Beltane: The Magical Start to a Celtic Summer
Happy Summer! I know it may not feel like it for some people. The northern U.S. has had snow during the past week and today high temperatures in the northeast are in the 40s and 50s (Fahrenheit). Now, where I live (South Florida), temps have been near 90 lately, so it feels like summer to me. Officially, in the northern hemisphere, the first day of summer, 2023 will be June 21st. So, you may think I’m just goofy saying “Happy Summer,” but I’m not (well, not entirely).
On the Celtic calendar, this past Monday, May 1st, was Beltane, one of the four Celtic fire festivals. Each of the four marks the start of a season, and Beltane celebrates the first day of summer. It also marks the start of the light half of the year (the dark half began on Samhain, November 1st). Today’s post looks at the themes, folk customs, and magic associated with this joyous festival.
Brigid, the beautiful goddess of fire and summer, is strongly associated with Beltane. And she should be. After all, according to Celtic folklore, the young but powerful goddess has brought summer about. Each year, she defeats the Cailleach, the old hag goddess of winter, and returns light and warmth to the world. Light and warmth are major themes of this fire festival—and season, as Beltane is not necessarily restricted to one day. Bealtaine is the Irish language word for May. Many people also consider the entire time period of May 1st to August 1st (the fire festival of Lughnasa which marks the beginning of autumn) as the season of Beltane.
Things associated with youthfulness are also themes for this season. If the four fire festivals are looked at as stages of life, Samhain is both the beginning and the end, the bridge between death and new life, Imolc (the start of spring) is childhood, and Lughnasa is maturity and /or old age. Beltane is adolescence and young adulthood and is symbolically characteristic of that season of life. So, themes for Beltane include energy, enthusiasm, potential, growth, passion, and fertility. This time of year is the time to live life to its fullest! It is a time of joy, hope, and possibilities. All is golden.
Fire and Water
Although fire and water seem to be opposites, until recently these two essential elements were part of important Beltane rituals. Traditionally, bonfires are lit on each fire festival, but on Beltane, two fires are lit. Cattle are then driven between them as a means of purification from harm and disease. Cattle have always been of high value in Celtic culture, so much so that, in ancient times, they were used to pay fines (click here for my post “That Will Be Two and a Half Cows Please”). In the famous Irish story, Táin Bó Cúailnge (“The Cattle Raid of Cooley”), a war is started as a result of a stolen bull.
First Water is another important Beltane folk custom. The Celts believed that the first water drawn from a well on May Day morning contained powerful magic. It could grant the drinker health and good luck in the coming year. Some of the water drawn was set aside for use throughout the year, for blessing livestock to protect them from disease and to anoint sick family members so they would be restored to health. The magic contained in first water was thought to be so powerful that farmers would stay up all night—armed—guarding their wells. This wasn’t simple possessiveness. This is my water and you can’t have it! The water’s magic was so strong that one could be in danger if it fell into the hands of a stranger or an enemy. And then there was faerie mischief to worry about, too. Sadly, the practice of these folk customs declined steadily in the twentieth century and they have almost disappeared now.
The Faeries are Out!
A major concern of Beltane is faerie mischief. The Good People are out and about in abundance on the festival day. Why is that a problem? Because Celtic faeries are powerful, capricious, and getting on their bad side can have dangerous consequences. Fortunately, there are ways to protect your family, home, property, livestock, and yourself. On Beltane, the color yellow is your friend. Use it! Faeries, according to the lore, despise the color. It repels them. Even more, it’s akin to faerie kryptonite. To protect your home and property, scatter yellow flowers across your yard and across thresholds. Hang some in front of your barn door to protect your animals. And, if you need to go out on Beltane (which, by the way, don’t!), tuck a yellow flower in your pocket. Before letting your cattle out to pasture, tie a yellow ribbon on each cow’s tail to keep the faeries from stealing them.
You can appease the faeries to prevent them from cursing you by leaving some dairy on your doorstep for them. If you do this, you may even win a blessing from them. No small thing. Faeries can bless you with lifelong good luck. It’s a good idea as well to give some dairy to your neighbor. This will please the Good People. Also, if you neglect to do this, they may curse your stinginess by causing all your cows to dry up!
Speaking of dairy and yellow flowers, another danger on Beltane is the cailleach. Notice I didn’t capitalize the word this time as I did earlier. There is the Cailleach who is the goddess of winter, but there also are the cailleach who are hag-like witches. They wander about on Beltane, going into people’s houses and stealing dairy. They also go into barns and do magical mischief to cattle. Thankfully, the same yellow flowers scattered across your yard to prevent trouble from the faeries will protect your household from the cailleach too. It’s nice how that works out.
To be extra cautious, you also can burn some rowan wood in the fireplace on May Day morning. This is said to protect against the evil plans of witches. Also, you can place rowan flowers on your windowsills and doorsteps. This, according to folklore, will keep evil spirits from entering your house.
Know Your Celtic Days
As I mentioned above, you really should avoid going out on Beltane. It’s dangerous what with all those faeries and cailleachs and who knows who else running wild. If you really must go out, remember to guard yourself with a yellow flower. A leaf from a mountain ash or a bit of iron offers protection as well. Just absolutely don’t fall asleep outdoors on Beltane or you risk being carried off by the Faeries.
To ensure your safety, you need to know that Celtic days don’t start in the morning. They begin at sunset the day before. So, be aware that Beltane starts at sundown on April 30th.
Faeries et al aren’t the only reason going out on Beltane is risky. Folklore says that illnesses and injuries acquired on that day are particularly difficult to cure. Thankfully, first butter (butter made from the first milk given by a cow on the festival day) can be used to make a salve that is especially effective at healing wounds and cuts. Beltane is also the best day for picking medicinal herbs. They are said to be full of magical energy and at the height of their potency.
Wishing Trees and Holy Wells
A traditional part of the celebration of Beltane—and one that continues to this day—is the visiting of holy wells and decorating wishing trees. Conveniently, the two are usually found together. Related to the idea of First Water, the water in holy wells is believed to have powerful magical healing properties. On Beltane, people make pilgrimages to these wells, decorate them with flowers, take a little water from the well, and leave a small offering, usually coins or flowers. The water can be drunk to help either improve your health or ensure good health in the year to come. Most often, people take a small container of the water home with them to use throughout the year for blessing the sick and for general protection.
People also tie ribbons or strips of cloth to the branches of hawthorn trees. Hawthorns are considered faerie trees and portals to the Otherworld. Ordinarily, messing with a hawthorn is inviting trouble from the Good Folk, but on Beltane, they seem to be tolerant of this human folk practice. Each ribbon tied to the tree represents a person’s wish for health, safety, love, and so forth, in the hope that the faeries will grant the wish. Should you partake in this custom, remember two things. First, always be respectful of the tree and, once you’ve attached your ribbon, thank the tree’s guardian—sincerely and courteously. Faeries are sticklers about courtesy.
The second thing is to be sure you put your ribbon on a hawthorn, not a blackthorn tree. Blackthorns are guarded by moon faeries who are highly protective of their trees and hostile to humans in the best of times. But they are particularly ferocious towards humans who disturb their trees at Samhain or on Beltane.
Even though the feast day of Beltane has passed for this year, keep in mind that the season continues until Lughnasa (August 1st). It’s too late to get yourself some first butter or first water, but you can rejoice and tap into the spirit and energy of this season. Passion and fertility are about more than romance and procreation. This is a time for throwing yourself into projects and pursuing dreams. Be creative and fruitful. It’s a time for hope and enthusiasm. And it’s a time for joy. Bask in the warmth of life and love that is Beltane.
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Slan go foil!
*All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) was done by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.