This year, we will miss the colour and gaiety and music that, in normal times, fills the streets of Glastonbury at Beltane on May Day. Now the streets are silent. But in better times, folk come pouring into the Summerlands from far and wide to join the throngs following the red and white dragons as they are drummed through the Jack-in-the-green, leafy lanes, overhung with creamy white may blossoms, and then process up to the Tor.
The Town Crier usually begins the proceedings from the top of the Tor at dawn, in his full green-black-and-gold braided livery, ringing his bell and shouting “God Save the Queen!” But who is the real Queen of the May?
Most won’t be interested in why we celebrate at Maytime and dance around the May Pole on Bushey Coombe – and that’s fine; they just want to enjoy the fun of it all and we hope that they’ll be able to come again, next May. But the following article is for those would like to know more about the deeper meanings for why the dragons are red and white, and what they represent, and who the May Queen really is, and just why Beltane is such a magical time of the year here, so please do read on:
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to find yourself at a theatrical performance of Peter Pan, you’ll know that there is an absolutely heart-stopping moment towards the end, when Tinkerbell is dying. As we sit there watching the tiny winged faery slowly expiring before our eyes, it is explained to us that she can only be brought back to life if we humans believe in faeries again.
The adults are usually frozen in the seats, afflicted as we are by a mixture of cognitive dissonance and social embarrassment. But then suddenly, a young girl will jump to her feet and then a boy leaps up in the gods, and then another and another, and finally there are dozens of tiny tots all standing and waving their arms and professing in their loudest voices that “Yes, I do believe in faeries!” It is a profoundly moving and magical moment – and don’t think for one minute that the real Fae don’t hear those children.
But the character of Tinkerbell leads a potent and magical underlying theme, just as the god Jupiter guides the mythological hero or pilgrim as he goes through his adventures and challenges which lead to total transformation. In alchemy, Jupiter is the god of the metal tin; Tinkerbell is his some time belle when she forms with him an astrological conjunction as Venus who rules Beltane through her governship of Taurus, which is the sun sign in which Beltane falls each year.
Venus helps the hero transform at the point in his trials when he reaches the Underworld, at Sagittarius, which ruled by Jupiter. Here, he has to face his shadow side and reintegrate it into his personality to make himself whole. The playwright J. M. Barrie illustrates this with a metaphorical act when Tinkerbell helps Peter Pan sew his shadow back on again.
The meaning of Beltane
The word Beltane is the anglicised form of the Old Irish Beltain and Scottish Gaelic Bealltainn, and it is thought to be derived from the belo-te(p)niâ, meaning “bright fire”, or “bale fire”, which means “white and shining”.
It falls on what’s known as a Celtic quarter day. Some have tried to link these old Celtic quarter days to the midpoint between the equinoxes and the solstices, but actually that doesn’t work astronomically, because Beltane would then need to be on 5th May.
In fact, the timing of Beltane comes from a much older strata of astronomical lore than that of the solar priesthood who built Stonehenge. It comes from those whose calendars were lunar rather than solar, and whose lives were dictated by stellar and planetary movements, and these people are the ancestors of the Irish and the Welsh that we call the Celts.
Beltane marks the time when the white and shining constellation of the Pleiades begins to rise above the horizon. It’s sister fire festival is held on the last day of October, which is now known as Halloween, but to the Celts, it was the festival of Samhain, which takes place when the Pleiades begin to set.
In Ireland, and increasingly now in Scotland, these great stellar fire festivals are being revived. This photo shows the illustrious and upstanding members of the Beltane Fire Society celebrating on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The good folk of Edinburgh are reviving a custom of the ancient First Peoples to settle these Isles, who believed that fire had a purificatory function, and protected you from malign influences. Even today, this is understood by magicians, alchemists and shamans alike.
For it is said that Beltane is also a threshold or portal time. This is when the liminal walls between the dimensions are at their thinnest and we are more likely to encounter the Fae, otherwise known as the Tuatha de Danann, the Sidhe (pronounced shay) or the one I prefer, the Gentry.
Some people call them fairies, but according to those that have seen them, they’re actually not the least like sweet little Tinkerbell. The tiny delicate winged flower fairy in gossamer dress was a Victorian confection which took its inspiration from Christian angels, but has no grounding in ancient lore. R J Stewart in his book The Living World of Faery says that some of the Fae are really enormous, like giants. Others are the same size as us. The ones that I get to meet look just like me… and they don’t have wings.
They are the spirits of the Land; they maintain the fertility of the Land, which to them, is sacred, and it is from these beings that the Sovereignty comes. They inhabit a parallel dimension which is known in mythological lore as the Underworld or the Land of the Ever Young – which J M Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, turned into the Never Never Land. He got the name Peter Pan from the ancient Greek version of the King of the Faeries, the great god Pan — rumours of whose death, it now turns out, were grossly exaggerated.
As we no longer believe in these faeries, they are ‘dead’ to us … and that is the meaning of Tinkerbell’s resurrection, which can only come about when there is a change in that consciousness. Do you believe in faeries? I do!
The Queen of the May
The Queen of the May who stars in carnivals and fairs up and down the land during these festivities is derived from a beautiful woman who is still found today in Welsh myths. Her brother is Gwyn ap Nudd, the Lord of the Underworld and the King of the Faeries, and so as her protector, he has to fight a duel each Beltane over her honour with the Lord of Summer, Gwythyr ap Greidawl.
While the faery midwife Brigit the Bright One’s time is Imbolc in February, when the snowdrops and crocuses are just beginning to be born into the light, the season of the saturnine Gwyn ap Nudd is the Plutonic dark of winter, over which he wins rulership by means of a duel with the Lord of Summer in October at Samhain at the end of October.
The two faery lords, Gwyn and Gwythyr, represent the constellations of Orion and Ophiuchus. Between them they govern the whole Wheel of the year, but each has to give way to the other as it turns from winter to summer and so on. So Gwyn and Gwythyr have to fight this duel at Beltane at the beginning of May and again, at Samhain at the end of October.
In ruling the months of the lower half of the zodiac, Gwyn is the psychopomp whose role it is to guide the initiate down into the Underworld for the Judgement as much as the Egyptian Anubis performs that function in the Papyrus Texts and the Sumerian Nabu ferries Gilgamesh along a river into the Realms of the Dead. The Arthurian scribes of the Norman conquest personified that psychopomp character as Morgan of the Fae who takes the wounded Arthur in her boat through the mists of Avalon into the Otherworlds.
The mythological psychopomp symbolises Mercury, who was known to the ancient Greeks as Hermes, the so-called ‘trickster god’ who conducts souls into the afterlife – hence why the term Hermetic Arts is often used for the practice of alchemy. The metal quicksilver, which is governed by Mercury-Hermes, can be quite tricky to work with!
Trickster gods, like Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are always representatives of Mercury, who is the catalyst of all alchemical processes but particularly that of the Marriage of the Sun and the Moon. No matter the amount of painstaking effort put into an operation, without Mercury’s divine intervention, the Child of the Philosopher will be stillborn.
The Marriage of the Sun and the Moon is represented in the Summerlands at Beltane by the red and white dragons, whose alchemical melding produces the birth of the Philosopher’s Child, which is what Beltane is ultimately about. It is the Alchemical Marriage, or the Fairy Marriage which takes place between the Lord of Summer and the Queen of the May under a Scorpio full moon.
If you would like to read more about their romantic tryst, as it shows up in the night skies over Avalon, please read The Honey Moon of the Gods.
Featured picture credit: SWINS COM