A Gaelic May Day Festival

Beltane mythology

Half way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice is a festival known as Beltane. It is one of four Gaelic festivals that are still observed today, The others are Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh. It is usually held on May 1st and widely celebrated in Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. Some of the earliest Irish literature make mention of Beltane and it has associations with important events in Irish mythology. It is also another time of the year when the veil between our world and the underworld is thin, making it the best time to contact the spirits.

How was Beltane observed?

Traditionally, Beltane marks the beginning of summer and was the time when cattle would be driven out onto the summer pastures. It was common for rituals to be performed that would protect farmers crops and cattle, as well as people. And also to encourage growth. It is common practice to light bonfires because it is thought that the smoke, ashes and the flames have protective powers. Customs included walking around the bonfires or between two and sometimes even to jump over the flames or the burning embers. Fires in a home would be put out and then re-lit using the Beltane bonfire. As well as the bonfires there would also be a feast, with some of the food and drink being offered to a supernatural race known as the aos si.

People would decorate their homes with yellow May flowers as well as the cattle. And in certain parts of Ireland a May Bush would be made. This would consist of a thorn bush decorated with ribbons, flowers and brightly colored shells.

Is Beltane still observed today?

As with many myths and legends there is still a place for Beltane today. While its celebration may not be quite as widespread as in previous years its customs are still observed today. In terms of festival, interest has almost died out by the middle of the 20th century. However, it has seen a revival in recent years and a few places hold cultural events to mark the occasion. Presently, the custom of lighting Beltane fires is only observed in County Limerick and Arklow. But it is being revived in a number of other parts of the country. There are also certain groups that are looking to revive the custom at the Hill of Tara and at Uisneach. Some areas of Newfoundland still decorate the May Bush. And the town of Peebles in the Scottish Borders still has a week long Beltane fair, but it is held in June. In Edinburgh, on Calton Hill, the 30th April sees the Beltane Fire Festival. An event that has been held every year since 1988. its inspiration is the traditional Beltane, but nowadays it is more of a modern arts and cultural event.