A Celtic tradition, Beltane was still practiced until the 19th century. As one of the four major Gaelic holidays (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh), it was a celebration of the changing seasons. They divide the year into seasonal quarters. Beltane is the beginning of summer and marks the beginning of the second half of the year; the time of light.
This tradition is much older than the mayday festivities seen in Germany and Scandinavia. It dates to a time when Ireland was a pastoral community. May 1st holds no value for agricultural communities. It marks the transition of livestock to open pasture.
Herding is at the root of Beltane. Called Lá Bealtaine in Gaelic, it means “bright fire” or “lucky fire.” The tradition is celebrated in not just Ireland, but Scotland and the Isle of Man. It centers around the lighting of large bonfires to protect the herds.
Therefore, it’s one of the most important of the four Gaelic holidays, second only to Samhain, the beginning of the dark half of the year. This is because, at the split between light and dark, the veil separating our world from the aos sí is at its thinnest.
Aos sí translates to “people of the mounds.” They’re a supernatural race of spirits, gods, and ancient ancestors similar to the elves and fairies, thought to live in mounds or across the western sea. Inhabiting Ireland before the arrival of man, they live in an invisible world parallel to ours. Think of it as a mirror where they walk among the living.
One such god, Belenus, is called the “bright one.” Speculation insinuates that Beltane is for him. Beltane can be translated as “bright fire” or “Bel’s fire.” He is likened to Apollo; he brought the sun across the sky in a chariot pulled by horses.
Belenus was one of the chief and most prominent deities worshipped in Ireland. Essentially, he was the sun god. He represented rebirth, youth, and life. With the coming of summer, and the entrance into the light half of the year, its not an unreasonable speculation that he was associated with Beltane.
A need-fire or wild-fire is used to start the Beltane fires. This is a very sacred and ritual tradition: rubbing two sticks together. It’s a primal method of fire lighting reserved for emergency and festival. It’s usually done by certain individuals, most often while naked.
In Scotland, the men starting the need-fire must devest themselves of metal. In the Herebides, the archipelago off the coast of Scotland, the tradition is that the age of the men lighting the fire must total to 81, and they must be married. In Germany, two chaste boys, while naked, must start the fire. The ritual varies culture to culture.
Aside from Beltane, need-fire might be used in times of murrain. Murrain’s literal meaning is “death” which refers to various spreading diseases among sheep and cattle. It’s an antiquated term from when people believed disease was a sign of ill luck and they’d ask the gods for favor. They’d light a large need-fire for healing.
Before lighting the two need-fires for Beltane, all the hearth fires in the surrounding area, the area between the two closest streams, needed to be extinguished. Each person would carry a torch or lantern and light it from the need-fire. Then after, re-light their hearths.
Once the two fires were blazing, the community’s herds of cattle would be run between them. It’s thought the smoke would cleanse the livestock of illness and bring productivity and fertility to the herds. Scientifically, this may have rid the beasts of some insect pests or at least repelled them with the smoky odor.
The ash was particularly powerful and would be sown in with the crops. Ash is heavy in nitrogen, which grows strong crops. These fertility traditions were applied to humans as well as crops and livestock.
Beltane was seen as a festival for fertility. Often a woman would be named May Queen (or the May Bride or Goddess of Spring) and a man would be May King (also known as The Young Oak King or the Green Man). Depending on the community, they’d go either into the woods to consummate the coming of Summer or publicly celebrate it.
This was a time for marriages, as well. Couples would often jump the fire for fertility in the coming year. Handfasting, the tradition of tying hands and committing each other for a year and a day, often happened on Beltane. And many went “a-maying” in the woods.
“Giving it to a pebble"
You could also jump the fire for luck in the coming year. An Irish tradition is to whisper a wish to a pebble then put it in your pocket. Walk around the fire three times and toss it in. You’ll wish will come true. Others believe the dew collected the morning of Beltane had the power to restore youthful skin.
It was recommended you wear your clothes inside out to confuse them, thus stopping them from taking you to the otherworld. People would also keep their need-fire torch with them to prevent spirits from attacking them.
Stay safe this Beltane, folks!