An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 108

In the preceding generations men, not boys, were the celebrants. Thus ritual droops into the hands of the very young,[Pg 241] the despised, or the very old. The strong desert it, but the weak pitifully conserve it. "In the Parish of Logierait," says Napier, "Beltane is celebrated by the shepherds and cowherds in the following manner. They assemble in the fields and dress a dinner of milk and eggs. This dish they eat with a sort of cake baked for the occasion, having small lumps or nipples raised all over its surface. These knobs are not eaten, but broken off, and given as offerings to the different supposed powers or influences that protect or destroy their flocks, to the one as a thank-offering, to the other as a peace-offering."

Pennant, in his Tour through Scotland, thus described the Bealltainn observances as they were practised at the end of last century. "The herds of every village hold their Beltane (a rural sacrifice). They cut a square trench in the ground, leaving the turf in the middle. On that they make a fire of wood, on which they dress a large caudle of eggs, oatmeal, butter, and milk, and bring besides these plenty of beer and whiskey. Each of the company must contribute something towards the feast. The rites begin by pouring a little of the caudle upon the ground, by way of a libation. Every one then takes a cake of oatmeal, on which are raised nine square knobs, each dedicated to some particular being who is supposed to preserve their herds, or to some animal the destroyer of them. Each person then turns his face to the fire, breaks off a knob, and, flinging it over his shoulder, says—'This I give to thee,' naming the being whom he thanks, 'preserver of my sheep,' etc.; or to the destroyer, 'This I give to thee (O fox or eagle), spare my lambs,' etc. When this ceremony is over they all dine on the caudle."

We thus see that Bealltainn was the survival of the sacrifice of a human being to certain animistic spirits, the preservers of the flocks and herds of the celebrants. Later, cattle must have taken the place of the human victim. Jamieson remarks, quoting O'Brien: "Ignis Bei Dei Aseatica ea lineheil, or May-day, so called from large fires which the Druids were used to light on the summits of the highest hills, into which they drove four-footed beasts, using certain ceremonies to expiate for the sins of the people. The Pagan ceremony of lighting these fires in honour of the Asiatic god Belus gave its name to the entire[Pg 242] month of May, which to this day is called Me-na-bealtine, in the Irish, Dor Keating." He says again, speaking of these fires of Baal, that the cattle were driven through them and not sacrificed, the chief design being to avert contagious disorders from them for the year. And quoting from an ancient glossary, O'Brien says: "The Druids lighted two solemn fires every year, and drove all four-footed beasts through them, in order to preserve them from contagious distempers during the current year."

Bealltainn was perhaps an adaptation of one of the names of BilĂ©, a Celtic god of death and the Underworld, one of the Danann or gods imported from Gaul. Thus we may find in the festival the celebration of a propitiatory festival to the god of death and all his devastating crew, the tempest, the fox, the eagle—the pantheon of destroyers, whom it was hoped to placate and soften into protective agencies.

The collection of dew is a notable circumstance in the May Day festival. It is alluded to by Ferguson, who sings in the ancient metre which Scotland took from France:

On May day in a fairy ring
We've seen them round St Anthon's spring
Frae grass the caller dew to wring
To wet their een
And water clear as crystal spring
To synd them clean.

First-of-May dew preserved the skin from wrinkles and freckles, and gave a glow of youth. Dew collected on the morning of the first day of May is supposed to confer witchcraft on the gatherer, and protect against an evil eye. To be seen in a field at daybreak that morning rendered the person seen an object of fear—perhaps as a witch or wizard.


The manner in which a complicated secondary myth may result from ritual is well exemplified by that which sprang from the rites of Dionysus celebrated at Thebes. A branch or some other symbol of vegetation was carried through the cultivated fields in the neighbourhood of the city by a man[Pg 243] disguised as a woman. A human image was then attached to the top of a tree-trunk, which was raised from the ground by ropes and held upright. The tree-spirit is then supposed to animate the trunk. Then, as happened in Mexico at the feast of Uitzilopochtli, the image attached to the tree was stoned and its fragments were scrambled and fought for. The woman who secured the head hastened to nail it to the temple or principal house of the community.