Traditional Date: May Day, May 1st.
Astrological Date: Sun 15° Taurus
See also: Calendar of Festivals
These meditations on the Solar Festivals are intended to be performed on or near the appropriate date. Please see the Calendar for more details.
Beltane: Unlike all the other traditional Solar festivals of the year, the feast of Beltane does not have a close counterpart in the Christian calendar. The celebrations of the other feasts were not suppressed by the Christian Church, but were rather assimilated by it. Why was this not done for Beltane? It is probably because, Beltane being in pagan times more particularly associated than the other festivals with rituals of fertility and a certain degree of licentiousness that accompanies such things, the rather austere early Church could not tolerate its continuance. That, of course, did not prevent its celebration, and customs such as Morris and maypole dancing persist to this day, often with little thought of the pagan tradition that lies behind them.
Beltane is certainly a feast of fertility. The fields are sown, the crops are growing, and in the cycle of the farming year, although there is always some work to be done, there is now a little time to relax and enjoy things for a while before the next surge of activity at harvest time. It may also be a time of charity, when those who have a little left over from their winter store can share with those who are less fortunate than themselves. We can see this principle in action in the Tarot card, the Six of Coins, or Pentacles, which is astrologically associated with the second decan of Taurus, in which Beltane falls.
In the Solar mythos, Beltane was the time when the Sun Father was wedded to Mother Earth. It was probably a favourite time for young couples to get together and be wed. The modern superstition that it is unlucky to be married in May is probably something to do with the Church's prejudice against Beltane. But Christian mystics have recognised the importance of the date.
In the Alchemical Marriage, the third and most deeply symbolic of the three manifestos produced by the Rosicrucian movement in the early 17th Century, the narrator, Christian Rosencreutz (his name is significant) sets out on his journey to the marriage of the King and Queen at Easter time. Now, we do not know on what date Easter fell during the year in question, but it could well be - and it would be symbolically revealing if it were so - that the wedding itself took place on May Day. The marriage itself is, of course, symbolic of the initiatory stage of the Great Work of alchemy, which is nothing more nor less than the perfection of the human soul. So here we come another important aspect of May Day, which is that it is a propitious time for starting important new projects.
But there is another important aspect of Beltane. Nobody is quite certain of the origin of the word "Beltane", but it is fairly certain that the "-tane" part comes from the Celtic word for fire. Several of the Solar festivals are associated with fire, of course, but the fire of Beltane has a particular significance. In ancient times, there were no matches or lighters. The art of making fire was known only to a few. Hunters and travellers would know it, of course, but in the villages the secret was carefully preserved by just a few privileged men. These men, who might well have been the priests, tended the fire, called the Need Fire, that burned perpetually in the village's main hall; from which all the other fires in all the dwellings of the village would be lit. Once a year, on the eve of Beltane, all the fires in the village would be extinguished, including the Need Fire. The keepers of the flame would go to the woods in the darkness of the night to collect the nine sacred woods to make a new Need Fire, which through their art would blaze up afresh the following morning, and from which everyone in the village would ultimately derive their own source of light and heat.
So now we may look at some of our folk traditions in a new light (and had you ever considered the meaning of the phrase "in a new light"?). The maypole is not only, as some have suggested, a phallic symbol; it is, rather, a symbol of the flames of the new Need Fire for the year to come soaring up to the heavens. And the Morris dancers with their staves or wands, they are the guardians of the Need Fire, bringing home the sacred wood from the forest on May Day morning.
So, it is a time for rejoicing. It is a time for sharing. It is a propitious time for new beginnings - which may well include courtship and marriage, but can also refer to any field of human endeavour.
For our meditation on this occasion, we shall accompany the guardians of the flame into the forest on their search for the sacred trees.
Prepare yourself for meditation in the usual way. Sit comfortably and relaxed. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths to cleanse your body and mind of everyday cares and concerns.
You are sitting on the ground at the edge of a small village, with a small group of companions. Including yourself, there are nine: the mystical three times three. It is a pleasant evening in late spring; the trees are almost in full leaf, blossoms and flowers are abundant. There is a slight chill in the air, but you are wearing a warm cloak. The other people that you can see about the village are wrapped up warmly, too: they must do without their fires tonight. One by one, as each family finishes its evening meal, the fires are extinguished, until there is only one left: the great Need Fire, which you can see still burning, through the open doors of the communal meeting hall.
The Sun sinks behind the hills and the light begins slowly to fade. You and your companions get up, and begin your walk to the forest, across field and moorland.
It is almost dark as you reach the edge of the forest. You look back towards the village. The last flicker of red flame disappears as the Need Fire itself is extinguished; You can no longer see anything of the village in the gathering gloom.
Go into the forest. Tread carefully, for it is difficult to see your way. A gentle breeze that earlier stirred the air has now dropped to nothing. There is silence; no sounds, except the footfalls of yourself and your companions on the leaf strewn forest floor.
Each one of you is charged with finding a particular one of the nine sacred trees. It may be willow, rowan, yew, oak, birch, hazel, holly, hawthorn or elder.1 Which one is yours? Keep a clear image of it in your mind; and remember that in the ever darkening wood it is scent and feel that will guide you more than your eyesight.
One of your companions stops, having found the tree he is seeking. You and the others continue. One by one, others drop out, until, at last, you find yourself by your own tree. You stop; the remaining members of the group continue onwards, out of your sight.
Embrace your tree; feel the texture of its bark, sense the living energy rising up through the trunk into the branches above.
It is too dark now to make your way back to the village in safety; you must wait here until first light. Sit down on the ground with your back to your tree and wrap your cloak around you.
As it becomes fully dark, the silent forest springs once again into life. You hear a rustling, as of small animals moving in the undergrowth. In the branches above you, an owl hoots.
You will not sleep tonight. Tune in, instead, to your inner thoughts. Tonight, and the day that follows, are a propitious time for new beginnings. What is your desire at this time? What project can you put in hand now, so that it will flourish and prosper? Let the ideas come to you.
Though the nights are short at this time of year, it is still many hours before you can detect the first glimmering of grey light through the branches of the trees above you. You get up, and you can hear your companions moving, too, for they are not far away.
Break off a branch of your tree; a fair sized one that will make good fire, but one near to the ground that tree will not miss. You trim off the leaves and twigs, put the staff over your shoulder and set off. You meet your companions at the edge of the wood, and together head back towards the village.
In the hall of the Need Fire you assemble your nine branches of sacred wood. One of your number, the oldest, goes about the business of making flame. The new Need Fire for the coming year bursts into life just at the moment that the Sun rises over the eastern horizon.
One by one, the villagers come into the hall, each carrying a stick which they light as the Need Fire and then carry home to rekindle their own fires. Tired but elated, and looking forward to a day of celebrations, you make your own way home to a well deserved hot breakfast.
Finally, when you are ready, leave the village, and return to objective reality, in the place and the time where you started your meditation. Put your consciousness in the centre of your head, just behind your eyes; and when you are ready, open your eyes.
Take a few hours, or a few days, to absorb the significance of this meditation. If you wish, you may repeat the meditation several times during the period around the Festival concerned.
Note 1: Authorities differ
regarding the actual identities of the nine sacred trees;
the list given here is just one version.