(Bealtaine – Modern Irish, Beltain – Old Irish, Bealltainn – Scottish Gaelic)
May 1 marks the half-way point of the Celtic Year, when darkness gives way to light. The winter has officially ended, the summer just begun. Derived from the Old Celtic Belo-tania “(bon)fire of Belos (i.e., the Bright),” the name is associated with Belenos, the Celtic God of solar healing. “In the Coligny Calendar, the month which is opposite of Samonios (‘end of Summer’) is Giamonios (‘end of Winter’), suggesting the name Giamonia for the feast among the Druids of southern Gaul” (Kondratiev 155). This will be the name of the festival in my novel.
The Beltane festival was a feast of fertility, new commitments and new ideas, a “season of action and energy” (Kondratiev). Thus we have a variety of rituals, many of which are still performed today.
Like the ancient Persians, the Celts associated fire with ritual purification and healing (King). After the darkness, hunger, and sickness of winter, the tribe still suffered from lingering weakness. The Beltane fire was lit anew in a sacred spot (the hill of Uisneach in Ireland, for example), and all hearth fires were extinguished and relit from the sacred fire.
Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral season, when livestock, particularly cattle, were driven to higher elevation pastures. To purify their livestock, the Celts drove them between two fires of Bel, the gap close enough to almost singe the animals. As John King points out in The Celtic Druids’ Year, the herding of animals through two bonfires was not an easy task, and one that required the entire tribe to perform. Thus, the ritual was accompanied by feasting and celebration.
The most famous celebration, of course, is dancing around the Maypole. While the garland and ribbons woven by people in a dance are an English custom, the use of a phallic pole signified the resurgence of fertility and sexual energy. Stories of all night sexual revelries prior to the rising of the Sun on Beltane were recorded even in late Christian accounts. Matches were made between couples, marriages and partnering before the separation of families, the women following the herds into summer pastures, the men entering the planting and raiding season.
There are many modern celebrations of Beltane, the most famous being the Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. If you are interested in performing your own festival (or barbecue?), check out Alexei Kondratiev’s The Apple Branch, a fantastic resource for specific, authentic Celtic rituals.
May your fire burn pure and bright!