Gaelic and Celtic Customs
from the Hebrides and Beyond
Fada's Farsaing (Far and Wide) is a series of articles by Liam O Caiside in English but with Gaelic words and phrases interwoven in the text. The articles describe a wide range of Gaelic and Celtic customs. These pages were originally published in the "Scottish Radiance" e-magazine and have been reproduced here with the kind permission of the Scottish Radiance editor, Sharma Krauskopf.
Latha Buidhe Bealtainn
Beltane and the Coming of Summer
(All the graphics in this page are of the Beltane Festival celebrations in Edinburgh,
by kind permission of Christophe Mercier).
Rathaí firinneacha na bliana:
Rath ó Lá 'le Bríde go Bealtaine,
Rath ó Bhealtaine go Lúnasa,
Rath ó Lúnasa go Samhain,
Rath ó Shamhain go Lá 'le Bríde.
"The true seasons of the year:
The season from St. Bridget's Day to May Day,
The season from May Day to Lúnasa,
The season from Lúnasa to Samhain,
The season from Samhain to St. Bridget's Day."
This short poem in Irish defines the four "true seasons" of the Old Celtic year: the season from the Feast of Bridget, Lá Fhéile Bríde, on February 1 to May Day; that from May Day, Bealtaine, to the harvest festival of Lúnasa, held in early August; that from the harvest to Samhain, the end of summer, which falls on the first of November; and that from the end of summer to the Feast of Bridget.
The division of the year into four quarters derived from two halves, winter and summer, is a pan-Celtic phenomenon. The festivals that mark the start of each quarter have been celebrated in all the Celtic countries, under various names, and in areas once Celtic where other peoples have assimilated or retained some Celtic traditions.
In Scotland, these quarter days are called Latha Fhèill Brìghde, Bealtainn, Lùnasdal and Samhainn. These coincide with Candlemas (February), Whitsun (May), Lammas (August) and Martinmas (November).
In this installment of Fada 's Farsaing we'll look at the origins and traditions of Bealtainn -- the quarterly feast that marks the beginning of summer and the "light" or fertile half of the year. We'll examine its origins in the far Celtic past and look at some Bealtainn customs from Scotland.
In all Celtic lands, the first day of May was the start of a new pastoral season. Cattle were driven from their winter steading to new pastures, and specific ceremonies were performed to protect them from sickness and harm. Other May Day rituals welcomed the rekindling of fertility in the earth, as well as in animals and among people.
Where, and when, did these rituals and beliefs originate? The roots of Bealtainn and the other quarterly feasts are buried deep in Celtic and European prehistory.
In Ireland, literary references to Bealtaine, Samhain and Lúnasa are found as early as the eighth century. Although there is little evidence to indicate that these feasts were celebrated by the Celts of Continental Europe, it seems likely that they observed the festivals in some form, though some scholars suggest the pattern of quarter days was adopted from the pre-Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles.
The Coligny calendar, a five-year calendar engraved on a bronze tablet unearthed in France in1897 and dated to first-century Gaul, mentions a festival known as Trinoux Samonia, "the three nights of the end of summer." That festival has been identified with Samhainn. The Gaulish calendar also divided the year into two halves, Samos and Giamos, summer and winter (the modern Scottish Gaelic equivalents are Samhradh and Geamhradh).
The festivals ushering in summer and winter were probably the most important ritual events in the Celtic year, followed by Lúnasa, the harvest festival of the pan-Celtic god Lugh (called Lleu in Welsh and Lugus in ancient times on the Continent), and Latha Fhèill Brìghde, which is also known as Imbolc, the feast of St. Bridget and, in pagan times, the goddess Brigantia.
Bealtainn and Samhainn were undeniably linked. In Old Irish -- the language that gave birth both to modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic -- an alternative name for Bealtainn was "Cetsamain" or "first Samhain." The word Bealtainn is derived from the Old Celtic "Belo-tennia," which means "the fires of Belos," a reference to bonfires.
Belos or Belenus was a god whose worship in ancient times is attested by dedications in widespread areas of Celtic Europe, most frequently in what was once Cisalpine Gaul -- northern Italy and Switzerland. He appears to have been a god of light and healing with a special affinity for cattle and an association with the sun. His name means "shining." Some of the dedications inscribed during Roman times refer to him as Apollo Belenus, a title that underscores his solar nature. He may have been a god who died and was reborn annually with the advent of winter and return of summer. According to some traditions, he is buried in a tomb near Mont-Saint-Michel, Tombelaine.
There are indications that Belos was the Celtic version of an early Indo-European deity (there is no connection between Bealtainn and the Semetic god Baal of ancient Syria and Palestine or the Babylonian Bel). A Slavic god with a possibly cognate name, Veles or Volos, also was a protector of cattle. Many plants and herbs that blossom in early summer have been identified or connected with Belos in tradition, especially plants with yellow blossoms such as St. John's wort or henbane. He was also associated with springs, and had a female counterpart, Belisama.
As the name Belo-tennia or Bealtainn implies, bonfires played a prominent role in the ritual observance of this festival. According to the Lebor Gabala (the Irish "Book of Invasions") the first Bealtainn fire in Ireland was lit by Mide, the chief druid of the people of Nemed, at the hill of Uisneach. The fire kindled by Mide (whose name survives in the county Meath) is supposed to have blazed for seven years, "so that he shed the fierceness of the fire for a time over the four quarters of Ireland."
Uisneach is traditionally known as the "navel" of Ireland, the spiritual equivalent of Teamhair, or Tara, which was long considered to be the political center of the island. Assemblies were held at Uisneach on Bealtainn, and at Tara on Samhainn.
The Bealtainn fires were fires of purification, meant to protect cattle from disease. The Glossary of Cormac (a lost medieval Irish text cited in later sources) stated that Bealtainn derived its name from the fires that the "druids of Ireland used to make on that day with great incantations," and mentioned the ceremonial blessing and purification of the cattle. After the introduction of Christianity to the Celtic world, the bonfires were sometimes, though not always, lit by the priests who inherited the druids' authority.
The lighting of the Bealtainn bonfire was an important ritual. The Bealtainn fires could not be fueled by torches or other fires. The fire would have to be created at the proper sacred moment. In all the Celtic lands, the fire had to be started either by friction from rubbing sticks or sparking flint and stone. In Ireland and Scotland this type of fire was called teine-éigin, or "need fire."
In Ireland and Wales cattle were driven between two fires. People danced sunwise around the bonfires, as well. They would also touch the fires, and sometimes crawl through them, to gain special blessings or luck. These practices continued through the late eighteenth century, though they mostly died out in the nineteenth century.
In Wales, Calan Mai, the Calends of May, also was known as Calan Haf, the Calends of Summer, and was considered one of the two great Ysprydnosau or "spirit nights" of the year, the other being Calan Gaeaf, the Calends of Winter, the Samhainn of Gaelic tradition. The Welsh, like other Celts, believed that the spirits of the dead returned to haunt the living on May Eve.
Here is how bonfires were lit in the south of Wales, according to Marie Trevalyan, author of "Folk Lore and Stories from Wales", published in 1909:
"Nine men would turn their pockets inside out and see that every piece of money and all metals were off their persons. Then the men went into the nearest woods, and collected sticks of nine kinds of trees. These were carried to the spot where the fire had to be built. There was a circle cut in the sod, and the sticks were set crosswise. All around the circle the people stood and watched the proceedings. One of the men would then take two bits of oak and rub them together until a flame was kindled. This was applied to the sticks, and soon a large fire was made. Sometimes two fires were set up side by side. These fires, whether one or two, were called coelcerth, or bonfire.
"Round cakes of oatmeal and brown meal were split in four, and placed in a small flour-bag, and everybody present had to pick out a portion. The last bit in the bag fell to the lot of the bag-holder. Each person who chanced to pick up a piece of brown meal cake was compelled to leap three times over the flames, or to run thrice between the two fires, by which means the people thought they were sure of a plentiful harvest. Shouts and screams of those who had to face the ordeal could be heard ever so far and those who chanced to pick the oatmeal portions sang and danced and clapped their hands in approval, as the holders of the brown bits leaped three times over the flames, or ran three times between the two fires. ... In times gone by people would throw a calf in the fire when there was disease among the herds. The same would be done with a sheep if there was anything the matter with a flock."
Similar sacrifical procedures were also noticed on the Isle of Man by John Rhys in his volume "Celtic Folklore." He recounts how the Cabbal yn Oural Losht, the Chapel of the Burnt Sacrifice, was founded on the spot where a farmer who had lost a number of cattle and sheep to murrain "burned a calf as a propitiatory offering to the Deity." This type of sacrifice seems to have been a common practice at one time.
The practice of selecting certain people by chance to jump over the Bealtainn fire in Wales and elsewhere, ensuring a good harvest, may be remembered in the Irish saying "Idir dhá tine Lae Bhealtaine," which translates as "between two fires of May Day," and means roughly "between a rock and a hard place." The practice also may point to the selection ofa human sacrificial victim in ancient times. The Bealtainn customs of Scotland, as recorded in James G. Frazer's "The Golden Bough", may reflect ancient sacrifical customs (Frazer's book explored the origin and survival of customs relating to human sacrifice). His description ofa Gaelic Bealtainn is striking:
"In the central Highlands of Scotland bonfires, known as the Beltane fires, were formely kindled with the great ceremony on the first of May ... in the neighborhood of Callandar, in Perthshire, the custom lasted down to the close of the last century (the eighteenth century). The fires were lit by the people of each hamlet on a hill or knoll round which their cattle were pasturing. Hence various eminences in the Highlands are known as 'the hill of the fires' ... On the morning of May Day the people repaired to a hill or knoll and cut a round trench in the green sod, leaving in the center a platform of turf large enough to contain the whole company. On this turf they seated themselves, and in the middle was placed a pile of wood or other fuel, which of old they kindled with tein-eigin (sic) -- that is, forced or need fire."
According to Frazer, the way of making "need fire" was this: "The night before, all the fires in the country were carefully extinguished, and the next morning the materials for exciting this sacred fire were prepared." On the islands of Skye, Mull and Tiree, a well-seasoned plank of oak was procured, Frazer wrote, and a hole bored in its middle. A wimble of the same timber was placed in the hole and rotated to create the friction needed to spark the sacred flame.
In some parts of mainland Scotland, he noted, a large frame of green wood was built, with an axle-tree in its center. A crew was recruited to turn the axle tree. "In some places three times three persons, in others three times nine, were required for turning round, by turns, the axle tree," Frazer recorded. "If any of them had been guilty of murder, adultery, theft, or other atrocious crime, it was imagined either that the fire would not kindle, or that it would be devoid of its usual virtue."
Frazer continued: "So soon as any sparks were emitted by means of the violent friction, they applied a species of agaric which grows on old birch-trees and is very combustible. This fire had the appearance of being immediately derived from heaven, and manifold were the virtues ascribed to it. They (the Highlanders) esteemed it as a preservative against witchcraft, and a sovereign remedy against malignant diseases, both in the human species and in cattle, and by it the strongest poisons were supposed to have their natures changed ..."
"The fire being lit, the company prepared a custard of eggs and milk, which they ate. Afterwards they amused themselves a while by singing and dancing around the fire. Then they knead a cake of oatmeal, which is toasted at the embers against a stone. After the custard is eaten up they divide the cake into so many portions, as similar as possible to one another in size and shape, as there are persons in the company. They daub one of these portions all over with charcoal until it be perfectly black. They put all the bits of cake into a bonnet. He who holds the bonnet is entitled to the last bit.
"Whoever draws the black bit was called the Cailleach Bealtaine ... upon his being known, part of the company laid hold of him, and made a show of putting him into the fire; but the majority interposing, he was rescued. And in some places they laid him flat upon the ground, making as if they would quarter him. Afterwards he was pelted with eggshells, and retained the odious appelation (of the Cailleach) during the whole year. And while the feast was fresh in people's memory, they affected to speak of the Cailleach Bealtaine as dead. He had to leap three times through the flames, and this concluded the ceremony."
The Cailleach, even when represented by a man in latter day ceremonies, would seem to be the female personification of winter and barrenness. The means used to select the "cailleach" were probably extremely ancient. Evidence provided by Lindow Man, a Celt from early Roman times found in a state of near-perfect preservation in an English bog, points to their antiquity. An autopsy of the man, who had been strangled, bludgeoned and stabbed, found a piece of burnt bannock cake in his stomach. Celticist Anne Ross believes Lindow Man was a druid sacrificed to help prevent the Roman conquest of Britain.
Another Scottish custom concerning the baking of bannock cakes was meant to propitiate forces that could destroy flocks and herds. An eighteenth-century traveller in the Highlands left this record of the custom, which was included by Frazer in The Golden Bough.
"On the first of May the herdsmen of every village hold their Beltien (sic), a rural sacrifice. They cut a square trench on the ground, leaving the turf in the middle; on that they make a fire of wood, on which they dress a large caudle of eggs, butter, oatmeal, and milk, and bring, besides the ingredients of the caudle, plenty of beer and whiskey; for each of the company must contribute something.
"The rites begin with the spilling of some of the caudle on the ground, by way of libation; on that every one takes a cake of oatmeal, upon which are raised nine square knobs, each dedicated to some particular being, the supposed preserver of their flocks and herds, or to some particular animal, the real destroyer of them; each person then turns his face to the fire, breaks off a knob, and, flinging it over his shoulder, says, 'this I give to thee, preserve thou my horses; this to thee, preserve thou my sheep, and so on.' After that they use the same ceremony to the noxious animals: 'This I give to thee, O fox! spare thou my lambs; this to thee, O hooded crow! this to thee, O eagle!' "
Bealtainn is often mentioned in early Gaelic and Welsh prose literature, frequently as the starting point of the new season and new activities. The Fianna of Irish and Scottish legend, for example, left their winter quarters on Bealtainn for the wild lands where they lived as hunters and foragers until Samhainn.
Quite often, Bealtainn, like Samhainn, is portrayed as a time when forces from the Otherworld can invade our own. One of the three horrible oppressions that struck the isle of Britain in the medieval Welsh tale Lludd and Leuelys was a "cry that resounded every May Day eve above every hearth in Britain; it went through the hearts of men and terrified them so much that men lost their color and their strength, women miscarried, sons and daughters lost their senses and all animals, forests, earth and waters were left barren." The cry was uttered by one of two supernatural beings, dragons, that were battling for possession of the land.
Another example: In the Mabinogi of Pwyll, one of the great medieval Welsh tales, the hero Pryderi, supernaturally stolen from his mother on the night of his birth, is rescued from a mysterious Otherworld captor on May Eve. (The Welsh equivalent of Bealtainn is Calan Mai -- the Calends of May.)
In folk tradition, May Day and May Eve were times when witches -- in this case meaning those who used magic for their own profit and their neighbors harm -- could work their spells to steal the "luck" from fields and home alike. It was a time of charms and countercharms.
In the Highlands of Scotland, a tradition known as "burning the witches" was continued into the eighteenth century. Young men would take bits of flaming material on pitchforks into the fields and run through them yelling "Fire! Fire! Burn the witches!" The object was to protect crops and livestock from the spells of malignant magicians who would steal the fertility of crops and cattle. The fire was scattered in the fields to flush out any witches that might be waiting in the shape of hares or other animals to steal the fertility of the fields as summer returned on Bealtainn. In the process, such practices increased the fertility of fields by burning off old growth.
A similar practice was found on the Isle of Man, where gorse was burnt from the fields on the first morning in May. Trumpets and horns were blown at dawn, and guns fired, to send witches and the fairy host packing. In Man and Ireland women went out before dawn to collect the May dew, or the first water from the well -- "barra-bua an tobair", "top victory of the well" -- which had potent magical properties and could secure luck, a fair complexion and protection from witches. If the "top victory of the well" fell into the wrong hands, however, it could be used to do harm.
It was also a custom in all Celtic lands to gather certain flowers and branches on May Day morning. Hawthorn and rowan, especially, were gathered, and hung over doors to homes and byres as a ward against enchantment. On Man, rowan branches were carried clockwise three times around the Bealtainn (or in Manx, Boaldyn) bonfire and then brought home. Small crosses made of rowan were tied to the tails of cattle.
In parts of Ireland, farmers would make a circuit of their property, sowing seed sprinkled with the first well-water or holy water at the four cardinal points, starting at the east. Cows were also examined carefully and sprinkled with the first well-water or holy water for protection. Animals were often blessed on May Eve to protect them from harm that night. The wise farmer searched his property carefully for any sign of witches' work. Cattle were sometimes bled, primarily for health reasons. In 1855 the Ulster Journal of Archaeology noted that "On May Eve the peasantry used to drive all their cattle into old raths and forts thought to be much frequented by the fairies, bleed them, taste their blood, and pour the remainder on the earth."
Butter -- a valuable commodity -- was guarded with zeal. Witches could steal butter in many ways; one was to gather dew with a cream skimmer from the grass on a farm, and then utter a charm commanding the butter to come:
"The tops of the grass and the roots of the corn Give me the neighbor's milk night and morn."
Witches could steal butter by charming the smoke rising from a neighbor's house on May Day morning. One spell was worked by reciting the charm "Im an deataigh sin ar mo chuid bainne" -- "The butter of that smoke upon my milk."
There were all types of countercharms to protect crops and produce from harm, a simple one in Irish being "Dia idir sinn agus an t-olc" or "God between us and harm."
In the Gaelic world today, Bealtainn is primarily remembered in poetry, song and proverb, including the rather mysterious proverb "Is mairg as màthair do mhicean maoth an uair as e Diardaoin a' Bhealltainn." ("Alas for the tender infant's mother when Beltane falls on Thursday). Of this proverb, collector Alexander Nicolson said: "This is one of those superstitious fancies for which no explanation can be given."
After reviewing just a few of the May Day customs and beliefs of the Celts, one has to ask, how did all these traditions, with their roots in ancient religious rituals, survive for centuries after Christianity had replaced Paganism? The answer lies in the way Christianity was introduced to the Celtic world.
In Celtic Britain and Ireland, Christianity was spread gradually by missionaries and monastics who brought people to their faith by example. For the most part, there was little persecution of Pagans in the Celtic world (there was some persecution of Christians by Roman authorities), despite the claims of some contemporary neo-Pagans who, at one extreme, prefer to believe in an unsubstantiated "burning time," and some historians who, at the other extreme, would prefer to believe that the medieval monks who recorded ancient Pagan traditions "made it all up."
As Peter Beresford Ellis notes in Celtic Inheritance, his study of Celtic Christianity, the druids and bards gradually absorbed Christian doctrine. "In a short space of time, it was the druids who became the Christian priests, the bards who became the scribal monks." For example, St. Columba, or Calum Cille, of Iona is traditionally said to have been educated in one of the bardic schools that preserved many Pagan traditions. He later supported those schools against their detractors at the Synod of Drum Ceatt in 590 A.D.
Return to Fada's Farsaig Index
Where else would you like to go in Scotland?
News & Views>
All Features Index>
Castle Photo Library>
Castles To Stay In>
Did You Know?>
Family Tree Research>
Famous Scots Quiz>
Flowers of Scotland>
Inventions & Discoveries>
Glasgow Photo Library>
Great Places to Stay>
Great Places to Eat>
Inventions & Discoveries>
Lighthouses of Scotland>
Monarchs of Scotland
Scottish Pictorial Calendar>
Places to Visit>