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Beltane was a Celtic or northwestern European holiday celebrated on the first of May. Although folklorists suspect that the roots of this observance stretch back to ancient times, most of the information we have about the holiday comes from folklore and folk customs recorded over the last several hundred years. With this evidence scholars have concluded that the festival marked the beginning of the summer season and the opening of the more remote pasture lands to grazing animals. In order to bless and protect their animals from harm, people held special fire ceremonies. They kindled fresh flames, built two bonfires, and passed between them. They also drove their herds and flocks between the bonfires. This ritual was thought to purify and protect all who participated in it.

Some snippets of folklore suggest that people also extinguished home fires on this day, which later were relit with freshly kindled flame. In Ireland people once thought it unlucky to lend fire to a neighbor on Beltane. Those who came asking for it were likely to be witches. Folklore also warns that fairies and witches were especially active on Beltane. Indeed, Beltane lies exactly six months apart from Halloween, another occasion associated with heightened contact between the natural and supernatural worlds. Some writers have concluded that the veil between these two worlds was thought to be especially thin at these turning points in the year.

One group of researchers thinks that the word "Beltane" came from an old Gaelic phrase meaning "Bel's fire." Many suppose Bel to be the name of a pagan god. Some commentators suspect that the god might be Baal, the pagan Middle Eastern deity denounced as an idol in the Bible. Others propose that the festival's name refers to the pagan god Belanus, popular in Austria and also known in France and Italy. This interpretation seems less likely, as few references to this god have been found in the ancient and medieval culture of the British Isles. Still another interpretation suggests that the "bel" of Beltane is the common Celtic prefix "bel," meaning bright, fortunate, or lucky. According to this interpretation, the name of the festival means "bright fires" or "lucky fires."

Some writers propose that the new fire ceremony which opens the Easter Vigil may have evolved at least in part from these ancient pagan fire customs (see also Easter Fires). Early Christian missionaries disapproved of these springtime fires, but were unable to convince people to abandon this old practice. According to legend St. Patrick, who set about converting Ireland to Christianity in the fifth century, provided a solution to this problem by adopting the flaming stacks as Easter bonfires. By the ninth century the Easter bonfire had been incorporated into the liturgy of the Western Church, where it is still used to light the paschal candle. Some folklorists think that Beltane was an ancient Celtic observance. Others believe that the festival may have been observed throughout those regions of northwestern Europe in which people depended heavily on flocks and herds of animals that they moved seasonally from lowland to highland grazing grounds. Indeed traces of the fire ceremonies associated with Beltane have been found in English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, German, and Austrian folklore and folk customs connected with the day. In Germanic and Scandinavian lands, the festival survived in a transformed fashion into Christian times, when it became known as Walpurgis Night. People lit bonfires on this night to frighten away witches, who were presumed to be especially active on this evening (see also Easter Witches). Beltane also coincides with May Day, another old folk holiday honoring the arrival of spring.

In recent years contemporary pagans, also referred to as Neopagans or witches, have revived the ancient Beltane holiday. They celebrate it with bonfires, dances, the picking of wildflowers and ceremonies honoring the fertility brought about by the union of male and female principles in nature.

Further Reading

Cooper, J. C. The Dictionary of Festivals. London, England: Thorsons, 1990. Frazer, James George. The New Golden Bough. Theodor H. Gaster, ed. New York: S. G. Phillips, 1959. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

Beltane (Beltine)

Type of Holiday: Ancient, Religious (Neopagan), Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: April 30 or May 1
Where Celebrated: Brittany, Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland, Wales
Symbols and Customs: Beltane Cake, Bonfires, Carline, Tree or Maypole
Related Holidays: Imbolc, Lughnasa, Mabon, May Day, Samhain, Summer Solstice, Winter Solstice, Vernal Equinox


Celtic peoples lived in Ireland, Scotland, England, and northern France from around 500 B . C . E . until around 100 C . E ., when the Romans conquered most of Celtic Europe. Little is definitely known about ancient Celtic religion. The Celts themselves left sparse written accounts. Julius Caesar, who led the Romans into Celtic lands, wrote of his impressions of the people, as did other ancient GrecoRoman writers.

During the 1960s the modern Neopagan and Wiccan movements emerged in Great Britain, the United States, and other English-speaking countries. They follow a nature-oriented religion loosely linked to ancient Celtic and other beliefs and inspired by old European folk practices. They celebrate eight sabbats, known as the eight spokes of the wheel of the year, which include SUMMER SOLSTICE, WINTER SOLSTICE , VERNAL EQUINOX, BELTANE, SAMHAIN, IMBOLC, LUGHNASA , and MABON.

Along with IMBOLC (February 1), LUGHNASA (August 1), and SAMHAIN (November 1), Beltane was one of the four great Celtic festivals-the last to be celebrated before the Celtic year turned full circle back to midsummer and began all over again. It takes its name from the ancient god Bel, also known as Beli, Belin, or Belinus, and possibly associated with the Phoenician or Canaanite word Ba'al, which means "master." Bellus in Latin means "beautiful," and tan means "fire" in Cornish (tine in Irish or Gaelic), so it is not surprising that both the god Bel and the rituals associated with the festival involve fire.

Bel was the young sun god, counterpart of the older god Bran. His festival was the focal point of the second half of the Celtic year, just as the most important festival in the first half of the year was Lughnasa (Bran and Lugh were gods of the same type). Since the Celts believed that each day began with the setting of the sun the night before, Beltane was celebrated by lighting BONFIRES on the night of April 30 to honor the sun god. The fires were used for both purification and fertility rites, and a number of superstitions were attached to both flames and ashes.

Beltane is believed to be a survival of an even more ancient pastoral festival that accompanied the first turning of the herds out to wild pasture. It was a time of year when witches and fairies were said to be out in great numbers, and in Ireland it was said that whoever was foolish enough to join a fairy dance on Beltane Eve would not be set free until the following May 1. Beltane is still observed in Ireland, the Scottish highlands, Wales, Brittany, and the Isle of Man. In the United States, many of the customs originally associated with Beltane have survived in the modern observance of MAY DAY-including the making of flower garlands and dancing around a decorated MAYPOLE .


Beltane Cake

A large oatmeal or barley cake called the Beltane cake was typically served at village feasts on Beltane. The person in charge of the feast would divide the cake and Beltane

give everyone a piece. One particular piece was called the Beltane CARLINE , and whoever got it was threatened with being thrown into the BONFIRE or subjected to various mock tortures.

Sometimes the CARLINE piece was daubed with charcoal from the bonfire until it was completely black. Then all the pieces of cake were put in a bonnet, and everyone had to draw out their portion while wearing a blindfold. Whoever drew the black piece had to endure a mock sacrifice to Baal, whose good will was essential to a productive harvest. Instead of being thrown on the fire, the person would be allowed to leap three times through the flames.

In some areas of Scotland, oatmeal cakes were rolled down a hillside around noon on the first day of May. The superstition was that the person whose cake broke before reaching the bottom would die or have bad luck before the year was out. There is also some evidence that in rural areas, these Beltane cakes were kept for an entire year as a charm against spells that would ruin the cows' milk.


In ancient times, the bonfires that were lit with great ceremony on the night of April 30 in the central highlands of Scotland were often accompanied by human sacrifices, which is perhaps why Beltane fires were called "bone-fires." Eventually the human victims were spared, but people still regarded the fires as possessing magical powers. Since contact with the fire was symbolic of contact with the lifegiving sun, people would leap through the flames to forestall bad luck and to cure barrenness. On the Isle of Man, branches or twigs from the rowan tree were carried three times around the fire in the direction of the sun (i.e., turning to the right) and then taken home to protect the family and animals from evil. Even today in Ireland the rowan branch is often hung over the hearth as a good-luck charm.

The Beltane fires were also associated with purification. Farmers would drive their livestock between two fires-a practice that required a good deal of prodding and prompting from the entire community-to purge them of disease as they emerged from the rigors of winter. Then they would be taken out to new pastures, often on higher ground, where they would have access to nutritious spring grasses. The custom of driving cattle through or between fires on MAY DAY or the evening before persisted in Ireland until fairly recent times. The Irish expression idir dá teine lae Bealtaine ('between two Beltane fires") can be loosely translated as "in a dilemma."

According to Welsh folklore, the bonfires that are lit in early May protected the fields from witchcraft so that good crops would follow. Even the ashes from the fire were considered a valuable charm against bad luck, infertility, and disease. It was common at one time to cut a trench in the turf, forming a kind of bench for spectators, and then build a pile of wood or other fuel in the center. The fire would be lit with an elaborate and primitive system for producing sparks by friction, as evidenced by the Irish term teine éigin (fire from rubbing sticks), which is used to refer to the Beltane bonfire. Sometimes the villagers would sit around this table of turf eating custard and oatmeal cakes (see BELTANE CAKE ) that had been toasted in the fire's embers.


The term carline refers to a hag or old woman. It was applied to the person who, after getting the blackened piece of the BELTANE CAKE , was routinely subjected to various mock tortures-including being nearly thrown in the BONFIRE or stretched out flat on the ground and "quartered." Once the carline had been through these torments, the rest of the villagers treated him as someone who was already dead. This treatment continued, not just for the duration of the celebration but for an entire year.

The whole idea of the Beltane carline probably goes back to ancient times, when human sacrifices were made on Beltane. The victim back then was usually a woman, perhaps indicating that the custom was part of a primitive female fertility cult.

Tree or Maypole

The idea of a central tree or pole at the axis of the cosmos is actually a very ancient one that can be found in many cultures. The custom of dancing around a decorated maypole may have been Celtic in origin and is believed to have been a part of the original Beltane celebration. It was obviously intended as a phallic symbol, as seen in the various fertility rituals involving young people and farm animals that were part of the festival (see BONFIRES ). When the maypole came to America as part of the celebration of MAY DAY, however, its phallic associations so upset the Puritan authorities that they tried to outlaw the custom.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2002. Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1993. Beltane

Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991. King, John. The Celtic Druids' Year: Seasonal Cycles of the Ancient Celts. London: Blandford, 1995. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.


Beltane Fire Society
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The origin of the name is in some doubt. Cormac, archbishop of Cashel, in 908 CE, suggested it was a combination of the name of the god Bel (Baal or Bil) with the Celtic word teine, meaning fire. It is spelled variously Beltane, Beltene, Beltine, Beal-Tene, or Bealltain. Also known as Walpurgisnacht, Rood Day, Rudemas, and May Day, this is one of the eight Greater Sabbats of Witchcraft.

In early times, the year was roughly divided into two halves: the summer months, when it was possible to grow crops, and the winter months, when it was necessary to resort to hunting for food. The fertility goddess was predominant in the former and the horned god in the latter. The seasons changed at Beltane (May Eve) and Samhain (November Eve), which remain the two greatest of the Wiccan festivals.

Beltane was certainly the beginning of summer for the Celts. It was the second of their four festivals (after Imbolc, on February Eve), and a time to placate the god Belenos. This was done with gifts, rituals, and with offerings of cakes and severed heads, which the Celts believed could plead with the god for the living. Cattle were driven through the purifying smoke of ritual balefires of oak and green yew for health and fecundity. The festival was associated with fertility, for both animals and crops.

Bel was "the bright one," with Sun-like qualities, although not actually a Sun god, according to the Farrars (who mention that in Ireland no one could light a Beltane fire until the first one had been lit, on Tara Hill, by the High King). Choral dances were performed by the Druids, honoring the Sun. The fire had to be started with friction, rubbing two sticks together, or by striking flint. The Irish sometimes refer to the Beltane fire as teine éigin, meaning "fire from rubbing sticks."

Jumping over the balefire was one of the traditions of Beltane and, indeed, of most of the main festivals. Individuals would leap across the flames to ensure fertility and good health, and as a spiritual cleansing for protection in the coming year. Couples would take hands and leap together, believing that in so doing their marriages would be sealed in health and happiness. Cattle and sheep would be driven between two fires, or through the ashes of one.

The central theme of Beltane seems to have been sexuality and fertility. It was, in the early days of Witchcraft, very much a time for ritual coupling. On the festival eve, men and women would go out to search for flowers and green boughs, often staying out overnight. Phillip Stubbes, the Puritan, commented in Anatomie of Abuses (1583): "I have heard it credibly reported by men of great gravitie, credite and reputation that of fourtie, three score or a hundred maides goying to the woode ouer night, there have scarcely the third pare of them returned home againe undefiled." The people's view is aptly summed up in Rudyard Kipling's words, adopted by modern Wiccans as their "May Eve Chant," and sometimes sung as they danced around the Maypole: Oh, do not tell the priests of our rites For they would call it sin; But we will be in the woods all night A-conjurin' Summer in!

On the first day of May the Romans would pay homage to their Lares, or household gods. Homage was also paid to Maia, daughter of Atlas and one of the Pleiades. By Zeus, Maia became mother of Hermes. She gave her name to the month of May.

The Druids Calendar urges you to "drink from a well before sunrise. Wash in the morning dew, and adorn yourselves with greenery. . . watch the sun come up, dance round the Maypole, and otherwise abandon yourself to the season. A woodland frolic culminating in indiscretion is the order of the day." Washing in the early morning dew was a popular Beltane practice, and was believed to make the bather more beautiful. Samuel Pepys, in his famous diary, refers to this practice. Many Witches also gather the dew, to use in potions and spells.

The hawthorn was associated with Beltane. Graves comments that "its later orgiastic use. . . corresponds with the cult of the Goddess Flora, and. . . accounts for the English medieval habit of riding out on May morning to pluck hawthorn boughs and dance round the maypole. Hawthorn blossom has, for many men, a strong scent of female sexuality."

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


May 1
Beltane (also spelled Beltine or Beltein ) is the Celtic name for the first day of May ( see May Day), which divided the ancient Celtic year in half. It was believed that each day began with the setting of the sun the night before, so Beltane was celebrated by lighting bonfires to honor the sun god. Cattle were driven through the "Beltane fire"—or between two fires—to protect them from disease before putting them out to pasture for the new season. Sometimes people followed the same ritual to forestall bad luck and to cure barrenness. Contact with the fire was symbolic of contact with the life-giving sun.
Along with Lammas (August 1), Hallowmas ( All Saints' Day, November 1), and Candlemas (February 2), Beltane was one of the British Quarter Days, or term days, when rents were due and debts were settled. The day is still observed in parts of Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, Wales, Brittany, and the Isle of Man, with most of the celebrations revolving around fire and reflecting ancient fertility rites.
See also Midsummer Day
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 334
BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 571
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 135, 181, 203, 304, 789
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 104
OxYear-1999, pp. 190, 205
RelHolCal-2004, p. 272
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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