To the pagan Irish, Bealtaine (pronounced roughly Ball-tinn-eh) , often called Beltane by modern pagans, was one of the most sacred holidays. Also called Bealltainn in Scotland and Bealtaine or Bealtine in Ireland, this holiday is generally celebrated on May first and might also be called May Day, although some people believe in celebrating it based on environmental signs, such as the blooming of the Hawthorn. It is uncertain what the name Beltane means; some people theorize that it translates to “fires of Bel” while others favor the more likely meaning “bright fires”.
Beltane stood opposite Samhain on the calendar and in many ways represented opposite themes; where Samhain was a time of harvest and of the Dead, Beltane was a time of blessing and planting (McNeill, 1959) . It was on Beltane that the herds were sent out to their summer pastures, and in the old stories it was on Beltane that many important events occurred such as the Tuatha de Danann first arriving in Ireland. It is said that in ancient Ireland all fires were put out on the eve of Beltane and then the Druids would light a sacred fire at Tara which would be passed from hilltop to hilltop and home to home until all the fires were re-lit. (Wilde, 1991) Beltane is the beginning of summer and was the time that contracts were renewed, herds moved, and crops planted. For modern pagans, especially Celtic pagans, a great deal of depth can be added to the celebration of this holiday by understanding the folk traditions surrounding it.
The fairies were thought to be especially active and powerful on Beltane, and in some sources for the first three days of May. It was said in Ireland that it was on Beltane eve that the faeries moved from one hill to another and were most likely to steal children or cause mischief (Danaher, 1972) . Caution was needed to guard against faeries stealing the household’s luck, dairy products, or herbs, and the best protection against this was strewing primroses across the threshold (Wilde, 1991) . This belief also meant that strangers were looked on with great suspicion, lest they actually be fairies in disguise, and there were strong prohibitions against giving away or lending milk or fire on Beltane. Offerings of food might be made to appease the faeries, or else a bit of iron or Rowan would be carried as protection. (Danaher, 1972)
In Scotland on Beltane all of the hearth fires were extinguished and the people, along with their livestock, would gather before dawn on hilltops where bonfires had been built. The bonfires were built in two large piles so that a narrow path ran between them, and at dawn the fires would be lit (McNeill, 1959) . These Beltane bonfires were intended to bless those who passed between them, both people and animals, and were made from sacred woods, in some places oak and in others traditionally 9 different woods (McNeill, 1959) . As soon as the fire was lit the people would proceed sunwise around the hilltop three times before driving the animals three times between the bonfires to bless them; later the men would light torches made of heather or sedge and carry them around the animals to protect them from evil and ensure fertility of the herds (McNeill, 1959) . After the bonfires subsided the people would rub the ashes on their faces to bless themselves, before proceeding with living embers back to their homes to rekindle their hearth fires; such fire was said to be blessed for a full year and was not allowed to go out until the following Beltane (McNeill, 1959) . In the Shetland Islands the Beltane fires were kept burning for 3 days and people would leap through them for blessing and good health. (McNeill, 1959)
In Ireland up to fairly recent times, bonfires were a large public affair that occurred the night before or on the night of Beltane, although the practices are dying out today. These fires were traditionally true bonfires, or “bone-fires”, made with a mix of wood and the bones of cows and horses as well as the horns of cows (Evans, 1957) . The fires would be built in open public spaces and the people would gather, whether or not they had celebrated earlier, and drink and sing around the fire (Danaher, 1972) . It seems that originally the bonfire traditions were common in every town and village but over time slowly died out in many areas. According to the oldest stories and myths during the pagan period all the home fires would be put out and relit from a great central fire kindled by the Druids on Beltane morning. In modern practice the bonfires would be jumped over to increase a person’s fertility and show their bravery (Evans, 1957) . In earlier times, just as in Scotland, the fire would have been built in two halves and the livestock driven through, as well as the ash from the Beltane fire used to bless the fields. (Danaher, 1972)
In Scotland up until a hundred years ago, folk celebrations included the making of a small fire and cooking of a special food, a mix of eggs, butter, milk, and oatmeal, with every participant contributing something to the celebration and the very first of the prepared food being poured out onto the earth as an offering (McNeill, 1959) . Special cakes are prepared, and then each person would turn their back to the fire and break off pieces of the cake, while naming first a protective deity or spirit that watched over the herds and then a harmful animal that might threaten the herds, and the piece would be tossed over their shoulder into the fire. (McNeill, 1959)
In a different part of Scotland, boys would gather on Beltane and make a small fire and then draw lots after which one of them would have to jump three times over the fire as a symbolic sacrifice to the pagan god Bel (McNeill, 1959) . Special oat or barley cakes, called Beltane bannocks, were baked and eaten for luck and health, with a small portion given first as an offering that the person may receive abundance. (McNeill, 1959)
Both fire and water were used for blessing and as the bonfires were created to bless the herds and people, so too was water collected for blessing. Holy wells might be visited, with due ceremony, and the person might wash in the well or take a small amount of water home with them. In Ireland, the first water drawn from a well, called “the top of the well” or “the luck of the well’, was believed to be especially powerful for either good or bad intent (Danaher, 1972) . Another practice in both Ireland and Scotland was the collection of the dew on Beltane morning, as it was believed that this water had special healing and blessing properties.
In Scotland, special hollows in rocks were found, or alternately a rope made of cow hair was used to gather the dew (McNeill, 1959) . A girl might go out and gather dew-covered ivy on Beltane for luck, but it could not be touched with a steel knife or the luck would leave it (McNeill, 1959) . In Ireland the dew was collected by hand or by soaking a linen cloth on dew soaked grass and then ringing out the cloth. (Danaher, 1972)
The Rowan was central in many Scottish celebrations as it was believed that Rowan was the best protector against the fairies, with Rowan branches collected on the eve of Beltane and hung up around the home, or tied with red thread and hung over the door (McNeill, 1959) . In one part of Scotland a hoop was made of Rowan and then all the sheep were driven through it, while in another a Rowan twig and red thread were tied to the cows tails (McNeill, 1959) . In Ireland, the Rowan is believed to be the best of all protections against bad luck and enchantment so on May Day morning a branch of Rowan might be woven into the ceiling to protect the house and all within it for the next year (Danaher, 1972) . One ceremony noted from Laois Ireland called for the head of the family to light a candle and bless the door, hearth, and the four corners of the home, as well as each family member from oldest to youngest, and then the area around the home where a rowan branch should be placed. (Danaher, 1972)
In Ireland, it has been the custom for the children to gather flowers on May eve, possibly a hold over of the people once going out before dawn on May morning; these flowers were then hung up or strewn around the home for luck (Danaher, 1972) . On May Day itself, flowers were tied to the bridles of horses and the horns of cows for the same purpose (Danaher, 1972) . Flowers were also gathered and used to decorate wells, in order to bless and protect them (Evans, 1957) . In Munster, a selection of wood boughs were gathered, generally of Holly, Hazel, Elder, Rowan, and Ash, while in Munster it was Sycamore (Danaher, 1972) . In contrast however the boughs from fairy trees like Blackthorn were seen as extremely unlucky in one area but might be lucky in another, however the general belief was not to disturb the fairy trees.
Any herbs gathered on Beltane were believed to be especially potent. Yarrow, an herb already believed to be good for nearly anything, was seen as being ideal if gathered on Beltane (Wilde, 1991) . No herb, however, could be gathered with an iron knife because the iron would ruin any magical properties held by the plant. Plants gathered on May Day were ideally gathered at dawn with the dew still on them, as the dew itself also imparted a blessing (Wilde, 1991) . All charms and magics were most powerful on Beltane so it was also believed to be a time when witches were most active. (Danaher, 1972; Wilde 1991)
Another Irish custom was the preparation of a female effigy, called the “May Baby” that was bedecked with flowers and paraded around the town or village; some theorize that this is an older pagan element related to honoring a goddess (Danaher, 1972) . As the May Baby is carried around music is played and a married couple, chosen beforehand, dances in a comically sexual manner around the effigy to entertain it; this procession is believed to grant fertility to the land and the people who observe it and belief in it efficacy was so strong that married women without children were known to travel great distances to receive this blessing (Danaher, 1972) . A related practice was the May Boys, a troupe of boys or young men that traveled around singing songs like:
“Summer! Summer! The milk of the heifers,
And ourselves brought the summer with us,
The yellow summer, the white daisy,
And ourselves brought the summer with us!”
A widespread Irish custom was the placement of a “May bush”, a branch or bough of a tree (sometimes a Hawthorn or Holly) that was placed by the front door for luck and decorated with yellow flowers, brightly colored ribbons, and egg shells (Danaher, 1972) . On the night of May Day candles might be lit on or around the bush and people would gather and dance around it; in Ireland in previous centuries large parties were held which included feasting and music (Danaher, 1972) . The bush itself might be left standing all month, or until the decorations began falling apart, or in some areas was burned in the nighttime bonfire. (Danaher, 1972)
One of the Scottish divination practices of Beltane is very similar to one seen at Samhain, where stones are chosen and marked to represent the people present and then placed in a ring around the sacred fire as it is going out – the condition of each stone the next day tells the person’s fate (McNeill, 1959) . Another practice was to go out before dawn, in silence, and gather yarrow wherever it could be found; it was gathered with the eyes shut and after being picked the person would open their eyes and what they saw would be portentous. (McNeill, 1959)
In Ireland divination on Beltane focused largely on the weather for the coming growing season. The direction that the wind was blowing on Beltane day would indicate whether the summer would be a good one or a bad one, and in some areas snow still visible on Beltane was seen as a very bad omen (Danaher, 1972) . Another Irish practice was to sweep the threshold clean and then lightly scatter ashes over it; in the morning a footprint coming into the home meant a marriage, while one leaving meant a death in the family in the coming year. (Wilde, 1991)
There is little historical evidence of any specific deity associated with Beltane, although in Scotland Bel has come to be connected to the holiday and some of its practices. It is a holiday with strong themes of blessing and fertility, so a modern practitioner could choose to honor any deity or deities that made sense with that energy. This will likely come down to personal preference and probably vary widely by group or person.
For modern practitioners all of this provides a wealth of possible practices to incorporate. Offerings can be made to the fairies to avoid their mischief and encourage friendly relations with the Good Neighbors; this could be done on Beltane eve or Beltane itself. If you choose not to make offerings then perhaps carrying a bit of iron or Rowan would be wise to keep the fairies from stealing your luck. In the morning dew could be gathered as well as any useful herbs that can be found.
A May Bush could be set up and decorated, or a live tree or bush could be planted and decorated for the same purpose. The decorations themselves could be the traditional flowers, colorful ribbons, and eggshells, or could be anything else the person imagines that fit the general theme of the holiday. If possible on Beltane night a bonfire is made and danced around or jumped; if it’s possible to make two bonfires, they could be passed between for blessing.
Two years ago at a public ritual I helped coordinate we were indoors so we used two candles to mimic two bonfires and processed between those while a blessing prayer was recited. In general the atmosphere of Beltane is one of celebration and merriment, so a party with music, dancing, and as much fun as possible would be entirely in line with this holiday’s history.
Danaher (1972) . The Year in Ireland. Mercier Press
Evans, E., (1957) . Irish Folk Ways. Routledge and Kegan Paul
McNeill, F., (1959) . The Silver Bough, volume 2. William McLelland and Co., Glasgow
Wilde, (1991) . Irish Cures, Mystic Charms and Superstitions