Beltane, Beltine, Bealtuinn, or ‘oh fuck it, May Day’.

Portions of this article include materials from various pages on Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica and other online resources.

Tis May! Tis May!
The Lusty Month of May!
When Everyone and Everything,
Goes Blissfully Astray!

Beltane or Beltain is the anglicized spelling of the Goidelic name for both the month of May and the festival associated with the first day of May.

In Irish Gaelic, the month of May is known as Mí Bhealtaine or Bealtaine, and the festival as Lá Bealtaine (‘day of Bealtaine’ or, ‘May Day’). In Scottish Gaelic, the month is known as either (An) Cèitean or a’ Mhàigh, and the festival is known as Latha Bealltainn or simply Bealltainn. The feast was also known as Céad Shamhain or Cétshamhainin from which the word Céitean derives.

Beltane was formerly spelt Bealtuinn in Scottish Gaelic; in Manx it is spelt Boaltinn or Boaldyn. In Modern Irish, Oíche Bhealtaine is May Eve, and Lá Bealtaine is May Day. In modern Scottish Gaelic, Latha Buidhe Bealltainn or Là Buidhe Bealltainn (‘the yellow day of Bealltain’) is used to describe the first day of May. This term Lá Buidhe Bealtaine is also used in Irish and is translated as ‘Bright May Day’. In Ireland it is referred to in a common folk tale as Luan Lae Bealtaine; the first day of the week (Monday/Luan) is added to emphasise the first day of summer.

Origins of the name

It has been commonly accepted since the early 20th century that Beltane (however formed) is derived from a Common Celtic word *belo-te(p)niâ, meaning “bright fire” (where the element *belo- might be cognate with the English word bale [as in ‘bale-fire’] meaning ‘white’ or ‘shining’. This replaced a 19th Century derivation for the “Fires of Belenos” (or  referring to the Semetic deity “Ba’al”, a practice common to the 19th Century ”British Isrealites”, wherein all things had to have been established upon events and personages from the Christian Bible.) A more recent etymology by Xavier Delamarre would derive it from a Common Celtic *Beltinijā, cognate with the name of the Lithuanian goddess of death Giltinė, the root of both being Proto-Indo-European *gʷelH- “suffering, death”[1] Earlier etymologies attempted to connect it with worship of the Semetic God Ba’al, however, this has been largely abandoned by reputable scholars.


According to Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, the term Céad Shamhain or Cétshamhainin means “first half”, which he links to the Gaulish word samonios (which he suggests means “half a year”) as in the end of the “first half” of the year that begins at Samhain. Ó hÓgáin proposes that this term was also used in Scottish Gaelic and Welsh. In Ó Duinnín’s Irish dictionary (1904) it is referred to as Céadamh(ain) which it explains is short for Céad-shamh(ain) meaning “first (of) summer”. The dictionary also states that Dia Céadamhan is May Day and Mí Céadamhan is May.


Beltane was an ancient Gaelic festival celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. It marked the beginning of summer and was linked to similar festivals held elsewhere in Europe, such as the Welsh Calan Mai (‘Calends of May’) and the Germanic Walpurgis Night. Beltane and Samhain were the leading terminal dates of the civil year in medieval Ireland, though the latter festival was the more important. It is a cross-quarter day, marking the midpoint in the Sun’s progress between the spring equinox and summer solstice. The astronomical date for this midpoint (15° ♉ Taurus) falls generally between the 5th through 7th of May, but the date can vary from year to year.

Beltane regained popularity during the Celtic Revival and is still observed as a cultural festival by some in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man and among their diasporas. Today, Beltane is also observed as a religious festival by Celtic neopagans. Many Wiccans adopted the name Beltane for their May sabbat festival.

Celtic Period

According to Nora Chadwick, in Celtic Ireland “Beltine (or Beltaine) was celebrated on 1 May, a spring-time festival of optimism. Fertility ritual again was important, in part perhaps connecting with the waxing power of the sun, symbolized by the lighting of fires through which livestock were driven, and around which the people danced in a sunwise direction.”[2] The ninth century Sanas Cormaic (or “Cormac’s Glossary”) says the “…Druids used to make [the fires] with great incantations,”[3] and were lit to safeguard against diseases.

In Irish mythology, the beginning of the summer season for the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians started at Bealtaine. Great bonfires would mark a time of purification and transition, heralding in the season in the hope of a good harvest later in the year, and were accompanied with ritual acts to protect the people from any harm by Otherworldly spirits, such as the Aos Sí. Like the festival of Samhain, opposite Beltane on 31 October, Beltane was also a time when the Otherworld was seen as particularly close at hand.

According to Geoffrey Keating, the main Beltane fire in medieval Ireland was on the hill of Uisneach, in what is now County Westmeath. There is no corroborating reference to the Beltane fires at Uisneach in the annals, so Keating’s claims cannot be proven. However, excavations at Uisnech in the 20th century provided evidence of large fires taking place and charred bones from excavations at the site, showing it to have been ritually significant.[4]

Medieval Period

Although later practices varied widely, the celebrations came to include the gathering of wildflowers and green branches, the weaving of floral garlands, the crowning of a May king and queen, and the setting up of a decorated May tree, or Maypole, around which people danced. Such rites originally may have been intended to ensure fertility for crops and, by extension, for livestock and humans, but in most cases this significance was gradually lost, so that the practices survived largely as popular festivities. Among the many superstitions associated with May Day was the belief that washing the face with dew on the morning of May 1 would beautify the skin.

Medieval May Day celebrations started on the night before the first of May, Beltane Eve. There would be a bonfire and dancing, feasting and drinking, as well as tales of May Days gone by.  At the break of dawn on May Day, it was traditional for the young men and women of a community to go into the woods or forest and gather flowers and branches ready for the day’s celebrations. Neighboring villages would everlasting youth.compete to see who could bring back the largest piece of wood, which would be used as the maypole. It was also said that anyone who bathed in the morning dew of May Day, would have a radiant complexion and long lives.

Flowers and trees were a major feature of this festival. Men could deliver a tree decorated with streamers to the doorstep of a girl they liked. But tradition said if the streamers were white, this signified hatred. Long streamers were also attached to the village Maypole for dancing and young men and women would wind the ribbons around each other as the dance progressed, in the hope of becoming entangled with their future love. Every village had its Maypole.

Raising the May Pole

The Maypole was made by chopping down a slender tree from the wood, and bringing the Maypole in was a great occasion in itself, accompanied by much merrymaking. Villages would compete against one another to see which could produce the tallest Maypole. The trees branches were then cut off, and coloured ribbons tied to the top. On the day itself, 1st May, revellers would hold on to the ends of the ribbons and dance. Some English villages and towns carry on the tradition today.

Often, before the dancing began, there was a procession led by a woman appointed May Queen for the day. Sometimes she was accompanied by a May King, who dressed in green to symbolise springtime and fertility.

The existence of maypoles on continental Europe is recorded from the Pyrenees on the France/Spain border all the way to Scandinavia and further east to the Ural Mountains in Russia. We also see their use in England, but as mentioned earlier they were rarely found in the Gaelic-speaking areas of Ireland and Scotland, although we do find them mentioned in Welsh literature. In fact, one of the earliest documentations of a maypole is in a Welsh poem of the mid-fourteenth century, and May festivals enjoyed a revival in England from at least the middle of the thirteenth century, when Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln complained to his archdeacons about priests joining in May games. The festivities must have been reasonably well established by the fourteenth century, as in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ by Chaucer for example, the heroine Emelie picks flowers on May Day morning to make a garland for her hair. There is a mention of the May-pole at Cornhill in a poem entitled ‘Chaunce of the Dice’ which has been attributed to Chaucer, but is more likely to be the work of John Lydgate.[5]  An old Roman calendar cited by John Brand (Observations on popular antiquities, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1777), mentions that on the 30th of April, the boys go out to seek May-trees, ‘Maii arbores a pueris exquirunter’.

Similar customs exist in Germany, where it was the tradition that a fir tree was cut down on May Eve by young unmarried men. The branches were removed and it was decorated and set up in village square. The tree was guarded all night to prevent it being stolen by the men of a neighbouring village. If the guard was foolish enough to fall asleep the going ransom rate for a maypole was a good meal and a barrel of beer.

“Long after the Christian form of marriage (with its insistence on sexual monogamy) had replaced the older Pagan handfasting, the rules of strict fidelity were always relaxed for the May Eve rites. Names such as Robin Hood, Maid Marion, and Little John played an important part in May Day folklore, often used as titles for the dramatis personae of the celebrations. And modern surnames such as Robinson, Hodson, Johnson, and Godkin may attest to some distant May Eve spent in the woods.

These wildwood antics have inspired writers such as Kipling[6]:

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 Lerner and Lowe[7]:

It’s May! It’s May!
The lusty month of May!
Those dreary vows that ev’ryone takes,
Ev’ryone breaks.
Ev’ryone makes divine mistakes!
The lusty month of May!

It is certainly no accident that Queen Guinevere’s ‘abduction’ by Meliagrance occurs on May 1 when she and the court have gone a-Maying, or that the usually efficient Queen’s guard, on this occasion, rode unarmed.”[8]

Modern Period

The church during the middle ages tolerated the May Day celebrations but the Protestant Reformation of the 17th century soon put a stop to them. The Puritans were outraged at the immorality that often accompanied the drinking and dancing – and Parliament banned maypoles altogether in 1644, but with the restoration of King Charles II a few years later, people all over the country put up maypoles as a celebration and a sign of loyalty to the crown.

Because the Puritans of New England considered the celebrations of May Day to be licentious and pagan, they forbade its observance, making Maypoles illegal the mid 1600′s, and tried to put a halt to the “greenwood marriages” that frequently took place on May Eve. As a result, the holiday never became an important part of American culture.

By the late 1800’s, the maypole dance had shifted to become an activity primarily conducted by the schools, and thus confined mainly to children, particularly young girls…although they were sometimes also carried out by female students on college campuses. This tradition continued throughout the 1900’s and can even today some schools still hold May Day activities.

In some areas the maypole was replaced by a similar custom of carrying highly decorated sticks or hoops, covered with flowers, greenery and ribbons. This tradition was known as garlanding, and was often accompanied by Morris Dance. Similar customs of May Dances – sometimes accompanied by decorated sticks – can be found in other countries around Europe.

Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss

Padstow, in Cornwall, UK is internationally famous for its traditional ‘Obby ‘Oss day (dialect for Hobby Horse). The origins of the celebrations in Padstow are unknown. There is extensive documentary evidence of British community May Day celebrations in the 16th century and earlier, although the earliest mention of the Obby ‘Oss at Padstow dates from 1803. An earlier hobby horse is mentioned in the Cornish language drama Beunans Meriasek, a life of the Camborne saint, where it is associated with a troupe, or “companions.”

It has been speculated that such festivals have pre-Christian origins, such as in the Celtic festival of Beltane in the Celtic nations, and the Germanic celebrations during the Þrimilci-mōnaþ (literally Three-Milking Month or Month of Three Milkings, a reference to being able to milk your cattle three times daily due to the new growth for grazing) in England. It has also been proposed that the worship of horse deities such as Epona was found in ancient Celtic societies such as the possibly related Mari Lwyd (‘Grey Mare’) traditions of South Wales.

Edward Dwelly in ”Bealltuinn” (1911) describes a 1 May custom of his day, practised in the Scottish Highlands, where young people met on the moors, lit a bonfire and made an oatmeal cake toasted at the embers. The cake was cut and one of the pieces marked with charcoal. Drawing the pieces blindfolded, whoever got the marked piece would have to leap over the flames three times:

“In many parts of the Highlands the young folks of the district used to meet on the moors on 1st May. They cut a table in the green sod, of a round figure, by cutting a trench in the ground of sufficient circumference to hold the whole company. They then kindled a fire and dressed a repast of eggs and milk of the consistency of custard. They kneaded a cake of oatmeal, which was toasted at the embers against a stone. After the custard was eaten, they divided the cake into as many portions as there were persons in the company, as much alike as possible in size and shape. They daubed one of the pieces with charcoal till it was black all over, and they were then all put into a bonnet together and each one, blindfolded, drew out a portion. The bonnet holder was entitled to the last bit, and whoever drew the black bit was the devoted person who was to be sacrificed to Baal, whose favour they meant to implore in rendering the year productive. The devoted person was compelled to leap three times over the flames.”[9]

Another common aspect of the festival in early 20th century Ireland was the hanging of May Boughs on the doors and windows of houses and the making of May Bushes in farmyards, which usually consisted either of a branch of rowan/”caorthann” (mountain ash) or more commonly Common Hawthorn/whitethorn/”sceach geal” (hawthorn) which is in bloom at the time and is commonly called the ‘May Bush’ or just ‘May’ in both Ireland and Britain. Furze/”aiteann” was also used for the May Boughs, May Bushes and as fuel for the bonfire. The practice of bedecking the May Bush/”Dos Bhealtaine” with flowers, ribbons, garlands and coloured egg shells is found among the Gaelic diaspora, most notably in Newfoundland, and in some Easter traditions on the East Coast of the United States.[10]

The festival persisted widely up until the 1950s, and in some places the celebration of Beltane continues today.[11] The town of Peebles in the Scottish Borders holds a traditional week-long “Beltane Fair” every year in June, when a local girl is crowned Beltane Queen on the steps of the parish church. Like other Borders festivals, it incorporates a Common Riding.[12] The lighting of bonfires on Beltane Eve seems to have lasted to the present day only in County Limerick.[13] However, some cultural groups have sought to revive the custom at Uisneach and perhaps at the Hill of Tara.[14]

Since 1978, the day is observed in the United Kingdom as part of the May Day Bank Holiday, occurring on the first Monday in May.

Pagan Revival

“Perhaps it’s just as well that you won’t be here …
to be offended by the sight of our May Day celebrations.”
—Lord Summerisle to Sgt. Howie from
The Wicker Man

The lighting of a community Beltane fire from which each hearth fire is then relit is observed today in some parts of the Gaelic diaspora, though in most of these cases it is a cultural revival rather than an unbroken survival of the ancient tradition.[15] In some areas of Newfoundland, the custom of decorating the May bush, or bough, is also still extant.[16]

The Witches’ Sabbat


In German folklore, Walpurgisnacht, the eve of the feast day of St Walpurga (an 8th-century abbess in Germany), the eve of May 1, has long been believed to be the night of a witches’ sabbath on the Brocken, in the Harz Mountains. In Walt Disney’s animated film Fantasia this concept is depicted by the sequences set to Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky and Ave Maria by Franz Schubert. At midnight the devil Chernabog summons evil spirits and restless souls from their graves. The spirits dance and fly through the air until driven back by the sound of an Angelus bell as night fades into dawn. A chorus is heard singing Ave Maria as a line of robed monks is depicted walking with lighted torches through a forest and into the ruins of a cathedral. A considerable amount of 19th and 20th century art also depicts this motif.

Many Wiccans and Pagans celebrate Beltane as one of the eight Sabbats, one of the cross-quarter day; it is celebrated in the northern hemisphere on May 1. Beltane follows Ostara and precedes Midsummer.

Often incorporating traditions from the Gaelic Beltane, such as the bonfire, but it bears more relation to the Germanic May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as May pole dancing). Some traditions celebrate this holiday on May 1 or Mayday, whiles others begin their celebration the eve before or April 30th.

Some Wiccans celebrate ‘High Beltane’ by enacting a ritual union of the May Lord and Lady/Queen of the May. Other Wiccan traditions pose the sabbat as annual battle between two God-themes: the Sun-God theme of the Battle of Summer and Winter[17] and that of the Holly King and Oak King[18], which in essence are variations on the same thing.

Traditional pursuits for May Day

Try getting up before dawn and going outside to wash your face in dew – according to folklore this keeps the complexion beautiful.

“Bringing in the May” also involves getting up very early, gathering flowers, making them into garlands and then giving them to your friends to wear. If you are feeling particularly charitable, folklore advises that it is good time to make up a “May basket” of flowers to take to someone who needs cheering up.

Garlands of flowers may be fashioned for the Mayday rituals and festivities. These are generally tied with coloured ribbons, in some areas, white is the preferred colour, and in others, white is a taboo colour for them as the white ribbon signifies hate. A garland of flowers can be used to outline the Circle. A daisy chain is very traditional. Women should wear flowers or wreaths on their hair.

On Beltane it is customary to give May Baskets to children and friends. The basket handles entwined with flowers, and in the baskets colored eggs, small gifts, good things to eat, and other surprises. Ribbon may also be placed on the handles.

In a number of locales, Morris Sides gather to “Dance in the May”. In the Puget Sound area, this takes place at dawn at Gasworks Park in Seattle, and it is a long-standing tradition in the local pagan community to attend.

The May Fairy | Flower Fairies

… More to come … check back later.

[1] Delamarre, Xavier. Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise, Editions Errance, Paris, 2003, p. 70

[2] Chadwick, Nora, The Celts, p. 181

[3] O’ Donovan, John (1868) Sanas Chormaic. Cormac’s Glossary. Calcutta, Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society. p.19

[4] Hutton, Ronald (1996) The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain Oxford. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-285448-8 p.219

[5] May Festivities, accessed 28 Apr 2013

[6] From Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906). Text corrected in accordance with a modern reprint of that book: Kipling, Rudyard. Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies. Kessinger Publishing, 2004. ISBN 978-141791711-2, pp. 27–28. See it on Google Books.

[7] From the musical production Camelot, “The Lusty Month of May” by  Alan Jay Lerner  (1918-1986)

[8] Nichols, M. and Reed, E.C. (2005). The Witches Sabbats: And Other Reflections. Acorn Guild Press, LLC. “Beltane”

[9] See Dwelly-d entry for “Bealltainn”

[10] Danaher, Kevin (1972) ”The Year in Ireland” Cork, The Mercier Press. ISBN 1-85635-093-2 pp. 86–127

[11] Campbell, John Gregorson (1900, 1902, 2005) ”The Gaelic Otherworld”. Edited by Ronald Black. Edinburgh, Birlinn Ltd. ISBN 1-84158-207-7 p.552–4

[13] Council faces clean-up after maybush fires. Wicklow People, May 05, 2005.

[14] Aideen O’Leary reports (“An Irish Apocryphal Apostle: Muirchú’s Portrayal of Saint Patrick” ”The Harvard Theological Review” ”’89”’.3 [July 1996:287–301] p. 289) that, for didactic and dramatic purposes, the festival of Beltane, as presided over by Patrick’s opponent King Lóegaire mac Néill, was moved to the eve of Easter and from Uisneach to Tara by Muirchu moccu Machtheni (late 7th century) in his ”Vita sancti Patricii”; he describes the festival as ”in Temora, istorium Babylone” (‘at Tara, their Babylon’). However there is no authentic connection of Tara with Babylon, nor any know connection of Tara with Beltane. [wikipedia citation on Beltane]

[15] McNeill, F. Marian (1959) ”The Silver Bough”, Vol. 2. William MacLellan, Glasgow ISBN 0-85335-162-7 p. 56

[17] Sir James George Frazer. The Golden Bough; a study in magic and religion, Volume 6. New York: Macmillan.
See also John Williamson (1986). The oak king, the holly king, and the unicorn: the myths and symbolism of the unicorn tapestries. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 9780060155308.

[18] Farrar, Janet and Stewart (1988). Eight Sabbats for Witches, revised edition. Phoenix Publishing. ISBN 0-919345-26-3.