Beltane – fire and flames

Beltane – fire and flames

The knowledge about holy day of Beltane survived till our days. Celebration takes place in the night from 30th of April to 1st of May, so the spirit is still in the air. What are the roots of this holiday? What belongs to it’s core? The answers are coming! 

Beltane – what does it mean?

The name itself comes from Gaelic and reads “bealltainn”, means “1st day of May” and translates literally as “blazing fire”.

Tasty details for philology geeks (myself included):

This name consists of two parts: Pre-Indo-European root *bhel- means “to shine, flash, burn” and adds with Old Irish “ten” – fire, which comes from PIE root *tep- “to be hot”.

The other version says that Old Irish “Beltaine” derrives from Common Celtic *belo-te(p)niâ and means “bright fire”.

Can you take the hint already? This holiday is all about…


Fire protects and purifies. Therefore the whole celebration of Beltane concentrates of bonfires. Their flames, smoke and ashes were believed to have protective powers. In households fires, that were carefully fed through the rest of the year, would be put out and then lighten up again with flames of the sacred fire.

A large part of celebration involved cattle. Beltane used to be the holy day of herdsmen. Generally, dividing the year by the dates of 1st of May (Beltane) and 1st of November (Samhain) comes from the times, when the Celts bred cattle and depended on it. 1st of May is a symbolic date when summer begins and flocks are driven to the pastures.


About that cow though…

To protect the cattle, druids would make two fires, usually on a hill surrounded by pastures. Then, the animals would go between them, in smoke and sparks. The druids would voice great incarnations. Sometimes the cattle was decorated with yellow flowers, that resembled fire.

Beltaine Fires purifying the cattle
Painting by Michael A. Hampshire in The Celts from Time-Life’s Emergence of Man Series, 1974

Two theories of Beltane

How is it possible, that people believed they’d receive so many good or avoid diseases just straight from fire, smoke, embers and ashes?

In Frazer’s Golden Brough there are two theories of fire-festivals in general.

First says, that those festivals are the exercise of imitative magic. Bonfires mimic sun and serve the purpose of ensuring a needful supply of sunshine for men, animals, and plants.

That’s the solar theory.

The other one states, that the bonfires are burnt as purifying force. There’s no reference to sun. Fire is supposed to burn up and destroy all harmful influences, whether these are conceived in a personal form as witches, demons, and monsters, or in an impersonal form as a sort of pervading taint or corruption of the air.

It’s called the purificatory theory.

Although both theories are realistic, the purificatory theory seems more convincing. Fire was believed to have strong, sun-like fertilising influence over animals and plants, yet n the other hand, the idea of fire as the destroyer of evil powers is obvious even for the simple folk, more than the sophisticated solar theory.

It is also the reason why witches were burnt on the stake: they were accused of causing droughts and cattle diseases. Therefore the fire-festivals served to destroy the witches themself or – metaphorically – the evil and disease.


Do you celebrate any fire-festival yourself? Is this custom still alive nowadays? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to know!

7 Replies to “Beltane – fire and flames”

  1. I really enjoy that you make these blog posts, this one in particular inspired me to use the different festivals across seasons on the wheel, in a project I’m working on, great post

  2. For nearly ten years now, i light a fire on the 30th of April. and let it burn until after midnight. We do it for the first come-together in the summer time. We make also a fire in the end of October or beginning of November. I never thought that this to events are connected like this. But now it is obvious.
    I personally love the smell of the ash and fire during the burning and afterwards in my cloth. Others say it stinks, but i think its pure.
    Thank you for your blog. I like it very much.

    1. Dear Oliver, thank you very much for your comment and I’m glad you enjoy Ancient Made Present. Hope to see you here for the next posts! 😀


  3. I must admit this was something new to me…although after a google search I found out that in my home region (Galicia, Spain) Beltane was celebrated with a nocturnal dinner in the farmlands with torches, whose ashes were scattered over the land.
    I also found out that some festivities that I know very well have their origin in Beltane, these festivities are called “Os maios” and nowadays it’s celebrated in May 1st, we see it as a period of exaltation of nature and there are dances and performances, and people build structures inspired by tree figures with ornaments made of flowers, leaves and fruits. No fire is involved though…….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..2.6.252…0i30k1j0i24k1.0.sD6074dHq30

    Since I’m living in The Netherlands I’ve missed this celebration for a few years already, but I remember it was very fun! And now I know where it comes from, so thank you again for making me wiser 🙂

    1. Viky, thank you for sharing your traditions! It means a lot and it looks so beautiful… Hope you have a great day and feel most welcomed to write and comment more in here, because you make me wiser as well. 🙂


  4. Hi Michalina, I’ve read all your posts and with every new post I’ve learned something new. Listening to Eluveitie rekindled my interest and fascination with history, and especially the history of ancient civilizations and cultures. Unfortunately I’ve discovered Eluveitie’s music just 2 years ago, but I’ve been hooked ever since.
    Since then I’ve read a few books about the Celts, never knew much before, and thought that the Gauls and the Celts were completely different civilizations. It’s a fascinating culture, their history, society, language, music, mythology, and their origin(which ’till this day remains a mystery).

    It’s a shame that the Celts are overshadowed by the Romans and the Greeks, at least by mainstream historians, and there aren’t many books(especially in English) about them, I couldn’t find one in Romanian(my native language).

    Enjoyed reading your posts, and can’t wait to read some more. Cheers!

    1. Hey Cosmin! Welcome to Ancient Made Present and thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it here and hope to see you more in the comment section! 🙂 New post is coming tomorrow!


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