Beltane as Threshold
Updated: May 1, 2020
In these shaky days of unknowing and disorientation, when the landscape of "normal" is daily being redefined, we are invited into ancient ways of knowing to guide us.
Beltane, the Celtic cross-quarter fire festival, and May Day, are celebrated May 1st. There is evidence that Beltane was practiced in the 1st century in Ireland, and most likely extends back much further in ancient history. The power of the returning life force with the change of seasons, in between the spring equinox and summer solstice, provides a space in the yearly cycle for honoring the return of the sun, the growth of plants and crops, the beginning of summer pastoral season, the sensuous energies of a fertile earth and new life.
Even after the Church colonized ancient spiritual practices in Europe, and in the British Isles in particular, the people grafted in the new Christianity with their old ways. As part of the more historically recent May Day folk traditions, flowers were/are typically strewn on doorsteps and windowsills from processions throughout villages as a symbol of protection from illness and evil. Other customs involved sprinkling people with water from holy wells or other sacred water as healing or blessing. Or walking barefoot, or laying down in the May Day dew. In the older Beltane tradition, two fires were lit and cattle and sheep were driven between the fires as a ritual of protection on their way to summer pasture. Druids would light the fires high on the hills to bring the power of the sun back to earth. The people would take ashes from the fires back to their fields and into their homes to start new fires in the hearth.
The fire on the top of hills from the upper-world and water from the wells, or under-world, are important elements and symbols of integration. Wells, and water, are associated with the goddess and the sacred feminine in Celtic mythology, and the fire and the returning sun with the sacred masculine.
The month of May is named after the earth goddess Maia. She embodies growth and increase, and presides over the blooming of spring, yet the myths tell that she hid herself away in wild caves far from civilization. A contradiction as both goddess and victim of powerful male deities, she was both revered for her greatness and lamented for her suffering. May Day processions include a "May Queen" who presides over the day with a crown of flowers on her head. Later, even the old Roman Catholic Church would honor the feminine by crowning statues of Mary with flowers on May 1st. Spring, Beltane and May Day, are an opening within the cycle of the year that brings forth feminine energies of earth and birth and rebirth and renewal.
On the wheel of the year, Beltane, which honors summer, life, and new beginnings, sits opposite from Samhain, which honors winter, endings, death and withdrawal. These two hold the necessary tension of opposites, both part of the yearly cycle within nature, and also within us.
“...the theme of Beltane is the union of energies, masculine and feminine, the mystical and physical rational and instinctive, fire and water, active and receptive. It is about allowing the extremes to exist and through their union, transformation occurring.*”
The energies of this day in this historic time defined by a global pandemic and the disintegrating of commonly held norms, are potent. These unordinary days of collective descent seem to contradict the new life forging up through the dirt in our yards and within our own hearts. And a more universal new emergence. Times of unraveling are times of liminal space; thresholds between what has been and what no longer is, with undefined new boundaries. Full of fear for many and full of possibility. The Beltane union of energies in the time of COVID-19 are bringing together the illusion of opposites, inviting us to see and live in ways previously unknown. We find ourselves simultaneously within the wintering of hibernation, isolation and stillness and also within this spring of emergence into something entirely new. Hiding away in our holy caves, yet drawn outward by the sacred beauty of nature, and something else we may sense in the wind. We witness color and flowers and movement and simple joy while also sitting with the suffering of the world, death and the stillness that comes from an internal nudging in our physical distancing. We are uniters of opposites and contradictions.
This season may you stand in that threshold in-between, without needing to move forward or fall back. Until it is time. Fall in love with all the shades of green, converse with a flower, and make the flame your prayer for all the suffering. May we be the ones who are still for long enough and silent for long enough to hear and sense what is waiting to be born in the world, and within us. May we learn to be comfortable living in the present, between sorrow and joy, between fire and water, between our human embodiment as creatures of earth and our divine soul. Welcome to liminal space.
*quote by Tess Ward from her book, The Celtic Wheel of the Year