Thursday, April 30, 2009

Are You SURE it's Beltane?

Blessings, Darlings!

For readers who are NOT neo-pagans, Beltane is a Pagan holiday. Beltane has Celtic roots. It is unabashedly a fertility festival.

Most folks (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) celebrate it May 1st, even going so far as to call it MayDay or MayEve, if the celebrate the night before. Therein lies what I see as a problem.

This problem was pointed out to me, years ago, on the Pagan Path Yahoo group by my buddy Red Deer. He posted about how he uses local flora and fauna to determine the day of the 'cross quarter festivals' - Samhain, Imbolg, Beltane, and Lughnasadh) rather than using the Julian calendar or by using the midpoints in the astronomically determined holidays (the solstices and the equinoxes [equini????]). After all, our paleopagan ancestors did NOT use the Julian calendar, nor the Gregorian calendar. They used nature to determing High Days.

Neopagans like to think that we are all so much more tied into nature than the rest of humanity. Nice illusion, I guess. In practice, most of us look to the printed calendar to see when the dark, new and full moons are rather than watching the sky, and set our holidays by the dates on the page.

It's not even like we don't know how the paleopagans set the dates for their 'cross quarter' high days. Most of them are older ones, based on nomadic herding in Europe rather than agriculture and settled villages. Samhain was the finally harvest - that is, when folks culled the herds down to the ones they were willing to feed over the winter. Thus, it was held after all the animals and people had gotten to where they overwintered. They were out of the mountains, they might have moved somewhat south as well.

When did they leave the mountains? I'm not sure what their cue was. I'm going to make a SWAG and say that they moved following the killing frost. I don't know how long it took for them to get to where they overwintered, either. In Ireland it wouldn't have been a really long period.

There would be side effects of using nature to determine the dates of the high days. First - they were different each year. They would NOT handily fit on a calendar. Second - they would be different practically tribe-by-tribe, as different locations would have the killing frost on different days. Might Samhain practically be at Yule in some locations some years? Sure, not that it mattered - it's not like Yule is a Celtic holiday. Yes, the Beaker People (protoPicts) noted the winter solstice, but nomadic tribes like the early Celts didn't - you need, oh, stone circles and such to note astrological events. Those things came later.

So, for me, I celebrate Samhain 3 days after the killing frost in my area. The 3 days is ONLY to give me time to make food/offerings/etc, maybe fast, and do some special visualizations and such for the ritual. I'm SWAGing that the ancient ones would have had to prep, too, after they got to winter quarters. I use the 3 day rule for all the cross quarter holidays, BTW.

Imbolg is all about ewes birthing lambs. I base this on friends who raise sheep in my area who tell me when their sheep start birthing.

Beltane was traditionally held when the leaves of the hawthorn trees were the size of squirrel's ears. So you'd have to know what your local hawthorn trees looked like, and the size of your local squirrels' ears!

Lughnasadh ... well. First harvest, when the barley was ripe. It was celebrated by horse races, horse trading, games of skill. So, I either use county/state fairs in my area to note the date of this, OR if I'm feeling more Wiccan than Celtic Reconstructionist, then it's all about when my garden starts to produce zucchini and tomatoes. In Illinois the county and state fairs were a GREAT match for my garden. Here in Maryland the fairs are later in the year, so it doesn't work as well. I DO wish I knew some local barley farmers, that would rock for making my own beer as well as helping me tune into the same cues the ancient ones did.

And all of this begs the question that aniraangel and I have been discussing on Twitter - how do European customs transfer to neopagans living south of the equator? Or, even, in equitorial areas - no frost to determine Samhain if I lived in Miami!

Neopaganism is new enough (I'm leaving out the Romantic Era Mesopaganism of the 19th century for now) that I don't know if many folks have examined that. I'm wondering if Christianity is different in Oz and Brazil and Sri Lanka where the liturgical cycle is either at odds with the local conditions or if there isn't really much of a cycle at all. Has anyone examined THAT? Seems to me that the field is ripe to see if evolution of religion in those circumstances is different than it is in areas where liturgical cycle and seasonal cycle match.

As always, more questions here than answers. Y'all have any hints for me?

Catch you later!



  1. I'm going to confess I do use astrological dates, but not really out of laziness.

    For one, a lot of the traditional signs are hard to spot around here. And I probably wouldn't know a hawthorn tree if I ran into it. The weather down here in Australia has been insane for years and my summer roses still bloom sometimes right into winter.

    We have hot spells and cold spells, unexpected rain followed by months of dry... there's just no reasoning with the weather, and I may not celebrate at all if I didn't use astrological dates.

    I do track the moon visually, most months, though. Am I forgiven? ;)

  2. I am celebrating Beltane on May 7th this year due to illness and work schedules. I'm not tripping about it.

  3. I'm loving that you have been discussing it here and twitter (like when you asked which hemisphere someone on space or near Equator would observe).
    I'm not a witch, I'm hellenic reconstructionist, but we still have this argument even among us who follow the polis/city more than the pagan/farms. I live in Brazil and I like to follow the Greek calendar, but some friends think I'm wrong by celebrating the Persephone gather with Demeter when she is teorically in the underworld around here in our country (instead of thinking in terms of Greece).
    Since you asked, the Christian church here in Brazil follows Rome. You can see it by Easter, for example, which happens in March/April, and we only have Spring on September/October. So, if they keep the calendar from where they came, why can't us?

  4. Oh, no question we can do whatever we choose. But I think that our choices will make substantial differences in our experiences. Not better or worse experieces, just different. To use Christianity as an example, since as you point out they keep the same calendar, Lent is going to be a different experience in the Northern Hemisphere where it hits when food stores are getting low but the land is getting green verses in the Southern Hemisphere were it's the time of the harvest!

    And it might well be different for Hellenic Recons than for some other groups. Your Gods and Goddesses have such strong ties to the land they walked, after all!

    I mostly wonder for those who say that they are part of a 'nature religion'. If a general neopagan says s/he is in a nature religion, it seems to me that for them to be consistent that they'd need to work with their local nature and its cycles.

    Frondly Fern

  5. We don't have Hawthorne here :) I celelbrate Valborg on April 30 because:

    1) It's a family tradition to celebrate it on that date

    2) Up here, that's when Spring has truly arrived. There are still lambs being born and the snow only started to melt for real two weeks ago.

    I'm going to a community ritual with my group on that day this year :)

  6. I'm sort of in the camp with your friend Reddeer. As far as I am concerned the 8 sabbat wheel is comprised of 2 different cycles.
    the cross quarters with changes on 'earth', the quarters with changes in the heavens. The latter are pretty specific as far as time and date, the former, well, whenever the specific triggers happen.
    One could use the main quarter days as a beginning of a day count for fixing the dates of the cross quarters, much the same way Easter is figured.
    Beltane and may day aren't necessarily the same. May day is of course may eve, but that really doesn't apply to the time of Beltane. Not all northern Europeans celebrated at the same times for the same reasons,or the same way, nor did all celtic folks.