What’s in a Name?

~by Pandora Silverfin

Many Wiccans and Pagans celebrate Beltane.  It is one of eight solar Sabbats.  This holiday incorporates traditions from the Gaelic word Bealtaine, such as the bonfire, but it bears more relation to the Germanic May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as May pole dancing).  Some traditions celebrate this holiday on May 1 or May day, or on April 30th.

Beltane has long been celebrated with feasts and rituals.  The name means fire of Bel; Belinos being one name for the Sun God, whose coronation feast we now celebrate.  In the Irish Gaelic language, the month of May is known as Mí Bhealtaine or Bealtaine, and the festival as Lá Bealtaine (‘day of Bealtaine’ or, ‘May Day’).  In the Scottish Gaelic language, the month is known as either (An) Cèitean or a’ Mhàigh, and the festival is known as Latha Bealltainn or simply Bealltainn.  The feast was also known as Céad Shamhain or Cétshamhainin from which the word Céitean derives.  Beltane was formerly spelt Bealtuinn in the Scottish Gaelic language; in Manx it is spelled Boaltinn or Boaldyn.  In Modern Irish, Oíche Bhealtaine is May Eve, and Lá Bealtaine is May Day.

Beltane was an ancient Gaelic festival celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.  It marked the beginning of summer and was linked to similar festivals held elsewhere in Europe, such as the Welsh Calan Mai and the Germanic Walpurgis Night.  Beltane and Samhain were the leading terminal dates of the civil year in medieval Ireland, though the latter festival was the more important.  It is a cross-quarter day, marking the midpoint in the Sun’s progress between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice.  The astronomical date for this midpoint is nearer to 5 May or 7 May, but this can vary from year to year.  In modern Scottish Gaelic, Latha Buidhe Bealltainn or Là Buidhe Bealltainn (‘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’.

According to Nora Chadwick, in Celtic Ireland “Beltine (or Beltaine) was celebrated on 1 May, a spring-time festival of optimism.  Fertility ritual again was important, in part perhaps connecting with the waxing power of the sun, symbolized by the lighting of fires through which livestock were driven, and around which the people danced in a sunwise direction.”  In the old Celtic times, young people would spend the entire night in the woods “A-Maying,” and then dance around the phallic Maypole the next morning.  Older married couples were allowed to remove their wedding rings (and the restrictions they imply) for this one night.  May morning is a magickal time for wild water (dew, flowing streams, and springs) which is collected and used to bathe in for beauty, or to drink for health.

In Irish mythology, the beginning of the summer season for the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians started at Bealtaine.  Great bonfires would mark a time of purification and transition, heralding in the season in the hope of a good harvest later in the year, and were accompanied with ritual acts to protect the people from any harm by Otherworldly spirits, such as the Aos Sí.  Like the festival of Samhain, opposite Beltane on 31 October, Beltane was also a time when the Otherworld was seen as particularly close at hand.  Excavations at Uisnech in the 20th century provided evidence of large fires taking place.

Beltane and Beltane-based festivals are held by some Neopagans.  As Neopaganism can vary largely from tradition to tradition, representations can vary greatly despite the shared name.  Some celebrate in a way as near as possible to how the ancient Gaels did, while others observe the holiday with rituals taken from sundry unrelated sources, Gaelic culture being only one of the sources used.

Neopagans usually celebrate Beltane on 30 April–1 May in the Northern Hemisphere and 31 October–1 November in the Southern Hemisphere.  Some Neopagans celebrate it at the astronomical midpoint between the spring equinox and summer solstice (or the full moon nearest this point).  In the Northern Hemisphere, this midpoint is when the ecliptic longitude of the Sun reaches 45 degrees. In 2014, this is on 5 May.