Caer Australis

Celtic Fire Feasts

"Who spreads light in the gathering on the hills?" - Song of Amergin

Sanas Cormaic folio M - entry for cetsoman included see

The arrangement of the Celtic year:
Beltaine and Samhain in cormac's Glossary

The great Celtic fire feasts are celebrations of the waxing and waning of the year - they mark the start of each Celtic season.

"Samrad didiu ríad reites grian, is and is mo doatne a soillsi;
Cetsoman .i. cetsámsin .i. cétlúd síne samraid;

Gam quasi gamos isin greic, nouimber .i. in mí gaim iar samuin"
- Sanas Cormaic

May and November throughout the past two millenia

The month of May, now called Bealtaine, is in the Book of Leinster (twelfth century) called mís cétamuin, and in Sanas Cormaic (ninth century) called Céitemain, there explained as 'cetsoman .i. cetsámsin .i. cétlúd síne samraid', which is 'May(day), i.e. in antiquity the companionship of summer' (B 210). Variant spellings are: cetsoman, cetsamun, cetsamain, cetshamuin, (Early Irish Glossaries database: 'cetsoman'), and further references to May and Maytime of the same form are given in the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (eDIL - use search word: céitemain). Thus in the Irish language the compound 'cet + soman' is used to describe the Maytime: the first component reveals that by the time of the Sanas Cormaic, the Beltaine celebration was being considered ancient, cétlúd, and at the time of the early glossaries already half a millenium had passed since Beltaine had been the first Celtic feast in Ireland to be usurped by Christianity, when in AD433 Patrick lit the Paschal fires at Easter. In addition, All Matyrs day, the forerunner of All Saints, was marked at May 13 for several centuries after the coming of Christendom to Ireland. The 'summer' feast time was long celebrated among the Celts, and Maytime's word 'soman' in the early Irish glossaries corresponds to Gaulish Mids Samon the first month of the Coligny calendar, inscribed a millennium earlier.

And sang the Dagda to his magical harp and it played the seasons:
Come, oak of the two cries!
Come, hand of fourfold music!
Come summer! Come winter!
Sounds of harps and bellows and pipes!

The month of November, now called Mí na Samhna or Samhain in Ireland, is referred to in Sanas Cormaic as Mí Gam and this corresponds to the Gaulish Mids Giamon, the seventh month of the Coligny calendar. In Y 673 the correspondence with November is given: 'Gam quasi gamos isin greic, nouimber', which is 'Gam, as though in Greek gamos, November' (Early Irish Glossaries database: 'gam'); and at this time Greek was used as the language of trade (Stokes, G. 1892, 'The Knowledge of Greek in Ireland between AD500 - 900'). In AD831, four centuries after the usurping of Beltaine, All Saints Day was established in the wider Chrurch on November 1st, and with it came the development of All Hallows Eve. These two mid-year, winter eve feasts have since become identified, their boundaries blurred and celebrations intertwined. In Y 688, Mí Gam is described as following the summer-end festival: 'Gamain .i. in mí gaim iar samuin, unde dicitur gamnach .i. gam-sinech .i. arinni is mblicht i mmi gaim .i. i ngaimreth', which is 'Gamain (a year-old calf), that is, in the month of Gam (November), after Samuin (Hallowtide), and so to affirm, a milking-cow with a year-old calf because there is milk in Mí Gam, that is in the winter' (Early Irish Glossaries database: 'gamain'); and in Y 674 and B 391 the month is found as 'mí gamh' and 'mí gaim' in a lament (Early Irish Glossaries database: 'gaimrith'). With regard to this lament, O'Donovan remarks 'Mí Gam here certainly means the month of November, for S. Cumine Fota died on the 12th November, AD661: O'D.' (Cormac's Glossary (1868) translated and annotated by the late John O'Donovan; edited by Whitley Stokes).

The Feasts of Celtic year:
the waxing and waning of the seasonal cycle

"The spring for ploughing and sowing, and the beginning of summer for the end of the strength of corn,
and the beginning of autumn for the end of the ripeness of corn and for reaping it, and the winter for consuming it."
- sparing the life of Bres in 'The Second Battle of Moytura' - at CELT

Maypole; I relate this to you, a surpassing festival, The privileged dues of Belltaine: Ale, roots, mild whey, And fresh curds to the fire. - Quatrains on Beltaine, &c from the early 16th century (see the text)

Summer: Beltaine

The Fire Feast for Summer,
held on the May Eve.

The lark sings at the top of his voice,
Welcome, splendid summer!

Dancing at Lughnasa; Lugnassad, tell of its dues, Of every distant year: To taste of every famous fruit, Food of herbs on Lugnasaid. - Quatrains on Beltaine, &c from the early 16th century (see the text)

High Summer: Lughnasa

The High Summer Feast,
held on August Eve.

He is the Ioldhanach!

Hallowe'en pumpkins!; Meat, ale, nut mast, tripe,	They are the dues of Samna: A merry bonfire on the hill,	Buttermilk, and fresh-buttered bread. - Quatrains on Beltaine, &c from the early 16th century (see the text)

Winter: Samhain

The Feast at Summer's End,
held on November Eve.

Think on the beginning of clear winter:
Its cold, and want of beauty!

the lambing season; To taste of every food in order, This is proper at Imbulc,	Washing of hand and foot and head; It is to you thus I relate. - Quatrains on Beltaine, &c from the early 16th century (see the text)

Spring: Oimelc

The Fire Feast for Spring,
held on February Eve.

White trefoils wherever she went

"For two divisions were formerly on the year, namely, summer from Beltaine the first of May, and winter from Samuin to Beltaine."
- Cú Chulaind explains the arrangement of the year to Loeg in 'Tochmarc Emer', eleventh century

The ancient division of the Celtic year

The development of the May feast at the commencement of the Celtic year unfolds as follows:
1st Century and before: Mids Samon ---> 10th century and after: Céitemain, cetsoman ---> modern Bealtaine;
The development of the November feast mid-way through the Celtic year unfolds as follows:
1st Century and before: Mids Giamon ---> 10th century and after: Mí Gam, gaimrith ---> modern Mí na Samhna or Samhain

The Coligny Calendar and the Celtic year explored and presented

summertime's oak - celebrating beltaine wintertime's oak - celebrating samhain The Grove

As the wood is the blackbird's heritage where he sings of joy in summer and of the cold in winter,
so the Grove is a place of celebration of the seasons
Enjoy these songs amongst the oaks of the Grove!

The Fire Feast Stars

A.Gaspani in 'Astronomy in the Celtic Culture', published at: used computer modelling to determine the dates around 500 BC for the heliacal risings of the most brilliant stars observable by the Celts, and provides the following information:

Gregorian Date Celtic Fire Feast Heliacal Rising of the Star Colour of Star Apparent Magnitude of Star
May 18 Beltaine Aldebaran Red 0.85
July 28 Lughnasa Sirius White -1.46
November 7 Samhain Antares Red 0.96
February 13 Imbolc Capella Yellow 0.80

southern cross and nearby south polar constellations the stars of the southern cross The Southern Hemisphere

Australia and the Southern Lands experience the seasons off-set half a year to the Celtic homelands. Celebrating the Fire feasts with the progress of the southern seasons presents a dilemma, for at Beltaine on May eve, the southern seasons are turning to the winter; at Samhain on November eve, the southern seasons are at the time of rebirth at the start of summer.
Southern hemisphere

Caesar: The Conquest of Gaul

Caesar's Dis Pater paragraph, published by Penguin books in 'Caesar The Conquest of Gaul' Translated by S.A. Handford in 1951. Handford (1898-1978) was a lecturer in Swansea and reader at King's College, London. See also: Perseus Tufts database for edition published by Harper & Brothers. 1869. Translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn.

"VI.18. The Gauls claim all to be descended from Father Dis,
declaring that this is the tradition preserved by the Druids.
For this reason they measure periods of time not by days but by nights;
and in celebrating birthdays, the first of the month, and new year's day,
they go on the principle that the day begins at night.
As regards the other usages of daily life,
the chief difference between them and other peoples is that their children
are not allowed to go up to their fathers in public
until they are old enough for military service;
they regard it as unbecoming for a son who is still a boy
to stand in his father's sight in a public place."

Coverpiece for the 1886 Hibbert Lectures - Google Books preview at

Nineteenth century antiquarians, Twentieth century orthodoxy
Sir John Rhys presents the 1886 Hibbert lectures

The original proposal that Samhain commenced the Celtic year was presented by John Rhys in the 1886 Hibbert Lectures.

"The Celts reckoned Dis the father of all, and regarded darkness and death as taking precedence over light and life; so in their computation of time they began with night and winter*, and not with daylight and summer.
*footnote: This is probably the key to reckoning years as winter
- The Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, page 360

A new orthodoxy concerning Samhain

Sir John Rhys' interpretation of Julius Caesar's comments on Gaulish druidic timekeeping is widely and frequently cited in presentations about Samhain, and its position in the Celtic year or procession of the seasons. The statement is justly famous, as it is the foundation of a still widely held belief that states that Samhain functions as the Celtic new year feast. By the nineteenth century, a loss of knowledge of the structure of the traditional Irish year was evident. In A Social History of Ancient Ireland (1903), P.W. Joyce writes, "O'Donovan stated in 1847 (Book of Rights 1ii) that the season with which the Pagan Irish began their year could not be (then) determined". In 1855 Thomas Bulfinch published his encyclopaedic 'The Age of Fable or Stories of Gods and Heroes', including a chapter, The Druids - Iona in which he noted, "the Druids observed two festivals in each year. The former took place in the beginning of May, and was called Beltane or 'fire of God' [while] the other great festival of the Druids was called Samh'in, or 'fire of peace', and was held on Hallow-eve".

But it was not until 1886 that the claim for Samhain being the festival commencing the traditional (pagan) Irish year was made, at the presentation of that year's Hibbert Lectures by Sir John Rhys. Subsequent to these famous lectures, the populist Charles Squire published what he intended to be a 'clear, compact and agreeable' introduction to Celtic studies at the time. In Celtic Myth & Legend: Poetry & Romance (1905), Squire summarised the feasts such that 'Samhain...was the beginning too, of the ancient Celtic Year', and 'sacrifices were made at Hallowe'en' to 'gods of darkness, winter, and the Underworld'. 'The Golden Bough' (1922), by James Frazer reviewed the Fires Feasts of the Celts, concluding also that "we may with some probability infer that they reckoned their year from Hallowe'en".

Wiccan/Pagan Wheel of the Year - source:

By 1934, the concept of a Samahin beginning to the Irish year had all but been established. In that year, Henri Hubert published The Greatness and Decline of the Celts, in which he writes, "Samhain (1st November) marked the end of summer (samos) and probably the beginning of the year"). A simple editing of Henri Hubert's text produces the current orthodoxy that will be familiar to the reader from a wide range of publications:

"There were four chief feasts. Samhain (1st November) marked...the beginning of the year. Six months later, on the 1st of May, at the beginning of summer (cèt-saman), came Beltane, the feast of the fire (tein) of Bel or Bile...At Samahin the great battle of the gods was fought at Moytura, between the Formorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann... [At the feasts] spirits were let loose and wonders...happened. In Wales the year was divided in the same way [and] in the Coligny calendar we can distinguish...Samonos"

Since the 1950s, Samhain as the Celtic new year is asserted positively in academic publications discussing the Celtic fire feasts. T. G. E. Powell, in his 'The Celts' (1958) simply states, "The greatest festival in Ireland was known as Samain. Samain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next". The boom in New Age philosophy drew in part upon the conclusions being presented in Celtic studies. When Ross Nichols, of the Ancient Order of Druids, came across the Celtic fire festivals he advised his friend Gerald Gardner who was then establishing the Wiccan system in the early 1950s, and the feasts were at once incorporated into an eight-fold year divided by the solstices, equinoxes and cross-quarters; They were also incorporated for Nichols' breakaway Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and so practiced from 1964 there (Orr, E.R. 1998. Introduction to Druidry, Thorsons/HarperCollins, London). Because the concept of Samhain as the Celtic New year has entered the popular domain (see: Wikipedia for example), it has become entrenched. But is this notion truly a reflection of the tradtional year? The following annotated excerpts may help to decide.

"Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom".

In the 1886 Hibbert Lectures, entitled 'The Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom', Sir John Rhys argued that the Gaulish druids commenced the year with the winter, and that Samhain commenced the Irish pagan year. Simultaneously, he introduced an impression of darkness upon the pagan Celts, likely in comparison to the light of Christianity. The lectures implicitly accepted the relationship between the Celts of Gaul, Britain and Ireland. His argument rested on his own interpretation of Caesar's commentary of Gaulish customs included in Gallic War. Comparison of Rhys' interpretation to the traslation of Caesar shows he was clearly inaccurate and that the impression he gave was misleading, but the important point to note here is the impact of his argument, such that in the twentieth century an orthodoxy became instituted concerning Samhain, and adopted within academia and neo-pagan groups alike.

Rhys introduces Caesar early in his lectures (pp. 84-5), "The notion that their Pluto was reckoned by the Gauls the fons et origo of all things, the gods included, is countenanced by Caesar's words, which connected with the god the Gaulish habit of reckoning the night before the day" Rhys next introduces the concept that the Gaulish druids began their year in the winter (p.360), "The Celts reckoned Dis the father of all, and regarded darkness and death as taking precedence over light and life ; so in their computation of time they began with night and winter, and not with daylight and summer. This is probably the key to reckoning years as winter."

Caesar's comments on Gaulish customs do note the measurement of the daily period from sunset, and importantly the comments confirm there was a Celtic calendar in use. Special days begin at sunset, in precisely the way the West today celebrates Christmas Eve and New Years' Eve, and for that matter, Hallowe'en. But the Dis Pater statement by Caesar does not at all say that winter, death and darkness took precendence over summer, life or light. Those translations that use the word 'season' use it as the now archaic term for 'period of time', not as a reference to the climate.

The formal declaration that Samhain commenced the pagan Irish year, and the foundation of the twentieth century orthodoxy, is made on p.514 of the Lectures. This is the page that should be very carefully read by anyone asserting that Samhain is the Celtic New Year. To draw his conclusion, Rhys amends the definition in Cormac's Glossary for the month of Fogamur: He states, "Now as the Celts were in the habit formerly of counting winters, and of giving precedence in their reckoning to night and winter over day and summer, I should argue that the last day of the year in the Irish story of Diarmait's death meant the eve of November [and] I should propose to mend the original from 'Fogamur it is a name for the last day in the autumn' to 'Fogamur, for the last month that is a name' so that the first day of the first month of winter was also the first day of the year".

"James Frazer - The Golden Bough".

golden bough

In 1922, Sir James Frazer published his abridged version of The Golden Bough (the full version had grown to twelve volumes by this time over the course of about 30 years). This work was famously used in the British Lion horror movie, The Wicker Man in the 1970s. Regarding the Celtic feasts, on pages 633-34 Frazer presents an argument in support of Samhain being the Celtic new year (1922: 1993 reprint, Wordsworth, Ware, Hertfordshire). He refers indirectly to John Rhys writing, "the Celts would seem to have dated the beginning of the year from it [Samhain] rather than Beltane" and concludes, "we may with some probability infer that they [the Celts] reckoned their year from Hallowe'en rather than Beltane".

Extracted from the chapter The Hallowe'en Fires: "The two great Celtic festivals of May Day and the first of November, or, to be more accurate, the Eves of these two days, closely resemble each other in the manner of their celebration and in the superstitions associated with them, and alike, by the antique character impressed upon both, betray a remote and purely pagan origin. The festival of May day or Beltane, as the Celts called it, which ushered in the summer, has already been described: it remains to give some account of the corresponding festival of Hallowe'en, which announced the arrival of winter.

"Of the two feasts Hallowe'en was perhaps of old the more important, since the Celts would seem to have dated the beginning of the year from it rather than Beltane. In the Isle of Man, one of the fortresses in which the Celtic language and lore longest held out against the siege of the Saxon invaders, the first of November, Old Style, has been regarded as New Year's Day down to recent times. Thus Manx mummers used to go round on Hallowe'en (Old Style), singing, in the Manx language, a sort of Hogmanay song which began 'To-night is New year's Night, Hogunnaa!'

"In ancient Ireland, a new fire used to be kindled every year on Hallowe'en on the Eve of Samhain, and from this sacred flame all the fires in Ireland were rekindled. Such a custom points stongly to Samhain or All Saints' Day (the first of November) as New Year's Day; since the annual kindling of a new fire takes place most naturally at the beginning of the year, in order that the blessed influence of the fresh fire may last throughout the whole period of twelve months.

"Another confirmation of the view that the Celts dated their year from the first of November is furnished by the manifold modes of divination which were commonly resorted to by Celtic peoples on Hallowe'en for the purpose of ascertaining their destiny, especially their fortune in the coming year; for when could these devices for prying into the future be more reasonably put in practice than at the beginning of the year? As a season of omens and auguries Hallowe'en seems to have far surpassed Beltane in the imagination of the Celts; from which we may with some probability infer that they reckoned their year from Hallowe'en rather than Beltane."

"Henri Hubert - The Greatness and Decline of the Celts".

In 1934, Henri Hubert published 'The Greatness and Decline of the Celts' 1934: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truber & Co. Ltd, London. In this, he refers to Samhain as "probably the beginning of the year", and adds no information to support the idea or a reference to John Rhys. However, after the publication of this cautiously worded work, the acceptance of Samhain as the beginning of the Celtic year appears as orthodox. The edited version of Henri Hubert's text given above is bolded in the full excerpt below from pages 241-243. The cautious wording by Hubert is the last time any qualifying statement regarding Samhain's relationship to the beginning of the Celtic year was provided. Additionally, the concept of an eight-fold division of the year marked by the solstices, equinoxes and cross-quarter feasts, very popular today, can find its origins in this text.

Abstracted from the chapter Religion and the Druids, VIII: Festivals: "There were four chief feasts. Samhain (1st November) marked the end of summer (samos) and probably the beginning of the year. Six months later, on the 1st of May, at the beginning of summer (cét-saman), came Beltane, the feast of the fire (tein) of Bel or Bile. Between these two, at intervals of three months, there were the feasts of Lugnassad, the marriage of Lugh, which is the best described of all, on the 1st of August, and Oimelc or Imbolc, on the 1st of February, which survived in the feast of St. Brigid. Samhain was held cheifly at Tara, Beltane at Uisnech, and Lugnassad at Tailtiu (these three towns were in the central kingdom of Meath). These four festivals divided the year into four seasons of three months or eighty-five days, which seem to have been subdivided by other feasts each into two periods of forty-five days. There is no record of these other feasts save in those of certain Irish saints, above all, St. Patrick's on the 15th, 16th and 17th March.

"These feasts stood in the very forefront of the life and thoughts of the Irish. They were conducted in an atmosphere of myth and legend. The day of Beltane commemorated the landing of the first invaders of Ireland, the sons of Partholan; the first fire, that of Uisnech, was lit by their last successors. At Lugnassad the wives of Lugh or his foster-mother Tailtiu died. At Samahin the great battle of the gods was fought at Moytura, between the Formorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann. On this day, too, King Muirchertach mac Erea, having broken the prohibitions laid on him by a fairy whom he had married, was attacked by the ghosts and while the fairy set fire to his palace drowned himself in a barrel like Flann. Cuchulainn himself died on the first day of autumn. The times of the feasts were the times when spirits were let loose and wonders were expected and normally happened.

"In Wales the year was divided in the same way as in Ireland, at the Calends of May and of November. It was the same way in Gaul; in the Coligny Calendar we can distinguish the two great seasons Samonos and Giamonos. The great solitary sanctuaries in the mountains, those of Donon and the Puy-de-Dôme, show that similar festivals were held in Gaul at one period in it history. For a long time there were no permanent shrines in Gaul."

"T.G.E Powell - The Celts, 1958".

TGE Powell - The Celts (1958)

Thomas George Eyre Powell, in his contribution to the series Ancient Peoples and Places, 'The Celts' (1958) provides an authoritative stamp to Samhain being the Celtic new year with the affirmation:

"The greatest festival in Ireland was known as Samain. In terms of the modern calendar it was celebrated on the first of November, but the preceding night was perhaps the most significant period of the festival. Samain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next. It was considered to stand independently between the two, and its position in relation to the natural seasons shows it clearly to have been the turning-point in a pastoralist rather than an agrarian cycle. It corresponds to the end of the grazing season when under primitive conditions the herds and flocks were brought together, and only those animals required for breeding were spared from slaughter" (p. 144)

Hill-of-Slane-Sunset source -

Beltaine as the start of the year:
Births, beginnings and the usurping Paschal fires

The first Celtic feast to be usurped by Christianity in Ireland was Beltaine, .i. cétlúd síne samraid.

And the wizards said 'unless that fire be quenched this night, he whose fire it is shall have Ireland for ever'.
And he whose fire it was said 'O my Lord, let this impious one, who is blaspheming Thy name,
be destroyed in the presence of all'.

- On the Life of St. Patrick (Leabhar Breac: Translated by Whitley Stokes)

Season supreme - the beginning of the traditional Celtic year

"God knew how fitting the tender start of the growth of May would be/
Great is the dignity of bright green May, godson of the Immaculate Lord/
the coming of May is a blessing for me. God and Mary decided wisely and steadfastly to uphold May."
- from the poem 'Mis Mai' by Dafydd ap Gwilym in the mid fourteenth century

Irish tradition signifies Beltaine as a time of beginnings, not only of the summer half of the year, but of the year itself. Cormac's Glossary, as we have seen, refers to Beltaine in the tenth century as 'in antiquity, the companionship of summer'; and indeed anciently, the first month on the Celtic calendar of Gaul, that is Mids Samon, has a name cognate with cetsoman, that is Beltaine, in Ireland. As the first feast of the year, Beltaine is continued to be so referred in sources from the eleventh, sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. We find a role for the festival in the protection of society's livelihood, for "it was their wont to light two fires in honour of Beil in every district in Ireland, and to drive a weakling of each species of cattle that were in the district between the two fires as a preservative to shield them from all diseases during that year" (Geoffrey Keating, The History of Ireland, 1726). Beltaine was the very day the gods came to Ireland, as reckoned in the History: the Tuatha de Danaan, "on their coming to land, Monday Bealtaine...put a mist of druidism around them for the space of three days".

Later, upon the establishment of 'Meath, as the peculiar territory of the successive high kings of Ireland', by king Tuathal as related in the History, held at Uisneach 'was called the Convention of Uisneach, and it was at Bealltaine that this fair took place, at which it was their custom to exchange with one another their goods, their wares, and their valuables. They also used to offer sacrifice to the chief god they adored, who was called Beil...and it is from that fire that was made in honour of Beil that the name of Bealltaine is given'.

In the early sixteenth century, a series of quatrains listing the four famous seasonal feasts was recorded on two manuscripts, namely the Bodleian Library Oxford Ms. Rawlinson B 512, and British Library Ms. Harleian 5280, published on line at the University College Dublin's Thesaurus Linguae Hibernicae, translated by Kuno Meyer as 'Quatrains on Beltaine, &c.', in Hibernica Minora (1894), where precedence is given to Beltaine, both in its order and its superlative nature:

Quatrains on Beltaine, &c.

I relate this to you, a surpassing festival,
The privilaged dues of Belltaine:
Ale, roots, mild whey,
And fresh curds to the fire.

Lugnassad, tell of its dues
Of every distant year:
To taste of every famous fruit,
Food of herbs on Lugnasaid.

Meat, ale, nut mast, tripe,
They are the dues of Samna:
A merry bonfire on the hill,
Buttermilk, and fresh-buttered bread.

To taste of every food in order,
This is proper at Imbulc,
Washing of hand and foot and head;
It is to you thus I relate.

- based on Kuno Meyer's translation as found in
Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson's Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry (p.169), with the festival names as on B12.

This was the arrangement of the Irish year that Cú Chulaind explains to Loeg in Tochmarc Emer, an Irish hero-tale of the eleventh century: "Ar is dé roinn nobid for an mpliadain and .i. in samrad o beltine co samfuin; in gemred o samfuin co beltine. For two divisions were formerly on the year, namely, summer from Beltaine the first of May, and winter from Samuin to Beltaine." (CELT), and of the year's division by the Fena as described in Tóraigheacht an Ghiolla Dheacair, a sixteenth century Irish manuscript, which reads, "For this was the manner in which the Fena used to spend their time. They divided the year into two parts. During the first half, namely, from Bealtaine to Samhain, they hunted each day with their dogs; and during the second half, namely from Samhain to Bealtaine, there was not a chief or a great lord or a keeper of a house of hospitality in the whole country that had not nine of the Fena quartered on him during the winter half of the year." These late explanations of the traditional year agree with the ancient arrangement of the Celtic year in Gaul, beginning with Mids Samon the equivalent of Irish cetsoman, both corresponding to May; and followed half a year later by Mids Giamon the equivalent of Irish Mí Gam, both corresponding to November.

Tradition records that Beltaine was the first of the Celtic fire feasts to be usurped by Christianity. The feast as described by Keating's History is recorded in similar fashion for the kingship of Dathi from c.AD405, with 'religious solemnities', 'sports, games, and ceremonies' and Dathi's famous 'conference with all the great chiefs and leaders of the nation'. From a Christian perspective, the Beltaine feast was presented in a different light in the Book of Armagh, in which the heathen festivities were demonised as 'an idolatrous ceremony', featuring 'the Druids, singers, prophets', and attended 'with manifold incantations and magical contrivances'.

John Bagnell Bury - The Life of St. Patrick and His Place in History (1905) linked in the text on the usurping of Beltaine

The triumph of Christianity over Beltaine is recorded in The Life Of Saint Patrick, where the fires of Beltaine and the Paschal fires were said to be in direct conflict, with the former defeated and usurped by the Christian feast. Due to the timing of Easter compared to the May eve date associated with Beltaine, the tale is regarded as allegory. However, due to the mechanics of the Celtic calendar known from Gaul, co-incidence of the summer feast and the Paschal fires is shown to be plausible (for which explanation the reader is directed to The Celtic Calendar presentation on this website. Regardless, it is important to consider why Christianity chose this feast to usurp above all others, the last being Samhain some four centuries later.

Beltaine is the time of the birth of the divine child, a strong symbol of the start of the year in the Celtic mind. In the 'Mabinogi of Pwyll', an entire episode is devoted to the birth of Gwri Golden Hair at Calan Mai. His epithet was given because 'what hair was on his head was as yellow as gold'. No wonder his hair is 'golden', for no other imagery would be appropriate for the symbolic birth of the sun. The child Gwri's birth was accompanied by the birth of a colt, who was later given him as a companion, and later the child gained the name Pryderi and became Prince of Dyfed. Colts are associated with birth of Setanta, later the hero Cú Chulaind. Both these sun-like heroes and many more beside, may be recognised as Mabon, the Divine son, child of Modron the Divine Mother and explored in more detail in Mabon ap Modron elsewhere on this website. But little wonder that the nativity of the Celtic year-child was required to be suppressed by Christianity, whose own Divine Child could have no equals, and no wonder then that records of the significance of Beltaine circumspect.

As a time of beginnings, Beltaine is also distinguished as the day upon which Finn gained his knowledge after partaking of the Salmon of Knowledge, 'And the three arts thus he learned - namely, teinm láeda, imus for-osna, and díchetal di chennaib'. Upon which moment he sang of the superlative nature of the season:

CÉTEMAIN, cain cucht,
rée rosaír rann;
canait luin laíd laín
día laí grían gaí ngann.

Summer-time, season supreme!
Blackbirds sing a full lay
Man flourishes, the maiden buds
Blossom covers the world.

adapted from Kuno Meyer, Four Old-Irish Songs of Summer and Winter (London, 1903)
the full song is given in Summer in the Grove

The Suppresson of Beltaine:
Patrick and the Paschal fire at cohesamain.

On Julian March 21st, a full moon rose. Easter computations using current tables and an equinox date of the 21st assign the following Sunday to be Easter Sunday, ie March 26th, but the timing of the full moon and the system that was used to calculate the Ecclesiastical full moon by Patrick's mission in Ireland at the time can lead to not that but the following full moon being designated the EFM. Calculations for the timing of Easter include that the EFM is not allowed to precede the equinox, and the combination of counting daily periods from sunset or if Patrick's mission was of the opinion of counting March 25th as the equinox, both could have precluded March 21st FM as being the EFM for his mission. That means that the following FM of the 20th April would have been counted as the EFM, with Easter Sunday following on the 23rd April. During the period from around the equinox and into May, a spectacular planetary alignment was observable at dawn, that may very well have been the setting for Laoghaire's Feast of Tara (the planets being suitably aligned - literally!) and the co-incidence of Patrick's probable EFM provided him his opportunity to light his usurping Paschal fires as described according to his Life.

sunrise on Beltaine AD433 in Ireland
Sunrise on Beltaine May 1st AD433 in Ireland: the waning crescent moon is set amongst all five visible planets along the south-eastern horizon. The spectacular planetary alignment may have been the inspiration for Laoghaire to hold a Feast of Tara, and likewise the timing of Patrick's usurping Paschal fire at the time of Beltaine.

From: On The Life Of Saint Patrick translated by Whitley Stokes (preserved at Internet Archive and the English translation at Corpus of Electronic Texts. "ISandsin tanic cohesamain 7 cofergach m&gaid patraic oen donadraidib .i. lochru. 7 rosecnaig 1 don iris cm/aide. Tune sanctus patricius dixit...cotrdechaid z iarsin doirrsib foriattaib isintemraig. collar inrigthaigi. isandsin boi inrig ocfledugw^ corigraid eretm imi ar insollamainse .i. vair ba hi sin feis temra. " For that was a prohibition of Tara which the Gael had, and no one durst kindle a fire in Ireland on that day until it had been kindled first at Tara at the solemnity. And the wizards said 'unless that fire be quenched before this night, he whose fire it is shall have the kingdom of Ireland for ever. Then came one of the wizards, to wit, Lochru, fiercely and angrily against Patrick, and reviled the Christian faith. Tune sanctus Patricius dixit O my Lord, it is Thou that canst do all things : in Thy power they are : it is Thou that sentest us hither. Let this impious one, who is blaspheming Thy name, be destroyed in the presence of all. and there after he went into Tara, the doors being shut, to the middle of the palace. The king was then feasting with the kings of Ireland around him at this festival, for that was the Feast of Tara.

*   *   *   *   *

"On the night of Easter eve, Patrick and his companions lit the Paschal fire, and on that self-same night Loigaire the King of Ireland held the high and solemn festival of Beltaine at Tara where the kings and nobles of the land were gathered. On that night of the year no fire should be lit until a fire had been kindled with solemn ritual in the royal house. Suddenly the company assembled at Tara saw a light shining across the plain from the hill of Slane.

'O King,' cried the druids, 'unless this fire be quenched this same night,
it will never be quenched;
And the kindler of this fire will overcome us all,
And seduce all the folk of this realm!'.

And Patrick quoted the Psalmist,
'Some in chariots, Some on horses;
But we in the name of the Lord!
Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered!'

Then the queen came to Patrick and besought him,
'O mighty and just man!
Do not destroy the king -
Let him come and kneel and worship your God!'

From: The Life of St. Patrick and His Place in History, p. 104-106.

The Expedition of Dathi

The story of King Dathi tells us much of the traditions of Beltaine and Samhain in the Dark Ages. At Beltaine the King hosts a national conference and games, and at Samhain the previous year he had his druid foretell what was to be achieved over the following summer campaign. This abstract is from the Book of Leinster, and called the Sluaghid Dathi co Sliabh n-Ealpa, or the Expedition of Dathi to the Alpine Mountains. Eugene O'Curry (1796-1862) provides us with an English account of the story in his 1855 and 1856 'Lectures on the manuscript materials of ancient Irish history delivered at the Catholic University of Ireland', published in 1861 by James Duffy, London, pp.284-288.

Of his source material, O'Curry advises us on p.288, at the end of the story, that "There are two copies of the present tract in Dublin, one in the Royal Irish Academy, and the other in my own collection, both on paper, and neither of them older than the year 1760; and although the tract has so far suffered at the hands of ignorant transcribers, as to be much corrupted in style and language, still I have found in it many genuine illustrations of ancient manners, customs, and ceremonies, to which other very ancient and better preserved pieces contain but allusions more or less obscure".

Doghra's Samhain prophecy

[Page 284] Niall of the Nine Hostages was succeeded in the monarchy (A.D. 405) by Dathi, the son of his brother Fiachra, king of Connacht; and was, like his uncle, a valiant and ambitious man. It happened that, in the seventeenth year of his reign, king Dathi was induced to go from Tara to Eas Ruaidh, the great cataract of the River Erne (at the present Ballyshannon), to adjust some territorial dispute which had sprung up among his relatives. The time at which this journey was undertaken was the close of the summer, so that the king arrived at his destination close upon November Eve, a season of great solemnity of old among the pagan Gaedhils.

Dathi, having concluded an amicable adjustment among his friends, and finding himself on the eve of the great festival of Samhain, was desirous that his Druids should ascertain for him, by their art, the incidents that were to happen to him from that time till the festival of Samhain of the next year. With this view he commanded the presence of the Druids; and Doghra, the chief among them, immediately stood before him. "I wish", said the king, "to know my destiny, and that of my country, from this night till this night twelvemonths". "Then", said Doghra, "if you will send nine of your noblest chiefs with me from this to Rath Archaill, on the bank of the river Muaidh [the Moy], I will reveal something to them". "It shall be so", said the king, "and I shall be one of the number myself".

They departed secretly from the camp, and arrived in due time at the plain of Rath Archaill, where the druid's alters and idols were. Dathi's queen, Ruadh, had a palace at Mullach Ruaidhé, in this neighbourhood, [a place still known under that name, in the parish of Screene, in the barony of Tireragh, and county of Sligo]. Here the king took up his quarters for the night, whilst the Druid repaired to Dumha na n-Druadh (or [p.285] the Druid's Mound), near Rath Archaill, on the south, to consult his art according to the request of the king.

At the rising of the sun in the morning, the Druid repaired to the king's bed-room, and said, "Art thou asleep, O king of Erinn and of Albain?" "I am not asleep", answered the monarch, "but why have you made an addition to my titles? for, although I have taken the sovereignty of Erinn, I have not yet obtained that of Albain [Scotland]". "Thou shalt not be long so', said the druid, "for I have consulted the clouds of the men of Erinn, and found that thou wilt soon return to Tara, where thou wilt invite all the provincial kings. and chiefs of Erinn, to the great feast of Tara, and there thou shalt decide with them upon making an expedition into Albain, Britain, and France, following the conquering footsteps of thy great uncle, Niall, and thy granduncle, Crimhthann Môr".

The king, delighted with this favourable prediction, returned to his camp, where he related what had happened, and disclosed his desire for foreign conquests to such of the great men of the nation as happened to be of his train at the time. His designs were approved of, and the nobles were dismissed to their respective homes, after having cordially promised to attend on the king at Tara, with all their forces, whenever he should summon them, to discuss farther the great project which now wholly siezed his attention.

* here an anecdote relating to the palace of Freamhainn is given, where Dathi stayed for some time over the winter, and omitted here*

Dathi's gathering at Tara at Beltaine

[p.286] Let us, however, return to the story of king Dathi himself. On leaving Freamhainn, Dathi came to Ros-na-Righ, the residence of his mother, which was situated north-east of Tara, on the bank of the Boyne. Here he remained for some time, and at last returned to tara, at which place he had, meanwhile, invited the states of the nation to meet him at the approaching feast of Belltainé (one of the great pagan festivals of ancient erinn) on May Day.

[p.287] The feast of Tara this year was solemnized on a scale of splendour never before equalled. the fires of Taillten [now called telltown, to the north of Tara] were lighted, and the sports, games, and ceremonies, for which that ancient place is celebrated, were conducted with unusual magnificence and solemnity.

*a brief anecdote regarding the origin of the Taillten fires by Lug is given and omitted here*

After the religious solemnities were concluded, Dathi, having now discharged his duties to his gods and to his subjects, turned his thoughts to his contemplated expedition; and at a conference with all the great chiefs and leaders of the nation, found them all ready to support him. Accordingly, without further delay, he concluded his preparations, and leaving Tara in the charge of one of his cousins, he marched to Dundealgan (the present Dundalk), where his fleet was ready for sea, at the head of the most powerful army that had ever, up to that time, been known to leave Erinn.

The campaigns

Immediately upon his landing [in Port Patrick in Scotland], Dathi sent his Druid to Feredach Finn, king of Scotland, who was then at his palace of Tuirrin brighé na Righ, calling on him for submission and tribute, or an immediate reason to the contrary on the field of battle. The Scottish king refused either submission or tribute, and accepted the challenge of battle, but required a few days to prepare for so unexpected an event.

The time for battle at last arrived; both armies marched to Magh an Chairthi (the plain of the Pillar Stone), in Glenn Feadha (the woody glen); Dathi at the head of his gaedhils, and Feredach leading a large force composed of
[p.288] native Scots, Picts, Britons, French, Scandinavians, and Hebridean Islanders.

A fierce and destructive fight ensued between the two parties, in which the Scottish forces were at length overthrown and routed with great slaughter. When the Scottish king saw the death of his son and the discomfiture of his army, he threw himself headlong on the ranks of his enemies, dealing death and destruction all round him: but in the height of his fury he was laid hold of by Conall Gulban [the greatest ancestor of Saint Colum Cille and of the O'Donnells of Donnegall], who, taking him up in his arms, hurled him against the pillar stone and dashed out his brains. The scene of this battle has been continued ever since to be called Gort an Chairthé, the Pillarstone Field; and the glenn, Glenn an Chatha, or Battle Glen.

Dathi having now realised the object of his ambition, set up a surviving son of the late king on the throne of Scotland, and receiving hostages and formal public submission from him, he passed onwards into Britain and France, in both of which countries he still received hostages and submission, wherever he proceeded on his march. he continued his progress but with what object does not appear, even to the foot of the Alps, where he was at last killed, in the midst of his glory, by a flash of lightning.

The body of this great king was afterwards carried home by his people, and he was buried with his fathers in the ancient pagan cemetery at Raith Cruachain, in Connacht, as related in a very old poem by Torna Eigeas. At this place his grave was still distinguished by the Coirthe Dearg, the Red Pillar Stone, down to the year 1650, when Dubhaltach mac Firbisigh wrote his first great Book of Genealogies.

southern cross and nearby south polar constellations the stars of the southern cross The Southern Hemisphere

Australia and the Southern Lands experience the seasons off-set half a year to the Celtic homelands. Celebrating the Fire feasts with the progress of the southern seasons presents a dilemma, for at Beltaine on May eve, the southern seasons are turning to the winter; at Samhain on November eve, the southern seasons are at the time of rebirth at the start of summer.
Southern hemisphere

taken November eve 2005

Teine Samhradh Deas

The Fire Feast for Summer
'Southern Beltaine'
Held on the Eve of November

And they named him Gwri Golden-hair

Summer has come, healthy and free,
Green bursts out on every herb!

taken high summer of 2005/6

Teine Grian Deas

The Fire Feast for High Summer
'Southern Lughnasa'
held on the Eve of February

He is the Ioldhanach!

Son of the king in midsummer
The greenwoods girl gave a gift

taken May 2006

Teine Geimhreadh Deas

The Fire Feast for Winter
'Southern Samhain'
Held on the Eve of May

And he made his way to Eas Ruaidh

Winter has come, summer is gone.
Low the sun and short his course

taken August 2006

Teine Earrach Deas

The Fire Feast for Spring
'Southern Oimelc'
Held on the Eve of August

Four white trefoils were her track

Go on your knees, open your eyes,
Let Brigit in! She is welcome!

© Caer Australis 2011: From Coogee in Sydney's eastern beaches NSW Australia

The Celtic Fire Feasts

Fire Feast Introduction AD433: Patrick's fire Beltaine Lughnasa Samhain Imbolc Southern hemisphere
Division of the Year
Ar is dé roinn nobid for an mpliadain and .i. in samrad o beltine co samfuin; in gemred o samfuin co beltine.
For two divisions were formerly on the year, namely, summer from Beltaine the first of May to Samuin, and winter from Samuin to Beltaine.
- from Tochmarc Emer   Representation of an Irish chieftain seated at dinner, 1581from
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