Saturday, May 12, 2007

A History of Beltaine, the Spring-Celebration

Seo e an samhradh a thiocfas go haerach
Thugar fein an samhradh linn
Samhradh bui o lui na griene
Thugamar fein an samhradh linn

(This is the Summer that will come gaily, we have brought the Summer in, Yellow summer from the bed of the sun, We have brought the Summer in). – Old Irish Beltaine song.

Beltaine (pron. Bel’ta-na) or ‘bright fire’ is the Celtic festival which marks the beginning of the summer. It is traditionally celebrated on the 1st of May, or in pre-reformation times on the first Monday or Tuesday of May. In astronomical terms it is the cross-quarter day at the junction of the vernal equinox and summer solstice. Beltaine was the opening of the fertile season toward the second division of the Celtic year known as ‘An ghrian mor’ or ‘the great sun,’ as opposed to ‘An ghrian beg’ or the lesser sun which ran from the festival and time of Samhain to Beltaine. Thus Beltaine opened the light half of a year, the other half being dark. On the Coligny calendar Beltaine is represented by ‘Samivisionis’ or the time of brightness and illumination occurring from May to June.

The Irish chronicler Cormac in the 9th century links Druidic ritual to Beltaine, in a description of the creation of two bonfires between which a herd of cattle were driven in symbolic ritual to ward off disease. These ritual bonfires had several purposes, being principally the acknowledgement of the power of the sun, as a source of heat, light, power and sustenance, a recognition of the powerful solar healing powers, and it is believed by some scholars as a form of worship of the sun as a deity. In essence the bonfire was a homage and intended to replicate the sun’s power on earth, as a fertilizer; spreading the remnants of ashes over the ground to aid the germination of seed crops, the fire may also have been seen as a purifier which burned out the old year like a hot fever.

Irish myths show a connection between Beltaine, fire and rituals. In the Lebor Gabala Erin (The Book of Invasions) a Druid named Mide who founded Meath, is recorded as being the first to light a Beltaine fire. The tale is somewhat continued in the Dinnschenchas (The History of Places), where the fire started by Mide spreads throughout Ireland much to the annoyance of other Irish Druids. Mide then proceeds to cut out their tongues and ritually burn them, thereby depriving the other Druids of their essential power of expression; speech, prophecy and satire. Tara is the sacred site in Ireland, in County Meath, which dates back to Neolithic times and mythology represented the royal seat of the kings of Ireland. It was later designated as the location for the Congregation of the National Assembly at Beltaine.

Beltaine was also known as ‘Cetsamhain’ or opposite Samhain in Ireland. It does seem possible that the festival was associated with the continental Celtic sun-god and healer Belenus. The name Bel also means mouth or an opening, tane means fire. Belenus probably represented the curative powers of solar energy, whilst also providing a pathway of visionary power between this world and the spiritual plane of existence.

Beltaine appears to have been a major fertility festival, celebrating the birth process behind the agricultural season, and accompanied by explicit and symbolic sexual rituals. The so called ‘Long Man of Cerne’ or the Cerne Abbas Giant, a naked male image carved into a chalk hillside in Dorset, in south-west Britian was the location for annual Beltaine festivals, all recorded in the early 1900’s. The image of the giant with a huge erect phallus definitely connects the festival to fertile celebrations. A description of a May-day festival by the Elizabethan puritan Philip Stubbes (1550 – 1593) in his ‘Anatomy of Abuses’ in 1583, gives an opinionated but enlightening depiction of the process of the celebration:

“Every parish, town, and village assemble themselves together, both men, women and children, old and young……… and either going all together or dividing themselves into companies, some go to the woods and groves, some to the hills and mountains……… where they spend all night in pleasant pastimes, and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch boughs, and branches of trees to deck their assemblies withal. And no marvel, for there is a great lord amongst them, as superintendent and lord over there pastimes and sports, namely Satan the Prince of Hell. But their chiefest jewel that they bring from thence is their Maypole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus; they have twenty or forty of oxen, each ox having a sweet nosegay of flowers tied on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw this Maypole (this stinking idol rather) which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound round with strings and sometimes painted with variable colors, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And thus being reared up with hankerchiefs and flags streaming on top, they straw the ground about, bind green boughs about it, set up summer halls, bowers and arbors hard by; and then fall to banquet and feast, to leap and dance about it, as the Heathen people did at the dedication of their idols, whereof this is a perfect pattern.”

In Stubbes account there is a definite sense of ‘earth veneration’, fertility and celebration of life, with the involvement of live-stock/animals as oxen, and gay decorations. The origins of planting a representation of a phallus into the earth (womb) and venerating it as a symbol of fertility is primarily Indo-European or Aryan in nature. The Maypole is still the ‘Great Lingam’ (a penis or phallic pillar) found in the core of Hindu temples in India, firmly planted into the receptive ground. John Stow (1525 – 1603) the London chronicler gives an altogether more spiritual assessment of the May festival:

“On Monday in the mornings, every man would walk into sweet meadows and green woods, there to rejoice their spirits with the beauty and savor of sweet flowers, and with the harmony of birds, praising God in their kind…”

The month of May represents Maya or Maia, the virgin Goddess of spring. Worship of this particular Goddess and the rituals associated with her have strong connections and are identifiable with the Roman spring festival of Floralia. One key aspect of these celebrations is the presence of a ‘May Queen’ who is inevitably a virgin bride representing the earth mother or Maya herself. The ancient Irish ceremony for the inauguration of a king involved a similar symbolic earth deity, a feminine protectress to whom the king was married, and establishing a contract to guard and preserve the land. The British tradition however appears to lean toward a Latin Paganism, William Stuckley observed several intimations of this in a May celebration in 1724;

“There is a Maypole near Horn Castle, Lincolnshire, where probably a Hermes (a phallic pillar) in Roman times. The boys annually keep up the festival of the Floralia on Mayday, making a procession to this hill with May gads (as they call them) in their hands. This is a white willow wand, the bark peeled off, tied around with cowslips, a thyrsus of the Bacchanals. At night they have a bonfire, and other merriment, which is really a sacrifice, a religious festival.”

In Britain the May festival was celebrated with branches and flowers of the hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha), picked the night before and used to decorate windows and doors, which are symbolic of openings, birth, passageways of life through the earth; the feminine aspect of the festival. The hawthorn in this respect was perceived as a cleansing and protecting agent, with the heavy and pungent musky aroma of the flowers observed as an essentially feminine attribute. The ritualistic nature-blessing is preserved in this children’s rhythm from Mother Goose;

The fair maid who, the first of May
Goes to the fields at break of day
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree,
Will ever after handsome be.

Hawthorn, or in Gaelic huath, is the 6th letter of the Ogham tree alphabet. As it flowers in May it was seen as a rising aspect of sexuality, a garland of the leaves were often placed around the tip of the phallic Maypole. Wood from the hawthorn was the principle ingredient for bonfires at this time, since it provides the hottest fire known. Presumably it was thus used by blacksmiths and metal workers and gained a mystical and magical reputation as a tree which provided traditional crafts with the fire of inspiration. Common names for the hawthorn are may, may-blossom and may-bush. The Hitchin Mayday song gives an important role for the hawthorn;

“Remember us poor Mayers all!
And thus we do begin
To lead our lives in righteousness,
Or else we die in sin.

We have been rambling all the night,
And almost all the day;
And now returned back again,
We have brought you a branch of may.

A branch of may we have brought you,
And at your door it stands;
It is but a sprout,
But its well budded out,
By the work of our Lord’s hand…

… The heavenly gates are open wide,
Our paths are beaten plain;
And if a man be not too far gone,
He may return again... “

Despite being Christianized the Hitchin song preserves and reveals several Pagan themes and symbols. The term Mayers is purely pre-Christian Roman from the Latin Maiores, who were elder statesmen in the senate, and could possibly be derived from devotees or worshippers of the spring Goddess Maia. Righteousness and sin may refer to the original two divisions of the Celtic year, with Mayday or Beltaine being the cross-over. Rambling during the night contains clear sexual connotations, of the performance of fertile activities to encourage the blossoming of a new year, as does the branch of may with a sprout. Dew was regarded as being left on May morning by the earth spirits or Faeries, and as previously mentioned, anyone bathing in this natural nectar was said to retain their youthful countenance, the perfect health and shape of the inhabitants of ‘Tir na n’Og’ or the Land of Ever-Young. It was on Mayday that the doors or gates of this otherworld were opened up, bringing fresh blessings, and the man who has not gone too far may refer to the ancient Celtic myth of Tir na n’Og; a place of eternal time, beyond normal perceptions… perhaps this man has traveled there, come back yet remained unchanged?

Over the years there were many attempts on the part of the Christian church to prevent the May celebration. In the 7th century the Bishop Eligius of Noyens begged his flock to stop the sexually infused rituals, but without success. Where the church failed, the industrial revolution gained ground. The process of urbanization succeeded in dismantling the village community based cultural expressions of spirituality, in 1829 Thomas Carlyle commented;

“For some unearthly reason, we have machines and mechanical furtherances; for mincing our cabbages; for casting us into magnetic sleep. We remove mountains, make seas our smooth highway; nothing can resist us. We war with rude nature; and by our restless engines, come off victorious, and loaded with spoils……… But, leaving these matters for the present, let us observe how the mechanical genius of our time has diffused into quite other provinces. Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also…”

Toward the twentieth century, community celebrations like Mayday became increasingly fractured and remote, only distant memories of the past, renamed and politically neutralized, sanitized by increasingly conservative morality, misogynistic anti-feminist propaganda and the desire to mount, extract and control natural forces. Paul Theroux comments on a Mayday journey in the early 1980’s;

“It was London’s labor day, celebrated by marching Union-men and speeches in Trafalger Square……… neutralized as a Spring Bank holiday……… associated with a trip to a coastal resort……… “

Perhaps with an ever growing interest in earth based faith, ecology and spirituality, new links to the ancient practice and significance of Beltaine and Mayday can be forged, with a reworking of the old rituals that lend a profound understanding of the human relationship with nature. Various annual ‘earth day’ celebrations have been instituted worldwide, the most famous being the April 22nd Earth Day started by Gaylord Nelson in 1970. A rival Earth Day creator who claims seniority is John McConnell (purporting to have established his festival one month earlier on the 1st of March 1970 to coincide with the Spring equinox). The McConnell earth day specifically seeks to provide a genuine spiritual, cosmological, intellectual and ancient basis for a dynamic day of earth based activities. The more secular Arbor day, usually celebrated on the last Friday of April, and instituted by J. Sterling Morton in 1872 is again a genuine springtime attempt to involve people with one of the most visible aspects of the natural world; the tree. It may be a romantic notion, but maybe the new naturalists are silently inspired by the words of the mythical bard Fionn Mac Cumhail, hero of the Irish Fiann cycle, who after receiving his divine wisdom sings a beautiful ode to spring;

“It is the full month of May, the pleasant time; it’s face is beautiful: the blackbird sings his full song, the living wood is his holding, the cuckoos are singing and ever singing; there is a welcome before the brightness………

The man is gaining, the girl in her comely power growing, every wood is without fault, from the top to the ground, and every wide good plain………

There is a hot desire on you for the racing of horses, a bright spear has been shot into the earth and the flag flower is golden beneath it……… “

The true essence of Beltaine is the resonance of revelation, the birth of a new vision and belief in ourselves. A true May ritual refreshes our connections with the land, establishes a firm foundation as a marriage in which as respective partners we work together to ensure success, fertility and a bountiful future of joy and bliss. It is encouraging to realize that a new and invigorated movement of Celtic spiritualists are actively pursuing a reformation and reconstruction of the Beltaine festival, and so I give the last word to a Druidess named Kim, who both sums up her appreciation for Beltain and concludes and summarizes this article;

“Beltaine equals in importance to Samhain, as both mark the halfway points in the year. Beltaine marks the beginning of the light half of the year which is called samos. It is celebrated with fire, appropriately. It is a celebration of the Sun, and it's dominance over dark. Fire of purification and fertility are symbols in this festival. Cattle are driven through the Beltaine fires for purification and good health. People leap the fires for luck, babies are passed over the smoldering ashes to health and so on. In Scotland and Wales this fire was built by nine men using nine woods. The sun's healing power is also sought it another custom of rising with the sun and bathing in the morning dew just as the sun hit's it on may day. The fire in water sacredness is the concept behind this. The sun's healing power is said to be very strong on this day. Another practice is to bottle the water/dew and use it in healing remedies throughout the year."

Kim cites two interesting Irish triads (a traditional saying with a spiritually educating undertone)

“The three most powerful divinations are by fire, by water, and by clay.”

“These are the three great powers: The power that ascends, which is fire; the power that falls, which is water; and the power that lies level on the earth, and has the mystery of the dead, which is clay.”

The basic themes contained within the traditional Beltaine festival, and included within the context of Celtic reconstructionism for the purposes of authentic ritual include; the liminal time existing within the transition from the dark to the light half of the year, purification and healing energy from the power of fire, the sacred marriage of the young prince to the spring maiden and the defeat of the ‘dark’ king of winter represented as the hawthorn tree. Generally speaking, we see elements of passion, fertility, love, warmth and increasing natural power… all rising to the summit of the year; the Summer Solstice.


Green M. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. Thames and Hudson, London 1992.
Green M. The World of The Druids. Thames and Hudson, London 1997.
Mountfort P. R. Ogam. Rider Press, 2001.
Nicholas R. The Book of Druidry, Thorsens, 1990.
Plowden A. Elizabethan England. Readers Digest, London. ISBN 0340 23044.
Walker B.G. The Womans Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. Harper and Row 1993.
Herbal Remedies, Gedes and Grosset. London 1996.
Theroux P. The Kingdom by the Sea. Washington Square Press 1994.
Dorner P. The Culture of Craft. Manchester University Press 1997.
Kondratiev A. The Apple Branch. Citadel Press 2003.

An Ceangal Foundation:
Meaning of the Ogham Staves:
The Hitchin Mayday Song:
The Gaylord-Nelson Earth Day:
The John McConnell Earth Day:
Arbor day:
Denver Druids:

Biodh se

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