Halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, this is when the cattle are driven out to the summer pastures and rituals invoked to protect them and encourage growth and fertility in livestock and crops. The smoke of the bonfires has protective power for those who circle them or leap over the flames and the embers. Celebrants circle their houses with burning torches from the Beltane bonfires. Hearth fires and candles are quenched and then rekindled from the torches. Holy wells are visited. Doors and windows are decorated with May flowers and the community makes a May Bush, a thorn bush adorned with the flowers, ribbons and bright shells. Feasting abounds. Spirits are thought to be especially active at Beltane (as at Samhain 6 months hence) and the goal of many Beltane rituals is to appease them.
Last night, Walpurgis night, the eve of the Saint’s Day for Walpurga, an 8th century abbess in Francia canonized for battling witches, was the time of the Witches’ Sabbaths at the tops of wild remote mountains (most famously, the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains in central Germany, as memorialized in Goethe’s Faust) to cavort with the Devil. The attendants ride flying goats, trample the cross and are rebaptized in the name of the Devil. Magic ointments made from Deadly Nightshade (Belladonna), Henbane, Mandrake, Datura or the fly agaric mushroom evoke weird hallucinations and place participants in an altered state of consciousness, conferring the powers of flight and of shapeshifting. Walpurgisnacht also entails a procession of the dead, especially those who have died prematurely or violently during the past year and have been wandering to expiate their sins.