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Walpurgisnacht Beltane Sabbat

April's Fool to Walpurgisnacht

From the anniversary of the Salem Witchcraft Trials to Mexico's Annual Witches' Congress we cover this month's pagan events. Find out what's on around the world.

Beltane

Bale-Fire

Etymology

Beltane derives from the Irish Beįltaine or Scottish Gaelic Bealtuinn; both from Old Irish Beltene "bright fire" from belo-te(p)niā), where belo- is allied to the English word bale (as in bale-fire), the Anglo-Saxon bael, and also the Lithuanian baltas, meaning "white" or "shining" from which the Baltic takes its name.

In Gaelic the terminal vowel -o (from Belo) was dropped, as shown by numerous other transformations from early or Proto-Celtic to Early Irish, thus the Gaulish god-names Belenos ("bright one") and his partner Belisama. Belenos was probably the same divinity, originally from belo-nos "our shining one", is also from the same source, as was Shakespeare's Cym-beline.

From the same Proto-Celtic roots we get a wide range of other words: the verb beothaich, from Early Celtic belo-thaich (to kindle, light, revive, or re-animate); baos, from Baelos (shining); beņlach (ashes with hot embers), from beņ (originally belo) + luathach, "shiny-ashes" or "live-ashes".

Metaphorically a beolach was also a shining youth or a lively youth, a hero, beņ-lach or belo-lach; for -lach (youth). Similarly boil, boile came from "fiery madness", through Irish buile, Early Irish baile: and boillsg (gleam); bolg-s-cio-; related to Latin fulgeo, "shine", English effulgent, Lithuanian blizgł, glance, shine, English blink (where the shine causes eyes to shut), Proto-Indo-European bhleg -> fulgeo (Grimms' Law). In this way the Celtic tribe of Belgae in Northern France from which Belgium today takes its name, may derive from the same root. One of its tribes was called the Bellovaci. Some have suggested that the Ancient Irish "Fir Bolg" (i.e. "the Shining Ones") of Celtic mythology may have derived from the same word.

Origins of Beltane

Early Gaelic sources from around the 10th century state that the Druids would create a need-fire on top of a hill on this day and rush the village's cattle through the fires to purify them and bring luck ("Eadar dą theine Bhealltuinn" in Scottish Gaelic, "Between two fires of Beltane"). People would also go between the fires to purify themselves. This was echoed throughout history after Christianization, with lay people instead of Druid priests creating the need-fire. The festival persisted widely up until the 1950s, and in some places the celebration of Beltane continues today.

Beltane is a specifically Gaelic holiday, not "Celtic", as other Celtic cultures, such as the Welsh, Bretons, and Gauls, do not celebrate it - though many cultures did celebrate a springtime festival known by various names.

The Beltane Revival

A revived Beltane Fire Festival has been held every year (except 2003) during the night of 30th April on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland since 1988, and attended by up to 15,000 people.

In neopaganism, the name Beltane or Beltaine is used for a sabbat, one of the eight solar holidays, which is celebrated on this day. Although the holiday uses features of the Gaelic Beltane, such as the bonfire, it bears more relation to the Germanic May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing). High Beltaine is celebrated through a reenactment of intercourse between the May Lord and Lady. Gerald Gardner, the principal originator of the Wiccan religion, referred to the holiday as May Eve.

Among the neopagan sabbats, Beltane is a cross-quarter day; it is celebrated in the northern hemisphere on May 1 and in the southern hemisphere on November 1. Beltane follows Ostara and precedes Midsummer (see the Wheel of the Year).

Further Reading

Extract from Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941), The Golden Bough (1922) on Beltane Fire customs and rites.

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