Festival, It's a Belter.

Beltane Day

by Niamh Wood

Beltane day is an ancient fire festival celebrated at the beginning of spring. It is not held according to the modern English or American calendar but by the cycles of nature. Despite this, the festival is most commonly held on May 1st or about halfway between the spring and summer seasons. Beltane is about honoring and rejoicing in all the earth's blessings. There are many different Beltane festivals, traditions, and rituals. They typically revolve around the motives of fire, passion, fertility, and rebirth. Most rituals used are to protect people and animals from harm and involve the 'symbolic use of fire'. Rituals to protect crops and encourage growth are also known to be performed. The Aos Si (often referred to as the spirits or fairies) are thought to be especially active in Beltane and the goal of most of the rituals was to appease them.

The earliest mention of Beltane is in Old Irish literature from Gaelic Ireland. According to early medieval texts, druids would make two bonfires “with great incarnations” and drive cattle between them to protect them from disease. In the modern era, bonfires continue to be a dominant part of the festival. In the 19th century, the ritual of driving cattle between two fires as described in Sanas Cormaic (medieval text) almost 1000 years before, was still practiced across most of Ireland and in parts of Scotland.

In the Isle of Man, people ensured that the smoke blew over themselves and their cattle and when the bonfire had died down, they would smear themselves with its ashes and sprinkle it over their crops and livestock. Burning torches from the fire would also be taken home and carried around the houses and farms. It is clear from these rituals that the fire is alleged to possess protective powers. According to one theory, fire would be used to symbolically ‘burn up and destroy all harmful influences'.

Cooking food is also a ritual used at the bonfire. There is usually a feast featuring lamb. Formerly this lamb was sacrificed but nowadays that is less common. A caudle made from eggs, butter, oatmeal, and milk is also cooked on the bonfire. Some of this mixture is poured on the ground as an offering. Everyone then takes an oatmeal cake called the Beltane Bannack and offers part of it to the spirits in return for protecting their livestock. Another part is fed to the animals that could potentially harm their livestock. After this ritual is complete everyone drinks the caudle.

According to 18th-century writers in parts of Scotland, there was a ritual involving oatmeal cake. The cake would be cut and one of the slices would be marked with charcoal. The slices would then be put into a bowl, and everyone, while blindfolded, would take one out. Whoever got the marked piece would have to leap through the fire three times or those present would pretend to throw them into the fire and for some time afterward would speak of them as if they were dead. It is believed that this is done to embody a memory of an actual human sacrifice.

Another tradition during Beltane is placing white and yellow flowers at doorways and windows. The flowers are also fastened to cows and the equipment used for milking. Such flowers are used to represent radiance, joy, and positivity. The May bush or May Bough is also popular during Beltane. This is a tree, usually a thorn tree, decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, and painted shells. They are sometimes paraded through towns, and it is customary to sing and dance around it. At the end of the festival, the tree is burnt in the bonfire. This ritual is believed to bring luck to the village. In more modern traditions, a young woman from the village will also be crowned and adorned with flowers and wreaths. She is then known as the May Queen.

As a festival, Beltane had died out by the mid-20th century however, it has been restored as a cultural event. Peebles in the Scottish Borders holds a traditional week-long Beltane Fair every year in June and since 1988, a Beltane Fire Festival has been held every year on the night of April 30th on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland.


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