Beltane: Fire, Fertility, Faeries (Oh yes, and Cows)
Welcome to Beltane! On the Celtic calendar, this is the start of summer and the return of the light half of the year. It is the time to celebrate the fertility of the land and animals (including humans). Now is the time to sow the seeds for the summer crop that, when harvested in the autumn, will sustain us through the long winter. This is also the time to put the cattle out to pasture. But don’t do that before noon on May Day or the faeries might steal them away! Actually, while the power of the Good Folk is strongest up until noon on this day, you really aren’t safe from faerie mischief until after sunset. Fortunately, folklore provides counter-measures to keep your cattle, your home, and yourself safe. Those safeguards will be discussed but, first, what exactly is Beltane?
Beltane (or Bealtaine) is one of the four cross-quarter fire festivals on the Celtic calendar. It marks the mid-point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. As mentioned above, it also is the start of summer (each cross-quarter day starts a season). The festival is observed from sunset on April 30th until sunset on May 1st. In Irish, bealtaine refers to the entire month of May, and some people view Beltane as the entire period of time from May 1st to August 1st, the start of Lughnasa and autumn. While it is celebrated primarily in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, Wales has a May Day festival as well. It is called Calan Mai and has traditions which are almost parallel to those of Beltane.
In pagan times, a part of the Celtic celebration of this feast included a fertility ritual. Some sources say that this was enacted by a man who represented a king and god and a woman who represented the May Queen. In Celtic mythology, there was a bi-annual battle between the Oak King, who ruled the dark half of the year and the Holly King, who ruled the light half. In one battle, the Oak King defeats the Holly, ushering in darkness and the winter. The Holly comes back later, though, for a second battle and defeats the Oak. Then the light and summer return. Some say the kings were a dual aspect of the horned god Cernunnos or Beil. Others say he was the Green Man (read the wonderful medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to experience him). The Green Man represented rebirth and immortality as he, like the land, was cut down only to spring to life again.
So what has the queen got to do with it? Once the Holly King overthrows the Oak and brings light and warmth back to the world, he and the Queen marry. The consummation of their union fertilizes the land, ensuring an abundant harvest. By the way, some sources say this ritual was a part of the Summer Solstice celebration rather than of Beltane.
Nowadays, of course, the fertility rite is generally done in a PG way or left out altogether. The bonfires, though, which are essential to all Celtic fire festivals, continue to be lit. In fact, on Beltane two fires are lit. This is so cattle can be walked between them in ordered to be purified and protected from disease. Well, actually, that ritual is rarely performed any more but, as I mentioned in the post on the Celtic Tree Sign of the Willow, the importance of cattle in Celtic culture cannot be overstated. Before I mention the other remedies folklore offers for protecting cattle, a final word about the Beltane fire. As at the feast of Samhain, all home fires are put out before the community gathers for the celebration. The communal bonfire is lit and each family takes a bit of it home to light their own hearths anew. This is believed to bring the family blessings and protection throughout the coming year. But woe betide anyone who so much as lights a candle in the house before the hearth is re-lit from the communal flame!
I know you’re anxious to discover how to protect your cattle if you can’t drive them between two bonfires. Here’s the answer: yellow flowers. I can’t say that the flowers will protect the cattle from all harm but Celtic folklore says it will protect them from faerie mischief. According to the lore, faeries really dislike the color yellow. It repels them nearly as much as cold iron is reputed to do. Irish Beltane tradition recommends tying yellow flowers to your cows’ tails before turning them out to pasture (and never before noon, mind!). It also suggests making little bouquets and hanging them over barn doors and pig pens (I never said cows were the only animal important to the Celts).
With all the powerful faeries running loose from sunset to sunset on Beltane, it’d be a good idea to protect your home, your family, and yourself too. To do this, follow the Irish tradition of scattering yellow flowers about the outside of your house (never on the inside) or simply place a bouquet at your doorstep. This is said not only to protect against faerie magic but evil in general. For example, according to the lore, the flowers will prevent a cailleach from entering your home. Cailleachs are old witch-like hags who go from house to house stealing butter and milk. (The nerve of them!)
Naturally, with all the faeries afoot, you should stay indoors after sunset on Beltane Eve and at least until noon on May Day. If you absolutely must go out, be sure to bring a bit of iron with you or tuck a yellow flower or mountain ash leaf in your pocket for protection. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t sleep outside or you may be spirited away to the Otherworld.
One final word of advice: on May Day give some of your milk or butter to your neighbor. Faeries reward good behavior—and punish poor manners. According to traditional Irish belief, if you don’t give a bit of dairy to your neighbor on Beltane, your cows will dry up (no doubt due to faerie justice cursing your stinginess.)
There are so many more traditions and customs for Beltane that I’m saving some of them for next week’s post. So come back to find out about wells, first water, wishing trees, the May bush, Beltane herbs, disturbing the blackthorn tree, and more. Better yet, click on the Sign Up button in the top right of this page and SUBSCRIBE for FREE to the blog. That way, the post will come to you next Friday.--and every week automatically. Of course, you can unsubscribe at any time. Also, if you subscribe, you’ll be able to comment. I’d love to read you as well as you reading me.
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Slan go foil!
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