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 (sometimes spelled in various ways including Boaldyn Beltany, Beltain, Beltainne, Bealtaine or Beltaine) 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.,
What is Bealtaine?
The feast of Bealtaine is celebrated in Ireland on May 1st and marks the beginning of summer. The festival is closely associated with fire and fertility rituals. Lighting bonfires, putting up May Bushes, decorating homes with flowers, visiting places with special healing powers like holy wells, and an abundant celebration of life are the most common traditions which are still seen in some parts of Ireland today.
Marking the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, Bealtaine is observed in Ireland on the first day of May (with the entire month of May being known as Bealtaine in Irish). 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.
Along with Samhain, Imbolc, and Lughnasadh, Bealtaine is one of Ireland's ancient seasonal festivals. Even in modern Ireland, May 1st is considered to be the first day of summer (even if cool temperatures suggest that the warmest season is still weeks away).
The celebration of Bealtaine traditionally marks the end of the dark season and the beginning of the light season, with its longer days. The idea of light is reinforced with the holiday's close symbolic association with fire.
The Irish Bealtaine Tradition
The feast of Bealtaine can be found mentioned several times in early Irish literature, and key moments in Irish mythology seem to have taken place at or around Bealtaine.
The historian Geoffrey Keating, writing about the festival in the 17th century, mentions a large, central gathering at the Hill of Uisneach on Bealtaine as late as the middle ages. 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.
Though the details of the ancient rituals are hazy, early May would have been a very busy time in the Celtic calendar. This was an important period for crops and livestock, for paying rent, and even for waging battle against other tribes after taking a winter break from warring.
Cattle and Bonfires
What seems to be sure is that Bealtaine was treated for all practical purposes as the beginning of the summer season in a largely agricultural society. This was the time of year 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 would seem to matter less to people growing crops but would have been 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.
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 abandon the cow in fear of getting burned. The tradition may have been a true "cleansing by fire" and it was certainly a symbolic one - flames and smoke were thought to have protective qualities.
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. At the end of the day, it all made very much practical sense and put on a pretty fun show at the same time.
Playing With Fire
Of course, the bonfire was not only used by the cows. Having already shown who is master of the cowherd, now was the time for some serious posing. Young men would take the opportunity to show off in hopes of impressing a future wife. The Bealtaine fires were used by the most daring men to show off juggling firebrands and to even jump through the flames.
The more sedate, older generations would use the flames for their own, mostly domestic, rituals. It is said that the home fires were extinguished before Bealtaine, the fireplace was cleaned and then relit with a firebrand taken from the Bealtaine fire. The fire ritual emphasized 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.
As for water, it was traditionally believed that dew gathered on Bealtaine would make an excellent rejuvenating skin-cleaner.
Decorating the May Bush
Yellow flowers are also a symbol associated with Bealtaine. Houses, especially doorways and windows, were decorated with fresh blooms, and the "May Bush" seems to have been an important part of the celebrations in many communities. The tradition of the May Bush survived in Ireland up to the end of the 19th century and was essentially a small thorn tree, decorated with flowers, as well as ribbons and shells. Many communities had a communal May Bush set up in a central location as a focal point for festivities.
It was quite common for neighboring communities to attempt to steal each other's May Bushes to create a bit of entertaining mischief. The tradition was usually based on friendly rivalry but could also turn into true bad feelings.
Mostly the May Bush was used to dance around, but some might burn the bush after the festivities or attempt to sneak it away - all of which is closely related to other countries' customs involving the May Pole. This has led some researchers to believe that the May Bush actually is an import into Ireland, not a native tradition.
Bealtaine as a Fertility Ritual
Readers of high fantasy novels (like “The Mists of Avalon”) will know that Bealtaine was also a time for fertility. After getting their adrenalin flowing, and testosterone pumping, and some general merrymaking jumping through fire, the young men would snatch up the local maidens. Remember that Bealtaine festivities would have been the rock festivals of their time, and any large event was an opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex.
Modern Bealtaine celebrations and neo-Pagans often emphasize this aspect (though it is not clear if this was really the main focus of the festival originally). Clothes are usually optional at these summer parties.
This, again, chimes in with traditional beliefs in Continental Europe - Bealtaine in Germany would be called Walpurgisnacht and be the designated night for witches to gather around a bonfire for a wild, lustful night. 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 moved into the industrial age in the 20th century, agricultural festivals tended to wither away. Holidays with Pagan roots were sometimes adopted by the Catholic church, but those that were not tended to disappear quickly. As a result, the celebration of Bealtaine had largely come to a halt by the by the mid-1900s, with bonfires being the last really visible signs of the old tradition. Even though most of the customs have disappeared, the Irish name of the month of May is still Mí Bhealtaine.
Only in County Limerick and around Arklow (County Wicklow) do Bealtaine customs seem to have survived longer. Around Limerick, in particular, some families have adopted a blend of ancient and Catholic traditions, sprinkling Holy Water around the house on May 1st to prevent curses and keep the fairies or spirits at bay (as they tend to be more active during Bealtaine). In other areas, a revival was attempted. There is now a fire festival on or around Bealtaine at the Hill of Uisneach.
In more recent years, the Irish Arts Council has partnered with an organization known as Age & Opportunity to host the Bealtaine Festival. The annual event takes place every May and is dedicated to creativity later in life. The art and music festival has little to do with the historical significance of Bealtaine, but its thoughtful and inspiring program of events have an excellent mission to reach the older generation living in Ireland.
In some pockets, you might see Bealtaine celebrated by Neo-Pagans, Wiccans and other groups who are interested in reliving (or inventing) a "Celtic" traditions. These feasts might not have much to do with the old traditions, but they do capture the spirit of coming together as the warmer summer months arrive.