“The monkish chronicler, availing himself of the semantic ambiguity in the word “Cailleach,“ invented the fiction that She had taken the nun’s veil, caille, in the end of Her days.”
He then went on from this to compose around this story of the “nun” of Berre. Cailleach Bherre, the Old Woman of Berre,“ was a popular epithet for Cailleach in that part of Ireland.” Unfortunately Professor MacCana does not give the Gaelic/Goidelic original of the poem in his edition of Celtic Mythology, but we can easily guess that the holy Roman changed in recording this lament of a “nun” who had once been the advisor and consort of kings. The real subject of this work is the plight of Druidism and the Bardic Orders in decline, driven out to the heath and wild places among the poor and illiterate by the foreign religion of Rome. Many similar laments for the stability, culture and richness of the old courts of Chieftains, bards and Druids, echo down through the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries as the Dark Ages grew darker and Christianity spread.
Beltaine, one of the greatest, and, now-a-days, one of the best known of the old Celtic High Days. It marks the beginning of Samhradh, summer, the “Season of Life.” In old Pagan times, it signaled the moving of the herds up to summer pasture in the mountains and the beginning of the new cycle. Great fires were built to welcome back the Sun, and the cattle were driven through the flames for purification before starting on their way to the high meadows. The Druid caste, priests, priestesses, ovates and bards, presided over these rites at which all the clans gathered together at such ritual sites as Tara, in Ireland, and Carnutes in France. Though a Good Day, Beltane was also considered a tricky one, and great care had to be taken that there were no errors or mishaps that day. The High King, in Ireland, remained indoors, surrounded by his advisors and magically guarded by his Druids. The dancing and festivities were carried out by the farming and craftsmen castes. Previous to Beltane Eve, all quarrels been settled, and justice meted out. This was another Druid function, that of magistrate, with a specialized sub-group of the caste acting as judges. A different sub-group of Druids presided over the sacrifices offered to Belenos, the Sun, and still another specialized group of the Druid caste, often women, Druidesses, actually offered the sacrifices, and dispatched the offered animals. The Ovate sub-group then read the will of the Deities by whether and how the sacrifices were accepted in the fires,
For the RD.N.A. Druids today, Beltaine also marks the Season of Life. Though we have no White Bulls nor mares to offer, (animals sacrifice was forbidden by the Reform which made us R.D.N.A. in 1966 (sic)) there will be whiskey in the Chalice and tree food in the Tree Chalice, offerings of flowers, and the Third Order Druids will exchange their white ribbons of winter for red ones of the summer season. High Kings and politicians will be left indoors, and a merry time will be had by all.
Beltaine, May Day, the beginning of the Summer half of the year when Nature awakens once again. This is the most widely known of the pagan and Druidic High Days with the practices of paganism having evolved or been adopted into practices of folklore and custom. The marking of the return of life in the veneration of vegetation appear in the words of the old saying “April showers bring May flowers,” May Day celebrations, and the dancing around the Maypole with colorful ribbon streamers. It is not surprising that Mircea Eliade’s words “the cosmos is symbolized by a tree” and “fertility, wealth, luck, health” are all concentrated on herbs or trees.
Beltaine probably originated as a vegetation, agricultural, and fertility festival. Cattle were driven between two fires to insure their health and fertility before being sent out to green pastureland for summer, with Druids officiating at the ceremony. With the beginning of the summer half of the year the tree embodied the newly awakened spirit of vegetation. The belief was held that the tree-spirit would bless women with children, cause the herds to multiply, and make the crops grow. Houses and farm buildings were bedecked with green boughs and flowery garlands. May flowers were crushed and the juice from them was used to wash the cows’ udders.
Nothing symbolized the tree spirit more than the Maypole. Originally a sacred tree, the Maypole became the focal point of Beltaine festivities. A sacred ash tree stood at Uisnech, County Westmeath, an important Druidic center and assembly place where Beltaine was annually celebrated. The Cerne Abbas Giant cut into the hillside above the village in Dorset, possibly dating back to Romano-British times, obviously epitomizes fertility and vitality. For centuries, a fir Maypole was erected on May Eve on the hillside above the giant’s head in readiness for the May Day festivities, which were again dedicated to the continuance of fertility. In villages, whole trees were felled and set up. Later the pole was permanently left up and then decorated each year for May Day. To this day, a few villages in England and local parks and Renaissance faires in the United States still retain the Maypole, which is often painted with red and white spiral stripes. These colors are often used in spring festivities, red signifying the color of life and generative energy, and white, a fresh, new beginning. Again we see the constant theme of renewal and rebirth as the world awakens from its long season of sleep.
Beltane Essay: Fire and Water
A Druid Missal-Any, Beltane 2002
By Stacey Weinberger
Beltaine, May Day, the first day of Summer and the beginning of the Season of Life. In the RDNA tradition the Waters-of-Life are returned to the Grove chalice and all Third Order Druids exchange their white ceremonial ribbons to red. At Baccharis Grove we add a natural fertilizer to the tree chalice as part of our offering to the Grove trees. Now is a good time for those who own bronze sickles to sharpen them for the coming season.
Beltaine is a pastoral festival. It is associated with fertility, the return and renewal of life to the face of the earth. It was also a period of purification for the animals of the as well as people. Fire and water seem to be the principle methods used for purification and to insure fertility of the coming year.
At sundown on Beltaine eve, the Druids kindled need fires or teine eigin from oak and other sacred wood. Household fires that were normally never allowed to go out were extinguished and relit from the need fire. At Uisnech, a ritual center in Ireland, this fire was kindled by the king’s druid and the people would a bring a brand with which to relight their hearths. The Lebor Gabala, the Book of Invasions, contains a story about the Druid Mide, for whom Meath is named, who was the first Druid to light a Beltaine fire at Uisnech for the clans of Nemed. This custom is also documented as being practiced in Scotland in the Highlands and Islands as late as the first quarter of the 20th century.
In ancient times, cattle signified the wealth of the Celtic tribes as well as their continuation and survival. Thus it was importance to insure their fertility and health. To this end, bonfires were lit on hills and mountaintops and the cattle that had been sheltered and stall-fed all winter were driven between the flames before being sent out to summer pasturelands. In his glossary, Cormac, the ninth century Irish writer, Beltaine comes from Bel-tene, a goodly fire. According to Cormac the Druids kindled two great bonfires between which cattle were driven. There is some thought that in earlier times that the cattle were sacrificed to the deities in exchange for protection against disease, fertility, a good growing season, and a good harvest in the fall, and later evolved into symbolically passing the cattle between the fires.
Though people also passed between the Beltaine bonfires, their purification and fertility practices seem to be more centered around water than fire.
To the Druids, the most sacred of all water forms was dew (found at dawn, the liminal, “otherworldly” period between night and day,) especially the dew of Beltaine morning. The washing of the face in the dew of Beltaine morning and drinking from the well before sunrise was common practice. It was well known that holy wells were considered to bestow fertility upon women. The tradition of dew’s potency has come down through the centuries and in Scotland and Ireland young women still rise before dawn on the first of May to wash their faces in the morning dew and let it dry in the air. The dew of Beltaine morning was often gathered and kept as a medicinal or beauty aid. It was said to bring a good complexion, cure sore eyes, prevent or cure headaches, skin ailments, and freckles.
Men who washed their hands in the May Dew were said to gain skill in opening lock and knots, in mending nets and untangling ropes. Women who did the same would be able to untangle threads. Walking barefoot in the dew cured soreness and insured healthy feet during the year.
Also common was the scattering of water to with which to bring fertility upon those whom it falls. On Beltaine in Padstow, Cornwall the dancing ‘Obby ‘Oss was known for bringing the promise of a husband or child to the young women it covered with its skirts. But in pastimes the prancing and twirling about also including water in this fertility ritual. The ‘Oss would wade in Treater Pool near the town, “drink” from the water, and sprinkle those assembled for good luck. Early May festivities in Southern Ireland included a procession of Mummers, one of whom dressed as a clown, carried a long pole with shreds of cloth like a mop at the top. He would dip this into a pool of water or puddle and liberally sprinkle it on the crowds about him, another symbolic gesture of distributing the fertilizing properties of the water.
Summer Solstice Notes
The Druid Chronicles (Evolved) 1976
By Isaac Bonewits and Robert Larson
The Summer Solstice is a Minor High Day, usually occurring around June 21st or so. Also known as St. John’s Day and Midsummer (and, confusingly enough, by at least one Neo-Pagan group, as Beltane!,) it shares mythical elements with both Beltane and Lughnasadh. Like both, it is a feast celebrating the glory of summer and the peak of the Sun God’s power. But in many systems of belief, it is the day of the biggest battle of the year between the Dark Sun God and the Light Sun God (or between the evil one and the good one,) Who are usually brothers or otherwise intimately related. Midsummer is a peak from which the Sun can only fall, for it is the day on which the hours of light slowly begin to shorten.
In those areas where it is safe to do so, Neopagans frequently will light cartwheels of kindling and roll them down from the tops of high hills, in order to symbolize the falling of the Sun God.
Summer Solstice Essay: Midsummer
Druid Chronicler, Midsummer 1980
By Isaac Bonewits
The Summer Solstice is a Minor High Day, usually occurring around June 21st or so. Also known as St. John's Day and Midsummer (and, confusingly enough, among some groups as Beltane!,) it shares mythical elements with both Beltane and Lughnasadh (the midpoint between Summer Solstice and Fall Equinox.) Like both, it is a feast celebrating the glory of summer and the peak of the Sun God's power. But in many systems of belief, it is the day of the biggest battle of the year between the Dark Sun God, and the Light Sun God (or between the evil one and the good one,) who are usually brothers or otherwise intimately related. Midsummer is a peak from which the Sun can only fall, for it is the day on which the hours of light slowly begin to shorten.
Summer Solstice Essay:
Danu and Diana
A Druid Missal-Any, Summer Solstice 1983
By Emmon Bodfish
Midsummer Solstice, one of the four astronomical high-days of the Celtic year, is associated with the Druid goddess Danu, mother of the gods, the Tuatha de Danann. She is probably the same figure as the Irish goddess Anu and the Breton Ana. She may be cognate with the classic goddess Diana, not only on the grounds of word origins, but on the witness of Gallo-Roman writers who noted the similarities in character and type in the days when her worship was still current in Gaul. She is associated with fertility, particularly of women, and with the boar totem, as was Diana the huntress and the earlier Greek Artemis. The virgin aspect of this Moon and fertility goddess was emphasized in the lands bordering the Mediterranean, and the mother aspect in Western and Northern Europe.
Her festival was on midsummer day, and traces of the old customs continue in Celtic lands. On the Isle of Man, it is customary to wear a spring of Mugwort, a plant also sacred to Roman Diana, and reputed, in England, to bring a young woman dreams of her future husband. That the Christian Church chose this day for one of its major saints, John the Baptist, may indicate that it was attempting to displace a major pagan festival and deity. Many of the customs carried on into modern times on “St. John’s” day, seem singularly at odds with the stern, rather puritan character of the man who was beheaded for refusing to retract his condemnation of King Herod’s incestuous behavior. These include dancing in the streets, all night bonfires, public song fests, and encouragement of amatory games among the young.*
*This sounds interesting, but Ward Rutherford, The Druids, does not elaborate.
Summer Solstice Essay:
Danu and Megaliths
A Druid Missal-Any, Summer Solstice 1984
By Emmon Bodfish
Midsummer Solstice, one of the four minor High-days of the Celtic year, is associated with Danu, Mother of the gods, the Tuatha de Danann. She is particularly associated with rivers, and rivers from the Don in Russia to the Don in Scotland are though to be names for her. She is probably the same figure as the Irish goddess Anu and the Breton Ana. Roman Diana and Greek Artemis may be other cognates of the same Indo-European deity. This is based not only on the study of word origins, but on the witness of Gallo-Roman writers who noted the similarities in the character and in season of worship to those of Diana, during the time when the Celtic religions were still practiced in Gaul. Like classical Diana, her totem is the boar, and she is associated with fertility and marriage, and the luckiness of June marriages may be distant memory of her festivities. Mugwort is her flower, an herb also sacred to Roman Diana, and on Isle of Man it is customary to wear a spring of it to the Mid-Summer dance. In England, Mugwort placed under the pillow is said to bring a young woman dreams of her future husband. In Scotland, there are all night bonfires, song fests, and dances for the young unmarried people of the villages.
This is the morning on which the Sun used to rise over the heel stone at Stone Henge, beginning the new season of the Megalithic calendar. (It no longer rises at that point due to the precession of the Earth’s axis.) The Druids did NOT build Stonehenge. It antedates their arrival in Britain by centuries. It was William Stuckeley, in 1717, who mis-located the Druids there. He did some of the best antiquarian field work of his day, but his theorizing later wildly outstripped his data. The mistake was an honest one, however, considering what was known in his day. He showed that the stones were not a memorial to King Arthur, nor a Roman temple. He was the first to accept them as definitely pre-Roman. The only knowledge of pre-Roman Britain he had came from Roman and Greek writers of the Classical period. They said that Britain was inhabited by Celts whose priests were the Druids. So, if the stones were pre-Roman, Stuckeley reasoned, they must have been built by Druids. He knew of no other candidates. The last two centuries of archeology have given us many, even too many, other possibilities. The current most favored candidates are the early Neolithic framers of Natufian stock, long headed, slender, fine-boned people who inhabited the Salisbury area in 2900-2600 B.C., the best modern date for the first cycle of building at Stone Henge.
A larger boned, hardier people later took over the monument and set up the Blue Stones, but they, too, had disappeared before the arrival of the Halstatt Celts circa 480 B.C.
This is not to say that the Celts did not take cognizance of the huge monument. They worked other monuments of prehistoric peoples, such as the mounds, Sidh, of Ireland and the cairns of Scotland into their mythology and song. They may have done the same for Stone Henge, but the English traditions are almost all lost, while the Irish are among the best preserved.
“Behold the Sidh before your eye,
It is manifest to you that it is a king’s mansion,
Which was built by the firm Dagda
It was a wonder, a court, an admirable hill.”
It is likely that the religion of the Megalith Builders was more astronomical than that of the La Tene and later Druids. Two or more different groups contributed to the five or more cycles of construction and re-construction at Stone Henge. Though astronomically aligned, the stones are not accurate enough for an “observatory.” It may have served as a calendar rectifier, eclipse predictor, and a ritual site for the Megalithic religions. But what that religion was must remain a matter of conjecture. Clearly it had something to do with sunrise, mid-summer, moonrise, and lunar eclipses, but what it meant, and what they did here, is probably not recoverable short of the invention of a time machine.
Summer Solstice Essay:
Stonehenge and Mugwort
A Druid Missal-Any, Midsummer 1985
By Emmon Bodfish
Midsummer, Solstice, Greine-Stad, Sun-stop, today the Sun reaches its most northerly declination, at 2:44 A.M. Pacific Standard Time. This is the festival of the Goddess Danu, mother of the gods and men. Bonfires are lit on hilltops and the night is danced away. Tossing grain or coins into the air this day is said to help one’s prosperity. This is the morning that the Sun would rise over the heel stone at Stone Henge, but for the fact that the Earth has processed far enough on its axis since 1500 B.C. to move the sunrise point out of line with the ancient markers. In the 18th and 19th centuries, English Druid groups held ceremonies there. But now the Henge is fenced off and protected, and accessible only with permission of the government. The huge numbers of tourists were eroding the soil around the monoliths and there was concern that the monument would be damaged. The smaller, less well-known stone circles, such as Callanish or the Maidens are still accessible to the public, as is Avesbury.
The Druids did NOT build Stone Henge. It antedates their arrival in Britain by many centuries. It was William Stuckeley, in 1717, who mis-located them there. He did some of the best antiquarian field work of his day, but his later theorizing wildly outstripped his data. The mistake was an honest one, however, considering what was known in his day. He showed that the stones were not a memorial to King Arthur, nor a Roman temple, as had been previously supposed. He was the first to accept them as definitely pre-Roman. The only knowledge of pre-Roman Britain he had came from the Roman and Greek writers of the Classical period. They said that Britain was inhabited by Celts, whose priests were the Druids. So, if the stones were pre-Roman, Stuckeley reasoned, they must have been assembled by the Druids. He knew of no other candidates. We now feel that Stone Henge and the numerous other stone circles were set up by at least three different, pre-Celtic races, best described, I think, by Clannad’s phrase, “the race no one knows.” Clannad is an Irish music group who have produced several records, of which their latest, “Magical Ring” is, in our opinion, their best. (We highly recommend it.)
In many English, Irish and Welsh villages, bonfires are lit in the squares, or in Scotland, it is the day for a community picnic on the moors. Then, on mid-summer’s night, the shortest night in the year, which will be the twenty-third, (long, boring, astronomical explanation here omitted) single women would put a bouquet of Mugwort or St. John’s Wort under their pillow, to bring dreams of their future husbands. If you try this, let us know what happens. We need this research.
Summer Solstice Essay:
Firbolgs and Tuatha De Danann
A Druid Missal-Any, Midsummer 1986
By Raphael McKeen and Stacey Weinberger
Midsummer, Summer Solstice, the Longest Day of the Year, is one of four Minor High Days of the Celtic Calendar. It is a feast celebrating the glory and the peak of the Sun God Belenos’ (meaning “the shining one”) power. On this day the altar fire should be especially large and a sacrifice of green branches and mistletoe be made. It was upon Midsummer Day that the people of the Goddess Danu, the Tuatha de Danann, took pre-Celtic Ireland from its earlier inhabitants, the Fir Bolgs.
It was upon the mystic first day of May that the Tuatha de Danann landed on the coast of Ireland in a dense fog without being opposed by the Fir Bolgs. The Tuatha de Danann then proceeded to “druidically” form showers and fog-sustaining showers over the country and caused the air to pour down fire and blood upon the Fir Bolgs. The Fir Bolgs had to shelter themselves for three days and three nights, after which time their own Druids put a stop to these enchantments by counter spells.
After a parley at the Plain of the Sea, the Fir Bolgs and the Tuatha de Danann agreed to exchange weapons, so that each side might be able to come to some opinion as to the opponent’s strength. The people of the Goddess Danu offered the Fir Bolgs peace, with a division of the country into two equal halves. The Fir Bolg King Eochaid would not have this. The Tuatha de Danann however, impressed by the Fir Bolgs’ weapons, decided to retreat farther west into Connaught to a plain then called Nia (now called Moytura,) where they drew up their boundary line at the extreme end. This was in front of the Pass of Balgaton, which offered a retreat in case of defeat. Nuada, King of the Tuatha de Danann, sent an ambassador offering the same terms as before. Again the Fir Bolgs declined, but agreed to a truce of one hundred and five days in order to become battle-ready.
It was on Midsummer day that the opposing armies at last met. The people of the Goddess Danu appeared “in a flaming line,” wielding their “red-bordered, speckled, and firm shields.” Opposite to them were aligned the Fir Bolgs, “sparkling, brilliant, and flaming, with their swords, spears, blades, and trowel-spears.” A deadly hurley-match was begun in which thrice nine of the Tuatha de Danann met the same number of Fir Bolgs. The Fir Bolgs emerged the victors. This was followed with more parleys and battles, fought with equal numbers on each side. After four days and a terrible slaughter upon each side, the Fir Bolgs were reduced to three hundred men. Those remaining were offered a fifth part of Ireland--whichever province they might choose. They agreed to this and chose Connaught, ever afterwards their special home, and where, until the middle of the seventeenth century, men were still found tracing their descent from Sreng, a warrior of the Fir Bolgs.