Beltane, Celtic May Day

Apr 30, 2015 by

May 1st is traditionally celebrated in the Celtic countries as Beltane, an ancient feast honoring the beginning of the summer season.

It occurs midway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. For the ancient Gaelic speaking peoples, Beltane rituals were performed to protect their cattle, ensure fertility, and to ward off fairies known as the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Beltane welcome

The May Queen welcomes Beltane at Edinburgh’s festival. Original image by chrisdonia on Flickr

The name “Beltane” ( rhymes with airplane) is thought to have come from the ancient Irish: Bel from the ancient Celtic god Bel or Belenus, and the Old Irish word tene, meaning fire. In Irish, it is Bealtaine, in Scottish, Bealltainn and in Manx Gaelic, Boaltinn or Boaldyn.

My favorite Beltane song is Jethro Tull’s magical ” Beltane:

Have you ever stood in the April wood
And called the new year in?
And while the phantoms of three thousand years fly
As the dead leaves spin?

There’s a snap in the grass behind your feet
And a tap upon your shoulder
And the thin wind crawls along your neck
It’s just the old God’s getting older

And the kestrel drops like a fall of shot and
The red cloud hanging high a come, a Beltane
A come, a Beltane…

Beltane was celebrated in some form in all of the Celtic countries. Here’s a lovely Beltane song sung in Welsh:

Although not a traditional Beltane song, Wild Mountain Thyme is a wonderful song about the coming of summer. It’s been covered by many artists, including the Chieftains, Rod Stewart, The Corries and more.  Here’s the inimitable Van Morrison doing his stellar version, entitled Purple Heather:

In Scotland, Edinburgh holds a HUGE Beltane festival every year, complete with pagan fertility gods and fire. It is put on by the Beltane Fire Society  and is quite popular with tourists from around the world. The fest combines traditional Gaelic Beltane rituals with neo-paganism to create unique, rolling party/play. This video gives you an idea of how Edinburgh celebrates the arrival of summer–caution, includes pagan nudity:

In Cornwall, Beltane is celebrated with the Obby ‘Oss tradition, in which a dancer dressed as a stylized black horse dances through the streets, trying to “capture” young maidens under his black cape.  “Teasers” chase the horse through the street (albeit slowly, in parade fashion), towards the May pole, whereupon the ‘oss is returned to his stable til next year. The origins of this Cornish fertility fest are ancient, but somewhat obscure; it is definitely pre-Christian and Celtic, possibly connected to the worship of horse deities such as Epona.

 

 You don’t have to be pagan to enjoy Beltane. Just fire up the BBQ grill, crank up the Celtic music and invite all your rowdy friends over to party like a Celt.

Happy Beltane!

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The Fires of Beltane

Apr 28, 2014 by

Beltane is the ancient Gaelic fire festival of Spring, traditionally observed midway between the Spring equinox and the Summer solstice, and equivalent in importance to the festival of Samhain for the Celts. It was widely observed in some form throughout the Celtic lands, especially in Ireland , Scotland and  the Isle of Man. Both days were times when the veil between this world and the Otherworld, the land of the aos sí , became thin, allowing travel between the two realms. Ritual bonfires were lit for purification of livestock and homes, an all night communal event.  Beltane was also a fertility festival, marking the beginning of the summer planting season and the creation and birth of new plants and animals.

Although most Beltane rituals had died out by the early 20th century, the festival has made a comeback in recent years, especially among Celtic neopagans, Celtic Reconstructionists and Wiccans.

 

 

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Like Samhain, Beltane ritual involved fire, specifically large bonfires that were sacred and used to purify and protect homes and farm animals. Cattle were driven between two bonfires  or over the embers and smoke as a means of protection from bad fortune and to encourage growth in the coming months. People would walk around the bonfires or jump over them for the same reasons, hoping to to ward off bad spirits and ensure good fortune in the coming season; fire from the ritual bonfires was brought home and used to light new fires in the hearth, with the belief the Beltane fire would purify the home and bring prosperity and good health to the family.

 

 

 

 

Today, Beltane is usually observed on May 1st each year, although in the ancient world there was no set date for the festival. The ancient Celts held their Beltane rituals when the hawthorn trees began to bloom, or on the full moon nearest that time.  The hawthorn tree held a special place in the lore of Ireland, where farmers would plough around the trees rather than dig them up, for fear of angering the fairies who were thought to live in and under the trees. Legend said that hawthorn flowers could heal a broken heart, but the flowers were never to be brought inside the home because to do so would invite illness, bad luck, even death to enter the house.

 

Blooming hawthorn tree and spring lamb, County Mayo, Ireland

Blooming hawthorn tree and spring lamb, County Mayo, Ireland

 

In Scotland, Edinburgh holds a large Beltane Fire Festival every year on Carlton Hill, an event that is more of an arts and music festival than a strict interpretation of the traditional Scottish Bealltainn rituals.  The event is hugely popular, drawing crowds from around the world to watch the arrival of the May Queen and the Green Man, whose dance symbolizes the fertility aspect of the ancient fire fest.

 

 

One of my favorite Beltane songs from Scotsman Ian Anderson and his group, Jethro Tull:

Have you ever stood in the April wood
And called the new year in?
And while the phantoms of three thousand years fly
As the dead leaves spin?

There’s a snap in the grass behind your feet
And a tap upon your shoulder
And the thin wind crawls along your neck
It’s just the old God’s getting older

And the kestrel drops like a fall of shot and
The red cloud hanging high a come, a Beltane
A come, a Beltane….

Beltane, Jethro Tull

 

Lá Bealtaine sona daoibh!  Happy Beltane to All! 

(Irish Gaelic)

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Apr 30, 2013 by

To the pastoral Celtic people of Europe the changing pattern of the seasons was a matter of life and death, and marking these changes key moments in the life of the community. Beltane – “bright fire” – was one such marker celebrated in various forms across Ireland, Scotland and Man as the starting point of summer. A celebration of the time of light and growth to come, Beltane was associated with a variety of practices, from the display of fresh greenery to the baking of Beltane bannocks. Perhaps the most important element, however, was the lighting of Beltane fires on the first of May, which would recall the growing power of the sun and provide an opportunity to cleanse and renew the conditions of a community – both humans and their animals – that had spent the dark months indoors. In Scotland, the lighting of Beltane fires -round which cattle were drive, over which brave souls danced and leapt – would survive into modern times, although a process of slow decline saw towns and villages slowly abandon the practice in the nineteenth century. The last beltane fire recorded in Helmsdale took place in 1820. In the middle years of the century the fires of Fife spluttered out, and by the 1870s they would go unlit in the Shetland Isles. By the start of the twentieth century, Edinburgh, which had for time immemorial seen beacons lit on Arthur’s Seat, ceased such public beltane celebrations. In 1988 Edinburgh’s Beltane fires were brought to life once more, led by Angus Farquhar – then of industrial band Test Dept, who took part in the first Beltane performance – now of NVA. The inspiration here was the idea of recreating a sense of community and an appreciation of the cyclical nature of the seasons and our connection to the environment. With the aid of choreographer Lindsay John and a folklorist Margaret Bennet of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies, this first performance drew on existing folk traditions surrounding beltane to create a modern celebration of the festival which has continued to grow and evolve as the years have went by. This first modern beltane saw only five performers take to Calton Hill, watched by an audience of fifty to a hundred people. Within five years this had grown to several hundred performers and three thousand audience members, during which time the Society came into place to support the continuation of the festival. While Arthur’s Seat had traditionally been the location for Edinburgh’s Beltane celebrations, at the time of the planning of the ‘new’ Beltane Festival a location was needed that was more accessible and central, while still maintaining an association with nature and the environment. Calton Hill also at that time had a bad reputation relating to sex and drugs and was a ‘no go’ area of the city, and part of the aim was to ‘reclaim’ that space for the local community through our celebrations.

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Apr 30, 2013 by

Edinburgh Beltane Fire Festival 2012 – Red Beastie Drummers

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May 1, 2012 by

“Maias” – Beltane traditions and rituals in Portugal

Image: The young Maias – young girls dressed in white, with a crown of flowers on their head – Alentejo region (South Portugal).

It’s a spring tradition whose origins are lost in time. Historically, the ritual of the Maias happens on the night of April 30 to May 1. According to the tradition, all the doors and windows of the houses must be adorned with yellow broom (Shrub) flowers and straw dolls. Present in several regions of the country, the tradition reveals different aspects in each, but a common denominator: the yellow broom flowers. In the regions of Trás-os-Montes, northern Portugal (Gallaecia) and Beiras (Central Portugal), these flowers appear associated with chestnuts, as evidenced by the saying “He who does not eat nuts on the 1st May, is cursed by the donkey”. According to tradition, May is the month of donkeys and ritual aims to ward off evil spirits (the ‘May’, the ‘tick’ or the ‘donkey’).

In Tras-os-Montes this ritual coexists with the “Maio Moço” (May-Lad, in English) : young girls decorating a boy (the May-lad) leading to walk down the street to a great uproar, with dancing and singing around him. There are several explanations for the origin of this tradition. One says that Maia would be a rye straw doll and it was customary to dance around it all night on May 1. Another possibility is linked to the origin of the name of the month of May, emerged from Maia, mother of Mercury.

In the region of Extremadura, Maia is a girl adorned with flowers that goes through the village streets with her companions. In the Alentejo region, especially in Beja, the Maias are girls dressed in white, with a crown of flowers on their head, sitting in a chair at the door of the house on the corner of a street or square. However her friends ask passers “one penny for Maya.” In the region of the Algarve is customary to place by the doorstep of the houses rye straw dolls dressed in rags. In the city of Lagos tradition returns every year, with the election of the most beautiful Maia in the city. Source: http://www.lifecooler.com/edicoes/lifecooler/desenvRegArtigo.asp?art=14841&rev=2

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May 1, 2012 by

‘Beltane’ ~ Jethro Tull

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