Beltane: The Celtic Fire Festival
"Wear a tall hat like a druid in the old days
Wear a tall hat and a tattooed gown
Ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane
Wear your hair long, babe you can't go wrong"
- Marc Bolan
The first time I heard the word “Beltane” was in the second verse of the fabulous T. Rex song, “Ride a White Swan”. I knew it was mystical and otherworldly but didn’t know much else. Fast forward a few decades and here I am learning all I can about this fascinating Gaelic seasonal festival celebrated on the first of May each year.
What Is Beltane?
For starters, it’s more than “Beltane”. There’s Beltaine, Beltany, Beltainne, Bealtaine (which is the Irish word for the month of May), Bealltainn (in Scottish-Gaelic), Boaldyn (in Manx)....the list goes on.
And that’s not to mention the correlation to many other May holidays in European culture such as May Day, Calan Mai, Walpurgis Night, Maiouma, Irminden, Calendimaggio, to name a few.
While all of these occasions celebrate the coming of Spring with fire often playing a part, I aim to concentrate on the Celtic festival of Beltane.
Also known as Cétshamhain ("first of summer"), Beltane is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, also known as cross-quarter days - the midpoints between solstices and equinoxes which are the quarter days. The other three cross-quarter days are Imbolc (February 1), Lughnasadh (August 1), and Samhain (October 31/November 1).
Beltane is celebrated on May 1, the halfway mark between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice.
While Spring has a welcome party of its own, the ancient cultures of the Northern Hemisphere continued to be confined indoors, still shy of adding fresh foods to their tables, and unable to put their livestock out to pasture just yet. Beltane marked the beginning of a new cycle with longer days, warmer soil, and the freedom for people and animals alike to roam. What better way to proclaim this optimistic change in weather and livelihood than with a massive party?
The Fire Festival
Like many pagan observances, fire is extremely prevalent in Beltane festivities. A main bonfire served as the source for all new fires within the community. Home hearth fires were extinguished and then relit using a torch originating from the main fire. This act brought people together after the harsh, unfarmable winter as they passed the torch from home to home. A substantial part of the fire ritual saw gatherings of animals passing between two bonfires. The healing and purifying power of the flame was thought to protect and cleanse the cattle before they headed out to the fields.
Dance, food and drink was plentiful around the bonfire and amongst the travelers carrying the blaze of rebirth. Yellow May flowers were abundantly displayed. Offerings of appeasement to the aos sí, the supernatural guests who were most active during Beltane and Samhain, was also quite common. The theme of fertility was rife as the promise of new crops and healthy herds had finally arrived after the cold, dark months.
The Hill of Uisneach
The sacred site of Uisneach is believed to be the source of the Beltane Gaelic seasonal festival. Located in Westmeath and protected as a national monument, Uisneach was considered to be the spiritual and mystical center of the country. According to the Ulster Cycle, it is here that mythological figures are buried including the Irish god Lugh and the Dagda of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
As an ancient ceremonial site, excavations of the Hill revealed a medieval road as well as tombs, mounds and standing stones. Legend reads that the main bonfire from which all hearth fires were rekindled was here at the Hill of Uisneach. An annual Bealtaine Fire Celebration is held each year at the site.
Beltane Celebrations Today
The days of parading our cattle through purifying bonfires before sending them out to pasture are long past. That being said, there are many traditions from the ancient celebration that have been reinvented in modern times. Many modern druids, contemporary pagans and Wiccans recognize Beltane (along with the other cross-quarter and quarter days) as significant spiritual holidays.
Altars are erected in green to signify rebirth and adorned with spring flowers and herbs in bloom. (PHOTO CREDIT: Morgan @inkedgoddesscreations)
There are a multitude of Beltane celebrations throughout Ireland and Scotland each May, some lasting days like the Féile na Bealtaine in Dingle featuring art, comedy, film, music, poetry & literature, and spoken word. The Beltane Fire Festival of Edinburgh hosts a procession led by the May Queen and the Green Man along with theatrical performances amongst the festival goers, music, dance, food & drink….and, of course, a bonfire.
Seen at many May Day celebrations, the maypole embraces the fertility theme with a tall pole or tree stripped of its lower branches erected for the purposes of a festival dance.
While the origins of the maypole are debated, the maypole dance is performed throughout many countries to welcome rebirth and fertility. With a wreath at the top, men and women dance around the pole or tree with alternating colors of ribbon and garland, weaving and braiding until the trunk is completely bound and the wreath falls to the ground.
Fire, dance, food and drink. Don't forget the food and drink. A bannock is a basic quickbread or flatbread made from grains that is historically tied to Scotland, Northern England and Ireland. Bannocks are popular fare at Beltane. Traditionally baked and eaten on the morning of the four main Celtic festivals, the May cake is appropriately called the Beltane Bannock (Beltuinn Bannock or Bonnach Bealltainn in Scottish Gaelic). The bread is often made in a ritualistic manner that focuses on the well-being of the livestock and land.
Edible flowers and early spring vegetables such as asparagus are used in many modern-day Beltane feasts.
May wine is a beverage made using sweet woodruff and enjoyed at May Day celebrations around Europe, especially in Germany where it originated.
Beltane Lights My Fire
Of the 8 Gaelic festivals, Beltane brings me the most warmth. The release we feel when we’re allowed to get back out into nature, plant our gardens, enjoy more daylight, and let the kiddies (or cattle) roam free….there’s nothing like it.
The community effort behind the festival of fire is also so inspiring. I love envisioning an ancient torchbearer knocking on his neighbor’s door, relighting the home fire, sitting for a cuppa to catch up on months apart, and then moving on to the next dark home to do the same. There’s a joy in imagining the herder opening the gates and rewarding his animals with open fields and fresh grazing after a long winter inside.
I hope that this “first of summer” finds you anticipating the renewing months ahead. Blessed Beltane, all.
Take a look at what we can do with fire.
The Irish word for fire - "tine" - presented in Ogham inside a rising flame.
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