The meanings of Beltane

Following on from my last thematic post, I wish to discuss some of the deeper meanings behind the festival of Beltane, known in Irish as Bealtaine, and Manx as Boaldyn. I have employed the English spelling 'Beltane' when talking in the general sense, simply because this is the language I use.

A Manx Crosh Cuirn

A Manx Crosh Cuirn

It really is an old festival, proceeding from times when religion was generated from the landscape, seasons, survival and memories – not from books. The empirical observations of nature's great mechanism assigned particular periods where change was apparent a specific importance, and Beltane was one of these.

It represents the surge of trees into full leaf, the arching and dividing of shoots to form branched plants, and the appearance of swarms of insects. Climatically it is warm and wet – the ideal generative conditions for nature to surge into full life. The response to this growth is visible in the behaviour and migrations of wild animals, and reflected in the procedures of transhumance when it is safe to move animals to upland pastures. It is perhaps not surprising that the groups of stars or constellations in which the sun is noted to travel during this period have ancient names which correspond closely to agricultural animals – Aries (the ram), Taurus (the bull), the Pleiades (plovers) and mysterious Cetus (see my earlier post about Iron Age coins). None of these will be visible in daytime in the sun's glare (except perhaps Taurus and the Pleiades just after sunset), and are hidden below the horizon at night! Boötes ('The Herdsman' -home of the bright star Arcturus) and Virgo ('The Young Woman' whose brightest star is Spica which represents a fertilised ear of corn) are visible rising on the ecliptic path to the southeast as the sun sets on Beltane eve, however… The 'meaning' of these constellations appears to have been assigned on the basis of the seasonal events they attend.

Irish Bealtaine customs:

According to William Robert Wilde, (Irish Popular Superstitions, Pub. McGlashan, Dublin 1852) the pre-famine celebration and customs of the Lá Buidhe Bealtaine included the following:

1. Bealtaine bonfires: Usually lit on May eve. He says that the embers would sometimes be taken away to peoples homes to light their own fires, and the ashes considered lucky and curative. Wilde records the burning of horse skulls and animal bones on the fires, as well as the May bush.

2. The May Bush: A decorated uprooted bush or small tree which was carried around ceremonially by youthful celebrants. It was burned on the bonfire.

3. He describes stories of parties of young character-actors similar to those of the Manx 'Summer Queen' and her troop.

4. May Flowers: Like in the Isle of Man, the Bearnan Bealtaine or Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) was a principle apotropaic Mayflower. Any other yellow wildflowers would be used to decorate houses and doorways etc.

5. Household superstitions: Wilde describes a superstition that it was unlucky to give fire or milk from the house at Bealtaine. He associates this with making the household vulnerable to fairies. Curiously, this superstition applies to Easter in the Isle of Man.

6. Spring wells and dew: A number of superstitions existed about the power held in the dew of May morning. Going to a person's land and skimming the dew was considered an attempt to transfer/steal its productivity. The same applies to skimming someone's well or spring. Conversely, wells were resorted to for ablutions and drinking first thing on May morning, and girls would also try and wash themselves in the dew of May morning.

7. May balls: Aside from dances and frolics, Bealtaine was also sometimes associated with spherical balls: One of these was a large football, kicked about as part of a May 'wide-game', and another was a custom of carrying a decorated ball suspended from a pole.

The book was a misty-eyed look back at pre-famine Ireland, and it is evident from its tone that Wilde perceived the famine to have caused a cultural collapse of traditional customs. He was correct, of course, and the latter half of the 19thC was marked by a rise in the power and influence of the Roman Catholic church which sought to fill the void of the decimated culture with its own cultural 'produce'.

Apart from the aspects of fun attached to former Bealtaine celebrations, it is worth examining in more detail the meanings of the customs Wilde and others have described.

Primrose_IMG_1803_2009_04 copy (1)

Water, trees and fertility:

The similitude between water and the plant life that relies upon it to survive permeated the empirical (i.e. – pagan) philosophies of Atlantic Europe. The physical patterns traced by the branches, stems and roots plants are similar to the shapes of river deltas. Plants 'spring' up from the ground in the season named in honour of this – just like water has a similar tendency to gush forth. The 'flood' of greenery at Beltane is analogous to the floods of rivers and the ocean tides. It was anciently believed that dew was created by the moon whose cold light was supposed to create moisture. Furthermore it was believed that its disappearance from the leaves of plants as the morning progressed constituted a 'drinking in' of its goodness. Grass and its dew, spring-wells, and the flow of milk from cattle were considered analogous parts of the same systematic (spiritual) process of conveying life and goodness.

Moisture along with heat were considered the pre-requisites for generating life.

Fire and continuity:

The May fires and hearth-customs were another important part of the fertility/continuity philosophy of Beltane. The custom of creating frictional fires such as the Tein-eigin, particularly when the sun is transiting across the virile spring constellations of Taurus and Aries is an interesting evocation of sexual intercourse. The 'eternal flame' once apparently common to early Celtic Christian monasteries was an aspect of something pagan, and the hearth-kindling traditions and beliefs about ancestors (fairies) and their relation to the hearth are important features of the Atlantic Religion. The hearth is the heart of a household, and a witness to generations of occupants. Open air hearths (e.g. – the Fulachtai Fiadh) were a feature of pagan ceremonials, there being good evidence for this from archaeology and literature. These represented the 'tribal hearth' and had significance to Bealtaine in Ireland, in particular at places like Tara (where Muirchu says Patrick extinguished the sacred fire at 'Easter' time) and at Uisneach. These fires, used to rekindle the fires of the tribe were a powerful unifying force in ancient Gaelic culture, and the ability to host them was the province of kings or high-kings whose 'spark' (married to the 'wood' of the feminine earth) was the inspiration and generation of the Tuatha. Perhaps the 'May Bush' was figurative for the sovereignty goddess, and its burning a form of heiros gamos?

Confusion with Midsummer?

There are a number of independent written accounts from the 19thC which suggest that Midsummer fires in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man were also called 'Beltane' or 'Beltein' fires. The original entry in Sanas Chormaic describes two fires, usually interpreted to mean twin fires, between which cattle were driven. This was said to have been the case in the Isle of Man by William Harrison in his 'Mona Miscellany' (Manx Society Volume 16, Pub. 1869), althougn he could have been quoting the authority of O'Flaherty. However, the entry may be a reference to two early summer fires, held individually on 31st April and at midsummer.

The original texts in the various copies of Sanas Chormaic do not give a date for the festivity, which was glossed in by O'Donovan on the basis of an apparently continuous tradition centred on the 1st of May. It might be that midsummer fires were a christianised form of Beltane which became conflated later on, but midsummer bonfires were a pretty certain pagan activity as well.

Fertile Bridget:

The astronomical event of sunset at Beltane eve sees the constellation Virgo rising in the southeastern horizon. She is preceded by the roaring fiery Lion that is Leo who is bathed in the warmth of the setting sun (assuming you don't live in the Isle of Man where it is probably raining!). Those familiar with the Norse and Germanic mythologies will know that Freyja was the goddess of love among the Scandinavians, and was depicted in Icelandic mythology as having a chariot drawn by cats (Snorra Edda, 'Gylfaginning').This is evidently a reference to these two constellations, and the association of Beltain with love and fertility must somehow be related to Freyja. St Bridget is associated not with Beltane, but with Imbolc (1st February), but the year is young in February and 'Saint' Bridget was a virgin according to the myths of her desexualised religion. So what is the relationship between the Norse Freyja and the Gaelic conception of the year as a woman? Those familiar with my writings might recall I have previously commented upon the similarity between the names of Bridget and Freyja: This is most evident in the Manx versions of Bride's name: Breeshey and Vreeshey, pronounced 'Breesha' or 'Vreesha', even 'Braysha' or 'Vraysha'….

Etymologies of 'Beltane':

Conventional interpretation divides the wordsound into two parts: 'Bel-' and '-tane'. The oldest written forms were beiltine and biltine (Sanas Chormaic).

The prefix has been variously described as a reference to a god called 'Bel' (a popular idea in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries), the word for 'mouth' or 'opening' (bealach), 'health' (beatha), prosperity (bail), food (bia/bea), fold/enclosure (baile/balla) and tree (bile). The Manx version 'Boal' has aspects of bovine animals (boa) and bowls (bol-). The suffix '-tane' is usually related to fire (teine) but might also relate to territory or a district (tain – derivation being 'tanistry' and the Germanic word 'thegn' or 'thane'), a cattle-herd or drove or war spoils (táin)or even water (tain). The Manx pronounce the suffix '-thane', but other regional pronunciations vary the 't' sound from hard 't' to 'tch'. As all have accrued meaning that can be freely related to folklore about Beltane it is hard to come to a firm conclusion.

'Fires of Bel' and 'Cattle Fires' are both etymologies that have been suggested in the past, as is 'opening to fire' (from 'bealach' and 'teine' – meaning the hot months of summer). It might also mean 'Cattle-drove of Bel', 'Enclosure of Land' or perhaps more likely: 'Health/Prosperity of Land', or 'Tree Fire' both of which seem to fit the more fundamental aspects of the celebration.


Tehi Tegi

Some time between 1720 and 1730, a young Englishman by the name of George Waldron was living in the Isle of Man, employed as a trade commissioner for the British government who were trying to supress smuggling in the Irish Sea region. Fascinated by the strange history and wild ancient beliefs of the islanders he began compiling a book – ‘A Description of the Isle of Man’ – which provided one of the earliest pieces of indigenous ethnography and folklore writing from Britain and Ireland. This was published shortly after his untimely death in 1731:

WaldronIOMCoverThe book was famously used as source material by romantic authors of the next century, most notably Sir Walter Scott, who employed some of the Island’s fairy tales and legends to embellish historical stories such as Peveril of the Peak. In the book, Waldron related one particular popular local tale of the Manx taken from the popular pseudo-historical narrative tradition:


A person at his first coming to this Island, would be strangely amazed at the little complaisance they pay to the: weaker sex: the men riding always to market on horseback with their creels on each side their horses full of fowls, butter, eggs, or whatever they bring thither to dispose of, and the women following them on foot over rocks, mountains, bogs, sloughs,   and thro’ very deep rivers, and all this without either shoes or stockings’ carrying, these superfluous coverings, as they term them, under their arms till they come near the market-town; then they sit down all together on the side of a hill,   and put them on for fashion sake, and let down their petticoats also, which before were tucked up higher than their knees’   for the convenience of wading thro’ the rivers, and to preserve them from the mire of the bogs and sloughs.

But the reason for obliging the females to this hardship, is a very whimsical one, and such a one, as I believe, cannot but afford some diversion to my curious reader, I shall therefore insert it in the manner it was told me by an old native, to whom it had been handed down from many generations as an undoubted verity.

He told me that a famous enchantress sojourning in this Island, but in what year he was ignorant, had, by her diabolical arts, made herself appear so lovely in the eyes of men, that she ensnared the hearts of as many as beheld her. The passion they had for her so took up all their hearts that they entirely neglected their usual occupations; they neither Flowed nor sowed; neither built houses nor repaired them; their gardens were all overgrown with weeds, and their once fertile fields were covered with stones; their cattle died for want of pasture, their turf lay in the Bowels of the earth undug for; and every thing had the appearance of an utter desolation: even propagation ceased, for no man could have the least inclination for any woman but this universal charmer, who smiled on them, permitted them to follow and admire her, and gave every one leave to hope himself would be at last the happy he.

When she had thus allured the male part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a progress through the provinces, and being attended by all her adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white palfrey, in a kind of triumph at the head of them: she led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable; and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers to the number of six hundred in their tumultuous waves. After which, the sorceress was seen by some persons who stood on the shore to convert herself into a bat, and fly through the air till she was out of sight; as did her palfrey into a sea-hog or porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the bottom of the stream.

To prevent any such like accident for the future, these wise people have ordained their women to go on foot, and follow wheresoever their lords the men shall lead; and this custom is so religiously observed, as indeed all their traditions are, that if by chance a woman is before, whoever sees her, cries out immediately, Tehi-Tegi! Tehi-Tegi ! which, it seems, was the name of that enchantress which occasioned this law among them.

The essence of the legend of ‘Tehi-Tegi’ is of a magical female in times past (the usual narrative subtext for a pagan goddess) whose beauty leads an enslaved army of Manx men on a procession ‘through the provinces’ and then to a river or to the sea (the legend has a certain plasticity) where they are drowned and taken by the waters. The tale contains strong elements of the old Scots legends of Kelpies and the related Scando-Germanic Nixies or Necks – usually portrayed as beautiful women who transform into horses and drown men in rivers or in the ocean. The root word of Nix apparently means ‘wash’, and this probably relates to the fairy washer-women who pepper folk-tales in the Isle of Man, Scotland and Ireland as well as further afield. It is also related to the Mermaid traditions, of which the Isle of Man has a rich share. The theme is of a transforming feminine force, related somehow to horses, which steals men’s lives by conveying them into water. The Manx also call their own local Kelpie the Cabbal Ushtey or Water Horse, or the Glashtyn – ‘Grey One’. There is even a pool on the Island called Nikkesons showing the Viking input to the legendary heritage of the place.

However, ‘Tehi-Tegi’ is also a tale bearing strong similarities to that of Nerthus in Tacitus’ Germania from the 1stC CE. In Waldron’s tale, the ‘Enchantress’ rides a white horse rather than travelling in a wain or waggon, but the parallels are striking: The procession ‘through the provinces’ led by a potent ancient ‘magical’ female, and the drowning of the enslaved at the conclusion of the account… There are also echoes in the medieval story of the Ratcatcher or Piper of Hamelin in Germany. It therefore appears that it might represent a little fragment of pagan belief cast in legend!

The name ‘Tehi-Tegi’ means ‘Fair Chooser’ (Tei is the Manx verb ‘to pick, gather, collect’, Teg is a Brythonic Gaelic word meaning ‘fair’ or ‘beautiful’, placing the origin of the name in the island far back in time). The meaning of the name ‘Tehi-Tegi’ and the description of her as an enchantress mark her as a pagan deitypreserved in a fairy tale. Curious details include her final transformation into a flying creature bring to mind an otherworld-transition; She becomes a bat in Waldron’s version, and but more usually a wren in other local versions, linking ‘Tehi-Tegi’ firmly to the annual Wren Hunt held on St Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26th) on the Island and in former times, elsewhere. Here are some examples of this:

Legends of the north, or The feudal Christmas; a poem By Henry Rolls (mrs.), Pub Simpkin & Marshall London 1825, pp.269-270

The wren is still regarded by the Manx people as possessing supernatural intelligence. They say that when St Maghull (Ed: Maughold – the Manx ‘Saint’) came to the island and converted it to Christianity he banished all the fairies but their queen who assumed the form of a wren in which she at times still appears and that if in that shape she can be killed her power will cease for ever. They hate this bird but fear to destroy it as some dire calamity will befall the person and all his family who effects the destruction of the reign of the fairies in Man.


From: History of the Isle of Man, by Hannah Bullock; Pub. Longman, London, 1819. (Chapter 19):

….one of the most curious ceremonies, and which, I believe, is peculiar to the Isle of Man, is, that of hunting the wren, founded on a tradition, that in former times, a fairy of uncommon beauty exerted such undue influence over the male population, that she at various times seduced numbers to follow her footsteps, till, by degrees, she led them into the sea, where they perished. This barbarous exercise of power had continued for a great length of time, till it was apprehended the island would be exhausted of its defenders, when a knight-errant sprung up, who discovered some means of countervailing the charms used by this syren, and even laid a plot for her destruction, which she only escaped at the moment of extreme hazard, by taking the form of a wren; but though she evaded instant annihilation, a spell was cast upon her, by which she was condemned on every succeeding New Year’s Day, to reanimate the same form, with the definitive sentence, that she must ultimately perish by a human hand. In consequence of this well authenticated legend, on the specified anniversary, every man and boy in the island (except those who have thrown off the trammels of superstition), devote the hours between sun-rise and sun-set, to the hope of extirpating the fairy…

Tehi-Tegi’s white horse (possibly representing the moon which controls the tides) becomes a porpoise and swims away at the end of Waldron’s version of the tale – redolent of the scene in the Voyage of Bran when Manannan introduces the transition to the otherworld and the horses galloping alongside him appear as fish!

The tale probably survived in its traditional form because it also acted as a metaphor where Tehi-Tegi IS the sea – drawing the Manxmen away from agriculture and into the trades of the sea: fishing, commerce and piracy! The Manx rural economy as far back as records go has been supported by its menfolk going to sea during the herring fishing season in order to increase food stocks of winter food and provide cash money to supplement the income from agricultural surplus. It was a dangerous trade, and a law of 1610 limited the fishery to operate only between midsummer and the end of December, meaning that the start of harvest crossed over with that of the fishery, offering some Manxmen a quandary between going to sea and working the land. Either way the womenfolk must have been anxious – both about the danger, and the lack of male help on the farmstead close to harvest… This perhaps provides a social aspect to the legend as told to Waldron, crackling as it is with gender politics.

So who might this ‘enchantress’ or ‘Fair Chooser’ have been? She appears in the legend and by her name to operate as a psychopomp or conductor of souls of the dead. She also represents the ‘otherworld attractor’ qualities of Love and Beauty that typifies fairy legends. She also has a particular association with the rivers and the ocean, and with horses, marine life and flying creatures. The Manx tales state ‘Tehi-Tegi’ was Queen of the Fairies, and there is a similar account from Ireland, naming the Fairy Queen Cliodhna as the protagonist who is annually transformed into a Wren. She is more usually associated with the Tonn Cliodhna – a powerful tidal surge in the neck of Glandore Harbour, Co.Cork. Local legends held her to be a daughter of ‘Manannnan’s druid’. Manannan is also associated with the Tonn Banks off Co. Donegal, which also have Cailleach legends associated with them.

That some of these attributes could be associated with the Scandinavian Vanir goddess Freyja (and her Father:Mother (N)Jörð) is perhaps unsurprising as the Islanders are a genetic combination of Viking and Celtic settlers whose folklore preserves many of the old pagan ideas. Freyja was described in Snorri‘s 13thC Icelandic ‘Prose Edda’ tale – Gylfaginning as having the choice of ‘half of the slain’ in battle, the other half going to Odin. He uses the kenning Valfreyja – ‘Lady of the Fallen’ – a function certainly being carried out by Tehi-Tegi. One of the other kenning-names used by Snorri was Mardöll, possibly meaning ‘Image of the Sea’ (Mar and a contraction of the Lat in/Greek word (e)idola, which entered Germanic languages and Manx at an early stage).

Freyja was supposed to have had a ‘cloak of feathers’ which could transform the wearer into a bird, much in the manner of the jǫtunn Þjazi, to whom some legends have her being grand-daughter. Apart from the connection of Tehi-Tegi with the bat or wren, another Manx legend – of a giant magical female called Caillagh ny Groamagh who comes from the sea in the form of a bird on February 1st (or March 25th – the tradition is confused) to search for firewood/build her nest back on land. The dating of ‘Caillagh ny Groamagh’s Day’ coincides with that of the day of St Bridget, which is also the Celtic/Atlantic festival of Imbolc. The similarity between the Manx name for Bridget: Vreeshey or Breeshey (the terminal -ey in Manx is pronounced ‘-a’, as Vreesha‘) and the name Freyja is very intriguing. One wonders if they might be related? And is the Manx name for the Isle of Man – Vannin or Mannin – related to the tribe of the Vanir? We know that many of the Scandinavians who settled Iceland and who preserved many of the old Eddaic legends were connected strongly to the Viking kingdoms of Dublin and the Isle of Man.

It is possible that regional alliance and cultural and population mobility between the northern European peoples during the Iron Age led to a syncresis between Western and Eastern forms of paganism which led to the combined Aesir and Vanir traditions recorded and described by the (Christian) Icelanders during the 13thC. Alternatively, the Scandinavian and Germanic religions may be the survival of un-Romanised, un-Christianised Celtic paganism, albeit altered through a prolonged interaction with these cultures before the final Christianisation began in the 10th and 11th centuries.