Beltane: Celtic Feasts and Traditions

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Beltany Stone Circle Raphoe

Beltane is a cherished ancient Celtic feast which celebrates spring at its peak and the coming of summer. It is also known as May Day and is very strongly associated with fertility and a connection to nature.

Apple Blossoms in Spring

Origins and Traditions

This feast typically occurred in May, known in Irish as Bealtaine, and has deep roots in Irish mythology and ancient customs.

Legend has it that on the first day of Bealtaine, people would light two fires and drive the animals between them. This practice aimed to protect the animals from diseases, stimulate regeneration, and pay homage to the sun god Baal for the upcoming season.

Beltane bonfire celebrations

The Ancient Gaelic Celts, whose lives centered around their livestock, viewed Beltane as the start of a new cycle for cattle, horses, and sheep. May Day celebrations worldwide can trace their origins back to Beltaine.

Beltane as a Seasonal Festival

Beltane is one of the four ancient Gaelic seasonal festivals that mark crucial moments in the agricultural and spiritual calendar. Alongside Lughnasadh, Samhain, and Imbolc, Beltane signifies the changing of seasons and the cyclical nature of life.

Celtic Wheel Beltane

These feasts were not only seasonal markers but also opportunities to honor natural and supernatural forces. Burning large fires was a fundamental aspect of Beltane across Gaelic regions, symbolizing purification and protection. 

Beltany Stone Circle

In the North West of Ireland, near Raphoe, the neolithic Beltany Stone Circle stands, dating back to 800-1400 BC. This Stone circle consists of 64 standing stones; however, it is believed that there may have originally been 80 stones. When the sun rises during Beltane, it perfectly aligns with the sole decorated stone within the circle. 

Beltany Stone Circle Raphoe
Credit: govisitdonegal.com

Named after Beltane, the Beltany Stone Circle echoes the ancient tradition of lighting hilltop fires, symbolizing the rekindling of the sun’s warmth and vitality.

Modern Celebrations

Today, people celebrate Beltane by blending ancient customs with modern interpretations. They participate in festivals filled with music, dance, and communal feasting, honoring the season and their connection to the land. Maypole dances, floral wreaths, and shared seasonal foods evoke a sense of unity and gratitude for the natural world.