Beltane is the anglicised version of our Irish word Bealtaine – still in use and meaning ‘the month of May’ in our own language. Bealtaine is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature, and it is associated with important events in Irish mythology.
Irish folklore still holds the legacy of the traditions and customs associated with this ancient festival. Bealtaine and Samhain are the original two turning points for the ‘wheel of the year’ in Ireland. That’s May Eve and Hallowe’en, in case you’re not familiar.
These major Irish Pagan Festivals were pivotal – literally – times of upheaval of change for our ancestors over 8,000 years ago when the Hunter Gatherer societies moved from their Summer to Winter camping grounds at these seasonal turning points, and they still resonate through the landscape and the Irish communities to this day.
Bealtaine – May Eve is a sidheógai [of the fairies] evening in the country. Green branches are placed over the doors of homes and stables, supposed to keep out the fairies from doing harm to the stock. The cabins and dairies are all locked this night to prevent fairies from taking away the milk and butter. (County Clare)The Schools Collection –
There are many strange customs connected with Beltane – May Eve. The ancient May Eve customs are now dying away. 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. (County Limerick)The Schools Collection – https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922074/4850082
Many old beliefs and customs were attached to May Eve and the month of May itself. For instance may-flowers were scattered around the house to keep away the fairies. Another old belief was that if a person washed his face in the May Eve dew he would not get sunburned during the Summer or he would not get wrinkles. Persons leaving presents of fresh milk and honey for the fairies would have a plentiful supply of butter and milk through-out the whole year. If a person was hit on the head with a bow-tree stick on May Eve he would not grow any more. Long ago the cow’s udder was washed with May-flower (?) on May Eve so that she would give plenty milk during the year. A person going through briars three times on May-Eve and saying “all the butter come to me” would have the power to steal butter. If a person went out on May morning and skimmed the water off the well he would be boss of the village for that year. Another old custom was to tie cowslips to the cow’s udder in order that the butter would not be stolen.The Schools Collection – https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4427930/4358799
There is a rhyme about the month of May as follows:-
“A wet and windy May
Chills the haggard with corn and hay”
On May Eve people gathered different varieties of flowers and herbs which they mashed up. This mashed substance was called “Bealtanach”. It was rubbed on the cow’s udder and tits on May day. It was then believed that the cow would give a much better supply of milk and butter. (County Mayo)
Beltane, or Bealtaine as we prefer it, is a truly remarkable time of year in the Irish calandar, whatever religion you’re following.
It’s a powerful time when ‘the veil is thin’, as they say, and if you double down on this by being at locations which are traditionally ‘thin places’ in Ireland, and by tuning in to the customs and magic that have been carried through for countless generations… well. You’re tapping into pure Irish Draoícht right there.
Fadó, fadó, sure there were only the 2 seasons in Ireland. Summer and Winter.
Even after things moved on, for people, and for the land, these main boundaries in time loomed large every year for the Irish people.
And the turning between the two was a time of magic, and mayhem… you’d never even know what could happen as the boundaries shifted and the worlds changed.
At Samhain, from Summer into Winter; and again at Bealtaine, from Winter back to Summer.
So, here we are now, on that very threshold. What is the magic that might happen, on May Eve (now often called Beltane) in Ireland?
Long time ago now, the young children – especially girls – used to go around from house to house dressed in beautiful flowers. Think about the other side of this, with the Halloween customs we still have, and you’ll see the truth and the balance of it alright. These youngsters used to sing a song at each house, and get a few pence in exchange. They’d sing and bring flowers through the community, all the way around the boundaries.
You could do a bit of divination too, around May eve, if you were of a mind to. First sweep the threshold clean, sprinkle ashes from a fire over it, and watch for the first footprints. If you see the prints turned inwards, it means a marriage; but if you see the prints turned outwards, it means a death.
There’s talk to, of how they used to get a plate and sprinkle it with flour, then leave it at the threshold of the house. At sunset, take a look, and you would see the initials of your true love’s name.
In the old days, they’d also light a bush before the house on May Eve, and that would keep away thunder and lightning. ‘Twas sure to.
Folk would sit up at night on this eve, to be minding their cows and their land – there was a lot of witchcraft worked in those days. And maybe there still is sure, who knows?
One farmer I heard tell of had the experience of seeing a hare one May Eve going around his cows, and drinking a sup of milk from each cow. He chased the hare to a cabin with a hound he had with him. When he went into the cabin an old woman was panting in the bed. There’s a lot of stories like that I heard, when I was growing up here in Ireland.
They used also light a fire on May Eve too, and drive their cows over it. Or two bonfires side by side, and the cattle had to go between them. So close that the hide on them would be singed and the tang of burnt hair was strong on the breeze. In certain places, some would even be taken to the hilltops and bled; as an offering to the Old Ones, or to let out the bad humours… who knows why?
If there was a pond of water between two farmers, both farmers would try to be out early to skim the pond before the other got to it. They’d have to say the right words too: “North and South and East and West is mine”, or it wouldn’t even work, and their neighbour would get it all instead.
Then – to protect from all this magical influence going round and about at Bealtaine, you’d go and gather armful of yellow flowers. Or send the young girls of the house to do it, and these flowers were simply 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. They’d keep away all sorts; the ill-luck, evil spirits, and disease.
Sure you’d never know what’s out and about on May Eve in Ireland.
May Bush, May Flowers, May Pole and May Bough are all traditions still to be found scattered through the Irish countryside come Bealtaine, 30th April (May Eve) and 1st May (May Day).
You might call it Beltine, Beltane, Beltaine, or any other variation of the word, but in Ireland it’s Bealtaine, as that is still the Irish language word for the month of May. So that’s good enough for me.
The turning of the year from Winter Darkness to Summer’s Light was and still is marked with flowers, fire, and fucking. (Maybe I should have said fertility? It’s also an ‘f’ word, so the alliteration would stand, but fucking just felt more honest.)
Luck and protection, health and happiness are the themes, and everything done as an individual or as a community focused on these important drives.
Originally we had two seasons, Summer and Winter, Sam and Gam in sean ghaeilge (old Irish). These were the times when everything changed – people, herds and flocks moved from winter to summer dwellings and pastures. Work focus changed. Women got pregnant at this time to ensure that come the third trimester they could be safely tucked up with indoor jobs beside the fire, preparing for a Spring birth with fresh foods available for essential sustenance. So, fucking in the fields was not just for fertility fun folks, this is a serious scheduling issue right here.
This year, I will not go out and get pregnant. In previous years, it seemed like an extreme adherance and a step too far – but this year, it’s moved to being physically impossible for me.
I will wash my face in the morning’s dew. Hey, I am turning 39 next Tuesday – I’ll take what I can get with regards to ancient traditions to impart a fresh faced glow. The sun’s rays piercing water, shimmering on a liquid surface this morning gives the blessing of beauty to those in the know. Or so they say.
There will be flowers strewn on my doorsteps, front and back, and on May Day a small group of us from the Waterford Pub Moot will meet and visit an ancient site for a picnic. I will probably do my usual clean up of said site, if there’s anything round it that shouldn’t be round it.
My Nana told me a story years ago about a cousin of hers in County Clare, who would go out on May morning with rotten eggs, and mix them into the soil of her neighbours’ fields. Bealtaine is a time for magic and mischief, and if you don’t look out you’ll be on the receiving end of all that.
So my protective fires will be lit, my boundaries and thresholds re-walked and reinforced, and I’ll do a general magical tidy up round the house and neighbourhood. Checking the fences, as it were. I pity the May Fool who tries to cross here uninvited *summer smiles*.
All will be well for the turning of the year, and as it should be. I wish you that and more, mo chairde.
Bealtaine shona dhaiobh, chun solas is beatha a fháil.