (You might want to have a couple of extras in case someone forgets.) When all are gathered, tie the ribbons at the top of the pole and plant it several feet into the ground. There needs to be an even number of people for this to work out. Have everyone form a circle around the pole. Break up in pairs and face each other. Half are facing clockwise (deosil) and half are facing counterclockwise (widdershins).

In square dancing, there is something called "the Grand Right and Left." Shake your partner's right hand and pass them by and shake the next person's left hand and pass them by, and shake the third person's right hand, and so on. Have the participants go all the way 'round the circle shaking hand after hand weaving in and out. When they return to their original places, have everyone pick up the end their ribbon, and once again face their partner. You are now ready to weave a beautiful pattern on the pole with the ribbons. Everyone passes by on the right of their partner, then left of the next person they meet, then right, in and out, in and out.

A wonderful chant that I love at this time is:

We are the flow, and
We are the ebb,
We are the weaver,
We are the web.

If everyone has done it correctly, when all of the ribbon is used up, you can turn in the opposite direction and dance out until all of the ribbons are un-wound. Then, perhaps, you can devise a more intricate pattern - perhaps two in and one out, two in and one out. I like to leave the ribbons 'till next Beltane woven on the pole and tied at the bottom so a couple of feet of ribbon flow in the breeze. It makes a beautiful woven sacred ornament in your back yard.

Twelve and Eight

The idea of dividing the year up into eight parts (first quartered then cross-quartered) as the Celts did is not a very common one. Most people divide the year up into twelve parts. This is especially the case with most Indo Europeans.

So much of time is divisible by three: sixty seconds, sixty minutes, twenty-four hours, twelve months. To divide the year into twelve, you start by dividing the year into four at the Solstices and Equinoxes, you then divide each quarter into thirds. 3x4=12. It beats the three against the four. This is called a base twelve system.

As the Celts were Indo Europeans who used base twelve systems extensively, their use of a base eight system instead of base twelve is even more fascinating. The way one divides the year into eight is first by dividing the year into two parts, then four, then by dividing each of those quarters in half. Unlike the twelve, dividing the year into eight is a progression by halves. 1_2_4_8. Some say that the Celtic division of the year into eight is a rather recent phenomenon.

We see the twelve system in the British inch, foot, and yard measurements. There are twelve inches to a foot, and three feet in a yard – related to the system that divides things into twelve. On the other hand, the inch itself divides by halves: 1 — 1/2 — 1/4 — 1/8. Both base twelve and base eight systems are found in our British and American form of measurement. (The measurement of time intermingles two systems as well. While there are twelve months in a year, twelve hours on the face of a clock, sixty (5 x 12) minutes in the hour, and sixty seconds in a minute, seconds themselves are divided into tenths - an unwelcome invasion of the Metric System which is based on ten rather than twelve or eight.)

Astronomy

The Cross Quarter Days do indeed divide the year into eight even parts. Some say that the Spring Equinox to Beltane is the same number of days as from Beltane to the Summer Solstice; however, if you mark the progress of the Sun along the Eastern horizon, the story is quite different. Around the time of the Spring Equinox, given a level horizon, the rising Sun is traveling its full diameter Northward along the Eastern horizon each day! It is really trucking. On the other hand, around the Summer Solstice the Sun moves almost imperceptibly along the horizon as it rises each day. {Solstice = Sun Stand(s still).} This means that at Beltane, the Sun does not rise half the distance between the Spring Equinox rise and the Summer Solstice rise. As a matter of fact, by May 1st, the Sun has traveled seventy-percent of the distance between due East (the Equinox rise anywhere on Earth given a level horizon) and the Summer Solstice rise at the particular latitude you happen to be on (In scientific terms, this distance is called the Root Mean Square). So in half the number of days between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice, along the horizon, the Sun moves seventy percent of the distance between those two rises. You can see this visually in our Orthographic Projection section.

Beltane is a time of fertility. What part of your life is particularly fertile, particularly ready to grow? Is there a place inside you that's saying, "Hey, I really want to spend more time doing ________."? Take advantage of the energy of this time. Use Fire to energize you for the growth ahead.

May the Fire of Bel
be kindled in your heart
in this time of
fertility and growth.

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