As one of the Celtic Fire Festivals, Bealtaine (bee-ELL-tuh-nuh) marks a very important time of year in Irish paganism. Historically, before the Gregorian calendar, Bealtaine marked the transition between Winter and Summer — the dark half of the year and the light half of the year. This seasonal shift was a time of celebration and preparation! The cold was leaving, the Sun was in the sky for longer periods of time, and the people could start their seasonal work again.
Bealtaine begins the light half of the year while Samhain begins the dark half. This continues today in our modern pagan traditions. It’s important to remember that while these celebrations were honored in ancient times, they are very much part of the living traditions and cultures of Ireland. They did not disappear and they were not eradicated. They were simply shifted and melded with Christianity as it spread through the land.
The word “Bealtaine” comes from Old Irish and it’s etymology is sometimes debated. I have seen it written that the word means “bright fire” or is a reference to a God named Belenus. It is also said that Bealtaine comes from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root “bhel-“, meaning “to shine, flash, burn”, and the Old Irish word “ten”, meaning “fire”. In modern Irish, Gaeilge, Bealtaine means May — yes, as in the month of May. You can read more about the etymology of Bealtaine and Beltane at Mary Jones: Celtic Literature Collection.
Bealtaine vs. Beltane
While the modern Wheel of the Year identifies May Day and Bealtaine as Beltane, I choose to use the Irish word Bealtaine for a few reasons. First, it separates my practices from that of Wiccans and other Pagans. When I speak about celebrating Bealtaine, I don’t want it to be confused with the modern Beltane. The two are different. Second, Beltane is the anglicized version of the word Bealtaine. Though the two words tend to mean different things now, I choose to use the Gaeilge word out of respect for the culture of the religion that I practice.
Mythology and Folklore
Now, Bealtaine has always been a very important day and seasonal transition, even historically. It’s said in the Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of Invasions, that the Tuatha De Danann came to Ireland on Bealtaine. And in that book it says this:
“So that they were the Tuatha De Danann who came to Ireland. In this wise they came, in dark clouds. They landed on the mountains of Conmaicne Rein in Connachta; and they brought a darkness over the sun for three days and three nights. They demanded battle of kingship of the Fir Bolg. A battle was fought between them, to wit the first battle of Mag Tuired, in which a hundred thousand of the Fir Bolg fell. Thereafter they [the TDD] took the kingship of Ireland. Those are the Tuatha Dea – gods were their men of arts, non-gods their husbandmen. They knew the incantations of druids, and charioteers, and trappers, and cupbearers.”“Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of Invasions” Mary Jones: Celtic Literature Collection
So even without all of the extra folklore and practices that surround Bealtaine historically, it’s still an important day for those who follow an Irish polytheistic practice. This is said to be the day or the season that the Tuatha De Danann arrived in Ireland and won the kingship of Ireland.
Practices on Bealtaine
Now there’s also a lot of mythology, folklore, and even local customs surrounding Bealtaine. It’s said that on Bealtaine, the Druids would drive the cattle between two bonfires, getting them so close that it could singe their fur but not close enough to hurt them. This was a method of protection against illnesses during the summer. The people need their cattle to survive because at Samhain, or as they got closer to Samhain, the livestock would be slaughtered. This is what would get the people through the winter, through the dark half of the year.
It’s also said that all house fires were put out on Bealtaine and they weren’t re-lit until they could be re-lit from the bonfire of Bealtaine, the community bonfire. I’m not exactly sure how this would work historically. I’m sure there is some sort of record out there that talks about it, but what I can imagine is that you would put your fire out, go to the community bonfire, and bring back a coal or torch that you could light with the Bealtaine bonfire. You would then bring that home and re-light your fire. I believe this was seen as a way to bring the protective qualities of the bonfire, the cleansing properties of the bonfire, into the home for the coming season.
It’s also said that Bealtaine, just like Samhain, is the day when the Sidhe come out to play (source), and I say “play” very lightly. They can come out and do whatever they want — battle, play tricks on humans, etc. I’m not sure why Bealtaine and Samhain are said to be the days when the Sidhe will come out of the mounds to do whatever it is that they want, but this is sort of where we get the idea that the veil is thin around Bealtaine and Samhain. Folklore tells us that the Good Neighbors would be more active in our world on these particular days, so watch out for the Good Neighbors.
See also: Changelings in Irish Folklore
I did go to Duchas, Duchas.ie, which is the school’s collection of folklore directly from people in Ireland. I collected some different information on how Bealtaine was celebrated and different customs that take place, even to this day, surrounding Bealtaine and Mayday. I’ve gathered a few of them here for you, but I also encourage you to dig into Duchas yourself. It’s very interesting and heartwarming to see all of the folklore and local customs written down to be preserved.
Many of these customs revolve around butter, milk, and fire because cows and butter or milk in general were and potentially are extremely important. The amount of cattle you had was a determining factor in how wealthy you were.
Customs from Duchas
So, here are some of the folklore and customs from the school’s collection directly from the people of Ireland.
In the morning before the sun rises, green branches are brought in to the house to show the beginning of the Summer.
If you spill a drop of milk on May day they say you will be spilling it for the year.
They say you should not give away any milk on May day or May Eve because you would not have luck, but if you make it on May Eve you will have luck on your butter.“The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0276, Page 176” by Dúchas © National Folklore Collection, UCD is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.
If May day is fine we will have a fine Sumer, but if May Day is wet we will have a bad Sumer.“The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0096, Page 677” by Dúchas © National Folklore Collection, UCD is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.
Long ago the young children especially girls used to go around from house to house dressed in beautiful flowers. These youngsters used to sing a song at each house and get a few pence in exchange. In former times May Eve was regarded as a great festival. The following were the principal customs connected with May Eve in ancient times. First sweep the threshold clean, sprinkle ashes over it and watch for the first footprints. If it is turned inwards it means a marriage and if it is turned outwards it means a death. Secondly May Eve pick it up and put it on a plate, sprinkle with flour and at sunset you would see the initials of your true love’s name. Thirdly light a bush before the house on May Eve and it is considered to keep away thunder and lightning. Another old custom was to go out May Eve and gather armful of yellow flowers known as May Flowers. These are strewn at the gate of every field, outside the doors of homes and out-houses and even on the housetops. It is considered that these would keep away ill-luck, evil spirits and disease.“The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0518, Page 035” by Dúchas © National Folklore Collection, UCD is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.
Reflections on Tradition and Customs
So you can see how these local customs from the people in Ireland revolve around butter, good luck, protection, and even divination. I mean, sprinkling flour on a plate and waiting until sunset and it’ll show you your true love’s initials? Sprinkling ash on the door and waiting to see the direction of the first footprints and it’s going to tell either a marriage or a death? And even the one about the weather — if the weather is good on May Day then you’re going to have a good Summer. If the weather is wet on May Day then you’re going to have a bad Summer.
This reminds me of the folklore around Imbolg. On Imbolg, if the weather is bad then that means that winter is going to end sooner. If the weather is good, that means that you’re going to have a little bit of a longer winter. It’s said that this happens because if the weather is bad, the Cailleach cannot go out and gather firewood to continue the winter. If the weather is good, then the Cailleach has time to go out and gather more firewood because she knows that winter is going to last longer.
Celebrating as a Florida Pagan
So with all of that being said, how do I plan on celebrating or honoring Bealtaine in Florida? I mean, we all know that the climate of Florida is vastly different than it is in Ireland, and I still want to honor the traditional celebrations of Bealtaine while maintaining respect of the historical and living culture of Ireland. There are a few different things that I plan on doing, and I’m a firm believer that these sort of celebrations don’t always take place on one day or two days. It generally heralds in the start of a season and some sort of transition, so Bealtaine can take place over the first several days of May, the first half of May, or even the entire month of May.
One of the first things that I definitely plan on doing is having a fire. Bonfires were and still are significant on Bealtaine and the other Celtic fire festivals. Now, while I don’t have cattle or livestock to drive through two bonfires to purify them and protect them from diseases, I do have a fire pit where we can sit around the fire with family, burn some intentions, and do a little bit of spell work.
What I’m not going to be doing this year is jumping over my fire because my fire pit is above ground and I don’t trust myself. So I’m not going to be jumping over the fire to usher in good luck and good health through the warmer months of the year, but I will have a bonfire. We might make some s’mores and just hang out around the fire.
One of the other traditional Bealtaine practices is to go out first thing in the morning and wash your face with the morning dew. If you’ve never been to Florida, or at least my part of Florida, you would not understand the fact that you do not go into the grass unprepared. You don’t go into the grass barefoot unless you know what you’re doing, and that’s because everything in the grass can kill you, right? Everything in the grass can kill you or seriously hurt you. Florida fire ants are something else! So I don’t want to gather the morning dew from my grass because I don’t want to go into the grass first thing in the morning. We’ve got dogs, too, and the thought of that just gives me the ick!
What I’m going to do instead is go for a swim first thing in the morning. I’m going to hop into my pool and just swim, float, and enjoy the water. It’s really hard to explain if you don’t have that sort of connection with water, but I feel like going for a swim in my pool on the morning of Bealtaine is a good middle ground, and it’s a good regional way to still honor the origin of the practices while adjusting them to my location.
And then as with most fire festivals, most celebrations in general, I’ll probably bake a cake, some cupcakes, or cookies. I plan on incorporating a lot of seasonal colors, so greens and oranges. I think here in Florida, a lot of the wildflowers that start to pop up around Bealtaine are actually purple and blue, so I’m probably going to include some of those colors. I will also include some wishes and symbols for good health and abundance during the coming summer months.
Spellwork and Hurricane Season Preparation
One of the last things that I’m planning on doing is some spellwork for good health and abundance through the Summer and all the way through to Samhain. I’m also going to start the preparations for something that I do in June. June 1st is the “official” start of hurricane season. I feel like utilizing the energy of Bealtaine, along with the correspondences and traditional aspects of protection magic that happens during May, as sort of a boost or starting point for my ritual that I do in June for hurricane season.
So, I will be doing spellwork revolving around protection, abundance, prosperity, and good health. This protection will extend to protection from diseases, daily life, and preparation for my Hurricane Season ritual.
As a Celtic Pagan outside of Ireland, I really feel like it would be disingenuous and it would be doing a disservice to my practice with my regional location to try to copy the traditional Celtic practices exactly as they are for a location that I don’t live in. Now, while I have this sort of spiritual connection that I feel to Ireland, it’s also important to recognize that I’m not there and to tailor these types of traditions to my own location while still keeping the cultural context of the original customs.
May your Summer be prosperous and my you have a Blessed Bealtaine!