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History and lore of Beltane, the ancient Celtic festival of May Day

5 min read

Originally written on May 2020 – updated 2023

Traditionally, Beltane honours life, and represents the peak of Spring and the beginning of Summer.
This spring celebration is all about new life, fire, passion, and rebirth, in a time when the earth is lush and green, as new grass and trees return to life after a winter of dormancy, and flowers are abundant everywhere.
The Beltane holiday is the time when, in some traditions, the male energy of the god is at its most potent. He is often portrayed with a large and erect phallus, and other symbols of his fertility include antlers, sticks, acorns and seeds but, in addition to the lusty attributes of the god, the fertile womb of the goddess is honored at Beltane as well. She is the earth, warm and inviting, waiting for seeds to grow within her.

In some cultures, Beltane, that is basically the Gaelic May Day festival, is sacred to the Fairies.
Most commonly it is held on 1 May, or about halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice.
Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.
It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Samhain (1 November), Imbolc (1 February), and Lughnasadh (1 August), and is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and mythology.
Like Samhain, the holiday of Beltane is a time when the veil between the worlds is thin. Some traditions believe that this is a good time to contact the spirits, or to interact with the Fae. But be careful: if you visit the Faerie Realm, don’t eat the food, our you’ll be trapped there!
Also known as Cétshamhain (literally “first of summer”), it marked the beginning of summer and it was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were held at that time to protect cattle, crops and people from harm, both natural and supernatural, but also to to encourage growth, and this mainly involved the symbolic use of fire.

Not by chance, the word “Beltane” originates from the Celtic God “Bel”, meaning “the bright one” and the Gaelic word “teine” meaning fire. Together they make something like “Bright Fire”, or “Goodly Fire”, and traditionally bonfires were lit to honour the Sun and encourage the support of Bel and the Sun’s light to nurture the emerging future harvest, but also because their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers.
Bel had to be won over through human effort: traditionally, all household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire, which would have been used to relight people’s hearths in their own homes. In this way the community was connected to each other by the sacred fire which was central to all.
This was the Tein-eigen, the need fire.
People jumped the fire to purify, cleanse and to bring fertility, while couples jumped the fire together to pledge themselves to each other, and cattle and other animals were driven through the smoke as a protection from disease and to bring fertility.
These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast, and some of the food and drink would be offered to the aos sí, often referred to as spirits or fairies, who were especially active on this day.
Doors, windows, byres and livestock would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire while, 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, because Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness.
These celebrations 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 many cultures, there are different legends and lore surrounding the Beltane season. Let’s look at some of the magical stories about this spring celebration….

Some Irish dairy farmers hang a garland of green boughs over their door at Beltane. This will bring them great milk production from their cows during the coming summer. Also, driving your cattle between two Beltane bonfires helps protect your livestock from disease.
Eating a special oatcake called a bannock or a Beltane cake ensured Scottish farmers abundance of their crops for the year: the cakes were baked the night before, and roasted in embers on a stone.

A Beltane ritual usually involves lots of fertility symbols, including the obviously-phallic Maypole dance. The Maypole is a tall pole decorated with flowers and hanging ribbons, which are woven into intricate pattern by a group of dancers. Weaving in and out, the ribbons are eventually knotted together by the time the dancers reach the end.
However, the pious Puritans were outraged by the debauchery of Beltane celebrations, and they made Maypoles illegal in the mid 1600s. They also tried to put a halt to the “greenwood marriages” that frequently took place on May Eve. One pastor wrote that if “tenne maiden went to set (celebrate) May, nine of them came home gotten with childe.”

According to a legend in parts of Wales and England, women who are trying to conceive should go out on May Eve, the last night of April, and find a “birthing stone,” basically a large rock formation with a hole in the center. Walk through the hole, and you will conceive a child that night but, If there is nothing like this near you, find a small stone with a hole in the center, and drive a branch of oak or other wood through the hole. Place this charm under your bed to make you fertile.
In any case, babies conceived at Beltane are considered a gift from the gods, and they were sometimes referred to as “merry-begots” because the mothers were impregnated during Beltane’s merrymaking.

Images from web – Google Research

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