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Despite Christianity coming to Ireland’s shores in the 5th century, rural Ireland has never let go of her Pagan ceremonies, superstitions and belief in the prevalent spirit realm and faeries. As a part of this way of life, certain times of the year are deemed the most powerful and are to be recognized as such by way of protection and prosperity rituals, with Beltane being no exception.
Beltane as the world knows it, or ‘Bealtaine’ as it is known in Ireland, marks the start of summer, halfway between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice and translates as ‘Bright Fire’. As is true with all Celtic festivals, Bealtaine is celebrated in alignment with the heavens and the moving of the seasons, with the last day of April or the first of May usually selected as the official day to light the Bealtaine fires and so begin the customary rites of the season.
The most notable Bealtaine Fire in Ireland was lit on the Hill of Uisneach in the County of Westmeath, known as the mystical navel of Ireland. Cattle would be driven between two Bealtaine fires as part of a purifying ritual to safeguard the herd and families would take home embers to light their own hearth fires for continued protection. In the event you were to remove an ignited piece of turf from a house, you would remove the blessing of the home and doom the family to bad luck.
The fires were merely the beginning however. In nature as Spring is very much the mating period and a time for birth, many of the rituals were fuelled with sexual energy in an effort to increase fertility among the clans. An effigy of a woman known as the May Baby would be attached to the Maypole, a phallic symbol. The effigy would be covered in the flowers of the season as well as straw and ribbons, while a male and female of the community would dress up and dance around the Maypole in a crude and lurid manner. These displays of vulgarity were believed to increase fertility and help those who were trying to conceive.
As with Samhain, Bealtaine was of vital importance to the farming communities of Ireland and the practices accompanying the festival were reflective of this fact. In earlier times, cattle would be herded to the nearest fairy fort and the blood of the livestock would be spilled in order to appease the spirits and Hawthorn and Rowan twigs would be placed across the horns of the herd to prevent milk thieves, as the right curse could cause an entire summer’s milk to be stolen from the cows.
Herbs would be gathered on the first day of May and they would be boiled with hair from a cow’s tail. It would be carefully preserved with a small amount being placed inside the churn and inside of the pails before milking and churning commenced. This was believed to guard against disease and ensure a healthy production of dairy produce for the season. Of course if you wanted to ensure the demise of your neighbour’s farm, you would cast a malevolent curse by placing three grains of corn into balls of yellow clay and position in each corner of their field.
Switches and brooms were to be made and stocked before May as any put together during this month would bring further bad luck and milk was poured across the threshold to keep out the faeries. The May Bush or May Bough would be created from the branch or part of a Rowan or Hawthorn tree, placed outside the house and decorated with rags and ribbons. This would ward off evil spirits, mischievous faery folk and bring a good harvest to the homestead. The task of adorning the May Bush was often given to the children to keep them occupied and out of the clutches of the faeries!
The gathering of May Flowers was also of great importance and a task that once again fell to the children of the community. Posies would be put together and placed in front of homes, on cattle and in wells for protection and good fortune.
Perhaps the most permanent reminder of the festival of Bealtaine is the ancient Beltany Stone Circle in Donegal. As the name suggests, it is believed this circle of stones was the site of the celebration of Bealtaine. The central stone is the only one to be decorated and faces towards the hill known as Tullyrap. On May Day, the sun rises above the hill in alignment with the circle and appears from behind the decorative stone, a sign of renewed energy, vitality and promise for the summer.
So whether you are gathering flowers, dancing around a Maypole or lighting a Bealtaine fire, you are wished good luck and all the blessings of Bealtaine – and remember to keep an eye on infants born on this May Day, as they are believed to possess the power to see the faery folk!