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Celtic Fire Festivals

(Copyright by Searles O'Dubhain)


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-----------------------------------------------------------------------------The topic for this paper is the Major Celtic yearly festivals and their hidden m
eanings. Oghams were used to attempt to discovery the magick and Mystery within
each festival. What will follow is a discussion of Celtic festivals and their me
anings. The Celts celebrated 4 major festivals during the year. These festivals
are associated with the seasons and are tied to the phases of the Moon. I will b
riefly discuss these Lunar or "Fire" Festivals. The Celtic year is divided into
halves marked by the two great fire festivals of Samhain and Bealtaine. The peri
od from Samhain to Bealtaine is called "an Ghrian beag" or the "lessor Sun". The
period from Bealtaine to Samhain is called "an Ghrian mor" or the "greater Sun"
. The year is further subdivided by the other two yearly fire festivals of Imbol
c and Lughnasadh. All of the fire festivals are celebrated at night and are held
during the Full Moon. They are primarily concerned with agriculture, nature, pa
sturing and livestock.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------Samhain
Samhain is the beginning of the Celtic year and marks the time of the Cailleach
and the beginning of Winter. The doors of the Sidhe are opened on this night and
the veil between the Worlds is thinest. This is the night that Druids offered s
acrifices (usually the excess cattle that would form the basis of the Winter's m
eat stores). This is the time that the Ancestors walk the Earth once more and cr
oss the thin veil to visit with the living. Samhain is associated with the provi
nce of Munster and the fortress of Tlachtga.
Bealtaine
Beltaine marks the beginning of Summer and is dedicated to the "Shining One:" or
Bel. Two large bonfires were ignited and cattle were driven between the fires a
nd into the fields for Summer pasturing. This was also done to purify them from
their long Winter confinement. Men and women were known to leap through the flam
es for purification at these fire festivals. Usually the men first then the wome
n (and after the flames had diminished!). This night is the time when the Sidhe
walk the land and mortals must overcome their Otherworldly enchantments and temp
tations. Bealtaine was the time when divorces were granted in Ireland as well as
a night of release from the Winter. This festival was associated with the provi
nce of Connacht and the fortress of Uisneach.
In ancient Ireland an additional two fire festivals were celebrated: Lughnasadh
and the feast of Tara (celebrated every 3 years).
Lughnasadh

Lughnasadh was the time of the first harvest and a time of games and
competitions. It is associated with the Goddess of Sovereignty. The God Lugh
held this festival to celebrate the efforts of his foster mother Tailtiu to
clear the fields of Ireland for planting. It was also the time when couples
could enter into a "trial marriage" known as a Brehon wedding. The couple would
clasp hands and thrust them through a circular opening in a special stone, while
announcing to the Brehons (judges and lawyers) that they intended to live toget
her for a one year trial period. Either party could break the marriage by a publ
ic announcement during the feast of Bealtaine. This festival lasted for a month!
The feast of Tara was held every three years to distribute laws and gather reco
rds.
Imbolc
An additional festival was added later. This is Imbolc and was held in Leinster
to celebrate the Goddess Brigit. This festival marks the ending of Winter's grip
and the passing of the influence of the Crone or Cailleach to the Maiden of Spr
ing. It is the time of the first lambs and of new beginnings. Brigit's sacred fl
ame was tended in Leinster in a sacred center for female Druids. This festival w
as usually one of the home and the hearth and was usually presided over by the f
emale head of the house.
Sun Rituals
Sun rituals were probably performed by the Druids at MidWinter and MidSummer
Solstices as well as the Spring and Vernal Equinoxes. These rituals mark periods
of greatest imbalance between the Sun and the Moon as well as the periods of gr
eatest balance. Not much is known about how these Sun rituals were celebrated by
the Celts, if at all. One source I've read claims they are evidence of Anglo-Sa
xon influences on later Celtic life and practice. Most authors state that only t
he lunar festivals were publicly celebrated (at least by the Irish). Perhaps the
Druids used the Solar days for Magick and Divination? Much research needs to be
done regarding these celebrations before we disregard them as being a recent or
non-Celtic introduction. The Solar festivals are not really ancient Celtic *pub
lic* festivals. This is probably why we don't have as much information on them (
from continuing folk observance). They involved hidden Druid rituals. More resea
rch must be done on the Solar festivals.The Solar festivals are mentioned at in
Greek and Roman chronicles in passing (particularly MidSummer). The Romans influ
enced the Britains and also the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. The practices of these
three peoples are where the Sun festivals originate, although they could have b
een Druidic ceremonies closed to the public. Theere is also evidence of a Neolit
hic Sun cult in the British Isles and Ireland. The Brugh na Boinne is a notable
example of a sacred site to this culture. Stonehenge is another. So as far as re
adily evident public festival information goes, the Solar festivals are recent at least in the sense of "post-Roman". In my opinion, these festivals aare part
of the Wiccan year, because Wicca embraces so many different backgrounds and de
ities. Now, I'm going to talk a little about the Magical significance of each of
these holidays and festivals. We will use the Oghams from Fionn's Wheel to get
an inkling of what was really going on during these festivals.
The Mysteries of Brighid

From the "Crane Bag" of Manannan Mac Lir: The Festival of Imbolc - (First Full M
oon in Aquarius) The Feast of the Goddess Brighid. Ogham Symbol "EA": Koad or Ea
dha the Sacred Grove. Death (Tarot). Unity of the Eight Festivals of the Year. T
he Wheel of the Year. Forty shades of green.Interpretation and Meanings: This is
the festival of new beginnings. This is the time when most new life came forth
(first shoots of spring, lambs and the children that were sired at Beltaine). A
celebration of the Triple Goddess, showing the passage of winter and the advent
of summer. The Time of the Maiden who bridges the gap from the Dark Queen of the
UnderWorld to the Red Mother of Life and Plenty. The Mystery here is the unity
of Death and Life through the Promise of the rebirth of the Green World as repre
sented by Brighid, the Maiden of the hearth, the home, poets and the forge. Imbo
lc is the time of divination, augury and seeking of new directions for the year.
I believe that Imbolc is a carry over from and earlier Goddess religion in Irel
and.
Summer's Beginnings
From the "Crane Bag" of Manannan Mac Lir: The Festival of Bealtaine (First Full
Moon after the Hawthorne's bloom) The Feast of Bel and the twin bonfires. Ogham
Symbol "OI": Oir Spi'ona'n Eirinen Fair. Childbirth. The Spindle of the Wheel. W
hite or Red. Interpretation and Meanings: This is the festival of life. On this
day, the sacred fires were lit on the hill of Tara. Fires were lit on hills acro
ss Ireland when the signal fire was observed until the land was surrounded in a
circle of fire. Bealtaine marks the beginning of summer when the land is filled
with plenty. This a time when the ways between the worlds are open and the Sidhe
are most likely to grant gifts to those who seek them early in the morning. It
is also a time that is central to the entire cycle of agriculture. It is now whe
n the promise of spring is fulfilled. The Maypole symbolizes the fertility rites
of this festival. Strange that the red and white streamers of the Maypole shoul
d remind us of the DNA Helix of Life. Life is the Spindle and Love is the weave.
In Ireland the people dance around a burning bush in a "serpent" dance. Bealtai
ne is the time of our maturity and the fulfillment of desires. Bel was the god o
f the dead? and this was a festival of life? Life and
Death were very much a part of the ongoing process of Being to the ancient
Celts. Death was considered to be a doorway between lives and not an ending. The
Sun spent part of the day (darkness) within the Depths. It spent the other part
of the day in the vault of the Sky. There is controversy over whether Belenus i
s really the God for whom this festival is named. But Belenus, Bael, Bile and Be
l are all names associated with this festival. Some of theses are Sun Gods, eg "
Shining Ones". Irish sources say this that Beltaine really means Great Fires! Wh
at if there's no Hawthorn around? how do you know when this festival is? It's co
mmonly called May Day in Western Europe. That's May 1, or the closest Full Moon
to May 1. That's the first full moon in Taurus. Bealtaine seems to be characteri
zed by masculine symbols - was it a special day for men, such as entrance to man
hood festivals, or such? It was a day of festivities for both men and women. It'
s also associated with the first Battle of Moytura. Women and men both fought in
that battle. Anything involving the community could be done on those days as we
ll as lots of games and competitions. All the festivals were used as rites of in
itiation since this was a time of gathering of the clans. Many times a boy would
be initiated by graduating from warrior training or bardic training. He could t
hen demonstrate his prowess in the games and poetry
competitions.
The Great Horse Fair
From the "Crane Bag" of Manannan Mac Lir: The Festival of Lughnasadh - (First
Full Moon in Leo) - The Feast of the God Lugh. Ogham Symbol "UI": Uilleann -

Fea' - Ffawyddean - Honeysuckle - Woodbine - "sweetest of woods" - Chieftain Magickal Hardness and Resistance - Ancient Wisdom as a foundation. Tawny or
light roebuck. Interpretation and Meanings: This festival is linked to many
ancient practices in Ireland. Contracts, marriages and other binding agreements
were made on this day. This is the day of the Marriage of Lugh. It is also the d
ay when the performance of the clan chiefs was evaluated and perhaps a new chief
was chosen. This is the time of the great horse fair and fittingly enough the m
arriage of the King to the land. This might involve a ritual whereby the new kin
g was symbolically mated with a horse, Symbolizing the Goddess of Sovereignty. T
he first harvest had already been reaped.Ogham Symbol "IO": Pethbol - Guelder Ro
se. The step into the Inner Mysteries. Pink or Pale. The dance of life. The Cran
e Dance.Interpretation and Meanings: Since this festival is linked to the young
god Lugh that replaces the older god Nuada, it is also linked to the mysteries a
s Lugh is "Samildanach" or "multi-talented". It is very possible that a series o
f examinations was given to Druidic students on this day, corresponding to the s
eries of tests that Lugh had to pass in competitions with the other Gods before
he was admitted to their company. One such contest is in the throwing of stones
or chariot wheels that occurred during the weeks of this fair. Another is the pl
aying of board games at this time such as "fidchell", a game played with wooden
pieces (possibly Oghams) and similar, we are told to chess. My own opinion is th
at it was a kind of divination. The point here being, that just as Lugh proved h
imself worthy to join the company of the Gods by being "Samildanach", so I inter
pret this symbol to imply that new Druids were admitted to the inner mysteries a
nd Circles by passing their tests during this festival. Fidchell, and games like
it in other celtic groups, are mentioned frequently in literature and legend. A
re there any surviving fidchell sets? How is information known about the game? N
ot much is known about the game. No sets
survive but it must have been something! Everyone was playing it!
Summer's Ending
From the "Crane Bag" of Mannanan Mac Lir: The Festival of Samhain - (First Full
Moon in Scorpio) - Ogham Symbol "AE": Amancholl, Mor, Xi, Pe'ine, The Scotch Pin
e. Shower of the Way. Marker of the Ley Lines. Bringer of Illumination. The Cont
ainer of Wisdom, The Sacred Pine Cone, Buarci'n. Spirit. The Sea. Green or Black
. Interpretation and Meanings: There are many meanings to this symbol. The first
is the Sea, representing the darkest depths and also the source of all life. Th
e mystery here is that as life ends, so it begins in the same place and from the
same source, the Sea (or Otherworld for which it is a symbol). This celebration
honored the Night of the Dead, when the ancestors walked the Earth once more an
d the ancient knowledge could be re-acquired. It also celebrated the mating of t
he Dagdha, The Good God of Life and Death, with the Morrigan, The Queen of Death
and Darkness, the Washer at the Ford. She gives the Dagdha advice to assemble t
he Aes Dana or skilled ones and to advance upon the Fomorians at Maige Turedh. T
he Goddess of War then goes to kill the King of the Fomorians (Indech mac De Dom
nann) in his tent at Scetne. The Second Battle of Maige Turedh (Moytura) is won
by the De Danann on Samhain. I interpret this story of the Dagdha (The All Fathe
r) with the Goddess of Darkness (The Triple Morrigan) to mean that the will of t
he One was.united in the Power of Dark and Light to be used during this "gray ti
me" of twilight. The Spiritual aspects of Being overcome the Mental and Physical
aspects (the Fomorians and the Firbolgs are defeated in the first Battle of Mai
ge Turedh) to claim the Land and ALL that is. The victory of the Spirit assures
us that the Wheel will turn eternally and that
the three aspects of humanity will remain forged as a result of the two battles
of Maige Turedh. Please read Steve Blamires's excellent
interpretations in his work "The Irish Celtic Magical Tradition". This Samhain m
arriage of the Dagdha and the Morrigan also represents the mystery of life from
death. I believe that to be the Ultimate Mystery of Druidism or any other religi

on. Did the Irish believe in reincarnation? Yes they did. They believed that whe
n you were re-incarnated, it would hold true to the bloodlines. Like maybe you a
re your great grandfather or grand mother re-incarnated! It's not "karmic" , the
Celts didn't practice such a concept. Not a great deal of karma there at all. W
hat they did practice was honor and law as well as avoiding geasa. They did hold
each accountable for their life's actions. What about if you are adopted? The I
rish also believed in "fosterage", so that you became "blood brothers". So I sup
pose you could re-incarnate in someone else that way! Was the Morrigan just deat
h and destruction or had she redeeming qualities? She might have played the bone
s perhaps! The Morrigan was also the patroness of Magick and Witches!
More to Come
Much more can be said about the customs and traditions surrounding each of the f
our Celtic Fire Festivals, but that is another story for another day!