The Celtic calendar had two main seasons, warm and cold. The end of the cold season and the beginning of summer were marked by one of the most important festivals of the year, Bealtaine. The corresponding festival for the end of the Summer and beginning of the winter was Samhain which has now become Halloween.
Belenus- The go-to God for all things Bealtaine
Bealtaine traditionally fell on the first of May and was highly symbolic for the indigenous population of Ireland. This corresponded to the date when cattle could be driven to open grazing and was therefore a time of great importance for pastoralist societies. The lighting of great fires in prominent locations was central to the celebration of this festival, presumably to reflect the rebirth and rejuvenation of the sun. It was also customary to drive cattle between large fires in order to protect them from disease. TGE Powell in his book The Celts believes that the word is a combination of the celtic word for fire (tine) and reference to a god called Belenus known widely in Northern Italy, south-eastern Gaul, Nordicum and south-west Britain. Belenus is thought to have been a sun-god and his name is believed to have meant ‘Brilliant’ or ‘Bright’ one. In modern Irish Bealtaine is still the name given to the month of May.
Fire, a key component of Bealtaine
More recently a particular raucous festival has become very popular in Edinburgh know as Beltane which involves naked dancers, drums and massive fires on Carlton Hill on the eve of the 1stof May.
Dramatic scenes at the Beltane Fire Society's annual festival on Edinburgh's Calton Hill
The Celtic festival of Lugnasadh (pronounced loonasa) falls on the 1st of August and is believed to have been a celebration of the harvest. The Celtic calendar had two principal festivals; Samhain (in November) and Bealtaine (in May). Separating these two main festivals were two lesser celebrations, Imbolg (in February) and Lugnasad (in August).
The Magical Spear of Lugh in action
The origins of the Lughnasa festival are tied in with traditions surrounding the Celtic god Lug, from whom the festival gets its name. Lug was a significant deity in the Celtic world and his name is linked to place names such as Lyon (Lugdunum), Katwijk near Leiden (Lugdunum Batavorum) and the modern Galician city of Lugo (Lucus Augusti). In Ireland he has numerous titles, two of the more common ones are Lugh Lamhfhada (Lugh of the Long Arm) and Lugh Samhildanach (Lugh the skillfull). The reference to the ‘long arm’ relates to his ability with a magical spear rather than the length of his limb. The name Lug also has solar connotations and he is likely to have been a sun god. Lugh was king of the Tuatha Dé Danann(Tribe of the goddess Danu).
Mound of the Hostages at the Royal site of Tara, Co. Meath
Legend has it that the feast of Lughnasa was established by Lug to commemorate his foster mother Tailtiu (the nature goddess) who died of exhaustion after clearing the forests of Ireland to facilitate cultivation. An important centre for celebrations of this festival was Teltown in County Meath which may have derived its name from the goddess. It is likely that this festival involved a large tribal gathering involving feasting, trade and games. The gathering at Teltown or óenach Tailten was presided over by the King of Tara and a tradition of this festival survived locally into the 19thcentury.
The Harvest, central to the celebration of Lughnasadh
An earlier name for the harvest festival also survives. This was referred to as Brón Trograin or the Rage of Trograin and was an occasion for sacrifices to ensure the ripening of crops. It is likely that Trograin was an earlier tribal god who was replaced by Lug.