Hedge Riding: The Art of the Hedge Witch

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Beltane Rites and Lore

Beltane is the start of summer, at the opposite end of the Wheel of the Year to Samhain, Summer's End. Cattle would be brought to the higher ground and summer pastures, tended by the women and children while the men would work the farms. In Irish Gaelic it is Beltaine, in Welsh it is Calan Mai, and in Scottish Gaelic Bealtainn. It is the other time when the veils between the worlds are thin, and the Fair Folk can be seen wandering the land in abundance. By the calendar, Beltane begins at dusk on the 30th April and runs to dusk on the 1 May. If celebrating by the local flora, it is when the hawthorn, or May is out in flower. In the UK, the first weekend in May is still celebrated with a bank holiday, perhaps as a remnant of this very important Celtic Festival.

Fire is an important part of this festival, for Beltane is often translated as "the fires of Bel", who was a sun deity. All household fires were extinguished on the eve of Beltane, and then fires were lit on hilltops at dawn, similar to but in reverse at Samhain, where fires were lit at sunset.[1] It was important to not give away any fire from your household at Beltane, for your luck would soon run out. In Ireland, the focus on fire and hilltops shifted from Tlachtga and Tara to Uisnech.  It is said that the first Beltane fire was lit at Uisnech by the Druid, Mide, whose name means "the centre". Beltane is a hinge for the world to open and change, as at Samhain. [2] In Scotland and Wales, the Beltane bonfires were made from nine woods collected and put together by nine men, and called "needfires". [3] Cattle were driven between two bonfires on this day before heading out to their summer pastures. They were said to pass close enough to the fires so that their hair might be singed. The heat and smoke of the bonfires might have been enough to cause any parasites to fall off the animals that may have taken up residence in the winter quarters. Fire is also an important part of the Beltane ceremonies today, as at Edinburgh with the Beltane Fire Society putting on a spectacular event every year, as previously mentioned.

         The growing power of the sun, symbolised by earthly fires, is balanced out by the importance of water during this festival. The power of morning dew still carries through modern times, where early in the morning on May Day women bathe their faces with dew for beauty. It was said that going barefoot in the dew of a May morn stopped feet from becoming sore, and men who washed their hands with dew were the most skilled at creating knots and nets for fishing.[4]

The two obby oss or hobby horse characters of Padstow in Cornwall (Blue Ribbon obby oss and Old Obby Oss) have great processions, and if they can be seen to "capture" young ladies in the crowd under the large skirt of the costume, this means that the women will bear children in the future. The oss visits the sick too, and children can go up to it to touch the skirt for luck while "Teazers" coax the oss forward. The origins of this procession are lost to the mists of time, but some see it as the symbolic horse that represents the giver of sovereignty to the land in one of the guises of the Earth Goddess. In Scotland, it was said that at Beltane witches went about the land as hares to take their share from the cows. Therefore, tar was placed behind the cow's ears and on the tail and the house was hung with a rowan cross. If you had churned your butter and made your cheese before sunrise, the faeries would be kept away from the farm for the rest of the year.[5]

Beltane is the season of the fairy tree, the hawthorn. It is warned not to approach a lone hawthorn in a wild place, for it is surely a fairy tree, a portal to the Otherworld. Thomas the Rhymer fell asleep under a hawthorn on May Day and was taken away (willingly) by the Queen of the Faeries. Garlands and wreaths of hawthorn can decorate the outside of homes and gardens, but you must never bring hawthorn into the house, or it will bring bad luck. Rowan was often used to create charms for the home and for cattle, made into a cross which was supposed to deter the faeries' interest. Creating a May bush seems to have been one of the many pastimes, and associated with the faeries:

"Youth's folks now flocken in everywhere
To gather May baskets and smelling brere
And home they hasten the posts to dight
And all the Kirk pillars ere daylight,
With hawthorn buds and sweet eglantine
And garlands of roses and sops in wine…
 Tho to the green wood thy speeden them all,
To fetchen home May with their musical;
And home they bringen in a royal throne,
Crowned as a king; and his queen attone
Was Lady Flora, on whom did attend
A fair flock of faeries, and a fresh bend
Of lovely nymphs. (O that I were there,
To helpen the ladies their May-bush bear!)" [6]

 The maypole is a traditional site at this time of year throughout Britain. It might be a representation of the World Tree, the axis mundi, and the ribbons woven into it through the dancers below symbolising our earthly dance in this life. Much is made of the phallic nature of the maypole, however I think the axis mundi concept, especially when considered alongside the Celtic bile and its importance, far more likely. Morris Men and Women come out in droves during Beltane, and many village pubs will have them dancing in the garden throughout the day. Where I live in Suffolk, a "side" (a group of Morris Dancers) dance up the sun on the seashore at Beltane and the Spring Equinox, greeting the sun as it rises from the waters of the North Sea.

Beltane is also said to be the time of lovers, an ancient Pagan time of fertility. Gwyn ap Nudd, the Welsh King of the Underworld, battles his rival, Gwythyr at this time for the hand of the beautiful maiden, Creiddylad.[7] In Wales and the Isle of Man this was re-enacted by the locals as a battle between winter and summer, with summer finally emerging victorious. The more modern Pagans and Druids see Beltane as the time when the Goddess and God unite in sexual intercourse, as evidenced by the fertility of the land awakening and blossoming all around at this time of year. Historian Ronald Hutton has humorously criticised this interpretation of Beltane and its associations with sexual intercourse which seems to be the focus on many modern-day Beltane celebrations:

"The behaviour of young people on May Eve and May Day had thus become a cliché of scandal and titillation alike. It took until the late twentieth century, and the patient labours of demographic historians, to reveal that there was in fact no rise in the number of pregnancies at this season, in or out of marriage. The boom in conceptions came later in the summer. In practice early modern people seem to have found the night of 30 April generally too chilly, and the woods generally too damp." [8]

To go out a-Maying was to collect gifts in return for branches of flowering trees or other greenery. One of the more popular songs concerning this is "The Night Song" which developed in the nineteenth century:

Remember us poor Mayers all,
And thus we do begin
To lead our lives in righteousness
Or else we die in sin.
We have been rambling all this night
And almost all this day
And now return back again
We have brought you a bunch of May.
A bunch of May we have brought you,
And at your door it stands,
It is but a sprout,
But it's well budded out,
By the work of our Lord's hands.

This song was adapted and popularised by the Canadian singer and musician, Loreena McKennitt as "The Mummer's Dance", where it reached Number 18 on the Billboard Top 100 chart in March, 1998. This brought the antiquated custom into the eye of many of the general public, which in the author's personal opinion, is a good thing. In a variation of the tradition of Maying, different boughs could symbolise different things when left outside by a young man courting a possible love.

Beltane is a liminal time, a time between the worlds. Beware of walking out and about on Beltane, for you never know who you may meet. It may be a fairy in disguise, especially out in the wild places or near barrows or ancient tumuli. I have met with the Fair Folk during the full moon at Beltane, and it has been a transformative experience. These encounters are not to be taken likely, for the Fair Folk are not like us, and yet similar to us in some ways. They live on a different level, and have different concerns which may or may not run alongside our own agenda. The Irish tend to avoid contacting the faeries, but as Hedge Druids we may seek them out, with respect and not a little caution. Beltane eve is the perfect time, or the nearest full moon to Beltane. Be sure to not carry any iron on your person, or you may find your quest unsuccessful! Research all that you can on fairy lore before undertaking such a quest, and familiarise yourself with the etiquette involved. The Fair Folk can often be found dressed all in green, with green hair, skin, eyes - everything! One tale goes that the Green Woman of the Fairy Knoll called all the women from the village to her on the eve of Beltane, and some went, and some did not. Those that went came home with the light of Fairy in their eyes, and were skilled weavers, with strong children and cattle, and were being wise beyond their years.

I wish you a very blessed Beltane!

[1]Hutton, Ronald, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 2001, Oxford University Press
[2]Kondratiev, Alexei Celtic Rituals: An Authentic Guide to Ancient Celtic Spirituality, 1998 The Collins Press
[3 Ibid.
[4]Freeman, Mara Kindling the Celtic Spirit,2001 Harper One
[5]Black, Ronald, The Gaelic Otherworld,2005
[6]Spenser, Edmund The poetical works of Edmund Spenser. In eight volumes. 1788
[7]Forest, Danu Gwyn ap Nudd: Wild god of Faery, Guardian of Annwfn, 2017 Moon Books 

[8]Hutton, Ronald Stations Of The Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 2001 Oxford University Press

Joanna van der Hoeven is a Druid, Witch, author and teacher. She has written several books on Druidry including the best-selling The Awen Alone: Walking the Path of the Solitary Druid. She has also written countless articles for Pagan magazines and websites, and spoken at conferences, fairs, festivals and more. Joanna is the co-founder of Druid College UK, which offers a three-year training programme, and she is also the director of her own dance company.

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  Joanna van der Hoeven is a Hedge Witch, Druid, and a best-selling author. She has been working in Pagan traditions for over 20 years. She is the Director of Druid College UK, helping to re-weave the connection to the land and teaching a modern interpretation of the ancient Celtic religion.  


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