John Collier’s Queen Quinevere’s maying (1900)
Tonight at sundown begins Beltane (also spelled Beltain, Bealtaine, Bealltainn, Boaltinn, and Boaldyn), a Gaelic holiday marking the beginning of summer (which in the Gaelic calendar takes place at the midpoint between the spring equinox and summer solstice). Historically it was observed throughout the British Isles.
Beltane is mentioned in some of the earliest surviving medieval Irish literature (eg. Sanas Cormaic and Tochmarc Emire). It was one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals along with Imbolc, Samhain, and Lugnasadh. but was, not surprisingly, attacked by intolerant Christians. By the mid-20th century, Beltane observances had almost died out although there have been efforts to revive it.
Beltane observers (image source: Twilight Language)
On Beltane rituals were undertaken to ensure a good year in the fields. This was done with the burning of bonfires through which farm animals would be driven. According to 17th century historian Geoffrey Keating, animal sacrifices were made to the god, Beil, on the hill of Uisneach in Ireland. Additionally, farmers led processions around their fields whilst carrying grains, farm implements, Beltane well water, and vervain or rowan. Rituals were performed along the way at each of the four cardinal points of the compass.
On Beltane household fires were extinguished and re-lit with flames from the Beltane bonfires. Homes and livestock were decorated with May flowers (gorse, hawthorn, hazel, marsh marigold, primrose, rowan, &c).
Many Gaelic decorated a May Bush (a thorn tree decorated with flowers, ribbons, painted shells, &c). Villages competed with one another for the best May Bush and competitive thievery resulted in their being outlawed in the 19th century.
Beltane dew from select wells was used to maintain youth and beauty. Visitors at the wells walked around them, left offerings of coins and clooties, and collected water at dawn.
The supernatural aos sí or sìth (a sort of fairy spirit) were believed to be especially active (see Walpurgis Night) and rituals were also undertaken to lessen their interference. Examples of these rituals include carrying iron or salt in one’s clothes (worn inside out) and leaving offerings at one’s doorstep.
According to Welsh writer Thomas Pennant, in Scotland people cooked a libation made from eggs, butter, oatmeal, and milk on the Beltane bonfire at least as late as 1769. A cake made from the mixture, bannoch Bealltainn (“Beltane cake”), was cut and a piece marked with charcoal. Blindfolded observers would draw pieces from a bonnet and whoever got the marked piece jumped through the bonfire thrice.
If you’re looking for a Beltane-related film to watch, you could certainly do a lot worse than The Wicker Man.
Here’s a Beltane playlist.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.