Beltane on the Celtic Wheel of the Year
In ancient Celtic times, the four-spoked Wheel of the Year honored the turning of the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. (The modern, Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year is eight-spoked, adding the two equinoxes and two solstices.) These four major seasonal points on the Wheel of the Year are known as “cross-quarter” days and recognized by the ancient Celts as “Gates of Power” and, therefore, magical times. Still celebrated today for their imaginal power, these “fire festival” days are Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh (These were traditionally celebrated on the calendar “Fixed Dates” of the eve of October 1st, February 1st, May 1st, and August 1st respectively. There are also the precise “Astrological Dates” of the festivals, which were periods when the sun was at the midpoint of the fixed signs; i.e., Scorpio, Aquarius, Taurus, and Leo. They always occur when the Sun is at the midpoint of 15º of a fixed sign. For more information on the complex methods of the dating of Beltane, see my accompanying blog-post “A Note on the Dating of Beltane.”)
The ancient Celtic peoples found the mid-point of the fixed signs to be magical and called them the “Gates of Power,” the most potent moments for transformation. Astrologically speaking, the Beltane “Gate of Power” occurs in the mid-point of the Earth-sign Taurus, which technically occurs either May 4th or May 5th when the Sun reaches 15 º Taurus. Beltane falls exactly between Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice, with the Sun in Taurus, exactly at the opposite end of the ceremonial year to Samhain (our Halloween) and celebrates life as Samhain honors death. (This is because to ancient Celts divided the year into two basic seasons, the dark half and the light half. The dark half began with Samhain and the light half with Beltane. More on this will be found below.)
It is said that the ancient Celts called the cross-quarter festival “Beltane” (or Beltaine), from the ancient word for “bright fire” which honored the god Bel, the god of solar light. Thus, Beltane is sometimes literally translated as “bright” or “brilliant fire,” and is supposed to refer to the bonfires lit by a presiding Druid in honor of a proto-Celtic god variously known as Bel, or Belenos. (The actual translation of the word is debatable. Scholars agree that taine or teine means “fire” because the word is used to express fire today in both the Scottish and Irish Gaelic languages. The first syllable, Beal or Bel is not clearly defined. One theory is that the festival is named after the Celtic god Bel, also known as Beli, or Belenus. While the second part of Irish Beltaine and Scottish Bealtuinn dearly means “fire,” from the old Celtic word teine, linguists are uncertain as to whether Bel refers to Belenos, the Gaulish Apollo, or is simply derived from bel, meaning “brilliant.” Another theory says it might even derive from bil tene, or “lucky fire,” because the jump between two Beltaine fires was sure to bring good fortune, health to your livestock, and prosperity. However, most scholars agree that the old Irish “Beletene” means “bright fire.” Therefore, “Beltaine” probably means “fires of Bel.” Beal, the Gaelic word for “shining one” or “brilliant,” gives Beltane the meaning of “brilliant fire.” The Gaelic “Bealtaine” means the month of May.)
In Irish Gaelic the month is known as Bealtaine and the festival as Lá Bealtaine (“day of Bealtaine” or, “May Day”). In Scottish Gaelic the month is known as either an Cèitean or a' Mhàigh and the festival is known as Latha Bealltainn or simply Bealltainn. As an ancient Gaelic festival, Bealtaine was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. There were similar festivals held at the same time in the other Celtic countries of Wales, Brittany, and Cornwall. Due to the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, Bealltainn in Scotland was commonly celebrated on the 15th of May while in Ireland Sean Bhealtain / “Old May” began about the night of the 11th of May. The lighting of bonfires on Oidhche Bhealtaine (“the eve of Bealtaine”) on mountains and hills of ritual and political significance was one of the main activities of the festival. In modern Scottish Gaelic, Latha Buidhe Bealtuinn (“the yellow day of Bealltain”) is used to describe the first day of May. This term Lá Buidhe Bealtaine is also used in Irish and is translated as “Bright May Day.” In Ireland it is referred to in a common folk tale as Luan Lae Bealtaine; the first day of the week (Monday/Luan) is added to emphasize the first day of summer.
However, astrologically speaking, the May 5th date has long been considered a “power point” of the Zodiac and is symbolized by one of the four main symbols of the constellations, Taurus the Bull. Astrologers know these four figures as the symbols of the four fixed signs of the Zodiac (Scorpio, Aquarius Taurus, Leo), and these naturally align with the four “Great Sabbats” of the neopagan religion of Wicca. Some say that wherever one is in the world and whatever tradition one follows this date is still a “power point,” celebrated many places in the Latin world; for example, as Cinco de Mayo, May Day and other holidays.
For the ancient Celts, time was circular rather than linear, and their calendar was both solar and lunar (i.e., lunisolar). This is reflected in their commencing each day, and each festival, at sunset rather than dawn, a custom comparable with that of the Jewish Sabbath. Caesar confirms this by an explanation in his Conquest of Gaul: “The Gauls claim all to be descended from Father Dis (a god of death, darkness, and the underworld), declaring that this is the tradition preserved by the Druids. For this reason, they measure periods of time not by days but by nights; and in celebrating birthdays, the first of the month, and New Year’s day, they go on the principle that the day begins at night.” (Gauls were ancient Celtic tribes of what is now France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, and parts of Northern Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany.)
Thus, traditionally beginning on the night of May 1st (April 30th), Beltane is a mid-Spring festival about rebirth after the cold and dark of winter and the sprouting season of early spring, when plants are coming out of the ground, and young animals are being born. Anticipating the summer, it is a time to celebrate the rebirth of life, growth, love, and sexuality: “the force that drives the green fuse through the flower,” in the words of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Of the four great cross-quarter festivals that turn the Celtic Wheel of the Year, the two greatest of these are said to be Samhain (October 1st) at the beginning of winter, and Beltane (May 1st, or May Day), the beginning of summer. Being opposite each other on the Celtic Wheel of the Year, they separate the year into halves, the dark and light halves. Samhain is recognized by some folklorists as the “Celtic New Year” (since the Celts marked the new year beginning with the dark half of the year and, concomitantly, recognized the new day beginning with the sunset) and is generally considered the more important of the two, though Beltane runs a close second. Indeed, in some areas (notably Wales) it is considered “the great holiday.” According to Celtic folklorists and neopagans, the ancient Celts were attuned to the time cycles of seasonal changes. They believed that Samhain is a good time to become more introspective and plant the seeds of new projects, allowing them to germinate over the winter months. On the other hand, they believed that Beltane is a time to embark on projects requiring courage and energy. It was a time for feasts and fairs, for the exuberant mating of not only the animals but also for people. And, like Samhain, because the veil between the worlds was at its thinnest, it was a time for travel between the worlds, from this world to the “Otherworld” (the realm of the Si or faerie folk). Beltane was also a magical time when the legendary poet Taliesin is said to manifest. Harsh climates throughout Europe and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, compounded by lack of food, supplies, and medicine, provided long and challenging months. Surviving these winter conditions of hardship with one’s life intact in the warmth and renewal of spring was indeed something to celebrate. On the eve of the “fire festival” of Beltane, bonfires were lit throughout the land to invoke protection for the crops and for the purification of farm animals for the coming year.
“. . .
Gotta get through January
Gotta get through February
Gotta get through January
Gotta get through February
Gotta get through January
Spring in my heart
Fire in my belly too
I come apart
I don't know just what to do
Got a heart and a mind
And a fire inside
And I'm crazy about you . . . ”
~ Van Morrison, “Fire In The Belly”