“Have you ever stood in an April wood and called the New Year in?”- Ian Anderson
The first lines of ‘Beltain’ that, if you are of certain age and ‘prog-rockedness’, you may remember from a Jethro Tull song luring us in to a mystical past of ancient golden ages and mystical eras. (Oh how I love those times!). The times when golden suns setting over rolling English landscapes, flowers blinking themselves open in the mornings to catch the wealth of energy from the warming orb as it passes across the skies. The new life bursting forth from the dew caressed fields, woods, fens and moors. Young birds tumbling from nests, being tossed like dead autumn leaves in a strong November gale until their strengthening wings allow them to catch the wind and take back controlled flight.
So, what of Beltain…. surely the past remains in the past along with ancient mysteries and sublime rituals. Not so, for there are growing numbers who go about their lives, not necessarily following the doctrines of a 21st century existence, but living the sacred ways and rediscovering the earth that pulses beneath their unshod feet. Even for just a few hours throughout the year they relinquish to ancient energies dragging them to reconnect to all that is.
When the Maypole is dressed with ribbons on May Day morn and the youngster’s skip and dance, interweaving the long colours around the pole do we not stop and think where this originated? On the evening before bonfires were lit, huge blazes in the fields and meadows. Some closer together and the farmers would drive their herds of cattle between the flames allowing good luck to pass over herd as they were pastured on higher ground and better grazing. Beltain means, after-all, ‘bright fire’ or ‘lucky fire’. This is the time of fire festivals to honour the strengthening sun and the start of summer; in former times there were only two seasons – winter and summer.
The land is abuzz with life and fertility. Spring, the time of renewal and new life. The ‘erect’ and upright Maypole reminds us of this. The pole, representing the phallus of reproduction, is a symbol that reaches way back into the mystery of our ancient past. Perhaps, it might be best not to tell the children what they are dancing around in the spring sunshine in these more delicate and “enlightened” times.
It is at this time, also, that special attention must be given to the ‘Fair folk’, ‘Sidhe’, ‘Aos Si’ or perhaps more commonly known – the ‘Faerie folk’. It is now when they must be appeased; offerings being made to Faerie trees of milk and at Faerie forts the old countrymen bleed a cow slightly as a blood offering so no harm comes to the livestock, the dairy produce and the harvest later in the year. The use of fire and these protective rituals were once considered essential at this mid-point between the Equinox and the Midsummer Solstice; one of the cross-quarter days of the old Celtic year. The year consists of 2 Solstices, 2 Equinoxes and the quarter days of: Beltain, Lughnasad, Samhain and Imbolc. These make up the eight festivals of the Celtic calendar.
Beltain is the time of rejuvenation as the yearly circle spins. The lime green leaves of the trees begin to unfurl and welcome the longer warmer days as though unclenching fists hold their palms upwards to welcome the spirits of both sky and land. To the druids and the followers of the ‘old ways’ the ‘Lady of the Land’ takes hold of the ‘Horned God’, sometimes known as Cernunnos, and moves the year ever forward. Cernunnos being the god of the forest, the Wild Hunt and fertility.
Perhaps the aforementioned shows a little more of the darker aspects of the older ways but nonetheless this keeps the balance with the more joyous side of May Eve and May Day itself. It certainly is a time for celebration, with the Maypole dancers spinning their web of ribbons around the pole, Morris Men with beautiful spring flowers adorning their hats, bells chiming and sticks being thrashed against each other, dregs of ale and cider sloshing out of tankards hooked onto belts. When all is done, the sounds of revelry drifting away on the cool evening breeze, the blackbird takes up his station on the highest branches to sing his song away into the twilight, eventide dampness begins to make the foliage shimmer like mercury as the moon starts it’s trip across the night sky and peace reigns again over our Albion isles.
Written by Mark Elson for Pipistrelle Art