Bealtaine is here, and many wondrous occurrences with it. As most know, Bealtaine heralds in the light half of the Irish year (and I specify Irish because this word is Irish, and its use would be restricted to this specific geographic area and meteorological experience – it’s certainly the BRIGHT half long before May back in Texas!). Many customs surround this ushering in. Some are folkloric in nature and others historic, even mythic.
“May Day serves to divide our story-telling year in two equal halves (no stories after May Day until Samhain, when darkness comes to claim us back). It is considered direly unlucky to get into storytelling around Mayday — singing is a different matter, however.”
Marion Gunn, Folklorist / Linguist, University College Dublin
On the Hill of Uisneach, both historically and mythically, Bealtaine fires were lit and a sacred assembly held. This practice is being rekindled with the modern Festival of the Fires. There is not, as yet, legislative activity taking place but there is, without doubt, festivity, remembrance, and one kick-butt Fire! Warriors on horse back patrol the perimeter, ensuring that the neighboring, and sometimes waring, tribes keep their peace. Bards and musicians share their craft while families stroll the sacred hills. A visit to the holy well may bring healing, if a votive offering has been made in LoughLugh.
This was a time of purification (the ancients seemed awfully concerned with purification, I’ve noticed). Cattle and people were cleansed with the smoke of the rising fires. The great fire at Uisneach was echoed by answering fires that were lit on neighboring summits. The resulting topographic web of fire stretching from the omphalos of Uisneach outward to the coast of Ireland, created a “fire-eye,” a divine oculus mundi, or eye of the world through which the goddess of Ireland, Aine…Eriu, could once again see and be seen.
Of monumental landforms, mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “to be seen in the eyes of the Goddess and to move upon [her] as she revealed herself in hill and vale was to be part of both time and timelessness, matter and spirit.”
From the lofty to the daily, we turn to the tiny Primrose. This delicious yellow flower of early spring is to be collected on May Eve, before dusk, by children who make posies or small bouquets with them. They are to be hung in the house or over the door, laid on doorsteps and windowsills, strewn in profusion, to protect against the Fair Ones…who traipse at this time of year! As an added benefit, if you rub them on a cow’s udder her milk will increase!
Here in Cork, particularly the southern part, May Eve was known as “Nettlemas Night”. Boys would parade the streets with large bunches of nettles, stinging their playmates and occasionally unfortunate passersby who got too close. Girls joined in this as well, usually stinging their lovers or boys they especially liked! In most parts of Ireland, it was believed that taking 3 meals of nettles in May guarded against illness for the rest of the year. Other parts of the country dispensed with the stinging, instead nettles were gathered on May Eve, pressed into a juice, and everyone in the house drank a mouthful, … to keep a “good fire in them” for the rest of the year.
Now, something a bit more maleficent, and of interest to us Hedge Witches, is the May Eve Curse. Vervain, Speedwell, Eyebright, Mallow, Yarrow, Self-Heal, St. Johns Wort: if collected on May Eve under the enchanting words, these herbs do great harm and nothing natural or supernatural may dissuade.
For myself, on the gregorian day, I traipsed about stone circles with two friends. Three times Three we visited them: water, earth, and sky. In the enclosure we raised our voices, along the way we shared laughter and, where appropriate, offerings of fruit…or gentle tears. On the astronomical day, … pilgrimage to Uisneach to join the tribes, of course!
Let the Debaucheries of Summer begin!!