The ancient Gaelic Celts of Ireland and Scotland moved through each year following a cycle or turning of the wheel of the year. Much like the festive time of Samhain, more commonly known as Halloween today, these special times of year held deep spiritual meanings to the ancient Celtic people.
One of the most important celebrations was that of Beltane, sometimes spelled Beltaine, Bealtaine, or Beltine. Sitting directly opposite the side of the wheel of the year to Samhain, Beltane was a celebration of fertility.
Although this Pagan festival is not celebrated as it once was, it did see a revival in 1988, with modern pagans putting their own spin on this ancient festival and reintroducing its beauty to the spiritual world.
So, what was Beltane? How was it celebrated, and what does Beltane symbolize?
Keep reading to find out.
What Is Beltane A Celebration Of?
Falling on the 1st of May, Beltane celebrates the beginning of summer. For the ancient Celtic people, Beltane was also a time when they believed the veil between the world of humans and the world of the faerie realm was at its thinnest. These ancient communities thought fairies and witch folk would roam the earth freely during Beltane.
The first written mention of this fire festival can be found in a glossary written by Cormac, bishop of Cashel and King of Munster.
Cormac drew inspiration for the word Beltane from the God of fire and the sun, Belenus, and the old Irish Gaelic word for fire, Tene. However, some other historians believe the word Beltaine loosely translates to Bright Fire.
Either way, it is obvious how important fire was during the festivities of Beltane. Pagans would even use fires to welcome back the fertility of the land as the beginning of summer approached and reintroduce their livestock to the grazing summer pastures.
Imagine a winter without modern-day heating like radiators. A winter without the ease of purchasing food from your local food shop.
This is exactly what our ancestors during ancient times had to contend with. Winter was hard, and many people never made it through those dark and fruitless months. So, Beltane marked the beginning of summer and the season of plenty.
How Did The Irish Celebrate Beltane?
Beltane is called the fire festival for a very good reason. Ancient Gaelic Celts believed that fire was both protective and purifying, and Beltane was an important time of the year that good breed success or failure for their crops and livestock for the coming months.
Ancient Irish Pagans
Traditionally, two bonfires would be lit during Beltane celebrations, and through these fires, Pagans would walk their livestock, such as cattle.
This was believed to purify the animals and also increase their fertility. As well as their bonfires, any hearth fires in homes would be extinguished, cleaned and re-lit anew.
However, Beltane was also a time of joy, community, and feasting. The bonfires would become a place of revelry for ancient pagans, where they would dance, sing, and feast with one another. They also thought that these fires would purify and expand their own fertility, not just that of their livestock.
Beltane was a time to celebrate the defeat of the Winter’s darkness and welcome the light and the warmth of the summer sun back onto the land. The ancient Celts would celebrate the fertile energy and female energies of this time of year with Beltane fires, feasts, and parties.
These days, Beltane, also called May Day, is celebrated a little differently. Most modern or Neo-pagans will admit that their Beltane rituals, although a homage to ancient Pagans are nothing more than a modern interpretation of Beltane.
Ancient pagan beliefs and celebrations had ultimately died out not too long after the arrival of Christianity within these communities and it was not until 1988, when the religions of Wicca were established, that modern pagans revived the old Earth-based cultures and used the very little knowledge we still have of these ancient cultures as a basic framework for the Pagan belief system.
Neo-pagans light a Beltane bonfire much like their ancient predecessors but the leading of livestock through these fires is not practised anymore.
Instead, each Pagan community will have their own fertility rituals and feasting traditions to celebrate the coming of the summer.
Many communities will begin their celebrations of this Pagan holiday with a procession, usually headed by a May Queen and/or a Green Man. These fire rituals lead the community to the bonfire where the real fun begins.
Sex is very important in the festivities of the modern-day Beltane fire festival. It became a way of shedding the shame and taboo culture that our society had engulfed this natural means of human connection in.
Many Neo-Pagan communities use this time of the year to reconnect with and reclaim their sexual power and energies.
Along with a Beltane feast, dancing, and each local community coming together, another common May Day tradition is that of the Maypole.
Where women and girls would dance around a pole holding ribbons that have been tied to the very top of the pole. This dance has very choreographed steps which cause the ribbons to be weaved into a beautiful pattern as it extends down the pole.
Some communities that celebrate Beltane will also fill wicker baskets, called May baskets, with spring flowers and goodwill (seasonal foods and goods) and give them to friends, family, the elderly, and those unwell.
What Does Beltane Symbolise?
Beltane symbolizes new life, renewal, purification, fertility, and community. It was one of the most important cycles of the Celtic wheel of the year and ushered in the promise of the warm sun, the abundant growth of food, and the renewal of life from the plants that grow from the ground to the young of their livestock.
It symbolised hope for the coming year but it also symbolized the coming together of communities. It was the strength of these communities, their loyalty and love, that decided whether the community could survive the harshness of our ancient winters.
Beltane was also a celebration of a community making it through another winter and repairing themselves to feel the rejuvenating warmth of the fertile sun.
What Is A Beltane Wedding?
Many couples choose to celebrate Beltane by holding their wedding festivities during the Beltane fire festival. A Beltane wedding can just be a wedding held on the 1st of May or couples can choose to go with a more traditional Beltane wedding.
Unlike our traditional weddings, commonly held in churches and presided over by an officiant, a Beltane wedding uses the Pagan tradition of hand-fasting.
The spiritual connection between love, sex, new life, and the abundant season of summer and many Beltane rituals gives an extra special meaning to a Beltane wedding.
Most Beltane weddings are held outdoors, inviting the richness of nature and the earth-based gods that Neo-pagans celebrate to become one with a couple.
Unlike our traditional processional up the aisle, a traditional Pagan wedding makes this entrance a little more fun. The couple will chase each other around guests and a Beltane bonfire, imitating the pursuit of love. This chase is always joyful, fun, and exciting.
Although some Pagan couples will still exchange rings and say vows, a common Pagan tradition is that of handfasting.
Using a cord, rope, or ribbon, this is tied around the hands of the couple to create an infinity knot. Infinity knots symbolize the endless love and commitment two people dedicated to one another, and this symbol was important to our ancient Celtic ancestors.
Most Beltane weddings will then follow with music – traditional Celtic instruments are always popular. Dancing and singing around a bonfire are always the highlight of a Beltane wedding and the big feast enjoyed by all the weddinggoers.
What Day Is Beltane Festival?
The festival of Beltane celebrates the end of the cold months and the beginning of the fertile months of the warmer and inviting summer season.
In the Northern hemisphere, we celebrate Beltane on the 1st of May, which falls between the Spring equinox and the Summer solstice.
However, those in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate Beltane on the 31st of October. So even though our Beltane customs are pretty universal, the seasons are always the opposite.
However, some modern-day Pagans prefer to celebrate Beltane directly between the equinox and the solstice. This usually falls on the 5th of May in the Northern Hemisphere and the 4th of November in the Southern hemisphere.
What Are The Other Pagan Irish Festivals?
Modern-day pagans celebrate eight Pagan festivals, illustrated in the Wheel of the Year. Although the rituals of these festivals may not be identical to those of our ancient Celtic ancestors, the Celts saw time as cyclical and also celebrated these seasonal changes with similar festivities.
Beltane falls between the festival of Ostara and Litha and below are the other seven cyclical pagan Irish festivals. Although, they are not solely celebrated by Irish Pagans anymore but by Pagans of all nations.
Samhain, pronounced sow-in, is celebrated on the 31st of October and is likely to have been one of the influences that led to the creation of our modern-day Halloween.
Recognized as a time when the veil between the world of humans and the otherworld inhabited by spirits and ghosts was at its thinnest,
Samhain is a celebration of lost loved ones where offerings of their favorite foods would be left for them as they revisited the human realm.
Yule originally celebrated the shortest day of the year, the Winter solstice. A huge bonfire would be lit, containing the yule log, and this time of revelry would celebrate the victory of the Oak king over the Holly king.
Yule was a time to welcome the lengthening of the days and the end of the harshness of winter. Our modern Christmas was inspired by the pagan celebrations of Yule, that fall on the 20th to the 25th of December.
More commonly known as St Brigid’s day now, Imbolc is a Spring festival that celebrates renewal, fertility, and the coming of brighter days.
Falling between the Winter solstice and the Spring equinox on the 1st of February, Imbolc traditionally celebrates the Celtic Goddess Brigid who represented fertility and new life, and was also believed to protect poets and healers.
Drawing its name from the Germanic goddess of Spring and fertility, Eostre, Ostara is the Pagan celebration of easter.
A time of feasts and celebrations involving flowers, eggs, and the Spring-born wild animals, Ostara celebrates the Spring Equinox. Even though Neo-pagans celebrate Ostara from the 20th to the 23rd of March, not much is known about our Ancient Celtic celebrations of Ostara.
Litha festival marks the longest day of the year, the summer solstice. Falling on the 20th to the 22nd of June, Litha is a celebration of the victory of light over darkness.
Modern-day pagans celebrate Litha with bonfires and feasts of fresh fruit and honey cakes. Much like our traditional wedding season, many couples would choose to get married during the Litha celebrations.
Lughnasadh is a Pagan festival that marks the beginning of the harvest season on the 1st of August.
Inspired by the God Lugh, Lughnasadh is celebrated with ritual ceremonies, athletic contests such as horse racing and archery, feasting, matchmaking and even trading between communities.
Falling between the 21st and the 24th of September, the Mabon festival is the celebration of the autumn equinox.
This harvest festival was enjoyed with a huge community-based feast that spelled the end of the abundant season and marked the end of the warm months as they entered into the dark months of the year.
Many Pagans will visit ancient landmarks of great historical meaning, such as Newgrange in County Meath to enjoy this festival on the land our ancestors once celebrated.