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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Dydd Gwyl Dewi Dedwydd! Happy St David’s Day!

Feb 28, 2014 by

Dydd Gwyl Dewi Dedwydd!  Happy St David’s Day!

March 1st is the feast day of Saint David, otherwise known as Dewi Sant, a Celtic monk and bishop who became the patron saint of Wales.   In Wales, St David’s Day, or Dydd Gŵyl Dewi as it is known in Welsh, is celebrated as a national holiday, and symbols  of Welsh pride are proudly displayed throughout the country.

 

 

David was born in Wales—the only one of the four main UK saints to be born in the country he represents– near the end of the 5th century, possibly in Pembrokeshire.  He was a member of the royal Ceredigion family, the son of Sandde, Prince of Powys, and Non, daughter of a chieftain of Menevia, now the town of St David’s.   He founded a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosin (The Vale of Roses) on the western headland of Sir Benfro, at the spot where St David’s Cathedral stands today. In addition to being the patron saint of Wales, David is also the patron saint of doves; in almost all depictions of the saint, you’ll find a dove somewhere in the image.   Legend holds that a white dove alighted on David’s shoulder while he was preaching, thus marking him as blessed by God and forever a protector of the peaceful bird.

 

 

 

 

 

One well-known tradition associated with St David’s day (and one of my favorites) is the wearing of daffodils, the national flower of Wales, and a colorful symbol of the return of Spring.  Daffodils supposedly grew around the walls of St David’s monastery, and the flowers are also known as cenhinen pedr, “Peter’s leeks”.   More about leeks in a moment…

Many Welsh people (Cymry) dress in traditional attire, such as the conical black hat once worn by Welsh farm women or miners’ helmets and lamps representative of Wale’s long history of mining.

 

 

 

 

Another plant worn proudly on St David’s Day is the patriotic national vegetable of Wales, the humble leek.     Leeks are wonderful cooked in soups and stews and breads, but why would you WEAR one? 

Well, the custom allegedly came about because St David ordered his soldiers (who were also probably monks) to wear leeks on their helmets as they went to battle against the pagan Saxon invaders. Or maybe it was King Cadwaladr of Gwyned who ordered the soldiers to strap on the leeks before the battle against the Saxon foes. It’s even possible that adoration of the leek pre-dates St David, stemming instead from ancient druidic practice in Wales, when the medicinal properties of leeks would have been highly valued.  According to Shakespeare, King Henry V wore a leek in honor of his Welsh heritage; soldiers in modern Welsh regiments carry on the tradition by pinning leeks pinned to their uniforms as a symbol of national pride. 

   Whatever the source of the tradition, the leek is firmly rooted in Welsh hearts and attire as their national allium.

 

 

If you don’t want to wear the leek, try cooking it in this recipe for cawl, a traditional Welsh soup served on St David’s Day. I usually add lamb to mine, but it is just as tasty without any meat.

 

 

 

St David has his own flag, a gold cross on a black background, which you’ll likely see flown alongside the national Welsh flag, with Y Ddraig Goch, the red dragon of Wales, emblazoned on a green and white (leek colors) background.

 

 

 

Want to learn the national anthem of Wales, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Old Land of Our Fathers) but worried you won’t know the correct pronunciations? This video has the lyrics for you in Welsh, phonetic Welsh and English:

 

 

 

Wishing you a wondeful St David’s Day, beautiful Celtic people–CYMRU AM BYTH!** WALES FOREVER!

 

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**Cymru am Byth is pronounced KUHM-ree ahm BITH

 

Sources and more info about St David’s Day and Wales:

St David’s Day, Wikipedia.org

St David’s Day National Parade, stdavidsday.org

www.walesonline.co.uk

The Leek: National Emblem of Wales, Historic-uk.com  and St David

Saint David, Catholicsaints.org

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Pentre Ifan Dolmen

Jan 27, 2014 by

 

The Pentre Ifan Dolmen is an ancient stone tomb in Nevern, Pembrokeshire, and one of the most well-preserved neolithic sites in Wales.   It is located atop a high hill and has sweeping views of the surrounding fields and down to the coastline and Cardigan Bay.   The dolmen dates from approximately 3,500 B.C , which means Pentre Ifan may be 1,000 years older than the more famous Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England.   Its original use remains a mystery; some scholars theorize it may have been a communal burial chamber (although no evidence of graves has been found) while others theorize it may have been a ritual center for  local peoples.

Originally covered by a large, oblong mound of dirt, the dolmen was excavated in the 1930’s and the 1950’s, revealing the standing support stones and capstone of the tomb.  The capstone weighs over 16 tons and points towards the nearby Nevern River.

Other dolmens, such as Poulnabrone in The Burren, County Clare, Ireland, are relatively small in size, but Pentre Ifan is tall enough for people to stand upright under the capstone.   In the 19th century engraving seen below,  a pair of  horsemen take shelter inside the ancient chamber:

Wales is a Celtic country, of course, so any mysterious place is bound to have fairies nearby, and Pentre Ifan is no exception.   Local legend has it that the Tylwyth Teg, the Welsh name for the sidhe or fairy race of beings,  frolic  around the ancient stones at night.   It isn’t hard to imagine Pentre Ifan as one of the “thin places” between our world and the world of the Others, where careful mortals on a dark night might just catch a glimpse of the Fairy Queen and her King striding out from the stones.  Anything is possible in the Celtic realm…

SOURCES:

http://www.wondermondo.com/Countries/E/Wales/Pembrokeshire/PentreIfan.htm

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/wales/posts/60_years_pembrokeshire_coast_national_park

http://www.extrageographic.org/magazine/travel/2008/080901_pentre_ifan_dolmen.html

http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/site/117/#images

http://office23.jimdo.com/antiquities/dolmen/pentre-ifan/

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