There’s something hypnotic and beguiling about watching golden flames leap, fanning your face with melting warmth, whilst the hiss and pop as they consume their fuel, fills your ears, and clouds of fragrant wood-smoke drift around you… the experience of fire is quite a feast for the senses. A fire can be soothing and relaxing, or mesmerising and exciting, or uncontrollable and frightening.
Our ancestors were well aware of the effects of fire. Mastering this element had changed their lives, yet was fraught with danger. Homes were temporary affairs, constructed of degradable substances such as wood and thatch, and thus highly flammable. Even the landscape could be destroyed by the application of fire, or it could be revitalised.
Observing how fire consumed the living, and yet how new life sprang from the ashes, it’s no wonder that legends such as that of the phoenix were born.
And of course, the greatest fire of them all was that which rode through the sky each day, governing the seasons, separating day from night, bringing warmth and light to nurture seeds in the earth, and life from the womb.
Today, most people assume that the early Irish worshipped the sun as if it were a God. The fact that certain gods and goddesses are associated with the sun has more to do with scholars of later centuries, than any evidence left behind by our ancestors.
For example, from Victorian times, Lugh Lamhada was thought to be a sun god, because the Proto-Indo-European root of his name leuk means ‘flashing light’, and thus he is often surrounded by solar imagery.
However, in some parts of Ireland, thunderstorms are referred to as battles between Lugh and Balor, which would imply that he was actually a storm god. This fits more appropriately with the flashing light interpretation of his name, which perhaps more correctly could mean ‘lightning flash’.
Taken into consideration with his festival of Lughnasadh (1st August), and the celebration of the harvest, when the earth is depleted, and the weather is changing, winding down towards winter, the days shortening, storms blowing in bringing rain to renew the parched soil of summer, an association with storms and lightning carries far more weight.
Brigid is another deity associated with the sun. Her feast day is Imbolc (1st February), a time of renewal, regeneration, lengthening days, warmer temperatures, and the greening of spring. She founded a retreat in Kildare, which means ‘church by the oak tree’, and there in her honour the eternal flame was lit.
In 470AD, St Brigid founded a monastery on the Goddess’s site, and she too kept the flame burning. It was extinguished during the C16th, but relit in 1993 by the Brigidine Sisters, who keep it burning to this day.
Yet Brigid’s fire is not that of the sun, at all. Some say it is the fire of the forge, for she was thought to be gifted with the working of metal. However, among her many skills, she was a patron of poets and the poetic art. In that sense, I believe Brigid’s fire was that of poetic inspiration, in other words, the divine knowledge.
The ancient peoples of Ireland celebrated their major festivals with fire. Is this in honour of their sun Gods and Goddesses? According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn, an ancient manuscript detailing Ireland’s waves of invaders, the first Bealtaine fire was lit on the Hill of Uisneach by the Nemedian Druid, Mide. Although ‘Druidical rituals’ were said to have taken place, there is no mention of sun-god worship.
You may point out that the word Bealtaine must be linked to to the gods Baal, Bel or Beli, or even Bilé, who was not a god but the father of Mil Espaine, the Milesians who invaded Ireland and defeated the Tuatha de Denann. In fact, beal means ‘bright/ brilliant’, and taine comes from the Irish word for ‘fire’, tine.
The fires may well have represented the importance of the sun in their lives, but these early people, whilst sensitive to nature and very spiritual, were practical and scientific. We know this by the many stone monuments they left in our landscape, extraordinary feats of engineering still standing strong today, built with technology even we, with all our knowledge and computers, can’t fathom.
We know they studied the stars, and from that the seasons, devising their Celtic calender from it. They left us beautiful artwork carved into rock, and wrought in metal tools and weapons, which archaeologists have dug out of the earth, or rescued from bogs and other watery places.
Although they never left us any writings of their own, we also get glimpses of these skills in the remains of the legends as written down by Christian monks, in documents such as the Annals of the Four Masters, and the Lebor Gabála Érenn.
So, what did the ancient Irish actually do at Bealtaine? The festival was certainly connected with fertility of the land, the crops, and the people; the rituals were about protection and purification.
The bonfires were constructed from wood held sacred, such as rowan, apple, dogwood, juniper, pine, holly and oak, and kindled by Druids with great ceremony. Cattle were then driven between the fires and through the smoke, thus cleansing, blessing and protecting their health and milk yield.
People would also pass between the fires, some even leaping the flames. All household fires would have been extinguished, and embers from the Bealtaine fire carefully carried home to relight the hearth, and heart of the house, thus bringing the blessing and protection over all who lived there.
It is also thought that flames from these bonfires could have been ceremonially applied to the fields, as a quick way of clearing and preparing them for spring planting, a method which has been used until fairly recently, when the world became concerned with global warming. (Watch this space to find out more about Bealtaine!)
But Bealtaine was not the only festival celebrated with fire; so was Samhain, Mid-Winter, in fact all the ancient Irish festivals.
The sun was considered to bring great healing energy. Walking three times ‘sun wise’, or cor deiseil, around a fire represented the circling of the sun, and was a potent ritual invocation of the sun’s healing power. We know from the number of monuments which align with sunrise on a festival morning that this part of the day was greatly revered; no doubt feeling the full force of the rays of the rising sun, as well as being spiritually uplifting, was considered beneficial to one’s healing process.
There are some interesting folk traditions in Ireland concerning fire. For example, it was thought very unlucky to put out a light while people were at the dinner table, as this would mean there would be one less person at the table before the end of the year. It was also considered unlucky to carry fire out of a house where a person was ill, as it would also remove the blessing from the house. It may have been thought that the fire represented a person’s spirit, thus removing or extinguishing it also extinguished the invalid’s spark of life.