Bealtaine – A Celebration Of Our Heritage and Understanding The Sacred Symbolism Used By Our Ancestors
Bealtaine marks the point between Imbolc and the Summer Solstice on the Celtic and Ancient Irish calendar. It is one of the most significant traditional celebrations of our ancestors, treated with a similar height of reverence as is given to Samhain. Astronomically, it falls on 5th May this year, with May Eve on 4th.
Bealtaine is a fascinating traditional festival for many reasons. Like Samhain, the veils between the worlds are said to be thinner than usual, allowing for the Fae Folk to easily mix among humans, and pass freely between the worlds. For this reason, rituals to ensure protection of the home and land were traditionally done between the eve of Bealtaine and the day itself. Examples of rituals include:
- Leaving an offering of food or milk at the entrance to the home for the Fae
- Branches of Rowan (for livestock) or Hawthorn (for homes) were left at the doorways for protection and luck
- Yellow flowers, particularly primroses, would be placed on the doorstep and entrances to home to ward off evil spirits
May Eve is given over completely to the fairies. It is said that humans should remain indoors, particularly after dark, as to encounter the Fae on this day would make it difficult, if not impossible, to return to the human world. At night they are said to play music so sweet, that it would lure humans into the fairy realms with it’s hypnotic sounds.
All fires would be extinguished on the night of Bealtaine Eve and would only be lit again once the sacred Bealtaine fire at Uisneach had been lit. On May Day itself, it is said to be bad luck for fire, water or milk to leave the house, as it is said to reduce the homes abundance and profits for the year ahead.
Symbolism within the Irish Spiritual Tradition of Bealtaine:
Bealtaine marks the beginning of summer, the welcoming of the sun and also the reawakening of Eiriú, of mother earth. The combination of the celebration of the sun, the fire and the earth simultaneously tells us a lot about the understanding our ancestors and the ancient druids had in respect to the seasons, abundance and fertility of the land.
The fire, is symbolic of the sun, and a homage to the ancient Sun God. In the Irish mythology of the Tuath de Danann, Lugh is generally represented as the Sun God, and Dian Cecht as the God of Healing, however there is Celtic reference to a God, Belenus, who is said to be both.
Personally, my own opinion would be that, in the case of Bealtaine, the fire was used as a symbol for the Divine Masculine, which is generally symbolised by the Sun. It represented the fertilisation of the earth, the integration of light and warmth, and signified the prosperous months ahead for the land. The land represented the economy of most of the people throughout ancient times. The ancient druids ordered that the land fall into darkness on the eve of Bealtaine, thus by lighting the fire, they were inviting in and integrating the divine masculine back into the land. In ancient traditions, one must not be controlled by the authority of the sun or the fire, the Divine Masculine, but rather, one must learn to manage this energy, integrating authority and direction when required for the higher good. By ordering the extinguishing of all fires across the land, the ancient druids were doing just that.
Bealtaine also celebrates the reawakening of Eiriú, who rests under the Ail na Mireann, located at Uisneach. It is a time of fruition, a time when we begin to see the crops rise above ground, trees bear fruit and the land is filled with life, bringing a sense of abundance and security that communities will be well provided for in the colder months to come.
The lighting of the fires at Uisneach, are to mark the moment of reawakening of Eiriú. Two fires are lit, representing the two eyes of the Mother Earth opening, and also marks the coming together, in sacred union, of the Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine. Traditionally livestock would be passed through the two fires for luck and protection, and great celebrations followed the lighting of the fires. The fire then continued to spread outwards, extending out to all of the communities and kingdoms of Ireland, until the land was filled with light, warmth, joy and great celebration.
Bealtaine also marks the strengthening of power of the Oak King, the representation of the light half of the year, as he prepares to step into his full power on the Summer Solstice. There is a constant battle between the Holly King, who represents the darker half of the year, and the Oak King, throughout the year, symbolic of the transitions of the seasons throughout the calendar year. It pays homage to the importance and sacredness of the trees in ancient times, and is reminiscent of the druid practices that were once held in high regard by the Nobel classes of Ireland.
These trees do hold sacred medicine for those who continue to use them medicinally or energetically. The holly is said to offer protect and aid to ward off evil spirits, and the oak is said to encourage strength, sovereignty and justice. Understandable why these two trees were elected to represent their corresponding times of year.
What relevance can Bealtaine hold for us in our everyday lives?
There has been a rise in enthusiasm to revive the tradition of Bealtaine itself in Ireland. People are beginning to regain a sense of who the Irish are and a sense of pride in our own cultural heritage. Therefore, in some ways, as opposed to being a modernised tradition, it is one of the few that has been preserved in large part in it’s ancient form. Huge crowds gather each year at Uisneach, where the Bealtaine fires are lit and traditional celebrations and processions are honoured.
However, as with all of the festivals and traditions, Bealtaine holds characteristics and qualities which reflect the inner processes of humans and the relationship they have with the changing season and preparation for the summer cycle.
The reawakening of Eiriú, the representation of the Divine Feminine, encourages us to connect with the nurturing aspects of ourselves. We are prompted to identify our desires and goals for the coming year, and give birth to these ideas, nurturing them and taking an active part in their growth. We are encouraged to take a moment to assess our own strengths and attributes, and integrate a greater sense of self-value, as confidence and self-belief go hand in hand with success and growth.
The coming together of the Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine energies during Bealtaine symbolises direction and authority within the nurturing and growth period. It encourages us to use the energy of this six week cycle, to give our projects and goals direction, and to take a leadership roles in our own success story.
On a community and environmental level, the nice weather and the lush green fields, offer ample opportunities to venture out into nature and reconnect with ourselves on a more natural and biological level. As Bealtaine celebrates the wonder and beauty of the earth, and how it provides for us, we are reminded to take time out of our busy schedules to honour the earth in our own way – whether it be simply sitting in gratitude under the warm sun or tending to young trees and flowers.
As you can see, Bealtaine is a complex celebration, complete with many layers of symbolism and spiritual understanding. It allows us some insight into the great importance this time of year had for our ancestors and the importance they placed on honouring the earth. After all, their survival during the following winter depended on the fruit of their labours and the fertility of land during this time, both in terms of food provisions and natural medicine.
The next great celebration after Bealtaine is the Summer Solstice, when light is at it’s full power, followed by the harvest celebration of Lughnasadh, when the community can finally be assured of their bounty for the winter months ahead.