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Beltane - or, 'Lucky Fire'

Beltane - or, 'Lucky Fire'

©Jennifer Bailey 2013

©Jennifer Bailey 2013

Beltane - or, "Lucky Fire"

I'm sharing the same photo from last year because it's mine and I didn't want to snipe something of Google and it's relevant.  I mean come on, who doesn't want to see some Domos doing a ritual fire dance? :)

Let me be tiresome and teach you long and lengthy facts about this SO very misunderstood holiday.  I've only just come to a further understanding myself due to study. 

I've been reading Ronald Hutton's excellent book Stations of the Sun, A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (this was after reading The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles) and I now know more about Christmas, Easter, Whitsun, Maundy Thursday, Maying, Boxing Day, Twelfth Night, Morris, etc, you name it, than I ever thought there was to know.  It's gobsmacking fantastic, this volume.  It's a graduate course all wrapped into one book.

What I learned about Beltane was surprising.  First, because there really is a total lack of real fact about this holiday out there in the world and two, I love being taught things that I didn't know - I love finding out truth.  Professor Hutton is a wonderfully rigorous scholar and attends to his subjects with very good attention and detail.  (Though I'll admit he isn't perfect but that's neither here nor there regarding Beltane today.)

For everyone wondering - Beltane is one of the actual likely pre-Christian and pre-Roman even, rituals that has been left over from an early religion.  We can say this with a fair amount of certainty.  But it isn't what you think.  A lot of people these days (thanks, Marion Zimmer-Bradley) believe it's a fertility fire festival, where a lot of sex was happening and dancing around a fire.  Ehh.  I'm sorry to ruin it, but it was not.

It's actually much more fascinating than that!  It was the first day of summer and fires were lit.  But it was for the ritual protection of the cattle.  They would drive the cattle between the fires, from the winter pens to the summer pasturelands, to protect them from disease while they were out grazing all summer.

It evolved over the centuries of course, to include humans in the protection and Luck as well.  There is also a fascinating bit that I was completely unaware of - the Scapegoat.  In several areas spread around (this was not practised everywhere but in various places across Britain) someone would be deemed a Scapegoat of the village, sometimes referred to as "the Carlin".  How this was attributed varies to region, but most often it was a marked piece of special bread that was grabbed out of a sack.  This "marked" person was then considered 'at fault' for all the year's bad luck and would have to go through a variety of unfortunate events, depending on location.  Some places would mock throwing him into the fire, whilst the other people would 'rescue' him.  Other places would pretend to draw and quarter him.  Depending on the location - he either had to stay with the stain of being the unlucky person for a year - or it was the complete opposite, after being 'purified' by ritual he was then considered extremely lucky. 

The amazing thing is that this ritual had variety over everywhere it was practised.  It was not the same everywhere.  Details were different and reasons were different all over - but it was basically at it's core a Luck and Protection Ritual for cattle and then after, humans as well.  The surprising fact was that the Scapegoat feature is possibly a remnant of actual human sacrifice.  But we can only guess at that - and we all know where that kind of guessing gets us.

The reason why we can say that it was ancient is because while all the various rituals in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall and Devon (it didn't much exist in the middle of England) were different,  some were exactly the same.  Across the divide of language and many miles, a ritual in Scotland is exactly the same as one that was practised in Wales and in Devon and Cornwall.  They all possessed their own words for every part of the ritual, in their different languages, and this is why it is most plausible that the Beltane bonfire rituals are a survival of a widespread tradition.

One last thing - while people might love to call this "Celtic" and it does indeed fall into the "Celtic" areas of Britain, there is absolutely zero evidence of fire rituals on the continent where the Celts were.  However, there were fire rituals in the Northern countries - all of Scandinavia and even reaching into Eastern Europe.  These are not linguistic boundaries but instead ones of a pastoral economies involving seasonal transhumance.

Manhattan Bridge 1909

Manhattan Bridge 1909

Kenwood House, London

Kenwood House, London