The pre-Christian festival of Beltane – what’s the evidence?

Wicker man burning at Butser Ancient Farm

Wicker man burning at Butser Ancient Farm

Today a few places around the country, for instance Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, will hold Beltane (or Beltain) festivals instead of maypole dances and light a wicker man at dusk in a ceremony that supposedly extends back to the pre-Christian (and potentially pre-Roman Iron Age) Britain. But what’s the evidence for this?

We do have a couple of written sources that describe Britain and Europe in the time just before the Roman occupation. Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars specifically mentions that the druids burned a great effigy of a man made of interwoven branches, with people as sacrifices trapped inside,and the Greek geographer Strabo also mentions the practice, though neither specifically link it with Beltane or even mention the name of the festival. Strabo says “having devised a colossus of straw and wood, [they], throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings”. Both sources probably derived from the earlier Greek traveller, Posidonius, so potentially neither of the later writers had seen it for themselves. The description, which also served to justify the imposition of Roman rule over dangerous barbarians, could easily have been exaggerated from the practices of Beltane that survived in the western and northern parts of Britain in much later periods, described below.

The next reference to Beltane is around 900 CE in the Irish text Sanas Chormaic, a time when Ireland was very firmly Christian. The Sanas is a glossary of terms with explanations, and Beltane is described as the time when druids would bring the cattle to the lucky fires to make sure they didn’t get any diseases in the coming year (presumably caused by evil spirits) before being driven out to summer pasture. The mention of druids clearly harks back to an earlier time, but it’s not clear what evidence the author based this explanation on. The author goes on to explain that Bel may mean lucky, or refer to a pagan god called Bial. Because the author, a monk, would have been very familiar with the near eastern pagan god Baal described in the Old Testament, it’s likely he got mixed up.

18th century engraving of a Wicker Man. By UnknownMidnightblueowl at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

18th century engraving of a Wicker Man. By UnknownMidnightblueowl at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Beltane festivals were still being held in Ireland in the 19th century, especially in Leinster and Munster, when both cattle and people leaped over flames to protect them against fairies and witches. They are also mentioned in the Scottish Lowlands in the 16th century and in the Highlands in the 18th century where a bannock bread would be made in the flames. They are also known in the Isle of Man, Cumbria, Devon and Cornwall in the 18th century but not across the rest of England. Although not recorded across much of Wales, they were known in Glamorgan and Montgomeryshire in the 19th century.

From the geographical distribution they look suspiciously ‘Celtic’ (although we prefer British, Celts not being described in Britain in pre-Roman times) in origin. But the corresponding areas of the continent that were Celtic e.g. France and Spain, had no tradition of May celebrations whereas they are found in Germany, Scandinavia and Austria. They may not have been Celtic in origin, then, but to do with a shared pastoral economy that relied on cattle or other livestock, rather than the mainly agrarian economy of south-eastern Britain and south-western Europe, where they practised other May traditions like bringing greenery into the house.

Edinburgh Beltane Festival 2012. By Stefan Schäfer, Lich (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Edinburgh Beltane Festival 2012. By Stefan Schäfer, Lich (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Whether you light up the barbecue or do a bit of gardening this bank holiday, rest assured you are probably continuing a couple of millennia of pagan traditions 😉 And, of course, some of you will be celebrating with modern pagan ceremonies too.

References

Green, M, 1997. Exploring the world of the druids. Thames & Hudson, London.

Hutton, R, 1996. Stations of the Sun. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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