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Bealtaine, Beltain, Beltene, or Beltane for May 1st? YES! Ba’al tine – NOT! Posted by on May 1, 2009 in Irish Language

Bealtaine, Beltain, Beltene, or Beltane for May 1st? YES!  Ba’al tine – NOT!


May 1st is the first day of summer in the traditional Celtic calendar, and if our current heat wave (ceithre chéim is nócha Fahrenheit ar an 26ú lá d’Aibreán, 94°F on April 26th) is any indication, it will feel like an samhradh (the summer) here on May 1. 


In Modern Irish, “Bealtaine” can also mean “the month of May,” but you can contrast “Lá Bealtaine” (May Day) and “Mí na Bealtaine” (the month of the May Day) to make the distinction.  There are equivalents in Scottish Gaelic (Bealtuinn) and Manx Boaltinn‘ or ‘Boaldyn.  Some say the phrase means “bright fire,” although I must point out that there is no ordinary word “beal” for “bright” in Modern Irish.  “Bright” would most likely be “geal” today.  Some interpret it as the fire of the Celtic god Bel, aka Belenus, aka Bile, aka Belinos.  One improbable suggestion, made decades ago, is that the holiday refers to the fire of the Semitic god Ba’al, whose name means “lord!”  Beltain” and “Beltene” are older forms of the word.  The second element, -taine, is widely accepted as meaning “fire,” as in Modern Irish “tine.”


“Beltane” is the anglicized spelling and is considered a word in English in its own right.  It is used in various phrases, especially in Scotland, such as the “Beltane term” in Scottish law and “Beltane bannocks,” an oat griddle cake allegedly the origin of Native American frybread.  Hmm, now what would the Irish for Native American “frybread” be?  We’d need to distinguish it from traditional Irish arán friochta (fried bread).  Friochtarán? Ábhar machnaimh, pé scéal é (food for thought, anyway).    


Although most of the traditional ways of celebrating Bealtaine have now faded into, well, tradition, at least one major landmark event is held annually.  In Edinburgh, on Oíche Bhealtaine (May Day Eve, i.e. April 30th), there is a Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill, with about 15,000 people attending.  I double-checked the current temperature in Edinburgh, a high of 51°F predicted for May 1st.  Cé acu is fearr leat?  Which do you prefer?   


You might wonder, wouldn’t Oíche Bhealtaine be the night of May 1st?  It doesn’t work that way in Irish – the word “oíche” (night) before the name of a holiday refers to its “eve” or “evening before,” as in “Oíche Nollag” (Eve of Christmas) and “Oíche Shamhna” (Eve of Samhain).  If you want to talk about the night of May 1st or of December 25th, you say “Oíche Lá Nollag” (the night of the day of Christmas) or “Oíche Lá Bealtaine” (the night of the day of May). 


Why “Nollag” and not the subject form “Nollaig”?  An tuiseal ginideach (the genitive case or possessive form); we’re saying “of Christmas” here.


Why “Shamhna” instead of “Samhain?”  Ditto, i.e. an rud (fáth) céanna!


Why “Shamhna” and not “Samhna”?  Because the word “oíche” is feminine and “Samhna” is considered to modify it.  With that in mind, can you predict how to say “the day of Samhain, i.e. November 1st).  Leid (clue): you’ll be using the word “,” which is masculine. 


However you choose to celebrate it, bain sult as an lá (enjoy the day).  Bhur mblagálaí – Róislín


Freagra: Lá Samhna

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  1. Jennifer Ho:

    I believe ‘balos’ is dance in Latin. In France do ballet. In Spanish dance is bilar. Cinderella goes to the ball! If you are celebrating the Bright One’s return, you do celebration things- DANCE! Light a fire, find your prince/princess charming. Was it Baal? Dance is named for the deity who we celebrate with fire and dance? Even seniors feel free from age while they dance. (The ones I know, anyway)

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