On the first of May Beltane was celebrated in pre-Christian Britain. The name Beltane is Gaelic. The oldest written sources date from the 9th and 10th century from an Irish writing that talks about Beltine, the fire (tine in Gaelic) of Bel. It is Samhain’s counterpart, the festival half a year before (or after …) Beltane. Where Samhain stands for dying, death, saying goodbye to what has been and the dark half of the year, Beltane symbolizes life, the light and warm half of the year, fire and fertility. Just like with Samhain, according to Irish mythology, around Beltane the boundaries between the other worlds and ours are blurred. It is a time when people could end up in the fairy realm whose entrances often lie at the foot of a hill or burial mound.
The history of Beltane
Who is this Bel to whom Beltane is named? There is a god Bel, also known as Baal, but he from the Middle East. However, there is also a Celtic god Belenus. This was a sun god and a god of life and death and of music. He had a chariot pulled by a horse across the sun. Of course we also know this from Germanic mythology. In 1902 the famous Trundholm solar chariot was found in Denmark. A horse and a sun disk pulled by that horse. The Nordic sun goddess Sól also rode a chariot (Germanic form Sunne or Sigel). Whether Beltane is named after this god Bel, even though it is a sun god and there is an
association with fire, is unknown. The sources describe ‘Beltine’ as the fire of Bil, Bel or Bial, who is an idol according to the writings. The Celtic god Belenus is virtually unknown in Ireland and Great Britain, he was worshipped in what is now Austria and in parts of France. Baal was known from the Bible at the time the first sources were written (in Christian monasteries by monks). It is therefore not unthinkable that they made this connection between Bel and Baal. Then there is the question as to whether Belenus can be corresponded with Beli Mawr from the Welsh Mabinogion and thus be the British-Celtic variant of Belenus. However, Bel is also the Gaelic word for clear or bringing prosperity. So it is not certain that Bel actually refers to a god at all.
The oldest source that mentions Beltane comes is from the 9th century. In the Sanas Chormaic, a glossary of Irish words, Beltane is mentioned. It describes that fires that would be lit by druids and that cattle were driven across these fires. The 10th century Tochmarc Emire describes Beltane as the beginning of summer. On the evening of Beltane, on April 30th, large fires were lit all over Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Descriptions from Ireland from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries tell about fires on hills. People would sing, dance and eat together at these fires and the cattle were driven through the ashes after the fire went out. The fires were what we call need-fire or wild fire. All fires in homes and fireplaces were put out and with primitive resources, by friction with wood, a new fire was kindled. This fire was lit with wood form sacred trees. May Day is known by many different names, Beltane (Beltain, Baeltaine), but also Calan Mai, Calan Haf, May Day, May Eve, Cetsoman, Cetshamain, Cetamuin, etc.
In the Maitland Manuscripts, a well-known late Medieval Scottish literary work, is a poem in which Beltane is mentioned. In Scotland in particular, the customs around Beltane were widespread and long-standing.
At Beltane, quhen ilk bodie bownis
To Peblis to the Play,
To heir the singin and the soundis;
The solace, suth to say,
Be firth and forrest furth they found
Thay graythis tham full gay;
God wait that wald they do that stound,
For it was their feist day,
We know of customs from Scotland in which a Beltane Queen was chosen in every village, fires were lit and festive foods were eaten together while sitting near these fires.
The writer and folk artist Alexander Carmichael collected all sorts of old stories and poems from Scotland in his work Carmina Gadelica in the late 19th century. He found this following poem about Beltane on the Scottish isle of Uist.
Am Beannachadh Bealltain (The Beltane Blessing)
Bless, O threefold true and bountiful,
Myself, my spouse, my children.
Bless everything within my dwelling and in my possession,
Bless the kine and crops, the flocks and corn,
From Samhain Eve to Beltane Eve,
With goodly progress and gentle blessing,
From sea to sea, and every river mouth,
From wave to wave, and base of waterfall.
Be the Maiden, Mother, and Crone,
Taking possession of all to me belonging.
Be the Horned God, the Wild Spirit of the Forest,
Protecting me in truth and honor.
Satisfy my soul and shield my loved ones,
Blessing every thing and every one,
All my land and my surroundings.
Great gods who create and bring life to all,
I ask for your blessings on this day of fire.
In Wales, May Day is called Calan Haf or Calan Mai and it is custom to decorate the houses with hawthorn. On the evening before May 1 (Nos Calan Haf) fires are lit.
The month of May is named after the goddess Maia. According to Greek mythology she was the oldest daughter of the Pleiades. She was the mother of Hermes. Her Roman counterpart is Bona Dea, the earth goddess who made the earth fertile again after the winter. In some parts of the Roman Empire, Bona Dea was a goddess of healing, but also a Matronae, a mother goddess, in this case of chaste women. After the Floralia, the spring festivals for the goddess Flora, feasts were celebrated to honour Bona Dea around 1 May. After the Christianization, the month of May was renamed month of Maria, also a mother of course.
In Northern Europe, the night ofApril 30/May 1 is called Walpurgis Night. Walpurgis is a Christian name for a celebration that is probably much older. The Germans honoured their fertility gods, Freyr and Freya, but also Wodan on this day. It was also the night that all exiled witches and demons could come out of their hiding places. They would fly on their broomsticks or any other means of transport to the Brocken (Blocksberg), a high mountain in the Harz. Here they would celebrate and feast in ways inappropriate to decent men and women. This day is still an important holiday in the Harz where the witch theme in many villages still plays a major role in the festivities. Goethe gave Mount Brocken an important role in his most famous work Faust. On this mountain Faust sold his soul to the devil, to Mephisto. The granite at the top of the mountain has eroded and because of this erosion the shape looks in some places man (or devil) made and bear names such as Teufelskanzel and Hexenaltar. The legend of the Witch Sabbath on April 30 was also a familiar story in the Netherlands. Mayflutes made of elder wood would scare the witches away, so that is why children made flutes from elder twigs in spring. In Oldenzaal there is a large boulder on the market square. It was said to have once served as a sacrificial stone and to have been located at the shrine of Tanfana just outside Oldenzaal (no historical proof of that, by the way). According to the stories, during Walpurgis Night, the witches danced on this stone in the town centre and performed their rituals while enjoying beer and mede. May flutes protected the local population against these witches.
Walburga, to who the day was named, was a nun who was born in England in the 8th century as the daughter of the King of Wessex, King Richard. He was also a saint and brother-in-law of Boniface. Walburga travelled from England to mainland Europe to convert the pagans to Christianity together with her uncle Boniface and her brothers. After her death, her remains were buried in a cave. From that moment on, oil dripped from the rocks of the mountain in which the cave was. This oil was said to have healing properties. Walburga is the saint of sailors, ill pets and especially dogs with rabies. Where most saints have their feast day on the day of their death, in Saint Walburga’s case it is more complicated. She died on February 25 and that is her feast day. 1 May is the day on which her remains were transferred to the Eichstätt cathedral in southern Germany. So this is also her feast day, she has two feast days as a saint.
Walburga is depicted on old engravings with a dog and with grain stalks in her hand. According to an old legend, she once was fleeing from a group of horsemen. A farmer hid her in a sheaf and the horsemen rode past. The next morning the sheaf had turned into gold. It is customary in Germany to leave the window slightly open on the nights before 1 May because Walburga might be fleeing for horsemen hunting for her in the woods. She can hide in homes with open windows and leave gold. She is described as a white ghostly figure, a beautiful woman in a long dress with white long hair. There are writers who see similarities between Walburga and various Germanic goddesses and they think Walburga could be a Christian personification of properties of pre-Christian spring or grain goddesses.
Mainly in Germanic countries, but also in many places in Great Britain, the use of putting up the Maypole is known. A Maypole is a long pole, tree trunk, which was erected by all the members of a community on the market square (or at important places / houses) and is then decorated with ribbons. These ribbons are wrapped around the pole in a beautiful braid pattern by a dance in which everyone holds a ribbon and dances around the tree. This custom is still known and in many German-speaking areas you will see on May Day that a Maypole is placed accompanied by all kinds of festivities, drinks and food. In the past, setting up a Maypole was also a widespread use in the Netherlands. Nowadays it can only bes een in one or twe places in the south of the country. Some of the May customs have over time been moved to, for example, Easter, Ascension Day and Pentecost. Until the Second World War Ascension Day processions in which bread was distributed to the poor at a cross or large tree were widespread. The ‘Poastak slepp’n’ in Denekamp also has many similarities with the retrieval (or in many areas robbing) of a Maypole from the forest. In the east of the Netherlands it is also customary that when building a house the highest point (roof) is reached, a tree is placed on top of the roof and the builders have a meal together. In other areas boys gave branches (meitakken) to girls or a branch was used to mark on the house of an unmarried girl of marriageable age. The older meaning of the Maypole is explained by scholars as stimulating fertility and celebrating the arrival of the summer. The top of the Maypole is often decorated with flowers, wreaths or a sun wheel. As a tree of life and fertility tree, the Maypole is also associated with Yggdrassil, the tree of life of Nordic mythology. The Maypole festivities are often accompanied by fires in which you can burn items or writings that symbolize the old year, the winter and sometimes effigies of witches or demons are being burned. People also jump over brooms and dance and jump around the fire.
It is common in many areas, both in Germany and Great Britain, to choose a young, strong man, the May King, who defeats the winter in a fight. He ‘marries’ the May Queen, who in some cases also defeats an old hag who symbolizes winter. In Welsh mythology this story is known from the sories about Gwyn ap Nudd, ruler of the underworld, who abducted Creiddylad, symbol of youth, spring, fertility and awakening from her fiancé. Every first of May both men fight over this woman. In many places in England it is still common to choose a May Queen every year.
And if you are looking for a husband, wash your face with the dew on the morning of the first of May and the face of your husband-to-be will appear.
In Hastings, East Sussex, the annual ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ festival takes place the first week of May. A festival based on the old tradition of carrying a wicker made of green leaves through the village in a May Day procession. This wicker is a triangular or pyramidal frame covered with green branches and leaves and is worn by someone so that only the feet remain visible. It is thought to have originated from the custom of milkmaids showing off on May Day by wearing green leaves and flowers. Various folklorists have tried to link Jack to the Green Man. However, no conclusive evidence for this has been given. This does not prevent the festival organization from using the typical Green Man image throughout the festival in Hastings. Hastings is not the only place where Jack in the Green is still celebrated, but it is the largest festival of this kind in the UK. Whitstable and Ilfracombe also have smaller but still very nice Jack in the Green festivals.
Another custom is dressing up by chimney sweeps on May Day. The ‘Chimney Sweep’ Festival in Rochester, the weekend nearest to May Day reminds us of this. During this weekend, dressed chimneys sweeps walk through the town and you’ll find Morris Dancers on every streetcorner. A Jack in the Green is also paraded through the streets at this festival in Rochester.
The most famous Beltane festival nowadays is held in Edinburgh. This is where the Beltane Fire Festival takes place. In a parade, the May Queen and the Green Man walk through the streets accompanied by a variety of costumes. With a beautiful performance, they lit large fires that symbolize the start of the warm half of the year, the summer.
The Wheel of Year and the Beltane fire drawings were made by Deb Star Art. Please take a look at het beautiful work here.