In the ancient Celtic societies of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Cornwall (and indeed all across Europe) May Day—known as Beltane—was the first day of summer. It’s part of a binary calendar that is largely concerned with natural cycles of death and rebirth, starting today and ending on November 1, the first day of winter. To celebrate the start of a new season, fires were lit on hilltops and ritual dances performed, in traditions that go back over a thousand years and survive to this day.
Like this, from Devon earlier on today:
— Sophie Pierce (@sophiepierce) May 1, 2014
A happy May Day Good Morning to you all from Haytor. Welcome back summer! pic.twitter.com/WBezUw2GJK
— Ant Veal (@TeignmouthSkies) May 1, 2014
A good portion of these rituals will have been celebrations of fertility, such as the very suggestive May pole, garlanded with ribbons and danced around by boys and girls holding ribbons that interlock. But it’s not all about human procreation. In a superstitious society that rises and falls with the quality of its own harvest, any celebration of the fecundity of nature is as much about food and security as it is about the rising of springtime urges.
In parts of 19th century Scotland and Ireland, farmers would drive their cattle between two Beltane fires, and sometimes made to jump through the smoke in order to ensure their future health. In the Isle of Man people were encouraged to breath in the smoke too, for the same reason. And the ashes from those fires will have been sprinkled on the budding crops to ensure a decent harvest.
Scotland also developed traditions around a ceremonially cooked oatmeal cake called the bannoch Bealltainn, or Beltane cake. It would be cut into slices, each placed into a bonnet, and one would be marked with charcoal from the fire. Blindfolded, people would take one slice each until the marked piece emerged, and the person who drew it had to leap three times through the fire, or even (as eye-witnesses differ in their accounts) jump into the fire, as if to be burned alive. They would then be spoken of in hushed tones afterwards, as if they had died. Like I say, death and rebirth.
Then there’s the caudle: a thick drink made from eggs and butter and oatmeal and milk, some of which would have been deliberately spilled as another offering to budding nature. Similar offerings will have been made to protect livestock, an offering per species of farmed animal to be protected, and another per species of wild animal that might attack.
There are also whole mythologies around the first dew on May Day, and how rolling in it would affect a young maiden. A wet-faced girl might see her future husband in the mirror, or collect the dew in a jar and use it to entice the fellow she had her eye on. Or even apply it as a cure for spots.
Of course, a good deal of these traditions have slipped from common use, but some are on the way back. Edinburgh has played host to a Beltane Fire Festival on April 30 every year since 1988. It is slightly less concerned with dew and cattle, and slightly more with ritualistic musical and cultural events, but there are always fires, and therefore the spirit of Beltane, in which light and warmth emerges after a period of extreme darkness and cold, remains.
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