Sunday, May 01, 2011

Beannaithe Bealtaine! Go n-éirí libh!

Hi, everyone!  Happy May Day!

I thought it would be interesting to tell you about Bealtaine, the traditional Irish celebration of the start of summer.  A pagan tradition, it has deep roots in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man.  Like Samhain, it has been misinterpreted as witchcraft or of Satanic origin, which of course is complete nonsense, and only goes to show that people make up stuff about the things they cannot understand or about which they haven’t bothered to ask.

In Irish Gaelic, the month of May is known as Mí Bhealtaine or Bealtain. The dawn festival is known as Lá Bealtaine (‘May Day'). In Scottish Gaelic, May  is (An) Cèitean or a' Mhàigh, and the festival is known as Latha Bealltainn or simply Bealltainn. Beltane was formerly spelled 'Bealtuinn' in Scottish Gaelic; in Manx it is spelt 'Boaltinn' or 'Boaldyn'. In Modern Irish/Gaelic, Oidhche Bealtaine or Oíche Bealtaine is May Eve, and Lá Bealtaine is May Day. Mí na Bealtaine, or simply Bealtaine,  is the name of the month of May.

Whew! I’ll wait a moment for those of you who tried pronouncing those to unsnarl your tongues.

 Bealtaine Fire Festival on Calton Hill, Edinburgh.

In Neopaganism, Bealtaine is considered a “cross-quarter” day, which marks the midpoint of the sun’s journey between spring equinox and the summer solstice.  The astronomical date for this midpoint is around May 5-7, but it varies from year to year.  It’s a time when planting begins amid great celebration and a sense of hope for a good crop that will feed the village for the coming winter in the latter half of the year. Beltane was also the beginning of the pastoral summer season, when herds of livestock were driven out to summer pastures and mountain grazing lands.

In Irish mythology, the beginning of summer for the Tuatha De Danann  and the Milesians began at Bealtaine.  Huge bonfires marked a time of purification and transition and augured in the second half of the year in the hope of good harvest later.  This was accompanied by ritual ceremonies that protected people from harm by the spirits, such as the Aos Si. The festival of Samhain, opposite Bealtainne on October 31—Halloween—was also a time when spirits were seen as particularly close at hand to the living world.

 This is not a spirit. It is a reasonable facsimile.

As for Wiccans, they and Wiccan-inspired Neopagans celebrate a variation of Beltane as a Sabbat, one of the eight solar holidays. Although the holiday may use features of the Gaelic Bealtaine, such as the bonfire, it has more ties to the Germanic May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing). Some Wiccans celebrate "High Beltaine" by enacting a ritual union of the May Lord and May Lady.


Now, I’ve said before that we Irish and of Irish extraction need little excuse for a party, but when we actually have an excuse, we go all-out.  Today, all over Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man and parts of Wales, there will be massive fires, dancing, scantily clad men and women, and much body paint.  There will also be singing, dancing, eating and drinking as the children of the Celts honor their ancestors with a shout of joy for the inauguration of a new season.

The long winter is over.  Summer is begun. Slainte.  

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