If you mention the 31st of October to most people, it is not unusual for them to think of Halloween – the time when children are encouraged to dress up as wytches, ghosts and ghouls to go trick or treating.
This somewhat commercialised custom I felt was more at home in America but as each year passes, it appears to increase its popularity here in Australia as well. In fact, a number of years ago the makers of a particular Irish stout were encouraging their drinkers to celebrate “the dark month“. If I was living north of the equator, this would have made sense as Halloween is based on the ancient traditions of celebrating the Celtic Festival of the Dead, Samhain, and the approaching winter. Here in Australia, however, the 31st of October actually marks the start of summer, which the ancient Celts referred to as Bealtaine – hardly a “dark month”.
Despite the hemispheric differences, displays of Halloween merchandise, and even the stereotypical “orange” pumpkin (Kratos) to be carved into jack-o-lanterns, have made their way to Adelaide (regardless of the fact that pumpkins are an autumn/winter vegetable). Many supermarkets have endless displays of lollies in readiness to cash in.
For me, the 31st of October is and will always be Bealtaine (also spelt Beltane), taken from the Gaelic word meaning “Bel-fire”, referring to the sacred purification fires which the Druids lit on hilltops at this time of the year to herald the return of life and fertility to the land. This festival is named after the God of Light, Bel (also known as Beli or Balor).
One of the popular fertility symbols of Bealtaine, which can still be seen today in various parts of Britain, is the May Pole. People would dance around this phallic symbol, intertwining red (representing the feminine – menstrual blood) and white (the masculine – semen) ribbons. The circular steps of the dancers, coupled with the weaving ribbons, symbolised the spiral of life. However, most today dancers probably are not be aware that they are actually partaking in an ancient fertility ritual, caught up in the joy and fun of it all.
With the essence of Bealtaine being on fertility, couples would jump the fires in order to conceive. Others would jump to ensure that good luck, health and safe journeys for the coming year were bestowed upon them. Cattle were also driven through the ashes, or between two such fires to ensure a good supply of milk, and to banish winter infections, before taking them to the summer pastures.
While it is not always possible to light these sacred fires in Australia because of fire bans, it is possible to form other “fertility” rituals, such as planting flowers, shrubs and trees, to celebrate this height of the growing season. The fertility aspect can also include the fertility of the mind and spirit and therefore, Bealtaine can mark the learning of ideas and ways of self-improvement.
Occultist Aleister Crowley once said that every man and woman is a star. While focusing on the fertility theme of Bealtaine, we can take Crowley’s statement and reflect on our own sexuality – a subject still viewed with much taboo in today’s modern society. How much of our own sexuality is an expression of our own true selves, and how much do we allow to be manipulated and coerced by others? Do we use our own sexuality as a weapon to get what we want, or are we afraid to use it at all?
Coupled with sexuality is our perception of our body image. Do we like our physical bodies or, as if often the case, do we wish them to conform to some almost impossible standard set by media?
Our bodies are our temples, and although we may strive for a higher spiritual goal, we are still connected to the earthy plane. This connection is through our physical bodies, and Bealtaine seems to be the appropriate time to reclaim a happy relationship with our physical form.
Daniel Littlewood states:
When you love yourself – others will love you
Others will respect you
And when you choose
You not only enhance your own life
You send out energies that others,
In a sad place in their lives
Can reach out for,
And bring into their reality.