After our post about Samhain, the Celtic festival that Halloween derived from, we decided to take a look at the other important festivals that the Celts celebrated throughout the year. It turns out there are more than a few of them! Two major concepts for the Celts were those of light and dark, and they navigated their yearly calendar around this; a dark half of the year and a light half of the year. The dark half of the year was heralded during Samhain (at the end of October), while the light half was said to begin at Bealtaine (at the end of May). It’s no coincidence that the two festivals also tie in with the Spring and Autumn equinoxes – in fact, the whole Celtic calendar revolved around the position of the sun in the sky – as well as the start and end of harvesting season. There are also another two festivals in between Bealtaine and Samhain, dividing the year into quarters; Imbolc and Lughnasa.
What happened during Bealtaine?
Bealtaine celebrated the end of the dark half of the year and the coming of the light half of the year, as well as the start of the harvesting season. It was the biggest and most important festival of the whole year and was not only celebrated by Irish Celts, but also in Scotland and the Isle of Man under slightly different spellings (Bealltainn and Boaltinn or Boaldyn respectively). Celebrating Bealtaine involved many rituals, most of them involving fire, which is why the festival is sometimes known as the Celtic Fire festival. Even the name Bel Taine translates into ‘bright fire’. The focal point of the festival was bonfires, the source of the fire used in all of the rituals and the central point for the celebrations. As well as fire ceremonies, cattle were also lead out to pasture at Bealtaine, after being subjected to some rituals of course. Just like Samhain, at Bealtaine fairies and supernatural beings were said to be particularly active. Various practices were undertaken to ensure they weren’t offended or caused no more trouble than usual, although the risk was not as great as at Samhain, when supernatural forces could freely pass in and out of the mortal world.
Bealtaine was a very busy time for Celtic society. Crops were being planted and animals needed to be taken upland away from them. Often women and children went with the animals while the men stayed to sow the crops on the land. The men of the community often took the opportunity to court certain women in preparation for the winter marriage season. Ewes were then separated from lambs to prepare them for breeding. Rents were owed to the local chieftain in the form of animal produce such as cheese and butter. An increase in raids and battles would also occur around this time, since the various Celtic tribes would have downed tools during the winter months. Temporary marriage and employment contracts also ended around this time, so many people were looking for new wives, husbands or jobs!
Also like Samhain, the festival of Bealtaine was packed full of various rituals, the most important of which was the lighting of at least one, often two, and sometimes several huge bonfires. The flames, smoke and ashes were deemed sacred. Both people and cattle would walk around the bonfire or between two bonfires, sometimes even jumping over flames, to gain protection, health and wealth. Household fires would be put out and then re-lit using flames from the central bonfire. A small amount of animal blood was used as a sacrifice for the gods. At the Hill of Uisneach in county Westmeath, evidence of huge bonfires and animal bones have been found, suggesting that this was a place of great ritual significance, where the biggest festivals celebrations occurred.
To placate the fairies and any otherworldly forces that may have targeted homes, milk was poured across threshold. Sprigs of rowan or hawthorn, sacred trees for the Celts, were also placed around the structures and even on the horns of cows to ensure they kept producing milk and calves. Yellow flowers were often used in addition or instead of tree branches, as the colour yellow was reminiscent of the sun – this was also why fire was so significant during Bealtaine. Another important custom, oddly enough, was to avoid strangers and refuse requests or offers to share anything. Although the opposite was the norm in Celtic society, during Bealtaine sharing meant risking your share of prosperity in the coming year. Essentially, anything that could be done to guard personal fortune and belongings was done.
Whatever happened on Bealtaine was taken as an indication of people’s fortunes for the rest of the year. So if something such as an injury or death happened around that time, there would have been a lot of despondent Celts! Since the veils between the mortal and immortal worlds were thin, appeals were often made to otherworldly beings for knowledge and information that would help them in the coming year. In the same way that the festival fire was deemed sacred, so was the earth, the dew on the grass, and the first water taken from a spring the next day. It was said to be particularly powerful, with healing and protective properties.
Of course, an integral part of the Bealtaine festival, and all other Celtic festivals for that matter, was the feast. At Bealtaine, crops had just been sowed, so the feast was not as elaborate as other festivals – it mainly existed to use up the last of that winter’s stores before they spoiled. Some rather uninspiring dishes would have included porridge, wood sorrel, seaweed, and dairy products.
Customs in other regions
Although Bealtaine was celebrated across Ireland and Britain, the customs differed slightly between regions. In the Isle of Man, instead of lighting bonfires, gorse bushes were lit on fire instead. This was a much more practical solution to building a central bonfire, as burning the bushes cleared the fields and readied them for crop planting. There are also reports of animal sacrifice through burning, and a special method for making protective wood – one branch was split down the centre with another branch fitted in crosswise. They were often attached to cow’s tails to offer protection.
During medieval times Bealtaine was still celebrated in these areas even after the Celts had long died out or integrated with society. Customs became more elaborate and included processions down the streets, bigger and better feasts, and often planned out battles between two groups fighting on behalf of the deities. Farmers would beat the boundaries of their fields, leaving flowers or protective water at each border. Drums and music were played to frighten away evil spirits, while farmers stood guard at their wells to make sure nobody stole their water, and thus their luck for the year! There are also records of a somewhat more unusual ritual, in which two men, one dressed as a woman, and acted as man and wife for a day, escorted through the streets by decorated townspeople. It’s very possible that this tradition, odd as it may seem, was a remnant of old Celtic roleplaying during Bealtaine.
Myths, Gods and Bealtaine
Many historians have associated Bealtaine with the Celtic god of fire and light, Belenos. Meaning ‘bright’ or ‘shining’, not much is known about Belenos other than some inscriptions and sculptures, which mostly occurred in Roman dominated areas in mainland Europe. Roman scholars have written some facts about the god however. He has been touted as the patron of several Northern Italian towns including Aquileia, Concordia, Rimini, and also the French towns of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Provence and Aquitaine. In images and carvings, Belenos is depicted as an old man wearing a tunic with solar symbols. He has been described as a protector of towns as well as a healer and promoter of happiness and fertility.
Irish mythology attests that there were three groups of people who invaded Ireland during Bealtaine. The most significant invasion was by the Memedians, whose leader Mide immediately went to the hill of Uisneach and built a fire that lasted for seven years to claim the land as his own. Since then, Uisneach has been the site of all important religious events, while the other prestigious ceremonial site, the Hill of Tara, was reserved for Samhain celebrations.
There is also much evidence that points towards the legendary mythological hero, Fionn MacCumhaill, as having strong associations with Bealtaine. His name, for one, means ‘bright’ or ‘shining white’, and has been attributed with superhuman powers such as healing, shape shifting, and incredible strength and fighting prowess. In one mythical story, Fionn fought and defeated a monster named Ailenn, a monster of darkness that would annually attack everyone gathered at Samhain, first by lulling them to sleep and then by breathing fire over them. Finally Fionn resisted the sleep spell and killed Ailenn at with his spear. Since the spear is the weapon of the solar gods and Fionn himself had a god-like status, there are obvious connotations of light defeating dark in this story, which is what Bealtaine was all about; welcoming the light half of the year after the dark.
Although traditional Bealtaine celebrations had largely died out by the 20th century, in recent years the festival has been enjoying a revival. Since 1988, the city of Edinburgh has held a Beltane (as its known in Scotland) fire festival on Calton Hill, overlooking the city and castle. Bealtaine fair days or weekend festivals can be found in some places in Ireland over the May Bank Holiday weekend, ranging from music and arts festivals to local community gatherings to new age gatherings of neo-pagans and wicca groups. Although the activities and motives may have changed since Celtic times, the basic sentiment is still the same; communities coming together to welcome the summer and hope for good fortune.