Beltane: Celtic Fire Festival Beckons with the Warmth of Summer
Celtic tribes celebrated Beltane to welcome the return of summer. Since at least the Iron Age, celebrations have included fire ceremonies, feasting, and fertility rites. Historically, the festival has been recognized throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, and in many locations the night before May 1st still sets the scene for the fun and fascinating Gaelic May Day festival.
What is Beltane?
Beltane takes place between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. If the spring had been successful with sufficient rain and the creation of rich and fertile soils, the ancient Celts could be hopeful for the new life that would soon emerge with the seasonal transition. It is one of the four main festivals on the Pagan Wheel of the Year .
At its essence, Beltane is a fire festival welcoming summer and its joy and fertility. It was when the ancient Celts would celebrate the release of the sun, which their myths said was held prisoner during the winter months.
It gets its name from Bel, also known as Belenus, the Celtic sun god and a god of fire. Bel has been translated as ‘the bright one’ or ‘the shining god’ and the Gaelic word ‘teine’ stands for fire, thus Beltane is ‘the Bright fire’ or ‘the shining fire.’
With this information in hand, it is little surprise that bonfires are so important in Beltane celebrations. When the ancient Celts believed it was necessary to incite the god to return and warm their lands, they would traditionally extinguish their hearths and then light a special fire just for Beltane.
What Happened at Beltane?
The flames, smoke, and ashes of the special Beltane bonfire (Teineigen) were believed to have protective powers. People would leap over the flames or embers to purify themselves and encourage fertility, both in the physical and creative/mental sense of the word. Couples would sometimes jump over the fires together and then pledge themselves to each other in a traditional handfasting ceremony – vowing to be committed to a relationship for ‘a year and a day’ and then choosing if their partnership would continue or end without resentment. Marriages were often arranged at Beltane festivals as well.
Beltane was a time to rejoice in the return of the land and nature’s fertility and people would walk between two fires with their cattle and other animals with the belief that the smoke would encourage the animals’ fertility and strength and to protect them from disease.
‘Beltane.’ (efercussie/ Deviant Art )
The joyous spirit of the celebrations spread to homesteads with the use of May flowers to decorate doors, windows, sheds, and livestock. May Bushes or May Trees, often hawthorn, rowan, holly, or sycamore bushes or branches decorated with ribbons and flowers and sometimes candles, were popular features of Beltane celebrations in some parts of Ireland. In some traditions, people would try to steal each other’s May Bush for fun, but the practice was forbidden in Victorian times . The May Bush was sometimes burnt at the conclusion of Beltane ceremonies. This feature of the Beltane cermeonies could be related to the maypole that is often danced around in May Day or Midsummer celebrations in many parts of Europe.
As with all good celebrations, Beltane also included a feast. In 1769, Thomas Pennant wrote that a traditional food created over the sacred fire was the Beltane bannock – an egg, butter, oatmeal, and milk cake that was given to each person and also poured on the ground as a libation.
People would leave offerings of the Beltane bannock or other foods or drinks, such as milk, on doorsteps or at fairy trees or fairy forts for the supernatural aos sí (roughly translated as fairies or elves). This practice may be a nod to the previous practice of honoring and appeasing nature gods or spirits with sacrifices in return for protection and feritility.
Beltane night Firefly Dancers. (Gwillieth/ Deviant Art )
Although the festival is traditionally associated with fire, as the years passed, Beltane became a popular time for people to visit holy wells and seek the healing properties commonly linked to those sites. The Beltane morning dew was also sought out and sometimes kept in jars by young women who believed it would make them more attractive, maintain their youthful appearance, and heal any skin ailments.
When the Beltane festivities drew to a close people would traditionally take some of the sacred fire to re-ignite their own homestead fires, carrying the positive aspects of the Teineigen into their lives and homes too.
Beltane Bonfire at a celebration in West Wales, May 2015. (Stub Manhdrel/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
A New Take on Ancient Beltane – The Big Fire Festival at Edinburgh
Although Beltane fell out of practice in most areas around the 19th century, it was resurrected in 1988 at one of the most popular Beltane celebrations, the fire festival which takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Beltane Fire Festival is held annually on the night of April 30 on Calton Hill. Although it’s inspired by the ancient Beltane festival, the modern adaptation includes drumming, dancing, acrobatics, theater, and fire. This version of the Beltane celebration is led by the May Queen and Green Man.
It is worth mentioning that this festival is not trying to resurrect the Celtic rituals. As the Beltane Fire Festival website explains:
“It is important to note that the purpose of our festival is not to recreate ancient practices but to continue in the spirit of our ancient forebears and create our own connection to the cycles of nature […] The important point to note when thinking about our own festival is the joy and the revelry that is fostered in the ritual. It is about casting off the darkness and celebrating the light. It is a time for celebrating fertility, both in the context of our biological functions as well as our own creative energies, the fertility of our creative community.”
2012 Beltane Fire Festival - The Red Beastie Drummers - on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Stefan Schäfer, Lich/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The 2019 version of the Beltane Fire Festival made headlines for the different portrayal of the normally flowery goddess of the May Queen. This time, the female lead of the ceremonies emerged angry at the destruction of the earth and ready to fight. The event website explained why the May Queen changed:
“The world as we know it is dying. We’re living through a major extinction event. Even if our societies can stomach the changes it will take to limit global warming, we are – for most of the planet – reaching a point of no return. Our planet is dying, and collectively we are living through the cycles of grief. This year’s Beltane reflects that grief. The May Queen – embodiment of the Earth – arises this year, not as the perfect flower of tradition, but as the Earth as it truly is – covered with plastic, oil spills, and on fire. She is angry. She is sad. She is grieving for what is lost.”
However, Katie O’Neill, who played the role of the May Queen this year, told Edinburgh Evening News , “She comes out of her state of anger, which is ultimately from a place of fierce love for the Earth and her children. Her story is one of alchemy and of taking that anger and turning it into joy.”
2012 Beltane Fire Festival bonfire on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Stefan Schäfer, Lich/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Top Image: Beltane. Source: chrisdonia/ CC BY NC SA 2.0
BBC News (2019) ‘Beltane's May Queen rages about planet damage.’ BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-48106497
Beltane Fire Festival (2019) ‘About Beltane Fire Festival.’ Beltane Fire Festival. Available at: https://beltane.org/about/about-beltane/
Fox, S. (2019) ‘Beltane Lore and Rites.’ Circle Sanctuary. Available at: https://www.circlesanctuary.org/index.php/celebrating-the-seasons/beltane-lore-rites
The Goddess & The Green Man (2019) ‘Beltane April 30 th-May 1 st.’ The Goddess & The Green Man. Available at: https://www.goddessandgreenman.co.uk/beltane
Wiggington, P. (2019) ‘How to Celebrate Beltane.’ Learn Religions. Available at: https://www.learnreligions.com/beltane-4159809