Beltaine, also known as May Day, is one of the eight seasonal celebrations of the Celtic Wheel of the Year.
Divided into quarters and cross-quarters, the Wheel of the Year is based on seasonal on events that were significant to pastoral people, like the Celts. Many customs that originated thousands of years ago are still celebrated today.
Each of the four quarters of the Wheel of the Year align with a solstice or equinox and represent the fullness of a season. They are:
- Yule (winter solstice)
- Ostara (spring equinox)
- Litha (summer solstice)
- Mabon (autumnal equinox)
Each quarter is divided at its mid-, or cross-, point. Cross-quarters occur at the midpoint of the current season (quarter) and signal the arrival of the next. Celebrated as fire festivals, they are:
- Imbolc (February 1) signals the arrival of spring
- Beltaine (May 1) signals the arrival of summer
- Lughnasadh (August 1) signals the arrival of autumn
- Samhain (November 1) signals the arrival of winter
As the midway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, Beltaine celebrates the fertile Earth, new life, and the official start of summer!
Since the word Beltaine comes from Belenus, the Celtic god of fire, and the Old Irish word tene, meaning “fire,” the holiday is irrefutably a fire festival.
Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941), a Scottish a folklorist and early social anthropologist, is probably best known for his seminal book, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. It is a wide-ranging, comparative study of mythology and religion.
According to Frazer, fire rituals were an imitative or sympathetic magic that mimicked the Sun and destroyed harmful influences. Thus, flames, smoke, and ashes were believed to have protective powers.
As a holiday, Beltaine was first mentioned by Cormac mac Cuilennáin (837–908), bishop of Cashel and king of Munster. In his Psalter of Cashel, Cormac described how cattle were driven between two bonfires as a magical means of protecting them from disease before they were led into summer pastures. Other festivities included dances, flowers, and decorating cut green boughs.
Beware the Faeries
The Celts believed that Beltaine and Samhain were two junctures when the veils between the human and otherworld were at their thinnest. This allowed faeries and ancestors to roam freely.
While popular tales now portray faeries as playful, they were dangerous entities to the ancient Celts. The goal of many Beltaine rituals was to appease them.
So, Beltaine is a time to protect yourself, face the sun, and celebrate life.