The Festival of Beltaine and the Beltany Stone Circle

View of the great stone circle at Beltany, Co. Donegal.

The festival of Beltaine (also known as Lá Bealtaine, Beltany, Bealltainn, Beltain, Beltaine, Boaltinn, Boaldyn, Belotenia and Gŵyl Galan Mai) celebrated on May Day the 1st of May marks the beginning of summer in the ancient Celtic calendar. Beltaine is one of the four great festivals that include Samhain, Imbolc, and Lughnasad. A ceremonial site associated with Beltaine is the great stone circle at Beltany, Co. Donegal.

The name Beltaine literally means bright or goodly fire in Celtic. The festival was marked with the lighting of bonfires and the movement of animal herds away from settlements to summer pastures. Miranda Green has noted that the festival may have been associated with the Celtic sun god Apollo Belenus, as both Belenus and Beltaine have the same route word Bel, meaning brilliant light.

The Beltany Stone head.

In Irish literature Beltaine has been associated with Hill of Uisneach, the mythological centre or naval of Ireland, where there is known to be a prehistoric ceremonial enclosure. Another ceremonial site associated with Beltaine is the great stone circle at Beltany, Co. Donegal. The place name Beltany is an anglicised version of the Irish Beltaine. This prehistoric monument is situated on a hilltop and consists of a low platform 45m in diameter enclosed by a circle of large stones. Sixty-four of the stones remain but there were probably originally 80. South-east of the circle is an outlying stone that in combination with stone stones 24 and 53 are aligned on the Mid-winter sunrise. Another line that runs through stone 2 and 39 is aligned to the sunrise of Beltaine. Five of the stones of the circle are decorated with prehistoric art known as cup marks. Also said to have come from the site is the Beltany stone head. This stone head appears to date to the Iron Age and may depict a god associated with the stone circle.

Further reading
Van Hoek 1988. The Prehistoric rock art of Co. Donegal Part III, Ulster Journal of Archaeology 1988, p. 25-6.

Miranda Green 1997. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and legend. London.

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