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Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Fire Festivals in history and myth

     The main holidays generally celebrated by CRs and Irish polytheists are Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasa; some people also acknowledge the solar festivals, but the four fire festivals are the most commonly celebrated by all. Despite this apparent universal acknowledgement of these holidays there is a variance in how people date them, with some using environmental signs - such as the flowering of the Hawthorn for Beltaine, or the first hard frost for Samhain - and others using more esoteric astrological signs. When looking at the actual references from mythology we find that in many cases very specific calendar dates are given, which are also used by some people to date the holidays. Of course the ancient Irish did not use the Roman calendar system, either the Gregorian or Julian systems, so these specific dates were clearly given during the writing down of the myths which occurred during the later Christian period, which is also why we see some referenced through Christian holy days such as Lammas and All Hallows (i.e. Halloween). However these dates were added based on the monks understanding of when the celebrations occurred and represent a genuine native tradition. The following are all the references I could find to the dating of the holidays, as well as a few extra references to the holidays that support their importance and that the dates they took place on would have been inherently understood even by a Christianized population. Additionally the reference from the Wooing of Emer also note the dividing of the year into summer and winter halves by Beltaine and Samhain.
    A quick note for those unfamiliar with the term "kalends" or "calends" - these words were used to denote the first day of the month for the Roman calendar.


- From the Wooing of Emer:
55. Bend Suain, son of Rosc Mele, which she said this is the same thing, viz., that I shall fight without harm to myself from Samuin, i.e., the end of summer. For two divisions were formerly on the year, viz., summer from Beltaine (the first of May), and winter from Samuin to Beltaine. Or sainfuin, viz., suain (sounds), for it is then that gentle voices sound, viz., sám-son 'gentle sound'.

-From the Cath Maige Tuired
84. The Dagda had a house in Glen Edin in the north, and he had arranged to meet a woman in Glen Edin a year from that day, near the All Hallows [Samain] of the battle. The Unshin of Connacht roars to the south of it.He saw the woman at the Unshin of Corann, washing, with one of her feet at Allod Echae (that is Aghanagh) south of the water and the other at Lisconny, north of the water. There were nine loosened tresses on her head. The Dagda spoke with her and they united. "the bed of the couple" was the name of that place from that time on. (The woman here mentioned is the Morrigan). 
86. So the aes dana did that and they chanted spells against the Fomorian hosts.
87. This was a week before All Hallows [Samain], and the dispersed until all the men of Ireland came together the day before All Hallows. Their number was six times thirty hundred, that is each third consisted of thirty hundred.

- From the Lebor Gabala Erenn:
242. The progeny of Nemed were under great oppression after his time in Ireland, at the hands of Morc son of Dela and of Connand son of Febar, [from whom is the Tower of Conand named, which to-day is called Toirinis Cetne. In it was the great fleet of the Fomoriag]. Two thirds of the progeny, the wheat, and the milk of the people of Ireland (had to be brought) every Samain to Mag Cetne. Wrath and sadness seized on the men of Ireland for the burden of the tax...

- From the Battle of Mag Mucrama:
 3.Ailill went then one Samhain night to attend to his horses on Áne Chlíach [the hill of Aine]. A bed is made for him on the hill. That night the hill was stripped bare and it was not known who had stripped it. So it happened to him twice. He wondered at it. He sent off messengers to Ferches the poet son of Commán who was in Mairg of Leinster. He was a seer and a warrior. He came to speak to him. Both go one Samhain night to the hill. Ailill remains on the hill. Ferches was aside from it.

- From the Battle of Crimna:
Over Ireland there reigned an admirable king: Cormac, grandson of Conn; at which period also over the Ulidians was a king: Fergus Blacktooth, who had two brothers: Fergus Longhair, and Fergus called ‘Fire-Bregia? Where Cormac’s mansion was then was in Tara; and that of every king in Ireland as well, for the purpose of holding Tara’s Feast: for a fortnight before samhain that is to say, On samhain-day itself, and for a fortnight after. And the reason for which they practised to gather themselves together at every samhain-tide was this: because at such season it was that mast and other products were the best matured.

- From the Birth of Aedh Slaine:
 " With the men of Ireland too it was general that out of all airts they should resort to Tara in order to the holding of Tara's Feast at samhaintide. For these were the two principal gatherings that they had: Tara's Feast at every samhain (that being the heathens' Easter); and at each lughnasa, or' Lammas-tide,' the Convention of Taillte."


From the Wooing of Emer -
55 To Oimolc, i.e., the beginning of spring, viz., different (ime) is its wet (folc), viz the wet of spring, and the wet of winter. Or, oi-melc, viz., oi, in the language of poetry, is a name for sheep, whence oibá (sheep's death) is named, ut dicitur coinbá (dog's death), echbá (horse's death), duineba (men's death), as bath is a name for 'death'. Oi-melc, then, is the time in which the sheep come out and are milked, whence oisc (a ewe), i.e., oisc viz., barren sheep.

From the Metrical Dindshenchas - 
iar n-imbulc, ba garb a ngeilt - after Imbolc, rough was their herding


- ‎From The Wooing of Emer: 
55 "To Beldine, i.e. Beltine, viz., a favouring fire. For the druids used to make two fires with great incantations, and to drive the cattle between them against the plagues, every year. Or to Beldin, viz., Bel the name ofan idol. At that time the young of every neat were placed in the possession of Bel. Beldine, then Beltine."

- From the Cath Maige Tuired:
 [on the arrival of the Tuatha De Danann] "Then they all set sail, and after three years and three days and three nights landed at wide Tracht Mugha in Ulster on Monday of the first week in May."

- From the Lebor Gabála Érenn:
209. Partholon s. Sera s. Sru s. Esru s. Baath s. Rifath Scot from whom are the Scots. He came from "Micil" [Sicily]. He had a voyage of a month to Aladacia. A voyage of nine days had he from Aladacia to Gothia. A voyage of another month had he from Gothia to Spain. A voyage of nine days had he from Spain to Ireland. On a Tuesday he reached Ireland, upon the seventeenth of the moon, on the kalends of May.

221. His four sons divided Ireland into four parts : that is the first division of Ireland. Ireland remained so divided till the plaguing of his people. There came a plague upon them on the kalends of May, the Monday of Beltene; nine thousand died of that plague until the following Monday, upon Mag Elta, five thousand and four men and four thousand women, who were dead between the two Mondays. From that is the plaguing of the People of Partholon in Ireland."

327a. There is the course and the cause of their arrival, after their education : [others say that it was in ships that they all came]. However, they had completed all their education among the Greeks, and they took territory and estate in the north of Alba, at Dobar and Urdobar, for seven years, Nuadu being king over them. And they came to Ireland, on Monday, the kalends of May, in ships [and vessels]. And they burn their ships, and advanced unperceived by the Fir Bolg, till they landed on Sliab in Iairnn. And they formed a fog for three days and three nights over sun and moon, and demanded battle or kingship of the Fir Bolg. And the battle of Mag Tuired was fought between them, as we have said above, and afterwards one hundred thousand of the Fir Bolg were slaughtered there.
Thereafter the Tuatha De Danann took the kingship of Ireland. It is they who brought with them the Stone of Fal, which was in Temair, unde dicitur Inis Fail."

418. The Sons of Mil came into Inber Scene and Inber Feile, and Erimon went left-hand-ways toward Ireland, till he landed in Inber Colptha. That was in the year when Alexander broke the great battle in which Darius the Great son of Arsames fell, at the end of two hundred thirty and seven years, save three years, after the slaying of Baltasar, and after the capture of Babylon by Cyrus son of Darius, whereby the Captivity was released from the Babylonian bondage, according to synchronism and harmony. If we follow according to common belief, it was in the Third Age of the World that the Sons of Mil came into Ireland, a Thursday according to the day of the week, on the seventeenth day of the moon, on the kalends of May according to the day of the solar month. The company of the sons of Mlil took Ireland, and then it was that Amorgen the poet made this poem, as he set his right foot upon land, dicens."

Belltaine .i. bil tene .i. tene ṡoinmech .i. dáthene dognítis druidhe tria thaircedlu...móraib combertis na cethrai arthedmannaib cacha bliadna cusnaténdtibsin (MARG-L eictis na cethra etarru)
Sanas Cormaic B102
Belltaine that is lucky fire that is fire of prosperity that is a festival held with two fires Druids made with incantations...making the offspring of the herds receive blessing every year against illness (left hand marginalia - they needed the herds between)
In other words: "Bealtaine, meaning lucky fire or fire of abundance, a festival with two fires made by Druidic incantations...made for the young herds to receive blessing every year against illnesses (note - the herds need to be driven between the fires)


From the Cath Maige Tuired 1:
"It was on Saturday, the first day of August, that Slainge put into Inber Slainge;" (the arrival of the Fir Bolg in Ireland)

- From the Lebor Gabála Érenn:
59. Tailltiu daughter of Mag Mor king of Spain, queen of the Fir Bolg, came after the slaughter was inflicted upon the Fir Bolg in that first battle of Mag Tuired to Coill Cuan: and the wood was cut down by her, so it was a plain under clover-flower before the end of a year. This is that Tailtiu who was wife of Eochu son of Erc king of Ireland till the Tuatha De Danann slew him, ut praediximus: it is he who took her from her father, from Spain; and it is she who slept with Eochu Garb son of Dui Dall of the Tuatha De Danann; and Cian son of Dian Cecht, whose other name was Scal Balb, gave her his son in fosterage, namely Lugh, whose mother was Eithne daughter of Balar. So Tailltiu died in Tailltiu, and her name clave thereto and her grave is from the Seat of Tailltiu north-eastward. Her games were performed every year and her song of lamentation, by Lugh. With gessa and feats of arms were they performed, a fortnight before Lugnasad and a fortnight after: under dicitur Lughnasadh, that is, the celebration (?) or the festival of Lugh. Unde Oengus post multum tempus dicebat, "the nasad of Lug, or the nasad of Beoan [son] of Mellan."  

From the Wooing of Emer
55. To Brón Trogaill, i.e. Lammas-day, viz., the beginning of autumn; for it is then the earth is afflicted, viz., the earth under fruit. Trogam is a name for 'earth.'’

- From the Birth of Aedh Slaine:
"...and at each lughnasa, or' Lammas-tide,' the Convention of Taillte. All precepts
and all enactments which in either of these festivals were ordained by the men
of Ireland, during the whole space of that year none might infringe."

Macalister, R., (1940) Lebor Gabala Erenn, volumes3 and 4
Gray, E., (1983). Cath Maige Tuired
The Battle of Mag Mucrama
The Battle of Crimna
The Birth of Aedh Slaine
Metrical Dindshenchas


  1. That is a useful collection of quotes.

  2. I think this is a well put together piece, however when you talk about the "history" aspect, I wonder why some of the more strictly historical pieces, such as annals, are not used.

    1. I'll try to add them in over time, but I put this together with the resources I have on hand and could fairly easily track down the citations for. Ideally I'd love to eventually compile an exhaustive citation collection, but that will be a lengthy process.