Bealtaine: the transition from feminine to masculine

We are about to arrive at Bealtaine (April 30th to May 1st), the official start of summer according to the Celtic calendar and one of the four great Celtic feasts (the others being Imbolc, Lughnasa and Samhain)[1]. Sitting at a cross-point, half way between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice, Bealtaine is the ‘fire’ festival. The first great bonfire would have been lit on the hill of Uisneach, the sacred centre of Ireland, as a signal to the rest of the country to light their own; the spreading fires symbolising the growing strength of the sun and the longer days. Bealtaine fires are usually lit at dawn while the bonfires of Samhain are generally lit at dusk.

Given its ‘main event’ status in the Celtic calendar, there is a huge amount of tradition and symbolism associated with the Bealtaine festival. Most notably, it is a time for cleansing and purification. Embers from the Bealtaine fire would be used to rekindle hearth fires and farmers would walk the four corners of their land blessing it with its ash. Herdsmen would drive their cattle between two Bealtaine fires, or even singe their tails to stave off ailments in the coming months. Bealtaine also marked the time when it was deemed safe to move cattle to higher pastures1 and failing to do so during the festival was considered bad-luck and frowned upon2.

In the not too distant past, Bealtaine also marked key economic points in Irish society where it was considered a ‘hiring day’, marking cattle fairs where labourers would be hired and business deals struck, and a ‘gale day’, when rent should be paid[2]. As such, Bealtaine is strongly associated with new beginnings and being a ‘blessed’ time to start an important new project (there are several key points in Irish myth where great new events occurred on Bealtaine, such as the invasion of Ireland by both the Partholonians and the Milesians1).

However, what is perhaps most interesting and curious about Bealtaine in Ireland is its relationship with fears and superstitions of the ‘feminine’.

In early Ireland, the yearly cycle was divided into two seasons; the warmer summer season of Sam beginning on May 1st (Bealtaine) and the cold winter season of Gam beginning on November 1st(Samhain)[3]. These two seasons where also divided by their masculine and feminine energy where Bealtaine marks the transition from the feminine time of Gam to the masculine time of Sam[3]. During the summer months, women and children would leave and move with the animals as they were driven to graze on the higher pasture. As such, Bealtaine marked the end of the prior reign of the feminine and was characterised by the separation of the sexes, the end of marriage season and the beginning of the masculine focus of hunting, raiding and warfare[3].  Indeed, unlike Imbolc, which was a celebration of femininity (notably birth and lactation), Bealtaine festivities (such as the lighting of fires and the preparation of ‘caudle’ or ‘bannocks’) where presided over by the men and the festival itself is often connected to the God Dagda; a mythical vision of manliness, strength and vigour.

Bealtaine is known as a ‘boundary’ festival, marking the transition from the feminine to the masculine half of the year. Its place, at such a critical juncture, contributed to the embedding of fears and superstitions associated with female energy at this time. After all, although the start of May meant longer, warmer days and the growth of animals and crops, it was still a dangerous and uncertain time where ‘ill-winds’ could destroy a families’ prospects of a good harvest later in the year – best not to risk feminine energy overpowering the masculine as it begins its seasonal return to power. Thus we see many accounts in Irish Bealtaine folklore of fears associated with females and femininity. For instance, old women (often referred to as hags or witches) were said to go out and be seen ‘dragging the dew’ in a neighbour’s fields as a way to steal their luck or wealth, witches were thought to be able to cast their most dangerous spells during Bealtaine, red-haired women were thought particularly unlucky and avoided and Bealtaine is also the time when many of the folk tales of women transforming into hares to suck the milk from the udder of their neighbours cow (i.e. to steal their luck) are set2. Consequently, across Ireland (and Scotland) many Bealtaine rituals stem from a perceived need to stave off ‘witches’, such as not giving anyone a ‘coal’ from the (Bealtaine) fire lest it be used to “charm the butter away”.

It’s easy to look back on such customs and rituals, particularly those which have such an obvious distaste for older, unmarried and childless women (which are often negatively portrayed as bitter hags and witches in Irish folklore), with a certain amount of eye-rolling at the pettiness and ignorance of it all. However, I think it is enlightening to look behind this and take note of the much deeper, symbolic, message of Bealtaine as the transition time from feminine to masculine; a time of cleansing and purification, a time for new beginnings, the importance of ‘not counting your chickens before they have hatched’. At this time of year, we can find ourselves swept up by the Summer energy (the sun and ‘energised’ being two notable features of the ‘masculine’) and end up rushing to start new projects and trying to do too much at once. Before we launch ourselves into new things it’s always good to take a step back, let go of old baggage (cleansing and purification) and take stock before making decisions.

Beyond trying to fend off ‘evil witches’ some traditional Irish Bealtaine rituals you may like to try include (inspired by Ruth Marshall’s lovely book on ‘Celebrating Irish Festivals’):

  • Washing your face in the dew of Bealtaine morning – said to help protect aging women from disease and the aging process itself, a sort of traditional anti-wrinkle potion (thought to originate in Cork)!
  • Lighting a fire (ideally at dawn)
  • Setting up a May bush – hang posies of yellow flowers over windows and doors and set a bough of a tree (traditionally a whitethorn) outside the house, to guard against bad luck, decorated with flowers and ribbons.

[1]  MacKillop, J. (2004). Beltaine. In A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 26 Apr. 2020, from https://www-oxfordreference-com.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/view/10.1093/acref/9780198609674.001.0001/acref-9780198609674-e-434.

[2] Frédéric Armao. The Women of Bealtaine: From the Maiden to the Witch. Cosmos. The Journal ofthe Traditional Cosmology Society, Department of Folklore and Ethnology (University College Cork)2008, pp.71-82. ￿hal-02508032￿

[3] MacLeod, S. (2003). Oenach Aimsire na mBan: Early Irish Seasonal Celebrations, Gender Roles and Mythological Cycles. Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 23, 257-283. Retrieved April 26, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25660739

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