Beltane’s Past in Print

MIAMI (TWH) – Referenced in William Bells’s (1856) book, “On the English nomenclature of the days of the week,” John Jamieson’s Dictionary of the Scottish Language mentions a Gaelic rhyming proverb:

 Woe to the mother of a magician’s son,

When the Beltaine happens on a Sunday.

Jamieson states he does not understand the verse; but, Bell explains, that the author of “Britannia after the Romans” declares it “a notion that cannot be easily explained but by supposing that the great slaughter of the Neo Druid Magi happened on that day.” That was one of the earliest printed references to Betaine we could find.

[public domain-Flickr]

He adds that a separate account by Thomas Pennant states that:

“On the 1st of May, in the Highlands of Scotland, the herdsmen of every village held their Bealtine. They cut a square trench in the ground, leaving the turf in the middle : on that they make a fire of wood, on which they dress a large caudle of eggs, butter, oatmeal, and milk, and bring besides the ingredients of the caudle, plenty of beer and whisky^-for each of the company must contribute something. The rites begin with spilling some of the caudle on the ground, by way of oblation; on that, every one takes a cake of oatmeal, upon which are raised nine square knobs, each dedicated to some particular being, the supposed preserver of their flocks and herds; or to some particular animal, the real destroyer of them. Each person then turns his face to the fire and breaks off a knob, and flinging it over his shoulders, says, ‘I give this to thee, preserve thou my horses; this to thee, preserve thou my sheep, and so on. After this they use the same ceremony to the noxious animals. This I give to thee, oh fox, spare thou my lambs; this to thee, oh hooded crow; this to thee, oh eagle!’ When the ceremony is over, they dine on the caudle; and after the feast is finished, what is left is hidden by two persons deputed for that purpose; but on the next Sunday they re-assemble and finish the reliques of the first entertainment.”

This account made us wonder whether there were any Beltane (or Beltaine) stories in the media and how might the presentation of Beltane might have changed. So we managed a traipse through memory lane of published Beltane accounts, long before The Wild Hunt (this Wild Hunt, not that Wild Hunt).

Many of us remember maypoles as part of celebrations in local communities especially rural ones. We found a citation in The Christian Science Monitor called “Nay on May Day” by Thomas DiBacco. He writes about Thomas Morton who erected what may have been the first maypole on the American continents, an 80-foot one no less, and on May 1st, 1627 at the Plymouth Colony. Alas, it was cut down quickly because it seemed to suggest immoral activity and even worse, idleness. DiBacco writes, “The problem with the maypole and May Day festivities was the American public’s equation of the holiday with idleness at a time when labor was scarce and work was the order of the day.”

[Public domain]

DiBacco also cites Washington Irving, who in 1822, visited the United Kingdom and commented that,

“I shall never forget the delight I felt on first seeing a May-pole. It was on the banks of the Dee, close by the picturesque old bridge that stretches across the river from the quaint little city of Chester. I had already been carried back into former days, by the antiquities of that venerable place… The May-pole on the margin of that poetic stream completed the illusion. My fancy adorned it with wreaths of flowers, and peopled the green bank with all the dancing revelry of May-day.“

More recently, newspapers occasionally- sparingly- covered May Day events. For example, Eleanor Blaus of the The New York Times reported that in 1981:

At Longstreet Farm in Holmdel Township, a Monmouth County park just west of exit 114 of the Garden State Parkway, there will be an 1890’s May Day celebration tomorrow from 1 to 3 P.M. The events will include dancing around a Maypole and taffy pulling for all who wish to try, as well as organized games for adults and youngsters. Haywagon rides at 75 cents a trip will also be available.

Madness.

We also found a 1984 reference to Beltanes in Guardian Publications covering England and Wales by Ralph Blalock discussing lapwing chicks (a type of wading bird, we had to check too) commenting on Beltane. He noted that, “The month started with traditional May Day celebrations, not in honour of the International Working Man or anything like that but because it was the old Celtic quarter-day of Beltane, alias the Roman Feast of Floralia.”

[Public Domain]

Blalock added, “Following quickly were Rogationtide, Ascensiontide and Whitsuntide, all celebrated by various rites according to local custom. Whitsuntide, for instance, was within living memory the occasion for village Club Feasts, and in earlier times for Whitsun Ales.”

And in 1985, we also found a reference in the San Diego Union-Tribune in an article by Lucretia Steger, explaining that “There are witches among us that needn’t fear.” The article even covered myths about witches: “Some of the more common myths are that witches can’t cross running water, eat salt or cry real tears, for example, or that their voices cannot be captured on tape.

One of the interviewed witches responded to the myths. “None of those are true, says Lady Mare.” The article added “She eats salt, cries real tears and has taken many trips across running water. ‘Not only that,’ she says, ‘but my voice is recorded on my telephone answering tape.'”

Most of the articles from the recent past discussing Beltane involved a conversation about Witchcraft and the holiday on the opposite side of the Wheel of the Year that our southern colleagues are celebrating: Samhain. The San Diego Union-Tribune article mentioned above is from an interview at Halloween. Not surprisingly, we found many others from the northern Mabon-Samhain period; but they were not covering Beltane, they were discussing Witchcraft or Paganism.

We found other mentions, too many to cover and not all flattering. For example, from the magazine Natural History, May 1993 (v.102), we found this discussion:

“May Day was called Beltane by the ancient Celts. On this day, the sun rises midway between the place where it rises along the horizon on the spring equinox (due east), and its northernmost rising point on June 21, the summer solstice. The significance of May Day was not lost on the Celts. Beltane was a full-blooded pagan ritual day, when the protection of the gods during the newly begun growing season was invoked in a variety of ways. The earliest traditions were terrifically sinister. To appease three deities, three separate lethal punishments were given to a person choosing the Beltane cake, a burned piece of grain pancake, in a sacred ritual lottery. In 1984 near Manchester, England, a peat cutter discovered one such sacrificial victim: the well-preserved body of a man, who proved to have been murdered about A.D. 50. The victim had been axed so hard that the tops of his molars had been sheared off. A noose had then been twisted around his neck, crushing his windpipe. Finally, his jugular was lanced, and he was dumped in a bog. A burned piece of grain bread was found in his stomach. The British tabloids named him Pete Moss.”

Occasionally we found a Beltane reference connected to fiction.  But for Beltane proper, in terms of a modern celebration connected to contemporary Paganism, we had to do some more hunting. But we did find some. The earliest we found was at the end of the 80’s decade.

In 1989, The Independent in the United Kingdom reported on April 29, 1989 a short brief that, “More than 100 hippies who arrived at Barbury Castle in Wroughton, Wiltshire, to celebrate the ancient Beltane Festival were dispersed by police. There were no arrests.” The Times added on May 2, 1989 that the “Hippy celebration” ended peacefully, though did mention that Beltane was a cross-quarter festival!

On April 29, 1990 there is another quick mention by the Independent about Beltane. Apparently, “More than 400 travellers were camped on Hungerford Common in Berkshire to celebrate the pagan festival of Beltane, the height of spring.”

One of the earliest media coverages in the United States of a modern Pagan Beltane that was not part of a Halloween conversation or a conversation about ancient practice surprisingly comes from The Miami Herald. The article was printed on April 26, 1994, covering the Church of the Iron Oak who had sought a permit for a Beltane celebration in the backyard of one of its members and was met with some resistance by local authorities. The police never showed and the event happened. The Miami Herald reported the story noting that, “Members belong to the Wicca faith, which pays homage to Earth spirits and other non-Christian gods and is based on Northern Celtic tradition and magic.”

We did find a reference to Beltane two years earlier, but it’s connection to the holiday was not clear. We found a letter to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times that mentioned Beltane but noting it as part of Wicca. It turns out that the letter was a response to an article titled, “Witching hours spook neighbors” by Christopher R. Jones. Wherein we learn about a neighborhood feud where “two women as well as a cast of other witches” were practicing Wicca in their backyard to the outrage of neighbors. We learn from one frightened neighbor that the witches wear black robes. The neighbor notes that she is “Christian and they’re witches. I’m scared because of the kinds of things that are going on or at least the sounds of the things that we hear,” Mrs. Streeter said. “We can’t help but wonder if they’re sacrificing animals.” There was apparently even a camera crew filming the Calling of the Quarters. Still the neighbor noted that, “When all of the newspapers and television are gone, the witches are going to go back to the things that they were doing before, like all the noises and loud chanting in the middle of the night.”

Thirty years later, here we are. We’re building infrastructure. Paganism and Witchcraft are becoming more mainstream despite discrimination and misinformation. We even have our own news source. There’s no need to find offbeat sources or academics to share the meaning and power of Beltane.

To our colleagues in the southern hemisphere, may you have a blessed and meaningful Samhain.

To our colleagues in the northern hemisphere, may the fires of Beltane bring many warm blessings.