Bealtaine marks the start of the Summer quarter of the year and the end of the Spring quarter. This is a time when nature blossoms and felicity and fertility return to the land. In times past, the livestock stockaded at Samhain was returned to summer pastures at Bealtaine.
Bealtaine is a joyful festival of growth and fecundity that heralds the arrival of Summer. It is the festival of the 'Good Fire' or 'Bel-fire', named after the solar deity Bel. Bel was also known as Beli or Bile in Ireland, with Bile meaning 'tree', so Beltane may also mean 'Tree-fire'. Bealtaine is the counterpart of Samhain (and is sometimes referred to as Cetsamhain, the 'first Samhain'), and these two important festivals divide the year into Summer and Winter halves, just as the two equinoctial celebrations, the Spring (also referee to as Ostara) and Autumn (aka Mabon) Equinoxes, divide the year into light and dark halves.
Lighting fires was customary at Bealtaine, and traditionally a Bealtaine fire was composed of the nine sacred woods of the Celts. All hearth fires were extinguished on Bealtaine Eve and then kindled again from the sacred "need fires" lit on Beltane. People would leap through the smoke and flames of Bealtaine fires and cattle were driven through them for purification, fertility, prosperity and protection.
In terms of the God and Goddess cycle, Bealtaine marks the union of the two Deities, bringing new life to the earth. It is a traditional time for Handfastings (marriages), and was a time for couples to make love outside to bless the crops and the earth. Maypoles were often danced around at Bealtaine to bring fertility and good fortune. The later addition of ribbons which were wrapped around the pole by the dancers brought a further sense of the integration of male and female archetypes, mirroring the union between the God and the Goddess. Bealtaine lore also includes washing in May-day dew for beauty and health, and scrying in sacred waters, such as ponds or springs.
The festival is sometimes referred to as Roodmas, a name coined by the medieval Christian Church in an attempt to associate Bealtaine with the Cross (the Rood) rather than the life-giving symbol of the Maypole. Bealtaine was also appropriated by the Church as the Feast Day of Saint Walpurga, who was said to protect crops and was often represented with corn.
Bealtaine is a time to devote energy to growth and integration. It is a time of celebration, exuberance and hope, when we should enjoy and appreciate the gifts of nature.
Alternate Names: Beltain, Beltane, Beltine, May Day, Cetsamhain ('first Samhain'), Walpurgis Night (Beltane Eve), Celtic 'Flower Festival'
Christian Equivalent: Roodmas, Rood Day, Feast of Saint Philip and Saint James, Feast of Saint Walpurga
Source: Herbal Musings