BELTAINE, or Calan Mai, is held on May Eve and is the festival that heralds in Samhradh, the summer and the light half of the Celtic year.
May in Ireland was originally called Cèitemain, derived according to Sanas Cormaic, Cormac's Glossary from cét-sam-sín, the first weather-motion of sam or summer, and hence the 'first month of Summer'. When the Glossary was compiled, the feast of Maytime was seen as archaic, described as Céitemain .i. cétlúd síne samraid, which is 'Mayday, ie companionship of summer of antiquity', with variant spellings for the feast month: cetsoman, cetsamun, cetsamain, cetshamuin, (Early Irish Glossaries database: 'cetsoman'). Like 10th century Irish cetsoman, which invokes the summer, so too is 'summer' the meaning of mids samon, the first month on the Celtic calendar known from Gaul dating about a millenium earlier and suppressed upon the introduction of Roman calendar systems there. That mids samon is the Maytime month is demonstrated by it being followed six months later by mids giamon, 'winter', which equates to Irish mí gam, explained as Gam quasi gamos isin greic, nouimber, which is 'Gam, as though in Greek gamos, November' (Early Irish Glossaries database: 'gam'); Greek was used as the language of trade (Stokes, G. 1892), The Knowledge of Greek in Ireland between AD500 - 900. From this cultural continuity both across Celtic Europe and throughout time, it can be justly understood that Beltaine marked in Ireland the beginning of not only the summer but of the Celtic year itself.
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"
- 16th century - based on Kuno Meyer's translation in Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry (p.169).
Beltaine marking the first, light, summer half of the Celtic year is also recorded in the 16th century Fennian tale Tóraigheacht an Ghiolla Dheacair' ('Joyce, P.W. 1907), 'The pursuit of the Giolla Dacker and his horse', where a Beltaine beginning and a Samhain middle is explicitly stated: "One day in the beginning of summer, Finn mac Cumhail feasted the chief people of Erin and when the feast was over, the Fena reminded him that it was time to begin the chase through the plains and the glens and the wilderness of Erin. 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, they lived in the mansions and hostels of Erin such that there was not a lord or innkeeper in the whole country that had not nine of the Fena quartered on him during the winter half of the year'.
As the beginning of the Celtic year and as the beginning of the time of warmth afforded by Summer, the fire-feast at the start of Summer celebrates the power of healing and rebirth. Throughout the Celtic world great fires are lit. Indeed, a commonly given explanation of the name 'Beltaine' is that it is derived from the name for these fires, Bel-tene (Bel's fire) in honour of the sun god Bel or Belinos (Ross, A. 1974).
Beltaine was the first Celtic fire feast usurped in Ireland, when Patrick lit the Paschal fires in defiance of the High King. 'O King,' cried the druids, 'unless this fire be quenched this same night, it will never be quenched' (Bury, J.B. 1975; Leabhar Breac, transl. Stokes, W 1876). At that time, in the early fifth century, too, the Christian celebration of saints and martyrs was held on May 13th, continuing the date of the Roman feast for the dead, the Lemuria, and All Saints day did not move to November for another four centuries (see: Samhain).
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.
The suppression of Beltaine in Ireland heralds the end of the period of truly traditional Celtic beliefs. In the 'Life of St Patrick' by MuirchÚ Moccu Machteni of Armagh, written in the seventh century and surviving in the Book of Armagh the event was described as "...on the same night as the holy Patrick was celebrating Easter, there was an idolatrous ceremony...with manifold incantations and magical contrivances...when the Druids, singers, prophets...had been summoned to Laoghaire...at Tara"(Ellis, P.B. 1994)
Beltaine is for Celts a joyous festival that marks the time of beginnings in Celtic myth and legend: the arrival of the Tuatha de Danaan was marked with the Song of Amergin on this day, so too were the first fires lit at Uisnech; it is at Beltaine that Mabon, the divine son is born to the divine mother, Modron: the births of Gwri (later Pryderi), Setanta (later Cú Chulaind) and the Mac Óc (Oengus) all testify to this (see the Welsh and Irish myths in Gantz, J. 1976, 1981), and symbolically this represents the birth of the new solar year - the date of the nativity of the Celtic hero, maponos.
As the festival that celebrates the triumph of summer over winter, Beltaine is also the time when the victory of the new solar god is achieved over his rival the old year god, whose power had waned over the winter (note 1): every May Day, for instance, Gwythur ap Greidyawl and Gwynn ap Nudd fight for the hand of Creiddylad. The perpetual victory of summer each year ensures the continuation of life itself, and at Beltaine the solar god wins the hand of the fair maiden, union with the Goddess, exemplified in the Mabinogi of Pwyll from Wales and in the Tochmarc Étaíne from Ireland, where the handsome yellow-haired solar hero wins the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world at the beginning of Summer.
Dafydd ap Gwilym (1325-c.1380) marked the Welsh tradition of praise at Calan Mai in his poem To May and January (Jackson, K.H. 1951) with these uplifting words,
"Welcome, with your lovely greenwood choir, summery month of May for which I long!
The battle with the frost is over.
The paths of May will be green.
There will come on the highest crest of oak-trees the songs of young birds."
This 14th century celebration of the joyful return of summer in May is a true continuation of the ninth century Irish celebration of this season (Murphy, G. 1956), at the instant Finn ate of the Salmon of Knowledge,
"May-day, fair aspect, perfect season!
Welcome to noble summer,
The ocean flows a smooth course,
Blossom covers the world!"
Even today are signs of Beltaine to be found in small but meaningful ways, as reported in 'Fire, blood and a pot of gold' (The Independent, 2004):
"The lone hawthorn, the bush of magical powers, sits on its own, undisturbed for reasons of folklore and superstition, in the small field and all dressed up for the coming summer celebration. On a roadside near Kilkenny there are coloured scraps of cloth tied to an ancient thorn that signifies that here was - and still is - a place of devotion, a holy well, and the cloth symbols are small fluttering tokens of prayerful requests. You will also hear of sprigs of thorn being sprinkled with holy water and stuck in the ground to protect cattle and crops from the fairies! The red of blossom, fire, summer light and sun is linked to the Celtic god Belinus, a solar power of healing, hence Bealtaine, the old Irish season, the fire of Bel, a time of brilliance and brightness".
New fires are created from the power of fire within wood, such as a well-seasoned oak: The fire, termed tein-eigan: a forced- or need-fire, is elicited by means of turning a wimble in a socket or an axle-tree in a hole, creating fire through friction, and the first sparks are caught in kindling and the new fire, like that of the new summer, would be born: The old year fires are extinguished as a preamble and embers of the new fire would be brought into the homes to rekindle the hearth (Frazer, J. 1890, 1922).
James Frazer recorded that in 1890, in Scotland "the most considerable of the Druidical festivals is that of Beltane, or May-day". The Beltaine cake am bonnach bealtine, in its many variants, is an essential part of the fire-feast: The piece randomly or fortuitously gained that was specially marked (a piece of charcoal within, blackened on the outside, consisting of brown-meal, etc) indicated the recipient was reckoned as dead: here is an echo of the death of the old year god defeated by the coming of Summer. Thrice would the 'dead' jump through or around the Beltaine fire, as an act of sacrifice "rendering the year productive of the sustenance of man and beast".
At this time, cattle are newly moved to pasture from the confines of their over-wintering in pens and enclosures - as Finn sings, "the mountain, supplying rich sufficiency carries off the cattle". Cattle are known to have been enjoined in the festival by being driven around or between the Beltaine fires so that they too enjoy the healing bestowed by the renewing powers at Beltaine and the start of the pasturing season.
Competition from the Easter fires as a time of renewal, not the least the challenging fires of St Patrick, has been a major reason for the role of Beltaine diminishing in the Celtic world of Christian times. Christianity would also very likely to be understandably intolerant of the celebration of the birth of Mabon at this festival as it would conflict with the birth of Christ. In recent times, another important influence on the meaning of Beltaine has been the adoption by the 20th century neo-pagan and wiccan movements of winter as the beginning of the year (Orr, E.R. 1998). Ross Nichols, of the Ancient Order of Druids, discovered in his researches the Celtic fire festivals and proposed for them to be incorporated into the AOD but this was rejected. Nichols advised his friend Gerald Gardner, who was establishing the Wiccan system about these feasts and he immediately incorporated them into an eight-fold year divided by the solstices, equinoxes and cross-quarters, and these were in practice in the early 1950s; When Nichols established his breakaway Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, he too utilised the eight-fold year and this was practiced from 1964. see: Orr, E.R. (1998). Confusion has also be made by the neo-pagan groups of Caesar's DisPater statement (Gallic Wars, VI.18) in which Caesar accurately records the Celts as beginning their days at sunset. Sir John Rhys mistakenly took this to indicate that the Celts began their year in the dark part of the year, and this misinterpretation was very early incorporated into Celticism by Sir John Rhys in 1886 when he presented the Hibbert Lectures, published in 1892 by Williams and Norgate, London, as 'Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom". It was in these lectures that he advanced the concept of Samhain being the Celtic New Year. He states, on p. 360 the following: "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." Sir James Frazer in his The Golden Bough of 1890 states the self-same concept in "The Hallowe'en Fires. Frazer does not directly quote Sir John Rhys; however, Frazer had clearly read Rhys, for he makes mention of the Hibbert Lecture material in relation to Samhain fire feasts in Wales.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
(1) Fight for the hand of Creiddylad see, for example, Gantz, J. (1976) 'The Mabinogion' Penguin. London: How Culhwch won Olwen p.148 and p.168. Rhiannon is 'a wonder', 'dressed in shining gold brocade', the 'choice of every girl and woman in the world': she appears before Pwyll on the Gorsedd Arberth, the hill above his court at Arberth: just as Beltaine fires are lit on hill tops. see, for example, Gantz, J. (1976) 'The Mabinogion' Penguin. London: the mabinogi of Pwyll Lord of Dyved, p.52 and p.54. Étaíne is called Bé Find, 'fair woman', 'her hands were as white as the snow of a single night, and her eyes as blue as any blue flower, and her lips as red as the berries of the rowan-tree, and her body as white as the foam of a wave' see: "Midhir and Etain" In: Lady Gregory (1904) 'Gods and Fighting Men' Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, (1970). p.90; and "The Wooing of Étaíne" In: Jeffrey Gantz (1981) 'Early Irish Myths and Sagas' Penguin, London. pp.39-59. (p.48 and p.52.) Mider is described as he approached Etain: 'fair yellow hair covered his forehead with a band of gold to restrain it from covering his face: "The Wooing of Étaíne" In: Jeffrey Gantz (1981) 'Early Irish Myths and Sagas' Penguin, London. pp.47-48.; Likewise, Gwri Golden Hair is described as the image of Pwyll in the Mabinogi of Pwyll.
Bury, John Bagnell, (1905) The Life of St. Patrick and His Place in History, published by Courier Dover Publications, 1998. pp.104-108.
Ellis, P.B. (1994) The Druids, Constable, London, p. 76.
Frazer, Sir James, (1890 and 1922) The Golden Bough , 1994 reprint, Chancellor Press/Octopus, London. "The Beltane Fires", provides much lore of the activities during the Beltane festival.
Gantz, J.: The birth of Gwri Golden Hair: The sun-god's birth is occasioned by the birth of a fabulous colt on May eve. see, for example, Gantz, J. (1976) 'The Mabinogion' Penguin. London: the Mabinogi of Pwyll Lord of Dyved. The birth of Setanta: The birth of the Irish hero Cú Chulaind in the now lost Book of Druimm Snechti, like Gwri, is occasioned by the birth of a fabulous colt, pointing to May eve by similarity with Gwri. see, for example, Gantz, J. (1981) 'Early Irish Myths and Sagas' Penguin. London. The birth of Oengus, the Mac Óc: His father Echu (the Dagda) is like Gwri's mother Rhiannon, a Horse deity. see the , for example, Gantz, J. (1981) 'Early Irish Myths and Sagas' Penguin. London: Tochmarc Étaín (The Wooing of Étaín).
Jackson, K.H.: Daffyd ap Gwilym (1325-c.1380) "To May and January", reproduced in Jackson, K.H (1951) 'A Celtic Miscellany', Penguin, London. Nature poetry; see also 'Summer in the Grove' for two important summer poems of Daffyd ap Gwilym, and Dafydd ap Gwilym.net for his collected works.
Joyce, P.W.: This was recorded in 1907 and is is widely available today through publication of 'Old Celtic Romances' by the Folkloric Society.
Murphy, G.: "May Day" In: Murphy, G. (1956:1970 reprint) 'Early Irish Lyrics. Eighth to Twelfth Century. Edited with translation, notes and glossary' Clarendon Press, Oxford. pp. 156-157
Orr, E.R. (1998) Introduction to Druidry, Thorsons/HarperCollins, London.
Ross, A.(1974) Pagan Celtic Britain, Cardinal, London, p.83; Dillon, M. and Chadwick, N.K. The Celtic Realms, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, p.108. Another reference to Beltaine ceremony affecting the entire new year is found in Ireland, ref 6, p.621, quoting Cormac: "May-day was so called from the 'lucky fire' or the 'two fires' which the druids of Erin used to make on that day with great incantations; and cattle, he adds, used to be brought to those fires, or be driven between them, as a safeguard against the diseases of the year."
Stokes, G. (1892), The Knowledge of Greek in Ireland between AD500 - 900. (JSTOR copy, as linked)
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