Beltane - The Fires of Bel

Beltane Fire Festival

Beltane, celebrated on May 1st, is the third of four annual Celtic Feast Days. There is evidence that Beltane had its origins in rituals associated with the Pan-Celtic Solar God "Bel" and it is believed that the Druidical Orders historically played a central role. "This was a time when the Celts offered praise to Bel, who was not only a god of death but of life as well, for he is represented as a solar deity and he was regarded as having gained victory over the powers of darkness by bringing the people within sight of another harvest. On that day (Beltane) the fires of the household would be extinguished.  At a given time the Druids would rekindle the fires from the torches lit by 'The Sacred Fires of Bel', the rays of the sun, and the new flames symbolized a fresh start for everyone" (Ellis).

The Celtic Otherworld opens on Beltane, as it does on Samhain (Halloween), but unlike at Samhain the Beltane door to the Otherworld is associated with rebirth and renewal: "As with other such festivals, Beltane began at sundown on the eve of the festival day. Like Samhain in the fall, Beltane was a day when the door to the Otherworld opened sufficiently for Fairies and the dead to communicate with the living. Whereas Samhain was essentially a festival of the dead, Beltane was one for the living, when vibrant spirits were said to come forth seeking incarnation in human bodies or intercourse with the human realm" (Monaghan).

There are four great Feast Days of the Celtic Year:

  • Samhain - the Celtic New Year (Halloween) celebrated on November 1st
  • Imbolg - the Feast of the Goddess Brigit on February 1st
  • Beltane
  • Lughnasadh - the harvest festival and last feast day in the year which falls on August 1st

Samhain has generally been subsumed into Halloween and Imbolg has been hijacked by the Christian conversion of the powerful Celtic Goddess Brigit into the Christian Saint of the same name.  Perhaps unique amongst the Four Celtic Feast days, Beltane observances have survived in essentially archaic form, due in part to its simplicity in that the celebrations historically included the lighting of bonfires.  Remnants of the tradition have survived into modern times throughout the Six Nations. As the Pan-Celtic movement continues to strengthen, Beltane is experiencing resurgence.

Indeed there is a much publicized modern day observance of Beltane at the popular Edinburgh "Beltane Fire Festival". From the Edinburgh Festival's website: "In Scotland, the lighting of the Beltane fires, round which cattle were driven, over which brave souls danced and leapt, would survive into modern times, although a process of slow decline saw towns and villages slowly abandon the practice in the nineteenth century. The last Beltane fire recorded in Helmsdale in 1820. In the middle years of the century the fires of Fife sputtered out, and by the 1870’s they would go unlit in the Shetland Isles. By the start of the twentieth century, Edinburgh, which had from time immemorial seen beacons lit on Arthur's Hill, ceased such public Beltane celebrations. In 1988 Edinburgh’s Beltane fires were brought to life once more…" 

The noted scholar and Scottish Folklorist Margaret Bennett, who was a participant in the 1988 revival, cites the Druidical links to Beltane and comments on the traditions being created at the Edinburgh Festival: "At dawn everyone arose to welcome the sun and to wash in the May dew, thought to have been the holy water of the Druids, but, according to oral tradition, believed to assure beauty. The widespread May dew custom outlasted the Beltane fire which died out in the 19th century, though 1988 saw the revival of it in Edinburgh. Since then, the Beltane Fire Festival is held annually on Calton Hill, and combines tradition with theatre. It is presided over by the May Queen, a Green Man, several Red and Blue Men, many drummers and dancing maidens."

 

Interview with Festival "Scribe" Tanya

Transceltic contacted the Beltane Fire Festival organizers and posed the following questions to Tanya, the designated Festival "Scribe":

Beltane symbol

1. Do you consider the festival to be a continuation of the historical Celtic Feast day or is it something new or different?

Beltane Fire Festival is, and always has been, inspired by Celtic traditions. Beltane Fire Society is a registered charity and part of our charitable aims involves the celebration and sharing of these traditions. Our festival includes traditional characters, like the May Queen and Green Man, and performances are often inspired by recognisable archetypes from Celtic stories, for example our Samhuinn Fire Festival includes the Cailleach, the divine hag from Scottish and Irish mythology, but we also embrace modern retellings and interpretations of myth and legend. Like with historical Beltane traditions, we celebrate the onset of summer and the turning of the wheel of the year into the new season ahead.

2. Do you view the Festival as a Cultural or Religious event?

Beltane Fire Society is a secular organisation, so we have no religious ties whatsoever. We have a number of Pagan members who are drawn to our Society because we celebrate events which resonate with their own festivals, but we also have a lot of members who get involved because they enjoy taking part in public theatre - people with backgrounds in acrobatics, dance, music and fire performance, for example - and plenty who simply love being part of a diverse, creative community and sharing something fun and exciting with their friends. We have participants and audience members from all over the world and Beltane has definitely become part of Edinburgh's festival culture and a great reason to visit Scotland!

3. What do you see as the future of the festival?

As Beltane Fire Festival is a volunteer-run community event, the nature of the festival is a very much self-determining phenomenon and the event is in a constant state of evolution, with different people sharing their creativity and vision every year, shaping the performances. We welcome fresh perspectives and changing interpretations of the Celtic traditions that inspire the festival, so it’s always very exciting to create a new event each year! There are characters who appear year after year - like the May Queen and Green Man, Blue Men, White Women and Red Men (although some years the Blues, Whites and Reds don't identify with any particular gender) - and fire is always a big part of the event! It's very difficult to predict the future of Beltane because it’s so dependent on the individuals who take part each year.

Transceltic urges our readers to support the Festival. Based on the ancient Celtic Feast Day, the Edinburgh's Beltane Fire Festival is developing its own traditions. Consistent or not with the ancient practices of the Druids, the great Celtic Feast day heralding the beginning of the agricultural year is renewed and the spirit of the past lives on. Transceltic applauds and supports the Edinburgh Fire Festival as a vital source in the preservation, protection and promotion of Celtic culture.

Beltane Fire Festival 2013 will be held on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland, on Tuesday 30th April. Entrance by Waterloo Place. Gates open at 8pm. Show starts at 9.30pm For more information visit the Beltane Fire Society website.

 


Sources

  1. Peter Beresford Ellis; "Dictionary of Celtic Mythology"
  2. Miranda J. Green; "Dictionary of Celtic Myth & Legend"
  3. Patricia Monaghan; "The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore"
  4. Margaret Bennett – Handing on Tradition (external website)