Take your pick.
Beltaine, Belltaine, Bealtaine, Beltain, Beltane, Beltine, Bealteine, Bealltuinn. You can avoid this confusion by choosing the term used on the Isle of Mann. The Manx word is Boaldyn.
It seems that this important turning point in the year’s journey began as an ancient festival to honor the god Bel (also spelled Belenus, Belenos, Belios, Belinu, Bellinus, and Belus) who was a Celtic god known in territories that stretch from what is now Austria to Scotland. The Gaulish word bel means bright. The Gaelic tine means fire. So we derive the common interpretation of Beltane as the festival honoring the “Fire of Bel” or “Bel’s Fire.” In spite of being a fire god, Bel was associated with healing springs and spas and other places that contained health-giving waters. Like most Celtic festivals Beltane involved sacred fire ceremonies. Special woods were brought to burn, cattle were driven between two fires to purify them from the winter illnesses, hearth fires were extinguished and relit from the Beltane community fire, lovers leaped across bonfires before going off into the wildwood to spend the night together.
Beltane honors fire and water.
Another way to translate Beltaine is Bright Aine. Bel is the Gaulish word for bright, and aine can mean brightness, glow, radiance, splendor, glory, joy, pleasure, play, sport, harmony, brilliance, wit, and drinking up(!). Aine is also the name of many figures, usually female (but not always), who might be mortals, goddesses, or faery women. As a faery goddess Aine is the patroness of love, desire, and fertility. The name of a deity usually explains what the deity is or does. You can tell from all the “brilliant” terms that Aine was originally a sun goddess, who had a sister named Grian which is the modern Irish word for sun. The “an” is also the root for the names of the goddess known as An, Ana, Anu, Dana, and Danu who by all accounts is the Mother of the Gods and the oldest name for the Great Mother in the Celtic world. Her name was given to many rivers from the Danube to the Don.
Beltaine honors this goddess who is both the sun (grian is a feminine noun) and rivers. And we are back to the festival as one that celebrates fire and water.
So where does all this etymologizing get us? I hope it allows us to think about Beltane in a more universal and comprehensive way than many earlier people who had only their local ideas and traditions about Beltane. This is true about many traditions and practices. Although we may rue the fact that we are disconnected from indigenous ways and are trying to the best of our abilities to recapture them and reinstate them in the modern world, we do have an advantage that earlier people did not. We can view the traditions of various peoples and cultures from different places and eras, find comparisons and differences, follow their lines of thinking and feeling, and find which of the old ways satisfy our needy, modern souls. This practice has been adversely criticized as “shopping around,” and “smorgasbording” the old ways. It has also been seen as a form of “cultural imperialism,” another example of Western people stealing from indigenous peoples.
But we should remember that even indigenous people borrowed ideas, stories, rituals, practices, food, clothing, tools, and even gods from one another. Only cultures that were so isolated as to never come into contact with any other group of people might remain frozen in some “ancient” way, never adapting or responding to the changes in the broader world around them. In fact, many contemporary indigenous people think it an insult for Westerners to expect them to be living exactly as their ancestors did thousands or even a hundred years ago. There is no one way to be true to the ways of our ancestors who themselves were not always true to their own ways. And in our own day when so many indigenous and native ways are being lost, it is incumbent on someone to be their defender and champion.
We can see from the various spellings of Beltane and the different ways the word itself can be divided into parts, that there is no one way to interpret what it meant or how it might be celebrated.
I like living with choices (except when I don’t because there are too many of them). And so I move through this time of year we call May (in Irish the month of May is called Bealtaine) seeing it as the time of Bel and/or the time of Aine. In fact, there is an older way of joining these two spirits of life. Bel is also the root for bile, the old Irish word for sacred tree, holy tree, or faery tree, and also used to describe a champion, warrior, and hero. In some tales the god Bel or Bile was Danu’s partner. And so we join the two together as does the word Beltaine.
And who are the sacred trees? We are. Like trees we grow from sunlight and water. Like trees we are children of Bel and Danu. Like heroes we can be the champions and defenders of the elements, the sacred gifts of fire, water, earth, and the fertility and growth that come from them — the sacred gift of life itself. Dan in Old Irish means gift. And in these times when there is so much destruction of the natural environment, the earth needs champions, heroes, defenders, sacred trees, clean rivers, pure lakes, bright air, and a responsible use of the fire and energy that come from the fossil fuels that were made from and still contain ancient sunlight. Perhaps Beltane could be whatever we tree people need it to be.
Did ancient Celts see it this way? Did they think they were trees? Some may have, those who had indigenous names that translate Sons of Oak, Sons of Yew, Sons of Rowan, and Sons of Hazel, suggesting that some tribes had trees for totems rather than animals. However some Celts might have been indignant to be thought of as trees. Should we worry about this? Probably not. And we shouldn’t let it stop us from leaping the Beltane fires.