What is Beltane?
Beltane is the Gaelic May Day festival, traditionally begins at sunset on April 30th and ends at sunset of May 1st. Considered the height of spring and the beginning of summer, is was an important time of year. It is approximately halfway between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice.
One of the most joyful of celebrations, Beltane is a spring festival of old, celebrated by the Gaels (Irish, Scottish, Manx, etc.) in ancient times. It has been carried forward to the modern day, and celebrated in some part of the world for over almost 2000 years.
Etymology of ‘Beltane’
Irish: Lá Bealtaine
Scottish: Là Bealltainn
Manx Gaelic: Laa Boaltinn/Boaldyn
Wales: similar to Calan Mai
The word ‘beltane’ is the anglicized name for the ceremonial day. Its meaning is the equivalent of ‘lucky fire’. Traced back to the 9th century, it is found in the history of all of the Celtic regions (including Wales). The most accepted entomology is that the original Gaelic word for the festival was beloteniâ, meaning ‘bright fire’.
Others have tried to take the word apart and feel that the meaning of ‘Beltane’ is ‘bel’s fire’ or ‘fire to honor Bel’. Their thought for this is that Bel is for Beil or ancient Baell, an undetermined old gaelic Irish god that could be reference to many. Unfortunately there just is not enough evidence to document it properly.
Written accounts of Beltane have been sparse, but did exist.
The first known document to have mention of Beltane was Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s narrative or glossary), attributed to Cormac mac Cuilennáin. He was an Irish Bishop in the late 9th century and King of Munster from 902-908. The Druidic aspects of the ritual celebration did not survive time, but most of the celebrations continued. Many folklorists and historians observed and wrote about it as late as the 18th and 19th centuries.
The areas where Beltane was first celebrated, particularly Ireland and Scotland, were very agricultural societies. Thus, the Gaelic calendar year was set around the agricultural season. Beltane marked the end of winter. It was then time for the cattle, the main ‘crop’ for islanders, to be moved from the wintertime pastures.
Historic and traditional customs of Beltane.
The oldest known customs of Beltane are the giant bonfires. They drove their cattle through two large fires. It was thought to rid them of winter diseases as they herded the beasts to the Summer pastures. People would also jump over the fires to bless and cleanse themselves from the ales of winter and to bring prosperity and fertility to their household. Flames, smoke and ashes from the fires were considered to have special properties and powers.
Eating oatcakes was part of the ritual. They had 9 knobs on them that represented 9 important Celtic Gods. People baked them in the ritual flames and ate them as part of the festival ritual. And, from what we can tell, a community feast was often held toward the end of the celebration.
In the 19th century, yellow flowers were collected and left at doors and windows, or fastened to livestock or the equipment used with them (like that used to milk cows). Holy wells were often visited at Beltane as they are at the other Gaelic festivals. Visitors prayed for health and often left offerings.
One of the longest standing traditions has been that during Beltane you do not borrow fire from anyone’s homes. This was done because it was believed that the borrower would then hold power and influence over you. In one instance, in the 16th century, a woman asked to borrow a flame from a neighbor’s house and because she did, she was proclaimed a witch.
By the end of the 18th century many of the Beltane celebrations waned.
This was particularly true for the the tradition of the fire associated with Beltane, because lighting of the fires became nearly non-existent. The feast seemed to have stuck around for a bit longer. The fire traditions would not be revived to any extent until the late 20th century (specifically Edinburgh, in 1988).
The two things that did seem to survive past the 18th century were the custom of not giving fire from one’s home on May day, and the cake, called Bannoch Bealltainn. By the late 19th century the design on the cake has changed from the knobs to a cross.
The bannoch was rolled down the hills as part of the celebrations. Most of the arcane associations were gone by the 20th century. Yet, even today, when children roll them, if they landed cross side down, it bodes of ill luck for the person it belongs to.
Modern day and Pagan traditions of Beltane
Today, the celebrations are a mix of old and new. Pagan traditions celebrate Beltane as the Great Wedding of the God and the Goddess. In modern day festivals it is very common for the day to be a day of hand-fasting ceremonies. Some anthropologists and folklorists think that the marriage ceremonies tended to be at the major festivals due to the lack of people available to perform marriages. This resulted in communities having unique ceremonies for marriage like ‘jumping the broom[stick]’ where a couple could declare their intent to be married by jumping over a broomstick and the community would consider them thus until more formal services could be arranged.
Scholars feel that originally the maypole was erected simply as part of the celebration of spring and summer. They were first seen and recorded in the 14th century. In modern day pagan celebrations of Beltane, the pole symbolizes fertility of the earth and the potency of God. The circle/wreath at the top symbolized the Goddess and fertility. The green (growth and fertility), red (passion and strength) and white/silver (cleansing) ribbons hang from the Maypole. They are woven together in a sort of dance symbolizing the spiral of life and the merging of the God and Goddess. There are, however, no concrete references to what the Maypole meant historically.
Celebrating Beltane or May Day varies across the world.
However you choose to celebrate it, whether it be dancing around a Maypole, lighting a fire, going to a Beltane Festival, or simply brightening up your home with pretty yellow flowers, I hope that Spring bring joy to you and all those you hold dear.
The Researcher’s Gateway
Learn about the Maypole Dance!