Today (May 1) is Bealtaine; happy first day of summer to you all! But, what exactly is Beltaine?
A short perusal of online resources about Bealtaine quickly conflates every “fire festival” tradition together in an unfortunate mish-mash. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do like to know the difference between one festival and another and the later Christian traditions that have come to replace them. So, here’s a summary of what Bealtaine is really be about in an Irish context.
First of all, I should clarify that I use the spelling Bealtaine, instead of Beltain or Beltane because it’s the Irish spelling and this site is about Ireland. If you want to use the Manx, Scottish, English, or any other spelling, go ahead. The ceremonies and traditions of Bealtaine originated long before anyone wrote a blog post about them, so there is no “correct” spelling.
Bealtaine is a fire festival, one of four quarter days (although some call them the “cross-quarter” days, and refer to the solstices and equinoxes as the quarter days — potato/potato in my opinion) that mark the beginning of one season and the start of the next. (These are Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lúnasa, in the order that they fall during the Celtic year.) It marks the end of spring and the start of summer. There is often some confusion because these seasonal divisions of the Gaelic calendar do not align perfectly with the modern one. This is because there are many ways of dividing up a year (meteorologically, astronomically, agriculturally, etc.) and the Gaelic calendar, besides being what the Gaelic tribes apparently followed, makes most sense in relation to growing seasons in Ireland.
A fire festival uses bonfires as the ceremonial centerpiece to symbolize the end of one season and the start of the next. (So-called primitive cultures were remarkably on-the-money in understanding the importance of the sun to life on this planet.) Bealtaine marks the transition from the season of rebirth to the season of planting and the fattening of animals, the most-vital period of the year if people want to eat through the following winter. It’s been suggested that originally the festival was of primary importance to nomadic herders, as it marks the point where summer pastures were capable of supporting large herds — however, I do not know enough about ancient agriculture to know if they could or did plant crops before Bealtaine.
People traditionally celebrate Bealtaine with a bonfire on a hilltop. The Hill of Uisneach in Co. Westmeath, which is the ceremonial center of Ireland (or omphalos, meaning navel), boasts a massive carved rock, the Ail na Míreann (stone of the divisions) on the site, and this is regarded as the place where the original five provinces (or divisions) of Ireland met. On Bealtaine, a bonfire would be lit on top of this hill, and other bonfires would then be lit on other hilltops once the first could be seen. Having stood on top of many of the hills of Meath and Westmeath, this seems likely, as the land is flat enough to see a great distance from any one of them. What a sight Bealtaine night must have been without modern light pollution! *
Many of these bonfires would have actually been twin bonfires, as herds of cattle would be driven between them for protection and luck (although in some areas of the country this occurs on St. John’s night).
The May Bush
The maypole is a later tradition imported from England, and never seems to have been very widespread in Ireland; accounts of maypoles cluster around Dublin. However, the May Bush is an ancient tradition throughout the country. There are many alternate names for this tradition: the rag bush/tree, a Fairy tree, wishing tree, etc.. A May Bush is usually a hawthorn tree that grows near a holy well (and really, every well was sacred). The hawthorn generally blooms around Bealtaine, and is taken to be a good sign that the summer will be fruitful.
People tie clotties, strips of colored cloth, on the may bushes to symbolize their prayers and wishes for the year ahead. It’s likely that the more important focus of attention however was the well beside the bush, as that would have been the source of clean fresh drinking water for families in the immediate vicinity. An old Bealtaine tradition involved the local farmer/landowner guarding the well overnight in order to be the first to drink from the well at sunrise. It was feared that the Sidhe, or fairyfolk, would otherwise poison or foul the well. Perhaps the clotties originally had a roll as offerings to appease their mischievous spirits? It’s also possible that this “topping the well” tradition came about later as one of the Christian church’s many ways to symbolically demonize the old beliefs.
I’ve recently read of may trees being decorated on Bealtaine before being ritually burned at the end of the celebration in a conflation of several traditions and practices. My impression is that this was a later and never very widespread practice influenced by the importation of the may pole tradition combined with the old practice of tying clotties. (If anyone can point me towards more-detailed accounts of this practice, please leave a comment.) No farmer would cut down a real may bush, as it would be terribly bad luck to anger the spirits so! (That’s why many you’ll see around Ireland this month are all on their own, the rest of the field might have been cleared, but the fairy tree remains.)
Offerings of Flowers
Yellow was said to be a color that the Sidhe did not like, and in effect it acted as a kind of fairy repellant. Yellow is perhaps the color most in evidence in the run-up to Bealtaine, with primroses, cowslips, marigold and furze all in bloom (although, the daffodils would likely be gone, unless the winter lingered). A small bouquet of yellow flowers would be tied above a doorway, or left on window sills and thresholds, or yellow petals scattered on the threshold to prevent evil spirits entering. (It’s always struck me as odd that blossoms would just be left to wilt on the sills, rather than placed in water to extend their life.) The doors of animal pens and byres were protected just as much as dwellings. In fact, small posies would often be tied to the tails of horses or cattle as extra insurance. Today, we make do with a vase full of fresh flowers in the window, and not always yellow ones.
Those are the major traditions of Bealtaine as practiced in Ireland. As always, it’s hard to separate the “original” beliefs and practices from the later influences of Christian practice (especially as the oldest Irish myths were first written down by Christian scribes) and foreign influences. However, it is always fun to read about folklore, compare traditions, and speculate.
* The repetition of traditions concerning a succession of bonfires being lit on hills across several Gaelic festivals lends an added layer of intrigue to Graham Robb’s theories about mediolana (holy centers/middle places) in his fascinating book The Discovery of Middle Earth (published as The Ancient Paths in the UK). Read more about Robb’s book here…
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