Excerpted from The Witch’s Wheel, by Yvonne Owens and Jessica North O’Connell
JESSICA: Beltaine! Summer is finally upon us — the weather is warmer, the sun brighter, the air sweeter after the last whispers of Winter’s decay have taken their leave. The world is greening as Earth offers forth her verdant bounty, leading us into the seasons of the sowing of gardens and fields, the languishing in meadows (or back yards) and on beaches, and ultimately, the harvests.
Beltaine! The youthful Lady and her Lord come together to celebrate their Sacred Marriage and gift us with their blessings -we the honored guests at their grand banquet of life.
Beltaine! Plant the Maypole, the Green Man’s representative, and dress it with ribbons of white and red, the colors of the fluids of life. Raise the power with the pounding of dancing feet to awaken the Earth from Winter’s deep slumber. It’s Beltaine come again!
The original meaning is ‘Bel-fire’ — the fire of the Celtic or proto-Celtic god variously known as Bel, Beli, Balar, Balor or the latinized Belenus — names traceable back to the Middle Eastern Baal, which simply means ‘Lord.’ Bel …was the ‘Bright One,’ god of light and fire. He had Sun-like qualities (classical writers equated him with Apollo) but he was not, strictly speaking, a Sun-God…
April 30th /May 1st is Irish Gaelic Beltaine, (pronounced be-ol-chin-a, though it is mostly pronounced phonetically in North America ) which means “May.” This fire festival marks the beginning of the summer season and stands at the halfway point to Samhain. In some traditions, this is the time of the Sacred Marriage of the Goddess and God (others observe this rite at Midsummer), and it begins the most usual season for weddings.
A feature of the Bealtaine fire festival in many lands was jumping over the fire…Young people jumped it to bring themselves husbands or wives; intending travellers to ensure a safe journey; pregnant women to ensure an easy delivery, and so on. Cattle were driven through its ashes — or between two such fires — to ensure a good milk-yield. The magical properties of the festival fire form a persistent belief…
One outstanding feature of Beltaine is the Maypole, a symbol of sexuality and fertility, around which celebrants dance, braiding the lengths of ribbon attached to the top of the pole. The dance is performed by two circles, an inner on and an outer one, moving deosil (clockwise), the other widdershins (counterclockwise), the dancers weaving in and out between the inner and outer circles. Flowers figure prominently during this festival also, and the more the better.
YVONNE: May Day picnics, fairs and festivities have their roots in the Celtic festival of Beltaine. May Eve is the historic occasion of lovers’ trysts “out on the hill,” or in the woods of spring. As well as providing an opportunity to stimulate the gene pools of isolated, rural communities, Beltaine marked the primary festival of summer for the ancient Celts, much as Samhain marked the beginning of winter.
Beltaine is directly across the year-wheel from Samhain, and celebrated the beginning of the “light half” of the year. It was thought to be ruled by the Goddess or by the Oak King. Walpurgisnacht or Roodmass are forms of observance of this festival which have survived into the Christian era.
To this day, Morris Dancers across Canada, the U.S. And Europe make this their biggest festival, erecting beribboned Maypoles and performing traditional dances at dawn to bring in the light on the first of May.
Beltaine is named for the Celtic god of generation and ancestry Bel (Beli, Bile, Belenos or Bal). Bel was worshipped in the form of the Tree of Life, usually a sacred Oak, and his festival occurs during Oak month of the ancient Celtic lunar calendar. He was thought to be joined in Sacred Marriage with his mate, Dana (Danu, Anu or Anna) making the Tree a sort of combined male and female, androgynous whole. In this, Bel resembles Semitic Baal, who was married to Asherah, the “Tree of Life,” or Mother of the generations.
The Maypole is a symbol of the Tree of Life: the seven-levelled “tree of Initiation” of Eurasian shamanism, woven around by the dancers in inward and outward-flowing spirals, symbolizing the energetic motion of the nervous system and spine, the “serpent energy” or “Kundalini,” constantly ascending and descending the Tree of Life from root to crown. This same life dynamic is shown upon the caduceus, or “Staff of Hermes,:in the form of the two, interwoven serpents. The medical profession still uses this symbol to connote a state of balanced health.
Druidic ceremonies for May Day featured large herds of oxen in procession with an “ark” carried by celebrants from a Holy Isle in a river or lake. It was an old custom to garland a cow or a bull for May Day or other holidays. The Cow was considered a symbol of the land itself, in this context, producing nurture and flowers in abundance. The Irish Cow Goddess, Boann, was worshipped as the Bo River, and in rivers and streams generally.
The Milky Was was seen as a river of milk by ancient Egyptians, as an expression of Nuit, originally a form of Hathor, the Cow Mother of Egypt. The milky veil of stars is seen as the universal life-giving substance bestowed by the Cosmic Cow’s divine udder. It is possible that the Celtic feeling that cattle equated to stability and wealth travelled into Western Europe with the Indo-Europeans, whose Rig Vedas (Vedic religious scriptures) invoke all things good: “Lions, Chariots and many fine Cattle.”
The Bull has long been associated with the moon, evidence of which remains in the stories of ancient Crete where the Moon Goddess was named Tauropolos. The ancient Middle Eastern Moon God was called “Sin” or “Min” (both of which mean “moon”). Min’s name turns up in that of King Minos of Minoan Crete, as well as in that of the creature who gave him a bad name, the Minotaur (which means “Moon-Bull”). The Minoan culture itself is named for the moon, via its famous king. The monstrous Minotaur was actually the fearful fabrication of Solar-oriented Achaean Greeks and Mycenaeans. When these “rational,” solar, warrior-invaders encountered the complex, organic, “labyrinthine” civilization of lunar-thinking Crete, they reasoned that something mysterious and frightening must live at its core. The cultus of the Moon-Bull (lunar sexuality) and depictions of the bull-dance, convinced them that these signs indicated a malefic lunar monstrosity that devoured virgins and to whom sacrifices must be made.
In fact, the bull-dance, shown on many urns and vases of Minoan Crete, was an initiatory exercise for adolescent athletes of both genders. No one died in these excursions; that was the point. The bull-dance signified victory over one’s own fearful animal nature. Achaean Greeks cast the Minotaur as the offspring of the Moon Goddess Pasiphae, and a white bull. The white bull was also central in the cult of Mithras, the bull-slayer. Bull slaying may have originated with the choosing of a surrogate for the king who would be ritually executed at the end of his reign to insure the future fertility of the land, a concept illustrated in the myths of Ishtar and Tammuz and Venus and Adonis, where the Goddess loses her consort to the Queen or Goddess of the Underworld (her own devourer aspect).
The bull-slaying ceremony persists to this day in the bullfight of Spain, considered astrologically to be a Scorpio country. Scorpio is the sign opposite Taurus (the Bull) and rules the month diametrically opposed to Oak month on the Wheel: Birch month. Samhain begins Birch month, and the “dark” half of the year. Beltaine occurs in the third week of Oak month, and the “light” half of the year. In a famous Roman depiction of Mithras slaying the Bull, close examination reveals a scorpion clasping the genitals of the Bull in its pincers, invoking the astrological and calendrical relationship of Taurus and Scorpio. Scorpio rules the genitals in medical astrology. The sting of certain varieties of scorpions is deadly and this insect is not above turning the deadly sting upon itself, given enough provocation. The bullfight retains overtones of the desire to overcome the animalistic and instinctive tendencies inherent in human nature.
Oak is the Celtic lunar month that surrounds Beltaine, and is a time for fertility rites. What have you planted for yourself? How have you honored this new life, no less a child of your heart and mind than an actual life of the flesh? What do you envision for this child of yours? The Priestess of Oak is the Goddess expressing Herself as the Flower Maiden. She weds the Sun King, in a rite of mature and equal bonding. She brings to the fiery/active/masculine world of kinetic manifestation and creative expression the authority of Sovereignty, for she confers Balanced Power and the Right to Rule one’s own creative will. She corresponds to the Empress card of the Major Arcana of the Tarot and is the flowering land Herself.
Be aware of the flowers of creative manifestation around you, in your environment and in your consciousness. Honor your sovereign spirit with bowers of blossoming flowers and vines; indulge your senses and be aware of fragrances and pleasing textures. Beautiful music, paintings, films, plays, and wonderfully-prepared food can be relished and treasured at this time. Aesthetic appreciation of Divinity as perfection of function and form takes on the refined tone of a conscious ritual of respect for the creative/expressive spirit. This is a time to celebrate the World in the full-blown beauty of Her power to manifest. To enjoy the World is an act of reverence — a worshipful stance that has the power to connect us to our own source of creativity.” (Owens and North-O’Connell, 1994, The Witch’s Book of Days, Beach Holme Publishers)
“..I have loved in the rolling meadows and the field,
I have loved in the green of the waking forest
where the secrets of time are unveiled…”
Great gifts often come in humble packaging. Some of my fondest memories of the season revolve around the harvesting and drying of Nettle, that precious multi-purpose yet unassuming plant which so many people regard as a nuisance or “weed.” I remember my neighbors watching in awe as I trimmed away at the healthy batches they had growing by the walls of their country home. “But, dear, what on earth are you going to DO with it?” they’d asked, their disbelief that anyone could actually want the “stuff” they had attempted to eliminate from their yard, finally admitting defeat.
“Hair rinse,” I’d responded. “It makes a wonderful hair rinse. It strengthens the hair shaft and makes it healthy and shiny. Good for dandruff, too.” I’d been using it for quite awhile and loved the ritual of hair rinsing with the tea I would make for that purpose. My friends had gladly offered me as much of the “stuff” as I wanted, and I’d most gladly accepted, carefully trotting home armfuls of her stalks to hang and dry around my house. Years later, I rediscovered Nettle as a tonic for all the phases of menopause, and as a fertility herb as well. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Nettle (Urtica dioica, Urtica urens), also called stinging nettle, is a perennial plant which grows in many places around the world, although Nelson Coon maintains that she is native to Eurasia. She was introduced to North America, apparently, by the first English settlers who brought her along with their imported cattle. By 1672, she was already commonplace on this continent. She is often found in areas of devastation, along roadsides as well as in gardens and beside fences and walls. Her square, bristle-covered stalks grow from two to seven feet in height and her leaves are serrated and pointed with a hairy underside (it is these bristles and hairs which earn her her “stinging” title, as most people develop small slightly raised and tender welts on coming into with them, skin to plant).
Where I live, she begins to flower as early as mid to late May, though this may occur earlier in other areas. The flowers are small, greenish and rather unremarkable but a harvester must know when n to leave the plant alone. Once she begins to flower, let her be. She will reward you the following spring wit ha hearty new growth. The young leaves of the Nettle are tender and succulent, steamed and serve with a little fresh butter or lemon juice, Celtic sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper. All traces of the stinging quality disappear upon cooking.
Nettle has many uses besides being one of our most remarkable tonics; the Scots and some of the European mainlanders used Nettle in much the same way as flax was used, making a cloth from her fibres which is similar to linen. During World War l, Germans used her stalks for weaving, in place of cotton. Her fibre has also been used in the manufacture of fishing line. Her use as a “textile plant” (and it is believed that this is the meaning of her name, relating to net-making), dates back to the Bronze Age.
However, it is as a tonic that many of us have come to ally with Nettle. She is astringent, diuretic (although I haven’t noticed this effect personally), hemostatic and a galactagogue, according to herbalist John Lust. Susun Weed states that Nettle is a uterine tonic with the ability to strengthen and rebuild the kidneys and adrenals, and I agree with her from personal experience. Nettle has a high mineral content, including boron, calcium, chromium, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. She is also rich in vitamins: thiamine, riboflavin, folic acid, niacin, carotenes and Vitamins C, E, and K. She is rich in chlorophyll which, along with the above-mentioned minerals, is beneficial to the hormonal system and is an excellent deodorant.
Menopausal women benefit from Nettle’s ability to prevent and rehydrate vaginal tissues, maintain strong bones, stabilize the blood sugar, reduce fatigue, prevent or eliminate headaches and nourish a variety of body systems, including the digestive, immune, nervous and cardiovascular systems. She is beneficial to the endocrine system as well, which is the producer of the hormones that regulate body functions. As a menopausal ally, and as a fertility promoter, it is advised that one drink one or more cups of Nettle infusion daily.
When wild-crafting Nettle, be certain to stay away from polluted areas. Harvest away from roadsides or areas in which chemical fertilizers have been used.
How to prepare a Nettle infusion: Put 1 oz (30 gms) of the dried leaf in a clean Mason canning jar. (My personal favorite blend is Nettle, Red Raspberry, Red Clover and occasionally Alfala. As above, use 1 oz (30 gm) per canning jar. Avoid Red Clover if you tend to bleed heavily, as it is a blood thinner.) Fill the jar with boiling water and cap immediately. Steep at room temperature for four hours. Transfer the liquid to another jar, squeezing our the plant material to obtain all the juicy goodness possible. Store in the fridge; drink liberally. A jar lasts me 1–2 days, at slightly more than one cup daily.
A hearty Beltaine cocktail: Not everyone appreciates the strong “green” flavor or Nettle infusion, however, my husband among them! You can use the infusion as a diluter for fresh-squeezed vegetable juices, such as carrot/beet/garlic/ginger, one of my favorite blends, but just a bit too strong for some to imbibe by the glassful undiluted. Cut half and half with Nettle infusion, it makes a potent but pleasant health drink. You can also add Nettle infusion to plain tomato juice for a flavor reminiscent of V-8.
Another method is to make ice cubes of your Nettle infusion and add them to everything, or to use the infusion as abase for a vegetarian soup or stew.
Nettle Hair Rinse Supreme: To a 6-cup size teapot, add 6 tsp of Nettle leaves and fill the pot with boiling water. Allow to cool. After washing the hair, pour the tepid tea through the hair and over the scalp, catching the tea in a bowl (I kneel in the bathtub with the bowl in front of me). Use a small receptacle, such as a non-breakable measuring cup, to scoop the tea from the bowl and pour over the scalp and hair a few times. Gently squeeze excess tea from the hair and towel-dry hair.
For “Smelly Feet” (from having your feet in those rubber boots while gardening all day!): Prepare a pot of Nettle tea as above and add to a footbath (you deserve it!) Soak feet for 10 minutes. Towel dry and allow feet to continue to “air dry” for a few minutes before putting on fresh footwear.
You may enjoy May Wine — another Beltaine treat: Chill thoroughly (overnight is best) two bottles of a reasonable white wine. Into a punch bowl, add thin half-slices of lemon and orange and a sprig or two of lemon balm. Then pour in the two bottles of wine and toss in a handful each of Hawthorn and Borage blossoms. Float a few organic Rose petals on top. Very pretty!1 Raise your brimming Chalice to the Lady and Lord.
“I, who am the beauty of the green Earth, and the white Moon upon the waters, call upon your soul to arise and come unto me. For I am the soul of Nature that gives life to the universe. From me, all things proceed and unto me they must return. Let my worship be in the heart that rejoices for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals. Let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you. And you who seek to know me, know that seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the Mystery. For if that which you seek you find not within yourself, you will never find it without. For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am that which is attained at the end of desire” (Adapted by Starhawk from Doreen Valiente, The Charge of the Goddess)
YVONNE: Beltaine occurs on the 14th day of the ancient Celtic lunar phase of the Oak month. This passage will see your core strength emerge, as well as your native authority and perception. The Rune for Oak is Dagaz, bringing breakthrough, disintegration of old form, survival of the strongest into the new aeon, paradox, emergence of new generation, and doorway. Oak is a portal month, named for the Indo-European root, duir, (doo ur) meaning “door,” and Beltaine is traditionally known as “the hinge of the year.” Oak opens a view into the past and the future. Visionary abilities are heightened as a result of opened perception. This festival stands at the intersection of the “dark” and the “light” segments of the year, and as such is a gateway between the realms of Time. Take a little time, during this rite of passage, to perform the imaginative journey in the following visualization:
MEDITATION FOR BELTAINE
“Envision yourself in a grove of Oak trees. Feel the strength emanating from these great beings and let their grandness flow into you — affirming the life-giving force of the planet. As you bask in the power that courses through you, let it caress and invigorate every cell of your body and every aspect of your mind and thoughts. Welcome the Lady as Druidess, knower of the secrets of Earth: peace, stability, productivity, growth!
Allow Her to share this bounty with you. As you take Her hand, She shows you the doorway into the Centre of the World — the centre of yourself.” (Owens and North-O’Connell, 1994, The Witch’s Book of Days, Beach Holme Publishers)