You may have heard of or read about the Bealtaine Fires, or that the month of May is called Bealtaine in Irish, but what is the story behind this? The ancient feast of Bealtaine (this is the Irish version of the spelling, it may also be found as the Anglicized Beltane, the Scottish Gaelic Bealltaine or the Manx Boaltinn and Boaldyn) is a Pagan celebration that is mainly connected to Ireland, Scotland, the Gaels, and maybe Celts in general.
It has, however, parallels in many other regions and cultures.
Bealtaine in a Nutshell
Generally speaking, the feast of Bealtaine marks the beginning of summer, and is strongly associated with fire and fertility rituals. Lighting bonfires, putting up May Bushes, home decorating with flowers, visiting places of power like holy wells, and a abundant celebration of life and living are typical traditions.
Marking the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, Bealtaine in the northern hemisphere (and hence originally) is observed on May 1st. However, according to ancient custom the day ended at sunset, hence the Bealtaine celebrations kick off on the evening of April 30th, often lasting all through the night.
Temperatures may well indicate otherwise, despite global warming.
The Irish Bealtaine Tradition
The feast of Bealtaine can be found mentioned several times in early Irish literature, indicating both its importance (by warranting a mention at all), and the general knowledge about what was going on during the festivities (and thus not warranting a detailed explanation).
Several key elements of Irish mythology seem to have taken place at or around Bealtaine, though the chronology may have been a bit dubious at times.
The historian Geoffrey Keating, albeit writing in the 17th century, mentions a large, central gathering at the Hill of Uisneach on Bealtaine as late as the middle ages (a frustratingly undefined period). This seems to have involved a sacrifice to a pagan god, named as "Beil" in Keating's notes. Alas, Keating provides no source and the older annals do not make mention of this practice - he may simply have taken "inspiration" from early Irish fiction here.
Cattle and Bonfires
What seems to be sure is that Bealtaine was regarded for all practical purposes as the beginning of the summer season in a largely agricultural society. This being the date when cattle had to leave the sheds and were driven onto the summer pastures, left to fend for themselves most of the time. It also indicates a tradition coming from a society that was not yet totally settled - as Frazer points out in "The Golden Bough", the date of Bealtaine was seemingly of very little importance to those growing crops, of huge importance to herdsmen.
During these cattle drives, protective rituals were performed, many involving bonfires.
There is, for instance, a tradition that cattle would be driven through a gap between two huge, blazing bonfires. Which must have been quite a feat. And not only a religious moment, but also a good time for the herders to show of skill, prowess and daring. The Gaelic versions of Chris LeDoux, so to say, as no doubt a good sing-along would follow.
But this seemingly bizarre ritual may also have had a very practical foundation - there is a school of thought that claims that by driving the cattle through the gap, the herders would induce parasites to jump ship (or rather cow) in fear of getting burned. A case of "cleansing by fire" if ever there was one.
The ash from the bonfires was also used as a fertilizer. And the bonfires were made of ... cut-offs of unwanted growths that had to be cleared anyway for the new season.
So it all made very much practical sense. And was a spectacle too.
Playing With Fire
Of course ... light a bonfire and the young men will dare each other to play around with it. Having already shown who is master of the cowherd, now was the time for some serious posing. Juggle firebrands, jump through the flames, try to impress the females. Yes, it was a mating ritual, too – look at me, ladies, how nimble and daring I am!
The more sedate, older generations would, however, use the flames for their own, mostly domestic rituals. It is said that the home fires were extinguished before Bealtaine, the cleaned fireplace then relit with a firebrand taken from the Bealtaine fire. Emphasizing the bond within the tribe or extended family - all sharing the same flame, heating their individual homes with what could be regarded as the same fire.
Decorating the May Bush
Apart from houses, especially doorways and windows, being decorated with flowers, the "May Bush" seems to have been an important part of the celebrations in many communities. Attested in parts of Ireland up to the end of the 19th century as a living tradition, this was basically small thorn tree, decorated with flowers, but also ribbons and shells. Many communities had a communal May Bush set up in a central location. As a focus for festivities.
And as a focus for mischief - it was quite common for neighboring communities to attempt to steal each other's May Bushes. Leading from friendly rivalry to broken heads at times.
With dances around the May Bush, the burning of the bush after the festivities and the attempt to sneak it away ... all of this is very reminiscent of the Continental customs involving the May Pole. Which lead some researchers to believe that the May Bush actually is an import into Ireland, not a native tradition.
Playing With Fire in the Bushes
Readers of high fantasy novels (like “The Mists of Avalon”) will know that Bealtaine was also a time for ... sex. After getting their adrenalin flowing, and testosterone pumping, and some general merrymaking, the young men would snatch up the nubile maidens and have some fun. Oh, well, as with any big event (think of the Bealtaine festivities as the rock festivals of their time), you will always have this. Whether it was an integral part is anybody's guess. What is traditional is the belief that dew gathered on Bealtaine would make an excellent rejuvenating skin-cleaner.
Modern Bealtaine celebrations and neo-Pagans often emphasize this aspect, be it real or just assumed, with loads of (semi-)nudity and so on.
This, again, chimes in with traditional beliefs in Continental Europe - Bealtain in Germany would be called Walpurgisnacht and be the designated night for witches to gather around a bonfire and have ... wild sex. Preferably, of course, with the devil and his minions. Goethe immortalized this tradition in his "Faust" and the Brocken in the Harz mountains still draws the crowds on the night ...
Bealtaine in Ireland Today
As Ireland was dragged kicking and screaming into the industrial age, agricultural festivals tended to wither away. And those with Pagan roots not adopted by the Catholic church went even faster. In consequence, the celebration of Bealtaine had largely come to a halt by the middle of the 20th century, with bonfires being the last really visible signs of the old tradition. And the Irish name of the month of May - Mí Bhealtaine.
Only in County Limerick and around Arklow (County Wicklow) do Bealtaine customs have to survived longer. In other areas, a revival was attempted. There is now a fire festival on or around Bealtaine at the Hill of Uisneach.
Neo-Pagans, Wiccans and those keen on reconstructing (or inventing) a "Celtic" religious system tend to observe Bealtaine in many ways, as diverse as the traditions they (claim to) belong to. It is generally a life-affirming feast with an emphasis on the start of the warm season. Nudity optional.