Thursday, 1 May 2014

It's Beltane

I named the first book of my Celtic Fervour Series The Beltane Choice because in it my main female character, Nara of the Selgovae, has a choice to make by the coming Beltane eve. She has been tasked with leaving the nemeton she had thought to grow old in as a priestess and must instead find a man to be a hearth husband to; a man who will father a son who will become a leader of his peoples. 

Though, what does Beltane mean? 

Beltane, the end of spring festival, is celebrated about half way between the Vernal equinox and the Summer Solstice and traditionally marked the arrival of the summer. Like its counterpart at the opposite end of the year, Samhain (which heralded winter) Beltane is one of the larger and more important festivals. If you have clear skies and want to follow the signs in the heavens, you can watch for the group of stars named the Pleiades when it rises just before dawn (sunrise) at Beltane and at Samhain when the stars rise at sunset.

Beltane heralds the world coming into the ‘Light part’- summer- whereas Samhain marks the coming into the ‘Dark part’- winter. Since our winter has been very lacking in snow and hard frosts (unusual in north-east Scotland) it’s hard to believe we’ve had that dark part of the year, except with regard to the dreariness of dull days of mist and rain - of which we’ve had more than plenty. Warmer days will be most welcome. The concept of the sun returning to rule over the land provides a great image. The tiredness of the spirit is lifted with the thought of better, sunnier days and celebrating a festival usually has its own cheeriness. A summer renewal is what the spirit needs to revive energy levels. In lands where the sun doesn’t shine for long periods or where cloud cover makes for what is termed SAD/ lack of sunlight deficiency it’s a wonderful festival to celebrate rejuvenation and look towards the light.

Building of Beltane fire features in my novel The Beltane Choice, the Celts paying homage to Bel (sun god) to bless and protect the tribe. By lighting fires in strategic rows for their animals to be herded through, it was a plea for Bel to protect their animals over the coming season and for them to be fertile before the summer grazing period began. The fires also burn away the blackness of winter and the warmth from the flames emulates what is to come from the summer sunshine.

It’s claimed that household fires would be extinguished and relit from the Beltane bonfires- though how old that tradition is, is an interesting one to postulate. The eve of Beltane is one of the times of ‘no time’, when the veils between the worlds of the living and the dead, the other time at Samhain. The Celts do appear to have been very superstitious people and the belief was that spirits could travel between the worlds during the transition periods before midnight of Beltane and Samhain. Rowan was used at the threshold for protection from wandering spirits.

Beltane daytime celebrations, dancing around the maypole and other festive events became popular- the flower garlands a sign of the blossoming plant life and a show that the earth was waking up from the long winter. 

Here's a little bit from The Beltane Choice, on the eve of Beltane when preparations are being made: 

Four days later, she still felt alone in amongst a steady stream of Brigantes from other settlements who arrived for the Garrigill Beltane festivities. Around her happy women prepared the Beltane victuals. Normally a cheerful time for Celtic tribes, it marked the coming of better weather, into summer and longer days, the time when the cattle were sent out after the purification rites to graze in the far fields, away from the winter feeding and closer protection around the settlement.

Tension and excitement built throughout the day as down in the lower fields, close to the riverside, the warriors prepared the large bonfire stacks of wood. They laid bonfires in two long lines, a walkway between them. Through the fire-lit walkway the farmers would drive the cattle, in a symbol of belief that forcing the beasts through the Beltane fires would protect them from disease, purify them and would keep them healthy throughout the coming months–fertility abounding in beast…and man.

Fertility and a new beginning, a happy time for most of the women, but not for her. After the purification rituals, feasting and dancing over, the women of the tribe would slip off with their chosen lover to find a quiet spot.

As the day progressed, the prophecy lay heavy on her heart. She wanted only to make love to Lorcan. He was the one man whose touch had stirred her desires, and melted the bones now telling her that her son should indeed be conceived that night, and that Swatrega’s premonition would be fulfilled. But how could it happen? Lorcan had not returned to Garrigill. Brennus–soon to be her husband–was expected to be chosen by her, since he had returned as the sun moved overhead in the clear sky. As part of the rites, the officiating druid would expect her to be at Brennus’s side…all through the eve and into the night.

Happy Beltane to you.

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