Not deferential enough: Beltane

Posted Tuesday, April 29, 2014 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Beltane

Clooties tied to ropes surrounding a holy well in Scotland.

by Gina Hamilton

O, the summertime is coming, and the trees are sweetly blooming ...

Well, not yet. Not here, anyway. But whether the signs of late spring are in the air or not, the Earth is making its turn to one more notch in the wheel of the year, and the festival is Beltane.

Beltane is an ancient fertility festival. It is the time of year, after the cows have calved, when the cattle are being driven to higher pasture, where they will remain until summer's end.  Like many of the ancient rites, it was celebrated by two bonfires, and the household fires throughout the villages would be doused, the hearth cleaned, and then rekindled from the Beltane bonfires. People would circle the bonfire with their cattle, then drive the cattle between the two fires to protect them from disease. As the fires died down, young children would leap over one of them -- boys and girls separately -- both as a test of courage and to ensure their future fertility.

Homes were decorated with baskets and typically yellow flowers, brought in from the woods by teenagers and young adults. No questions would be asked about what else the young people were doing in the woods.

At Beltane, boys would give girls a wreath of yellow flowers to wear in her hair. If she were interested in the boy, she would reciprocate with a small token representing fertility, often a small empty bird's nest or a basket woven to look like one.

As a further fertility rite, a maypole would be erected, capped with flowers, and decorated with ribbons. The boys would circle the maypole and interweave the ribbons. The girls would build small huts made of vegetation and watch the proceedings.

It was customary to cut a small bush -- the only time when it was permitted to cut certain types of thorn bushes -- and decorate them with ribbons, flowers, shells, dyed egg shells, and other small decorations, much as a Christmas tree is decorated today. At the end of the festivities, the bushes were burnt in the bonfires and the ashes tossed over the growing crops as a protection.

Holy wells or springs were also an important custom at Beltane. Families would visit a holy well and leave an offering, often a small scrap of fabric called a clootie. The clootie would first be dipped in the well or spring, often with a prayer to the spirit of the well, then tied to a rope that was already tied to a tree or to some other landscape feature. The fabric scraps would fly like small flags in a breeze, and encourage others to visit the well.  Before they left the family would circle the well "sunwise".

Beltane was the time when young people would pair off. If the match seemed like it would work out, the young couple would ask to be handfasted -- begin a "trial marriage" -- six weeks later, at Midsummer, and be married permanently in another six weeks, at Lammas, or Lughnasadh, just before the beginning of the harvest.

If things didn't work out in the pair-off period between Beltane and the Solstice, or in the trial period between the Solstice and Lammas Day, there was no harm done, and the couple could amicably separate. If they permanently married, however, they were expected to remain married.

Babies born of "honeymooners" ... those who arrived in the following February through May ... were called "Children of the May" and were considered especially fortunate.

blog comments powered by Disqus