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Europeans have been putting on fiery May Day festivals for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years. Whether it’s celebrating Sankt Walpurgisnacht (“Saint Walpurgis Night”) in Germany with bonfires, or celebrating Pálení čarodějnic (“burning of the witches”) in the Czech Republic with the burning of a twenty-five-foot-tall effigy of a witch, or even celebrating Easter in the Netherlands with some Paasvuren (“Easter fires”), these long-standing springtime traditions might all owe their existence to the Celtic cross-quarter day festival of Beltane.
Okay, fine, that’s a bit presumptuous. At the very least, Beltane likely influenced these celebrations, or at the very, very least, Beltane and Walpurgis Night and similar celebrations all share a common prehistoric (i.e., pre-Celtic, pre-Germanic) celebratory ancestor.
According to the World History Encyclopedia, Walpurgis Night, celebrated on the evening of April 30th, is derived from the “merging of the ancient pagan celebration of Beltane with the commemoration of the canonization of the Christian Saint Walpurga (l. c. 710 – c. 777 CE).” The Encyclopedia goes on to note that the “ancient Celtic Sabbat (religious festival) of Beltane” had “merged with Germanic May Day” and was later Christianized sometime after 870 CE when Walpurga—a British-born Christian missionary and healer known for her ability to combat witchcraft—was canonized in Germany.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, the bishop of Cashel and king of Munster Cormac (d. 908 CE), was writing about Beltane in his eponymous glossary. Cormac claimed the festival of Beltane was named for the “lucky fire” or the “the two fires,” and he described how Irish pagans would drive cattle between two hillside bonfires in order to protect them from disease during their migration to summer pasturelands.
But look at me, getting ahead of myself here, like a bull charging between stacks of yet-to-be-lit firewood on an Irish hillside.
Before we explore all of the rituals associated with the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane, let’s cover the basics, starting with the definition and etymology of Beltane.
What is Beltane? (Definition and Etymology)
Beltane (also: Beltain or Beltaine) is a Celtic fertility festival that marks the beginning of summer and the transhumance of livestock from winter lowlands to summer pastures. To quote historian Thomas Cahill, the springtime celebration was “distinguished by bonfires, maypoles, and sexual license” (source: How the Irish Saved Civilization). Traditionally celebrated on the evening of April 30th and into the early morning of May 1st, Beltane is a Celtic cross-quarter day, i.e., it is one of four main seasonal festivals of the Celts and falls roughly halfway between an equinox/solstice (in this case, the spring equinox and the summer solstice).
FYI: The other Celtic cross-quarter days are Lughnasadh, celebrated on August 1st-2nd, halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox; Samhain, celebrated October 31st-November 1st, halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice; and Imbolc, celebrated on February 1st-2nd, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
Beltane is less commonly known as Cétshamhain, which means “first of summer.” The name “Beltane”, on the other hand, translates to “fires of Bel,” according to historian Peter Berresford Ellis (source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology), but this etymology is far from universally accepted. The Bel in question here is thought to be the Celtic god of life/healing—and possible sun god—Belenus (also: Belinos or Belenos). More on him later. Another camp posits that the holiday owes its name to a Lithuanian goddess of death, Giltinė, while another camp argues that Beltane—or “Beilteine”, as Scottish antiquarian James Napier spelled it—actually means “Baal’s fire”, and is a reference to a Phoenician god. To quote from Napier’s book Folk Lore: Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland within This Century:
“Baal (Lord) was the name under which the Phoenicians recognized their primary male god, the Sun: fire was his earthly symbol and the medium through which sacrifices to him were offered.”
Sounds cool, right? A Phoenician origin for the Celtic festival. However, in the interest of being fair and balanced, I feel compelled to offer this counterargument from Scottish anthropologist and folklorist Sir James George Frazer:
“The etymology of the word Beltane is uncertain; the popular derivation of the first part from the Phoenician Baal is absurd.”source: Balder The Beautiful, Vol. I. A Study In Magic And Religion: The Golden Bough, Part VII.
Frazer proposes a more secular origin for the word Beltane, one devoid of a divine namesake.
“Bal-tein signifies the fire of Baal. Baal or Ball is the only word in Gaelic for a globe. This festival was probably in honour of the sun, whose return, in his apparent annual course, they celebrated, on account of his having such a visible influence, by his genial warmth, on the productions of the earth.”
Other scholars believe Beltane is derived from an old Celtic word “belo-teniâ” meaning “bright fire,” but the underlying implication is the same as with Frazer’s interpretation: Beltane isn’t a devotional celebration for a particular god, it’s a celebration of light.
But what if it’s both?
Who Is the Celtic God Belenus? (And Did He Really Inspire Beltane?)
One of the oldest historical references to the Celtic god Belenus comes from Julius Caesar, writing in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (The Gallic Wars). Granted, Caesar didn’t reference him by his native name. Being the arrogant Roman that he was, he noted that the Gaulish Celts worshiped “Apollo.” Apollo being the Greco-Roman god of light and the Sun, as well as healing and diseases (and a bunch of other things).
I have to admit, Apollo does line up pretty nicely with Belenus, which many sources consider to be a solar god and a god of healing. What’s more, the name Belenus likely means “bright one” or the “shining one,” though it’s still up for debate. (Some scholars believe Belenus originally meant something like “master of power,” which…is an awesome superhero name.) Belenus appears in Irish mythology (specifically as recorded in the Lebor Gabála Érenn) as Bilé. Known as the life-giver, Bilé is not a solar deity, but the god of life and death who comes from the land of the dead. Bilé is occasionally referred to as “Father of Gods and Men” and made husband to the Irish mother goddess Dana (source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology).
Actually, now I see more of a parallel between Bilé/Belenus and the aforementioned Lithuanian goddess, Giltinė. Both are deities associated with life and death (which may or may not be coincidental). And when you consider that Encyclopaedia Britannica makes it very clear that Belenus was not a sun god, it kind of shakes that foundation of thinking that Beltane and the fires were all about worshiping a solar god. And I quote:
“Despite associations of his name with fire or the sun, Belenus was not a sun god; in fact, there is no Celtic evidence for the worship of the sun as such, even though it was often used in religious imagery.”
Regardless of what Belenus represented, his cult was a large and powerful one, stretching from Italy to Ireland. As a result, many European place names bear his stamp. In London, for example, there’s Billingsgate, a derivation of Belinos’ Gate. In the municipality of Aquileia in Italy there’s the village Beligna. Many notable Celtic kings of Britain took the name Cunobelinus, or “Cunobel” in Celtic (meaning “Hound of Bel”), including the High King of Britain the Romans encountered in 5 BCE. This king would go on to serve as the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s character Cymbeline. There’s also the Beltany stone circle in County Donegal, Ireland, which may have a connection to either the festival of Beltane, the Celtic god Bel, or both.
When Did the Ancient Celts Celebrate Beltane?
By all accounts, the ancient Celts celebrated Beltane on the evening of April 30th and the celebration lasted into the wee hours of May 1st—May Day. As I explained in my guide to Imbolc, the Celts measured their days from evening to evening, hence the discrepancies you might see when dating the major Celtic feast days.
Of course, as with any seemingly settled bit of history, at least one scholar, Professor Veitch, author of History and Poetry of the Scottish Border, marked the date of Beltane very definitively as May the 2nd. It should be noted, however, that Veitch adhered to the potentially dubious claim Beltane was celebrated in honor of a solar deity, so perhaps he does not have the best information. As he wrote about the Celtic druids:
“They worshipped the sun god, the representative of the bright side of nature—Baal, the fire-giver—and to him on the hill tops they lit the fire on the end of May, the Beltane.”
The prolonged confusion over the date of Beltane likely stems from the fact that Christian missionaries effectively hijacked the Celtic feast days, including Beltane, and attempted to fit them into their own religious calendars. It’s possible that when the Church instituted a festival on May the 3rd to commemorate the discovery of Jesus’s cross, it was done to draw attention away from the native pagan festival. To quote James Napier:
“In all probability the discrepancy as to the day originated through the Church substituting a Christian festival for a heathen one; and although the date was changed, yet through force of custom the name of the old festival was retained, and in localities where the power of the Church was comparatively weak, the older, the original day for the festival would probably be kept as well as the newly appointed Church festival. This view of the matter is rendered probable from the fact that the Church did institute a great festival, to be held on the third of May, to commemorate the finding of the cross of Christ.”source: Folk Lore: Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland within This Century
5 Beltane Rituals for Welcoming Summer
1. Come on Belenus, light my bonfire.
This one had to be first, of course. No Beltane festival would be complete without a bonfire—preferably two. To do it the Irish way, you’ll also need some cattle. Here’s how Peter Berresford Ellis describes this ancient Beltane fire ritual:
“[Beltane] was a time when the Celts offered praise to Bel, the life-giver, represented by the sun, for having brought victory over the powers of darkness and for bringing the people within sight of another harvest. On that day the fires of every household were extinguished. At a given time, the druids would rekindle the fires from torches lit from ‘the sacred fires of Bel,’ the rays of the sun, and the new flames would symbolise a fresh start for everyone. Numbers of cattle from each herd would be driven in ancient circles through fires as a symbol of purification.”source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology
Notice how Berresford doesn’t refer to Bel as a solar deity, but instead suggests he is the “life-giver” who is represented by the sun—which makes sense, given that A) the sun makes life on Earth possible and B) Beltane is celebrated at the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, a time when the days are noticeably longer, i.e. there’s more life-giving sunlight to enjoy.
Now, here’s how James Napier describes the Beltane fire ritual:
“In Druidical times the people allowed their fires to go out on Beltane eve, and on Beltane day the priests met on a hill dedicated to the Sun, and obtained fire from heaven. When the fire was obtained, sacrifices were offered, and the people danced round the fire with shoutings till the sacrifices were consumed; after which they received portions of the sacred fire with which to rekindle their hearths for another twelve months.”source: Folk Lore: Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland within This Century
Notice how in this telling, instead of the sun being a logo for a god, it is the object of devotion. There’s no extra layer of divine metaphor, just a bunch of druids dedicating hillside bonfires to the sun. Granted, Napier does describe the fire as coming from “heaven,” meaning this interpretation of events has likely been Christianized.
Okay, now let’s hear from Frazer, who reinforces the notion that Beltane fires were meant to imitate the sun while also offering some instruction on how you should start your Beltane fire:
“[T]he manner in which the fire appears to have been originally kindled on these occasions has been alleged in support of the view that it was intended to be a mock-sun. As some scholars have perceived, it is highly probable that at the periodic festivals in former times fire was universally obtained by the friction of two pieces of wood. We have seen that it is still so procured in some places both at the Easter and the midsummer festivals, and that it is expressly said to have been formerly so procured at the Beltane celebration both in Scotland and Wales. But what makes it nearly certain that this was once the invariable mode of kindling the fire at these periodic festivals is the analogy of the need-fire, which has almost always been produced by the friction of wood, and sometimes by the revolution of a wheel. It is a plausible conjecture that the wheel employed for this purpose represents the sun, and if the fires at the regularly recurring celebrations were formerly produced in the same way, it might be regarded as a confirmation of the view that they were originally sun-charms.”source: Balder The Beautiful, Vol. I. A Study In Magic And Religion: The Golden Bough, Part VII.
Frazer also notes that in Arran—an island off the coast of Scotland—friction fires were lit on Beltane to protect cattle (and humans) from a “great witch.” Learning this immediately made me think of the Czech Maya Day festival Pálení čarodějnic (“burning of the witches”) and Frazer himself effectively makes that connection, noting that “Beltane Eve or the Eve of May Day (Walpurgis Night) is the great witching time of the year throughout Europe,” and that “we may surmise that wherever bonfires have been ceremonially kindled on that day it has been done simply as a precaution against witchcraft; indeed this motive is expressly alleged not only in Scotland, but in Wales, the Isle of Man, and many parts of Central Europe.”
2. Play the black cake game (and prepare to jump through the flames).
For those of you who are young at heart, consider this Beltane game that Scottish boys in remote hamlets played well into the last century. Once again, I’m turning to Frazer, who in this case is quoting the parish minister of Callander (Callander being a district of Western Perthshire, Scotland). I’m including the full quote because A) it’s in the public domain, so why not? and B) I don’t want to leave out any of the many precise details Frazer recorded.
“Upon the first day of May, which is called Beltan, or Baltein day, all the boys in a township or hamlet, meet in the moors. They cut a table in the green sod, of a round figure, by casting a trench in the ground, of such circumference as to hold the whole company. They kindle a fire, and dress a repast of eggs and milk in the consistence of a custard. They knead a cake of oatmeal, which is toasted at the embers against a stone. After the custard is eaten up, they divide the cake into so many portions, as similar as possible to one another in size and shape, as there are persons in the company. They daub one of these portions all over with charcoal, until it be perfectly black. They put all the bits of the cake into a bonnet. Every one, blindfold, draws out a portion. He who holds the bonnet, is entitled to the last bit. Whoever draws the black bit, is the devoted person who is to be sacrificed to Baal, whose favour they mean to implore, in rendering the year productive of the sustenance of man and beast. There is little doubt of these inhuman sacrifices having been once offered in this country, as well as in the east, although they now pass from the act of sacrificing, and only compel the devoted person to leap three times through the flames; with which the ceremonies of this festival are closed.”source: Balder The Beautiful, Vol. I. A Study In Magic And Religion: The Golden Bough, Part VII.
Catch all that?
The bottom line: whoever pulls the black piece of Beltane cake has to make like Jack-be-Nimble and high tail it over the bonfire in an artificial sacrifice. But if you’re a stickler for rules and tradition and you really want to play the game correctly, the loser of the game (i.e., the one who picks the black piece of cake) must face a year’s worth of psychological torment in addition to suffering the mock sacrifice on Beltane.
Here, I’ll let Frazer explain:
“There was one particular piece which whoever got was called cailleach beal-tine—i.e., the Beltane carline, a term of great reproach. Upon his being known, part of the company laid hold of him and made a show of putting him into the fire; but the majority interposing, he was rescued. And in some places they laid him flat on the ground, making as if they would quarter him. Afterwards, he was pelted with egg-shells, and retained the odious appellation during the whole year. And while the feast was fresh in people’s memory, they affected to speak of the cailleach beal-tine as dead.”
3. Hang green boughs and flower garlands.
The hanging of green boughs above doorways and the weaving of flower garlands were common Beltane activities. Napier recounts houses in rural Scotland being decked with tree branches and flowers on May 1st, ditto the horses. Meanwhile, in Ireland, the tradition of setting up and decorating a May Bush in one’s front yard continues to be a popular May Day activity. To quote RTÉ:
“For those who don’t know, the May Bush is a piece of a whitethorn (known locally as a ‘skeagh’) or gorse/furze bush which is erected on the first of May or May Eve and decorated with painted eggshells, ribbons and seasonal flowers. In the past in Co. Wexford, small candles were also placed on the May Bush and in some cases these May Bushes were burnt that very night. Throughout north-east Wexford, bonfires were lit on this evening and this tradition is still alive in some areas to this day. These fires are a continuation of the ancient Bealtaine fire tradition that stretches back in time and gives the month of May its Irish name, Bealtaine, meaning bright light or bright fire.”
Traditionally, May Bushes were erected in Ireland to keep fairies away and to prevent them from tampering with crops and livestock. Hence, they’d be put in prominent places, like tied to a front gate or to the front fence of a dwelling.
While the May Bush was traditionally a small, domestic Beltane decoration, it had a more public “bigger sibling” in the form of the Maypole.
4. Make merry around a makeshift Maypole.
Let’s start with the basics: a Maypole is a tall pole adorned with flowers and ribbons that often serves as the focal point of Beltane and other European May Day celebrations. Revelers dance around the maypole, often holding onto long, colorful ribbons—at least that’s the image we’re always bombarded with. Historically, people did a lot more than dance. Irish surgeon and folklorist Sir William Wilde recalls a litany of ridiculous rituals performed around the Maypole in his 1852 work Irish Popular Superstitions.
“…running after a pig with a shaved and well-soaped tail, which was let loose in the middle of the throng; grinning through horse-collars for tobacco; leaping and running in sacks; foot races for men and women; dancing reels, jigs and hornpipes; ass races, in which each person rode or drove his neighbour’s beast, the last being declared the winner; blindfolded men trying to catch the bell-ringer; and also wrestling, hopping, and leaping.”
And while English Maypoles were decorated with garlands and floral hoops, Wilde notes that the Irish did things a bit differently:
“[The pole] was well soaped from top to bottom in order to render it more difficult to climb; and to its top were attached, in succession, the different prizes, consisting generally of a pair of leather breeches, a hat, or an old pinchbeck watch. Whoever climbed the pole and touched the prize, became its possessor.”
In some parishes of Ireland, Maypoles were kept in front of homes—especially in front of the homes of newlyweds. Here, I’ll let Mr. and Mrs. Hall explain how it worked:
“[T]he first May day after the wedding it is customary for the young men and maidens of the Parish to go into the woods and cut down the tallest tree, which they dressed up with ribbons, placing in the centre a large ball decorated with variously coloured paper and gilt. They then carried this in procession to the bride’s house, setting it up before the door, and commenced a dance about it which lasted all day.”source: Hall’s Ireland (1842)
In places where timber wasn’t plentiful, the revelers resorted to the aforementioned May Bush, but the rest of the post-wedding May Day ritual remained the same.
According to historian J. A. MacCulloch, Maypoles and May Bushes originated with Beltane. Rather than them being part of some separate European May Day ritual that later became incorporated into Beltane, MacCulloch speculates that the ritual of decorating and dancing around Maypoles is a direct offshoot of lighting Beltane fires. And I quote (highlighting is my own).
“One of the chief ritual acts at Beltane was the kindling of bonfires, often on hills. The house-fires in the district were often extinguished, the bonfire being lit by friction from a rotating wheel—the German “need-fire.” The fire kept off disease and evil, hence cattle were driven through it, or, according to Cormac, between two fires lit by Druids, in order to keep them in health during the year. Sometimes the fire was lit beneath a sacred tree, or a pole covered with greenery was surrounded by the fuel, or a tree was burned in the fire. These trees survive in the Maypole of later custom, and they represented the vegetation-spirit, to whom also the worshippers assimilated themselves by dressing in leaves. They danced sunwise round the fire or ran through the fields with blazing branches or wisps of straw, imitating the course of the sun, and thus benefiting the fields. For the same reason the tree itself was probably borne through the fields. Houses were decked with boughs and thus protected by the spirit of vegetation.”source: The Religion of the Ancient Celts (1911)
So there you have it. In one limber paragraph MacCulloch declares that Beltane fires lit beneath sacred trees kicked off the Maypole trend. Do you agree with this assessment? I’m not so sure I buy it.
My two cents: Isn’t it more likely that decorating trees and bushes in springtime was something multiple cultures arrived at independently?—especially when the equivalents of Maypoles appear in some pre-Columbian Latin American cultures, as well as in India and Northern Africa. With food production and, on a related note, the changing of the seasons being on the forefront of everybody’s minds back then, it seems plausible that multiple cultures would give thanks to an agricultural god/god of life and decorate using the flowers, greenery, and other springtime bounties provided by said god.
But I digress…
Actually, just a quick note before I digress: A lot of my research for this section came from the article “The Maypole Tradition in Ireland” (via The Fading Year blog). It’s a great resource if you want to learn more about Irish Maypole rituals.
5. Make merry…beneath the sheets.
Let’s not forget the fertility aspect of this ancient holiday…I mean, come on, weren’t you just reading about dancing around a giant phallus?
The ancient Celts viewed Beltane as the perfect time to bump uglies with that special someone. So if you want to honor your Celtic ancestors this Beltane, put on the Barry White (or Barry Manilow, whatever you’re into) and set the night on fire with your raucous Beltane love-making.
Final Thought: Beltane and Irish Mythology
Putting aside whether Beltane is a festival devoted to a god, or to the sun, or to both, it’s clear that Beltane was a significant date in Irish mythology. Nearly all of the arrivals of different legendary groups to Ireland occur on Beltane, including the Muintir Partholóin (People of Partholón), who settled in Ireland some 300 years after Noah’s flood; the Tuatha de Danann, the old gods of Ireland; and the invading Milesians, who drove the Tuatha de Danann underground.
It’s no coincidence that all of these major landings took place during Beltane. Just as Beltane is a celebration of new life, Partholón, the Tuatha de Danann, and the Milesians all came to Ireland to start new lives. With green plants sprouting and flowers blooming and the sun shining noticeably longer each day—and with the summer solstice just around the corner—Beltane was, and still is, an optimistic time to begin a new chapter in life.
Beltane: Springtime Rituals, Lore, & Celebration by Raven Grimassi
Beltane: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for May Day (Llewellyn’s Sabbat Essentials) by Melanie Marquis
The Ancient Celtic Festivals: And How We Celebrate Them Today by Clare Walker Leslie
The Turning of the Year: Lore and Legends of the Irish Seasons by Eithne Massey
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