[Editor’s Note: this essay includes instructions for the inclusion of a bonfire in Beltaine and handfasting ceremonies. Be certain to observe the law in your area, and practice common sense when employing fire in any capacity.]
Fire: the spark of life, the flame of inspiration, and the source of warmth for humanity. Since the dawn of time, bonfires have been an honored tradition for special celebrations and for ensuring the security of crops and food and human fertility and health.
The element of Fire corresponds with the color red and the southern quarter. (The runes used by the Norsemen were commonly painted red.) Fire represents the life-giving Sun, ambition, inspiration and destruction of what is no longer necessary. The elemental creature of Fire is the salamander, the mythical lizard that lives within the blaze. The astrological signs that are associated with Fire are Aries, Leo and Sagittarius.
Beltaine In Ancient Times
The ancient Druids and Celts shared a profound acceptance of birth, death and rebirth. Fire creates, destroys and regenerates life: the continual cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
The ancient Celts collected bones gathered from animal hunts throughout the year to burn in large fires to ward away evil spirits that could impede the hunts of animals in the following year. Additionally, the ancient Druid priests of the Celts honored oak trees, which were regarded as sacred. Huge bonfires of oak branches were lit on hilltops to give strength to the sun god Bel to bless their fields with bountiful crops. The Druids worshipped Bel in the spring by sacrificing crops, animals, and sometimes humans. The fire built of dead animals and oak trees were known as bone fires (which evolved into bonfire). The bones lingered after the fires had faded.
Bel was not just the Celtic god of the sun, but also of purification, fertility, crops, and success. He symbolizes the elements of fire and health and is closely connected to the Druids. Bel is known as elsewhere Belenus, Belinos, or Beli Maur (Wales.)
The Celts held bonfires during the major Sabbat of Beltaine. Bonfires were significant because the Sun was at its strongest, and because they represented the strength of love between the Goddess and God. The entire community shared the responsibility to ensure the bonfires were well maintained and safe.
The Celts celebrated both Beltaine (or May Day) and the preceding evening known as Walpurgis Night. A popular custom was to light a fire on May Eve and allow it to burn until sundown. Once the fire was blazing, a piece of soldering wood was carried to the homes in the village, offering prosperity for the coming months. Beltaine is one of the fire festivals that most honors the fertility power that is in all life. Both night and day were associated with witchcraft, spells and success with fertility rites. Magic, music and romance were alive in the air. Cows and sheep were led from the barns to graze in the fields. Two bonfires were then lit and the animals were led between the fires. The belief was that the fires would purify the cows and sheep of any illnesses and humors and increase their fertility and health. Some newlywed couples of the villages would also leap over smaller bonfires or dance to encourage fertility for the newlyweds.
Today, Wiccans, Pagans, Neopagans and common folk still use bonfires to celebrate Beltaine. Bonfires are an integral part of the honoring of our ancestors’ traditions and festivals. The magic lives on today with the same enthusiasm experienced by our ancestors long ago.
Bonfires are created in large open areas by the piling of branches of certain trees. Colorful ribbons are wrapped around the wood. Nine different types of wood are used for the bonfires: birch, oak, hazel, rowan, common hawthorn, willow, fir, apple and vine.
Each of the nine woods is burned for the distinct properties that it represents. Birch and oak are used for the Goddess and God. Hazel and rowan are burned for knowledge, wisdom and life. Common hawthorn is burned for purity and faery magick. Willow and fir represent birth, death and rebirth. Apple and vine represent love and family.
A Handfasting Bonfire
Here are some tips on how to include bonfires as part of your own or someone else’s handfasting ceremony.
First, check that you have plenty of open space for a bonfire. Also check that the location where you are holding a bonfire permits open fires. Put someone who is reliable and trustworthy in charge of the bonfire.
Do not use accelerants such as lighter fluid. Use the traditional elements of fire: fuel, timber and kindling. Get help if you are uncertain of how to begin the fire and maintain the fire once it is lit. A bonfire can become huge and out of control. Keep a bucket of water, a bucket of sand and a fire extinguisher nearby in case the fire becomes too wild.
Make sure that your guests know that children should not play near the fire. The only element that should go near the fire is wood. Handfasting bonfires are sacred, so paper and trash should not be added to the fire. Make sure as well that all rubbish is cleared away at the end of the ceremony to respect the earth.
When the ceremony is over, the fire tender is responsible for ensuring the fire burns out entirely before leaving. The fire tender can either wait all night long or use sand and dirt to extinguish the fire. Keep some ashes from the fire to store in a jar and use later to bless the home or in other ritual workings.
A Modern Beltaine Bonfire
For this ritual the following items are required:
A bonfire set ahead of time with someone in charge of tending it
A May Queen
A King of the Forest
Drums and other instruments
The group gathers round the fire, with the May Queen and King on opposite sides. The High Priest or Priestess should welcome everyone with the following words:
Beltaine is here! This is a time when the earth is fertile and full. Long ago, our ancestors planted their fields at Beltaine. The fields that lay fallow for months are warm and ripe. The soil that was dormant for the winter is now ready for seeds. Earth is awakening and ready, and this is a season of love, passion and fire.
At this point, the fire starter should begin lighting the bonfire if it is not lit already. The High Priest/ess continues:
As our fire grows, lighting up the night sky, the fire within us grows stronger. It is the fire of lust and passion, reflecting the fertile earth. Tonight, the God emerges from the forest. He is known by many names: Pan, Herne, Cernunnos, the Green Man. He is the God of the Forest and tonight he shall capture the maiden, the May Queen. She is the Queen of the May, Aphrodite, Venus and Cerridwen. She is the Goddess of the fields and flowers. She is Mother Earth herself.
As the High Priest welcomes the God of the Forest and the May Queen, they should each enter the circle.
The High Priest says: Bring fertility to the land! Let the hunt begin!
At this point, the May Queen and the God of the Forest begin the chase, running sunwise round the circle, weaving in and around the other participants. They run three times around the circle, and then slip away at the last second. The drummers begin drumming slowly then the drumming gets faster. When the May Queen and the God finally stop running, the drumming stops abruptly.
The High Priest says: Fire and passion, love and life, now together as one!
At this point the May Queen says to the God of the Forest: I am the earth, the womb of all creation. Within me, new life grows each year. Water is my blood and air my breath and fire my spirit. I offer you honor and shall create new life within you.
The God of the Forest says to the May Queen: I am the rutting stag, the seed, and the energy of life I am the oak that grows in the woods. I give you honor and shall create new life within you.
The May Queen and the God of the Forest kiss passionately. Then the High Priest calls out: The earth is once more growing new life within! We shall be blessed with abundance this year!
Beltaine is about revelry, fertility and life. Spring is about new beginnings, first buds, fresh growth. It is also about the symbolic union of the May Queen and the King of the Forest. The meaning is woven into the symbolism of bonfires at Beltaine.
- How to hold a Beltane Bonfire Rite in a group http://www.paganwiccan.about.com/beltanemayday/ht/BeltaneBonfire.htm
- Handfasting Bonfires http://www.paganwiccan.about.com/handfastings/p/HndfstgBonfires.htm
- Conway, D.J. Maiden, Mother, Crone. The Three Faces of the Goddess. Woodbury, Minnesota. Llewellyn Publications, 2008.
- Green, Marian. A Witch Alone. Thirteen months to master natural magic. London. Thorsons. 2002.
[Heddy Johannesen is a Celtic Faery Wiccan writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her website is http://lady-spiderwitch.blogspot.com.]