Ostara and Beltane
Ostara is the Vernal or Spring Equinox. It occurs when the Sun passes into the astrological sign of Aries, around the 20th or 21st of March each year. This is a time when day and night are equal in length. From this night the forces of light wax and the forces of darkness wane, but on this night they are equally balanced. Ostara is a between time, one of the eight portals of the seasons, during which we may more easily move from this world into the realms of Faerie. The traditions associated with this festival, surviving in the mainstream of Western culture, are those that have collected about the celebration of Easter.
The Celts called the equinox Alban Eiler, Light of the Earth. And, indeed, this is the time of the year when the Earth appears to glow with new life. Tender green leaves in the sunlight create a dazzlement like no other. Later the Saxons brought their Goddess Eostre to Britain. It is from Her name that we derive the word Easter. To the Saxons, the equinox was Ostara, the day of Lady Eostre, goddess of spring and new life. Eostre was first Eastre or ‘Radiant Dawn’ who was escorted by a rabbit or hare. From Her name derives ‘estrus’ the biological term for the time during which female animals are in heat and able to conceive young. One of the symbols of Ostara is the egg, the perfect container of new life. Anyone who has ever had the privilege of witnessing the miracle of a chick birthing itself from within its egg understands this symbol perfectly.
One of the traditions associated with Easter, and still flourishing today, is the custom of wearing new clothes. Wearing new clothes on Easter Day brought good luck for the coming year. Even today, many believe that the sun dances on Easter morning. As late as 1725, it was still the custom in some areas of Britain to be up before sunrise on Easter day, and go out into the fields, to see the sun dance. Often this event was viewed in the water of a sacred well or pool. One must inevitably connect such customs to the sunrise services practiced today by many Christian denominations.
Of all the sacred festivals, Beltane most horrified the Christian missionaries. The celebrations were unashamedly sexual in nature, which the monks found profoundly disturbing. Despite the fear of hellfire that the monks so forcefully people continued to revel in traditional ways on their beloved May Day. At last, the back bending work of planting was over. The long nights and worrisome days of assisting the sheep and cattle birth to their next generation were done. Everywhere flowers glowed in gay profusion; the high pastures were clothed in the greenery of spring. The hungry, cold, dark time was past; the Lunar Year of the Big Sun came.
On Beltane Eve, it was time to show the Mother of All Living and the All-Father exactly what was expected of them if the crops and cattle were to flourish. Our ancestors freely and enthusiastically undertook this sacred task and continued in their well condemned ‘sinful follies.' So harshly and unrelentingly did the Christians attack May Day customs that even the most innocent practices of the sacred day were eventually demonized. Maying, the tradition of going into the forests to pick Hawthorn flowers, is one of the customs that is today surrounded by superstitions and darkened with the curse of so-called bad luck. In 1579, it was still the practice to gather May Boughs and decorate homes and churches with the fragrant blossoms. However, the tide was beginning to turn and soon the May Day traditions, so long under attack, would begin to be lost or distorted beyond recognition. Beltane practices were linked to witchcraft and the common people began to be afraid to maintain their ancient and well loved traditions. By the early decades of the 1800’s, May Day, which had been associated with the faerys time out of mind, had
become in the popular imagination a day of great danger.
Those who had the power of the ‘evil eye’ were able to do greater harm during the Beltane season. The Hawthorn was the talisman against this ‘evil eye’. Even in these latter days, many still gather whitehorn to decorate the horns of their cattle on May Day. In ancient times, Beltane was the day on which the sheep and cattle were driven out of their winter quarters, away from their stalls and folds, up into the verdant pasturage of the surrounding hillsides. Here, tended by solitary herders, they would graze during the spring and summer, only returning at Samhain.
Cattle were to our ancestors what the Buffalo were to the Plains Indians of North America, what the Reindeer are to the Lapps. They depended on them for food, shoes and clothing, as well as bone and horn, out of which could be fashioned many beautiful and useful items. And they loved their cattle. The poor creatures we call cows today are merely pitiful shadows of the breeds kept by our forbearers. They were noble beasts that had never been inbred nor tinkered with, unlike our dairy cows and beef cattle, which today are sad, placidly domestic breeds that do little more
than eat and grow. If you have ever had the pleasure of seeing Highland Cattle or the smooth coated Irish Cattle, you will have a good idea of what those earlier breeds were like. In behavior, the Celtic cow acted more like a deer or a horse than any bovine species we have lately developed. They were still close to their wild heritage. The Tain opens a window on the past and shows us what the cattle were to the Irish. At the end of the Tain Bo Cuailnge, the Brown Bull of Cuailnge and Finnbhenach of the White-horn fight each other to the death. This battle is told in epic terms and gives those of us who read it today some idea of how our ancestors viewed these noble beasts.
Beltane is exactly opposite Samhain in the Celtic year. At Samhain, the cattle are brought in from the fields and culled. At Beltane, they are driven out to their summer pastures with their new calves at their sides. However, before they were free to luxuriate in their freedom, an indispensable rite had to be performed. On Beltane Eve, all of the fires throughout Celtica were extinguished. Each housewife then swept her hearth and laid the kindling for a new fire. All of the household went out into the fragrant spring night and gathered with their clans’ folk and neighbors on a nearby hill. There, just before dawn, the Druid lit the Beltane Fire. Beltane fires were lighted all over Western Europe and the Isles for centuries. Just before first light, on Beltane morn, fires blazed on every high hill throughout the Celtic world. What a sight that must have been! Thousands of fires were strewn across the lands, glittering like fallen stars, as far as the eye could see. As the sun rose, each housewife took some coals from the great fire. These coals were borne with great rejoicing into each home and with them the new hearth fires were soon set ablaze, each a daughter of the Beltane Fire. Later in the day, the
cattle and sheep were herded across the last coals of the great fire and only then, after they had been ritually cleansed and blessed, were they driven up into the summer pastures. In some areas, it was the custom to drive the beasts between the smokes of two fires, rather than herding them across the coals. However, this may have been a much later development, after the Christian missionaries had terrorized our ancestors into fearing the element of fire.
There is no archaeological proof that our Celtic ancestors were firewalkers. However, most anthropologists believe that the Celts are of Indo-European stock, that the Celts and the peoples of India are cousins. It is without question that firewalking is a time-honored tradition in India. One of the rituals still associated with Beltane is for couples to jump over the smoldering fire. This is believed to impart fertility. Anyone who has ever practiced firewalking knows that jumping over a smoking fire could never be as satisfying as dancing across the living coals. Considering all of the fire festivals our Celtic ancestors celebrated, it is very hard to
believe that they were not firewalkers. Of course, the missionaries would have done everything they could to wipe out the practice. After they managed that, they would have proceeded to wipe out any memory of the practice. We lost much of our ancient tradition at Mona around the year CE when Roman soldiers slaughtered the Druids of the Holy Isle and destroyed the Sacred Groves. No sooner had the Romans withdrawn from the Celtic Isles then the missionaries arrived. Any surviving traditions and customs were soon distorted beyond recognition. This, of course, does not prove that our ancestors were firewalkers, in logic one can never prove a positive with a negative, but it does speak to the issue of how it could be that they were firewalkers and we no longer remember it. While we are on the subject of fires and ancient Celtic customs, let us dispel the spurious notion that the
Druids frequently burned large numbers of people in huge wicker baskets that were woven into the shape of a giant man. This custom was reported by only one ancient source, Julius Caesar, who can hardly be called an unimpeachable scholar. He was busy trying to wipe the Druids out at that time and was constantly appealing to the people of Rome for more money to run his war. Accusations of human sacrifice reek of propaganda tactics. It takes a very long time to burn a human body. Even in our modern-day, technologically advanced crematoriums, it takes many, many hours to reduce a human body to charred bones and ashes. If these mass immolations were as common as Caesar would have us
believe, where are the mounds of bones and ashes, where is
the archaeological evidence? It simply does not exist.
There is evidence that individuals may have, on occasion, become human sacrifices. In 1983, the remains of at least two men and one woman were found in England in a Cheshire peat bog called Lindow Moss. One of these is the body of a young man. Except for a band of fox-fur on his left arm, he was naked. This body, which is now believed to date from the early Roman period, is considered by many archaeologists to be proof of ritual human sacrifice. The young man had suffered the ‘triple-death’. He had been struck on the head with an axe, and then garroted with a thin
cord. Finally, his throat was cut. We must, however, bear in mind that the multiple violences done to this man were uncommon. Furthermore, we have no idea why he was treated in this fashion. He may have been a criminal whose crimes had so outraged his community that his neighbors fell upon him and brought his life to a sudden, savage, and very definite end. Alternatively, he may have nobly volunteered to give his life as a ritual sacrifice for the preservation of his tribe. If that is the case, we should remember that the victim, in all probability, did not look upon the ritual of human sacrifice in the same way we do. It is easy to tar an entire
people with that brush today but do remember that the story of Abraham taking Isaac onto the Holy Mountain to sacrifice him is a clear indication that the Celts were not the only ancient peoples to practice human sacrifice. Even though it was an ancient Celtic custom, it is not our custom any longer and it is not one we have any interest in reviving.
You may wish to include a blessing on the cattle in your Beltane ritual. Few folk today have any relationship at all to cattle but we benefit everyday from their products. We wear leather shoes and coats. We drink milk and cream, eat cheeses, yogurt and ice cream and we seldom think of all the good things the kine provide for us. Bless the bulls, cows, and calves and remember our debt to them at Beltane.