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.

 

 

indexbeltane

 

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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