1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Beltane

BELTANE, Beltene, Beltine, or Beal-Tene (Scottish Gaelic, bealltain), the Celtic name for May-day, on which also was held a festival called by the same name, originally common to all the Celtic peoples, of which traces still linger in Ireland, the Highlands of Scotland and Brittany. This festival, the most important ceremony of which in later centuries was the lighting of the bonfires known as “beltane fires,” is believed to represent the Druidical worship of the sun-god. The fuel was piled on a hill-top, and at the fire the beltane cake was cooked. This was divided into pieces corresponding to the number of those present, and one piece was blackened with charcoal. For these pieces lots were drawn, and he who had the misfortune to get the black bit became cailleach bealtine (the beltane carline)—a term of great reproach. He was pelted with egg-shells, and afterwards for some weeks was spoken of as dead. In the north-east of Scotland beltane fires were still kindled in the latter half of the 18th century. There were many superstitions connecting them with the belief in witchcraft. According to Cormac, archbishop of Cashel about the year 908, who furnishes in his glossary the earliest notice of beltane, it was customary to light two fires close together, and between these both men and cattle were driven, under the belief that health was thereby promoted and disease warded off. (See Transactions of the Irish Academy, xiv. pp. 100, 122, 123.) The Highlanders have a proverb, “he is between two beltane fires.” The Strathspey Highlanders used to make a hoop of rowan wood through which on beltane day they drove the sheep and lambs both at dawn and sunset.

As to the derivation of the word beltane there is considerable obscurity. Following Cormac, it has been usual to regard it as representing a combination of the name of the god Bel or Baal or Bil with the Celtic teine, fire. And on this etymology theories have been erected of the connexion of the Semitic Baal with Celtic mythology, and the identification of the beltane fires with the worship of this deity. This etymology is now repudiated by scientific philologists, and the New English Dictionary accepts Dr Whitley Stokes’s view that beltane in its Gaelic form can have no connexion with teine, fire. Beltane, as the 1st of May, was in ancient Scotland one of the four quarter days, the others being Hallowmas, Candlemas, and Lammas.

For a full description of the beltane celebration in the Highlands of Scotland during the 18th century, see John Ramsay, Scotland and Scotsmen in the 18th Century, from MSS. edited by A. Allardyce (1888); and see further J. Robertson in Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland, xi. 620; Thomas Pennant, Tour in Scotland (1769–1770); W. Gregor, “Notes on Beltane Cakes,” Folklore, vi. (1895), p. 2; and “Notes on the Folklore of the North-East of Scotland,” p. 167 (Folklore Soc. vii. 1881); A. Bertrand, La Religion des Gaulois (1897); Jamieson, Scottish Dictionary (1808). Cormac’s Glossary has been edited by O’Donovan and Stokes (1862).