Tuesday 1 May 2012

Beltane: May Day

The first of May is one of the quarter-days in the Celtic calendar and marks the beginning of a new season. Beltane is the most celebrated of the four days as it represents the start of summer, a busy and fruitful time for farmers.

The day is closely associated with fire as a source of purification. Last year’s blog outlined the tradition of the need-fire and how both people and cattle walked through it for purification and protection. The fire was thought to safeguard the animals against witches who were believed to be very active and powerful at Beltane. Similarly to Samhainn, the barrier between this world and the supernatural was weakened on this day and extra caution was taken to protect the farm animals. The animals had tar placed behind their ears or on the tip of their tails to keep away any evil. Often flowers, juniper and rowan were used as protective barriers as well.


It was believed to be extremely unlucky to start a fire in your own home on May Day or to let a fire be taken from the house. It was thought that whoever took fire from the house would have control over the milk produced by the lender’s cattle.

A popular game amongst the young adults was to make a cake of oatmeal with one part daubed in black, place the cake in a hat and then do a lucky dip. The person who picked out the blackened piece had to jump through the fire three times.

In Ireland May Day traditions are still quite popular, especially bonfires and gathering flowers. There is a piseog or superstition that if you loan anything on May Day it will never come back to you. One of the most popular traditions, associated with England, is dancing around the Maypole.

In the CW notebooks there is a brief note concerning Beltane: La Bealtain light fires.

CW 111/13, fo. 4v.
Rev. John Gregorson Campbell (ed. Ronald Black), The Gaelic Otherworld (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006), 552-554.

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [© carstenflieger.com]