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Celtic Well> E-Journal> Beltane

Gorgon from Aquae SulisThe Deities and Myths of Bealtaine

(Left, while this artifact from Aquae Sulis was first identified as a male version of a gorgon, some scholars think it may be the image of a solar deity similar to Bel.)

By Francine Nicholson

Bealtaine (pronounced BAWL-tuh-nuh) was the ancient Celtic feast most obviously associated with the sun. Literally, Bealtaine meant "bright fire," although medieval Irish glossators associated it with the god, Bel, who was probably a version of the ancient Celtic god of fire and light, Belenos.

Belenos: the Shining One

Belenos meant "bright, brilliant" or "shining," a fitting name for a solar god. This solar being was known throughout the Celtic areas of western Europe under several different names: Belenos, Belenus, Bel. At least 31 inscriptions citing Belenos or Apollo Belenos (as he was sometimes known in Roman-dominated areas) have been found by archaeologists, more citations than almost any other Celtic deity. His name, nature, and function are testified to by classical commentators and the imagery of sculpture and votive offerings associated with Belenos.

In Roman-dominated areas on the Continent and the island of Britain, he was associated with Apollo. One count of inscriptions inventoried by archaeologists noted that there were more dedications to Belenos than almost any Celtic other deity on the Continent. In some areas, he was a healing deity; in others, he was the protector of the town. In Ireland, only his name survives in the name of the summer feast, but we can assume that he was considered a protector of health and happiness and promoter of fertility.

Tertullian said that Belenus was the patron of the province of Noricum in the Alps (part of modern Austria). (Maier, 34).

Herodianos wrote that Belenus was the patron protector of Aquileia in northern Italy. (Green, Dicitonary, 30-31) In his account, Herodianos said that in 238BCE, when the emperor Maximinus besieged Aquileia, oracles circulated asserting that Belenus would protect the town. Several histories of the battle contain the testimony of soldiers of Maximinus saying that they saw an image of the god over the city, intervening during the battle. (Maier, 34)

Although Aquileia has been the site of most of the Italian inscriptions to Belenus, others have been found at Iulium Carnicum, Concordia, Altinum, Rome, and Rimini. (Green, Dicty, 31; MacKillop, 34; Maier, 34)

Ausonius, a poet writing in the late fourth century CE referred to sanctuaries of Belenus at Bordeaux.

Other Gaulish inscriptions to Belenus were found in Aquitaine, Provence, Burgundy, and other places. The inscriptions were found on sculptures and votive objects dedicated to Belenus, especially at healing shrines. An unusual find was a carved gem recovered at Nîmes; the gem bore an inscription to Belenus and an image of an old man wearing a tunic with solar symbols (Green, Dicty, 31).

The Romano-Celtic healing shrine at Sainte-Sabine in Burgundy was dedicated to Apollo Belenus. A frequent practice at such healing shrines was to leave objects dedicated to the god. Sometimes these objects depicted the body part to be healed; other times, they symbolized the deity being addressed. In either case, the object was often regarded as "payment" for the favor being sought. At Saint-Sabine, stone carvings of infants in swaddling clothes or small beds have been found, along with clay figurines of horses. Scholars assume that pilgrims sought blessings and cures for the infants represented by the sculptures. The horses, solar symbols, probably symbolized Belenos himself. (Green, Gods, 152)

At Bourbon-les-Bains in northeast France, the healing waters were also associated with Belenos. The former name of Bérenton (Belenton) in Brittany may indicate a one-time connection with Belenos.

On the Continent, Belenus was associated with all the functions the Celts expected of solar gods: protection, fertility, healing, regeneration after death. In places like Aquileia, the deity’s protective aspects were emphasized, while in other spots, his healing aspects were the focus. Although his name often appeared alone, it was linked with Apollo who could be hunter, warrior, and musician as well as healer.

The name Bellinus appears in British evidence. Also, a Celtic god named Belatucadros who was venerated in what is now northern England may be a local variation of Belenos. In the 25 inscriptions found so far, Belatucadros is chiefly a tribal protector, as Belenus was at Aquileia. However, in Britain, was sometimes equated with Mars (Ross, 202-3, 214) whereas Belenus was associated with Apollo on the Continent, except where his name was used alone.

In Ireland, Belenos survives only in the name of the holiday and possibly in placenames like Beltany Ring (Donegal) where a stone head was found.

Other solar beings may also have been associated with Bealtaine. In Ireland, the figure of Fionn mac Cumhaill has definite solar associations. Figures often known collectively as the "young god" are found in myths associated with Bealtaine. Examples of the young god were Maponos in Gaul, Mabon in Britain, and the Irish Aengus mac ind Oc who was said to have been conceived and delivered on a single, lengthened day. This imagery suggests an association with Bealtaine, although it is not stated explicitly in the story of his birth.

A wide range of stories are depicted as occurring at Bealtaine.

Mide and the Fire at Uisneach

Traditionally, Ireland had two ritual centers, although it’s impossible to be sure how widely their supremacy was acknowledged. Tara was associated with kingship and the feast of Samhain, the beginning of winter. Uisneach, not far from Tara, was associated with Bealtaine and religious assemblies. In the Leabhar Gabala, Mide was said to have been the chief druid of the Memedians, a people who invaded Ireland on Bealtaine. Mide immediately went to Uisneach and built a fire that blazed for seven years, according to the story. When the druids already there protested, Mide cut out their tongues and buried them under the hill at Uisneach.

In later traditions, faggots from the fire at Uisneach were distributed at Bealtaine to re-light individual hearths.

In Celtic countries, building a fire was a way to establish ownership of a site well into the modern period. For example, if a squatter could build a house in one night and have smoke rising from the chimney by dawn, the house and site was theirs. Numerous saints were depicted laying claim to sites by building fires (Rees & Rees, 156-7). Perhaps from these traditions comes the custom of beginning tenancy at Bealtaine.

Lovers & Fighters

Many of stories depicted as occurring at Bealtaine involve forms of the "young god."

Often the young god was depicted as attempting to woo or capture a wife. In Welsh stories, Gwenhwyvar was captured by Melwas while she was out in the woods "a-maying." In some cases, two deity figures are depicted battling for the woman. Creiddylad was betrothed to Gwythyr ap Greidawl, but before they come together, she was stolen by Gwyn ap Nudd. Thereafter, the two men met annually to engage in single combat for the hand of Creiddylad. These mythic motifs were perpetuated by mock battles in which a figure representing winter battled one representing summer.

In an Irish story, spurred on by Mebh of Cruachan’s jealousy, Conall Cernach killed her husband Ailill while the latter was consorting with a woman behind a hazel-bush on Bealtaine.

In the medieval Irish pseudo-history called the Leabhar Gabala or "Book of Invasions," medieval scribes recorded stories of successive waves of people into Ireland. Today, the historicity of these accounts and their details is considered negligible, but the stories and their details tell us about the traditions and attitudes of the medieval Irish. Interestingly enough, three of the invasions are said to have taken place on Bealtaine, reinforcing the impression that Bealtaine was the time for new undertakings.

Hunting seasons re-opened around Bealtaine. Also, Bealtaine coincided with the part of the year when military activity—riding and hosting—resumed after the pause for winter. During the winter, professional troops—such as the fénnidi—were dispersed and quartered among a chieftain’s dependents. At Bealtaine, these troops were re-assembled, often living in the woods and hunting for their food. Also, once the crops were sowed, chieftains felt freer to call on their clients for the military service that was part of what a client owed his lord. So Bealtaine would be an appropriate time for an invasions to occur, by medieval Irish standards.

Folklore: Traces of Ritual Drama

In parts of Celtic countries, there were traditions of processions which, doubtless, were originally held in honor of the festival’s leading deity. There are a few consistent characteristics. In each, there is at least one man dressed in women’s clothes or in a mixture of men and women’s clothes. Sometimes, there are two men, both fantastically dressed, but one is designated a man and the other his wife. In earlier times, as many as thousands of people dressed in their best and decorated with ribbons would gather to escort the couple through the streets. In some places, a butter church dash and a pitchfork would be wrapped in straw and dressed to resemble a man and woman. One account speaks of the procession being followed by a "rustic comedy" in which the principal figures played a man and a wife being tempted to leave him and elope with another man. These folk remains make us wonder whether the myths associated with Bealtaine—the elopements and kidnappings—were once enacted dramatically as part of the feast celebrations.

Light Fighting the Dark

Confrontations with monsters—the dark powers seeking to overcome the light—also occurred at Bealtaine in the myths. In the Mabinogi, a fearsome claw stole a marvelous foal each Bealtaine. When Teyrnon hacked off the claw after keeping watch at night, the missing newborn baby Pryderi suddenly appeared, almost as if this sun-related figure had been rescued from the dark. Eventually, the baby was restored to his parents. Reminiscent of this is a short story called "Lludd and Llefelys" in which a terrifying scream was heard each May Eve. The scream turned the land barren: trees, animals, earth, and waters. The scream was uttered by one dragon during an annual battle with another dragon.

Fionn: Sun God Turned Outlaw Folk Hero

Fionn Mac Cumhaill is one of the most popular figures in Irish mythology and the folklore of Ireland and Scotland, past and present. In the stories, Fionn appeared as a skilled warrior, heroic leader of a band of champions called fénnidi who lived as hunters and adventurers in the forests and borderlands. Their adventures led them all over Ireland and Scotland, and frequently they crossed the unseen borders into the Otherworld. Also, Fionn and many of the fénnidi were skilled poets and seers. Fionn, above all, had gifts and techniques that enabled him to obtain the knowledge of the Otherworld.

Although Fionn was presented in the stories as a human with superhuman skills, talents, and attributes, he bore many of the marks of a solar god. He was depicted as most active during the summer. His banner bore solar insignia. His name meant "bright" or "shining white." In the story of Diarmuid and Grainne, Fionn had the power to heal, though he chose not to use it. As a forest dweller, Fionn was identified with fertility concerns. His nearest relatives—wife, son—appeared in deer form and Fionn himself could assume stag shape; this recalls the association between stags and solar symbols in the earliest Celtic carvings. (Green, Sun-Gods) It’s worth recalling that Celtic hunting deities were protectors of wild animals, but, when properly propitiated, they allowed and assisted humans in hunting. Therefore, a divine forest protector would assume the shapes of the protected animal, protect the animals, and know best how to hunt them. Fionn and the fénnidi also often engaged in hunting boar, another sacred animal with solar connotations.

Fionn also single-handedly fought and defeated Ailenn, a monster of darkness that annually attacked Tara. In a perverse use of sleep-spell music, Ailenn would lull everyone gathered at Tara to celebrate Samhain until they were sound asleep. Then the monster would incinerate everything with a fiery breath. This occurred each year until Fionn eluded the sleep-spell and, with his spear (the classic weapon of a solar god), killed Ailenn at the entrance to the sidhe. The story showed the two sides of fire: its heat and light could be used constructively to provide food and warmth and help people survive, but it could also be sued to destroy the structures and order of human civilization. As in the Welsh stories of monsters being defeated at Bealtaine, Fionn the warrior of light destroyed the force of darkness threatening the center of kingship and social order. (Nagy, 186ff.) Perhaps, the story of Fionn and Ailenn was originally associated with Bealtaine, when one would expect a story of light dispelling dark and restoring order at a time when the power of the sidhe was very strong. On the other hand, the story also fits into the time of Samhain, during the chaos of the year’s end when Ailenn brought a death-like—and winter-like—sleep and fire’s destructive power, but Fionn, with his spear like the sun’s rays, restored order. Indeed, the story had resonances for both Bealtaine and Samhain, the two halves of the year, when light and dark met.

Sources/For Further Reading

Note: Although some of the books listed below are out of print, they are well worth pursuing through interlibrary loan or your favorite source for used and out-of-print books.

Kevin Danaher, The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs, Irish Books & Media: 1972; ISBN: 0937702137

Miranda Green, Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Thames and Hudson: 1992

Miranda Green, The Sun-Gods of Ancient Europe, Hippocrene Books: 1991

Miranda Green, Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art, Routledge: 1994 ; ISBN: 0415080762

James Mac Killop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford Univ Pr: 1998; ISBN: 0198691572

Máire Mac Neill, Festival at Lughnasa, Oxford Univ. Press, 1962

Bernhard Maier, Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture, Boydell & Brewer: 1998; ISBN: 0851156606

J.F. Nagy, Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in Gaelic Narrative Tradition, Berkeley. U of California Press, 1985

Séamas O Catháin, The Festival of Brigit, DBA Publications, 1995; ISBN 0951969226

Nerys Paterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen, Univ. Notre Dame Press, 1994; ISBN: 0268008000

Alwyn & Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage, Thames & Hudson: 1989; ISBN: 0500270392

Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: studies in iconography and tradition, Academy Chicago Publishers , 1996; ISBN: 0897334353

Marie-Louise Sjoestedt ; translated by Myles Dillon, Gods and heroes of the Celts, Berkeley, Calif. :Turtle Island Foundation: 1982; ISBN: 091366652

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