Springtime Traditions, Part 4
Happy May Day! (Well, two days late.) As Americans, we’ve all heard about May Day celebrations, but chances are all the words conjure for you are a vague image of girls dancing around a pole with ribbons. Or maybe the words just alarm you (though, fun fact: mayday as a distress call is actually just a corruption of the French m’aider which means, unsurprisingly: help me.) However, if you’re not new to the blog, you won’t be surprised to hear that in Ireland, May 1st has a long history of celebration—all the way back to its druidic, pagan past.
Beltane (pronounced bel-tein) is one of the four major fire festivals in Gaelic, pagan culture and has been observed from April 30th into May 1st for as long as there have been people in Ireland. The name means “bright fire” or, alternatively, “fires of bel” for the Celtic sun god, Belenus, as this bright twin of Samhain (which marks the beginning of winter) was meant to mark the beginning of summer on the Emerald Isle. Though there’s plenty of healthy debate about Belenus’s exact role in ancient, Irish worship, most sources see him as a Gaelic equivalent to Apollo, especially as he’s often depicted with similar accouterment: a chariot being driven across the sky, a corona of light, and the sun. However, Belenus had additional associations that fit a springtime god well: healing and medicine (to this day, shrines to Belenus often include therapeutic and sacred springs,) fertility and sexuality, and even livestock and crops.
Like all the major fire festivals (check out our posts about Samhain and Imbolc—and we’ll see you this summer for Lúnasa) in Gaelic culture, Beltane was a time when the community came together at a shared bonfire to honor Belenus and relight their own hearths from the blaze—but Beltane is notable for its tradition of having two bonfires. As the ancient Irish were a largely agrarian people who were early cultivators of livestock, these bonfires did more than bring everyone together, but were believed to honor the return of the sun and thus, a return of life after a long, hard, hungry winter. People would drive their cattle between the two bonfires to let the smoke wash over the animals to bless them, protect them from disease, and encourage fertility, before driving them out to pasture for the warmer months. The sacred smoke was also thought to bless those in attendance and sometimes, the brave would leap over the fires in an attempt to garner even better luck.
Much like Samhain, Beltane was also believed to be a time where our world and the Otherworld (in Gaelic: Tír na nÓg aka the faerie world,) were closest. Also much like Samhain or Yule, decorations were placed in and around the home to ward off trickster faeries (who might be looking to steal milk and butter from the livestock they just went to such careful trouble to protect—people left the faeries their own milk and honey outside instead!) But what does one decorate with in May? Why, May flowers, of course! Yellow flowers such as buttercups, primroses, and marigolds were especially coveted, and people supplemented their floral decorations with greenery—in some regions whole boughs or bushes that were additionally decorated with strips of colorful cloth! These decorations were a multifaceted part of the day: they were celebratory of the warmth and sun in the months to come, but also thought of as protection—everyone knows the fey love beauty can’t resist stopping to smell a pretty flower!
Like all other pagan spring celebrations, Beltane was also holiday focused on fertility and new life. Not only were homes decorated with flowers and greenery, in some regions flower crowns or posies were popular accessories for unmarried or newly married women (and even placed on the cattle people were hoping to breed and protect.) While the iconic Maypole was a later, English addition to the festivities (and were most popular in heavily English-influenced areas,) it gained popularity over time and became a part of the communal festivities in many areas. The dance around the Maypole has long been considered by historians to be a remanent of a fertility ritual, and many towns would then crown a May Queen from the dancers to lead a procession—a tradition thought to be Roman in origin, originally in worship of the spring goddess, Flora.
While most of us probably didn’t have access to a Maypole (or any cattle to bless) this year, we can certainly get behind celebrating spring after this long, (isolated) winter! While these types of agrarian celebrations seem a truly ancient part of our past some days, humans will always be excited to see the sun after the coldest months of the year. So, as you go about your modern life this early May, maybe pick some daffodils and leave some milk and honey out for the faeries—you know, just in case.
This post is part of a series. Read about the tradition of Mothering Sunday in our last installment here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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