Beltane and the Butter witch, Irish traditions associated with 1st of May

Beltane – the start of summer

Beltane is the second of four quarter days celebrated in the old pagan calendar and marked the beginning of summer, in particular turning cattle out into the fields, after overwintering in the barn. Beltane, better known now as Mayday, is celebrated on May 01, and there are certain associated traditions that differ a little throughout the Celtic Nations. Ireland, famed for green grass perfect for raising cattle, has its own traditions that have a background in dairy (specifically butter) production.

In times past, not so much was known about the effect that a change in diet or medical conditions could have on cattle, so any reduction in milk production, or butter failing to churn, was treated with great suspicion.

To protect cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth special rituals were performed. Beltane is particularly associated with fire, and special fires that were lit at midnight on the 30th April, these were thought to have special protective powers, including the flames the smoke and the ash. People and their cattle would walk around fires or between two bonfires, and sometimes leaping over the flames or embers.

Ordinarily one of the skills that an Irish woman was expected to have would be the ability to manage the fire in the hearth. Burning mostly peat, it was important to be able to regulate both how hot the fire burnt and how much smoke it gave off. This was important in managing fuel, but also in cooking, since with no ovens, almost all cooking happened over the fire. A black smoky fire was no good for cooking, as the smoke would affect the taste of the food.

Keeping the fire lit overnight, so that you didn’t have to start from scratch the next day was also regarded as critical knowledge. Only an exceptionally slovenly woman would let her fire go out.

To keep a peat fire going you need a good supply of ash and some fresh fuel and red embers.

Rake the fire down so that the embers are lying flat, put a number of fresh, preferably damp peat on top (to make a black fire) then cover the lot in your old ash. This is called ‘banking the fire in’. Depending on your skill, by regulating the oxygen supply and the fuel, this can keep the fire going not just overnight but possibly for a full day afterwards.

The exception to the rule falls on 1st of May when all fires were expected to be extinguished. Any sensible homemaker certainly didn’t want smoke visible in her chimney on that morning, lest the Butter Witch saw it, came in through the chimney and stole your butter.

Keeping the fire unlit was just the start, it was believed that witches couldn’t cross water, so households would lay water loving plants across every threshold, mostly this would be Marsh Marigold, but other water loving plants could be used in a pinch. Whether this was to confuse the witch into thinking there was water here, or the plants had some mystical property of their own, growing as they did with roots under water, is now lost to time.

Marsh Marigolds, freshwater plant associated with Mayday

It was important not to miss anywhere, so flowers were laid on the doorstep, on every windowsill and by the hearth so prevent a sneaky witch gaining access by an alternative route.

Having doused the fire in the hearth, it would then be re-lit after 12 noon from the Beltane bonfire, and our erstwhile housewife could now engage in a bit of merriment in the form of a community feast. Hopefully, by this point she would have managed to be free of the Butter Witch’s power, but she had one more responsibility before she was out of the woods.

All quarter days; Imbrolic, Beltane, Lughnasa and Samhain, and daily at dusk and dawn were times and dates associated with the aos si, known simply as ‘The Folk’ or later as the Tuatha Dé Danann (people of the Goddess Danu). Great care was taken not to disturb or upset them, and on Beltane a portion of the feast was sectioned off and offered to them.

If you looked after your relationship with The Folk, you might occasionally ask a favor of them and Beltane was a good time to do this at a May Bush: a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons or even shells. You would make your wish, then tie a ribbon or similar gift to the fairy thorn, and hope for the best. As an early beauty treatment, Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness.

Many of these customs are not confined to Ireland, but they do change slightly according to local traditions. Where are you reading this, and what are the local traditions associated with Mayday where you are from?

Advertisements

33 comments

  1. Here in the States where I am, I think May Day is relegated to craft projects in the grade schools around flowers and such. At least that’s what I remember as a child!

    Liked by 2 people

    • The link with flowers does seem to be widespread. Anything yellow, but also bluebells, which seem to be particularly associated with the Virgin Mary, and Hawthorn which would link back to fairy folk.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. A friend of a friend was dancing the dawn in yesterday. I have no idea what that’s about.

    When were the customs you wrote about started and do you think people really believed that they were keeping witches away? If they did believe it, did everyone believe it? I know it’s hard to know what people used to believe, especially if they didn’t write much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know when it started April, but it was still common belief at the turn of the 19th to 20th Century. I agree though that there would have been a strong social element. This is what your neighbours did, so this is what you did too. To do otherwise would set you up as a target if someone else had bad luck.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I genuinely don’t know, but thinking about the remoteness of the communities where this type of custom was common, I doubt that it was a recent thing. Most of them would never have travelled as far as the county town never mind a city, so despite it being a relatively (surprisingly) recent belief, it was a very primitive existence – and a very long way from Victorian England.

        The Holy Wells that have fairy thorns beside them are well documented to show that the Christian aspect evolved from a previous background that never quite disappeared entirely.

        I suspect that for a rural population that was largely unschooled, some kind of explanation was necessary when things went wrong and superstition seemed to fill the void.

        Like

      • Something else that is odd is that witches are not common in Irish folklore – the Butter Witch is really our main protagonist, most of the other superstitious are as you say, attached to The Folk.

        My best guess is that this belief came in (admittedly a long time ago) from elsewhere – possibly Scandinavia with the Vikings or Germany which celebrates Walpurgisnacht/ Hexennaacht on the same date?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t looked into the background of it before, but you have piqued my curiosity. Their influence on Irish culture was immense, not surprisingly, and you can still hear references in place names today; Strangford Lough, Olderfleet Castle to name a couple local to me. There were loads of settlements throughout the island and they feature in some of the Icelandic sagas.

        Liked by 1 person

      • There was a big battle outside the town where I was born (Larne). It was called Lahar-na at one time, and has a natural harbour that was named Ulfreksfjord by the Vikings and then changed to Olderfleet, the ruins of Olderfleet Castle still there.
        It was actually Snorri Sturluson no less, who documents Connor, King of Ireland, defeating the Orkney Vikings at Ulfreksfjord in 1018.

        Liked by 1 person

      • If I remember right, there was a Viking burial site in the town, and the grave relics are for some reason in Alnwick Castle. There’s a sword & some other stuff but I don’t remember what else now. (It’s been sooooo long since I last thought about this April!)

        The town where I live now, Bangor, has a full Viking longship burial site and the Abby here was raided on a number of occasions. It’s well documented here but – importantly in discussions with my Bangorian husband, I don’t know if its saga worthy or not lol!

        It can’t be – or the Bangorians would never be done telling you about it!

        Liked by 1 person

      • We’ve got none of that where I live. The Vikings didn’t conquer Wessex, and all the battles were much further west and north of here. We don’t have Viking place names or surnames.

        Like

      • True but I guess there is a load of Saxon artifacts, and maybe the occasional Roman site?

        I do find Norse history and folklore fascinating but that’s the advantage of having about 1000 years between me and someone who wants to put a sword through me. Though the genetics of The Icelandic population show that initially the women came from Scotland and Ireland. Who knows – I may have a distant cousin there!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes to Saxon and Roman. The Roman settlement here was one side of the river and the Saxon was on the other. The medieval town was closer to the other river. It makes life very easy for the archaeologists.

        I didn’t know that about the Icelandic women. I love days when I learn interesting and unexpected things. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Although I’m from London, we do actually have a historical ‘May Day’ festival locally. There’s a May Queen and all the children do the maypole dressed in white. For the adults it’s mainly just a get together!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh that’s lovely though. In Northern Ireland there is only one maypole, it’s in Holywood, Co Down, and each year the children from the local primary school dance on the mayday bank holiday.

      Like

  4. Belatedly…here from Virginia, via a link from Ellen Hawley. We read in school about how people used to make May baskets, even cut out little paper ones with paper flowers. I remember once making one with real flowers, in a recycled cardboard box, and hanging it on a friend’s door. She never reciprocated so my attempt to revive the tradition died.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aw, after you went to all that effort, that’s a bit sad, particularly when it is such a lovely, thoughtful tradition!
      I wonder if it is an evolution of the Irish flowers on the threshold – it was considered good luck to do this for a neighbour.

      Either way, it’s lovely to see you here 🤗

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s