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Beltane

We are already in April, which means the next big festival coming up in the wheel of the year is Beltane. This occurs from the very end of April and into the first two days of what we now call May. It is a very sacred time of year when most handfastings were said to have happened. It is also the time when the spring is in full bloom – flowers are springing up everywhere, the trees are bursting open. The world is alive again! Of course, this only applies to the northern hemisphere – the southern hemisphere is heading into the opposite direction of Samhain, the gateway to winter.

In the Celtic tradition, it is said that the two major festivals of the year are to celebrate the coming of summer and the onset of winter. Beltane in April/May and Samhain in October/November (both spelt a variety of ways) are the names given to these two seasonal ‘gateway’ celebrations or yearly indicators.

The Irish Gaelic word is ‘Bealtaine’ (pronounced B’yol-tinnuh; approximately rhyming with ‘winner’) is also the name for the month of May. The Scottish Gaelic word ‘Bealtuinn’ (pronounced b’yel-ten with the ‘n’ like ‘ni’ in ‘onion’) is said to mean May Day. The original meaning for the word ‘Beltane’ is Bel’s Fire, referring to the fire which is associated with the Celtic or Proto-Celtic God Bel, Belenus, Beli, Balar and Balor. These names for the God are said to trace back to the Middle-Eastern ‘Baal’ which means ‘Lord’.

Some people may equate the Gaulish-Celtic Cernunnos with the British-Celtic Bal, but they may just metaphorically be two sides of the same coin; Cernunnos is associated with animals and nature and also the underworld- somewhat equated to Pluto. Yet Bal was seen as the ‘bright one’- symbolic of the rays of the sun, fire and light. Although he was associated with the light and the sun rays, he was not strictly-speaking a sun god. The Celts were not said to be solar-oriented and their chosen word for the sun- ‘grian’- is a feminine noun and is Irish and Scottish Gaelic for ‘sun’. ‘Mór’ is a personalised name for the sun- for example in the phrase ‘Mór dhuit’ this means ‘May the sun bless you’. To some cultures, the sun was equated to God-status in terms of being masculine, but to the Celts, the sun was definitely feminine.

Bel-fires were lit on hilltops around settlements to celebrate the return of fertility and life to the world. In Pagan-age Ireland, no-one could light a Bel-fire until the High King had lit the first one of the evening on Tara Hill. In AD 433, Saint Patrick showed an acute form of symbolism when he lit a fire on Slane Hill, ten miles from Tara before the High King Laoghaire lit his. In this way, he couldn’t have made a more dramatic claim to usurping the spiritual beliefs and following of the entire island. St David is said to have made a similar historic gesture in Wales in the following century. An interesting aside to note is that in Danish, the word for a bonfire is actually ‘bål’. This is very close to the British ‘bel’.

Another feature of the Beltane festival in many lands is jumping over the fire. This is done by many different people in order to bring fertility into their lives in a variety of ways- perhaps to help conceive a child, bless a marriage, bring forth a creative spark or bless the crops for the coming year. Cows would also be led between two fires or over the ashes to ensure their milk yield flowed all year long. This symbolic gesture still happens at modern neo-Pagan festivals, especially at a handfasting ceremony. Many aspects of luck and success were associated with the ritual act of jumping the fire, so there were many reasons to do so.

On May 1st, the cattle would be taken off to their summer pastures by the children, women and herdsmen. There they would stay until Samhain or the beginning of winter. It is said that the same thing happens today on these same dates in the Alps and other parts of Europe.

The Irish and Scottish word for summer pasture is ‘áiridh’ and Doreen Valiente suggests in her book Witchcraft for Tomorrow that ‘there is just a chance that the name ‘Aradia’ is Celtic in origin’-thus connected to this Gaelic word. Aradia is said to be an Italian goddess, and many people who practice modern Wicca may venerate her as the goddess.

On Beltane eve, the usual limits put onto breaking Hawthorn tree branches or bringing them into the house is lifted. Sprigs of this magical tree would be cut especially for the festival. It would be entwined into altar dressings, put into natural headbands to wear during the ceremony and for adorning the house. Although it used to be just leaves by the time Beltane came around, in recent years the flowers have been out at least a couple of weeks before the festival occurred.

Fertility is a big feature in the Beltane festivities, along with unabashed promiscuity. Although these aspects are still celebrated now, many of the more promiscuous acts are performed in private, even over the Beltane celebrations, simply because of a combination of too many people around and not enough land to hide in. Woods feature dog walkers, general walkers and bicyclists all year around now, and the old ways are long since forgotten by town and city dwellers after the injection of Christianity into the country. Dancing around the Maypole, searching for nuts in the woods and staying up all night to watch the sunrise are all still things that are possible. Parliament in the UK actually made Maypoles illegal in 1644, but these returned with the Restoration. In 1661, a 134-foot Maypole was set up in the strand.

So even though the more, shall we say, fruitful activities are no longer celebrated by hiding away in the woods, there are still a few practices which happen even today. It may be that you hold a small circle with your working group, coven or friends, or you choose to simply celebrate this turning of the wheel alone.

Altars and Their Uses

Many people who practice paganism have an altar of some kind- even if that is not the intention.

A special place where you burn candles, maybe some incense, in an arrangement you like can be classed as a simple altar. The more mainstream religions sometimes set the impression that an altar can only be in a place of worship- this isn’t the case, and an altar can be anywhere- indoors, outdoors, temporary or permanent. If you practice ceremonies in a certain location, you may create a temporary altar under a tree, near a river, or simply some basic offerings and symbols in the centre of the ceremonial space.

Some people dedicate an entire room to magical workings and spiritual work, and there are places like this you can visit; one of these is the Goddess temple in Glastonbury. You can go there when it is open to meditate and enjoy the energies. There are also ceremonies sometimes held there too.

Ideal places for an altar

The answer to this is: anywhere! You may choose to use the mantelpiece of a fireplace, the top section of a chest of drawers or similar storage unit, a coffee table, or perhaps just the top of a small box you keep your magical tools inside. You may choose to dedicate a part of your garden if you have one, to your chosen deity or just for spiritual work. Wherever you choose to put it, and whatever you choose to utilise as a holder for it is entirely up to you- there is no specific rule to the set-up of an altar. Many people who work away from home a lot may also have a small travel altar, which can be carried in something as small as a matchbox if desired. This allows them to stay connected even when travelling.

Many altars have ritual tools on them; this could be a cup for libation, an athame for spell work, a wand, candles, space to burn incense and perhaps a representation of the God/Goddess or both. It may be that some people would want a ‘full’ altar, with everything they need for all occasions on. Some people may just want the things they are going to use for the specific ceremony or ritual included. Either way is fine, it’s up to the individual how they wish to use their sacred space.

The main thing to remember is that your altar is your main hub for spell work, meditation, ritual- many things associated with the ‘practical’ side of Paganism. Some may choose to only set up and use an altar at times of celebration; for example, the seasonal celebrations, whereas others will set up and always have their altar present.

Just remember some simple safety tips- not to use candles on or around material that is flammable and to never leave them or incense unattended, and if you rent your property, make sure first that you can burn candles and incense in the property- some smoke alarms are very sensitive, so it’s best to check instead of setting it off unexpectedly mid-ritual!

– Lotte

Sea Magic

When visiting a place by the sea, it is hard not to feel enchanted by its natural magic.

Image of a choppy sea with an orange sunseat in the background
The ocean can be a very unforgiving place

The tides, the wind, the feel of the sand on your feet and just the smell of the ocean is enchanting in itself. Many people simply honour the sea for what it is usually seen as- a turbulent yet beautiful vista which slowly but surely erodes all it touches. Many other people who feel a pull to the ocean may choose to live near to it and practice sea magick or sea witchcraft, depending on the term they wish to use. The practice is nice and natural, as the sea provides almost all of the tools required for practise- shells for altar decoration and offering bowls, various shells, rocks and driftwood which can be used as talismans or amulets, smaller objects can be used as decoration for any main items you use- for example a small stone found in the sea can be used to adorn an athame or ritual bowl.

The main element which is honoured is, of course, water. Tied into that is also the adoration of the moon, as she governs the sea through high and low tides and also the ferocity of the flow and waves. Leading on from this is the addition of spells related to emotions, as water is said to govern them. This also leads onto spells and magic which harnesses and create creativity as water is also seen as the creative spirit, protection because of the use of shells and other covers which creatures use to protect themselves in the sea, love- relating to the study and incorporation of Aphrodite who is seen as goddess of the sea in the Greek tradition, and prosperity and trade too because of the transportation of goods over the sea many years ago. Individual shells are also said to have their own meaning within their folklore, but that’s something which is an article within itself!

Many witches and spiritual people who work with the energy of the sea and tides who do not live near to the sea can also use the magic of the rivers and streams local to them when they are not at the sea. Some people also gather things they feel they may need whilst they are visiting the oceans to use in future for their magic workings. Sea witches are said to call upon the force of the tides and winds to control and hone the power of the sea; to tap into the ebb and flow of the tides and the energies therein. It is said that the path of the Sea Witch can be perceived as somewhat darker than those of other paths- this is related to the ruthless nature of the sea herself, sometimes calm, sometimes enveloping and destroying parts of, or all of a town, cliff or other structure nearby.

Going back to the older times of sea voyages and trade routes with risk from heavy seas and high storms, the sailors would call upon the uses of a sea witch to ensure the sea crossing was successful. These sailors also did business with the witches- they would buy handkerchiefs or cloth from the witches to use in times when winds were needed- these were tied with three knots in the blowing wind by the witches. It is said that the first knot undone would cause a soft and gentle south-eastern wind, the second knot would give a very strong north-bound wind and the last and third knot was only unravelled in emergency situations, as it was said to invoke very heavy winds and also storms.

Shells from the beach are great for spellwork

Although the sea witch is not necessarily needed nowadays due to the use of engines and other protections from the elements by sailors, it is still a path which is trodden by those who feel a deep connection to the ocean. It is also only advised for those who can handle the ebbs and flows and also storms of mother nature.

Sea magic is an umbrella term mostly for many different kinds of magic. These include the magic of water itself, of the weather, moon magic and also mirror magic, as this is usually used in conjunction with the moon, and water is the greatest of natural mirrors if clear enough!

Although water is the main element of sea magic, all of the elements are present in sea magic. Water relates to the ocean, earth relating to the sand, air relating to the sea wind and fire relating to the sun or stars, depending on the time of day you’re working with the magic. The main, very important point when working with any kind of magic to do with the ocean or any body of water is to take care. Know your water. Know the tides, know the river levels, know the strength of the flow, and especially when working with the sea- know the moon phase. You’ll find lots more magically-charged goods just before, during and just after a full or new moon- but the tides are likely to be treacherous especially during the full moon. If your intuition says leave; leave. Even if you’ve travelled a lot of miles to get to the location and your intuition says to leave, always listen to it. Watch the sea, watch to ensure the tide is low and all should be fantastic.

As with all magic or craft, sea magic when respected is beautiful, powerful and fantastic. If warning signs are ignored, it can be chaotic and downright dangerous. It is challenging but very worth it if that is what draws you in. All of the tools you could need are there: shells to hold water as the chalice, driftwood wands as athames, sand for earth, sea wind for, well, wind, and the fire can be represented by the sun, stars or a small beach fire (make sure it’s legal to set one of these in your area first!). All of these items can also be returned to the sea afterwards to properly ‘set’ the magic in place.

~ Lotte

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