Summary: a pagan festival celebrating the start of summer
2018 Date: 1st May (often starting at sundown on 30th April)
Celebrated by: Modern pagans, Gaelic culture
Linked Holidays: May Day (Northern hemisphere), Wheel of the Year Sabbats (Wicca)
Background and Theological Significance
Beltane is the Gaelic name for the festivities that are normally celebrated on or around the 1st May in Gaelic cultures such as Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. The first day of May is widely celebrated across the Northern hemisphere as a festival to mark the end of spring and the beginning of summer. Historians believe that May Day, or Beltane, has been an important date for thousands of years, and long predates the arrival of Christianity in Europe. Beltane was almost certainly a pagan Gaelic festival marking the approach of summer, although it had largely diminished to a cultural observance in most areas by the nineteenth-century. However, it has seen a revival during the twentieth-century by modern Celtic paganism, and particularly through participation by Wiccans. Beltane is typically celebrated in the modern age either as a cultural event in Ireland and northern Britain, or as a festival by contemporary pagans across the Northern hemisphere. Pagans in the Southern hemisphere often celebrate Beltane around the 1st November, due its connection with the approach of summer.
In both ancient and modern pagan thought, Beltane is considered to be one of the four major Gaelic festivals throughout the year, along with Samhain (1st November), Imbolc (1st February) and Lammas (1st August). These festivals are important because they mark the change of the seasons, and the cycle of life and death in the natural world. At the heart of pagan belief is the relationship between humanity and nature, and the importance of maintaining a respect for the world around us. The festival of Beltane enables humans to celebrate the coming of summer, fertility and natural abundance, and to ensure that they recognise themselves as part of nature rather than alienated from it.
The etymology of Beltane, known as ‘Lá Bealtaine’ in Irish Gaelic and ‘Là Bealltainn’ in Scottish Gaelic, probably derives from the Old Irish for ‘bright fire’. This is in reference to one of the principal parts of the festival in antiquity, which was the lighting of bonfires as a ritualistic protection from threats both natural and supernatural. Often people and livestock would walk between the bonfires as part of the festivities, or sometimes be made to leap over the embers, before the animals were released into open summer pastures. Rituals were also enacted to protect homes and crops and to encourage prosperity over the summer months. Beltane (the start of summer) and Samhain (the start of winter) are believed by scholars to have been the two most important festivals in Gaelic cultures. James Frazer in his magnum opus The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion suggests that these timings are of greater significance to herdsmen than to arable farmers, lending credence to the belief that these festivals date from a time when the Gaelic peoples were a pastoral rather than a farming people.
Although the earliest celebrations of Beltane involved making offerings to local Gaelic gods or spirits, the spread of Christianity over northern Europe diminished this aspect of direct worship in the festival. However, traditional Beltane observances endured well into the early modern period, often merging with similar May Day celebrations from southern Britain and Europe. A revival in the observance of Beltane in the twentieth-century is due both to cultural identity and to the efforts of modern pagans to reclaim this ancient festival. An instance of the former is the now-famous annual Beltane Fire Festival on Carlton Hill in Edinburgh, which brings together art, music, drama and storytelling both from traditional Gaelic sources and from further around the world.
Modern pagans (sometimes referred to as neopagans, although this term is controversial) have also reclaimed the ancient festivities of Gaelic Beltane as part of their own identity. Celtic Reconstructionist pagans, who attempt to recreate the pre-Christian Celtic rituals as much as possible, are amongst those who celebrate Beltane based on historical evidence and research. The Wiccan movement, which is a more eclectic contemporary form of paganism, has adopted Beltane as part of the Wheel of the Year, a series of eight Sabbats including the four major Gaelic festivals as well as the solstices and equinoxes. These modern pagan movements maintain the ancient belief that Beltane is a time to celebrate and be thankful for the gifts of life, fertility, and prosperity in nature.
It is believed that ancient Gaelic cultures observed Beltane as a time to celebrate the transition from spring to summer and to welcome the approaching time of growth and plenty. The ritualistic lighting on bonfires is described in early Irish literature as a means of protecting cattle from harm and ensuring a prosperous season ahead. Sacrifices were also made to pagan deities, although in later centuries they often evolved into the ‘aos sí’ (nature spirits or fairies) rather than gods, due to the dominance of the Christian religion. The traditions of Beltane evolved throughout the ages and were still observed as cultural practices in the early modern period. In nineteenth-century Ireland, cattle were still driven between bonfires on Beltane, whilst leaping through fires and eating ‘Beltane bannock’ remained a practice in Scotland. Holy wells and springs were visited, and yellow flowers and hawthorn branches were often brought into homes and communities as a form of protection and blessing.
Modern pagans have often revived these ancient practices with a more theological purpose in mind, and the lighting of bonfires and gathering of hawthorn branches are common amongst Celtic pagan movements. Wiccans often draw together the traditions of Beltane with May Day celebrations from across Europe, such as maypole dancing. These modern pagans bring together both ancient and contemporary traditions to form their identity, and to help align humanity with the rhythms of the natural world.
‘Beltane – sprites and phoenix‘ by Jrockley is a Public Domain work