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Beltaine: A Forgotten Death Goddess?

1 May 2021

Looking at traditions concerning the four ‘cross-quarter days’ that divided the ancient Irish year – Lugnasad (1 August), Samain (1 November), Imbolc (1 February) and Beltaine (1 May) – we find multiple supernatural females. Lugnasad was associated with the god Lug’s fostermother Tailtiu, and with the witch Carman; Samain was called the feast of Mongfhind, a fairy woman to whom ‘women and the common people’ prayed on that night; and 1 February is of course the feastday of St Brigit, who cannot be entirely dissociated from the older goddess Brigit. But what about Beltaine?

An answer may be present in the name. It might seem natural to take the last part, -taine, as the word for ‘fire’, tene; and there are old descriptions of Beltaine as a fire festival. The problem is that this -taine does not behave grammatically like the ‘fire’ word: could there be another explanation?

In 1883, the great French Celticist Henri d’Arbois de Jubainville suggested that Beltaine might be derived from a lost word *beltu (genitive *beltan) ‘dying’, evidence of which survives in Old Irish epeltu (from *ess-beltu) with the same meaning. And in fact there is what looks like an exact linguistic counterpart to Beltaine in Giltine, the name of the Lithuanian goddess of death. Beltaine, Arbois de Jubainville concluded, was ‘a goddess of death who, on the 1st of May, was begged to spare animals and humans’.

These resemblances could all be coincidences. But if each of the ‘cross-quarter days’ really was once presided over by one or more powerful goddesses, this would have been an important part of how the pre-Christian Irish thought about the nature of time.

Arbois de Jubainville’s theory appears (in French) in his article ‘Celtica’, Mémoires de la Société de Linguistique 5:2 (1883) 121-132, on p. 132.

Roinn na Sean- agus na Meán-Ghaeilge

Department of Early and Medieval Irish

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