by Iain MacAnTsaoir,
Clannada na Gadelica Academia Gadelica
(a nonprofit educational corporation, registered in the State of Tennessee).
The season of Imbolc ended at Beltaine which falls on approximately May 1st. Beltaine literally means "Bel’s fire" (Beal-teinne). Beltaine’s origin is the landing of the Tuatha De Danaan upon the shores of Ireland. This is a between time, and between light and dark, day and night, has a profound meaning for Celts. These are in a very real way, a Third time. It marks the beginning of the summer and the light half of the Celtic year. Traditionally, all fires were extinguished on the eve of Beltaine, and were re-lit from the ‘Need Fire’ which was kindled at dawn. Our ancestors were predominantly a pastoral people. Beltaine was the time when the cattle were put out to their summer grazing pastures in the mountains. The cattle were
driven through (between) the Beltaine fires for purification. It was believed that the sacred bonfires would also, bring protection, good fortune and fertility to the people. It was also the time when the Ruadh or warriors would test their fighting skills in the Beltaine Games. With the hard work of planting accomplished, it was a time when the clans came together in celebration with the hope that the crops would grow and flourish in the months ahead. Beltaine is the beginning of summer. The following is a poem translated out of the Gaelic by the Dal Riadh Celtic Trust and said to be written by Finn himself:
May, clad in cloth of gold, cometh this way;
The fluting of the blackbirds, heralds the day.
The dust colored cuckoo, cries welcome O Queen!
For winter has vanished, the thickets are green.
Soon the trampling of cattle, where river runs low!
The hair of the heather, the canna like snow.
Wild waters are sleeping, foam of blossom is here;
Peace, save the panic, in the heart of the deer.
The wild bee is busy, the ant honey spills,
The wandering kine, are abroad on the hills.
The harp of the forest, sounds low, sounds sweet;
Soft bloom on the heights; on the loch, haze of heat.
The waterfall dreams; snipe, corncrakes, drum
By the pool where the talk, of the rushes is come.
The swallow is swooping; song swings from each brae;
Rich harvest of mast falls; the swamp shimmers gay.
Happy the heart of man, eager each maid;
Lovely the forest, the wild plane, the green glade.
Truly winter is gone, come the time of delight,
The summer truce joyous, May, blossom-white.
In the heart of the meadows, the lapwings are quiet;
A winding stream, makes drowsy riot.
Race horses, sail, run, rejoice and be bold!
See, the shaft of the sun, makes the water-flag gold.
Loud, clear, the blackcap; the lark trills his voice
Hail May of delicate colors, tis May-Day – rejoice!
Many folk customs have survived until very recently. These are clearly surviving pre-Christian elements of this ancient festival. Official records show that the last public Beltaine festival to be held on Arran was in 1895. On this occasion the men of a certain townland made a tein-eigen or need-fire Beltaine eve. They fueled it with the nine sacred woods. The local people drove their herds through the fire.
In the preface, I mentioned a special bread called the bannock. This is a special cake made of eggs, milk and oatmeal. These bannocks, which are kneaded entirely by hand cannot come into contact with steel. Well into this century it was common, in the places where the fires were still lit, to have one piece of the cake blackened with charcoal. That piece was distributed from a hat along with the other pieces. Whoever drew this piece out of the hat had to leap three times through the flames. This custom is thought to have originated in the late Bronze Age. Unlike with the Gaulish Celts, there is no evidence of human sacrifice committed by the late Bronze Age Gaelic Celts. By this time the practice of having a "scapegoat" or "Fool" had replaced human sacrifice. One variation of the "scapegoat" saw the person who drew the blackened bannock be separated from the tribal celebration for the rest of the festival, after they had jumped the fire.
In the Highlands, the Beltaine fires and festivals were common until the mid-nineteenth century. Also, in the Shetlands, up until at least the same time, dancing around the bonfires continued, and it was considered that to jump over the flames brought prosperity and plenty. The Shetland fires were kept going for three days. Word has it that in the out of the way places, these practices never did stop, even to this day.
There are places which are indelibly etched upon our Gaelic psyche as being the places most commonly associated with the Need Fires. These places are those which, in the more ancient times of our pre-Christian ancestors, saw the first fires lit. Tara in Ireland for example, was the place where the first fires were lit. Only after the fire had been lit there, did they spring up all over Ireland. Likewise, Arthur’s seat, Edinburgh, is a traditional site of Beltaine fires which were lit at sunrise. Many people still climb to the top of this summit to watch the May sunrise. I have not yet found reference to the place on the Isle of Man where the first fires were lit.
Amongst the ancient customs of this festival which survives to this day, is that young women will wash their face in the dew of Beltaine morning to preserve their beauty. May dew was indeed considered to be holy water. People who were sprinkled with May dew were assured of health, To ensure a good milk supply, dairymaids would draw a rope made from the tails of Highland cattle through the May dew grass saying:
"Bainne an te so shios,
bainne an te so shuas,
‘nam ghogan mhor fhein"
(Milk of this one down,
milk of that one up,
into my own big pail).
This day was one which saw visits to the holy well. A visitor would walk three times around the well, then they would throw in a silver coin, after which, while praying, they would drink from the well using their hands. When those things were done, they would then ties a bit of colored cloth or a piece of clothing, called a cloutie to a branch of a nearby tree. The above had to be done in complete silence. The visitor also had to be well out of sight of the well before sunrise.
As mentioned above, this is a time in between. Beltaine, being the calends of summer, is a time between, therefore the veil between words thins, allowing this world and Tir na Nog (OtherWorld) to intermingle. This has always been considered the other time in the year when the veil between the worlds was thin. Because of this it has been long believed that the fae were abroad. As the fae were prone to stealing milk from cows, or even turning it sour, rowan crosses were hung in byres, and domestic animals were sprinkled with water from holy wells. It was particularly important that no fire (kindling) should be given away at this time.
As at the other festivals, games and racing were the norm. With the marches and races, horses were a prominent feature. The usual music and singing, markets and feasting were also to be found. In many places, a May Queen was elected. The maiden was crowned by an elder lady of notoriety, after the new queen and her court had arrived at a predetermined place. Some believe that in the older times, it was the May Queen who led the hymns to the rising sun, as all the people congregated on the appropriate hill at Beltaine. She is also believed to have led some of the marches in the older times.
A very general format for the communal customs can be established by looking at all of the evidence from the old countries. The actual Beltaine festivities began a few days beforehand the festival date, by the collection of the nine sacred woods for the kindling of the fires. Each fire was built in two places, with a narrow passage between the two. A circular trench was cut round them symbolizing the sun. The area was a sacred hill, or set of hills, like the Paps of Anu, and these were large enough to hold the entire assembled community.
On Beltaine eve all the domestic fires of the community were extinguished. Then, long before the oncoming dawn, the folk left their homes. They took their livestock with them and made their way up to the site sanctified by centuries of such veneration. The ritual was carried out by the Fili or Draoi, (The word Draoi is used here in its ‘paleo’ sense of a teacher of the skills and not in its later ‘neo’ sense), who await the arrival of the community.
Once assembled the eyes of everyone turned towards the horizon awaiting the rise of the new sun. The king or queen recited verses of poetry just before the first rays of the sun peek over the horizon. As the small glimmer of light grew into blazing radiance, the voices of the people raised in praise with song. This as the chosen people begin creating the Need Fire, the virgin flame from which the fires are kindled.
The sacred fire now lit in greeting to the sun, the whole community then formed a procession. They traveled three times around the fires. They then drove all the animals through the passages between the fires three times to be blessed and purified. This was to ensure fertility in the coming months before being driven up onto the hillsides for summer. After the blessings, torches were lit and carried back to all the homes to re-light the fires that had been extinguished. The ending of the ceremony was the feasting in which everyone made votive offerings to the sun.
This format was perhaps the simple plan that was followed for each of the festivals. The embellishments would vary according to location and festival being observed.
- The Celtic Consciousness, edited by Robert O’Driscoll,
- "Irish Folk Tradition And The Celtic Calendar" an article by, Kevin Danaher
- The Year in Ireland, Kevin Danaher
- Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, W.G. Wood-Martin
- An Irish English Dictionary, Rev. Patrick Dineen
- A Guide To Ogam, Damien McManus
- A Pronouncing and Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, Malcolm MacLennan
- Silver Bough Vol.1, F. Marion McNeill
- Silver Bough Vol. 2, F. Marion McNeill
- Silver Bough Vol. 3, F. Marion McNeill
- Silver Bough Vol. 4, F. Marion McNeill
- Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Madeleine Pelner Cosman
- Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer
- Celtic Heritage, Alwyn & Brinley Rees
- The Celts, Nora Chadwick
- The Druids, Peter Berresford Ellis
- Myth, Legend & Romance – An Encyclopedia Of The Irish Folk Tradition, Dr. Daithi OhOgain
- The Festival Of Lughnassa, Máire MacNeill
- Dal Riadh Celtic Trust (gone)
(prepared by Iain MacAnTsaoir; ©1996, 1998, 1999 Clannada na Gadelica)
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