Excerpted from "Kindling the Celtic Spirit" by Mara Freeman, c 2001. Used with permission.

When the gates of Beltane swing open on May 1, sunlight and blossom welcome the procession of the year into the green halls of summer. At Imbolc we rejoiced at the return of light; now we celebrate life, growth, love and sexuality: "the force that drives the green fuse through the flower," in the words of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

While the second part of Irish Beltane and Scottish Bealtuinn clearly means "fire," from the old Celtic word tene, linguists are uncertain as to whether Bel refers to Belenos, the Gaulish Apollo, or is simply derived from bel, meaning "brilliant." It might even derive from bil tene, or "lucky fire," because to jump between two Beltaine fires was sure to bring good fortune, health to your livestock, and prosperity.

Gods of the Celts: Belenos

Belenos (Beh-ley-noss) was a sun god who may have been connected with the festival of Beltaine. His name means "bright" or "brilliant." The Romans called him Apollo Belenos, after their god of the sun, but he seems to have existed as a Celtic god in his own right before this period. His cult extended from northern Italy and up through Austria and Gaul, where there were sanctuaries dedicated to him at healing springs, for the sun was believed to have marvelous curative properties when associated with water. A shrine to Belenos may still stand at Paimpont in the old forest of Broceliande in Brittany, Gaul. In the clearing, the sacred well known as the Fountain of Barenton bubbles up near an ancient dolmen stone. The old name of the sacred well was Belenton, probably a contraction of Bel-Nementon, the sacred grove of Belenos.

The Blessing of Fire

I'll tell you of a special festival,
The glorious dues of May-day;
Ale, roots, sweet whey,
And fresh curds to the fire.

-- Early Irish Calendar Poem
On Beltane Eve the druids and their successors assembled on high hills with a view of the rising sun. They came to raise the great fires that would bring the power of the sun to Earth and to sanctify and purify the whole community and their livestock in readiness for the new cycle. Fire was an interface between the human race and the divine, in particular, the elemental powers of the Upperworld who would determine the fate of herds, the flocks, and the growing harvest. Sacrificial offerings were cast into the fire to gain their goodwill, born skyward on flames like hands uplifted in prayer.
In later centuries the Beltane fires continued to blaze in Scotland and Ireland. An eighteenth-century account from the Scottish Highlands describes how every fire in the household was put out, and on the hill the fire for the great bonfires, known as the "needfire," was kindled with the wood of nine sacred trees. Only the best men were fit to kindle the sacred fire. If any were guilty of murder, adultery, theft, or other major crime, the fire would not kindle or else it would lack its usual virtues. Three times three, three times nine, or even nine times nine men took turns twirling the stick, or "windle" of oak, which fitted snugly inside a hole bored in a well-seasoned plank of oak, the tree of the sun. As soon as sparks began to appear, they applied a piece of agaric, a fungus that grows on old birch trees and is very combustible. Birch, as we have seen, is a tree associated with new beginnings, purification and the spirit world.

The fire came like a blessing from the gods. From this magical flame the great bonfire was lit, and now shadowy figures emerged from their darkened homesteads below the hill, driving their cattle before them. They also carried provisions--a custard of eggs, butter, oatmeal, and milk, and plenty of beer and whiskey.

Some of the custard was poured on the ground as an offering to the gods and the sacred land.

There was also an oatmeal bannock upon which were raised nine square knobs, one each for a god or saint who protected their flocks and herds, and also for the particular animals that preyed on them. Turning to the fire, each person broke off a knob and threw it over his or her shoulder, saying, "This I give to thee, preserve thou my horses; this to thee, preserve thou my sheep." And to the predators: "This I give to thee, O Fox! Spare thou my lambs. This to thee, O hooded Crow! This to thee, O Eagle!" When the ceremony was over they ate the rest of the food.

A nineteenth-century account from Ireland gives us a glimpse of the scenes that might have followed. The whole hillside came alive as the boys thrust brands of dried sedge and heather into the newly roaring flames and whirled them about their heads in imitation of the circling sun. Dances spun in a ring. Young men leaped through the flames to sain, or protect, themselves and their livestock, while old folk slowly walked around the fire muttering prayers. A man about to embark on a long journey or dangerous undertaking--or to do both by getting married--leaped backward and forward three times through the flames for luck.
In some places two fires were built and the livestock driven between them to purify them from disease after the long winter inside. As the fire sunk low, the girls jumped across it to procure good husbands; pregnant women stepped through it to ensure easy birth; and mothers carried their children across the smoldering ashes. All celebrated the power of the sacred fire to purify the air of demon and disease, thunder and lightning, and anything else that might harm their hopes for the unborn child of the year's harvest.

When the fire died down the embers were thrown among the sprouting crops for good luck, while each household carried some back to kindle a new fire in their hearth. When the sun rose those who had stayed up to watch it might see it dance for joy three times upon the horizon before leaping up in all its summer glory.

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