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Beltane

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Beltane
A burning bonfire of a towering 30 foot wickerman holding a sword. A crowd watches from below.
Also calledLá Bealtaine (Irish)
Latha Bealltainn (Scottish Gaelic)
Laa Boaltinn/Boaldyn (Manx)[1]
Beltain; Beltine; Beltany[2][3]
Observed byHistorically: Gaels
Today: Irish people, Scottish people, Manx people, Modern Pagans
TypeCultural,
Pagan (Celtic neopaganism, Wicca)
SignificanceBeginning of summer
Celebrationslighting bonfires, decorating homes with May flowers, making May bushes, visiting holy wells, feasting
Date1 May[4]
(or 1 November in the Southern Hemisphere)
Frequencyannual
Related toMay Day, Calan Mai, Walpurgis Night

Beltane (/ˈbjɑːl.tɪnə/)[5][6] is the Gaelic May Day festival. Commonly observed on the first of May, the festival falls midway between the spring equinox and summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. The festival name is synonymous with the month marking the start of summer in Ireland, May being Mí na Bealtaine. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. In Irish the name for the festival day is Lá Bealtaine ([l̪ˠaː ˈbʲal̪ˠt̪ˠənʲə]), in Scottish Gaelic Latha Bealltainn ([l̪ˠaː ˈpjaul̪ˠt̪ɪɲ]), and in Manx Gaelic Laa Boaltinn/Boaldyn. Beltane is one of the principal four Gaelic seasonal festivals—along with Samhain, Imbolc, and Lughnasadh—and is similar to the Welsh Calan Mai.

Bealtaine is mentioned in the earliest Irish literature and is associated with important events in Irish mythology. Also known as Cétshamhain ("first of summer"), it marked the beginning of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect cattle, people and crops, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled, whose flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around or between bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Bealtaine bonfire. These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast, and some of the food and drink would be offered to the aos sí. Doors, windows, byres and livestock would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire. In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush: typically a thorn bush or branch decorated with flowers, ribbons, bright shells and rushlights. Holy wells were also visited, while Bealtaine dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness. Many of these customs were part of May Day or Midsummer festivals in parts of Great Britain and Europe.

Public celebrations of Beltane fell out of popularity, though some customs continue to be revived as local cultural events. Since the late 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed a festival based on Beltane as a religious holiday. Some neopagans in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate Beltane on or around 1 November.

Discover more about Beltane related topics

Gaels

Gaels

The Gaels are an ethnolinguistic group native to Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man in the British Isles. They are associated with the Gaelic languages: a branch of the Celtic languages comprising Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic.

Ireland

Ireland

Ireland is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean, in north-western Europe. It is separated from Great Britain to its east by the North Channel, the Irish Sea, and St George's Channel. Ireland is the second-largest island of the British Isles, the third-largest in Europe, and the twentieth-largest on Earth.

Isle of Man

Isle of Man

The Isle of Man, also known as Mann, is a self-governing British Crown Dependency in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland. As head of state, Charles III holds the title Lord of Mann and is represented by a Lieutenant Governor. The United Kingdom is responsible for the isle's military defence and represents it abroad.

Irish language

Irish language

Irish [ˈɡeːlʲɟə], also known as Gaelic, is a Goidelic language of the Insular Celtic branch of the Celtic language family, which is a part of the Indo-European language family. Irish is indigenous to the island of Ireland and was the population's first language until the 19th century, when English gradually became dominant, particularly in the last decades of the century. Irish is still spoken as a first language in a small number of areas of certain counties such as Cork, Donegal, Galway, and Kerry, as well as smaller areas of counties Mayo, Meath, and Waterford. It is also spoken by a larger group of habitual but non-traditional speakers, mostly in urban areas where the majority are second-language speakers. Daily users in Ireland outside the education system number around 73,000 (1.5%), and the total number of persons who claimed they could speak Irish in April 2016 was 1,761,420, representing 39.8% of respondents.

Imbolc

Imbolc

Imbolc or Imbolg, also called Saint Brigid's Day, is a Gaelic traditional festival. It marks the beginning of spring, and for Christians it is the feast day of Saint Brigid, Ireland's patroness saint. It is held on 1 February, which is about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Historically, its traditions were widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with: Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain.

Calan Mai

Calan Mai

Calan Mai or Calan Haf is a May Day holiday of Wales held on 1 May. Celebrations start on the evening before, known as May Eve, with bonfires; as with Calan Gaeaf or 1 November, the night before is considered an Ysbrydnos or "spirit night" when spirits are out and about and divination is possible. The tradition of lighting bonfires celebrating this occasion happened annually in South Wales until the middle of the 19th century.

Early Irish literature

Early Irish literature

Early Irish literature is one of the oldest vernacular literatures in Western Europe, though inscriptions utilising Irish and Latin are found on Ogham stones dating from the 4th century, indicating simultaneous usage of both languages by this period of late antiquity. According to Professor Elva Johnston, "the Irish were apparently the first western European people to develop a full-scale vernacular written literature expressed in a range of literary genres". A significant number of loan words in Irish from other Indo-European languages, including, but not limited to Latin and Greek, are evidenced in Sanas Cormaic, which dates from the 9th century. Two of the earliest examples of literature from an Irish perspective are Saint Patrick's Confessio and Letter to Coroticus, written in Latin some time in the 5th century, and preserved in the Book of Armagh.

Irish mythology

Irish mythology

Irish mythology is the body of myths native to the island of Ireland. It was originally passed down orally in the prehistoric era, being part of ancient Celtic religion. Many myths were later written down in the early medieval era by Christian scribes, who modified and Christianized them to some extent. This body of myths is the largest and best preserved of all the branches of Celtic mythology. The tales and themes continued to be developed over time, and the oral tradition continued in Irish folklore alongside the written tradition, but the main themes and characters remained largely consistent.

Bonfire

Bonfire

A bonfire is a large and controlled outdoor fire, used either for informal disposal of burnable waste material or as part of a celebration.

Holy well

Holy well

A holy well or sacred spring is a well, spring or small pool of water revered either in a Christian or pagan context, sometimes both. The water of holy wells is often thought to have healing qualities, through the numinous presence of its guardian spirit or Christian saint. They often have local legends associated with them; for example in Christian legends, the water is often said to have been made to flow by the action of a saint. Holy wells are often also places of ritual and pilgrimage, where people pray and leave votive offerings. In Celtic regions, strips of cloth are often tied to trees at holy wells, known as clootie wells.

Dew

Dew

Dew is water in the form of droplets that appears on thin, exposed objects in the morning or evening due to condensation.

Celtic neopaganism

Celtic neopaganism

Celtic modern paganism refers to any type of modern paganism or contemporary pagan movements based on the ancient Celtic religion.

Historic customs

Beltane was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (1 November), Imbolc (1 February), Beltane (1 May), and Lughnasadh (1 August). Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer season, when livestock were driven out to the summer pastures.[7][8] Rituals were held at that time to protect them from harm, both natural and supernatural, and this mainly involved the "symbolic use of fire".[7] There were also rituals to protect crops, dairy products and people, and to encourage growth. The aos sí (often referred to as spirits or fairies) were thought to be especially active at Beltane (as at Samhain)[7] and the goal of many Beltane rituals was to appease them. Most scholars see the aos sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits.[9] Beltane was a "spring time festival of optimism" during which "fertility ritual again was important, perhaps connecting with the waxing power of the sun".[3]

Ancient and medieval

Beltane (the beginning of summer) and Samhain (the beginning of winter) are thought to have been the most important of the four Gaelic festivals. Sir James George Frazer wrote in The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion that the times of Beltane and Samhain are of little importance to European crop-growers, but of great importance to herdsmen. Thus, he suggests that halving the year at 1 May and 1 November dates from a time when the Celts were mainly a pastoral people, dependent on their herds.[10]

The earliest mention of Beltane is in Old Irish literature from Gaelic Ireland. According to the early medieval texts Sanas Cormaic (written by Cormac mac Cuilennáin) and Tochmarc Emire, Beltane was held on 1 May and marked the beginning of summer. The texts say that, to protect cattle from disease, druids would make two fires "with great incantations" and drive the cattle between them.[11][12][13]

According to 17th-century historian Geoffrey Keating, there was a great gathering at the hill of Uisneach each Beltane in medieval Ireland, where a sacrifice was made to a god named Beil. Keating wrote that two bonfires would be lit in every district of Ireland, and cattle would be driven between them to protect them from disease.[14] There is no reference to such a gathering in the annals, but the medieval Dindsenchas (lore of places) includes a tale of a hero lighting a holy fire on Uisneach that blazed for seven years. Ronald Hutton writes that this may "preserve a tradition of Beltane ceremonies there", but adds "Keating or his source may simply have conflated this legend with the information in Sanas Chormaic to produce a piece of pseudo-history".[7] Nevertheless, excavations at Uisneach in the 20th century found evidence of large fires and charred bones, and showed it to have been a place of ritual since ancient times.[7][15][16] Evidence suggests it was "a sanctuary-site, in which fire was kept burning perpetually, or kindled at frequent intervals", where animal sacrifices were offered.[17]

Beltane is also mentioned in medieval Scottish literature.[18] An early reference is found in the poem 'Peblis to the Play', contained in the Maitland Manuscripts of 15th- and 16th-century Scots poetry, which describes the celebration in the town of Peebles.[19]

Modern era

From the late 18th century to the mid 20th century, many accounts of Beltane customs were recorded by folklorists and other writers. For example John Jamieson, in his Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808), describes some of the Beltane customs which persisted in the 18th and early 19th centuries in parts of Scotland, which he noted were beginning to die out.[20] In the 19th century, folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912), collected the Scottish Gaelic song Am Beannachadh Bealltain (The Beltane Blessing) in his Carmina Gadelica, which he heard from a crofter in South Uist.[19] The first two verses were sung as follows:

Beannaich, a Thrianailt fhioir nach gann, (Bless, O Threefold true and bountiful,)
Mi fein, mo cheile agus mo chlann, (Myself, my spouse and my children,)
Mo chlann mhaoth's am mathair chaomh 'n an ceann, (My tender children and their beloved mother at their head,)
Air chlar chubhr nan raon, air airidh chaon nam beann, (On the fragrant plain, at the gay mountain sheiling,)
Air chlar chubhr nan raon, air airidh chaon nam beann. (On the fragrant plain, at the gay mountain sheiling.)

Gach ni na m' fhardaich, no ta 'na m' shealbh, (Everything within my dwelling or in my possession,)
Gach buar is barr, gach tan is tealbh, (All kine and crops, all flocks and corn,)
Bho Oidhche Shamhna chon Oidhche Bheallt, (From Hallow Eve to Beltane Eve,)
Piseach maith, agus beannachd mallt, (With goodly progress and gentle blessing,)
Bho mhuir, gu muir, agus bun gach allt, (From sea to sea, and every river mouth,)
Bho thonn gu tonn, agus bonn gach steallt. (From wave to wave, and base of waterfall.)[19]

Bonfires

Drummers perform in front of the remains of a Beltane Wicker man at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, UK
Drummers perform in front of the remains of a Beltane Wicker man at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, UK

Bonfires continued to be a key part of the festival in the modern era. All hearth fires and candles would be doused before the bonfire was lit, generally on a mountain or hill.[3][21] Ronald Hutton writes that "To increase the potency of the holy flames, in Britain at least they were often kindled by the most primitive of all means, of friction between wood."[7] This is known as a need-fire or force-fire. In the 19th century, John Ramsay described Scottish Highlanders kindling such a fire at Beltane, which was deemed sacred.[7] In the 19th century, the ritual of driving cattle between two fires—as described in Sanas Cormaic almost 1000 years before—was still practised across most of Ireland and in parts of Scotland.[7] Sometimes the cattle would be driven around a bonfire or be made to leap over flames or embers. The people themselves would do likewise.[7] On the Isle of Man, people ensured that the smoke blew over them and their cattle.[8] When the bonfire had died down, people would daub themselves with its ashes and sprinkle it over their crops and livestock.[7] Burning torches from the bonfire would be taken home, carried around the house or boundary of the farmstead,[22] and used to re-light the hearth.[7] From these rituals, it is clear that the fire was seen as having protective powers.[7] Similar rituals were part of May Day or Midsummer customs in other parts of the British Isles and mainland Europe.[23] Frazer believed the fire rituals are a kind of imitative or sympathetic magic. He suggests they were meant to mimic the Sun and "ensure a needful supply of sunshine for men, animals, and plants", as well as to symbolically "burn up and destroy all harmful influences".[24]

A Beltane bonfire at WEHEC 2015
A Beltane bonfire at WEHEC 2015

Food was also cooked at the bonfire and there were rituals involving it. In the Scottish Highlands, Alexander Carmichael recorded that there was a feast featuring lamb, and that formerly this lamb was sacrificed.[25] In 1769, Thomas Pennant wrote of bonfires in Perthshire, where a caudle made from eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk was cooked. Some of the mixture was poured on the ground as a libation. Everyone present would then take an oatmeal cake, called the bannoch Bealltainn or "Beltane bannock". A bit was offered to the spirits to protect their livestock (one to protect the horses, one to protect the sheep, and so forth) and a bit offered to each of the predators that might harm their livestock (one to the fox, one to the eagle, and so forth). Afterwards, they would drink the caudle.[7]

According to 18th century writers, in parts of Scotland there was another ritual involving the oatmeal cake. The cake would be cut and one of the slices marked with charcoal. The slices would then be put in a bonnet and everyone would take one out while blindfolded. According to one writer, whoever got the marked piece had to leap through the fire three times. According to another, those present pretended to throw the person into the fire and, for some time afterwards, would speak of them as if they were dead. This "may embody a memory of actual human sacrifice", or it may have always been symbolic.[7] A similar ritual (i.e. of pretending to burn someone in the fire) was part of spring and summer bonfire festivals in other parts of Europe.[26]

Flowers and May Bushes

A flowering hawthorn
A flowering hawthorn

Yellow and white flowers such as primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorse, hazel, and marsh marigold were traditionally placed at doorways and windows; this is documented in 19th century Ireland, Scotland and Mann. Sometimes loose flowers were strewn at doors and windows and sometimes they were made into bouquets, garlands or crosses and fastened to them. They would also be fastened to cows and equipment for milking and butter making. It is likely that such flowers were used because they evoked fire.[7] Similar May Day customs are found across Europe.

The May Bush or May Bough was popular in parts of Ireland until the late 19th century.[27] This was a small tree or branch—typically hawthorn, rowan, holly or sycamore—decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, painted shells or eggshells from Easter Sunday, and so forth. The tree would either be decorated where it stood, or branches would be decorated and placed inside or outside the house (particularly above windows and doors, on the roof, and on barns).[27] It was generally the responsibility of the oldest person of the house to decorate the May Bush, and the tree would remain up until May 31st.[28][29] The tree would also be decorated with candles or rushlights.[21] Sometimes a May Bush would be paraded through the town. In parts of southern Ireland, gold and silver hurling balls known as May Balls would be hung on these May Bushes and handed out to children or given to the winners of a hurling match.[21] In Dublin and Belfast, May Bushes were brought into town from the countryside and decorated by the whole neighbourhood.[21] Each neighbourhood vied for the most handsome tree and, sometimes, residents of one would try to steal the May Bush of another. This led to the May Bush being outlawed in Victorian times.[21] In some places, it was customary to sing and dance around the May Bush, and at the end of the festivities it may be burnt in the bonfire.[30] In some areas the May Bush or Bough has also been called the "May Pole", but it is the bush or tree described above, and not the more commonly-known European maypole.[27]

Thorn trees are traditionally seen as special trees, associated with the aos sí. Frazer believed the customs of decorating trees or poles in springtime are a relic of tree worship and wrote: "The intention of these customs is to bring home to the village, and to each house, the blessings which the tree-spirit has in its power to bestow."[31] Emyr Estyn Evans suggests that the May Bush custom may have come to Ireland from England, because it seemed to be found in areas with strong English influence and because the Irish saw it as unlucky to damage certain thorn trees.[32] However, "lucky" and "unlucky" trees varied by region, and it has been suggested that Beltane was the only time when cutting thorn trees was allowed.[33] The practice of bedecking a May Bush with flowers, ribbons, garlands and bright shells is found among the Gaelic diaspora, most notably in Newfoundland, and in some Easter traditions on the East Coast of the United States.[21]

Appeasing the fairies

Many Beltane practices were designed to ward off or appease the fairies and prevent them from stealing dairy products. For example, three black coals were placed under a butter churn to ensure the fairies did not steal the butter, and May Boughs were tied to milk pails, the tails of cattle or hung in the barns to ensure the cattle's milk was not stolen.[34][29] Flowers were also used to decorate the horns of cattle, which was believed to bring good fortune.[35] Food was left or milk poured at the doorstep or places associated with the aos sí, such as 'fairy trees', as an offering.[36][37] However, milk was never given to a neighbor on May Day because it was feared that the milk would be transferred to the neighbor's cow.[38] In Ireland, cattle would be brought to 'fairy forts', where a small amount of their blood would be collected. The owners would then pour it into the earth with prayers for the herd's safety. Sometimes the blood would be left to dry and then be burnt.[36] It was thought that dairy products were especially at risk from harmful spirits.[21][39][40] To protect farm produce and encourage fertility, farmers would lead a procession around the boundaries of their farm. They would "carry with them seeds of grain, implements of husbandry, the first well water, and the herb vervain (or rowan as a substitute). The procession generally stopped at the four cardinal points of the compass, beginning in the east, and rituals were performed in each of the four directions".[41] People made the sign of the cross with milk for good luck on Beltane, and the sign of the cross was also made on the backsides of cattle.[42][43]

Other customs

Holy wells were often visited at Beltane, and at the other Gaelic festivals of Imbolc and Lughnasadh. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking sunwise (moving from east to west) around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties (see clootie well).[21] The first water drawn from a well on Beltane was thought to be especially potent, and would bring good luck to the person who drew it. Beltane morning dew was also thought to bring good luck and health. At dawn or before sunrise on Beltane, maidens would roll in the dew or wash their faces with it.[44] The dew was collected in a jar, left in sunlight, then filtered. The dew was thought to increase sexual attractiveness, maintain youthfulness, protect from sun damage (particularly freckles and sunburn) and help with skin ailments for the ensuing year.[8][21][44][45] It was also thought that a man who washed his face with soap and water on Beltane will grow long whiskers on his face.[27]

It was widely believed that no one should light a fire on May Day morning until they saw smoke rising from a neighbor's house.[29] It was also believed to be bad luck to put out ashes or clothes on May Day, and to give away coal or ashes would cause the giver difficulty in lighting fires for the next year.[46][45] Also, if the family owned a white horse, it should remain in the barn all day, and if any other horse was owned, a red rag should be tied to its tail.[27] Any foal born on May Day was fated to kill a man, and any cow that calved on May Day would die.[46] Any birth or marriage on May Day was generally believed to be ill-fated.[47][30] On May Night a cake and a jug were left on the table, because it was believed that the Irish who had died abroad would return on May Day to their ancestral homes, and it was also believed that the dead returned on May Day to visit their friends.[47][42] A robin that flew into the house on Beltane was believed to portend the death of a household member.[30]

The festival persisted widely up until the 1950s, and in some places the celebration of Beltane continues today.[16][39][40]

Discover more about Historic customs related topics

Samhain

Samhain

Samhain is a Gaelic festival on 1 November marking the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter or "darker half" of the year. Celebrations begin on the evening of 31 October, since the Celtic day began and ended at sunset. This is about halfway between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals along with Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasa. Historically it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland, Galicia and the Isle of Man. A similar festival was held by the Brittonic Celtic people, called Calan Gaeaf in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall and Kalan Goañv in Brittany.

Imbolc

Imbolc

Imbolc or Imbolg, also called Saint Brigid's Day, is a Gaelic traditional festival. It marks the beginning of spring, and for Christians it is the feast day of Saint Brigid, Ireland's patroness saint. It is held on 1 February, which is about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Historically, its traditions were widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with: Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain.

Lughnasadh

Lughnasadh

Lughnasadh or Lughnasa is a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of the harvest season. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Modern Irish it is called Lúnasa, in Scottish Gaelic: Lùnastal, and in Manx: Luanistyn. Traditionally it is held on 1 August, or about halfway between the summer solstice and autumn equinox. In recent centuries some of the celebrations have been shifted to the Sunday nearest this date.

Gaelic Ireland

Gaelic Ireland

Gaelic Ireland was the Gaelic political and social order, and associated culture, that existed in Ireland from the late prehistoric era until the early 17th century. Before the Norman invasion of 1169, Gaelic Ireland comprised the whole island. Thereafter, it comprised that part of the country not under foreign dominion at a given time, that is, the part beyond The Pale. For most of its history, Gaelic Ireland was a "patchwork" hierarchy of territories ruled by a hierarchy of kings or chiefs, who were chosen or elected through tanistry. Warfare between these territories was common. Occasionally, a powerful ruler was acknowledged as High King of Ireland. Society was made up of clans and, like the rest of Europe, was structured hierarchically according to class. Throughout this period, the economy was mainly pastoral and money was generally not used. A Gaelic Irish style of dress, music, dance, sport, social gathering, architecture, and art can be identified, with Irish art later merging with Anglo-Saxon styles to create Insular art.

Cormac mac Cuilennáin

Cormac mac Cuilennáin

Cormac mac Cuilennáin was an Irish bishop and the king of Munster from 902 until his death at the Battle of Bellaghmoon. He was killed in Leinster.

Druid

Druid

A druid was a member of the high-ranking class in ancient Celtic cultures. Druids were religious leaders as well as legal authorities, adjudicators, lorekeepers, medical professionals and political advisors. Druids left no written accounts. While they were reported to have been literate, they are believed to have been prevented by doctrine from recording their knowledge in written form. Their beliefs and practices are attested in some detail by their contemporaries from other cultures, such as the Romans and the Greeks.

Geoffrey Keating

Geoffrey Keating

Geoffrey Keating was a 17th-century historian. He was born in County Tipperary, Ireland, and is buried in Tubrid Graveyard in the parish of Ballylooby-Duhill. He became an Irish Catholic priest and a poet.

Belenus

Belenus

Belenus is an ancient Celtic healing god. The cult of Belenus stretched from the Italian Peninsula to the British Isles, with a main sanctuary located at Aquileia, on the Adriatic coast. Through interpretatio romana, Belenus was often identified with Apollo, although his cult seems to have preserved a certain degree of autonomy during the Roman period.

Irish annals

Irish annals

A number of Irish annals, of which the earliest was the Chronicle of Ireland, were compiled up to and shortly after the end of the 17th century. Annals were originally a means by which monks determined the yearly chronology of feast days. Over time, the obituaries of priests, abbots and bishops were added, along with that of notable political events. Non-Irish models include Bede's Chronica maiora, Marcellinus Comes's Chronicle of Marcellinus and the Liber pontificalis.

Dindsenchas

Dindsenchas

Dindsenchas or Dindshenchas, meaning "lore of places", is a class of onomastic text in early Irish literature, recounting the origins of place-names and traditions concerning events and characters associated with the places in question. Since many of the legends being related also concern the acts of mythic and legendary figures, the dindsenchas has been an important source for the study of Irish mythology.

Animal sacrifice

Animal sacrifice

Animal sacrifice is the ritual killing and offering of one or more animals, usually as part of a religious ritual or to appease or maintain favour with a deity. Animal sacrifices were common throughout Europe and the Ancient Near East until the spread of Christianity in Late Antiquity, and continue in some cultures or religions today. Human sacrifice, where it existed, was always much rarer.

Maitland Manuscripts

Maitland Manuscripts

The Maitland Manuscripts are an important source for the Scots literature of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. They contain texts of the work of the makars of the period and much material which is not attributed to any author.

Revival

As a festival, Beltane had largely died out by the mid-20th century, although some of its customs continued and in some places it has been revived as a cultural event. In Ireland, Beltane fires were common until the mid-20th century,[21] but the custom seems to have lasted to the present day only in County Limerick (especially in Limerick itself) and in Arklow, County Wicklow.[48] The lighting of a community Beltane fire from which each hearth fire is then relit is observed today in some parts of the Gaelic diaspora, though in most of these cases it is a cultural revival rather than an unbroken survival of the ancient tradition.[21][49][50] In parts of Newfoundland, the custom of decorating the May Bush also survives.[51] The town of Peebles in the Scottish Borders holds a traditional week-long Beltane Fair every year in June, when a local girl is crowned Beltane Queen on the steps of the parish church. Like other Borders festivals, it incorporates a Common Riding.[19][52]

Beltane Fire Festival dancers, 2012
Beltane Fire Festival dancers, 2012

Since 1988, a Beltane Fire Festival has been held every year on the night of 30 April on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland. While inspired by traditional Beltane, it is a modern celebration of summer's beginning which draws on many influences.[53] The performance art event involves fire dances and a procession by costumed performers, led by the May Queen and the Green Man, culminating in the lighting of a bonfire.[54]

Butser Ancient Farm, an open-air archaeology museum in Hampshire, UK, has also held a Beltane festival since the 1980s. The festival mixes historical reenactment with folk influences, and features a May Queen and Green Man, living history displays, reenactor battles, demonstrations of traditional crafts, performances of folk music, and Celtic storytelling. The festival ends with the burning of a 30-40ft wickerman, with a new historical or folk-inspired design each year.[55]

A similar Bealtaine Festival has been held each year since 2009 at Uisneach in Ireland.[56] It culminates in a torchlit procession by participants in costume, some on horseback, and the lighting of a large bonfire at dusk.[57] In 2017, the ceremonial fire was lit by the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins.[58]

The 1970 recording 'Ride a White Swan', written and performed by Marc Bolan and his band T.Rex, contains the line "Ride a white Swan like the people of the Beltane".[59]

Neopaganism

Beltane and Beltane-based festivals are held by some Neopagans. As there are many kinds of Neopaganism, their Beltane celebrations can be very different despite the shared name. Some try to emulate the historic festival as much as possible.[60] Other Neopagans base their celebrations on many sources, the Gaelic festival being only one of them.[61][62]

Neopagans usually celebrate Beltane on 30 April – 1 May in the Northern Hemisphere and 31 October – 1 November in the Southern Hemisphere, beginning and ending at sunset.[63][64][65][66][67] Some Neopagans celebrate it at the astronomical midpoint between the spring equinox and summer solstice (or the full moon nearest this point). In the Northern Hemisphere, this midpoint is when the ecliptic longitude of the Sun reaches 45 degrees.[68] In 2014, this was on 5 May.[69]

Celtic Reconstructionist

Celtic Reconstructionists strive to reconstruct ancient Celtic religion. Their religious practices are based on research and historical accounts,[60][70] but modified to suit modern life. They avoid syncretism and eclecticism (i.e. combining practises from unrelated cultures).[71]

Celtic Reconstructionists usually celebrate Beltane when the local hawthorn trees are in bloom. Many observe the traditional bonfire rites, to whatever extent this is feasible where they live. This may involve passing themselves and their pets or livestock between two bonfires, and bringing home a candle lit from the bonfire. If they are unable to make a bonfire or attend a bonfire ceremony, candles may be used instead. They may decorate their homes with a May Bush, branches from blooming thorn trees, or equal-armed rowan crosses. Holy wells may be visited and offerings made to the spirits or deities of the wells. Traditional festival foods may also be prepared.[72][73]

Wicca

Wiccans use the name Beltane or Beltain for their May Day celebrations. It is one of the yearly Sabbats of their Wheel of the Year, following Ostara and preceding Midsummer. Unlike Celtic Reconstructionism, Wicca is syncretic and melds practices from many different cultures. In general, the Wiccan Beltane is more akin to the Germanic/English May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing). Some Wiccans enact a ritual union of the May Lord and May Lady.[63]

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County Limerick

County Limerick

County Limerick is a western county in Ireland. It is in the province of Munster and is located in the Mid-West which comprises part of the Southern Region. It is named after the city of Limerick. Limerick City and County Council is the local council for the county. The county's population at the 2016 census was 194,899 of whom 94,192 lived in Limerick City, the county capital.

Limerick

Limerick

Limerick is a western city in Ireland situated within County Limerick. It is in the province of Munster and is located in the Mid-West which comprises part of the Southern Region. With a population of 94,192 at the 2016 census, Limerick is the third-most populous urban area in the state, and the fourth-most populous city on the island of Ireland at the 2011 census. The city lies on the River Shannon, with the historic core of the city located on King's Island, which is bounded by the Shannon and Abbey Rivers. Limerick is also located at the head of the Shannon Estuary, where the river widens before it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Limerick City and County Council is the local authority for the city.

Arklow

Arklow

Arklow is a town in County Wicklow on the southeast coast of Ireland. The town is overlooked by Ballymoyle Hill. It was founded by the Vikings in the ninth century. Arklow was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the 1798 rebellion. Its proximity to Dublin led to it becoming a commuter town with a population of 13,163 as of the 2016 census.

County Wicklow

County Wicklow

County Wicklow is a county in Ireland. The last of the traditional 32 counties, having been formed as late as 1606, it is part of the Eastern and Midland Region and the province of Leinster. It is bordered by the Irish Sea to the east and the counties of Wexford to the south, Carlow to the southwest, Kildare to the west, and South Dublin and Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown to the north.

Peebles

Peebles

Peebles is a town in the Scottish Borders, Scotland. It was historically a royal burgh and the county town of Peeblesshire. According to the 2011 census, the population was 8,376 and the estimated population in June 2018 was 9,000.

Scottish Borders

Scottish Borders

The Scottish Borders is one of 32 council areas of Scotland. It borders the City of Edinburgh, Dumfries and Galloway, East Lothian, Midlothian, South Lanarkshire, West Lothian and, to the south-west, south and east, the English counties of Cumbria and Northumberland. The administrative centre of the area is Newtown St Boswells.

Beltane Fire Festival

Beltane Fire Festival

Beltane Fire Festival is an annual participatory arts event and ritual, held on 30 April on Calton Hill in Edinburgh.

Performance art

Performance art

Performance art is an artwork or art exhibition created through actions executed by the artist or other participants. It may be witnessed live or through documentation, spontaneously developed or written, and is traditionally presented to a public in a fine art context in an interdisciplinary mode. Also known as artistic action, it has been developed through the years as a genre of its own in which art is presented live. It had an important and fundamental role in 20th century avant-garde art.

President of Ireland

President of Ireland

The president of Ireland is the head of state of Ireland and the supreme commander of the Irish Defence Forces.

Ride a White Swan

Ride a White Swan

"Ride a White Swan" is a song by English band T. Rex. It was released as a stand-alone single on 9 October 1970 by record label Fly, and was the first single credited under the band's new, shorter name. Like all of the band's songs, it was written by the group's singer, guitarist and founder Marc Bolan. The song was included on the US version of the 1970 album, T. Rex.

Marc Bolan

Marc Bolan

Marc Bolan was an English guitarist, singer and songwriter. He was a pioneer of the glam rock movement in the early 1970s with his band T. Rex. Bolan was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020 as a member of T. Rex.

T. Rex (band)

T. Rex (band)

T. Rex were an English rock band, formed in 1967 by singer-songwriter and guitarist Marc Bolan, who was their leader, frontman and only consistent member. Though initially associated with the psychedelic folk genre, Bolan began to change the band's style towards electric rock in 1969, and shortened their name to T. Rex the following year. This development culminated in 1970 with their first hit single "Ride a White Swan", and the group soon became pioneers of the glam rock movement.

Name

In Irish, the festival is usually called Lá Bealtaine ('day of Beltane') while the month of May is Mí Bhealtaine ("month of Beltane"). In Scottish Gaelic, the festival is Latha Bealltainn and the month is An Cèitean or a' Mhàigh. Sometimes the older Scottish Gaelic spelling Bealltuinn is used. The word Céitean comes from Cétshamain ('first of summer'), an old alternative name for the festival.[74][75] The term Latha Buidhe Bealltainn (Scottish) or Lá Buidhe Bealtaine (Irish), 'the bright or yellow day of Beltane', means the first of May. In Ireland it is referred to in a common folk tale as Luan Lae Bealtaine; the first day of the week (Monday/Luan) is added to highlight the first day of summer.[76]

The name is anglicized as Beltane, Beltain, Beltaine, Beltine and Beltany.[2]

Etymology

Two modern etymologies have been proposed. Beltaine could derive from a Common Celtic *belo-te(p)niâ, meaning 'bright fire'. The element *belo- might be cognate with the English word bale (as in bale-fire) meaning 'white', 'bright' or 'shining'. Alternatively, Beltaine might stem from a Common Celtic form reconstructed as *Beltiniyā, which would be cognate with the name of the Lithuanian goddess of death Giltinė, both from an earlier *gʷel-tiōn-, formed with the Proto-Indo-European root *gʷelH- ('suffering, death'). The absence of syncope (Irish sound laws rather predict a **Beltne form) can be explained by the popular belief that Beltaine was a compound of the word for 'fire', tene.[77][78]

In Ó Duinnín's Irish dictionary (1904), Beltane is referred to as Céadamh(ain) which it explains is short for Céad-shamh(ain) meaning 'first (of) summer'. The dictionary also states that Dia Céadamhan is May Day and Mí Céadamhan is the month of May.

Toponymy

There are place names in Ireland containing the word Bealtaine, indicating places where Bealtaine festivities were once held. It is often anglicised as Beltany. There are three Beltanys in County Donegal, including the Beltany stone circle, and two in County Tyrone. In County Armagh there is a place called Tamnaghvelton/Tamhnach Bhealtaine ('the Beltane field'). Lisbalting/Lios Bealtaine ('the Beltane ringfort') is in County Tipperary, while Glasheennabaultina/Glaisín na Bealtaine ('the Beltane stream') is the name of a stream joining the River Galey in County Limerick.[79]

Discover more about Name related topics

Cognate

Cognate

In historical linguistics, cognates or lexical cognates are sets of words in different languages that have been inherited in direct descent from an etymological ancestor in a common parent language. Because language change can have radical effects on both the sound and the meaning of a word, cognates may not be obvious, and often it takes rigorous study of historical sources and the application of the comparative method to establish whether lexemes are cognate or not. Cognates are distinguished from loanwords, where a word has been borrowed from another language.

Proto-Indo-European language

Proto-Indo-European language

Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the reconstructed common ancestor of the Indo-European language family. Its proposed features have been derived by linguistic reconstruction from documented Indo-European languages. No direct record of Proto-Indo-European exists.

Compound (linguistics)

Compound (linguistics)

In linguistics, a compound is a lexeme that consists of more than one stem. Compounding, composition or nominal composition is the process of word formation that creates compound lexemes. Compounding occurs when two or more words or signs are joined to make a longer word or sign. A compound that uses a space rather than a hyphen or concatenation is called an open compound or a spaced compound; the alternative is a closed compound.

Patrick S. Dinneen

Patrick S. Dinneen

Patrick Stephen Dinneen was an Irish lexicographer and historian, and a leading figure in the Gaelic revival.

Beltany stone circle

Beltany stone circle

Beltany is a Bronze Age stone circle just south of Raphoe town in County Donegal, Ireland. It dates from circa 2100-700 BC. There is evidence that it may also have been the sacred site of Neolithic monuments, possibly early passage tombs. It overlooks the now destroyed passage tomb complex at Kilmonaster and Beltany is dominated by Croghan Hill to the east on the summit of which there sits a Neolithic mound most likely a passage tomb.

Place names in Ireland

Place names in Ireland

The vast majority of placenames in Ireland are anglicisations of Irish language names; that is, adaptations of the Irish names to English phonology and spelling. However, some names come directly from the English language, and a handful come from Old Norse and Scots. The study of placenames in Ireland unveils features of the country's history and geography and the development of the Irish language. The name of Ireland itself comes from the Irish name Éire, added to the Germanic word land. In mythology, Éire was an Irish goddess of the land and of sovereignty.

County Donegal

County Donegal

County Donegal is a county of Ireland in the province of Ulster and in the Northern and Western Region. It is named after the town of Donegal in the south of the county. It has also been known as County Tyrconnell, after the historic territory of the same name, on which it was based. Donegal County Council is the local council and Lifford the county town.

County Tyrone

County Tyrone

County Tyrone is one of the six counties of Northern Ireland, one of the nine counties of Ulster and one of the thirty-two traditional counties of Ireland. It is no longer used as an administrative division for local government but retains a strong identity in popular culture.

County Armagh

County Armagh

County Armagh is one of the six counties of Northern Ireland and one of the traditional thirty-two counties of Ireland. Adjoined to the southern shore of Lough Neagh, the county covers an area of 1,327 km2 (512 sq mi) and has a population of about 175,000. County Armagh is known as the "Orchard County" because of its many apple orchards. The county is part of the historic province of Ulster.

Laurelvale

Laurelvale

Laurelvale is a village in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. It is beside the smaller village of Mullavilly and the two are sometimes referred to as Laurelvale-Mullavilly or Mullavilly-Laurelvale. The village is three miles south of Portadown and 1.5 miles northwest of Tandragee. It had a population of 1,288 people in the 2011 Census.

County Tipperary

County Tipperary

County Tipperary is a county in Ireland. It is in the province of Munster and the Southern Region. The county is named after the town of Tipperary, and was established in the early 13th century, shortly after the Norman invasion of Ireland. It is Ireland's largest inland county and shares a border with 8 counties, more than any other. The population of the county was 159,553 at the 2016 census. The largest towns are Clonmel, Nenagh and Thurles.

County Limerick

County Limerick

County Limerick is a western county in Ireland. It is in the province of Munster and is located in the Mid-West which comprises part of the Southern Region. It is named after the city of Limerick. Limerick City and County Council is the local council for the county. The county's population at the 2016 census was 194,899 of whom 94,192 lived in Limerick City, the county capital.

Source: "Beltane", Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, (2022, November 25th), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beltane.

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See also
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