Legends and Lore of Beltane

The Annual Beltane Fire Festival
Modern Pagans celebrate Beltane each year round the world. Roberto Ricciuti / Getty Images

In many cultures, there are different legends and lore surrounding the Beltane season - after all, it's a time that marks fire and fertility, and the return of new life to the earth. Let's look at some of the magical stories about this spring celebration.

Like Samhain, the holiday of Beltane is a time when the veil between the worlds is thin. Some traditions believe that this is a good time to contact the spirits, or to interact with the Fae.

Be careful, though -- if you visit the Faerie Realm, don't eat the food, our you'll be trapped there, much like Thomas the Rhymer was!

Some Irish dairy farmers hang a garland of green boughs over their door at Beltane. This will bring them great milk production from their cows during the coming summer. Also, driving your cattle between two Beltane bonfires helps protect your livestock from disease.

The pious Puritans were outraged by the debauchery of Beltane celebrations. In fact, they made Maypoles illegal in the mid 1600's, and tried to put a halt to the "greenwood marriages" that frequently took place on May Eve. One pastor wrote that if "tenne maiden went to set (celebrate) May, nine of them came home gotten with childe."

According to a legend in parts of Wales and England, women who are trying to conceive should go out on May Eve -- the last night of April -- and find a "birthing stone", which is a large rock formation with a hole in the center.

Walk through the hole, and you will conceive a child that night. If there is nothing like this near you, find a small stone with a hole in the center, and drive a branch of oak or other wood through the hole -- place this charm under your bed to make you fertile.

If you go out at sunrise on Beltane, take a bowl or jar to gather morning dew.

Use the dew to wash your face, and you're guaranteed a perfect complexion. You can also use the dew in ritual as consecrated water, particularly in rituals related to the moon or the goddess Diana or her counterpart, Artemis.

In the Irish Book of Invasions, it was on Beltane that Patholan, the first settler, arrived on Ireland's shores. May Day was also the date of the defeat of the Tuatha de Danaan by Amergin and the Milesians.

Bridget Haggerty of Irish Culture and Customs says, "In one account, a procession of "May Boys", dressed in white shirts adorned with colorful ribbons tied in knots, led what was known as a garland procession through the neighborhood. At the head of the parade was an elected May King and Queen. At each stop, they would ask for funds to help defray the cost of the May Day party to be held later. Before 1820, there are records of great May Pole celebrations in Dublin. In addition to dancing and drinking, the pole was often greased and a prize offered to anyone who could climb to the top. Other revelries included a wide assortment of sporting events, including foot races, hopping races, sack races, and wrestling. Dance competitions were also held and very often, the coveted prize was a cake."

Babies conceived at Beltane are considered a gift from the gods. They were sometimes referred to as "merry-begots", because the mothers were impregnated during Beltane's merrymaking.

In Cornwall, it's traditional to decorate your door on May Day with boughs of hawthorn and sycamore. Ben Johnson of Historic UK writes about the other Cornish custom of the 'Obby 'Oss: "May Day traditions in southern England include the Hobby Horses that still rampage through the towns of Dunster and Minehead in Somerset, and Padstow in Cornwall. The horse or the Oss, as it is normally called is a local person dressed in flowing robes wearing a mask with a grotesque, but colourful, caricature of a horse."

Eating a special oatcake called a bannock or a Beltane cake ensured Scottish farmers abundance of their crops for the year.

The cakes were baked the night before, and roasted in embers on a stone.