From Winter Dreams Come the Fires of Spring
Compiled by Bruce Driscoll
Spring comes with promise and growth, bringing life and warmth to the grays and browns of left-over winter. If, as T. S. Eliot wrote in The Wasteland, “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land,” then surely May is the month of renewal and joy. The ancient Celts celebrated the turning of the year as a great wheel, and the earth as the womb of life. Their beliefs were lunar focused as opposed to later groups who were solar focused.
They believed that everything was conceived in darkness and then brought into the light and this belief provided a common flow across all of their traditions and rituals. Just as babies are conceived in darkness and seeds are sown beneath the earth, the Celtic day started with darkness and moved into the light. Therefore, the Celtic day began at sundown and moved into the light. So did their concept of the year.
The year was divided into the “dark months” and the “light months”. It started in the dark months with Samhain at sundown on October 31st. While there were specific rituals and traditions associated with the solstices and equinoxes, the principle festivals were centred around the four fire festivals of the year. Of these, Samhain and Beltaine were considered the most important.
November 1st – Samhain – the beginning of the new year;
February 1st – Imbolg or Imbolc, represents the beginning of Spring . It means “in the belly” and signifies an end to the dark, hungry days of winter;
May 1st – Beltaine – The stirrings of life heard at Imbolg have matured into the vibrant song of summer;
August 1st – Lughnasadh – the first day of autumn and the beginning of the harvest.
The Return of the Sun…
Beltaine (pronounced bel-TEN-ya or bel-CHEN-ya) is an anglicization of the Irish “Bealtaine” or the Scottish “Bealtuinn.” While “tene” clearly means “fire,” nobody really knows whether Bel refers to Belenus, a pastoral god of the Gauls, or is from “bel,” simply meaning “brilliant.” It might even derive from “bil tene” or “lucky fire” because to jump between two Beltane fires was sure to bring good fortune, health to your livestock, and prosperity.
When the Druids and their successors raised the Beltaine fires on hilltops throughout the British Isles on May Eve, they were performing a real act of magic, for the fires were lit in order to bring the sun’s light down to earth. In Scotland, every fire in the household was extinguished, and the great fires were lit from the need-fire which was kindled by 3 times 3 men using wood from the nine sacred trees. When the wood burst into flames, it proclaimed the triumph of the light over the dark half of the year.
Having doused their hearth fires at sundown on April 30th, all Celtic households would thread their way up the hillsides, driving their livestock and pets before them, to reach the location of the twin holy fires burning brightly. These twin fires represented the eyes of the Goddess as she returned from her long winter sleep and beheld her subjects before her and her lands spread far and wide, awakening from the long dark months.
One by one the livestock were walked through the path between the two “eyes” where the Goddess could look favourably upon them, thereby cleansing them of all the impurities laid upon them in the darkness, and ensure their health for the upcoming year. After the livestock, then the people would follow, each receiving their blessings in turn.
Then the whole hillside came alive as people thrust brands into the newly roaring flames and whirled them about their heads in imitation of the circling of the sun. If any man there was planning a long journey or dangerous undertaking, he leaped backwards and forwards three times through the fire for luck. As the fire sunk low, the girls jumped across it to procure good husbands; pregnant women stepped through it to ensure an easy birth, and children were also carried across the smoldering ashes. When the fire died down, the embers were thrown among the sprouting crops to protect them, while each household carried some back to kindle a new fire in their hearth which would burn continuously from that point until the next May Eve. When the sun rose that dawn, those who had stayed up to watch it might see it whirl three times upon the horizon before leaping up in all its summer glory.
There are other associations with May 1st in Celtic mythology. According to the ancient Irish ‘Book of Invasions’, the first settler of Ireland, Partholan, arrived on May 1st; and it was on May 1st that the plague came which destroyed his people. Years later, the Tuatha De Danann were conquered by the Milesians on May Day. In Welsh myth, the perennial battle between Gwythur and Gwyn for the love of Creudylad took place each May Day; and it was on May Eve that Teirnyon lost his colts and found Pryderi. May Eve was also the occasion of a fearful scream that was heard each year throughout Wales, one of the three curses of the Coranians lifted by the skill of Lludd and Llevelys.
The Rites of Spring…
Beltaine was a time of fertility and unbridled merrymaking, when young and old would spend the night making love in the Greenwood. In the morning, they would return to the village bearing huge budding boughs of hawthorn (the may-tree) and other spring flowers with which to bedeck themselves, their families, and their houses. They would proceed back home, stopping at each house to leave flowers, and enjoy the best of food and drink that the home had to offer. In every village, the maypole—usually a birch or ash pole—was raised, and dancing and feasting began. Festivities were led by the May Queen and her consort, the King who was sometimes Jack-in-the-Green, or the Green Man, the old god of the wildwood. They were borne in state through the village in a cart covered with flowers and enthroned in a leafy arbour as the divine couple whose unity symbolized the sacred marriage of earth and sun.
These wildwood antics have inspired writers such as Kipling:
“Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!”
And for most, May 1st is that great holiday of flowers, Maypoles, and greenwood frivolity. It is no wonder that, as recently as 1977, Ian Anderson could pen the following lyrics for his art-rock band Jethro Tull:
”For the May Day is the great day,
Sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did ley
Will heed this song that calls them back.”
The plaiting of the May Pole
Modern-day Beltaine Suggestions…
Arise at dawn and wash in the morning dew: the woman who washes her face in it will be beautiful; the man who washes his hands will be skilled with knots and nets.
If you live near water, make a garland or tussey mussey (posey) of spring flowers and cast it into stream, lake or river to bless the water spirits.
Prepare a May basket by filling it with flowers and goodwill, then give it to one in need of caring, such as a shut-in or elderly friend.
Beltaine is one of the three “spirit-nights” of the year when the faeries can be seen. At dusk, twist a rowan sprig into a ring and look through it, and you may see them looking back at you!
Make a wish as you jump a bonfire or candle flame for good luck. Be careful of the flame!
Make a May bowl — a wine or punch in which the flowers of sweet woodruff or other fragrant blossoms are soaked—and drink with the one you love.
The dreams and hopes of the ancient ones were captured in the celebrations of Beltaine, and their rites of passage and fecundity have echoed down the centuries to blossom in those of us with Celtic blood and Celtic hearts. We would do well to embrace and cherish the renewal of life that Spring brings to our spirits as we shake off the chill of Winter’s passage, and rejoice once more with the fires in our souls.