YULE, BELTANE, & HALLOWEEN FESTIVALS:
Survivals of Ancient Sun and Fire Worship,
Beltane or Beilteine means BaaLs fire, Baal (Lord) was the name under which the Phoenicians recognized their primary male god, the Sun : fire was his earthly symbol and the medium through which sacrifices to him were offered. Hence sun and fire-worship were identical.
I am of opinion that originally the Beltane festival was held at the Spring equinox but that its original connection with the equinox, in process of time was forgotten, and it became a festival inaugurative of summer. There is some difference of opinion as to the particular day on
which the Beltane festival was held in this country. Dr. Jamieson, Dr. R. Chambers, and others who have studied this subject say that the 1st May (old style) was Beltane day. Professor Veitch; in his History and Poetry of the Scottish Border, (p. ii8,) says, speaking of the Druids:—
They worshipped the sun god, the representative of the bright side of nature—Baal, the fire-giver—and to him on the hill tops they lit the fire on the end of May, the Beltane." And again, in his remarks on Peblis to the Play, (p. 315,) he says:—"The play was not the name for a stage play, but indicated the sports and festivals which took place at Peebles annually at Beltane, the second of May, not the first of May, as is usually supposed. These had in all probability come in place of the ancient British practice of lighting fires on the hill tops in honour of Baal, the sun god, hence the name Baaltein, Beltane, i.e. Baal's fire.
The Christian Church had so far modified the ceremonial as to substitute for the original idolatrous practice that of a day of rustic amusements. A fair or market at the same period which lasted for eight days had also been instituted by Royal charter. But even the practice of lighting fires on the hill tops was late in dying out, with the usual tenacity of custom it survived for long all memory of its original meaning.''
The Professor writes very positively as to Beltane day being the second day of May, not the first day as is supposed. The Royal Charter granted to the Burgh of Peebles for holding a fair or market on Beltane day, is given in the Burgh Records of Peebles, p. 85:—" As also of holding, using, enjoying, and exercising within the foresaid Burgh weekly market days according to the use
and custom of the said Burgh, together with three fairs, thrice in the year, the first thereof beginning yearly upon the third day of May, called Beltane day, the same to be held and continued for the space of forty eight hours thereafter." The date of the Charter is 1621, but it is evident that the third of May had been previously kept as Beltane day. The Professor is also mistaken in stating that the Beltane fair of Peebles was to be kept for eight days. The third fair, held in August, continued eight days, but the fairs in May and June were kept for two days according to the Charter. That there were two days known as Beltane at the beginning of last century is evident from a book of Scotch proverbs published in 1721 by James Kelly, A.M., in which occurs the following,—
"You have skill of man and beast,
Ye was bom between the Beltans."
In all probability the discrepancy as to the day originated through the Church substituting a Christian festival for a
heathen one; and although the date was changed, yet through force of custom the name of the old festival was retained, and in localities where the power of the Church was comparatively weak, the older, the original day for the festival would probably be kept as well as the newly appointed Church festival. This view of the matter is rendered probable from the fact that the Church did institute a great festival, to be held on the third of May, to commemorate the finding of the cross of Christ. The legend is as follows:—When the Empress Helena was at Jerusalem about the end of the third century, she
discovered the cross on which Christ was crucified, and had it conveyed to the great church built by Constantine
her son. This cross was exhibited yearly to the people, and many miracles were wrought by it. A festival, as I have said, was instituted in commemoration of the discovery, and this was held on the third of May, and was called Rood or rude day. Churches were built and dedicated to the Holy Rood, among which was that which is now Holyrood Palace. Where the Church was powerful, as in Edinburgh and Peebles, Rood day would be the important festival, and Beltane would gradually become incorporated with it, the names Beltane day and Rood day becoming synonymous. Thus we may account for Edinburgh and Peebles keeping Beltane on the third day of May, while in Perth and other northern counties where the Church influence was weaker, the festival would be kept according to the older custom on the first of May.
In Druidical times the people allowed their fires to go out on Beltane eve, and on Beltane day the priests met on a hill dedicated to the Sun, and obtained fire from heaven. When the fire was obtained, sacrifices were offered, and the people danced round the fire with shoutings till the sacrifices were consumed; after which they received portions of the sacred fire with which to rekindle their hearths for another twelve months. Besides mountains, there were evidently other localities where sacrifices and the ritual of Sun-worship were observed, and which received appropriate names in accordance with their character as sacred places. Some of these names still survive, as for instance:—
Ard-an-teine—The light of the fire. C
raig-an-teine—The rock of the fire.
Auch-an-teine—The field of the fire.
Tillie-bet-teim—The knoll of the fire; and so through a great many other names of places we find traces of the Baal and fire worship. So widespread and numerous are the names which recall this ritual, that we can see quite clearly that the spirit of their religion thoroughly dominated the people. In Ireland, at Beltane, the Pagan Kings are said to have convoked the people for State purposes. The last of these heathen kings convoked a grand assembly of the nation to meet with him on Tara, at the feast of Beltane, which the old chroniclers say was the principal feast of the year.
Respecting this feast. Dr. Jamieson says, introducing a quotation from O'Brien, "Ignis Bel Dei Aseatica ea line heil, or May-day, so called from large fires which the Druids were used to light on the summits of the highest
hills, into which they drove four-footed beasts, using certain ceremonies to expiate for the sins of the people.
The Pagan ceremony of lighting these fires in honour of the Asiatic god Belus gave its name to the entire month
of May, which to this day is called Me-na-bealtine, in the Irish, Dor Keating." He says again, speaking of these fires of Baal, that the cattle were driven through them and not sacrificed, the chief design being to avert contagious disorders from them for the year. And quoting from an ancient glossary, O'Brien says, "The Druids lighted two solemn fires every year, and drove all four-footed beasts through them, in order to preserve them from contagious distempers during the current year." I am inclined to think that these notices describe a sort of modified or Christianized Beltane, that driving the cattle through the fire was a substitute
for the older form of sacrificing cattle to the sun.
Until very lately in different parts of Ireland, it was the common practice to kindle fires in milking yards on the first day of May, and then men, women, and children leaped through them, and the cattle were driven through in order to avert evil influences. They were also in the habit of quenching their fires on the last day of April, and rekindling them on the first day of May.
In certain localities in Perthshire, so lately as 1810, (I have referred to this before), the inhabitants collected and kindled a fire by friction, and through the fire thus kindled they drove their cattle in order to protect them against disease, and at the same time they held a feast of rejoicing.
As already mentioned, the Romans held several festivals at the beginning of summer, and many of their observances on these occasions were introduced into this country, and became incorporated with the Beltane practices. For example, the Romans held a festival in honour of Pales, the goddess of flocks and sheepfolds. The feast was termed Palilia. Lempriere states that some of the ceremonies accompanying the feast consisted in " burning heaps of straw, and in leaping over them; no sacrifices were offered, but purifications were made with the smoke of horse's blood, and with the ashes of a calf that had been taken from the belly of its mother after it had been sacrificed, and with the ashes of beans; the purification of the flocks was also made with the smoke of sulphur, also of the olive, the pine, the laurel, and rosemary. Offerings of mild cheese, boiled wine, and cakes of millet were afterwards made. Some call
this festival Palilia, because the sacrifices were offered
to the divinity for the fecundity of their flocks." There was also a large cake prepared for Fales, and a prayer
was addressed to the divinity by shepherds, as thus given by Dr. Jamieson:—
"O let me propitious find.
And to the shepherd and his sheep he kind;
Far from my flocks drive noxious things away,
And let my flocks in wholesome pastures stray.
May I, at night, my morning's number take.
Nor mourn a theft the prowling wolf may make.
May all my rams the ewes with vigour press.
To give my flocks a yearly due increase."
The Romans held another festival in honour of the goddess Flora. It began on the 28th April, and lasted three days. The people wore garlands of flowers, and carried them about with branches of newly-budded trees. There was much licentiousness connected with this feast.
Reference has already been made to another Roman festival which was celebrated early in May. This was
called the Lamuralia, and its purport was to propitiate the favour of the ghosts or spirits of their ancestors. I am of opinion that the English May feasts are a survival of the Floralia, and, as kept 'during the middle ages, were not free from some of the indecencies of the Floralia. In my remembrance, the first of May, in the country west of Glasgow, was honoured by decking the houses with tree branches and flowers. Horses were also similarly decked. The Church did not attempt to abolish these heathen festivals, but endeavoured to dominate them, and substitute for legends of heathen
origin connected with them legends of Church origin. In this they partly succeeded. The following account of the Beltane festival, as it was kept in some districts in Perthshire at the close of last century, taken from the statistical accounts of certain parishes, will shew how persistent these ancient customs were, and also how some other festivals latterly became amalgamated and identified with Beltane:—
"In the Parish of Callander, upon the first day of May," says the minister of the parish, "all the boys in the town or hamlet meet on the moors. They cut a table on the green sod, of a round shape, to hold the whole company. They kindle a fire, and dress a repast of eggs and milk in the consistence of a custard.
They knead a cake of oatmeal, which is baked at the fire upon a stone. After the custard is eaten up, they divide the cake into as many portions, and as similar as possible, as there are persons in the company. They blacken one of these portions with charcoal until it is perfectly black. They put all the bits of cake into a bonnet. Every one blindfolded draws a portion—he who holds the bonnet is entitled to the last. Who draws the black bit is the devoted person to be sacrificed to Baal, whose favour they mean to implore in rendering the year productive of substance for man and beast. There is little doubt of these human sacrifices being once offered in the country, but the youth who has got the black bit must leap through the flame of the fire three times." I have myself conversed with old men who, when boys, were present at, and took part in these observances; and they told me that in their grandfathers' time it was the men who practised these rites,
but as they were generally accompanied with much drinking and riot, the clergy set their faces against the customs, and subjected the parties observing them to church discipline, so that in course of time the practices became merely the frolic of boys.
In the Parish of Logierait, Beltane is celebrated by the shepherds and cowherds in the following manner.
They assemble in the fields and dress a dinner of milk and eggs. This dish they eat with a sort of cake baked for the occasion, having small lumps or nipples raised all over its surface. These knobs are not eaten, but broken off, and given as offerings to the different supposed powers or influences that protect or destroy their flocks, to the one as a thank-offering, to the other as a peace-offering.
Mr. Pennant, in his Tour through Scotland, thus describes the Beltane observances as they were observed at the end of last century. " The herds of every village hold their Beltane (a rural sacrifice.) They cut a square
trench in the ground, leaving the turf in the middle. On that they make a fire of wood, on which they dress a large caudle of eggs, oatmeal, butter, and milk, and bring besides these plenty of beer and whiskey. Each of the company must contribute something towards the feast. The rites begin by pouring a little of the caudle upon the ground, by way of a libation. Every one then takes a cake of oatmeal, on which are raised nine square knobs, each dedicated to some particular being who is supposed to preserve their herds, or to some animal the destroyer of them. Each person then turns his face to the fire, breaks off a knob, and, flinging it over his shoulder, says—'This I give to thee,' naming the being whom he thanks, 'preserver of my sheep,' &c.; or
to the destroyer, 'This I give to thee, (O fox or eagle),'spare my lambs' &c. When this ceremony is over
they all dine on the caudle." The shepherds in Perthshire still hold a festival on the I St of May, but the practices at it are now much modified.
As may readily be surmised, there were a great many
superstitious beliefs connected with Beltane, some of
which still survive, and tend to maintain its existence. Dew collected on the morning of the first day of May is
supposed to confer witch power on the gatherer, and give protection against an evil eye. To be seen in a field at
day-break that morning, rendered the person seen an object of fear. A story is told of a farmer \^^ho, on the first of May discovered two old women in one of his fields, drawing a hair rope along the grass. On being seen, they fled. The farmer secured the rope, took it home with him, and hung it in the bjnre. When the cows were
milked every spare dish about the farm-house was filled with milk, and yet the udders remained full. The farmer
being alarmed, consigned the rope to the fire, and then
the milk ceased to flow.
It was believed that first of May dew preserved the skin from wrinkles and freckles, and gave a glow of youth. To this belief Ferguson refers in the following lines:—
"On May day in a fairy ring.
We've seen them round St. Anthon's spring,
Frae grass the caller dew to wring.
To wet their een;
And water clear as crystal spring.
To synd them clean."