Celtic Fire Festivals

(Copyright by Searles O'Dubhain)
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The topic for this paper is the Major Celtic yearly festivals and their hidden meanings. Oghams were used to attempt to discovery the magick and Mystery within each festival. What will follow is a discussion of Celtic festivals and their meanings. The Celts celebrated 4 major festivals during the year. These festivals are associated with the seasons and are tied to the phases of the Moon. I will briefly discuss these Lunar or "Fire" Festivals. The Celtic year is divided into halves marked by the two great fire festivals of Samhain and Bealtaine. The period from Samhain to Bealtaine is called "an Ghrian beag" or the "lessor Sun". The period from Bealtaine to Samhain is called "an Ghrian mor" or the "greater Sun". The year is further subdivided by the other two yearly fire festivals of Imbolc and Lughnasadh. All of the fire festivals are celebrated at night and are held during the Full Moon. They are primarily concerned with agriculture, nature, pasturing and livestock.


Samhain is the beginning of the Celtic year and marks the time of the Cailleach and the beginning of Winter. The doors of the Sidhe are opened on this night and the veil between the Worlds is thinest. This is the night that Druids offered sacrifices (usually the excess cattle that would form the basis of the Winter's meat stores). This is the time that the Ancestors walk the Earth once more and cross the thin veil to visit with the living. Samhain is associated with the province of Munster and the fortress of Tlachtga.


Beltaine marks the beginning of Summer and is dedicated to the "Shining One:" or Bel. Two large bonfires were ignited and cattle were driven between the fires and into the fields for Summer pasturing. This was also done to purify them from their long Winter confinement. Men and women were known to leap through the flames for purification at these fire festivals. Usually the men first then the women (and after the flames had diminished!). This night is the time when the Sidhe walk the land and mortals must overcome their Otherworldly enchantments and temptations. Bealtaine was the time when divorces were granted in Ireland as well as a night of release from the Winter. This festival was associated with the province of Connacht and the fortress of Uisneach.

In ancient Ireland an additional two fire festivals were celebrated: Lughnasadh and the feast of Tara (celebrated every 3 years).


Lughnasadh was the time of the first harvest and a time of games and competitions. It is associated with the Goddess of Sovereignty. The God Lugh held this festival to celebrate the efforts of his foster mother Tailtiu to clear the fields of Ireland for planting. It was also the time when couples could enter into a "trial marriage" known as a Brehon wedding. The couple would clasp hands and thrust them through a circular opening in a special stone, while announcing to the Brehons (judges and lawyers) that they intended to live together for a one year trial period. Either party could break the marriage by a public announcement during the feast of Bealtaine. This festival lasted for a month! The feast of Tara was held every three years to distribute laws and gather records.


An additional festival was added later. This is Imbolc and was held in Leinster to celebrate the Goddess Brigit. This festival marks the ending of Winter's grip and the passing of the influence of the Crone or Cailleach to the Maiden of Spring. It is the time of the first lambs and of new beginnings. Brigit's sacred flame was tended in Leinster in a sacred center for female Druids. This festival was usually one of the home and the hearth and was usually presided over by the female head of the house.

Sun Rituals

Sun rituals were probably performed by the Druids at MidWinter and MidSummer Solstices as well as the Spring and Vernal Equinoxes. These rituals mark periods of greatest imbalance between the Sun and the Moon as well as the periods of greatest balance. Not much is known about how these Sun rituals were celebrated by the Celts, if at all. One source I've read claims they are evidence of Anglo-Saxon influences on later Celtic life and practice. Most authors state that only the lunar festivals were publicly celebrated (at least by the Irish). Perhaps the Druids used the Solar days for Magick and Divination? Much research needs to be done regarding these celebrations before we disregard them as being a recent or non-Celtic introduction. The Solar festivals are not really ancient Celtic *public* festivals. This is probably why we don't have as much information on them (from continuing folk observance). They involved hidden Druid rituals. More research must be done on the Solar festivals.The Solar festivals are mentioned at in Greek and Roman chronicles in passing (particularly MidSummer). The Romans influenced the Britains and also the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. The practices of these three peoples are where the Sun festivals originate, although they could have been Druidic ceremonies closed to the public. Theere is also evidence of a Neolithic Sun cult in the British Isles and Ireland. The Brugh na Boinne is a notable example of a sacred site to this culture. Stonehenge is another. So as far as readily evident public festival information goes, the Solar festivals are recent - at least in the sense of "post-Roman". In my opinion, these festivals aare part of the Wiccan year, because Wicca embraces so many different backgrounds and deities. Now, I'm going to talk a little about the Magical significance of each of these holidays and festivals. We will use the Oghams from Fionn's Wheel to get an inkling of what was really going on during these festivals.

The Mysteries of Brighid

From the "Crane Bag" of Manannan Mac Lir: The Festival of Imbolc - (First Full Moon in Aquarius) The Feast of the Goddess Brighid. Ogham Symbol "EA": Koad or Eadha the Sacred Grove. Death (Tarot). Unity of the Eight Festivals of the Year. The Wheel of the Year. Forty shades of green.Interpretation and Meanings: This is the festival of new beginnings. This is the time when most new life came forth (first shoots of spring, lambs and the children that were sired at Beltaine). A celebration of the Triple Goddess, showing the passage of winter and the advent of summer. The Time of the Maiden who bridges the gap from the Dark Queen of the UnderWorld to the Red Mother of Life and Plenty. The Mystery here is the unity of Death and Life through the Promise of the rebirth of the Green World as represented by Brighid, the Maiden of the hearth, the home, poets and the forge. Imbolc is the time of divination, augury and seeking of new directions for the year. I believe that Imbolc is a carry over from and earlier Goddess religion in Ireland.

Summer's Beginnings

From the "Crane Bag" of Manannan Mac Lir: The Festival of Bealtaine (First Full Moon after the Hawthorne's bloom) The Feast of Bel and the twin bonfires. Ogham Symbol "OI": Oir Spi'ona'n Eirinen Fair. Childbirth. The Spindle of the Wheel. White or Red. Interpretation and Meanings: This is the festival of life. On this day, the sacred fires were lit on the hill of Tara. Fires were lit on hills across Ireland when the signal fire was observed until the land was surrounded in a circle of fire. Bealtaine marks the beginning of summer when the land is filled with plenty. This a time when the ways between the worlds are open and the Sidhe are most likely to grant gifts to those who seek them early in the morning. It is also a time that is central to the entire cycle of agriculture. It is now when the promise of spring is fulfilled. The Maypole symbolizes the fertility rites of this festival. Strange that the red and white streamers of the Maypole should remind us of the DNA Helix of Life. Life is the Spindle and Love is the weave. In Ireland the people dance around a burning bush in a "serpent" dance. Bealtaine is the time of our maturity and the fulfillment of desires. Bel was the god of the dead? and this was a festival of life? Life and Death were very much a part of the ongoing process of Being to the ancient Celts. Death was considered to be a doorway between lives and not an ending. The Sun spent part of the day (darkness) within the Depths. It spent the other part of the day in the vault of the Sky. There is controversy over whether Belenus is really the God for whom this festival is named. But Belenus, Bael, Bile and Bel are all names associated with this festival. Some of theses are Sun Gods, eg "Shining Ones". Irish sources say this that Beltaine really means Great Fires! What if there's no Hawthorn around? how do you know when this festival is? It's commonly called May Day in Western Europe. That's May 1, or the closest Full Moon to May 1. That's the first full moon in Taurus. Bealtaine seems to be characterized by masculine symbols - was it a special day for men, such as entrance to manhood festivals, or such? It was a day of festivities for both men and women. It's also associated with the first Battle of Moytura. Women and men both fought in that battle. Anything involving the community could be done on those days as well as lots of games and competitions. All the festivals were used as rites of initiation since this was a time of gathering of the clans. Many times a boy would be initiated by graduating from warrior training or bardic training. He could then demonstrate his prowess in the games and poetry competitions.

The Great Horse Fair

From the "Crane Bag" of Manannan Mac Lir: The Festival of Lughnasadh - (First Full Moon in Leo) - The Feast of the God Lugh. Ogham Symbol "UI": Uilleann - Fea' - Ffawyddean - Honeysuckle - Woodbine - "sweetest of woods" - Chieftain - Magickal Hardness and Resistance - Ancient Wisdom as a foundation. Tawny or light roebuck. Interpretation and Meanings: This festival is linked to many ancient practices in Ireland. Contracts, marriages and other binding agreements were made on this day. This is the day of the Marriage of Lugh. It is also the day when the performance of the clan chiefs was evaluated and perhaps a new chief was chosen. This is the time of the great horse fair and fittingly enough the marriage of the King to the land. This might involve a ritual whereby the new king was symbolically mated with a horse, Symbolizing the Goddess of Sovereignty. The first harvest had already been reaped.Ogham Symbol "IO": Pethbol - Guelder Rose. The step into the Inner Mysteries. Pink or Pale. The dance of life. The Crane Dance.Interpretation and Meanings: Since this festival is linked to the young god Lugh that replaces the older god Nuada, it is also linked to the mysteries as Lugh is "Samildanach" or "multi-talented". It is very possible that a series of examinations was given to Druidic students on this day, corresponding to the series of tests that Lugh had to pass in competitions with the other Gods before he was admitted to their company. One such contest is in the throwing of stones or chariot wheels that occurred during the weeks of this fair. Another is the playing of board games at this time such as "fidchell", a game played with wooden pieces (possibly Oghams) and similar, we are told to chess. My own opinion is that it was a kind of divination. The point here being, that just as Lugh proved himself worthy to join the company of the Gods by being "Samildanach", so I interpret this symbol to imply that new Druids were admitted to the inner mysteries and Circles by passing their tests during this festival. Fidchell, and games like it in other celtic groups, are mentioned frequently in literature and legend. Are there any surviving fidchell sets? How is information known about the game? Not much is known about the game. No sets survive but it must have been something! Everyone was playing it!

Summer's Ending

From the "Crane Bag" of Mannanan Mac Lir: The Festival of Samhain - (First Full Moon in Scorpio) - Ogham Symbol "AE": Amancholl, Mor, Xi, Pe'ine, The Scotch Pine. Shower of the Way. Marker of the Ley Lines. Bringer of Illumination. The Container of Wisdom, The Sacred Pine Cone, Buarci'n. Spirit. The Sea. Green or Black. Interpretation and Meanings: There are many meanings to this symbol. The first is the Sea, representing the darkest depths and also the source of all life. The mystery here is that as life ends, so it begins in the same place and from the same source, the Sea (or Otherworld for which it is a symbol). This celebration honored the Night of the Dead, when the ancestors walked the Earth once more and the ancient knowledge could be re-acquired. It also celebrated the mating of the Dagdha, The Good God of Life and Death, with the Morrigan, The Queen of Death and Darkness, the Washer at the Ford. She gives the Dagdha advice to assemble the Aes Dana or skilled ones and to advance upon the Fomorians at Maige Turedh. The Goddess of War then goes to kill the King of the Fomorians (Indech mac De Domnann) in his tent at Scetne. The Second Battle of Maige Turedh (Moytura) is won by the De Danann on Samhain. I interpret this story of the Dagdha (The All Father) with the Goddess of Darkness (The Triple Morrigan) to mean that the will of the One was.united in the Power of Dark and Light to be used during this "gray time" of twilight. The Spiritual aspects of Being overcome the Mental and Physical aspects (the Fomorians and the Firbolgs are defeated in the first Battle of Maige Turedh) to claim the Land and ALL that is. The victory of the Spirit assures us that the Wheel will turn eternally and that the three aspects of humanity will remain forged as a result of the two battles of Maige Turedh. Please read Steve Blamires's excellent interpretations in his work "The Irish Celtic Magical Tradition". This Samhain marriage of the Dagdha and the Morrigan also represents the mystery of life from death. I believe that to be the Ultimate Mystery of Druidism or any other religion. Did the Irish believe in reincarnation? Yes they did. They believed that when you were re-incarnated, it would hold true to the bloodlines. Like maybe you are your great grandfather or grand mother re-incarnated! It's not "karmic" , the Celts didn't practice such a concept. Not a great deal of karma there at all. What they did practice was honor and law as well as avoiding geasa. They did hold each accountable for their life's actions. What about if you are adopted? The Irish also believed in "fosterage", so that you became "blood brothers". So I suppose you could re-incarnate in someone else that way! Was the Morrigan just death and destruction or had she redeeming qualities? She might have played the bones perhaps! The Morrigan was also the patroness of Magick and Witches!

More to Come

Much more can be said about the customs and traditions surrounding each of the four Celtic Fire Festivals, but that is another story for another day!

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