The thirtieth of April is traditionally the eve of Beltane, the rebirth of summer when, according to Borrobil, the strange little man of William Croft Dickinson’s classic tale, the dark king of winter must be defeated by the white king of summer within the circle of stones. Or perhaps you think of the fire festival where, on Beltane Eve all the hearthfires were extinguished, only to be relit from the Beltane Fire.
Beltane holds some special memories for me. If we took the number 77 bus into the city when I was a girl we passed through Kirkstall and beside a very strange hill… almost a pyramid from that angle of approach. My grandfather told me the tales of the beacons that would be lit as signal fires across the land, and of the Beltane flames atop them where the coming of summer was celebrated and invoked in an act of sympathetic magic.
The ashes and flames were said to protect, in some places cattle would be driven between the fires to keep them free from disease, in others maidens would leap them or use their ashes for divination… there are many tales and legends, many customs whose echoes remain at Beltane.
For some it is the Maypole and the May Queen that take precedence at this season… clearly a representation of the dynamic energies, wrapped around with the woven ribbons of a more fluid, feminine force. God and Goddess, male and female… light and dark. It is the time of the Wild Hunt, and it would take a book to trace the extent of that legend, known by so many names. The time too when the Queen of the Fae leaves the hollow hills, where she waits for the unwary and, if she can meet their eyes, takes them to that Otherworld that is her home… and which will become theirs…
Beltane is also Walpurgis Night and there are legends and tales of witches in folklore.. though the name derives from Saint Walpurga, a English nun and missionary to the Franks… oddly enough, the earliest known representation of the saint has her holding three stalks of corn and it is thought she became associated with the Corn Mother… not inappropriate at this season of burgeoning life.
In France tomorrow the muguet will perfume the streets as small bunches of lily of the valley are given to loved ones to bring joy and good luck… a custom I miss. I still have the pressed flowers from the first I was ever given some 35 years ago.
Regardless of tradition, region or legend, it is a liminal time, a fertile time, and a time of magic that is in the very hills and blossoms. Across these isles many traditions remain… from the Padstow ‘Oss to the Edinburgh Fire Festival (which it is a shame I will miss by a week…), to the Morris and the Maypoles that still grace may mornings in our towns and villages. Every custom seems to celebrate light and life.
Of course, Beltane Eve has another meaning for me… though still one of new life and joy; for once upon a time I started Beltane Eve with the corn gold hair and coal dark eyes of my newborn youngest son in my arms.
Images of Mr Fox , the fire dance that appears in several of our books.