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Monday, May 1, 2023

Bad Meme: Beltane Edition

 Several years ago I had done a few posts seeking to clarify confusion around popular things on social media relating to specific pagan holidays including Yule, Samhain, and 'Ostara'. I've never done one for Bealtaine mostly because I haven't seen a huge amount of misinformation about it being shared around. That is starting to change, at least a bit, so today I thought I'd tackle a couple of things I've seen recently that need some clarification. 

  People are free to believe what they will from the memes and such that go around, of course, but I think its important to be clear on what the sources are, especially when they are being presented in deceptive or inaccurate ways. Or put another way you believe whatever you want to but be honest about the origins. 

fireplace, Gleann Garbh, Ireland 1 May 2018

There's a couple memes going around claiming that folklore or legend says on Beltane the queen of fairies rides around on a white horse and if you sit quietly under a tree you may see her. If you look away she'll pass by, if you look at her she may take you into Fairy for 7 years. This meme usually includes an appropriately mystic looking image.

Alright. So. The quote with the memes is an excerpt from a much longer article, circa 2000, written by Christina Aubin, titled 'Beltane'* which was originally posted on the now defunct witchvox site. This portion seems to be a mashup of some actual folklore, the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, and pure wish fulfillment. Let's take this a piece at a time then:
Folklore: Yes the fairies are out and about on and around Bealtaine. Yes this time of year you may see a fairy Rade or otherwise encounter Themselves.
The fairy queen (generic) is often but not always said to ride a white horse, when she rides out, which occurs at many different times of year (the most common associated with the white horse is probably Samhain).
The Ballad: in one specific ballad, Thomas the Rhymer, the human protagonist is lying under a tree when the fairy queen comes by and compels him into her service for 7 years. There's no date or time of year specified. Thomas seems to have been specifically chosen, is returned after 7 years and then taken again when he is much older, led by a deer who he believed was sent by the fairy queen (according to folklore).
Wish Fulfillment: there's no Irish or Scottish folklore suggesting that sitting under a tree on Bealtaine will let you see fairies. There's also no support to the idea that looking away will make them ignore you or that looking at them will grant the possibility of being taken by them for 7 years. You cannot influence the fairy queen into this.
Folklore (again): whether or not you see the Good Neighbors coming has zero direct affect on what they might do to you, in fact passing invisibly to human sight is a hallmark of fairies in folklore. It is true that its advised to pretend you don't see them if you stumble on a group engaged in an activity but that's because in many accounts if they know you see them they react violently. Which brings us to point 2, making it clear you are looking at them ends really badly as often as not.
They take humans they choose to take and while yes a percentage return after 7 years or are taught valuable things, many become base servants (think no pay, cleaning stables, drudgery), breeding stock (exactly what it sounds like), or entertainment (fun for them not you). There's a reason that we have massive amounts of material about protecting against fairies and escaping from them or rescuing people from them, because in many stories the human is taken against their will and their fate may not be pleasant.
   Yes you can safely engage with fairies. But. But caution is always advised. Would you hang out in a park and trust any random human who wandered by and started giving you orders? Fairies are not universally benevolent any more than humans are. And very few of us could qualify as a modern day Thomas the Rhymer.

   Another portion of Aubin's article is also sometimes included which suggests that in Irish folk tradition leftover food on May Eve would be given to the Good Folk as an offering or buried for them.
  Firstly it is an Irish folk belief that you don't give away any fire, salt, or food on Bealtaine lest the luck of your house be stolen. See Dáithí ÓhÓgáin's 'Irish Superstitions', Seán Ó Súilleabháin's 'Nósanna agus Piseago na nGael', or Danaher's 'The Year in Ireland' for discussion of this folk belief if you are interested. It was a custom in some places to bleed the cattle, or mix human blood and milk to give to the Daoine Maithe on May Day morning, but this was done outside the home, usually at a sidhe, and was seen as a way to divert or avert the Good Folk's potential maliciousness. you are, basically, bribing them.
   Secondly you don't give the Daoine Uaisle leftovers. Its not done, because the belief is that they deserve and want the best you have to give not the dregs. The top of a still of alcohol is theirs, as is the best of the harvested crops and milk (see MacNeill's 'Festival of Lughnasa'). So while food offerings of various kinds are traditional, giving leftovers from your own meal or food wouldn't be.

   Another thing I've seen repeatedly this year is a prayer attributed to the Carmina Gadelica which is a set of collected folk charms and prayers gathered around 1900 by Alexander Carmichael in Scotland. The version making the rounds is a blessing prayer for Beltane which asks for blessing on the speakers life, family, livestock and crops, invoking the Horned God and triple Goddess, as well as referencing 'gods'. The problem here is that although its attributed to the Carmina Gadelica, it isn't exactly from that source- it's a paganized version by Mike Nichols from 1993 which modifies the text to remove Christian material and insert neopagan material. The original text from the Carmina Gadelica refers to the Christian trinity, apostle Paul, and Christ.
   As a good rule of thumb anything credited to the Carmina Gadelica or Carmichael which calls on neopagan deities like the Horned God or Maiden, Mother, Crone, is a modern adaptation of the Christian original. There are some references in the Carmina Gadelica to fairies of various types and which may be read as pagan if you squint at them, but the collected material is clearly Christian in tone as it was recorded.
   It's important to be very clear on the actual source, as otherwise it gives the impression that the original CG was pagan which it decidedly is not. 

Finally not a new meme idea but rather a very old one that's being repeated by various sources today in some memes is that Bealtaine (Old Irish Belltaine) is named for the middle eastern god** Ba'al or a theoretical Indo-Eurpoean god named Bel. 
   The Ba'al connection has been widely disregarded today as coming from 18th and 19th century attempts to tie Celtic culture to the middle east/Mediterranean; this same period created wholecloth the so-called god 'Saman' as deity of Samhain. Or as McKillop says it in his Dictionary of Celtic Mythology: "The 19th-century attempt to link Belenus, under the spelling Bel, with the Phoenician Ba'al is now rejected".
    The connection to the theoretical god Bel is speculation based on both the Sanas Cormaic entry which supposes Bel was from the name of an otherwise unknown deity and the connection to the Gaulish Belenos and Welsh Beli Mawr. There are no definitive agreements among scholars as to this theory and whether or not Bel was an Irish deity, nor whether Bealtaine derives from a celebration to that deity. It is possible, but should be understood as a theory not an established fact.
   The etymology of Bealtaine is uncertain but it's generally thought to come from bel teine (opening fire) or bil teine (lucky fire) with lucky fire supported as a folk etymology in Cormac's Glossary (suggesting this may have been the way it was understood historically). It is usually translated as the first of May or May Day, and the name of the month of May in Irish is based on it. 

*I will note that the article has multiple factual errors or inherent assumptions beyond this particular section.
** there's some debate about whether or not Ba'al was a specific deity of a general term that could be applied to deities or used as a title. The word means 'lord'.

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