Bealtaine

The Celtic Craft

May, 2012

Bealtaine – A Celtic Festival

As the first of May arrives, so too does the Summer festival of the ancient Celts: Bealtaine.

Also known as ‘Beltane’, this fire festival is one of rich fertility, optimum growth and vibrant youth. What we regard as ‘Mayday’ once marked the beginning of the Celtic summer and was a time of huge celebration across all Celtic tribes, specifically those found in Ireland (Curran, 2000). Today, followers of the Pagan path similarly regard this Quarter as a time for commemoration. But how exactly did the Celtic people mark this religious event?
For the Celts, this was a brilliant opportunity to conjure the summer in. Bealtaine was very much associated with the sun, while simultaneously existing as a very feminine holiday. The name may be literally translated to ‘Bright Fire’ or ‘Shining Fire’. However, there are many conflicting interpretations of its meaning. In his ninth-century Irish glossary, Sanas Cormaic, the author, Cormac associates “fire with good luck (bil-tene) and says: ‘that is, two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations’” (Ross, 1995). It is also believed that the holiday was named after the Romano-Celtic solar God, ‘Belenus’ (Curran, 2000), also known as the ‘Shining One’. Despite its many roots and ancestries, the name, ‘Bealtaine’ has survived centuries to exist today as a significant phase of the Celtic calendar of enormous importance and even remains as the Irish Gaelic word for ‘May’.
Regardless of its origins, it is evident that fire symbolism was a dominant feature of this particular festival. Large bonfires were lit all across the land and the greatest of the celebrations took place at Úisneach and Royal Tara, the home of the Irish High Kings (Ross, 1995). All bonfires were to be lit from the great fire that blazed on the Hill at Tara. In addition to these rituals, the Celts danced around and leaped over roaring fires, either exhibiting a fearless warrior or ensuring a successful hunting season in the coming months. Also, “Such ceremonies magically induce the energisation of the sun by reproducing it on earth.” (Aldhouse Green, 2001). A kin to this, the practice of herding cattle between two lit bonfires in order to cleanse the cows was highly popular. This promised healthy livestock and warded off “fluke” and other such cattle diseases (Curran, 2000). This was a holiday bursting with energy and its many traditions reinforced its vibrancy and significance. The Celts believed that, at Lughnasa, they would reap what they had sown in the Spring months. Therefore, Bealtaine was regarded as an excellent chance to honour the Gods and pray for the summer months to be kind to the people’s crops.
In Irish-Celtic mythology, the mighty Tuatha Dé Danann landed on Irish shores on the first of May. One may find the tale of the Tuatha Dé in the 12th century Irish text, the Leabhar Gabhála (The Book of Invasions) (Curran, 2000). The Tuatha, also known as The Children of Danú, arrived on a cloud of golden mist, although some say that they sailed to the Emerald Isle on a fleet of ships. Either way, these bold, giant and Otherworldly magic-folk set up home in ‘Erin’, and soon defeated all those who stood in their way, such as the Firbolg. The attacks involving the Nemed also appear to have taken place at ‘Beltain’, where the High Druid, Mide lit the first fire. (Ross, 1995). Bealtaine was also an extremely superstitious event, similar to the opposite sabbat, Samhain. The veil between the two worlds was considered to be very thin. The folklore of the Celtic tribes was at its height and the paranormal, such as the Fae and other such mythological creatures that were not to be angered, were within a dangerous reaching distance. Thus, we can see how Bealtaine may have held such significance for the Celts from a mythological and spiritual point of view.

The beliefs of the Celts are still widely shared by those who follow the Pagan path today. In the present day, dancing around the ‘May Pole’ and lighting bonfires are extremely popular celebratory rituals. Alters, homes, offices and gardens are decorated and arranged in a manner to bid the Spring farewell and welcome in the coming summer months. Bealtaine is also regarded as a time where the Goddess and God finally become one after a season of courting.

Setting up your Bealtaine Alter
In order to give your alter a Celtic twist when embracing the arrival of Summer, perhaps decorate it with lush evergreens and vibrant reds. Celtic symbols of life are also powerful additions to your celebrations – think triple spirals and goddesses. Even a plaque or a simple drawing dedicated to the Green Man would be a wonderful icon to include. Also, one may wish to incorporate Brighid, the Celtic goddess that many celebrate at Imbolg. In Celtic mythology, one may see Brighid as the Mother Goddess becoming one with the Celtic God of your choice (e.g Cernunnos). Indulge in fertility symbolism, such as seeds and fruit, particularly cherries and peaches. Phallic symbols should be paired with those representing the Goddess to ensure a balanced alter of fertility, such as athames, horns, wands, chalices and cauldrons.

Specific Elements to Incorporate
Earth:
– Take some earth, place it in your alter bowl and leave it outside/on your windowsill to soak up the sun’s summer energy.
– Similarly, you may do this with stones, fallen branches, naturally unearthed grass etc.
– Choose fertility and abundance crystals, such as Green Moss Agate or Peridot. The green of these stones also perfectly represent nature. Garnet, a ruby red stone, is also perfect for the passion filled fire festival.
– Place a growing seedling that you sowed at Imbolg to represent life and procreation, one of the major symbols of Bealtaine.

Air:
*Beltane Incense:
– 3 parts Frankincense.
– 1 part Myrrh.
– 1 part Cinnamon.
– ½ part Sandalwood.
– ½ part Jasmine Flowers.
– 3 Drops of Sweet White Wine/Sherry.
(West, 2002)

Fire:
– What better way to celebrate Bealtaine than to light a flame to represent fire! Opt for green, large candles.
– Engrave candles with fertile runes/symbols. Use scents similar to those previously suggested for incense.
– One may also use their athame to symbolise fire and fertility.

Water:
– Fresh Spring water is favourable.
– Collect the last few drops of April’s rain. Again, you may leave this bowl out to absorb the sun’s fire.
– A circular mirror may be used to represent the Goddess.

Cooking
-Fertility bread: Include lots of seeds and dried fruit, or focus on the visual aspect and bake a circular or rectangular loaf.
-Use fresh, green herbs in your cooking. If you’re working magic, ensure that you focus on your intent during the preparation, cooking and eating.
-If you are celebrating a particular deity, use herbs, colours, tastes and smells that are associated with that particular Celtic God or Goddess.
-Incorporate Woodruff: This makes a lovely tea or decorative addition to the home to lift low spirits
-Cucumber soup, mead, elderflower cordial with sparkling mineral water are all appropriate drinks for this sabbat.

Other ideas:
-Create a May Basket.
-Dance around the May Pole.
-Light a bonfire.
-Perhaps pay homage to the May Queen and Queen of Winter’s feud.
-It’s not too late to sow certain seeds! Tend to your seedlings that you sowed in Spring or do a little research on what plants you can grow at this time of year.
-Hold a ritual specific to this sabbat.
-Research prayers associated with this festival, or Celtic Gods and Goddesses associated with Bealtaine.

Bibliography

Aldhouse Green, M., 2001. Dying for the Gods. 1st ed. Gloucestershire: Tempus Publishing Ltd..

Curran, B., 2000. Complete Guide to Celtic Mythology. 1st ed. Belfast: The Appletree Press Ltd..

Ross, A., 1995. The Celtic World. 1st ed. London: Routledge.

West, K., 2002. The Real Witches’ Kitchen. 1st ed. London: HarperCollinsPublishers.