Belenos and Bealtaine

The end of October, that marks the gateway to summer, may have passed, however tomorrow, 7 November marks the astronomical timing of Bealtaine, when the sun moves into 15 deg Scorpio.  The festival of Bealtaine is based around an ancient Celtic festival that was associated with the sun.  It is often believed that the word “Bealtaine” means “bright fire,” however medieval Irish glossators associated it with the God, Bel, who was considered to be a version of the ancient Celtic God of fire and light, Belenos.

Belenos: the Shining One

Belenos (meaning meant “bright, brilliant” or “shining”), or variants of his name, was known throughout the Celtic lands of western Europe, such as Belenus and Bel. At least 31 inscriptions citing Belenos or Apollo Belenos (as he was sometimes known in Roman-dominated areas) have been found by archaeologists, more citations than almost any other Celtic deity. His name, nature, and function are testified to by classical commentators and the imagery of sculpture and votive offerings associated with Belenos.

Mide and the Fire at Uisneach

Traditionally, Ireland had two ritual centres, although it’s impossible to be sure how widely their supremacy was acknowledged. Tara was associated with kingship and the feast of Samhain, the beginning of winter. Uisneach, not far from Tara, was associated with Bealtaine and religious assemblies. In the Leabhar Gabala, Mide was said to have been the chief druid of the Memedians, a people who invaded Ireland on Bealtaine. Mide immediately went to Uisneach and built a fire that blazed for seven years, according to the story. When the druids already there protested, Mide cut out their tongues and buried them under the hill at Uisneach.

In later traditions, faggots from the fire at Uisneach were distributed at Bealtaine to re-light individual hearths.

In Celtic countries, building a fire was a way to establish ownership of a site well into the modern period. Numerous saints were depicted laying claim to sites by building fires. Perhaps from these traditions comes the custom of beginning tenancy at Bealtaine.

Lovers and Fighters

Many of stories depicted as occurring at Bealtaine involve forms of the “young God”.  Often the young god was depicted as attempting to woo or capture a wife. In Welsh stories, Gwenhwyvar was captured by Melwas while she was out in the woods “a-maying.” In some cases, two deity figures are depicted battling for the woman. Creiddylad was betrothed to Gwythyr ap Greidawl, but before they come together, she was stolen by Gwyn ap Nudd. Thereafter, the two men met annually to engage in single combat for the hand of Creiddylad. These mythic motifs were perpetuated by mock battles in which a figure representing winter battled one representing summer.

In the medieval Irish pseudo-history called the Leabhar Gabala or “Book of Invasions,” medieval scribes recorded stories of successive waves of people into Ireland. Today, the historicity of these accounts and their details is considered negligible, but the stories and their details tell us about the traditions and attitudes of the medieval Irish. Interestingly enough, three of the invasions are said to have taken place on Bealtaine, reinforcing the impression that Bealtaine was the time for new undertakings.

Light Fighting the Dark

Confrontations with monsters – the dark powers seeking to overcome the light – also occurred at Bealtaine in the myths. In the Mabinogi, a fearsome claw stole a marvelous foal each Bealtaine. When Teyrnon hacked off the claw after keeping watch at night, the missing newborn baby Pryderi suddenly appeared, almost as if this sun-related figure had been rescued from the dark. Eventually, the baby was restored to his parents. Reminiscent of this is a short story called “Lludd and Llefelys” in which a terrifying scream was heard each May Eve. The scream turned the land barren: trees, animals, earth, and waters. The scream was uttered by one dragon during an annual battle with another dragon.