Beltane or Beltaine (pronounced /ˈbɛltən/, origin Old Irish) is the anglicised spelling of Bealtaine (Irish pronunciation: [ˈbʲalˠtˠənʲə]) or Bealltainn ([ˈbʲalˠtˠənʲ]), the Gaelic names for either the month of May or the festival that takes place on the first day of May.
In Irish Gaelic, the month of May is known as Mí Bhealtaine or Bealtaine, and the festival as Lá Bealtaine (‘day of Bealtaine’ or, ‘May Day’). In Scottish Gaelic, the month is known as either (An) Cèitean or a’ Mhàigh, and the festival is known as Latha Bealltainn or simply Bealltainn. The feast was also known as Céad Shamhain or Cétshamhainin from which the word Céiteanderives.
As an ancient Gaelic festival, Bealtaine was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, though there were similar festivals held at the same time in the other Celtic countries of Wales, Brittany Cornwall and Galicia, where it’s known as “Maios” in the local tongue. Bealtaine and Samhain were the leading terminal dates of the civil year in Ireland though the latter festival was the more important. The festival survives in folkloric practices in the Celtic Nations and the Irish diaspora, and has experienced a degree of revival in recent decades.
In ancient Ireland the main Bealtaine fire was held on the central hill of Uisneach ‘the navel of Ireland’, one of the ritual centres of the country, which is located in what is nowCounty Westmeath. In Ireland the lighting of bonfires on Oidhche Bhealtaine seems only to have survived to the present day in County Limerick, especially in Limerick itself, as their yearly bonfire night and in County Wicklow in Arklow, though some cultural groups have expressed an interest in reviving the custom at Uisneach and perhaps at the Hill of Tara. The lighting of a community Bealtaine fire from which individual hearth fires are then relit is also observed in modern times in some parts of the Celtic diaspora and by some Neopagan groups, though in the majority of these cases this practice is a cultural revival rather than an unbroken survival of the ancient tradition.
Another common aspect of the festival which survived up until the early 20th century in Ireland was the hanging of May Boughs on the doors and windows of houses and the erection of May Bushes in farmyards, which usually consisted either of a branch of rowan/caorthann (mountain ash) or more commonly whitethorn/sceach geal (hawthorn) which is in bloom at the time and is commonly called the ‘May Bush’ or just ‘May’ in Hiberno-English. Furze/aiteann was also used for the May Boughs, May Bushes and as fuel for the bonfire. The practice of decorating the May Bush or Dos Bhealtaine with flowers, ribbons, garlands and colored egg shells has survived to some extent among the diaspora as well, most notably in Newfoundland, and in some Easter traditions observed on the East Coast of the United States.
Bealtaine is a cross-quarter day, marking the midpoint in the Sun’s progress between the spring equinox and summer solstice. Since the Celtic year was based on both lunar and solar cycles, it is possible that the holiday was celebrated on the full moon nearest the midpoint between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Theastronomical date for this midpoint is closer to May 5 or May 7, but this can vary from year to year.
Place names in Ireland that contain remnants of the word ‘Bealtaine’ include a number of places called ‘Beltany’ – indicating places where Bealtaine festivities were once held. There are two Beltanys in County Donegal– one near Raphoe and the other in the parish of Tulloghobegly. Two others are located in County Tyrone, one near Clogherand the other in the parish of Cappagh. In the parish of Kilmore, County Armagh, there is a place called Tamnaghvelton/Tamhnach Bhealtaine (‘field of the Bealtaine festivities’). Lisbalting/Lios Bealtaine (‘fort or enclosure of Bealtaine’) is located in Kilcash Parish, County Tipperary. Glasheennabaultina (‘the Bealtaine stream’) is the name of a stream joining the River Galey near Athea, County Limerick.
In Irish mythology, the beginning of the summer season for the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians started at Bealtaine. Great bonfires would mark a time of purification and transition, heralding in the season in the hope of a good harvest later in the year, and were accompanied with ritual acts to protect the people from any harm by otherworldly spirits, such as the Aos Sí. Like the festival of Samhain, opposite Beltane on October 31 Beltane was also a time when the Otherworld was seen as particularly close at hand.
Early Gaelic sources from around the 10th century state that the druids of the community would create a need-fire on top of a hill on this day and drive the village’s cattle through the fires to purify them and bring luck (Eadar dà theine Bhealltainn in Scottish Gaelic, ‘Between two fires of Beltane’). This term is also found in Irish and is used as a turn of phrase to describe a situation which is difficult to escape from. In Scotland, boughs of juniper were sometimes thrown on the fires to add an additional element of purification and blessing to the smoke. People would also pass between the two fires to purify themselves. This was echoed throughout history after Christianization, with lay people instead of Druid priests creating the need-fire. The festival persisted widely up until the 1950s, and in some places the celebration of Beltane continues today.
Beltane as described in this article is a specifically Gaelic holiday. Other Celtic cultures, such as the Welsh, Bretons, and Cornish, do not celebrate Beltane, per se. However, they celebrated or celebrate festivals similar to it at the same time of year such as the Padstow ‘obby ‘oss. In Wales, the day is known as Calan Mai, and theGaulish name for the day is Belotenia.
In many parts of the Highlands, the young folks of the district would meet on the moors on 1 May. They cut a table in the green sod, of a round figure, by cutting a trench in the ground of sufficient circumferences to hold the whole company. They then kindled a fire, dressed a repast of eggs and milk of the constituency of custard. They kneaded a cake of oatmeal, which was toasted at the embers against a stone. After the custard was eaten, they divided the cake into as many portions as there were people in the company, as much alike as possible in size and shape. They daubed one of the pieces with charcoal, til it was black all over, and they were then all put into a bonnet together, and each one blindfolded took out a portion. The bonnet holder was entitled to the last bit, and whoever drew the black bit was the person who was compelled to leap three times over the flames. Some people say this was originally to appease a god, whose favour they tried to implore by making the year productive. (Dwelly, 1911, “Bealltuinn”)
The word Beltane derives directly from the Old Irish Beltain, which later evolved into the Modern Irish Bealtaine (IPA: [‘bʲaːlt̪ˠənʲɪ]). In Scottish Gaelic it is spelledBealltainn. Both are from Old Irish Beltene (‘bright fire’) from belo-te(p)niâ. Beltane was formerly spelled ‘Bealtuinn’ in Scottish Gaelic; in Manx it is spelt ‘Boaltinn’ or ‘Boaldyn’.
In Modern Irish, Oidhche Bealtaine or Oíche Bealtaine is May Eve, and Lá Bealtaine is May Day. Mí na Bealtaine, or simply Bealtaine is the name of the month of May
In the word belo-te(p)niâ) the element belo- is cognate with the English word bale (as in ‘bale-fire’), the Anglo-Saxon bael, and also the Latvian baltas, meaning ‘white’ or ‘shining’ and from which the Baltic Sea takes its name. In Slavic languages byelo or beloye also means ‘white’, as in Беларусь (White Russia or Belarus) or Бе́лое мо́ре(White Sea).
In Gaelic the terminal vowel -o (from Belo) was dropped, as shown by numerous other transformations from early or Proto-Celtic to Early Irish, thus the Gaulish deity namesBelenos (‘bright one’) and Belisama.
From the same Proto-Celtic roots we get a wide range of other words: the verb beothaich, from Early Celtic belo-thaich (‘to kindle, light, revive, or re-animate’); baos, frombaelos (‘shining’); beòlach (‘ashes with hot embers’) from beò/belo + luathach, (‘shiny-ashes’ or ‘live-ashes’). Similarly boil/boile (‘fiery madness’), through Irish buile and Early Irish baile/boillsg (‘gleam’), and bolg-s-cio-, related to Latin fulgeo (‘shine’), and English ‘effulgent’.
According to the Gaelic scholar Dáithí Ó hÓgáin Céad Shamhain or Cétshamhainin means “first half”, which he links to the Gaulish word samonios (which he suggests means “half a year”) as in the end of the “first half” of the year that begins at Samhain. According to Ó hÓgáin this term was also used in Scottish Gaelic and Welsh. In Ó Duinnín’s Irish dictionary it is referred to as Céadamh(ain) which it explains is short for Céad-shamh(ain) meaning “first (of) summer”. The dictionary also states that Dia Céadamhan is May Day and Mí Céadamhan is May
Beltane Fire Festival dancers, 2006
A revived Beltane Fire Festival has been held every year since 1988 during the night of 30 April on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland and attended by up to 15,000 people (except in 2003 when local council restrictions forced the organisers to hold a private event elsewhere).
Beltane is observed by Neopagans in various forms, and by a variety of names. As forms of Neopaganism can vary largely from tradition to tradition, representations can vary considerably despite the shared name. Some celebrate in a manner as close as possible to how the Ancient Celts and Living Celtic cultures have maintained the traditions, while others observe the holiday with rituals taken from numerous other unrelated sources, Celtic culture being only one of the sources used.
Like other Reconstructionist traditions, Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans place emphasis on historical accuracy. They base their celebrations and rituals on traditional lore from the living Celtic cultures, as well as research into the older beliefs of the polytheistic Celts.
Celtic Reconstructionists usually celebrate Lá Bealtaine when the local hawthorn trees are in bloom, or on the full moon that falls closest to this event. Many observe the traditional bonfire rites, to whatever extent this is feasible where they live, including the dousing of the household hearth flame and relighting of it from the community festival fire. Some decorate May Bushes and prepare traditional festival foods. Pilgrimages to holy wells are traditional at this time, and offerings and prayers to the spirits or deities of the wells are usually part of this practice. Crafts such as the making of equal-armed rowan crosses are common, and often part of rituals performed for the blessing and protection of the household and land.
Wiccans and Wiccan-inspired Neopagans celebrate a variation of Beltane as a Sabbat, one of the eight solar holidays. Although the holiday may use features of the Gaelic Bealtaine, such as the bonfire, it bears more relation to the Germanic May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypoledancing). Some Wiccans celebrate “High Beltaine” by enacting a ritual union of the May Lord and May Lady.
Among the Wiccan Sabbats, Beltane is a cross-quarter day; it is celebrated in the northern hemisphere on May 1 and in the southern hemisphere on November 1. Beltane follows Ostara and precedes Midsummer.
- ^ a b c Danaher, Kevin (1972) The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs Dublin, Mercier. ISBN 1-85635-093-2 pp.86-127
- ^ Chadwick, Nora (1970) The Celts London, Penguin. ISBN 0-14-021211-6 p. 181
- ^ Aideen O’Leary reports (“An Irish Apocryphal Apostle: Muirchú’s Portrayal of Saint Patrick” The Harvard Theological Review 89.3 [July 1996:287-301] p. 289) that, for didactic and dramatic purposes, the festival of Beltane, as presided over by Patrick’s opponent King Lóegaire mac Néill, was moved to the eve of Easter and from Uisneach to Tara by Muirchú (late seventh century) in hisVita sancti Patricii; he describes the festival as in Temora, istorium Babylone (‘at Tara, their Babylon’). However there is no authentic connection of Tara with Babylon, nor any know connection of Tara with Beltane.
- ^ a b MacKillop, James (1998) A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280120-1 pp.39, 400-402, 421
- ^ Dames, Michael (1992) Mythic Ireland. London, Thames & Hudson ISBN 0-500-27872-5. p.206-10
- ^ McNeill, F. Marian (1959) The Silver Bough, Vol. 2. William MacLellan, Glasgow ISBN 0-85335-162-7 p.56
- ^ Dames (1992) p.214
- ^ McNeill (1959) Vol. 2. p.63
- ^ Campbell, John Gregorson (1900, 1902, 2005) The Gaelic Otherworld. Edited by Ronald Black. Edinburgh, Birlinn Ltd. ISBN 1-84158-207-7 p.552-4
- ^ MacKillop (1998) p.39
- ^ Stòr-dàta Briathrachais Gàidhlig – Rùachadh. Sabhal Mòr Ostaig — Colaiste Ghàidhlig na h-Alba
- ^ Adler, Margot (1979) Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. Boston, Beacon Press ISBN 0-8070-3237-9. p.3
- ^ McColman, Carl (2003) Complete Idiot’s Guide to Celtic Wisdom. Alpha Press ISBN 0-02-864417-4. p.51
- ^ a b McColman (2003) pp.12, 51
- ^ Bonewits, Isaac (2006) Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism. New York, Kensington Publishing Group ISBN 0-8065-2710-2. p.130-7
- ^ Healy, Elizabeth (2001) In Search of Ireland’s Holy Wells. Dublin, Wolfhound Press ISBN 0-86327-865-5 p.27
- ^ a b Starhawk (1979, 1989) The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. New York, Harper and Row ISBN 0-06-250814-8 pp.181-196 (revised edition)
- Carmichael, Alexander (1992). Carmina Gadelica. Lindisfarne Press. ISBN 0-940262-50-9
- Chadwick, Nora (1970) The Celts. London, Penguin ISBN 0-14-021211-6
- Danaher, Kevin (1972) The Year in Ireland. Dublin, Mercier ISBN 1-85635-093-2
- Evans-Wentz, W. Y. (1966, 1990) The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. New York, Citadel ISBN 0-8065-1160-5
- MacKillop, James (1998). Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-280120-1
- McNeill, F. Marian (1959) The Silver Bough, Vol. 1-4. William MacLellan, Glasgow
- Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Society
- Extract on The Beltane Fires from Sir James George Frazer’s book The Golden Bough – 1922
Beltaine (also known as Beltane and May Day) falls on 1st May with the evening of 30th April being known as Beltaine Eve or May Eve. It is an ancient fertility festival.
Beltaine is associated with the Celtic God, Bel (also known as Belenus and Balor). Bel is a God of light, fire and the Sun. Fires are an important custom at Beltaine and people would leap over them to ensure their fertility. Cattle were also driven through the ashes or between two fires to ensure a good milk yield.
The Beltaine fire was kindled with Birch twigs and much of the festival was spent with couples frolicking in the woods. A Maypole, representing the phallus and made from Birch wood was erected or was sometimes a living Birch tree and fertility dances were performed around it to ensure good health and abundant crops.
As at Samhain, the veil between our world and the Underworld is considered to be thin at this time and the spirits of our Ancestors can be contacted.
The burning of the wicker man
Human sacrifice was practised by ancient people at Beltaine to ensure fertility for the coming year and one of their customs was to build a giant man of wood, straw, etc. This huge wicker structure was then filled with offerings to the Gods including living people, often criminals and animals. The wicker man was set ablaze burning those inside him
A wicker man ceremony still takes place at Beltaine (although without any sacrifices!) at Butser Ancient Farm nr. Petersfield, Hampshire. The photographs featured on this page were taken at one of their wicker man ceremonies. For more details please go to :www.butser.org.uk
Beltaine is a traditional time for Handfastings, a form of marriage ceremony which pre-dates modern marriage customs. The couple would say vows or promises to each other and their hands would be ritually tied together (i.e.. fastened in partnership). At the end of the ceremony they jumped over a broom or the Bel-fire.
Cerne Abbas Giant
The Cerne Abbas giant is a huge figure, measuring 180 ft long, carved into the side of a hill near to Cerne Abbas, Dorset. It is thought to date from the time of the Celtic tribes.
The May Day Sun rises directly in alignment with the figure, so it is clearly linked to Beltaine. Cerne Abbas giant is obviously a fertility figure as he proudly shows his eight foot penis! This shows how important Beltaine was to the ancient people as a fertility festival.
Even today, couples having difficulty conceiving a child are known to make love upon the giant – he must still have some of his ancient fertility powers…