Like most of the Pagan sabbats, there’s a timelessness to the idea of Beltane. Dalliances in the moonlight, maypoles, frivolity, crowns of flowers . . . it all seems so ancient. And it is ancient, at least as we interpret things in 2015. The maypole for instance is at least 700 years old, and probably represents some sort of ancient pagan tradition, but it was most likely missing from the earliest Beltane celebrations. Holidays often feel like little experiments in time, by engaging in their particular customs they are transportive, taking us backwards and connecting us to those who came before.
Today we tend to think of Beltane as a “Celtic holiday” but that’s not entirely accurate. The Celts occupied a wide swath of Europe before mainly being driven to the British Isles. The last few truly Celtic societies were in Ireland, Wales, and parts of Scotland. Out of those Ireland is the most important for our purposes because it’s where we get the “Four Great Sabbats” of Beltane, Lughnasadh, Samhain, and Imbolc. Instead of saying Celtic it’s probably more accurate to say Irish-Celtic, because there’s no evidence to suggest that the Celts of mainland Europe celebrated a holiday on May 1. It’s highly probable that they celebrated something like Beltane but due to a different agricultural calendar it would have been on a different day.
Beltane is an old Gaelic word and has had a number of spellings over the centuries. The spelling Beltane comes from Sir James Frazier (author of The Golden Bough) and is an Anglicized version of a Scottish variant. (1) The word its self probably comes from the Celtic root bel which means bright or fortunate. There have been attempts to trace bel to a particular deity over the years but those attempts have been lacking. The god Belenus for instance was mainly worshipped in Austria, and because the Bible mentions the pagan deity Baal some writers have traced Beltane to a god they name Bel. There’s no evidence in Ireland of any god named Bel or worship of Belenus. (2) As a near-summer holiday why wouldn’t Beltane mean bright?
The first written reference to Beltane dates from the year 900 CE and can be found in the Sanus Chormaic, an Irish glossary thought to have been written by a churchman of the time. The Sanus Chormaic is of enormous interest to this current discussion, beginning with the author’s definition of Beltane:
Belltaine ‘May-day’ i.e. bil-tene i.e. lucky fire, i.e. two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle [as a safeguard] against the disease of each year to those fires [in marg.] they used to drive the cattle between them.
This is our best evidence for Beltane as a Celtic holiday, and firmly establishes Beltane as a fire festival. In addition cattle were being forced to jump over fires in Ireland near the first of May well into the 19th Century. Fire and Beltane have a very long history together, one that stretches back (most likely) thousands of years. (3) In many formerly Celtic parts of the British Isles fire continued to play a large role in early May traditions, and it’s likely that such beliefs stem from ancient Beltane celebrations.
Interestingly cattle were made to leap over fires not to just to prevent disease but to protect against the fairy folk who might sour their milk. (4) This parallels nicely with some of the beliefs found in Wales associated with May 1 (Calan Mai). In the story of King Pwyll demons were said to stalk the Welsh Kingdom of Dyfed on the night of May 1, snatching up children and farm animals. Other Welsh tales tell of battling dragons and other bloody conflicts on what we today call Beltane. (5)
19th Century Scotland also associated May Day (here May 2) with supernatural goings-on. This account comes from Walter Gregor’s Folklore of the North-East of Scotland published in 1881:
In some districts fires were kindled on the 2nd of May, O.S. They wore called bone-fires. The belief was that on that evening and night the witches were abroad in all their force, casting ill on cattle and stealing cows’ milk. To counteract their evil power pieces of the rowan-tree and woodbine, chiefly of rowan-tree, were placed over the byre doors, and fires were kindled by every farmer and cottar. Old thatch, or straw, or furze, or broom was piled up in a heap and set on fire a little after sunset. Some of those present kept constantly tossing up the blazing mass, and others seized portions of it on pitch-forks or poles, and ran hither and thither, holding them as high as they were able, while the younger portion, that assisted, danced round the fire or ran through the smoke, shouting, “Fire! blaze an burn the witches; fire! fire! burn the witches.” In some districts a large round cake of oat or barley-meal was rolled through the ashes. When the material was burned up, the ashes were scattered far and wide, and all continued till quite dark to run through them still crying “Fire! burn the witches.”
An earlier Scottish rite (dating from 1769) shows up in Thomas Pennant’s A Tour of Scotland. This ritual from the Highlands also involves fire but feels far more like a sacrifice:
“On the 1st of May, the herdsmen of every village hold their Bel-tein, a rural sacrifice. They cut a square trench on the ground, leaving the turf in the middle, on that they make a fire of wood, on which they dress a large caudle of eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk; and bring, besides the ingredients of the caulde, plenty of beer and whiskey . . . The rites begin with spilling some of the caudle on the ground, by way of libation: on that every one takes a cake of oatmeal, upon which are raised nine square knobs, each dedicated to some particular being, the supposed preserver of their flocks and herds, or to some particular animal, the real destroyer of them: each person then turns his face to the fire, breaks off a knob, and flinging it over his shoulders, says, This I give to thee, preserve though my horses; this preserve though my sheep, and so on. After that, they use the same ceremony to the noxious animals: This I give to thee, O Fox! Spare thou my lambs; this to three, O hooded Crow! this to thee, O Eagle! When the ceremony is over, they dine on the caudle and after that the feast is finished, what is left is hid by two persons deputed for that purpose . . . .
The ritual I wrote for my coven’s Beltane this year was directly inspired by this piece of history. (Interestingly John Beckett and I must be operating on similar wavelengths this Spring, his solitary Beltane ritual is also a fire rite.)
I live in a world with a year-round weekly farmer’s market and reside within walking distance of four grocery stores. Certainly we still have poverty and hunger in the United States, but one bad harvest doesn’t result in mass starvation. It meant just that in many parts of the Western World (the Irish potato famine occurred between 1845-1852 and resulted in over one million deaths) well into the 20th Century (and in “less developed” parts of the world today). To the Ancient Irish-Celts Beltane was a period of worry not one of joy.
There are a few other fire traditions associated with Beltane. It was considered bad-luck to let someone take fire from one’s home on the evening of April 30 and all of May 1. Anyone who took fire from another home was said to gain control over those they stole the fire from. Stealing the flame from another’s hearth often led to accusations of Witchcraft. (6)
I realize I’m painting a picture of Beltane very much at odds with how we celebrate both it and May Day. However the Sanus Chormaic, that glossary which contains the first mention of Beltane, offers a bit of hope. And I’m guessing that hope most likely burned as an ember deep in the heart of Beltane’s fires. In an entry for the word Cetsoman the glossary’s author wrote: “Mayday . . the first motion of the weather of summer.”
That at least has been a Beltane universal for over 1100 years.
1. Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton, Oxford University Press, 1997 page 218
2. Hutton pages 218-219.
3. Hutton page 219.
4. Hutton page 219, I probably should have just posted page 219.
6. Hutton page 220, well look at that, I turned the page.