Bealtaine

Pronounced: (Irish) Bee-Yowl-tinneh or Bal-tin-eh

Tentative Dates: Northern Hemisphere – April 30th; Southern Hemisphere – October 31st

Brief Summary: The beginning of summer, Bealtaine is a time to see how one faired through the time of winter. Resources and supplies are looked and then assessed. The Good Folk are thought to be very active on this day and evil magic by witches is a concern, thus protection magic is warranted. This is also the day the Tuatha Dé Danann landed in Ireland.

How to Celebrate:

  • Allocation of resources
  • Lighting fires
  • Going between bonfires/fires
  • Blessing animals and other protections
  • Create a May Bush
  • Picking flowers
  • Watch the sunrise / acknowledge the sun
  • Collect dew on Bealtaine morning
  • Collecting water first from the well
  • Look for weather omens
  • Clean the house
  • Grand feast

Brief History:

The etymology of the name “Bealtaine” is a tricky one. Lora O’Brien writes that it is translated into “Bel’s Fire” (pg 212.) Similarly, Lady Wilde writes that the day translates to “Bal’s Fire” (web.)

Who is Bel? O’Brien believes that Bel is a deity who appears in many names. She writes, “This deity [Bel] appears in various forms: Bel, Bíle, Belenos or Belenus, Baal or Bal, and our own Fomorian/Fomhoire Balor. Most of his forms are strong solar deities, some particularly associated with cattle, though there is little surviving evidence of any particulars regarding Bel” (pg 156.)

Mary Jones however speculates that reading Bel as being a deity is misleading and that it is just a coincidence since bel- means “shining”, which is why she has “shining fire” as one possible etymology for the festival in conjunction with “Bel’s fire.” Rodney Castleden supports this interpretation, writing: “The first element, bel, probably means ‘shining’ or ‘brilliant.’ The second element, tane or tene, means ‘fire’” (pg 212.)

What interpretation is correct? There is no clear answer. If there was a Bel in Gaelic mythos, it is lose to us now. And whether “Bel” survived in Irish lore as Bíle or Balor is also not certain.

One last comment on the etymology. From O’Brien: “Bealtaine [sic] is the only proper name for the festival in this country [Ireland], where we have a living linguistic term for it. So when working in an Irish tradition, versions such as Beltane and Beltaine should be used with caution.”

As for the customs on the day itself…

May Day–as it is referred to by Kevin Danaher–was the most important landmark of the Irish countryman’s year (86, Danaher.) It was a time when rent was collected, farm jobs were acquired, and farm animals were let out of their winter holdings and taken to summer pastures.

With everything gearing up to be full of bounty, it was important to keep the to-come-wealth. Protection charms and superstitions were in place to ensure that the wealth went to the rightful people, and not stolen away by evil witches. Protection against the fae was also common. One superstition was that nothing should be lent or taken out of the house, especially fire, milk, or butter. To give anything away was to give away the luck of the house. (Danaher, 110.)

One custom on this day was to collect spring flowers, small branches of newly-leafed trees, or long leaves of ‘flaggers.’ These were then used to decorate the house. This can be seen as welcoming spring and summer literally into one’s home. Depending on where one is, there are local customs against bringing home certain flowers or trees–such as elder, whitethorn, or alder.

Another popular tradition is the May Bush. The National Museum of Ireland describes a May Bush as a “decorated bush, which in rural areas was left outside the house. In towns, it was erected in a communal place.” Danaher further explains that children would walk around town asking for donations for their May Bush. Usually the decorations were ribbons and string, sometimes including leftover egg shells from Easter.

It is important to point out that May Poles are a British tradition. When introduced into Ireland by English occupants, Danaher writes: “[…] the May pole is a medieval or later introduction into the towns from England. More recent attempts are known by people with English associations to introduce the ‘polite’ English custom of the May pole to the ‘wild Irish’” (pg 98.) Therefore, doing a May Pole is not only inconsistent with Gaelic traditions, but also a type of oppression the Irish faced by their English oppressors.

And of course, there is fire. Particularly the tradition of lighting two large bonfires and driving cattle between them for blessing. At Bealtaine celebrations, people also would leap over bonfires to receive a blessing. O’Brien writes, “The fire acted as a cleansing, purification, and protective force” (158.)

The dew collected before sunrise on Bealtaine morning is thought to contain properties to help beautify whoever washes their face with it. It is important to let the water air dry on the face. More so than collecting it, Danaher writes: “The young woman who washed her face thus gained a fair complexion, while if she were daring enough to undress and roll naked in the dew she was given great beauty of person” (109.)

The first water collected from the well on Bealtaine is also potent with magic. An evil-doer who took the first of the well is able to bring harm on the family who owns the water, whereas it brings luck for a good luck for the family who brought it in. The water is also thought to have healing properties, especially when involving head-related afflictions.

In addition, herbs gathered on Bealtaine for healing reasons are especially potent.


Sources:

Carmicheal, Alexander. “The Beltane Blessing / Am Beannachadh Bealltain.” Carmina Gadelica. Vol. 1. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 182-83. Sacred Texts. Sacred Texts. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cg1/cg1078.htm&gt;.

Carmicheal, Alexander. “The Beltane Blessing / Am Beannachadh Bealltain.” Carmina Gadelica. Vol. 1. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 182-83. Sacred Texts. Sacred Texts. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cg1/cg1078.htm&gt;.

Castleden, Rodney. The Element Encyclopedia of the Celts: The Ultimate A-Z of the Symbols, History, and Spirituality of the Legendary Celts. Hammersmith: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.

Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Cork: Mercier, 1972. Print.

Jones, Mary. “Belenos.” Mary Jones Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://www.maryjones.us/jce/belenos.html&gt;.

Jones, Mary. “Beltane.” Mary Jones Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://www.maryjones.us/jce/beltane.html&gt;.

Jones, Mary. “Bile.” Mary Jones Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://www.maryjones.us/jce/bile.html&gt;.

“The May Bush.” Museum. National Museum of Ireland, n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://www.museum.ie/en/list/topic-may-day.aspx?article=89810988-4de7-4977-89d7-a6cb7038c170&gt;.

O’Brien, Lora. Irish Witchcraft from an Irish Witch. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page, 2005. Print.

Wilde, Lady. “Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland Index.” Sacred Texts. Sacred Texts, n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ali/index.htm&gt;.

Wilde, Lady. Irish Cures, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions. New York: Sterling Pub., 1991. Print.

Wilde, Lady. “The May Festival.” Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland: The May Festival. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ali/ali053.htm&gt;.

Wilde, Lady. “May-Day Superstitions.” Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland: May-Day Superstitions. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ali/ali054.htm&gt;.

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