By Feline Charpentier, 6.2 Houseparent and Teacher of Outdoor Work
Beltane is the third of the eight festivals our Celtic ancestors marked the year with. They divided the year into the two solstices, at the beginning and half way points of the year, and the two equinoxes. The four cross-quarters, the fire festivals, marked the changing energies between those times. It enabled them to tune into the land around them, to mark the turning of the wheel, and to feel the flow of energy from the earth a little more acutely. This helped them mark the passage of time, to plan ahead and reflect, consciously observing the shifting of energies around and within them.
Beltane celebrates the height of spring, and the coming of summer. It is the spring cross quarter, and the fire festival that marks the earth’s building energy. It was a time when people would celebrate the fertility of the land, and marked the beginning of the ‘merry month’, when people would wear green to honour the earth’s new colour, and nature in all its glory. The morning after the Beltane fire would be May Day, or Calan Mai in Wales, and villagers would gather to dance around the may pole, symbolising the union of male and female energies.
This time is a celebration of fertility in all its forms, and it would have been a time for weddings and couples to be celebrated. Our ancestors saw this as the time when the oak king fell in love with the May queen. She would be depicted as a pregnant bride, a mythological manifestation of earth’s potent fertility.
Beltane literally means ‘bright fire’, and the night would be marked with flame. Bel is one of the most ancient of the Celtic gods, associated with fire and flame, and the power of the sun to fuel all life on earth. All the fires in the village would be extinguished, and one big bonfire, the Tein-Eigin, the ‘need fire’, would be lit, often in the fields around the village. These flames were seen as sacred, and people would revere them, using the flames to relight their own hearth the next day.
This is one of the examples of ancient superstitions having its roots in solid science: villagers would drive their livestock through the cooling embers, to ward off ‘evil spirits’. Effectively what this also did was kill off potential microbes in the hooves of the cattle and sheep which would have accumulated over the winter.
Beltane sits at the opposite point of the wheel of the year to Samhain, and is therefore a time when the world is at a significant turning point. The earth’s energy is at its most potent, and we can see this all around us. The trees are covered in the green fuzz of new leaves, the flowers in the hedgerows and meadows are in full bloom. Buttercups, bluebells, wood anemones, self heal, tiny purple violets and wild strawberries are everywhere. The sound of birds and nests full of chicks in trees and rooves, and lambs bouncing in the fields accompanies walks around our beautiful school, which really comes into its own at this time of year.
On Living with the Land, our Sixth Form course in Outdoor Work, we are investing in the year ahead, and reaping the rewards of tuning into the landscape around us. We are busy planting out vegetable seedlings in the garden, as well as foraging in the fields, hedgerows and woods. We have been learning about all the different ways living with the land at this time of year can bring significant health benefits, using herbs and wild foods to boost our diet, appreciating the feel of the sun on our skin after months of grey and cold. It is no wonder our ancestors regarded this time of year as sacred and charged with potent life force.
This Beltane is an opportunity for us all to light a flame, whether a huge bonfire or small candle, and to feel reverence for all life. The flames can be symbolic of burning away all that we need to let go of, and fuelling our energies for what lies ahead. Why not think about what you wish for, and of what you must let go of for that to happen. Write it down and commit it to the flames. Make a crown of green leaves, stay out late or wake up early, watch the sun rise and make plans for the summer ahead. Tune in to the earth’s energies, try to live in harmony with it. Experience how truly privileged we are to be inhabitants and stewards of this incredible planet.
Butser Ancient Farm usually hold one of the best Beltane fire festivals in the UK and are hosting an online version this year. Find out more here.