Happy Bealtane to you all!
Last post, we touched on the hazel of wisdom in Irish folklore. It was believed Finn ate the salmon of wisdom who ate the hazelnuts of wisdom from said hazel tree. There’s a story similar to this in Yiddish folklore, but that’s a parallel for another day.
Folklore is an intrinsic and necessary aspect of Irish culture. A slightly superstitious and brilliantly imaginative people, the Irish seem to take a great deal of dual comfort and pride in their storytelling. There’s an explanation for just about everything, and long lessons about life.
Bealtane [or Beltane, or Bealtaine] takes place on the 1st of May. As we enter the “Bright Half” of the Celtic calendar year – and is a perfect example of how rich and long-lasting folklore and traditions can be.
According to Pius Murray of Coisceim Anama, Footstep of the Soul [an affiliate of Wild West Irish Tours], Bealtane is linked to Beli or Belanus, “the shining one”, an old god whose origins are quite enigmatic. Bealtane [or any of its other variants in spelling] refers to “the fires of Bel”, and encourages warmth and the return of outdoor gatherings and/or celebrations. You might be familiar with the dancing around Maypoles, which is a reflection of “the weaving of life”. This, however, is a widely-recognized English tradition which never took root in Ireland. Instead, according to Pius, people would celebrate by dancing around the actual “maybush”, typically the hawthorn. They would cut branches of whitethorn or hawthorn (an act typically forbidden as those trees are considered sacred), tie the branches with ribbon and sometimes drape the boughs on holly trees with eggshells – the mingling of different types of prickers being significant to the festivities in terms of spiritual protection.
Many of the celebratory aspects of Bealtane have faded out, however. Aspects such as the ragdoll and couples scampering off into the night to find a private place in which to watch the rising of the sun on Mayday have more or less disappeared from Irish traditions. The great lighting of bonfires similar to that of Samhain (the beginning of Celtic winter; a concept explored on one of the Irish Pilgrimage tours with the Westies) has changed – going from a signal fire lit at Uisneach [what Pius calls “the spiritual center of Ireland”] that summer had come to something much more canonically Christian: if anything, the more common parallel to something chronologically close to Bealtane is the Festival of Saint John on the 23rd of June: midsummer. Initially, fires were lit at Uisneach on Bealtane to signal to the rest of Ireland that the summer season could commence – resulting in a ripple effect which swept Ireland from coast to coast. Fires would sprout up for days following, igniting a focal point of flame to reflect Belanus – the shining god, whom history has now all but forgotten. But in pre-Christian times, when the goddess Ériu [from whom Éire takes its name] was the primary focus of Celtic traditions, the landscape and seasons were always on the Irish mind.
Speaking of Christianity – it has a hand in Beltane as well, in a roundabout way. Ever heard of Saint Patrick? I imagine you might’ve. It was said that the beginning of his struggles with combatting pagan worshipers started with Beltane – the High King Laoghaire (Leary in pronunciation) of Tara was designated with lighting the first bonfire for Bealtane, but Patrick beat him to the punch…by lighting a Pascal Fire for Easter on an adjacent hill called Slane. Incensed, the King sent nine chariots out to confront whosoever dared to light a fire instead of his druids. Reports vary, but it’s safe to say Patrick moved on to continue his conversion of Celtic pagans to Christianity. It was suggested the fire Patrick lit could not be put out – a great example of symbolic storytelling in saying the spread of Christianity, likewise, would not and could not be extinguished.
On the continued subject of fire, it has been said that Bealtaine is a time of passion, of asking for growth and fertility. It was an opportunity to seek out ways to ensure farms and fields were fruitful – and families, too. Bealtaine is majorly a celebration of the end of “the Dark Half” of the Celtic Year – albeit, the Dark Half is celebrated with equal enthusiasm during Samhain, with bonfires of its own and ritualistic cleansing of negativity – however, in Bealtane, however, some of that cleansing is literal…and physical.
“Are you familiar with a rock and a hard place?” Pius asks. “Similarly, there would be a lighting of two fires, quite close in proximity. A farmer would drive his cattle one by one between the two fires – just close enough to singe the cows’ hair. Belanus was said to heal cattle, and it was believed that by doing this, it would purify the cattle and prevent them from becoming diseased.” People, he added, were also prone to following suit. If a person was ill or injured, they could also walk through the two fires in the hopes that they, too, could be healed. Likewise, in terms of healing, the grandmother of the family would rouse the children before dawn on May 1st, bring them to the end of the home’s garden (“still in their pajamas and barefooted”, notes Pius), wherein they’d wash their faces on the dew of the leaves and flowers. It was believed that by doing this annually, you’d secure a happy life. Water and fire, after all, hold a great deal of cleansing power in the Celtic tradition.
The Dark Half of the Celtic year is also a time of reflection and gradual growth, a sort of “gestation” in darkness, cold, solitude, and quiet. Bealtaine is its zealous parallel; less an opposite than it is a complimentary, “louder” time in which to flourish outward. Everything comes into bloom, from the Burren to the bays.
In a quieter comparison to Samhain, it is believed in Celtic tradition that the “veil” between the worlds is thin – meaning it is allegedly a great time to communicate with spirits or even the Good Neighbors [more commonly known as Fae; or fairies]. In terms of superstition, people in places such as Corofin would hang rowan; or mountain ash on their doors, or use it to line their windowsills. It was believed the powerful branches could scare away unwanted spirits who slipped out from under the veil when it was at its thinnest. Alternatively, people could place flowers on their doors for a similar effect. As such, they would be protected for the coming months of summer.
It is a bittersweet time of year, according to Pius. Offsetting the excitement of summer is the promise of the next season to come. Bealtane is the brightening of weeks; the lengthening of sunlight and the burst of flowers from the earth. However, it also signals the approach of Lughnasa, or harvest season. Six weeks of light before the darkness starts to creep back across the land. It once again marks the duality of the Irish spirit – to enjoy and relish the present; to reflect on the past, all whilst always noting the future. The Celtic wheel continues to turn, and each day is met with new possibilities.
As much as there is to enjoy currently; Pius says his favorite thing [besides the extension of daylight hours] about Bealtane is the flowers. The Burren fills up with them – “Twenty-three types of orchids,” says Pius fondly. The Burren is home to a great deal many varieties of wildlife – a coexistence of incredible ecology, from tundra plants to deciduous and even tropical, along with a remarkable array of birds [including the infamous cuckoo]. The green Goddess of Ireland comes back to life in lavish and emerald glory, her particular blaze that of a flaring fanfare of wildflowers and floral wonder.
So, if nothing else, getting outside to celebrate the coming of Irish summer is a great way to embrace the Bealtane spirit. Admire the blossoming of flowers, burn leaf piles to make way for gardening and harvest. Take in the extra light and spend time outdoors. Wash your face in dew. Tell stories around a campfire; a bonfire –
And light the way for future generations to remember those who came before.
Until next time, keep the fire burning!
— Sam Fishkind
If you are interested in meeting Pius on one of our journeys, please visit our website for the latest dates & tour options!