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Gaelic Bealtaine: Bright Fires, Golden Posies, and Sparkling Waters
(Left, the leaf of the mountain ash or rowan tree which along with primroses and buttercps were often hung across the outside door and window sills at Bealtaine.)
By Francine Nicholson
The most probable etymology for Bealtaine, the Celtic beginning of summer, means bright fire. The evidence from Ireland, the Highlands and Islands, and the Isle of Man suggest that fire and water and symbols related to them played leading roles in the rites used to celebrate the feast. Immigrants from Ireland settled both the Highlands of what became Scotland and the Isle of Man. Therefore, we would expect that the customs would be similar in all three areas. There are also distinct differences.
Lighting a fire established ones title to a site. As Henry Glassie notes, it was the pulse of the home, its heartbeat, "eternal. Each. . .is built round the coals of the old one. . ." The fire must be kept up at all times:
"A turf fire demands constant attention. It cannot be started then left, for it falls apart easily and fills and clogs with ash. Again and again it must be tonged into order, swept clean, rebuilt. The fire sets a constant task and becomes the kitchens metronome." (Glassie, p. 356)
Before retiring each evening, the female head of household banked the fire and smoored the ashes, all the time reciting one of the many smooring blessings and using a stick to create small marks in the ashes. Directions in the house were measured in relation to the hearth as center.
"You are going down when the hearths open mouth is behind you, and up when it is toward you, and you go up toward the back wall, down toward the door through the front wall. Beyond the home you go down to the north and east and up to the south and west. Like a swirling swastika, space spins, its four directions extend, then curve, spiraling down or up, merging to embrace half the world, returning, turning through the house to center precisely on the hearth." (Glassie, p. 327)
Note Glassies reference to the action of the swastika, the sun symbol much like the Brigid cross created at Imbolc as a symbol of the suns growing presence and hung as protection everywhere. Sun symbols were important at Bealtaine, too. Also, if the hearth was the center of the home from which all the rest of the local world was measured, then the hearth in relation to the home represented in microcosm the role of Uisneach in relation to Ireland. Both the home hearth and the fire atop the Hill of Uisneach symbolized the ultimate source, the sun at the center of the known cosmos.
Uisneach was one of the two ritual centers of Ireland; there was some sort of ceremonial gathering there at Bealtaine from ancient times. Keating recorded that an assembly with a large fire and sacrifices was held there each year. Archaeological excavation at the summit of Uisneach unearthed a large area of scorched earth containing the charred bones of many animals. The hearth fires all around were extinguished and a bonfire was lit at the top of the Hill of Uisneach (on the map, Uisneach is near Killare, #42) to send its light out over the plains. Eventually, cinders and torches from the communal fire would make their way to each home hearth, spreading the sacred power to each family group. The following are more photos of the Hill of Uisneach:
Even today in Ballymenone, co. Fermanagh, traditional hearth fires are extinguished at dusk and not re-lit until late the next day. Hospitality and generosity were the general rules, but not on May Day because anything taken out of the house could be used in malicious spells. On this day, if anyoneneighbor or strangercame seeking a bit of fire to light their own or a bit of butter or even a cupful of water, they were turned away. Those who meant you well would not ask for such a favor on May Day, the logic ran, so any request must come from those who wished you ill.
In many communities, the hearth fire might have originally come from the community bonfire, but the connection was often lost as time passed. Kevin Danaher tells of bonfires in cities that became sectarian shows of rivalry, with different groups vying to build the biggest blaze. In many places, animalscattle, especiallywere driven through or past the bonfire to bless them with the fires power. In some places, coals were taken from the fire and used to singe the hair of the cows instead of driving them through the fire. As time passed, the bonfires of Bealtaine began to appear instead at Midsummer and the associated Christian feast of St. John the Baptist.
On the Isle of Man, the traditions for Boaldyn differed somewhat. Fires were lit in the hedgerows and the gorse was set afire (a common way to clear the fields). Dr. John Clague claimed that this created the effect of "walls of fire" which he asserted was the meaning of Boal Teine. Boys would jump through the flames. Cattle were sometimes driven through the fire to protect them from harm in the coming season.
A woman in her 80s, residing on Man in the late nineteenth century, told linguist and folklorist John Rhys that, as a young woman, she had seen a sheep burnt alive as a sacrifice on Boaldyn. Rhys questioned her closely and concluded that she had indeed seen a sheep immolated, but he doubted that it had truly been a sacrifice. However, Rhys was told of at least three other occasions of recent memory when a calf, cow, or ox had been burnt as a sacrifice after a herd had been subject to disease.
Traces of sacrifice remained in the customs of the Highlands, too. The men of the community would gather and, with nine varieties of magical wood, ritually strike the spark for the need fire, tein eigin. Then flat, round oaten cakes called bannocks were broken into sections and distributed. The man who received the section marked with soot or charcoal was subjected to a mock execution or sacrifice.
Later on, the animals were driven through the need fire to bless them against ill and harm for the coming year.
Fire was thought to come from the sun. Both sun and fire were power. When the sun shone on water, the power transferred to the water and could be accessed by humans who washed in the water or drank it or threw it on animals, places, and things. The power of the sunand other magical powerwas thought to be very strong at Bealtaine. Thus, being the first to wash in a well at dawn on Bealtaine meant you got the full power transmitted by the feast-day sun. On the other hand, someone who wished you harm could pervert the power by getting to your well before you and using the dawn-blessed water in a malicious spell. For this reason, many farmers stood watch at their wells all night on May Eve.
Local wells would lose their power after the first use on Bealtaine morn, but special holy wells whose power was thought to be greatest at Bealtaine would service many devotees. MacNeill tells of farmers driving their herds to the City Well all night so that the animals could drink from the well at dawn. Many families would gather at the well and use it that day. According to Danaher, this grand gathering was later modified: a farmer attended the well at dawn, filled a bottle or two, and took the water home to sprinkle a blessing on the animals.
Dew played a similar role. Washing the face in the dew of Bealtaine morn was thought to be effective against aging. Often dew was collected in the first weeks of May, bottled, and kept for the rest of the year for use in healing. One could gather it with the hands, drag a linen cloth through the grass, or even drag a rope or cord to soak up the precious moisture.
The malicious also employed dew by collecting it from the fields of those they planned to target.
But the wise and wary knew how to guard against those who would bring ill luck or steal the "profit" of ones milking or churning. Before dusk, yellow flowers such as primroses and buttercups would be gathered and, with the branches of trees like the mountain ash (rowan), hung across the outside door and window sills. Glowing like little suns among the greenery, the flowers would also be scattered as protective amulets along the path to the wells, across the door of the byre, and anywhere else thought to need protection. Made into little nosegays, they might be tied to horses bridles or cattles tails. The following are further photos of the mountain ash:
In parts of county Cork, the ling leaves of iris were used instead of flowers, and in other parts of Munster, boughs of newly-leafed trees were used instead of flowers. Crosses made of rowan branches were decked everywhere, even worn on coat or cap. On the Isle of Man, one branch was carefully split at the middle, without using a knife, and the other branch slipped in crosswise. The method was crucial; using a knife would destroy the protective magic. Often such crosses were attached to the cows tails as protection against the malicious.
May poles were an English custom occasionally imported to other areas, but the custom did not take hold in Ireland. There, the May Bush reigned. This was a small whitethorn bush, cut and placed by the house door, outside, and decked with flowers and bits of ribbon and colored paper and whatever had been saved, even the colored egg shells from Easter.
Beating the boundaries was also an important custom. A farmer would gather everyone and walk the borders of the farm, pausing at least once to face each direction and leave posies or sprinkle water as protection and blessing.
More elaborate processions are also recorded in Ireland. In some, straw figures were made from churn dashes or similar tools and carried about. Some times, the procession would be headed by two men dressed outlandishly, one as a woman. Sometimes there was only a man dressed as a woman. On the Isle of Man, carts of mugwort were driven about to "sain" the fields while people rang the church bells and banged hoopskin drums to frighten away evil influences. Then two "armies," one defending the Queen of Summer and the other the King of winter, would contest each other until the Winter forces were driven down a road leading west. At that point, the sun was judged to have set and the battle ended. A feast was held, attended by people from miles around.
Finally, as a time when the world was so charged with energy and potential growth, Bealtaine was the time to take positive magical action as well as malicious. Omens for the following season were read. Herbal tonics and other, more magical remedies were administered with high hopes of success.
Sources /Further Reading
Alexander Carmichael, ed., Carmina Gadelica: Hymns & Incantations. Lindisfarne Books: 1992; ISBN: 0940262509
Dr. John Clague, Cooinaghtyn Manninagh (Manx Reminiscences). 1911, privately printed
Kevin Danaher, The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs. Irish Books & Media: 1972; ISBN: 0937702137
Henry H. Glassie, Passing the Time in Ballymenone: Culture and History of an Ulster Community. Indiana Univ Pr: 1995; ISBN: 0253209870
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
Nerys Paterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen. Univ. Notre Dame Press, 1994; ISBN: 0268008000
Alwyn & Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage. Thames & Hudson: 1989; ISBN: 0500270392
John Rhys, "Manx Folklore, Parts 1 and 2", Folklore II and III
This article in the Celtic Well E-Journal is © Copyright 1999 by Francine Nicholson. Sections may be freely quoted, provided the author is properly cited with the URL and the words"electronic version." You may link to this site, but please do not copy this web page and its dependent web pages without contacting one of the Celtic Well List moderators.