Lucky Fires: Beltane Throughout the Ages

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the eight points of the wheel of the year. It is written by a good friend of mine and member of our community, Tony Marshall Griffiths. Tony lives in the North of England but grew up in Wales. He loves the landscapes of the British Isles and the stories and old names that attach to them. You can read more of Tony’s writing on his website, The Enchanted Silence.

May Day in Britain conjures up images of flower garlands, warm spring sunshine and maypole dancing. (As in the rest of Europe and other parts of the globe, it is also International Workers Day but that is another story altogether.) These flower-garlanded celebrations are found all over Europe and may be part of the same tradition as the Floralia or Games of Flora that were held in ancient Rome at this time of year to celebrate the goddess of flowers.

These games were a celebration for the common folk rather than the elite of the city and the revelries were known for their licentious, pleasure-seeking atmosphere. Both these aspects were also true of the rites of May as they were celebrated in medieval and early modern England, when the youth of the village would go out into the countryside before dawn and bring back flowering branches, particularly hawthorn, to decorate homes as well as the village church. The whole thing was conducted with youthful high spirits and a whiff of sexual exuberance.

As a result of the bawdy reputation of this time of year, the Jesuits in continental Europe at the end of the eighteenth century decided to protect the virtue of their students by dedicating the month of May to special venerations of Mary, adding “Queen of May” to her long list of epiphets. Her statues would be crowned (and still are) with a wreath of May flowers in a way that seems to directly evoke the roman goddess Flora or the forgotten matriarchs of the northern European religions. These are not, however, distinctively ‘Celtic’ celebrations.

In the Celtic traditions, and in the modern Wheel of the Year, the cross-quarter day of Beltane lies between the spring equinox and the summer solstice and is commonly celebrated on the eve of May Day, exactly six months after the autumn feast of Samhain (or Halloween in the Christian calendar). In Wales this spring festival is known as Calan Mai (or Calan Haf), the spring counterpart to autumn’s Calan Gaeaf.

Like the autumn feast, Calan Mai is the setting for key events in a number of old tales from the Celtic world, which may reflect that the feasts of Calan Mai and Calan Gaeaf were the primary occasions for re-telling these tales. Taliesin with his shining brow, for example, was reborn from the sea on either Calan Mai or Calan Gaeaf depending on the version of the story being told.

In the story of Lludd and Llefelys, a terrifying scream was heard “over every hearth in Ynys Prydain” each Calan Mai, eventually revealed to be the sound of a red and a white dragon battling beneath the ground. Likewise Calan Mai was the day that Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwythyr ap Greidawl were fated by King Arthur’s decree or dihenydd to battle every year over the hand of Creiddylad ferch Lludd, “the most majestic maiden there ever was in the Three Islands of Britain and her Adjacent Three Islands”.

In the Irish myths recorded in the Book of Invasions, Beltane was the day that Partholon brought his followers to resettle Ireland following Noah’s Flood and likewise was the occasion of the first of the battles between the Milesians and the Tuatha Dé Danann, which eventually resulted in the Tuatha De yielding the outer world to the newcomers.

Calan Mai and Calan Haf simply mean the first day of May and the first day of summer respectively, via the latin word calends. The origins of the name Beltane are more mysterious, however. The suffix -tane means ‘fire’ and is one of relatively small group of words forming a core vocabulary recognisable in both the Brythonic and Godelic branches of Celtic language, where ‘tân’ is the modern Welsh word for fire and ‘tine’ the Irish word.

With regards to ‘Bel-‘ however, the Irish manuscript known as Cormac’s Glossary from the 9th Century gives two contrasting theories, translating ‘Beltane’ at one point as ‘Lucky Fire’ or ‘Fortunate Fire’ and at another point associating the name with a god Bel. Whilst the ‘fires of Bel’ might have been a nod by a pious scribe to the ‘fires of Baal’ in the Old Testament, Beli Mawr was a patriarch in the Welsh pantheon across the Irish Sea (he is also listed as the uncle of the Virgin Mary in some genealogies), whilst Belenus was worshipped as a sun god amongst the Celtic tribes on continental Europe.

Cormac’s Glossary also described that in the author’s time, the ‘druids’ would light Beltane bonfires ‘with great incantations’ and would drive the herds of cattle between the two fires to ward off disease (or the attentions of the fairy folk in later traditions). This practice of blessing livestock was important as this was the time of year when the flocks and herds would be led up to summer pastures on the higher ground, with the human clan following. A psalm in the Carmina Gadelica invokes the blessing of the Holy Trinity on the farmer’s family as they head to their ‘gay summer sheiling’, the summer farmstead on the high pasture where they would pass the next months. 

Traditions of ritual bonfires, lit on Beltane as on the other cross-quarter days, were recorded surviving a millennium later at locations throughout the British Isles, including South Wales and parts of England. The folklorists recorded some very specific traditions around the lighting of the fire. This was typically accomplished by nine chosen volunteers and the fire was often lit by friction between two pieces of wood, without the use of flint or steel.

The writer Marie Trevelyan reported that in the Vale of Glamorgan, the nine volunteers would rid themselves of any metallic objects and collect branches of nine different types of tree from the nearby woods to build the bonfire, which was then lit by rubbing together two sticks of oak. Modern Wiccans equate the nine types of wood with the first nine letter-names of the Ogham alphabet; birch, rowan, alder, willow, ash, hawthorn, oak, holly and hazel.

More than the other cross-quarter days though, May Day bonfires are also found in parts of central and northern Europe far removed from the Celtic lands. For example in Finland, the first of May is called Vappu and is the occasion of carnival celebrations, one of the four biggest holidays of the year along with Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Midsummer.

In other countries, such as the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden and the Baltic states, May Day eve is known as Walpurgis Night, named for the feast of St Walpurga on the next day. Walpurgis Night represents both a development and appropriation of the older quarter fires. It seems that there was a conscious move to counter and reshape the older traditions using Walpurga’s legacy; 1st May was chosen as her feast day when she was canonised a century after her death rather than following custom and commemorating the day of her passing.

The Beltane fires that were once lit to protect the herds and flocks from natural and supernatural harm became Walpurga’s fires lit to protect the people from witchcraft. In the Celtic world, Beltane and Samhain were nights when the ancestors were close at hand, which later translated into myths of the fairy folk going abroad from their hiding places on those special nights. Many of the Beltane traditions contain an element of magic to protect the folk from these uncanny visitors who might entangle an unwary mortal. In the medieval imagination these numinous figures apparently became witches and Walpurga became the patroness of the fires that kept them at bay.

The seasonal meaning of the festival, by any name, is straightforward. This is the gateway to the lighter half of the year. In the temperate Northern climate of the British Isles, the six month span from Beltane to Samhain, the calends of summer to the calends of winter, is the period when the trees are clad. These two festivals are the major beats of the Celtic year, with Samhain the supposed ‘Celtic New Year’ and the first of the four winter festivals of the Wheel of the Year, whilst Beltane at the half-way point of the year is the first of four summer festivals.

The minor key of the winter half of the year precedes the brighter notes of the summer months in the same way that the calendar day in the old reckoning started at dusk so that night precedes day in the 24 hour cycle. The May-time feast was a clear threshold between the winter months and the more expansive summer months when the weather became more reliable and welcoming, outer layers of clothing could finally be shed, life could shift outdoors and become more communal than private. This May Day weekend, I wish you joy and gratitude as we step forward and anticipate the joys of summer living.

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