Beltane: not a ‘fire festival’…

The 'Beltaine flower' Caltha Palustris (, Marsh Marigold, Lus buí Bealtaine) emerging in 'curragh' pools at Beltaine.

The ‘Beltaine flower’ Caltha Palustris (Marsh Marigold, Lus Buí Bealtaine) emerging in ‘curragh’ pools at Beltaine.

The ancient Atlantic Gaelic seasonal festival of Beltane, Beltaine or Boaldyn (usually ascribed to the 1st May/12th May) celebrates the opening of summer and the burgeoning growth and fertility of nature. Before the second half of the 19th century, it was a great cause for public and domestic celebrations and observances in many rural districts of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, as well as many districts is Wales and England. Seemingly coming down from prehistory, these seasonal May celebrations were characterised by hilltop bonfire parties, cattle-saining (prior to transhumance to the summer pasturage) and the celebration of foliage, flowers, fertility and water through various customary and superstitious observances.

Was Beltane really a fire festival?

There is a popular conception that Beltane was a fire festival, not in the least reinforced by a famous early record of Beltane celebrations, found in the c.10thC Irish glossary-cum-clerical-resource-book known as Sanais Chormaic (‘Knowledge of Cormac’), which deals with Irish words, concepts and customs important to medieval religious functionaries and scholars of Irish orature and literature. Whitley Stokes’ 1868 edition of John O’Donovan’s translation contains the following two relevant entries:

“Bil from Bial i.e. an idol god, unde beltine – May day – i.e. fire of Bel.

and

“Belltaine… May-day i.e. bil-tene i.e. lucky fire, i.e. two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle [as a safeguard] against the diseases of each year to those fires [in marg.] ‘they used to drive the cattle between them’…”

The first example is very intriguing, as it states that ‘Bil’ was an ‘idol god’, and that ‘beltine’ means ‘fire of Bel’. This is slightly at odds with the definition given for ‘Belltaine’, as ‘lucky fire’. No connection is made of the bible’s Baal, however – this would come later.

The second passage states that between the two Beltaine fires, cattle were driven. The original text and its marginalia are by no means clear as to their exact meaning: it is NOT necessarily saying that druids used to build a pair of bonfires between which cattle were led or driven! Evidence from copious historical and folkloric records confirms that Irish ‘Beltaine’ fires in Ireland were held on 1st May as well as at Midsummer day, with many traditions being interchangeable. William Robert Wilde noted this in his immediate post-famine account of lost or dying Irish traditions, Irish Popular Superstitions (Dublin, 1852) :

“… As at the Midsummer festival so at the May fires, the boys of an adjoining bonfire often made a sudden descent and endeavoured to carry off some of the fuel from a neighbouring bonfire, and serious consequences have resulted therefrom. When all was over it was no uncommon practice in Connaught at least at the Midsummer fire to drive the cattle through the greeshagh or warm ashes as a form of purification, and a against witchcraft, fairies, murrain, blackleg, loss of milk and other misfortunes or diseases. Even the ashes which remain bear a charm or virtue and were sprinkled about like the red and yellow powders at the Hindoo festival of Hoolie …” (p.50)

Wilde supposed, like many scholars of the 18th and 19thC, that Mayday Bealtaine was the original festival, transferred to the ‘christian’ festival of midsummer during the era of primary evangelism. That both occasions (1st May and Midsummer) were ones at which the smoke and embers from the celebratory fires were used in saining people, animals, fields and properties might support this, but it is evident that midsummer celebrations were of an equal significance in traditional paganism across Europe. The interval period between La Belteine (1st May) and midsummer was one in which cattle were typically driven to summer pastures, which would otherwise be inhospitable and sparse during the winter months.

The Old/Middle Irish term ‘druidhe’, ‘draide‘ or ‘draithe’ in the source texts of Sanas Chormaic is the genitive plural of ‘draoi’, meaning ‘magician’, but equated generally with the Latin term druides used by Caesar and Pliny etc. This was apparently a trend started by 16/17thC Irish historian Seathrún Céitinn (d. 1644, hereafter, ‘Geoffrey Keating’) whose great account of Irish history, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, freely used the old Irish term ‘draoi‘ (pron. ‘dry’). He was effectively sealing a link in peoples’ minds behind the medieval Irish accounts of their religious/magical functionaries during the early medieval period and those of the continental and British Iron Age. Borrowing from sources such as Sanais Chormaic, and spicing things with a dash of invention, Keating (who wrote in Irish) continued the suggestion in Sanais Chormaic that ‘Bealltaine’ was a celebration of the god ‘Beil’ and fires. Here is a translation:

“… Now, when Tuathal had put these four parts together and made them into one territory called Meath, he built therein four chief fortresses, that is, a fortress in each of the portions. Accordingly he built Tlachtgha in the portion of Munster which goes with Meath; and it was there the Fire of Tlachtgha was instituted, at which it was their custom to assemble and bring together the druids of Ireland on the eve of Samhain to offer sacrifice to all the gods. It was at that fire they used to burn their victims; and it was of obligation under penalty of fine to quench the fires of Ireland on that night, and the men of Ireland were forbidden to kindle fires except from that fire; and for each fire that was kindled from it in Ireland the king of Munster received a tax of a screaball, or three-pence, since the land on which Tlachtgha is belongs to the part of Munster given to Meath. On the portion he had acquired from the province of Connaught he built the second fortress, namely Uisneach, where a general meeting of the men of Ireland used to be held, which was called the Convention of Uisneach, and it was at Bealltaine that this fair took place, at which it was their custom to exchange with one another their goods, their wares, and their valuables. They also used to offer sacrifice to the chief god they adored, who was called Beil; and it was their wont to light two fires in honour of Beil in every district in Ireland, and to drive a weakling of each species of cattle that were in the district between the two fires as a preservative to shield them from all diseases during that year; and it is from that fire that was made in honour of Beil that the name of Bealltaine is given to the noble festival on which falls the day of the two Apostles, namely, Philip and James; Bealltaine, that is Beilteine, or the fire of Beil…” (Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, Ch.39; Translation/Edition: “The general history of Ireland … Collected by the learned Jeoffrey Keating, D.D. Faithfully translated from the original Irish language, with many curious amendments taken from the Psalters of Tara and Cashel, and other authentic Records” by Dermod O’Connor. Dublin, 1723. Sourced from CELT)

A god called ‘Beil’ and druids galore! His attitude towards fire-ceremonies and druid-savvy opinions were probably shared by a strong Irish contingent of contemporary Roman Catholic and Scots scholars exiled on the continent during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Scots had been first off of the mark in the new National History stakes with Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum (1527), which made free license with the history of the druids, who Boece claimed took up residence in the Isle of Man after the fall of Anglesey to the Romans in the 1stC, and became educators of the early Scots monarchs.

These ideas would certainly have been known to the continental expatriate Jesuit historian Michael Alford (Michael Griffiths d.1652) who appears to have been the first to have commented on the possible connection between the names Belinus and Baal in his Latin book Annales Ecclesiae Britannicae (finished in the 1650s, but published posthumously at Liege in 1663). Alford and Keating were both influenced by William Camden’s former use of formal history to assert national identity in a style less conjectural that Boece and his English counterpart and plagiarist, Raphael Hollinshead. Camden used numismatic evidence from old British Celtic coins to glean the names of Britain’s earliest known kings in his famous works of British history published in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and Alford commented upon the names of these rulers depicted on Camden’s coins (which on bookplates in printed versions of Britannia). In particular he enlarges upon the name Belinus and equates it with the Canaanite Baal of the bible:

“… Effigies illa foemine, quae in eidem nummi facie prostat, Britanniae symbolum est, factae sub tributo. Obscurior vox illa NOVANE: nisi sorte Novantum, vel Trinobantum Urbem, Britanniae Principem, velis accipere. Quod in adversa parte visitur, Apollo cytharum pulsans, & Cunobelini nomen: devotum Regem significat illi numini, unde & nome ceperat. Enimvero quod Hebraeis, Chaldaeis, Suris & toti ferme Orienti, Baal, Bel, Belus erat : hoc idem Occidenti nostro Belinus…

Scholars of the early modern era onwards were generally fascinated by the references to ‘druids’ in Caesar, Pliny etc, and could be guaranteed to find traces of them in the medieval manuscript texts of the Irish. For Keating (himself a Catholic priest), druids could provide further prestige to Irish history, which could already unarguably lay claim to being a leading light in christianising northern Europe. Had not the Irish converted almost seamlessly from paganism to christianity? During the 16th and 17thC English literature had sought to attack and demean the Irish, and Keating provided a positive (and  Roman Catholic) narrative which he hoped would equal that of Camden.  He was writing in an era noted as much for its ahistoric ‘druid craze’ as its efforts to establish some kind of stable orthodox history which promoted a notion of continuous progress from a barbaric unchristian past into an enlightened christian present. As a Roman Catholic he was all too aware that Protestantism frequently derided Catholicism as backward and superstitious. Druids appeared to early modern man’s mind as the ideal bridge from savagery into ‘enlightened’ christianity, and the Irish manuscript narratives (in particular the traditions of Patrick and the early Irish saints portrayed as ‘taking over’ from the ‘druids’) were the ultimate form by which this might be expressed.

This association of the indigenous god (‘Bel’ or ‘Belinus’) with the Assyrian or Canaanite god continued to exert increasing influence as time went on. In 1707, Martin Martin’s ‘A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland’ detailed his c.1695 tour of his native Hebrides. In it, he says the following:

“… Another God of the Britons was Belus or Belinus, which seems to have been the Assyrian God Bel or Belus; and probably from this pagan deity comes the Scots term of Beltin, the first day of May, having its first rise from the custom practiced by the Druids in the isles, of extinguishing all the fires in the parish until the tithes were paid; and upon payment of them the fires were kindled in each family, and never till then. In those days malefactors were burnt between two fires; hence when they would express a man to be in a great strait, they say, “He is between two fires of Bel,” which in their language they express thus, “Edir da din Veaul or Bel.” Some object that the Druids could not be in the isles because no oaks grow there. To which I answer, that in those days oaks did grow there, and to this day there be oaks growing in some of them, particularly in Sleat, the most southern part of the isle of Skye. The houses named after those Druids shall be described elsewhere… “

Martin was steadily enlarging the prevalent theme linking Beltaine with fire and fire-gods. The druid-concept came to its fuller popular fruition in the writings of another Irish author, John Toland, whose ‘A specimen of the critical history of the Celtic religion and learning, containing an account of the Druids &c’ was published shortly after his death in 1722, to much acclaim in certain circles.

Many 18thC scholars and gentry, perhaps egged on by John Toland’s writings increasingly enjoyed identifying themselves with the ‘noble’ vision of ancient druids, who offered a closer-to-home vision of their ancient elite forebears, favoured over the previous desire to show sympathy with the great classical era Greek and Roman or biblical characters. After the custom of the day, they began to create the ‘neo-druidic’ fraternal orders which sought to establish some kind of continuity with the ancient mystical past of non-Roman, pre-christian Europe. Unfortunately, in so doing, they were also effectively censoring themselves from deviating from group-held opinions on what had really been going on among the ancient ‘Celts’…. These scholars with a love of all things ‘druidic’, were often (like Keating) of a religious background – literacy being greatest among the clergy. If not, they were steeped in the religious cultures of Protestant and Roman Catholic christianity. For this reason, they tended to attempt to fuse the contending interests in the history of ancient paganism with the biblical narratives. There thus developed in the 17th and 18thC a popular theory that Beltane was a remnant of a festival worshipping the Canaanite/Phoenician god Baal or Bel somehow transplanted to Britain by (presumably) Phoenicians in dim and dusty unknowable antiquity. 

When the Scottish laird James MacPherson published (in perfect English hexameter verse) his version of a supposedly lost ancient epic poem by the legendary Irish poet ‘Ossian’ (and son of Fionn Mac Cumhail), suddenly new visions of a hallowed ancient past to match those of Homer startled and galvanised the scholars and educated gentry of the European world. Anything seemed possible in an era already heady with the almost daily discoveries of science and exploration, and this led to a certain excessive credulity. The idea of Baal being worshipped at Beltane was given increasing force in the mid to late 18thC by antiquarians in Ireland, such as Charles Vallancey, who expounded a linguistic theory trying to prove that the Irish were descendents of tribes from the biblical Holy Land, who had bought Baal worship with them. Religiously, the Christian churches historically liked to portray ‘light’ coming from the East to the gloomy heathen West – part of a misguided popular narrative which believed humanity was continually bettering itself.

The exploratory and empire-building Europeans of the 16th-19th centuries frequently came across and subjugated populations whose level of technical and social development they equated with their own ‘savage’ pre-christian past. The new awareness of examples in the east of immolatory human sacrifice (Suttee), along with the fire-ceremonies and corpse-exposure practises of the Zoroastrians reminded druid-crazed Europeans of the Greco-Roman propaganda about Celtic immolatory practices. This reinforced the notion of a primitive religion being about fire-worship, and the Beltane activities seemed to prove this link to ‘barbarism’, extending also into a Protestant polemic narrative against ‘primitive’ and ‘ungodly’ Roman Catholicism.

In reality, the bonfires were not particular to Beltane in its various regional variants, and the practice of using smoke and fire to cleanse and bless is by no means specific to any one festival or religious/superstitous practice, being common across all religions throughout history. Bonfires were also special features of the other ‘quarter day’ and ‘cross-quarter day’ festivities in the traditonal and ancient Gaelic ‘wheel of the year’ celebrations. Samhain, Lammas/Lughnasadh, Imbolc and the celebrations of the Solstices and Equinoxes were also typified by fires.

Beltane is not just about fire: Forgetting the theories of Canaanite fire gods and druidic immolations, we are left with a pretty large and diverse collection of folkloric accounts of Beltane and Mayday practices from Britain, Mann and Ireland, which demonstrate it was a celebration of a complex set of natural forces. Fires were certainly an important element (as they are for any good communal feast or activity), but there is absolutely no reason from evidence to suggest that they were the core defining aspect. The collecting, carrying and displaying of foliage and flowers was a particularly important and widespread aspect of customs, which is unsurprising given that the beauty of surging vegetation is characteristic of the season. Water was also important, as was the ascending of mountains and hills, where it is likely to be found.

In late spring and early summer of Atlantic Europe, the combination of sunshine and rain in equal measures ensures that greenery is a potent and visible feature of the landscape, typified by the acceleration of vigourous vegetative growth in herbaceous plants, and the explosion of blossom and leaves on trees. This offered ancient peoples with a significant reliance on animal-herding in their rural economies (such as the Irish and Britons) opportunites to exploit burgeoning upland pasturage once the threat of harsh weather had receded. This coincided with better access to turbary (cutting turf/peat for fuel) and the hunting opportunities offered by movement of herds of wild deer and birds etc to the same upland pastures, as well as the movement of fish up rivers to spawn. It is perhaps no surprise that many records of older Beltane festivities involve the ascending of hills and creating of fires upon them. Of course, hills or mountains are not just good summer sources of food for man and beast, but are also often the sources of streams and rivers which proceed downwards from them and across the land and to the sea. Often saturated with rain and cloud they are great sources for the rivers which nourish the lowlands, and – excepting the morning dew – there is nothing clearer and purer than a mountain spring, just as there is nothing muddier than estuarine waters. To the ancients, mountain springs were therefore a special source of water, just as the mountains themselves attracted a special accretal of mythology, legend and spiritual importance. It is unsurprising that both dew and spring wells enjoyed a special prominence in ancient May traditions.

Wilde (Irish Popular Superstitions, 1852) noted the importance of springs, wells and water to the Irish Beltaine festivities:

“… Wells, whether blessed by saint, or consecrated by pilgrim’s rounds, or merely furnishing the healthful spring are objects of especial care and attention at May time, and in former years were frequently watched all night, particularly in pastoral districts, to ensure them against being skimmed with a wooden dish or cuppaun by some butter abducting hag as the sun rose on May morning. This was called ‘taking the flower of the well’ and the words “Come butter come” were then repeated.

Farmers drive their flocks by daybreak to the wells that they may drink there before those of their neighbours, and the greatest rivalry prevails amongst the servant girls and milkmaids as to who should first draw water from the spring well upon May morning… ” (p.54)

The idea of ‘taking the flower of the well’ echoes the English Mayday-tradition of well-dressing or ‘well-flowering’ in which wells were anciently decorated with flowers. Such collective efforts at beautifying wells and springs are believed to have an ancient pagan provenance, and removing items from such religious sites would have been associated with bad luck or an attack on the common good, as suggested by the well-skimming ‘witch’ stories common across the Gaelic world. In the same way, the removal of rags and ribbons left at ‘clootie wells’ has long been considered unlucky.

Wells and springs represent the returning of waters to the land, and waters flow in a branching manner (from branch to trunk to roots) redolent of the form of trees and vegetation whose growth is celebrated at Beltane, represented in Ireland and Britain by ‘May bushes’ and ‘May poles’. The heat of the sun is only fertile when combined with the moisture of water spouting forth from the sky and earth.

Beltane is not a ‘fire festival’… 

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