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Dark Bealtaine Folklore and The Fairy Queen


Image: Lady Midday by Sergey Demidov

Depending on where you live on this beautiful planet, astronomical Bealtaine will take place on either May 5th or 6th this year. The dark moon shortly beforehand also happens to be a solar eclipse, so given the shadow connection, here's a little something on the darker aspects of Bealtaine in folk belief - InJoy!


Bealtaine has many popular customs relating to new life and fertility but there is also a darker side to this time of the year. The basis of the following custom is to protect against this darkness and it involves both 'Blood Magic' and performing the protection spell at a specific time. In this case, dawn.


This description comes from the Duchas.ie Schools Folklore Collection and was collected by Eamon Byrne in May 1938:


"The fairies exercise a powerful influence for evil at Bealtaine, or May time, so as a preservative against their malice and the fairy darts, which at this season wound and kill, it was the custom on May morning at sunrise, to bleed the cattle and taste of the blood mingled with milk. Men and women were also bled, and their blood was sprinkled on the ground, but this practice, however, died out, even in the remote West."


Of course, many of these later beliefs stemmed from the Christian version of fairy origins and of them being fallen angels who were inherently sinful for having rebelled against the Christian God. Our ancient ancestors understanding of fairies, nature spirits and supernatural beings was very different to this view.


The opposition of light and dark is also said to be tied to the reason why a person should be wary of fairies at this time of the year. According to the 17th century folklorist, Robert Kirk, who was himself said to have been kidnapped by fairies, a time of plenty in our world was a time of scarcity in the fairy realms. This is why many customs advise against giving away anything at Bealtaine or making bargains as you may be made to pay back more than you anticipate!


According to some folklore, sitting beneath a certain tree and rubbing your eyes with the dew from a yellow flower was one way to help a person see the fairies more clearly on the Bealtaine cross-quarter. (Those familiar with Irish fairy lore will spot that yellow is usually said to be a colour that repels fairies.)

However, as we will discover, this is not always a good idea!


Stone circles, and ancient sacred sites often have alignments to the solstices and equinoxes and were believed to be gateways, sometimes literally, to the ancestral and fairy realms.


What is less known is the concept of cross-quarter days, of which Bealtaine is one. A cross-quarter day is the moment in ‘real’ time between an equinox and solstice. After the 12-month Julian and Gregorian Roman calendars were adopted, all of the older, astronomical pagan feast days were merged with the liturgical year of the Christian church. This is why so many authentic celebrations are now out of sync with the sky and earth alignments. (May Day being considered the same feast as Bealtaine is a good example of this.)


Bear in mind, too, that the celebration we know as Bealtaine is itself an overlay upon a much more ancient observance of this time. What that observance was, and what its rituals were, are unknown. I don't think it is too speculative to suggest that the oral traditions of our ancient ancestors may have preserved some of the associations through time, though. As a period considered liminal or ‘thin' it is believed that the boundaries between the physical world and the spiritual realms can be breached more easily at Bealtaine.

Whether it is in fact a coming together of worlds or a change in perception, of course, is the subject of much speculation. Some believe that there is no veil at all, whereas others advocate for a cyclical turning which allows deeper contact at certain times of the year. The time of the year was said to dictate from which entrance and place the good people would arrive. In many traditions they move from place to place depending on a monument’s seasonal and astronomical alignment.


There is also specific Bealtaine lore of The Fairy Queen walking among humans at this time of the year.

Some traditions say that you can avoid being seen by her by covering your face, whereas others seem to imply that once you have spotted her it is almost impossible to escape your fate. The Scottish ballad of Thomas the Rhymer is a good example of this.


It seems that today we have many different legends, traditions and mythological archetypes bound within a seasonal narrative at Bealtaine. While some of this is the result of recent academic comparativism, some of the blending is also due to mixing up archetypes and characters. Having said all of that, it’s not too difficult to see where the confusion comes from. With Queen Meave/Medb, The May Queen, the Roman Goddess Flora, the Pleiadean star spirit, Maia, who I wrote about in a previous post, and other seasonal deities, perhaps it is not surprising for people to mix these characters up. Even the only decorated stone at Beltany stone circle is called 'The Maiden' and is the one which aligns to the Beltane sunrise.


That said, many of these powerful female figures do indeed share the same symbols and attributes which might hint at some root archetypal seasonal Goddess in the first place. Flora is a goddess strongly connected to flowers as you might expect considering her association with early summer. Her festival, The Floralia was also a celebration of fertility and love, so immediately we can notice the similarities to the various May Day and Beltaine customs relating to the phallic symbol of the Maypole and the theme of new conception. The flowers which would ring the top of the Maypole most likely stem from the festival of Flora, although today they are symbols of The May Queen and the fertility of the Goddess and land itself.

Interestingly I have come across this old Irish version of the Maypole dance being referred to as being like the movements of a serpent.


In some ways the fairy queen is the surviving folkloric feminine form who has overcome the attempted oppression and demonization of the church. In her granting favour and blessings where she comes across flowers laid out for her, we can recognise echoes of the ancient Floria festivals and the even older associations with the Pleiades and the star goddess Maia. And as we arrive back at stellar alignments and seasons we perhaps come in contact again with the even older observations of this celebration. (C.) David Halpin.

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