In ancient times fires lit up the darkened skies offering protection and cleansing in rituals to the gods and to the spirits of nature. As Samhain approaches or better known today as Halloween, the fire festivals continue with variations to the original practices by people with different beliefs and cultures. The old calendar year consisted of four ancient Gaelic Fire Festivals making up the annual seasonal cycles with their origins linked to the Irish Gods.
- Imbolc (Spring) 01st of February
- Bealtaine(Summer) 01st of May
- Lughnasadh (Autumn) 01st of August
- Samhain (Winter) 31st of October
In times long gone, several equinoxes and solstices would have been honoured for agricultural and seasonal influences however the eight points (or 8th Fold Wheel) along the calendar year is a relatively new adoption by modern paganism that has been incorporated into Wicca, Druid & Bard practices today. In addition to the four major festivals there are many others that are celebrated at different times of the year, varying on beliefs, like Midwinter (or Yule), Ostara, Midsummer and Mabon.
The four Fire Festivals represent the coming of the four seasons where everything is cyclical, connected to the sun – death & rebirth. This is represented through the ancient monuments, standing strong on our landscapes. Midwinter is a significant time in the cycle of the year and has been ever since the Stone Age. The ancient megalithic site of Newgrange in the Boyne Valley in Ireland is carefully aligned to the solstice sunrise and sunset signalling the rebirth of the Sun God and the preparation for Imbolc – the arrival of spring. The Boyne Valley consists of many monuments but the most impressive are Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth often referred to as the cathedrals of the Neolithic period. Each are highly decorated with Megalithic art with Knowth’s art work featuring different crescent shapes and contains over one-third of all Western Europe’s Megalithic art work. This is truly a place associated with the Irish Gods.
This festival marks the arrival of spring and is associated with the Goddess Brigit, daughter of the Great Dagda (Tuatha Dé Danann). Brigit is the goddess of all things of high dimensions like high-rising flames, highlands, hill-forts and upland areas. She is associated with states of wisdom, excellence, perfection, high intelligence, poetic eloquence, craftsmanship, healing ability, druidic knowledge and skill in warfare. She is largely associated with the home and hearth. Brigit’s crosses are made at Imbolc and the cross consists of rushes woven into a shape similar to a swastika. They were hung over doors, windows and stables to welcome Brigit and protect the buildings from fire and lightning. The crosses were generally left there until the next Imbolc and then replaced by new ones.
Bealtaine (English – Beltane – Differs from the Irish Pronunciation)
In Ireland this is seen as the first day of summer and is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature. It is when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people. It also has significant links to Irish Mythology. Bealtaine celebrations had largely died-out by the mid-20th century however Wicca and Druid practices have re-awoken the celebrations with different variations.
The Lughnasadh festival according to Irish Myth was started by the god Lugh, grandson to Dean Cécht, God of Healing of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Lugh is the Sun God and Storm God. Many of Ireland’s prominent mountains and hills are climbed at Lughnasadh and over time these customs were Christianised and some of the treks are now taken as Christian pilgrimages. The most well-known is Reek Sunday, a trek to the top of Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo. This festival marks the time of harvest and the cutting of the first corn. Not all celebrations are based around the original Irish origins of the festival depending on cultures and beliefs. In Irish Myth when the Tuatha Dé Danann arrived in Ireland and beat the Fir Bolgs, Queen Tailtiu of the last Fir Bolg King married Eochaid Garb Mac Dúch, a Danann warrior. Through this marriage Tailtiu became the foster-mother to Lugh and she was held in honour by the Tuatha Dé Danann each year at Lugnasadh. It was started as a funeral feast and Lugh instituted an event similar to the Olympic games called the Assembly of Talti which finished on Lughnasadh (1st August) in memory Tailtiu, at the town that bears her name (Teltown, Co. Meath).
Pronounced as “Sow – in”, it is an ancient festival that has become buried under modern Halloween or Hallows Eve. Samhain is the time when the veil between the world of the spiritual and living merge. It marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It is celebrated from sunset on 31 October. Special bonfires were lit for protection and cleansing used in various rituals. Samhain is a time when the spirits (or the Aos Sí) could easily cross into the world of the living. Most scholars refer to the Aos Sí as remnants of the pagan gods (Tuatha Dé Danann) and nature spirits. In Irish Myth, while the Tuatha Dé Danann were building their armies to battle the Fomorians, The Great Dagda (Father of the Gods), met a beautiful woman and slept with her on the 31st of October, the eve before the great battle. The woman was Morrígan who represented the sovereignty of Ireland and also makes up the Triple Irish War Goddess along with her sisters Badb and Macha. Dagda must sleep with the goddess Morrígan each Samhain’s night to ensure the land of Ireland remains fertile for the following year. The powerful druidress Tlachtga is also associated with Samhain. Her name is attached to a hill known at Tlachtga or the Hill of Ward. She died on the hill after giving birth to triplets. During the Middle Ages this site had been prominent for festivals in honour of the goddess. The major ceremony held at Tlachtga is the lighting of the winter fires at Samhain.
Celebration dates for many of these festivals can vary as they depend on the cycle of the moon and originally would have been celebrated by people in the Northern Hemisphere. Therefore today people living in the Southern Hemisphere have adapted the festivals to their seasonal cycles.
Perhaps many of these ancient festivals that represent the cycles of the year have become hidden in our modern world, highlighting how we have lost harmony with nature and the true sense of what they represented. What so you think they represent to us today, if anything?