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.
Pagan Holidays (Holy Days) worldwide are coming back to a more general use and understanding, with folk often asking questions about whether Christmas is a Pagan Holiday (it is, sort of), and observing the 8-fold Wheel of the Year.
The current Neo Pagan calendar (and its primarily Wiccan holidays) is ostensibly based off the ‘Celtic Wheel of the Year’, as the early creators and authors of our modern traditions were very fond of their romantic notions of Celtic culture, and very sure that it was ok to just… take what they wanted, and change or use it however they wanted.
*cough* Coilíní *cough*
The problem with this (one of the problems) is that we now have a sort of tangled, much mangled, view of the original pre-christian Irish Pagan festivals, that even many Irish Pagans adhere to.
In this post, I’d like to break this down a bit, and clarify some of the basics, so that we can (hopefully), start fresh. With a somewhat cleaner slate for Irish Pagan practice. Le do thoil.
To begin with, the ‘traditional’ eight Pagan Holidays, are actually 2 sets of four. So the wheel of the year is maybe 2 wheels, rotating side by side.
This can be a little confusing if you’re not used to considering things this way, but I do remember being quite frustrated back in my baby Pagan days by how the festivals seemed to just be copies of each other. Like, within the Wiccan traditions, there’s not a huge difference between how you’re celebrating the Summer Solstice (Litha) and Beltane, for example.
In my native practice, I break the focus, themes or concerns out as follows:
The Pagan Calendar names I use are in modern Irish, and the associated Gaeilge video is also my schoolgirl modern Irish pronunciation, to be clear.
Irish is a living language, and while I’m the first one to honour the Primitive Irish and Old Irish source material, they are different languages. We have modern Irish terminology for every single Pagan Holiday name, and a wealth of associated folklore and traditions within our living memory in Irish communities. So let’s use that.
Admittedly now, some of the folklore has gotten crossed over and shifted around with the Christian influences, eg. Summer Solstice bonfires now happen on St. John’s Eve, on the 23rd June, and the animal sacrifice tradition has moved from Samhain to St. Martin’s Day, on the 11th November. But that’s ok too.
At least the traditions still exist, and have grown and moved with the communities as we did.
Focus on Community, Hearth & Home, the Otherworld (an Saol Eile).
When people first walked this land, there were 2 seasons: summer and winter. They signified the change and move between camping grounds, as theirs was a Hunter/Gatherer lifestyle.
These times of moving and changing were dangerous and uncertain, and this still holds true in the primary Irish Pagan holidays of Bealtaine, and Samhain, which remain times of great change and uncertainty.
When the people settled, and began to farm the land, the seasons of Growth and Harvest were marked, with Imbolg and Lúnasa, and so began the 4 Fire Festivals.
[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]
Personally, I use the name Imbolg for this festival. That’s from the Irish i mBolg, meaning ‘in the belly’, for the pregnancy aspects (animals as well as humans, because if we get pregnant at Bealtaine we give birth around now). Imbolc is commonly used too though, and may have associations with washing or a ‘spring clean’ after winter, from Folc, meaning ‘bathe or wash’. I’m honestly not sure which language the term Oimelc comes from, though it’s been given to mean ‘ewe’s milk’. That would be Bainne na Caoirigh in modern Irish though, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
We have this clearly in old Irish as Belltaine (with various other spellings, the manuscripts weren’t always precise or standardised), meaning the month of May, or even ‘the month of the beacon-fire) according to the eDIL. It may have associations with an Old Celtic God Boleros, ‘the flashing one’ (Ó hÓgáin) or Balar/Balor in Ireland, he of the single, blazing destructive eye (often thought to be symbolic of the sun), and form the word Bealtaine from Balor’s Fire (tine).
There are multiple spellings out there, and I know some of them are based on the Gaelic language of Scotland, which I don’t speak. But as we still use the word Bealtaine in modern Irish for the month of May, and again – this is a living language, and it’d be great not to have to deal with bastardised or anglicised versions of it anymore please and thank you – let’s go with that eh?!
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Bealtaine
You’ll often see this written as Lughnasadh, and indeed, I’ve done so myself. As above though, I prefer the modern Irish spelling, and in Gaeilge, Lúnasa is the word for the month of August. I mean, I wasn’t joking about these Pagan holidays still being a part of our culture.
You’ll see references too, to Lammas, which we don’t have in modern Irish. My basic exploration of Old Irish suggests it MIGHT be a version of a ‘fine, handsome or excellent hand’ (from n. Lám and adj. Mass?)… but be warned, that is a very rudimentary look at a compound word! I definitely don’t use it as a Pagan Holiday name anyway.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Lúnasa
It’s not pronounced Sam-Hane. Never. I don’t care what your esteemed Elders passed down to you not-so-very-long-ago (in the grand scheme of things).
This is a LIVING LANGUAGE. Respect it, and the people who still speak it every day. Stop that Sam-Hane shit immediately.
It probably comes from the Old Irish samfuin, meaning ‘death of Summer’: eDIL. Samhain in modern Irish is the word for the month of November.
So yes, we know how to pronounce it properly. (Are you getting a sense for how many times I’ve had U.S. Pagans correct my pronunciation? Like, I’m not sure how to even communicate how infuriating that is, especially when it happens consistently!)
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhain
Focus on Community, Land & Sovereignty, this World (an Saol Sin – or Seo).
We know these times were important to our ancestors due, at least, to the sacred sites they constructed and used to observe and celebrate them. Massive monuments all over the island still attest to the power and value that was placed upon aligning ourselves, our communities, and our leadership, with these turning times of the Pagan year.
Please note: the common names Ostara, Litha, Mabon, and Yule, are at best culturally appropriated and co-opted into Neo Paganism, and at worst, carry entirely fabricated pseudo histories. I’m looking at you, Mabon.
They have NO place in native Irish paganism.
The Irish names below are simply the names of our seasons, as Gaeilge, and have always suited my personal practice around the Irish Pagan Holidays best.
[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]
The balance of day and night.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Earrach
Mid Summer, the longest day.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhradh
The balance of night and day.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Fómhar
Mid Winter, the longest night.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Geimhreadh
If you’d like more detail on any of the Irish Pagan Holidays, comment below and let me know. There’s already extensive sections in my books (see Publications – coming soon), but I can try and get some more blog posts and YouTube videos together for them if there’s an interest, and maybe even a wee course through our Irish Pagan School.
Let me know which of the Pagan holidays you want to see more on?!