Beltane (which falls on either the 1st or 12th of May depending on if you use the Gregorian or the older Julian calendar) is the first day of the summer months in Atlantic Europe. It signifies the accelerating surge of vegetative plant growth, aided by warmer (and for a time wetter) climate, and stimulating the increased activity of animals and people, transhumance of agricultural animals, abundance of milk and the migrations/movement of wild grazing animals and birds such as Swallows and Golden Plover. It is therefore a significant seasonal and climatic event in the subsistence world of Europe's forebears… In the Middle Irish tale known as The Boyhood Deeds of Finn mac Cumhail (Macgnímartha Finn) the hero utters the following verses upon attaining his bardic skills:
May-day, season surpassing! Splendid is color then. Blackbirds sing a full lay, if there be a slender shaft of day.The dust-colored cuckoo calls aloud: Welcome, splendid summer! The bitterness of bad weather is past, the boughs of the wood are a thicket.Summer cuts the river down, the swift herd of horses seeks the pool, the long hair of the heather is outspread, the soft white bog-down grows.Panic startles the heart of the deer, the smooth sea runs apace-season when ocean sinks asleep-blossom covers the world.Bees with puny strength carry a goodly burden, the harvest of blossoms; up the mountain-side kine take with them mud, the ant makes a rich meal.The harp of the forest sounds music, the sail gathers-perfect peace. Color has settled on every height, haze on the lake of full waters.The corncrake, a strenuous bard, discourses; the lofty virgin waterfall sings a welcome to the warm pool; the talk of the rushes is come.Light swallows dart aloft, loud melody reaches round the hill, the soft rich mast buds, the stuttering quagmire rehearses.The peat-bog is as the raven’s coat, the loud cuckoo bids welcome, the speckled fish leaps, strong is the bound of the swift warrior.Man flourishes, the maiden buds in her fair strong pride; perfect each forest from top to ground, perfect each great stately plain.Delightful is the season’s splendor, rough winter has gone, white is every fruitful wood, a joyous peace in summer.A flock of birds settles in the midst of meadows; the green field rustles, wherein is a brawling white stream.A wild longing is on you to race horses, the ranked host is ranged around:A bright shaft has been shot into the land, so that the water-flag is gold beneath it.A timorous tiny persistent little fellow sings at the top of his voice, the lark sings clear tidings: surpassing May-day of delicate colors!
The festival was more properly celebrated as 'Beltane Eve' (starting 31st April), based upon the ancient tendency to start each new day with nightfall – a traditional practice in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man dating back to the Celtic cultures of Europe during the late Iron Age, as commented upon by Caesar in Book 6, ch. 18 of his account of the 1stC BC conquest of Gaul, known as De Bello Gallico:
“…All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, and say that this tradition has been handed down by the Druids. For that reason they compute the divisions of every season, not by the number of days, but of nights; they keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night…”
Those familiar with astronomy might realise that the rising of Virgo in the south-eastern horizon is the significant sky-event that marks the sunset on Beltain eve, and the significance of a woman holding an ear of corn (as the constellation is often portrayed) can be understood when considering the fertility aspects of the festival. It is balanced by the setting of the sun in the Ram constellation of Aries (close to Taurus and other 'herd' or 'flock'-themed constellations) – a significant fertility symbol.
Important 'Celtic' folk-customs associated with Beltain have been recorded from across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man and many have attempted to use them in reconstructing a celebration of these festivities. There are not many places where the ancient customs have been part of a continuous living tradition, but the Isle of Man is one of them, perhaps the best of all:
The Manx Beltane customs:
The Manx people refer to Beltain as Laa Boaldyn or Oie'l Boaldyn (pron: 'Lay Bolthane/Balthane/Boltheen' or more properly by aspirating the labial consonant from 'B' to 'V' – Voaldyn) and the current customs (many still active and living) relating to it include:
(i) The fashioning the 'Crosh Cuirn'. The Crosh Cuirn (Ir.G/Sc.G. = crios caorann/caorthann) is a cross fashioned properly from two hand-broken twigs of the Mountain Ash tree, traditionally fastened with sheeps' wool pulled from a bush, or by splitting one of the twigs and pushing the other through this aperture. No metal must be used in fashioning it. Its Manx name means either 'cross' or 'girdle' made from 'Cuirn/Keirn' (Mountain Ash or Rowan Tree). The Crosh Cuirn is/was hung over doorways of human and animal dwellings and sometimes tied to the tails of domestic beasts. It was also worn by people in the fashion of a talisman. Some people also collected Ivy boughs for their apotropaic decorations – particularly on certain farms, where modern vets still see them mounted over cow sheds from time to time. Cuirn trees growing in old graveyards/churchyards are sometimes sought out for use in fashioning the 'Crosh'. Elsewhere (such as in Scotland), the 'crios' was a simple Rowan branch, not a cross. It was considered apotropaic. Manxman John Clague in his book 'Cooinaghtyn Manninagh – Manx Reminiscences' (Pub. M.J. Blackwell, 1911) said this of the 'Crosh':
“…The right way to make a kern cross is to split one stick and put the other stick through it, and thus bind them together…”
This echoes the description of 18thC author and 'whig historian' James MacPherson (celebrated throughout Europe during the early 1700s as the 'rediscoverer' of the ancient Ossianic lays) of Scottish highlanders making a 'clip' of Beltane herbs in the cleft of a stick, which he called 'Clou-an-Bel-Tein'. Macpherson's book, 'An introduction to the history of Great Britain and Ireland' (3rd Edition, Pub. London 1773, T. Becket and T.A. De Hondt) has this to say about 18thC Beltain customs in the Scottish highlands.
“… It was a custom, till of late years, among the inhabitants of whole districts in the North of Scotland, to extinguish all their fires on the evening of the last day of April. Early on the first day of May some select persons met in a private place, and, by turning with great rapidity an augre in a dry piece of wood, extracted what they called the forced or elementary fire*. Some active young men, one from each hamlet in the district, attended at a distance, and, as soon as the forced fire was kindled, carried part of it with great expedition and joy to their respective villages. The people immediately assembled upon some rock or eminence, lighted the BEL-TEIN, and spent the day in mirth and festivity.* TEIN-EGIN, or the forced-fire. The practice of extracting the TEIN-EGIN is not yet altogether discontinued among the ignorant vulgar.The ceremonies used upon this occasion were founded upon opinions of which there is now no trace remaining in tradition. It is in vain to inquire why those ignorant persons, who are addicted to this superstition, throw into the BEL-TEIN a portion of those things upon which they regale themselves on the first of May. Neither is there any reason assigned by them for decking branches of Mountain-Ash* with wreaths of flowers and heath, which they carry, with shouts and gestures of joy, in procession three times round the fire. These branches they afterwards deposite above the doors of their respective dwellings, where they remain till they give place to others in the succeeding year.* “Clou-an-BEL-TEIN” i.e., the split-branch of the fire on the rock. Those who have ingrafted Christianity on many of the superstitions of their remotest ancestors have now converted the Clou-an-Bel-Tein into a cross… “
The use of 'tin-egin' in the Hebrides (Uist) was first mentioned by writer Martin Martin in the late 17thC. The MacPhersons were lairds in western Scotland – an area which had deep cultural connections to the Isle of Man, Hebrides and Ireland, and whose folk-cultural memories unravelled following the Jacobite rebellions and subsequent Highland clearances. The MacPhersons were guilty of treating their own tenants badly, and James' own contempt of the 'vulgar' is obvious in his own writings. The Beltane bonnach was not recorded as a particular Manx custom, although it features both at Easter (when people would use no iron in their fire and cook a triangular bonnag directly on the hearthstone and use a branch of Keirn as a fire-poker) and at Samhain/Sauin at the other end of the year. MacPherson's description of the 'clip' of herbs seems analogous to the Manx Crosh Keirn, although there is little evidence of the Manx using other plant species. MacPherson's own account mentioned the clip had been replaced by the cross among christians. One suggestive description nearer (but not contemporary) to MacPherson's account is sadly third-hand, from the preface to the memoirs of Manx archdeacon Benjamin Philpott, who served in Andreas parish in the 1830's:
“…On the eve of St. John (AR Ed: sic – St James) the Beltane fires fling their ancient flames to heaven from the mountain sides. Everyone who does not wish to be haunted by ill-luck for a whole year must throw into the fire some object belonging to his house. In the good old days, which nobody remembers, it would probably have been a superfluous baby, but in the nineteenth century any old thing will do. On that same eve, the fairies – malign Celtic fairies, not our merry English elves – are wont to walk abroad. No one could have a stronger objection to popish practices than my grandmother, but she would never have kept a servant if she had not yearly, on St. John's Eve, allowed the house to be hung with green crosses and each child to wear a green cross round its neck. Otherwise Heaven knows what the fairies might not have done…” (Source: 'Our Centenarian Grandfather – 1790-1890' by Arthur Granville Bradley, Pub. 1922 London, John Bale, Sons and Danielsson)
The conflation of Mayday/Beltane (St James' Day) and St John's day (midsummer) seems to have been constant throughout the Gaelic territories, with much inter-changeability of customs. The wearing of herbs (in particular Artemisia vulgaris) is still a tradition in the Isle of Man on 'Old' (Julian) midsummer day, otherwise known as Tynwald festival. The 'green crosses' may well just have been made of fresh Rowan twigs, but there are a number of other interpretations: Firstly that the cross was made as per MacPherson's description, secondly that 'green' is a misunderstanding of the Manx/Gaelic word for the sun – Grian – whose yellow light makes things green! Philpott's original manuscript memoir is sadly unavailable to consult on the matter…
(ii) Strewing of yellow flowers. The picking of yellow and green flowers/plants and strewing them on the thresholds and hearth of the house: species used might include (depending upon the annual availability) Primroses and Cowslips, Marsh Marigold, Ranunculus spp., Rushes, Yellow Iris, Ivy branches and sometimes blue Dog Violets. The yellow-coloured flowers were evocative of bountiful milk and butter and were supposed to either attract or repel fairies, depending upon the interpretation of custom. Rushes were symbolic of welcoming in the Gaelic world: Originally, the Manx people wanted to placate fairies and not frighten them. They were considered 'lucky' and able to ward off 'evil' influences. The 'tax' of their god, Manannan, at the midsummer festivity was a bundle of green rushes, as detailed in an ancient Manx ballad. These are today strewn on the processional way of the national Tynwald festival, held on the Julian midsummer day. On that day, the herb of choice to wear is Mugwort/'Bollan Bane' (Artemisia vulgaris).
The Manx called the bog-loving Marsh Marigold or Kingcup by the name Bluightyn which means 'milker', reinforcing the association of Beltane with cattle fertility. The 7thC Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede recorded that the month of May was known as 'Þrimilci-mónaþ' ('thrimilci monath'), meaning 'the month/moon of three milklings' (Source: De Temporum Ratione – version: The Reckoning of Time – By Bede, Faith Wallis, Translated by Faith Wallis, Published by Liverpool University Press, 1999 – ISBN 0853236933, 9780853236931). Throughout Atlantic Europe are records of May customs involving yellow flowers in celebration of cattle fertility and richness in milking.
Marsh Marigolds are of particular significance over other May flowers because they often emerge from pools of standing water, which gives them a special mystical significance. The act of visiting spring wells early on May morning was also known in the Isle of Man, and there are wells actually named after the day – Chibbyr Baltane/Bolthane near Surby, for example.
The Tarroo Ushtey (a fairy water-bull) was said to emerge from pools (or spring wells!) on Boaldyn morning and mate with cattle, causing them to have sickly changeling calves (From: 'Shadowland in Ellan Vannin' by I.H. Leney (Mrs C.J. Russell); Pub. Elliot Stock, London 1890). The otherworld was considered a close and present danger!
(iii) Lighting of bonfires. Although no longer a practical custom in the Isle of Man, the lighting of bonfires was once part of the widespread practices of celebrating Boaldyn. It was accompanied (according to local records) with a number of other practices of interest: the blowing of horns 'in all directions' was one attested practice (See: 'Notes and Queries', August 1867 p.144: 'May Fires in the Isle of Man'). Joseph Train (1845) noted that this was often carried out 'on the mountains'. The other noise-tradition was the banging of the 'Dollan' – a frame-drum. Many of the 'bonfires' were actually burning Gorse bushes, the torching of which was the annual custom among country peoples, particularly in the upland districts. The custom (as in Ireland) has a certain confusion with celebrations held at Midsummer Eve (St. John's Eve), and the whole period from Beltane to midsummer seems to be an expression of heat, moisture and growth. The popular explanation of these fires in the Isle of Man by the 19thC was that they were to 'burn out' fairies and witches, meaning a purgation of evil influences. The Major Rogation Days of the church were designed to precede Beltane in the Isle of Man and elsewhere – these were a Christian blessing of the fields and would have employed fumigations of incense before the Protestant Reformation. The smoke of fires was considered purificatory (didn't the Manx use it to cure their kippers?). In the Isle of Man fairies were generally considered unwise to offend, and were encouraged in the household (bowls of water and food left out for them at night) – it is likely that the 18thC description of people trying to burn them is a sceptical interpretation…
The 'saining' of cattle by driving them through the smoke and flames of Beltane fires is remarked upon as being of great antiquity. Whitley Stokes' edition of John O'Donovan's translation of Sanas Cormaic ('Cormac's Glossary') – an Irish manuscript believed to date to around the 10thC – has this to say of Beltane:
“Belltaine, 'May Day' i.e., Bill-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 margin] 'they used to drive the cattle between them'…” (Sanas Chormaic: Cormac's Glossary – Trans. John O'Donovan, Ed. Whitley Stokes; Pub. Calcutta 1868)
Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating), in his famous and influential 17thC book Foras Feasa ar Éirinn ('History of Ireland') mentions the ancient festival at Uisneach as being held at Beltane, and gives similar details (translation by O'Donovan).
“He (Tuathal) erected the second palace in that part of Meath which was taken from Connaught, viz., at Uisneach, where was held a general meeting of the men of Erin, called the meeting of Uisneach. This fair, or assembly, was held on the first day of the month of May; and they were wont to exchange and barter their cattle, jewels, and other property there. They were also accustomed to make offerings to the chief god which they worshipped, named Bel; and it was a custom with them to make two fires in honour of this Bel in every cantred of Ireland, and to drive a couple of every kind of cattle in the cantred between the two fires, as a preservation, to protect them against every disease during that year. And it was from this fire, made in honour of Bel, that the noble festival of Phillip and James (i.e., the 1st of May) is called Beilteine, i.e., the fire of Bel.”
The reference to the 'god' Bel and his fires may just be Keating's own interpretation (based on sources like the Sanas Chormaic), but are worth considering. The 'two fires' are interesting in that they may represent the two fires of summer – Beltane and Midsummer – explaining the frequent conflations between the festivals. An explanation for this may be that 'Beltane' represented the period between Mayday and midsummer…
In fact, the conflation also extends to Easter customs. Recall MacPherson's account of Beltane fires, given above: The 'Tein-Egin' – 'forced fire' or 'need fire' – was a traditional annual rekindling of the spark of the hearth-fires. This procedure was carried out at other times of the year, in response to disease or misfortune. All hearth-fires in a community were rekindled and animals driven through the smoke, in the case of murrain. In continental Europe as well as in Britain, the sacred kindling of the flame of the Paschal Candle was an Easter tradition of the Roman Catholic church. The Manx had a superstition about rekindling of their hearth fires at Easter – it was considered bad luck to 'lend the seed of the fire' (ie- to rekindle someone else's hearth fire with your own). It is evident the Paschal traditions were overlaid on pagan ones. Muirchu's 'Life of Patrick' describes him overthrowing a druid fire festival at Tara at 'easter'.
(iv) Battle of the Queen of Summer with the Queen of Winter. Now a long-dead custom, this performance was apparently once a popular expression of the seasonal drama: It was first described in print by George Waldron in his 1733 book Description of the Isle of Man:
“… In almost all the great parishes they chase from among the daughters of the most wealthy farmers a young maid, for the Queen of May. She is drest in the gayest and best manner they can, and is attended by about twenty others, who are called maids of honour: she has also a young man, who is her captain, and has under his command, a good number of inferior officers. In opposition to her, is the Queen of Winter, who is a man drest in woman's clothes, with woollen hoods, furs tippets, and loaded with the warmest and heaviest habits one upon another: in the same manner are those who represent her attendants drest, nor is she -without a captain and troop for her defence. Both being equips as proper emblems of the beauty of the spring, and the deformity of the winter, they set forth from their respective quarters; the one preceded by violins and flutes, the other with the rough musick of the tongs and cleavers. Both 'companies march till they meet on a common, and then their trains engage in a mock-battle. If the Queen of Winter's forces get the better, so far as to take the Queen of May prisoner, she is ransomed for as much as pays the expences of the day. After this ceremony, Winter and her company retire, and divert themselves in a barn, and the others remain on the green, where having danced a considerable time, they conclude the evening with a feast: the queen at one table with her maids, the captain with his troop at another… “
The portrayal of the year in feminine form is deeply intertwined with the ancient Atlantic mythology, often represented by the figures of Brighde and An Cailleach.
(v) Miscellaneous Manx Boaldyn customs:
The old ecclesiastical court documents of the Isle of Man from the 17th and 18th centuries make references to people being presented for superstitious practices carried out on May Eve. For instance, on 13th June 1730 in a church court held at Kirk Michael the following was recorded:
Pat : Corlet having reported yt he saw Bahee, the wife of John Kaighin of Skaristal, on May Day 1735 early in the morning, in the ffields, & about the houses of her neighbrs in a suspicious manner, as if she were practicing charms or sorcery…
This seems like a particularly common time for such anxieties to be reported to church courts, as there are a number of similar entries on similar subjects in the first half of the 18th century. This represented a belief also found in Ireland (as recorded by Oscar's dad, William Robert Wilde, in his fascinating post-famine book on Irish folklore called Irish Popular Superstions) that Beltane was a time when the goodness of one person's land and beasts might be transferred by acts of 'witchcraft'. Wilde talks of tales of 'well-skimming' at Beltain where 'witches' visit spring wells and 'skim' the cream from the cattle whose lands are watered by the spring. The same tales occur in the Isle of Man. Wilde also talked of the Irish 'May Bushes' and decorated May 'balls', but these are not obvious in Manx records.
The dew of May morning was believed to have special nourishing a fertile properties and 'skimming' this was viewed in the Isle of Man as a means to acquiring its potency. People might gain beauty and health by rolling in the dew on Boaldyn morning – a Manx friend of mine told me she has done this. The 18thC church courts have presentments dealing with allegations of this practice, albeit being suspected of being performed to gain the fertility of crops.
In addition to the Boaldyn bonfires and gorse-burnings, there was one more custom practiced that seems to heark back to Scandinavian customs, and was recorded by the illustrator Harold 'Dusty' Miller in his series of illustrations about Manx ephemera, folklore and history for local newspapers in the middle of the 20thC. This was the rolling of burning wheels covered in pitch-soaked straw down hillsides at Beltane – a strong solar motif, that was also apparently practiced in the Baltic region.
The Manx celebration of Beltane/Beltain/Bealtain, known locally as Yn Voaldyn, was an important part of the rural calendar that still has customs associated with it. It was a time when the fertility and safety of households was celebrated. It was an invocation of vegetation and cattle and an invocation of the heat of summer.
In the Christian era, many of its customs were conflated with those of Easter and midsummer (St John's Day). Due to the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendars in the 18thC, the Manx celebrations of festivals might fall on dates of either calendrical system. In addition, the former use of a lunar calendar until the early medieval period has led to other festivals being conflated with the 1st May. The Rogation days, the major feast of the local Saint Maughold and a number of other local festivals bear witness to this.