Bel(l)taine, aka May Day, aka the beginning of summer. Popularly held by many to be ‘Celtic’ and ‘Pagan’ and a whole lot of other stuff that it wasn’t and isn’t. Its earliest historical attestation comes from Early Medieval Ireland and up to quite recently, long held folklore traditions and customs continued in several parts of the country (as I write, the smell of smoke is drifting in the window from a nearby May Day bonfire).
The most common components of such traditions and associated folklore (and the ones which appear in the earliest references) involve fire, animal welfare/protection (especially cattle) in the hope of good yields to come – all hinting at the seasonal attributes and patterns involved in medieval economies involving transhumance. There are of course many other traditions, but these are later manifestations in subsequent centuries. For the moment, I will stick with the basic version: Vanilla Bealtaine 1.0.
Here’s how it appears in its earliest form, in Sanas Cormaic, the late 9th/10thC etymological glossary alleged to be have been written by Cormac Ua Cuileannain, bishop/king of Munster. If it wasn’t written by him then it was nevertheless compiled by someone very much of the Christian sapiens mindset.*
Belltaine .i. beil tene .i. tene bil .i. dá thene soinmech dognítis na druidhe triathaircedlu co tincetlaib fóraib 7 doberdis na cet[h]ra ettaro ar tedmandoib cecha bliadna
Belltaine, that is Bel’s fire, that is the fire of Bel that is two auspicious fires the Druids made with great spells and each year they brought the cattle between them against pestilence.
(Minard, Antoine, 2006, 202)
[Glossed: ‘they use to drive the cattle between them’.]
A version of a Middle Irish text Tochmarc Emire (8th-11thC) also references cattle and ‘Bel’.
‘they assigned the young of all the cattle as the property of Bel. Bel’s cattle then, that is, Beltaine.
(Minard, Antoine, 2006, 202)
So far so good, we seem to have a kernel of something. But then there’s a second entry in Sanas Cormaic, which shows that the author wasn’t especially sure:
Bil .i. oBial .i. dia hídal. unde beltine .i. tene Bil.
Bil, that is Bial, that is an idol god/deity, Bealtaine, that is, the fire of Bil
Ah yes, some ancient pagan deity by the name of Bil, or Bel, Or Baal, you say. Quite. Which is exactly what earlier scholars thought. However any possibility has been discounted by modern scholars. There’s no evidence for such a deity in Irish literature and anyone seeking to equate it with continental Belenus is relying on a mysterious transmission from there to here, via a couple of dodgy dedications in Britain – and a gap of several centuries of silence in between for good measure – before reappearing in early medieval Christian scholarship and usage. As a result, there is a general argument for ‘Bel’ probably representing something connected to a PIE *bhel- or bel, meaning ‘white, clear, shining’.
And it’s a good possibility.
Yet, something about it just doesn’t sit right with me.
We need to ‘mind the gap‘. In more ways than one.
Breaking it Down
The confusion re: its meaning in the 9th/10thC suggests that Bel/Bél wasn’t widely understood, or in use. Coupled with that, you’d expect it to perhaps be more of a recurring element in Irish, other than oíbell (‘spark, flame, ember’) of course. When you look at it, Bel/Bél actually has more attested usage in relation to meanings involving ‘opening, lips, mouth’. (c.f. modern Irish béal, ‘mouth, oral, opening’). Then, of course, there are the insular traces of a very similar bright, shiny, firey ‘pagan’ deity/cult/season/metaphor called Lug. But he’s already ‘taken’ for another annual festival.
(Incidentally, the older name for Bealtaine, Cétamain, has more form for being related to the real meaning of samhain, both being juxtapositions of each other, mirrored by similar practical traditions. I’ve said it before, and will say it again: Prehistoric pagans do not, and never did, have a monopoly or inside track on the importance of the return of summer and the pasturing of herds.)
In any case, that’s it. That’s all we have to go on from its earliest (fairly late) appearance. All those websites, books and people claiming to supply intricate details of ‘Celtic’, pagan fire rituals, meanings, gods and what not, are talking out of their reconstructed fiery Bealtaines.
So what could it have meant in Early Medieval Ireland? Well, lets break it down. Basics: start of summer animals/transhumance, movement/procession and fire. There is little doubt about*-taine by the way: teine (tain/tainid/tened) is Old Irish ‘fire, fireplace, hearth’. But what about the Bel/Beal element? Did it mean ‘auspicious’ or was it a ‘name’? Or something else entirely?
Well if one looks at how its transmitted in SC, we have bel, beal, bial, biel and both the entries end with it being i. tene Bil. ‘the fire of Bil’.
The word bil in older Irish is certainly associated with explanations of ‘good, fortunate, safe‘ and yet there are slightly more numerous attestations of bil also meaning ‘rim, border, edge‘. Plus some lesser examples of ‘mouth’, again, as above. You can perhaps see how they could have been confused over centuries.
Of course, beal, ‘mouth’ is also commonly attested in Irish placenames to depict ‘opening approach, mouth’ characteristics of landscape features, (e.g. the béal in Bealnablath, Cork or Béal Feirste, Belfast) and of course, there’s the commonly used related word bealach, ‘way, pass’.
In older Irish, Belach (bealach, bealaighe, beilghe) o, n. (bel) is used in terms of ‘gap, pass between hills, defile, narrow passage’ and is used in general with regard to early roadways in Ireland – see also the associated word bélat (cf. bel, bél) a ‘place where several roads meet, crossway, pass, or frontier‘. Which brings us full circle.
Now, isn’t that interesting.
Mind the Gap
An agricultural tradition that was still being enacted in Europe and Ireland up to the 19th century – something heralding the start of summer, involving the driving of cattle around or between fires for protection, health and good yields – and explained/presented in SC and ET as something which involved the corralling and channeling of herds through a a bel/beal/bealach i.e. a small gap, or pass, or defile, or chokepoint, or narrow passage between two fiery/features.
If we choose to read the bel/beal/bil element as perhaps representing the above, both the SC and TE references make somewhat more sense. No need for obsessing over strange unheard of idols, pagan ‘gods’, make-uppy up druid practices (centuries after Christianization) or Proto-Indo-European underlying etymologies. The original authors, in depicting such activity, seem to have been playing around with insular etymologies. Or indeed, taking the underlying meaning and sexing up an existing, much simpler, agricultural practice based on, or associated with it. For the craic.
Be(a)l + Teine:
Something along the lines of ‘The Narrow Way/Gap/Passage/Defile/Mouth’ > + < ‘Fire’.
A linguistic twist on fire-starting. By Cormac. A twisted animator.
And a Punkin’ instigator.
(* See also: the 10th Century St. John’s Psalter MS C.9f.36r for a nonchalant Irish gloss that mentions that ‘Beltane’ had fallen on a Wednesday that year. Interestingly, the gloss prefaces a particular Psalm (51) which focuses on ritual cleanliness, purging and purification. It does, however, end with mentions of righteous offerings, sacrifices and bulls on the altar. Feck.
Also worth noting is the contemporary Irish (and gallican) Psalter fashion for dividing the 150 psalms into three ‘fifties’. The example in the St. John’s Psalter, above, would have been the start of the second ‘fifty’, as evidenced by the new page, enlarged capital and extensive border decoration on fol.36r.. The ‘Beltane’ gloss is located just inside the border, at top left position, i.e. the first portion of text to be seen by a reader/orator. As such, it occupies a lofty position – a visual, oral, cognitive, ritual and textual ‘gap’, or ‘beal’ so to speak – in-between psalms, in-between pages and in-between the first and second ‘fifties’.
Coincidence? Or perhaps part of the very reason which inspired the Irish hand to make such a note in the first place?)
Carey, John (1988) ‘Sequence and Causation in Echtra Nerai’, Ériu, Vol. 39, 67-74.
Electronic Dictionary of the Irish language, 2013 Revised Edition (eDIL) RIA/QUB.
Hutton, Ronald (1996) The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. New York: Oxford University Press.
McNamara, M.J. (2000) The Psalms in the Early Irish Church. Sheffield Academic Press: Bloomsbury.
Minard, Antoine ‘Bealtaine’, in Koch, John T (ed) (2006) Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara and Oxford, 201-203
Sanas Cormaic: An electronic edition. Thesaurus Linguae Hibernicae University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4.
Update: April 8th 2015
I’ve been meaning to put up some examples of bealtaine/lughneasa-like attributes & similarities with regard to double holy wells – the folklore of which contain potential enshrined elements of passing people and/or cattle through a narrow gap between ‘water’ for similar ritual, auspicious purposes. In the meantime, I’ve just come across an interesting example in the Irish Life of Finnian of Clonard from the Book of Lismore (late 15thC):
2521] Rugad iarum inti noeim Finden cu h-Abban mac h- úi Chormeic cu ro m-baist. 2522] Batar didiu dá thopar isin mag in ro baisted-somh, Bal & Dimbal a 2523] n-anmanna. As an topur dia n-ainm Bal ro baisted-som amail ba cubaidh dia 2524] airilliudh.
Now when holy Findian was taken to Abban, son of Húa Cormaic, to be baptised. Now there were two wells in the field in which he was baptised; Bal and Dimbal were their names. He was baptised out the well named Bal, as was meet for his merits.
Although its a late textual example which seems to favour ‘bal’ as Old Irish bal/bil (‘In favourable sense, prosperity, good luck, good effect’) or indeed, the PIE *bel, previously mentioned – it is nevertheless interesting to note that the (eDIL) translation of dimbal is ‘dark, dull’, with an associated term dimbuile as ‘darkness, gloom’. Also interesting, is the portrayal of two wells with opposing names/attributes/metaphors at the same location, presumably close together – much like the concept of having a gap, or narrow pass in between two features discussed above.
Indeed, if you look at how the Old Irish element dim- seems to form a component of several words which contain bad attributes/meanings, it seems clear that it was intended to represent the opposite of bal – whatever it may have meant. cf. dimbúa(i)d defeat, misfortune, ill-luck; dimbríg ‘disparagement, contemp’; dimda dissatisfaction, displeasure’; dímíad ‘dishonour, disrespect’; dimmolaid ‘harmful, injurious, unfavourable’.
I wonder if we looking at a later residual echo of something along the same lines as a ritual ‘gap/narrow pass’ as discussed above – which has been translated to ‘water/holy wells. If so, then are we perhaps looking at something involving double features – either fire or water – which were intended to symbolize opposites? Hence the motion of driving animals through a narrow gap between them in order to imbue them with one over the other, or perhaps even, cancel out each other? Food for thought.
Update: May 1st 2015
For the day that’s in it, here’s a great example of a modern Double Holy Well site which contains interesting elements of all the above. Tobarín Súl (Well of the Eye) and Skour Well, Knockomagh Hill, Highfield/Pookeen, beside Lough Hyne, Co. Cork.
The two wells lie a short distance from each other between a hillside and very old roadway/track and are still venerated today. Dedicated to either St. Brigit or BVM, depending on who you talk to. Marian devotions and May Eve/Day religious patterns recorded in the 1830s are still performed. Traditional Hawthorn and May bushes present.
Take a look at the lie of the land. Routes converging onto the spot at an opportune narrowing of the landscape, just above the flood plain, going around Knockomagh, ‘the hill of the untilled plain’ (ógh, ‘whole, intact’ and maigh, ‘plain’) towards Highfield (An Gort Ard). Placenames and a landscape setting which suggests commonage/pasturing attributes.
The original Irish name behind ‘Skour’ Well was unclear even to John O’Donovan in the 19th century. Today it is apparently interpreted as being derived from sceabhar, ‘slope’ or ‘slant’. While attractive, this is probably in error. O’Donovan recorded it as ‘thubbernascouragh/tober na sgurach‘ which suggests to me a more likely derivation from Old Irish scor/sguir/sgora/scuirid – a word with attested usages denoting ‘act of unyoking, unharnessing, herd of horses, coll. horses, paddock, enclosure for horses, meadow, pasture’. cf. scorach ‘possessing, abounding in horses’.
This starts to look even more interesting when you see the location on the earliest historical OS map. Neighbouring townland and parish boundaries are firmly centred on the location of the wells, each of which are on either side – something which points to the location being of significance in local topography when such boundaries, (some of which can be medieval in date) were first laid down. Indeed, when you think about it, if livestock was ever channeled through the wells here at seasonal dates, such as cows at bealtaine or horses at lughneasa, they would have formally processed through two/three separate land units/territories at that exact point. Or rather, the location would have been accessible from two/three separate territories.
Finally, a look at the historical 25inch OS map shows a distinct small curvilinear nodal point/enshrined paddock in the field boundaries at the location. With the two wells occupying NW and NE positions.
Taken altogether, a really lovely example of how transhumance ritual may have developed and transmuted over centuries.