By Hugo Simberg, Bonfires

1 May

Beltane is an incredibly old Gaelic festival which was widely celebrated on the 1 May in Ireland, Scotland, and on the Isle of Man, and strongly influenced the English May Day tradition. It was a celebration of the start of Summer, and as with most ancient folklore in the United Kingdom and Ireland not directly tied to or appropriated by Christianity, it was linked with farming. May saw cattle being driven to Summer pastures, and so Beltane was a festival of blessings of the cattle, crops, and people, as well as a mark of the changing seasons.

The four main festivals in the Gaelic calendar were Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh, and each marked the point of shift from one season to the next. Beltane was likely originally linked to the god Bel, Beil, Belenus, or Bil, with the festival’s name taking the Old Irish word for fire: ‘tene’. The festival itself was one of flame and revolved around a central bonfire. This would be the festival flame, from which another bonfire would be lit. The smoke and ash from the Beltane fire was regarded as protective and having supernatural powers. People would walk between the fires, sometimes accompanied by livestock, to receive blessing. Other smaller fires would be lit from the central flame for others to walk around or pass between, and there was sometimes a tendency to leap over the flames or embers. Fires within local households would be doused and then relit from the Beltane flame. In some rural areas it was said that fires would be kept burning for years, with the Beltane flame taken from these fires each year.

For the druids used to make two fires with great incantations, and to drive the cattle between them against the plagues, every year.

The Wooing of Emer by Cú Chulainn, translated by Kuno Meyer

Bright flowers, often yellow in colour to evoke the Summer sun, would garnish households and windows, as well as be added to thorny bushes and dead branches to make May Bushes. Dew collected on the morning of 1 May was said to bring beauty and help restore or maintain youth. It was believed that the spirits and fairies—known as the aos sí—could damage the systems of the year, so the festival was in part a way of appeasing them to ensure a safe seasonal change.

There has been extensive revival of Beltane in the last century, both from Neopagans and historians, and in some parts of Ireland Beltane is celebrated following ancient traditions and folklore. Celtic Reconstructionists attempt to preserve the pre-Christian heritage of the festival, amongst others, especially as it is linked to several physical locations in Ireland, the most notable of which is the Beltany stone circle. This is a Bronze Age stone circle dating from between 700BC and 2100BC consisting of sixty-four stones with engravings of constellations, along with a mask mould, surrounding a raised platform of earth.

Hugo Simberg, Bonfires
Hugo Simberg, Bonfires, Public Domain
Support this content