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.


Naomh Pádraig – commentary on the hagiographies Part 1

There is some controversy about who the ‘real’ Patrick was: Although traditionally credited with the Christianisation of Ireland, we know that an important Roman Gaul called Palladius (also known by the ‘power name’ Patricius) was a church leader (Archdeacon and/or Bishop) in Ireland during the early 5th century before the conventional ‘Patrick’, as were a number of other British and continental churchmen. Britain (and Ireland) had remained under the influence of a strain of christianity called Pelagianism deemed heretical by the continental church as it denied original sin and the need for infant baptism. Palladius was probably one of the people given the task of bringing the Irish and British into conformity. Pelagius was an Atlantic European whose Christian doctrines were probably influenced by syncresis with Atlantic paganism, and whose mission and philosophy sought to influence the heart of Christian doctrine and the  Mediterranean church hierarchy during the 4th century. Even in the 2nd century, there was a theologian and bishop of Lyons (Lugudunum) called Ireneus which might well mean ‘Irishman’. Remember – the Druids were an intellectual collegium of northern Europe who were said to have partaken of the study of a number of non-native philosophies, of which christianity was only an interesting new development!

No – Patrick (ca. late 5thC) was NOT the first to bring Christianity to the Irish, but left his name to represent this process in posterity. His prominence appears to emerge with the creation of a political historical ‘event horizon’ formed by the saturation of Christian culture and the apparent establishment of Christianised sacral kingship during the 6th-7th centuries. The earliest Irish hagiography that survives today is that of St Brigit of Kildare, which somewhat surprisingly makes no mention of him. 

The earliest accounts of St Patrick are found preserved in the 9thC Book of Armagh (Ard Macha or Armagh layed claim to be Patrick’s founding church) and include works seemingly written by the actual saint himself as well as two significant 7thC hagiographies. The two original works are two latin letters known as the ‘Confession‘ and the ‘Epistle to Coroticus’: The first is a justificatory account written in the first person of his life and principles. The other is addressed to a military leader or king called Coroticus  (a Romano-British name), complaining about the slaughter and enslavement of some of Patrick’s white-clad Irish missionaries.

The Confessio contains to magical exploits or much in the way of Christianised pagan themes, but is replete with accounts of visions and the saint’s interpretation of providences. It seems to suggest that Ireland was completely subjugated to christianity by the time of Patrick writing it towards the end of his life, although in reality it is more a description of his mission’s popularity among the nobility and their slaves (many of whom were Christians from Britannia). It neither mentions magi or druids or says anything about native Irish religion save for a reference to ‘idola et inmunda’, usually translated as ‘idols and unclean things’ but which might also be read literally as ‘spirit images and worldly things’ – a good appraisal of the Atlantic religion in my opinion. The Latin ‘idola’ is the same as the Greek word ‘eidola’, meaning ‘spirit image’ – it came to represent physical statuary images in the later classical period as christianity increasingly defined these in terms of their material rather than spiritual value. The word munda means ‘refined’, ‘subtle’ or ‘delicate’ (properties synonymous with spirit, and possibly fire and air in the elemental doctrine of the ancients) so inmunda is the opposite. Remember that Christianity was a purificatory religion that rejected worldly things in favour of its ‘higher’ intellectual religious interpretations… Paganism looked to the world to extrapolate its visions.

Hagiographies of the 7thC:

After these the next texts dealing with his life are hagiographical and therefore of a style including miracles and fantastical accounts. These come from the 7th century – a considerable period after the time of his supposed ministry – and are by two quite different authors. The first is by Muirchú moccu Machtheni and is called Vita sancti Patricii or ‘Life of Patrick’. This work (which exists in several fragmentary copies surviving from different eras) credits Patrick with the conversion of Ireland, as well as name-checking Cogitosus of Kildare (author of the earlier Vitae Sanctae Brigitae) as the author’s spiritual ‘father’, perhaps implying that Muirchú was following his hagiographical lead. This also suggests that Brigitine monasticism may have preceded Patrician monasticism in Ireland, as Cogitosus made no mention of Patrick at all – something which would be surprising if he held such precedence throughout Ireland in the late 5th and early 6th centuries during Brigit’s supposed lifetime! Muirchú’s work is marked by its employing Cogitosus’ style of fantastical miracles, but in particular (perhaps befitting the saint’s gender) these are achieved in acts of magical combat mano a mano with a series of Druids. It is written with a distinct Northern bias, and makes particular mention of Armagh. It dismisses the mission of Palladius as irrelevant.

By contrast, the other 7thC ‘hagiography’ of Patrick from the Book of Armagh – the Collecteana of the Bishop Tírechán – is a much more diverse affair, that spends more time dealing with Patrick’s supposed missions outside of the North and deals more with his conversions of Ireland’s western and southern monarchs as well as the Kinf of Tara.  Tírechán spends more time discussing Patrick’s acquisition of specific pagan locations and conversion of these and their pagan celebrations or traditions to Christian alternatives. The Collecteana contains somewhat more detail of paganism than the Vita. For instance, in the famous passage where the saint and his party are met at a pagan holy well by two princesses who had gone there to make their ablutions or devotions:


(1) Then holy Patrick came to the well called Clébach, on the slopes of Cruachu to the east, before sunrise, and they sat beside the well, (2) and, behold, the two daughters of king Loíguire, fair-haired Ethne and red-haired Fedelm, came to the well, as women are wont to do, in the morning to wash, and they found the holy assembly of bishops with Patrick beside the well.(3) And they did not know whence they were or of what shape or from what people or from what region, but thought they were men of the sid (the word used in the original latin text!) or earth-gods or a phantom; (4) and the maidens said to them: ‘Whence are you and whence have you come?’ and Patrick said to them: ‘It would be better for you to profess our true God than to ask questions about our race.’ (5) The first maiden said: ‘Who is God and where is God and whose God is he and where is his dwelling-place? Has your God sons and daughters, gold and silver? Is he ever-living, is he beautiful, have many fostered his son, are his daughters dear and beautiful in the eyes of the men of the earth? Is he in the sky or in the earth or in the water, in rivers, in mountains, in valleys? (7) Give us an account of him; how shall he be seen, how is he loved, how is he found, is he found in youth, in old age?’

The passage is replete with references to themes that Tírechán considered essentially pagan – of particular interest is the motif of the well (a spring) which recurs again and again in Irish hagiographies as a place of pagan worship, to be converted to Irish Christian use. Next the use of the word Irish word sid in this Latin text, and its use in contradistinction to the deorum terrenorum (earth gods) and fantassiam (‘phantoms’ or ‘images in the mind’). In fact, Tírechán used a number of native words dealing with pagan things, where no Latin equivalent would suffice. For instance, the word erdathe is described as the pagan name for the ‘day of judgement’, and the druid’s tonsure is called airbacc giunnae.

Discussion of some of the magical acts attributed to Patrick in Tírechán and Muirchú:

General note: Muirchú (M) and Tírechán (T) use the term magus – ‘druid’ is an invention/insertion of later writers and translators.

The M hagiography is explicitly designed to show Patrick to be equivalent to and greater than the magi (druids) at the court of the King of Tara. It even gives credence to the prophetic powers of these magi by having them accurately foretell the coming of Patrick and Christianity before being defeated by the saint, and either being killed or converted. This is a vehicle expressing some form of continuity from druids to monks and priests. The Hill of Tara appears to have been a spiritual omphalos for Ireland, and M tells of the sacred fires first lit there to be propagated to the rest of Ireland – somewhat akin to the teine-éiginn mentioned by Martin Martin and other Celtic-region  folklore observers between the 17th and 19th centuries. This is why M choses it as Patrick’s primary destination for spreading his ‘spiritual fire’. It is likely that the event was Beltain rather than Easter. The Hill of Uisneach was also associated with Beltain fires. M’s account makes Patrick’s showdown with the Tara druids seem like the showdown between the wizards Gandalf and Saruman in Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ epic –  bodies are levitated into the air and dashed to pieces, the sun is blotted out, snow and fog is summoned, and armies are scattered with the twitch of a finger! M wishes to portray a definitive victory over the magi (druids)… The style parallels that of Cogitosus, from whom M admits to have taken his lead. Whereas Cogitosus’ Vita and the Bethu Brigte tries to make Brigit the symbol of the ‘new flame’ of Ireland, the Patrician hagiographers of the 7thC – M in particular – try to assert Patrick’s replacing the pagan fire-kindling festivals (Beltain) and instituting his own Christian Easter fire. Easter or Pascha is/was the most important Christian festival.

The T hagiography is somewhat more reserved, also mentions the assembly at Tailtiu as a place Patrick attended in his combat with the druids – associated (according to the ‘Book of Invasions’/LGE) with Lughnasadh (a harvest-fruition festival) rather than Beltain. Both the Tara and Tailtiu assemblies that T’s Patrick attends are at Easter – Christianity was unable to relate to the cross-quarter-day festivals of the Atlantic peoples! T takes the story of Patrick throughout Ireland, giving a blow-by-blow account of how pagan sites were converted to Christian usage. He even combats birds on what later became the pilgrimage site of Croagh Patrick (‘Cruachán Aigli’) in Co. Mayo in the west – a theme for resisting the principle of ancestral-souls-as-birds, associated with hilltops in the Atlantic religion.  Legends about both Brigit and Kevin also refer to birds, as do those about Brendan and other Irish saints: the association of birds with the dead was an important part of the pagan faith! An anonymous 7thC Irish monastic author (known to scholars as Augustinus Hibernicus) even wrote of this belief in an essay on biblical miracles called De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae:

An unknown Irish author of the early 7th century who wrote a tract known as De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae

In this work, the monkish author makes the following statement about ?local magi when discussing evolution (yes – in the 7th century!): He says that to suggest that one species might actually turn into another (there was a belief in the possibility of interspecies metamorphosis until quite late in the middle ages) was to give assent to:

`… et ridiculosis magorum fabulationibus dicentium in avium substantia majores suos saecula pervolasse, assensum praestare videbimur’ (PL 35.2164).

`… the ridiculous myths of the magicians who say that their ancestors flew through the ages in the form of birds’.

‘Augustine’ was a philosopher-theologian with an excellent grasp on classical latin for a monk of the period. As there are no precedents in Roman, Egyptian or Greek paganism, we have to assume he was talking about the Irish magi – otherwise known as the ‘Druids’!