Beltane

From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1894

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Baal or Bel is associated with the fires. Beltane was the Lucky Fire through which cattle were passed for purification. Spenser declared that in his day the Irish never put out a fire without a prayer. The Gabha-Bheil, or trial by Beil, subjected the person with bare feet to pass three times through a fire. A festival is mentioned, when birds and other creatures, previously caught, were set free with lights attached to them. There was an old Irish prayer, Bealaine, corrupted to Bliadhain. Then we have Bealtinne, or Baal's fire; the cromlech, near Cork, of Bealach magdadhair; aiche Beltinne, the night of Baal's fire; Baaltinglas; Beil-aine, circle of Baal, &c.

Mrs. Anna Wilkes, in Ireland, the Ur of the Chaldees, sees in the Irish and Hebrew word ur, the sacred fire. A fire-priest was Ur-bad, or Hyr-bad. The perpetual fire in the monastery of Seighir, says the Tripartite Life, was at the place where St. Patrick first met St. Kieran. The Rinceadh-fada was a sacred dance of the Irish at Beil-tinne, like dances recorded of Phoenicia and Assyria. At Uisneach, the Navel of Ireland, where the Druids lighted the first fire of the season, courts were regularly held till long after Christian times.

The Venerable Bede records that even in his lifetime many of the Irish were given to fire-worship. Fraser assures his readers that "in the south of Ireland, the wayside beggar, whose appeals for charity have met with a liberal response, can think of no benediction so comprehensive as 'May the blessing of Bel rest upon you!"'

Culdees, the recognized successors of the Druids in Ireland and Scotland, are said to owe their name—cal, gal, or ceill—to the word meaning preserver of fire. "It is still lucky," writes one, "for the young people to jump over the flames, or for cattle to pass between two fires." Another says, "Our forefathers sent their sons and daughters through the fire to Moloch." In Toland's day firebrands were cast about the fields of corn at Midsummer Eve, the survival of prayers to the fire-god to give heat for the harvest perfection. He calls the November fire, Tine-tlached-gha, or fire-ground. And yet, Arthur Clive considered fire-worship opposed alike to Druidism and the faith preceding it.

In the Book of Rights, so ably reproduced by J. O'Donovan, there are four seasons described—Earrach, Samhradh, Foghmhar, and Geimeridh, which he finds to be "undoubtedly Irish words not derived from the Latin through Christianity." Fires were lighted at Bealtaine in the beginning of Samhradh. The summer-end fires, Samhain, were known by the name of Tlachtgha. The new fire was produced by the wheel and spindle, with tow. The wheel, a solar symbol, must be turned by the spokes in the direction of the sun's daily course.

As Scotland, especially the western part, was largely peopled from Ireland, it would not be surprising to recognize Baal or fire-worship there.

All Hallow Eve ceremonies are well known, and especially the passing through the fire, although the Council of Constantinople, 680, expressly prohibited the heathen practice of leaping through the fire. The Rev. Alan Stewart, referring to such fires in his parish of Kirkmichael, famous for its Druidical circle, said, "The practice of lighting bonfires prevails in this and the neighbouring Highland parishes." These were the Tinegin or Needfires.

Regular Baal-fires continued in Ayrshire till 1780, and milkmaids still like to drive their cows through the flames with a rowan stick. The proper way to light the fire is by friction. S. Laing writes of "the Bel-fires which, when I was young, were lighted on Midsummer night on the hills of Orkney and Shetland. As a boy, I have rushed, with my playmates, through the smoke of these bonfires, without a suspicion that we were repeating the homage paid to Baal in the Valley of Hinnom."

One cannot help remembering the passage in Isa. 1. ii—"All ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks, walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled." Virgil records a prayer to Apollo at Soracte:—

"Whom first we serve, whole woods of unctuous pine
Burn on thy Heap, and to thy glory shine;
By thee protected, with our naked soles,
Thro' flame unsinged we pass, and tread the kindled coals."

The poet did not add that such devotees first applied a special ointment to their feet.

The Scotch Beltane, till lately, was observed in the Hebrides with something more heathen than the fire. The people lighted the fire by the old fashion of friction with two pieces of wood, and then ate the consecrated cake indulged in by pagan Syrians. The Scotch had the mixture of eggs, milk, and oatcake. This was broken up, and distributed among the assembly. Whoever got the black bit, hidden in the cake, was considered worthy of sacrifice to Baal, as the cailteach bealtine. He was pushed into the fire, though soon rescued, and afterwards had to leap three times through the flames. The term Beltane carline was ever a name of reproach.

In other places, at the Bealtine, a trench was cut round the fire, the young men assembled in the circle, and cast lots who should be the threefold leaper. Before eating the consecrated oatcake, a libation, in heathen style, was poured upon the ground. The Scotch generally are not now so given to sacramentarianism. Dr. Donald Clark conceives that the Beltane is not derived from Baal.

The Isle of Man, coming more under the influence of Ireland than any neighbouring land, has survivals of the old worship. Waldron asserts, "Not a family in the old Island, of natives, but keeps a fire constantly burning—or the most terrible devastations and mischief would immediately ensue." Train, in his account of the people, writes—"Almost down to the present time, no native of the Isle of Man will lend anything on either of the great Druidical festivals."

The Deas-iul dance, anciently in honour of the sun, is still practised there, going, like the sun, from east to south in its course, not ear-tuia-iul, or going round by east to north. Fires were kept up on the first of November, as at Hallowe'en.

Plowden, another historian of the place, remarks that—"The Scotch, Irish, and Manx call the first day of May, Beiltein, or the day of Baal's fire." A newspaper of 1837 has this paragraph—"On May-day the people of the Isle of Man have, from time immemorial, burned all the whin bushes in the Island, conceiving that they thereby burn all the witches and fairies, which they believe take refuge there."

In like manner, in the Isle of Lewis, they had the custom of Dessil (right hand), or Dess, from carrying fire in the right hand about houses and the stock. When a murrain occurred among the cattle there, all fires were formerly put out, and a fresh flame obtained by the rubbing of two planks together.

The Gaelic Councils tried in vain to arrest this fire devotion. James I. of Scotland has left a poem on the custom—

"At Beltane, quhen ilk bodie bownis
To Peblis to the play—"

that is, at Beltane all went to the play or games at Peebles.

In Cornwall, another part under Irish influence, Midsummer Eve was kept up with fire rejoicings. At Penzance, until a few years ago, on that eve men carried two barrels on poles. Others had torches and rockets, and girls held flowers. All at once all joined hands, and ran through the streets, crying out, "An eye! an eye!"—when an eye was opened by a pair, and all passed through. The old country dance was one in the same style.

No one needs reminding how far Wales, long under Irish rule, had similar fire customs. At Newton Nottage, till very recently, people leaped through the Midsummer fires. Of this custom, Theodoret, in condemnation of it, admitted that it was held as an expiation of sin. Great fires were kept up formerly on the noonside rock of Brimham, a Yorkshire Druidical locality.

France, especially in Brittany, has survivals of fire-worship. Such fires were useful to bless the apple-trees, and forward the harvest. A Breton priest was once called Belec, which means a servant of Baal. Outside Paris, Baal fires were lighted on St. John's Eve. Flammarion, in 1867, wrote—"In the evening the bonfires in honour of the feast of St. John were lighted all around Angouleme, and men and women were dancing before them, and jumping over them almost all night."

Russia and India have their leaping through the flames. In the first, a straw figure of Kupalo, a sort of representative of vegetation, was thrown in the fire. Germans had a straw image of the god Thor. In Mexico, babes on their fourth day were passed through fire.

Sonnerat had this account of the Darma, a Feast of Fire in India:—"It lasts eighteen days, during which time those who make a vow to keep it must fast, abstain from women, lie on the bare ground, and walk on a brisk fire. On the eighteenth day, they assemble on the sound of instruments, their heads covered with flowers, the body daubed with saffron, and follow in cadence the figures of Darma Rajah and Dobrede his wife, who are carried there in procession. When they come to the fire, they stir it to animate its activity, and take a little of the ashes, with which they rub their foreheads; and when the gods have been three times round it, they walk, either fast or slow, according to their zeal, over a very hot fire, extended to about forty feet in length."

Fire-worship may be the purest form of idolatry; as flame, so nearly immaterial, ever moving, always aspiring, is a type of the spiritual,—is useful, although dangerous. But no form of idolatry could be more cruel than the fiery adoration of the grim Moloch. Symbols are agreeable to fancy, and often helpful; but they may, and repeatedly do, lead men to crass idolatry.

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