Béaltaine Féis: Bilé’s Fire Festival/Feast

Introduction:

Reality™ consists of multiple worlds, or as some today say, a “Multiverse of Realities”. At a very minimum, Gaelic Traditionalists believe there is a World of the Stars (the Sky), a Middle World (the Earth, or the Land) and an Underworld (the Sea). All of these worlds are connected in some way, with events and magicks from one affecting events occurring in a different world. These Worlds, separated by what some call The Veils, are closer at certain times called the “In-Between Times”. It should also be no surprise that the Ancestors practiced Their most important Magicks during such In-Between Times as the sunrise, the sunset, the moonrise, the moonset, and during the transitions of the seasons (Béaltaine and Samhain), as well as the extremes of the Sun (Mid-Winter and Mid-Summer), or the great “Fire Festivals”. The period from Samhain to Béaltaine is called “An Ghrian beag” or the “little Sun”. The period from Béaltaine to Samhain is called “An Ghrian mór” or the “greater Sun”. Great fires are kindled during the fire festivals. The thought behind this is that “like attracts like”, so that the Power of the flames will also attract the Magickal Power of the Sun. The fires also encourage and enhance the energies of the Sun and help to create conditions favorable to transmutation of magickal power.

Béaltaine is the first day of the summer season and begins the light half of the year, and Samhain is the start of the Celtic new year and begins the winter season, the dark half of the year. Béaltaine roughly translates to “Bel’s fire”, the Irish word for fire is “tinne”, and it refers to the bonfires lit on hilltops in honor of the Ancestor variously known as Bel, Beli, Bilé, Belenos, or Belenus. Bel, who is called Bilé (BEE-luh) in Ireland, is the Ancestor of light and fire, the life-giver, represented by the sun. Bilé is also called the “god of death” and He is associated with the Underworld. Why the apparent dichotomy? He is the Ancestor of both Life and Death. Bilé is often symbolically represented as the Tree of Life, connecting the three Worlds of Sky, Land, and Sea, so He is in many ways the transition and connection between Worlds. When we think of the three Worlds of Sky, Land, and Sea, and the elements associated with each (air, earth, and water), we might ask “What about fire? Where does that fit in?” Fire is that which connects every thing to every other thing… it runs through and is a part of everything. It is the connection and the Source of all things, it is also the “fire in the head”.

    “I am a wind on the sea,
    I am a wave of the ocean,
    I am the roar of the sea,
    I am a powerful ox,
    I am a hawk on a cliff,
    I am a dewdrop in sunshine,
    I am a boar for valor,
    I am a salmon in pools,
    I am a lake on a plain,
    I am the strength of art,
    I am a spear with spoils that wages battle,
    I am the one who shapes fire for a head…”

    -Amairgin, upon stepping foot on shore at Inber Colptha, Éire

“Fire for a head” means thought, and probably also refers to the magick inherent in thought… so it is fire that both creates and destroys, fire that runs through all things. Life and Death were very much a part of the ongoing process of Being to the ancient Celts. Death was considered to be a doorway between lives and not an ending. Life and Death are natural parts of the circle of time, which is eternal. The Sun spends part of the day (darkness) within the Depths. It spends the other part of the day in the vault of the Sky.

Béaltaine:

One of two Celtic fire festivals, Béaltaine is a celebration of the return of life and fertility to the world which takes place from sunset on April 30 to sunset on May 1. It is sometimes referred to as Cetsamhain which means “opposite Samhain.” In the various Celtic countries the festival is known by other names, such as Shenn do Boaldyn on the Isle of Man and Galan Mae in Wales. The Saxons called this day Walpurgisnacht, the night of Walpurga, goddess of May. Like Brigid, the Christian Church changed this goddess into St. Walpurga and attached a similar legend to her origin.

On Béaltaine, the entire tribe, village or clan traditionally leads the cattle to the Summer buailte (BOOa-ltuh) or pastures, until Samhain. Béaltaine is traditionally a fertility festival, an encouragement for the crops to begin growing and the cattle to give birth to the next generation. Sometimes, a procession is made around the fields with a burning torch of wood in order to obtain a blessing on the crops. On this day, all hearth-fires are extinguished to be rekindled at dawn the following morning from the sacred “bale-fire”. Traditionally, the hearth fire is kept burning all year, since its lighting on Samhain, until May Eve when the fire is extinguished. At this time, the hearth and chimney are thoroughly cleaned. It is also at this time that people give a thorough “spring cleaning” to their houses.

Two bonfires are kindled, probably from tein-eigin (need-fire), a fire made from the friction of two pieces of sacred wood, likely the oak. This fire originally symbolized the sacrifice of Bilé, the sacred Tree of Life. The Druids, would drive the cattle between these two bonfires to protect them from disease, to keep them magickally safe, and to ensure a high milk yield and fertility. In ancient Ireland, no one could light a Bel-fire until the Ard Ri, High King, had lit the first on Tara Hill. In 433 A.D., St. Patrick showed his deep understanding of this festival’s symbolism when he lit a fire on Slane Hill, ten miles from Tara, before King Laoghaire lit his. He could not have made a stronger symbolic usurpation of the people’s pagan faith. St. David made a similar gesture in Wales in the following century. These bonfires are kept burning all day and night, and people carry home torches from the Béaltaine fire to rekindle their own hearth, which is lit the next morning. The new flames symbolize a fresh start. The Maypole Dance, jumping through the Béaltaine bonfire, and the May Day games all celebrate the rebirth of Bilé.

A young, unmarried woman of the village is chosen to preside over the festival as the May Queen. Often the Queen chooses a consort from among the young men of the village, or sometimes the young men compete in a race or a mock combat for the honor. Young Celtic warriors (both male and female) often compete in various games of prowess, highlighting their skills as warriors, in the hopes of impressing some member of the opposite sex. The May King and Queen represent the Bilé and Danu, as Béaltaine is the celebration of the marriage of the First Father and the First Mother of the Tuatha Dé Danaan.

The Ancestors go and make love on the bare ground on Béaltaine ­ in some ways considered a ploughing of the earth, and the spilling of semen a fertilization of the earth, helping the crops to be fertile. Another, similar rite that used to take place at Béaltaine is called the “bringing in the May.” The young unmarried folks go out into the fields and collect flowers. They often spend the night in the woods, which sometimes results in many “greenwood marriages,” or “handfastings.” In the village the next morning, they stop at each home and exchange the flowers for food and drink. Thus, they represent a renewal of the Earth. This rite also represents the need of the tribe to share their belongings, sustaining the entire population as a result. Tribal needs always have priority over individual needs.

In ancient times, it was the May Queen who lead the singing to the rising sun (singing up the sun, as it were), as all the people congregated on the appropriate hill at Béaltaine. One telling explains that the May Queen rides in on a white horse and the May King on a black one. The Goddess on a white horse has a powerful association in Celtic mythology. When Niamh (NIV) of the Golden Hair comes to take Oisín (uh-SHEEN) away to the Land of Promise, she rides a white steed. Rhian Gabhra, or Rhiannon of the Gaels, rides a white mare in the Otherworldly realms. In both Welsh and Irish traditions the white mare symbolically represents the goddess in the Otherworld.

The May Pole, a phallic symbol for Bilé, is made usually from a Yule tree, its branches stripped and then planted into the Earth. Men and women dance around the pole, holding onto the ribbons and interweaving them as they go around. The King & Queen of May are elected as stand-ins for Bilé and Danu, and led the festival. (Also see http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Oracle/6360/may.html for a detailed description of, and instructions for, the May Pole Dance.)

Beltainne rites still take place at the famous Cloutie Well in Inverness-shire in Scotland. This well is situated on Culloden moor and is known by various names, such as Tobar Ghorm (the Blue Well) and Tobar n’Oige (Well of Youth). Cloutie means a cloth or rag. These clouties are tied on the surrounding trees by visitors who want to make a wish. Wells are seen as bringers of good health, and the water is considered sacred (not only because water represents Danu, but also because the Salmon of Knowledge lived in such waters). People make visits to the sacred well, and each clan territory has a sacred well. A visitor walks three times deiseal (sunwise, or clockwise) around the well, and then they throw in a silver coin, after which while thinking of their wish, they drink from the well using their hands. When those things are done, they tie a bit of colored cloth or a piece of clothing (cloutie) to a branch of a nearby tree. All of this has to be done in complete silence as well as when the sun isn’t in sight. The final part of the procedure requires that the visiting person be out of sight of the well before sunrise, otherwise the wish will not come true. According to the lore, young women also wash their face in the dew of Béaltaine morning to preserve their youth, as it is also considered to be sacred water.

As well as the widespread lighting of Béaltaine bonfires on moors or hilltops throughout Celtic lands, a special cake or bannock is made using eggs, milk and oatmeal. (Traditionally, meals on Béaltaine itself consist of cold foods, because the hearth-fires are extinguished.) These bannocks, which are kneaded entirely by hand, should not come into contact with steel. One piece of the bannock cake is blackened with charcoal and distributed along with the other pieces. Whoever draws this piece out of the bonnet has to leap three times through the flames of the Béaltainne fire, or they will have bad luck until the following Béaltaine. Young people jumped the fire for luck in finding a spouse, sojourners jumped the fire to ensure a safe journey, and pregnant women jumped the fire to assure an easy delivery. Béaltaine was also the time when divorces were granted in ancient Ireland, though the divorce laws changed throughout the years with the coming of the Church, and such was prohibited for many years. Handfasting (marriage) ceremonies are sometimes held on Béltaine. The term “honeymoon” comes from an old Béaltaine tradition. Béaltaine and Handfasting ceremonies are mostly held on nights of the full moon, and each pair of newlyweds is given a barrel of mead (honeywine). They are ushered into the woods, and are told not to come back until the barrel is empty. All of this is done with knowing grins from all.

The following is a poem translated out of the Gaelic by the Dal Riadh Celtic Trust and is said to be written by Fionn Mac Cumhail himself:

    May, clad in cloth of gold,
    Cometh this way;
    The fluting of the blackbirds
    Heralds the day.
    The dust coloured cuckoo
    Cries welcome O Queen!
    For winter has vanished,
    The thickets are green.
    Soon the trampling of cattle
    where river runs low!
    The long hair of the heather,
    The canna like snow.
    Wild waters are sleeping,
    Foam of blossom is here;
    Peace, save the panic
    In the heart of the deer.
    The wild bee is busy,
    The ant honey spills,
    The wandering kine
    Are abroad on the hills.
    The harp of the forest
    Sounds low, sounds sweet;
    Soft bloom on the heights;
    On the loch, haze of heat.
    The waterfall dreams;
    Snipe, corncakes, drum
    By the pool where the talk
    Of the rushes is come.
    The swallow is swooping;
    Song swings from each brae;
    Rich harvest of mast falls;
    The swamp shimmers gay.
    Happy the heart of man,
    Eager each maid;
    Lovely the forest,
    The wild plane, the green glade.
    Truly winter is gone,
    Come the time of delight,
    The summer truce joyous,
    May, blossom-white.
    In the heart of the meadows
    The lapwings are quiet;
    A winding stream
    Makes drowsy riot.
    Race horses, sail, run,
    Rejoice and be bold!
    See, the shaft of the sun
    Makes the water-flag gold.
    Loud, clear, the blackcap;
    The lark trills his voice
    Hail May of delicate colours
    tis May-Day – rejoice!

Besides being a celebration of the fertility of the earth and the renewed growth of crops and fertility of cattle, what we must also realize is that the cycle of planting and growth does not only pertain to the physical world, but also to our Spirituality as a whole. Béaltaine should be a time to plant the seeds of spiritual growth and development within us all.

I plant this seed.

With Love,
Áine

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