Introduction: Beltane on the Celtic Wheel of the Year
In ancient Celtic times, the eight-spoked wheel of the year was honored in the turning of the seasons. In the northern hemispheres, the winter solstice was the shortest day of the year and represented the return of the light, and the summer solstice, being the longest day of the year, was the Celtic fire festival. The equinoxes represented the points of balance when day and night were of equal length: the vernal equinox represented planting and fertility, and the autumnal equinox was the time of harvest. In addition to these four major seasonal points on the wheel of the year, halfway between these solar events are the four “cross-quarter” days, recognized by the ancient Celts as magical times. Still celebrated today for their imaginal power, these were the periods when the sun was at the midpoint of the fixed signs; i.e., Taurus, Scorpio, Leo and Aquarius. (The cross-quarter days were always celebrated when the Sun was at 15° of the fixed signs. The cross-quarter days fall exactly six weeks after the quarter days and always occur when the Sun is at the midpoint of a fixed sign.) The ancient Celtic peoples found the mid-point of the fixed signs to be magical and called them the “Gates of Power,” the most potent moments for transformation. The first “Gate of Power” in the year occurs in the mid-point of the earth-sign Taurus, which technically does not occur until May 5th this year when the Sun reaches 15 º Taurus. Beltane falls exactly between spring equinox and summer solstice, with the Sun in Taurus, and is exactly at the opposite end of the ceremonial year to Samhain, or Halloween, and celebrates life as Samhain honors death.
The ancient Celts called the first cross-quarter festival Beltane (or Beltaine), from the ancient word for “bright fire” which honored the god Bel, the god of solar light. Thus Beltane is sometimes literally translated as “bright” or “brilliant fire,” and is supposed to refer to the bonfires lit by a presiding Druid in honor of a proto-Celtic god variously known as Bel, or Belenos. (The actual translation of the word is debatable. Scholars agree that taine or teine means “fire” because the word is used to express fire today in both the Scottish and Irish Gaelic languages. The first syllable, Beal or Bel is not clearly defined. One theory is that the festival is named after the Celtic god Bel, also known as Beli, or Belenus. While the second part of Irish Beltaine and Scottish Bealtuinn dearly means “fire,” from the old Celtic word teine, linguists are uncertain as to whether Bel refers to Belenos, the Gaulish Apollo, or is simply derived from bel, meaning “brilliant.” Another theory says it might even derive from bil tene, or “lucky fire,” because the jump between two Beltaine fires was sure to bring good fortune, health to your livestock, and prosperity. However, most scholars agree that the old Irish “Beletene” means “bright fire.” Therefore, “Beltaine” probably means “fires of Bel.” Beal, the Gaelic word for “shining one” or “brilliant,” gives Beltane the meaning of “brilliant fire.” The Gaelic “Bealtaine” means the month of May.)
Due to various calendrical changes down through the centuries, the traditional date of Beltane is not the same as its astrological date. This date, like all astronomically determined dates, may vary by a day or two depending on the year. However, it may be calculated easily enough by determining the date on which the sun is at 15 degrees Taurus, usually around May 5th. British Wiccans often refer to this date as Old Beltane, and folklorists call it Beltane O.S. for “Old Style”. Some Wiccans prefer to celebrate on the old date and, at the very least, this calendrical variance gives one options. Speaking of options, I should point out that there are different schools of thought about when exactly Beltane is supposed to be celebrated. Some say it is the Full Moon in Scorpio (if you are in England, America, etc.), which would mean November 3 this year. Others say when the Sun is at 15 degrees of Taurus or Scorpio – May 5th or Nov 15th this year, while yet others say Oct 30th/Nov 1st. (Please note that these holidays are based on the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere only.) Given this disagreement, it must be emphasized that trying to pin down the so-called “real” date of Beltane is impossible. Again, traditionally, while May Day is now considered to be May 1st, Beltane starts on the last evening of April and ends on May 1st. However, there is evidence that at in ancient times pagan celebrations occurred on the nearest full moon rather than the 1st of May. (That means this year it would be celebrated on April 28, the night of the full Moon. And the moon this year at Beltane is in Sagittarius.) The problem of pinning down of an official date for Beltane is further complicated by the fact that some authorities on Celtic customs point out that before the calendar change—the change from the Roman Julian to the Gregorian calendar—May Day actually fell on May 13th or 14th.
In Irish Gaelic the month is known as Bealtaine and the festival as Lá Bealtaine (“day of Bealtaine” or, “May Day”). In Scottish Gaelic the month is known as either an Cèitean or a' Mhàigh and the festival is known as Latha Bealltainn or simply Bealltainn. As an ancient Gaelic festival, Bealtaine was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. There were similar festivals held at the same time in the other Celtic countries of Wales, Brittany and Cornwall. Due to the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, Bealltainn in Scotland was commonly celebrated on the 15th of May while in Ireland Sean Bhealtain / “Old May” began about the night of the 11th of May. The lighting of bonfires on Oidhche Bhealtaine (“the eve of Bealtaine”) on mountains and hills of ritual and political significance was one of the main activities of the festival. In modern Scottish Gaelic, Latha Buidhe Bealtuinn (“the yellow day of Bealltain”) is used to describe the first day of May. This term Lá Buidhe Bealtaine is also used in Irish and is translated as “Bright May Day.” In Ireland it is referred to in a common folk tale as Luan Lae Bealtaine; the first day of the week (Monday/Luan) is added to emphasize the first day of summer.
However, traditionally speaking, the May 5th date has long been considered a “power point” of the Zodiac, and is symbolized by one of the four main symbols of the constellations, Taurus the Bull. Astrologers know these four figures as the symbols of the four fixed signs of the Zodiac (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius), and these naturally align with the four Great Sabbats of Wicca. Some say that wherever one is in the world, and whatever tradition one follows, this date is still a “power point,” celebrated many places in the Latin world; for example, as Cinco de Mayo, May Day and other holidays.
For the Celts, time was circular rather than linear, and their calendar was both solar and lunar. This is reflected in their commencing each day, and each festival, at dusk rather than dawn, a custom comparable with that of the Jewish Sabbath. Caesar confirms this by an explanation in his Conquest of Gaul: “The Gauls claim all to be descended from Father Dis (a god of death, darkness, and the underworld), declaring that this is the tradition preserved by the Druids. For this reason they measure periods of time not by days but by nights; and in celebrating birthdays, the first of the month, and New Year’s day, they go on the principle that the day begins at night.”
Thus, traditionally beginning on the night of April 30, Beltane is a mid-spring holiday about rebirth after the cold and dark of winter and the sprouting season of early spring, when plants are coming out of the ground, and young animals are being born. Anticipating the summer, it is a time to celebrate the rebirth of life, growth, love and sexuality: “the force that drives the green fuse through the flower,” in the words of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. (As a festival of rebirth, this festival fits into the theme of my last series of essays, entitled “The New Year & Rebirth in Archaic Myth & Ritual.)
There are four great cross-quarter festivals that turn the Celtic Wheel of the Year. The two greatest of these are Samhain (at our Halloween), the beginning of winter, and Beltane (at our May Day), the beginning of summer. Being opposite each other on the Celtic Wheel of the Year, they separate the year into halves, the dark and light halves. Samhain is recognized by some as the Celtic New Year and is generally considered the more important of the two, though Beltane runs a close second. Indeed, in some areas—notably Wales—it is considered “the great holiday”. The ancient Celts were attuned to the time cycles of seasonal changes. They believed that Samhain (Oct 31 – Nov. 1), the Celtic New Year, is a good time to become more introspective and plant the seeds of new projects, allowing them to germinate over the winter months. On the other hand, they believed that Beltane (April 30 - May 1) is a time to embark on projects requiring courage and energy. For the Celts, Beltane was another fire festival; but whereas Samhain was associated with going to ground, and withdrawing, Beltane burst forth with an abundant fertility. It was a time for feasts and fairs, for the mating of not only the animals, but for people too. And, like Samhain, because the veil between the worlds was at its thinnest, it was a time for travel between the worlds: the legendary poet Taliesin is said to manifest at Beltane. Harsh climates throughout Europe and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, compounded by lack of food, supplies, and medicine, provided long and challenging months. Surviving these winter conditions of hardship with one’s life intact in the warmth and renewal of spring was indeed something to celebrate. On the eve of Beltane, bonfires were lit throughout the land to invoke protection for the crops and for the purification of farm animals for the coming year.
Traditionally celebrated through the first week of May, Beltane is one of the four High Sabbats (days of worship) of the neo-pagan or Wiccan calendar, a calendar closely intertwined with astrology. This is the pre-Christian cycle of the seasons that is based on what some call the Natural or Earth-based religion. In some places Beltane is referred to as “The May,” and historically in many locales the celebration lasted an entire month. As a mid-spring festival, it is a time for revels, the “Maying” ceremonies and traditional love games of May Day.