Non-Celtic divinity. This title, meaning "the lord," was given to various gods of the Phoenicians, the sea-trading ancient people of the eastern Mediterranean; Ba’al was parallel to, and perhaps consort of, the goddess named Ba’alat, "the lady." Ba’al is sometimes mistakenly described as the Celtic corollary to a hypothesized seasonal god named Bel, after whom the spring feast of beltane, celebrated on May 1, was presumably named. There is no evidence of such a divinity; no inscriptions to or sculptures of Bel have been found, although we do find a god named belenus whose name may have been incorporated into the springtime festival. Unlike Ba’al, who was typically a god of the atmosphere (and especially of stormy weather), Belenus was associated with healing spring and, at times, with the sun.
Irish hero. A member of the obscure mythological race, the partholonians, Bacorbladhra is distinguished as the first teacher to have lived in Ireland.
Badb (Bave, Badhbh, Baobh, Badb Catha)
Irish goddess. One of ancient Ireland’s war furies, Badb joins with the morrigan and macha under the title "the three Morrfgna"; she and the Morrigan also appear with medb, fea ("the hate ful"), and nemain ("the venomous") to form another fearful group of war goddesses. Sometimes Badb’s name is used for the entire group, while at other times she seems a separate entity. As a result, it is difficult to tease out Badb’s distinct identity from those of other Irish war furies.
Her name means "hoodie crow" or "scald crow," and she was often envisioned as a carrion bird screaming over the battlefield, inciting warriors to provide more meat for her hungry beak. At other times she was conflated with the mournful banshee, weeping over battlefields and sometimes predicting death by wailing before a battle or washing the clothes of those about to die (see washer at the ford). Badb’s function as a prophet—usually of doom—is pointed up by her appearance after the final mythical battle for control of Ireland, on the plain of mag tuired; at that significant moment she described not a peaceful future but evils yet to come. Until recently in Ireland, because its call betokened doom, farmers would abandon projects if they heard a crow scream.
Badb may be related to the Gaulish war goddess named cathubodua, sometimes depicted as a raven riding a horse. Inscriptions to Cathubodua are found in the Haute-Savoie, as well as in tribal names like Boduogenos, "people of Bodua," in Gaul. It may have been Badb who was imitated in battle by black-robed women druids who stood by the sidelines and screamed to incite the warriors to greater deeds, as was witnessed in the massacre and destruction of the druidic college at anglesey.
Whether Badb and the other war goddesses were originally Celtic or pre-Celtic is debated. Scholars have argued that her bird form connects her to the unnamed Neolithic or New Stone Age goddess who was frequently depicted in that form.
Arthurian hero. In one of the many lesser-known tales of the cycle of arthur, he was the father of meleagant, the king or god of the otherworld who carried away queen guinevere, intending to force her to become his consort. The knight kay followed after the kidnapped queen but, unable to win her escape, was himself held hostage. Thus lancelot, the queen’s beloved, had to find and free the pair; the pure knight gawain accompanied him. The site of their captivity, in the city of Gorre, was difficult to find; once there, the heroes were faced with a terrifyingly turbulent river, which they could cross either over a sword-sharp bridge or through a safer underwater route; Gawain chose the latter, but Lancelot, eager for Guinevere, raced across the upper bridge and thus was deeply wounded. In that state, Lancelot had to fight Meleagant—whose father, the kindly king Bademagu, forced his son to return the kidnapped queen.
Symbolic animal. Like the seal, the badger was sometimes seen as a shape-shifting person; the Irish hero tadg found their meat revolting, unconsciously aware that they were really his cousins.
Irish heroine. This otherwise obscure figure appears as the wife of the early invader bith; her activities parallel the more important cesair.
Balin (Balin le Sauvage)
Arthurian hero. A minor role in Arthurian legend is played by this knight, brother of Pelles, the fisher king; he struck the dolorous blow and thus was responsible for the Fisher King’s crippling wound.
Irish mythological motif. This "love spot" miraculously drew the heroine grainne to the handsome hero diarmait. The ball seirc was a kind of dimple or other mark on his forehead (sometimes, on his shoulder) that made Diarmait irresistible to women, for which reason he usually wore bangs or a cap. But Diarmait’s fate was sealed when, struggling with some active dogs, he accidentally revealed the ball seirc; Grainne fell in love at that moment, and she tricked Diarmait into escaping with her.
Balor (Balar, Bolar, Balor of the Evil Eye)
Irish god. Before the Celts came to Ireland, other peoples whose names are lost to history lived there. The mythological history of Ireland, the book of invasions, describes various waves of arrivals on Ireland’s shores, each of whom had to do battle with the monstrous fomorians who owned the island before the first invaders arrived.
Balor was king of the Fomorians; his daughter was the fair eithne, who a prophecy warned would give birth to a son destined to kill his grandfather. Balor attempted to outwit the prophecy by imprisoning his daughter in a tower, on the understandable assumption that if Eithne never laid eyes on a man, she could never become pregnant, thus sparing Balor’s life.
But Balor’s own greed led to his downfall, for he stole a magical cow, the glas ghaibh-leann, who belonged to a smith and was tended by a man named cian. Threatened with death by the Glas’s owner unless he reclaimed the cow, Cian found his way to Balor’s domain and, discovering the tower in which Eithne was imprisoned, disguised himself as a woman to gain access to her. Eithne bore Cian three sons, all of whom were thrown into the sea by their furious, frightened grandfather when he discovered their existence. Cian was able to save one, who became the god and hero lugh. (Because myth is rarely consistent, Eithne’s husband is sometimes named MacInelly.)
It was Lugh who fulfilled the feared prophecy at the second battle of mag tuired, when the Fomorians were finally defeated and the island wrested from their control. Lugh, despite being half-Fomorian, fought on the side of the tuatha de danann, the tribe of the goddess danu, and it was his sharp aim that brought victory when he blinded Balor with a slingshot or a magical spear crafted by the smith god goibniu. Lugh then used the spear to cut off Balor’s head, after which his one remaining baleful eye continued to have such power that it could split boulders.
Balor’s evil eye was sometimes described as a third eye in the middle of his forehead, spitting flames and destruction. Alternatively, it may have been a conventionally placed eye that leaked poison from fumes cooked up by his father’s druids. That maleficent eye never opened unless four men lifted its heavy lid, and then it caused anyone looking into it to fall to the ground helpless as a babe. Because of his ocular peculiarity, the god is called Balor of the Evil Eye (Birug-derc) or the Strong-Smiting one (Bailcbhemneach). His consort cethlion also had poisonous powers that killed the good god dagda.
Balor was associated with Mizen Head (Carn Ui Neit, "the Burial-Place of Neit’s Grandson") in Co. Cork and Land’s End in Wales. For this reason he is sometimes interpreted as a sun god, imaged as the single eye of the setting sun off such southwesterly promontories. Other interpretations connect him with the winter season, which smites growing plants with frost and chill, and as such he is sometimes said to be the Irish version of the continental otherworld god the Romans called dis pater. Balor lasted long in Irish folklore, where he appears as a pirate living on Tory Island, off the northwest coast, and struggling against those who would steal his magical cow.
Irish goddess. When the milesians—the mythological invaders often interpreted as the first Irish Celts—arrived, they were met by three goddesses or queens of the tuatha de danann, each of whom announced herself as ruler of the land. First was Banba, who according to the book of invasions met the Milesians at Slieve Mis in Co. Kerry, although some sources say that she was found on the plain from which the royal hill of tara rises; she promised the Milesians happiness and wealth so long as the land bore her name. Next was fodla, on her mountain Slieve Felim in Co. Limerick, who made the same promise in exchange for the same honor. Finally, the Milesians met the most impressive goddess, eriu, on the central hill of uisneach; she promised them they would forever live happily in her land if it bore her name, and to her they gave precedence.
The three earth goddesses have been connected with that continental Celtic triple goddess of fertility called by the Latin name of deae matres, "the mother goddesses." Or they may have been not a trinity but three unrelated goddesses, rulers of their specific regions, who were brought together in a shared narrative by the newcomers. Banba may once have had her own mythological cycle; if so, it has been lost, her specific powers being discernable only through hints and vestiges. That she was an ancient divinity is shown by her statement to the Milesians that she had been in Ireland before the biblical Noah, whose descendant cesair was the first human to reach the land. Similarly, some versions of the Book of Invasions say that the Milesians banished her by singing spells against her, suggesting the removal of an early divinity by invaders. What Banba’s original meaning was, however, is conjectural.
Three gods or heroes are named as the husbands of Ireland’s three goddesses, with Banba’s being mac cuill, "son of hazel," suggesting a connection with poetic inspiration, for hazel nuts were said to feed the salmon of wisdom. The pig is sometimes cited as an emblem of Banba, whose name resembles the word for piglet, banb; pigs were images of the goddess of the underworld in many European cultures as far back as 6000 b.c.e. and were in Ireland especially connected with prosperity.
The name Banba remains today as a poetic term for Ireland. Despite that connection with the entire island, and despite her associations in myth with the southwestern province of mun-ster and the eastern province of leinster, Banba is most especially connected with the most northerly point in ulster, Malin Head, locally called Banba’s Crown. Occasionally, Banba is given as an alternative name for Cesair, the earliest human arrival in Ireland.
Ban Naemha (Ban Naema)
Irish mythological being. Throughout Ireland we find the story of a magical fish that swims in a holy well. In Cork, the sun-well called Kil-na-Greina was the residence of Ban Naemha, the fish of wisdom that only those gifted with second sight could see. The well’s ritual involved taking three sips of the well’s water, crawling around the well three times between each drink, and offering a stone the size of a dove’s egg with each circuit. Whether this series of actions was intended to lure the fish or simply to honor the place is unclear.
Banshee (bean sdhe, ben sd, beans ben sde in Scotland, ban-sith, bean-shith, bean sith; on the Isle of Man, ben shee)
Celtic mythological being. The Irish word bean-ndhe—woman of the sidhe or fairy people—originally referred to any woman of the otherworld. Such beings were often early goddesses of the land or of sovereignty, diminished into regional fairy queens when their worshipers were conquered by those who honored other divinities. Over time, however, the banshee’s domain narrowed, until she became a spirit who announced forthcoming death, a transformation that has been linked to the seizure of Irish lands by the English in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The banshee is similar to the washer at the ford, who washes the clothes of those about to die in battle, save that she specializes in deaths from causes other than war. She is a folkloric rather than a literary character, not appearing in written documents until the 17th century, after which her presence is commonplace. She appears either as a hag or as a lovely woman; the transformation of one into the other is frequent in folklore (see cail-leach), so there may be no difference between these forms. The banshee often has red hair (a common signifier of fairy blood), or wears white or green clothing, or sports bright red shoes. Sometimes she combs her hair with a golden comb as she wails in anticipatory grief, usually at noon.
Some Irish families have banshees who signal the deaths of their members; most of these families have names beginning with O or Mac and thus represent the ancient families of a region. This association perhaps reflects a lingering loyalty to ancient Celtic beliefs, for the banshee has been linked to Celtic goddesses such as aine. These families’ banshees are occasionally found in the New World, having followed their emigrating charges, as was the case with the banshee of the O’Gradys, who traveled to Canada to provide her lamentation services.
Celtic ritual. There is some textual indication that the Celts had a ritual of name-giving that required children to be splashed with water from a sacred water-source, for the hero ailill Mac Mata was said to have been "baptized in druidic streams" while the Welsh gwri was "baptized with the baptism which was usual." In Ireland the power of the local goddess was imagined as resident in holy wells; baptism with her waters might have symbolized acceptance into her people. Until recently, children in the Hebrides were protected at birth from fairy kidnapping by the placing of three drops of water on their brows; this rite may descend from an ancient baptismal ritual.
Celtic social role. Throughout the Celtic world, the poet was held in high esteem because of an assumed power to curse and to bless. Thus poetry was connected to magic, perhaps because both employed the power of transformation: in poetry, metaphor; in magic, shape-shifting. In addition, because of the emphasis that the Celts put upon honor (see eric) and reputation, the words of a satirist were greatly feared.
Although the term bard is often used today to describe Celtic poets, the usage is inexact; according to Roman writers, the bard was the lowest among the various types of poets found in Gaul. According to this system, a bard was a singer and reciter—no inconsequential thing in a world that relied upon recitation rather than writing. These bards were historians, under strict demand not to change any of the basic facts of a story or genealogy.
As memory was important to the bard, vision was significant to the higher orders; the vates, who interpreted omens, and the druids or priests. In Ireland the bard was a low-ranked poet, a student still working to learn the nearly four hundred required myths and legends; as one ascended the scale, one became a fili, a member of a more distinguished caste of poets, of which the ollam was the highest rank. Both Gaul and Ireland thus seem to reflect the same hierarchy: bards or reciters; diviners or prophets (vates and fili); and druids or magician-priests.
Open to both men and women, these social roles were not generally hereditary but were contingent upon the gifts of the potential bard. Intensive training, including the memorization of hundreds of narratives, was required before progressing to extemporaneous composition in highly structured forms; such composition demanded familiarity with altered states and was connected to prophecy and spell-casting. In Ireland such poet-seers could be called upon to discern the next king in the bloody rite called the bull-sleep or tarbhfleis. Finally, the most elevated poet was the satirist whose stinging words could punish any king who proved ungenerous or unfit to rule. Thus the dividing lines between poet, judge, historian, and prophet were not crisply drawn among the ancient Irish.
Several bards appear in myth and legend, some holding heroic or semidivine status. One is the Irish tuan mac cairill, who described himself as having lived in various bodies since the beginning of time; another is amairgin, the milesian poet who spoke the first words upon the arrival of his people in Ireland. In Wales the greatest poet was taliesin, who had gained all knowledge by accidentally drinking the brew of the goddess ceridwen; pursued and persecuted by her, he took on the shapes of animals and birds but was unable to escape her. She finally ate him as a grain of wheat, when she was a hen; but she then bore him as a child that she threw into the sea. This shape-shifting motif shows that the poet was believed able to assume the bodies of animals and birds while maintaining human consciousness.
In Ireland poets originally moved freely about the countryside, accompanied by their students and retainers, demanding hospitality from every king. But later poets attached themselves to specific noble families. Even later, when their traditional patrons were driven out by English settlement, the bardic orders degraded into wandering poets like Anthony Raftery, an historical figure of Co. Galway in the 1700s; like Raftery many of these poetic practitioners were blind. In Wales a continuous line of poets can be traced to the sixth century c.e.; the Bardic Order (Bardd Teulu) served the Welsh kings for more than a millennium, with assemblies of bards called eisteddfod known as early as 1176.
Breton mythological site. The magical Fountain That Makes Rain was hidden in the center of Brittany’s legendary forest, broceliande. Visitors who drew water from the fountain and sprinkled it around unleashed fierce storms. The fountain may be the same as that ruled over by Laudine, the lady of the fountain, lover of the Arthurian hero owein. This legendary site may also reflect a folk memory of a nemeton or Celtic sacred wood.
British and Scottish mythological being. Hard to distinguish from bogies and boggarts (see brownie), the barguest found in Scotland and England could appear as a headless man, a ghostly rabbit, or a white cat. The bar-guest could also take the form of a black dog, especially when locally prominent people died; at such times the fire-eyed barguest would set all the dogs in the region to howling infernally. The barguest was dangerous to encounter, for its bite refused to heal. The name has been interpreted to mean both "bear-ghost," and "barrow-ghost," the latter referring to ancient stone graves it was reputed to haunt.
Barinthus (Saint Barrind)
Arthurian hero. The ferryman of the otherworld, Barinthus carried the wounded king arthur away from the surface world to the Otherworld after his final battle.
Symbolic animal. In Ireland until recently, this waterbird was considered a fish, so it could be eaten during the Lenten fast. Although this curious belief may not have mythological roots but may derive from later folklore, it has a basis in the ancient Celtic belief that birds are beings of several elements and therefore magical. It is even possible that the folkloric prominence given to the bird reflects pre-Celtic belief, for a barnacle goose was excavated from a Neolithic house, where it appears to have been part of a foundation sacrifice, suggesting that it was viewed as a protective being.
The barnacle goose is a migratory wildfowl, which annually arrived in Ireland from parts unknown, and it may have had special significance because of that cyclic disappearance and reappearance.
Barrax (Barrecis, Barrex)
British god. Known from one dedication only, this obscure British god was likened by the occupying Roman armies to their warrior god mars; the Celtic name seems to mean "supreme" or "lordly."
Sacred site. A pre-Celtic grave made from stones set in a line ending in a grave, in which more than one burial is sometimes found. The Wiltshire Downs, whereon rises stone-henge, has the greatest collection of barrow graves in England; such graves are also found throughout Ireland. Barrows were revered by those who dwelt around them, who told stories of hauntings by fairy creatures (black dogs, for instance) or ghosts at the site.
British mythological site. The great hot springs that bubble forth from the earth at Bath, a town in the southwest of England, have been renowned for healing for at least two thousand years. While some suggest that the springs were used in pre-Celtic times, what we know of aquae sulis (the Roman name for Bath) dates to Celtic times. sul, the Celtic goddess of the site, was conflated with the healing minerva by the Romans who built the colonnaded temples and interior bathing rooms still visible today. The Celtic custom of throwing coins into water-sources was practiced at Bath, as was the custom of writing curses on lead; 16,000 coins have been excavated from Bath and more than 50 cursing tables.
Baudwin (Baudwin of Brittany)
Arthurian hero. One of the few knights to survive the brutal battle of camlan at the end of the reign of king arthur, he became a hermit thereafter.
Symbolic animal. A dim-sighted but sharp-eared creature of impressive speed and climbing ability, the bear was feared and respected for its strength by all early people who encountered it. Perhaps because a skinned bear looks very much like the carcass of a person, and because the live animal can walk upright like a man, the bear was often imagined as nearly human.
The region where the Celts emerged, in mountainous central Europe, was supreme bear terrain. Prior to the Celts’ appearance in the archaeological record, we find evidence of a bear cult centered in Alpine caves; this ancient religious vision may have influenced the Celtic sense of the bear’s divinity. Swiss sites especially attest to the bear’s early importance, as at the city of Berne (whose name means "bear"), where the sculpture of the Celtic bear goddess artio was found; there is some evidence of a parallel bear god named Artaios, whom the Romans called by the name of mercury. The name of andarta, an obscure Gaulish goddess, may mean "great bear." Other mythological figures with ursine names include arthur and cormac mac airt.
Beare (Bera, Beirre, Momea)
Irish goddess. In the far southwest of Ireland, in the province of munster, a thin peninsula stretches out to sea: the Beare (Bheara) peninsula, rich in both antiquities and legend. The area gets its name from this woman, said to have been a Spanish princess; little legend remains of her. More mythically significant was the cailleach Bheirre, the Hag of Beare, an ancient land goddess of the pre-Celtic people; she is associated with the area even today, and she can be seen, in the shape of a boulder, looking out to sea on the north side of the peninsula. Occasionally the consonants mutate, making her name Momea.
Beating the bounds
British ritual. In some areas of rural England, the tradition of walking the boundaries of parishes on certain holidays was maintained until recent times. Although a priest or minister led the procession, the ritual itself probably harkens back to pre-Christian days. When the procession passed ancient standing stones, children were pushed against the boulders; similarly, children were ducked in sacred springs or ponds along the route.
Bebinn (Bebind, Be Find, Be Bind, Be Find, Bebhionn, Befind, Befionn)
Irish goddess or heroine. This name is common in early Irish literature and legend. One Bebinn, the goddess of birth, was sister of boand and mother of Ireland’s most handsome hero, fraech; another Bebinn, beautiful giant from Maiden’s Land off the west coast, was always surrounded by magical birds and may have originally been a goddess of pleasure. Of the latter, legend has it that she left the otherworld to live with the king of the Isle of Man but ran away from him after he began to beat her. In a sad but realistic ending, the king pursued his escaping wife and killed her.
Irish heroine. The small wife of an equally tiny fairy king, iubdan, Bebo traveled with her husband to the land of ulster, which seemed to them to be populated by giants. The lovely diminutive queen caught the eye of Ulster’s king, fergus. Despite physical challenges (his phallus was bigger than her entire body), Bebo became Fergus’s mistress for a year, until Iubdan offered a pair of magical shoes to Fergus in order to gain her back.
Irish hero. This name, which means "small," is borne by several characters in Irish legend. One, Bec mac Buain, was the father of the maiden guardians of a magical well, where the hero fionn mac cumhaill gained wisdom when one of the girls accidentally spilled some of the well water into his mouth. Another, Bec mac De, was a diviner who could answer nine questions simultaneously with one answer.
Becfhola (Becfola, Beagfhola)
Irish goddess or heroine. A mortal queen of tara, she is protagonist of the Tochmarc Becfhola (The Wooing of Becfhola), which tells of her affair with a fairy lover, flann ua Fedach. As Tara’s queen represented sovereignty, her unhappiness with king diarmait and her preference for the hero crimthann might have caused Diarmait to lose his right to rule. But when Becfhola attempted an assignation with Crimthann, she met Flann instead and spent an enchanted night with him on an island in Lough erne. When she returned to Tara, it was as though no time had passed, for she had lived in fairy time with Flann, who soon came to take her away.
Be Chuille (Becuille)
Irish goddess. Magical daughter of the woodland goddess flidais, she was the only member of the tuatha de danann able to combat the wicked sorceress carman.
Be Chuma (Bechuma, Be Cuma, Be cuma)
Irish goddess or heroine. A woman of Irish legend, one of the magical people called the tuatha de danann, Be Chuma was known for her carnal appetites. She originally came from the oth-erworld, where she left her powerful husband for another man, after which she was banished to this world. There she continued her fickle ways, lusting after her stepson art mac cuinn while married to the king of tara, conn of the Hundred Battles. Since Tara’s queen represented sovereignty over the land, Be Chuma could have replaced one king with another. Instead, she was forced to leave Tara when Art returned with a wife who demanded Be Chuma’s ostracism.
Bedwyr (Bedivere, Bedwyr fab Bedrawg)
Welsh hero. In the Welsh mythological text of kulhwch and olwen, this warrior was highly regarded; he was so brave that he never shied away from a fight. He was also beautiful (though not as handsome as arthur, much less lancelot). In later Arthurian literature Bedwyr’s importance diminished until he was only called Arthur’s butler, though a remnant of his earlier significance remained in the story in that he was instructed to throw the great sword excalibur into the water so that it could be reclaimed by the magical lady of the lake, after which Bedwyr placed the dying king in the boat headed to avalon.
Symbolic insect. Bees do not often appear in Celtic legend; when they do, it is typically as a symbol of wisdom. bees were believed to drop down to earth from heaven; on the Isle of Man, they were caught early in the spring by fishermen, who used them as amulets of safety when at sea. In Ireland bees have no pre-Christian symbolic importance, although some saints (the Welsh Domnoc and the munster nun gobnat) were associated with beekeeping.
Symbolic tree. One of the Celtic sacred trees, this large relative (genus Fagus) of the oak, with its muscular gray trunk and low full branches, was especially honored by Celts in the Pyrenees mountains.
Continental Celtic god. This obscure Gaulish god, whose name means "beautiful in slaughter" or "fair slayer," was equated by the Romans with their war god mars. Evidence of his worship found in numerous (though not elaborate) dedications in northwestern England suggests that his cult was strongest among lowly soldiers. He never appears with a consort.
Belenus (Bel, Belinus)
Continental Celtic god. The spring festival of beltane was named for him, some have suggested. Not much is known of this continental Celtic god, whom the Romans compared to apollo and who was worshiped at healing waters including Aquae Borvonis (Bourbon-les-Bains) in France; the healing plant Belinuntia was reputedly named for him, strengthening the likelihood that his domain was health.
Belenus’s worship appears to have been widespread, for many inscriptions to him are found throughout Gaul, and several classical writers refer to his cult. His name appears to mean "bright" or "shining one," so he may have been a solar divinity; such deities were often associated with healing springs on the theory that the sun, leaving our sight at night, traveled under the world, heating the waters of thermal springs as it went. The ancient author Apollonius relates a Celtic story of a stream formed by the tears of Apollo Belenus when he was forced from heaven by his father; as Apollo was the Greek sun divinity, this textual evidence strengthens the argument that Belenus had solar connections.
In Britain a hero Belinus was mentioned by the early historian Geoffrey of Monmouth as twin to Brennius; the two went to war over the throne but ultimately agreed to share power. The continental Belinus is not described as warlike, so despite the similarity in names, it is not clear that the same figure is intended.
Beli (Beli Mawr, Beli Mawr fab Mynogan)
Celtic ancestral figure, possibly a god. This Welsh ancestral father may have been derived from the Celtic god belenus, although given how little is known about the latter, that is conjectural. In the mabinogion, Beli appears as consort of the mother goddess don and as father of the goddess arianrhod and the warrior caswallawn; in the story of maxen, Beli was said to have ruled Britain until the titular hero arrived with his legions, driving Beli into the sea. He has been described as a god of death as well as of the sea, the latter giving rise to the poetic description of the ocean as "Beli’s liquor"; the London site of Billingsgate (Beli’s gate) appears to contain his name. Some have connected him with the obscure Irish god Bile (see bile).
Belisama (Belesama, Belisma)
Continental Celtic and British goddess. This powerful goddess, found in several places in the ancient Celtic world, was an unusual circumstance in that most divinities are found in only one site. She was both a cosmic goddess and one associated with the rivers that, to the Celts, sheltered the preeminent divinities of good fortune and abundance. As her name may be derived from words for "brightness" or "shining," it has been proposed that she is a continental Celtic corollary to brigit, the Irish flame goddess of healing. That the Romans connected her to minerva, as they did the hot-spring goddess sul of Bath, is also suggestive of Belisama’s possible original ruler-ship of healing, water, and the solar flame.
In Lancashire the River Ribble once bore Belisama’s name, according to the ancient Egyptian geographer Ptolemy, and it is thought that the headless statue still to be found near the river represents her. More recently the spirit of the Ribble was said to be named peg o’nell, a tyrannized servant girl who drowned while fetching water and who vindictively returns to claim a victim every seventh year. The only way to avoid such a human tragedy on Peg’s Night was to sacrifice small birds or animals to the waters, a tradition in which some have discerned a memory of human sacrifice to the water divinity.
Arthurian hero. A minor character in the tales of king arthur, Bellieus became a knight of the round table by a curious means: He found the pure knight lancelot in bed with his lady, which Lancelot claimed was entirely a mistake. Bellieus was honor-bound to challenge the invader, who proved much the better swordsman. Despite his wounds, Bellieus survived and joined Lancelot at Arthur’s court, camelot.
Beltane (Bealtaine, Beltain, Beltine, Beltaine, Bealtane, La Beltain, May Eve, May Day, Cetshamain)
Celtic festival. Celebrated on May 1, Beltane was one of the four great festivals of what is conventionally called the ancient Celtic year—although it has been argued that the calendar, not found on the Continent, represents only the Irish seasonal cycle. Beltane is essentially an agricultural festival, its roots in the cycle of grazing and planting. Traditionally, Beltane marked the beginning of the summer and the movement of cattle from sheltered winter pastures to the mountain buaile or "booleys" of summer, where the grass would be fresh and green. As might be expected of a festival that begins an agricultural cycle, weather divination was important, with frost being deemed ominous of bad times ahead, while rain was a sign of good fortune and a strong harvest.
As with other such festivals, Beltane began at sundown on the eve of the festival day. Like samhain in the fall, Beltane was a day when the door to the otherworld opened sufficiently for fairies and the dead to communicate with the living. Whereas Samhain was essentially a festival of the dead, Beltane was one for the living, when vibrant spirits were said to come forth seeking incarnation in human bodies or intercourse with the human realm.
The name is related to words referring to fire. The spurious connection with the Semitic god ba’al has been long since disproven, but divinities such as belenus and belisama have been connected with the bonfires of spring, which were the most significant part of the Beltane celebrations in several Celtic lands. On Beltane Eve, hearth fires were extinguished, then relit from a bonfire made on the nearest signal hill. In Ireland these fires were thought to have been lit around the land in response to the sacred fire of eriu on the hill of uisneach, in the Island’s center, or at its royal center at the Hill of tara.
The famous story of the "Easter fire" or "Paschal fire" lit by st. patrick as he attempted to Christianize Ireland is anachronistic, for there would have been no Easter fires in the pre-Christian period; the fires in question were for Beltane, and Patrick was being both sacrilegious and politically challenging by lighting his own fire on slane hill before the royal fire blazed.
Beltane fires, which may have originated simply in the need to burn off brush before the fields and pastures were put into use, were lit in Wales until 1840 and in Ireland regularly through the middle of the 20th century, with cattle being driven near or between fires in order to assure their safety in the coming year. It was considered especially significant if a white heifer was seen in the herds, presumably an incarnation of boand, the white cow goddess of abundance. At the same time, Beltane was a night when evil could strike cattle, drying up their milk and causing them to sicken and die. Thus many Beltane rituals, including hunting hares (shape-shifted witches), and speaking charms over butter churns, have a basis in the belief that agricultural produce is particularly vulnerable at this time of year.
There are strong indications that Beltane had its origins in a festival for the protection of cattle. In ulster, as in other parts of Ireland, cattle were driven around raths and other areas believed to be residences of the fairy race. There they were bled, and after their owners had tasted the blood, it was poured into the earth with prayers for the herds’ safety. In Devon in Britain a ram was tied to a standing stone and butchered, its blood pouring over the stone; the animal was then cooked, hide and all, and its burnt flesh devoured to bring good luck.
It was not only a time of prayers for animal well-being but of rituals for human health as well, Beltane being one of the days on which Irish holy wells were most frequently visited, together with imbolc on February 1 and lugh-nasa on August 1. Well visitors performed a pattern or ritual walk, usually sunwise around the well, then left offerings (coins or clooties, bits of cloth tied to the sacred trees that shade the well) while praying for health and healing. Usually no words were to be spoken except in prayer, and the visitor departed without turning back to look at the well. These rituals, still practiced in many parts of Ireland, may have once included the carrying of sacred water to Beltane ritual sites, where trees and fields were sprinkled with prayers for an abundant harvest.
Decoration of a "May bush" was popular until the late 19th century in rural Ireland and in urban areas as well, with groups vying for the most resplendent tree covered with flowers and ribbons and bits of bright fabric. The thorn tree, traditionally the abode of the fairy folk, was a favorite for May bushes, but others could substitute, especially the ash, considered the premiere Beltane tree in Ireland. In Dublin and Belfast, bushes were cut outside town and then decorated in various neighborhoods, with attempts to steal another district’s May bush causing much jollity. The disreputable behavior of some Beltane revelers caused the May bush to be outlawed in Victorian times. In Cornwall the sycamore was the favored "May tree"; celebrants stripped its new branches of leaves and crafted little flutes. In Liverpool the festival long survived in rudimentary form, with houses and horses being decked with flowers for the day.
Beltane dew was believed to have the power to increase sexual attractiveness. Maidens would roll in the grass or dip their fingers in the dew and salve their faces, hoping thus to become fairer. In Britain one of their number was chosen as the May Queen, who was ceremoniously married to the May King, an act that symbolized the joining of the land’s fertile powers. But in some cases there was a queen only, without a consort, which some scholars view as evidence that the goddess was invoked rather than the god at this time; in Britain the May King was called the "Beltane carline" or "old woman," which has led to the same interpretation.
Sexual license, with the magical intention of increasing the land’s yield, is believed to have been part of the annual event. English Beltane festivals focused on that transparently phallic symbol, the maypole, around which dancers cavorted (see morris dancing). The full ritual entailed bringing in a cut tree from the woodlands and erecting it in the town square or a similar public gathering place. In the Cotswolds the maypole was associated with "summer bowers" built of new-budding trees and decorated with flowers and a large china doll called the "lady." Plays about robin hood and maze-games, both originally part of the Beltane festivals, slowly diminished into children’s games rather than sacred calendrical rituals.
Remnants of the maypole festival are still found in some English towns, most notably in Chipping Campden, but maypole dancing today is usually a folkloric revival, for the dances were outlawed in Puritan England in 1644. It is probable that it was not so much the dances themselves that caused concern but the usual aftermath, the "greenwood weddings" of young people who spent Beltane night together under the pretext of gathering flowers to deck the town next morning, for the Puritans complained that girls who went a-maying "did not one of them return a virgin."
Virginity was not the only thing sacrificed to the new season. Animal sacrifices continued into historical times; in Dublin the skull and bones of a horse were burned. Some have suggested that human sacrifice occurred at this time, although perhaps only in times of plague and need. In Britain until the 18th century, part of the Beltane festival was the preparation of a round cake that was broken up and distributed; whoever got a blackened piece was designated the "devoted" and the other celebrants mimed pushing the selected into the fire, suggesting an ancient sacrificial ritual. Such round cakes, called Beltane bannocks, were typically made from the last sheaf of the previous year’s harvest. In Britain parts of the cake were offered to the land, with the words, "I give you this, preserve my horses; I give you this, preserve my sheep; I give the foxes this, preserve my lambs; I give this to the hoodie crow and to the eagle."
On the Isle of Man, Beltane fires and the strewing of flowers were said to scare away witches, who were most active on this day but who could be most effectively countered then as well. divination on Beltane or Beltane Eve was common among the Manx islanders: Light blazing from a house meant a wedding was in the offing, while dim light meant a funeral. Girls placed snails on pewter dishes that night, watching until midnight after washing face and hands in dew from a wheatfield, in the hopes that the creatures would write their husband-to-be’s name on the dish. Protection of cattle and home were also part of the Beltane ritual, for the doorway was strewn with rushes and primroses while rowan crosses were fastened to the cattle’s necks. Leaves of elder trees were affixed to windows and doors as protection against fairy powers. But fairy beauty would leave its mark on the dew, which could be gathered and used as a beautifying potion. Until some 50 years ago, the Manx islanders celebrated Beltane with a contest between the Queen of Winter and the Queen of the May, represented by girls whose attendants staged mock battles that ended in a festival.
In Scotland cattle were preserved from the influence of witchcraft by placing garlands of rowan and honeysuckle around their necks; red threads tied in their hair or woven into the wreaths likewise protected dairy cattle from milk-stealing witches, who were especially active on Beltane. Records from the 18th century show that a pot of eggs, butter, oatmeal, and milk was placed on the Beltane fire, after a bit of the mixture had been thrown onto the ground to honor the spirits; once cooked, the oatcake was divided into nine parts and offered to the animals who might steal the harvest: one part to the crow, one to the eagle, one to the fox, and so forth. Even as late as the 19th century, Beltane fires were still being built in rural districts of Scotland and cattle driven between them for purification.
The Beltane festival is alluded to in several recent popular works, including the science-fiction cult classic, The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, in which conspiratorial forces of the Bavarian Illuminati and their henchmen meet (and are defeated by) the orgiastic forces of alternative culture; in the film The Wicker Man, in which a remnant Celtic society sacrifices a puritanical policeman to increase the land’s fertility; and in the "Lusty Month of May" sequence in the musical Camelot.
Irish mythological site. In the far northwestern county of Donegal, a huge circle of some 60 stones once caught the beams of the rising sun on the morning of beltane, May 1; an alignment between a pillar stone and a stone engraved with small indentations called cup marks indicates the sunrise on that day. While stone circles indicating astronomical alignments are far from unusual in Ireland, most were engineered as much as 4,000 years before the Celts arrived with their four festivals marking the midpoints between solstices and equinoxes; the pre-Celtic builders of stone circles more typically marked the equinoxes themselves. Thus Beltany presents an archaeological puzzle: Is it a Celtic site, inspired by the stone circles that they found in Ireland? A pre-Celtic site whose orientation has been misread by enthusiasts? Or an astronomical accident?
Irish folkloric figure. This Scottish giant terrorized the coast of ulster until the residents requested the aid of finn mccool, a folkloric version of the great Irish hero fionn mac cumhaill. Finn challenged the giant to battle, then dressed himself in swaddling clothes. When the monster came to call, he found an enormous baby in an immense cradle, and he became so terrified of its strength that he ran away without Finn’s having to lift his weapons. He never bothered the people of Ulster again.
Irish mythological site. Near a mound of stone atop this famous, dramatically sweeping peak on the coast above the town of Sligo in the western Irish province of connacht, the romantic hero diarmait Ua Duibne died as a result of a wound from a magical boar who had kidnapped him and to whose back the hero clung. Diarmait managed to kill the beast, but then accidentally brushed against the body, puncturing himself with a poisonous bristle. As Diarmait lay dying, fionn mac cumhaill—whose intended wife grainne’s love for the much-younger Diarmait had consumed years of Fionn’s waning energy as he pursued the lovers across Ireland— arrived on the scene. A healer, Fionn could have saved the young man, but instead he taunted Diarmait, who had been so beloved for his beauty, with his gory ugliness. The mountain is famous in contemporary letters as shadowing the site of the grave of William Butler Yeats.
Benn Etair (Ben Edair, Ben Edar)
Irish mythological location. Now the well-known Hill of Howth near Dublin, Benn Etair appears in many legends. In the tale of the sons of tuire-ann, the exhausted heroes believe if they were able to see Benn Etair their strength would return; the hill may have been thought to have healing power. The grieving widow of the hero oscar, aidin, was buried there by the bard, oisin. Benn Etair was also the dwelling place of a fairy woman, etain of the Fair Hair, who died of grief after her mortal husband was killed; the hill is said to have been named for Etain’s father, etar.
Continental Celtic goddess. This obscure goddess was described by the early Christian author Gregory of Tours as being conveyed, in the form of a white-veiled image, through the fields in spring and whenever crops threatened to fail. She may be related to the otherwise little-known brigindo; both appear to have been regional Celtic fertility goddesses. Since one of Gregory’s coreligionists, Martin of Tours, destroyed most of the "pagan idols" of the region, it is unlikely that images of Berecynthia survive.
Continental Celtic goddess. Goddess of crafts among the Celts of what is now eastern Burgundy, she was the consort of the god ucuetis.
Berrey Dhone (Brown Berry)
Manx goddess. On the Isle of Man, this hag or witch lived either on top of North Barrule Mountain or inside it. Like other forms of the cailleach, she was an Amazonian giant, and her rocky heelprint can still be seen on the mountainside.
Irish goddess. This nickname for brigit was commonly used in Ireland on the spring feast of imbolc, when children went begging from house to house. In Kerry, white-garbed young men—the "Biddy Boys"—sang at each doorstep, "Something for poor Biddy! Her clothes are torn. Her shoes are worn. Something for poor Biddy!" Although the tradition faded during the latter part of the 20th century, it has been lately revived, with Biddy boys and girls in outrageous straw hats dancing in Kerry towns, begging donations for the poor.
Historical Irish heroine. The "White Witch of Clare" was a renowned healer in the eastern part of Co. Clare area of Ireland in the 19th century, and her name is still current almost a century and a half after her death. Legends about her, although exaggerated and often including mythological motifs, are clearly based on a real woman of Feakle, a parish in the rolling hills known as Slieve Aughty (see echthge). Biddy was reputed to have been given a magical blue bottle by the fairy folk, into which she peered to ascertain the cause of illness or unhappiness. She was frequently at odds with the local clergy, who deemed her powers devilish; one of the most famous tales tells how Biddy cursed a clergyman for making defamatory remarks about her, causing his horse to be pinned in place until she spoke words to free him. She had several husbands, each increasingly younger; when she died, she tossed her blue bottle in a stream (or lake, or river, depending on the speaker) where it reportedly still rests today.
Symbolic plant. This berry (Vaccinium myrtillus), also called the whortleberry or mulberry, was a significant calendar marker in Ireland up to the present. Festivals celebrating the Celtic summer feast of lughnasa included climbing hills to gather bilberries, which were eaten on the spot or saved to make pies and wine; after Lughnasa, the berries were said to lose their flavor. The start of bilberry season was also the start of harvest, and many omens were sought from the berry bushes at this time, for crops were expected to be good when berries were plentiful, but hunger threatened when the berries were scarce.
Bile (bele; pl., bili)
Symbolic plant. A sacred tree, often found near a holy well or other honored site, is even today in Ireland decorated with offerings, especially strips of cloth called clooties. In ancient times such a tree would have marked an inauguration site, and its branches would have provided the wood used for the king’s scepter. There is also a god of this name, ancestral father to the milesians who were the last invaders of Ireland, but it is unclear if tree and god are connected; indications that Bile was an underworld divinity could be linked to the tree’s function as a symbol of the unification of the underworld (roots) and upper world (branches).
The term bile was used to designate a sacred tree or any genus, although certain kinds of trees, including oak, yew, and ash, were thought to have special powers. The Irish place-poems, the dindshenchas, describe five great trees of ancient Ireland, including an oak that bore nuts and apples at the same time as acorns, replicating the trees said to grow in the other-world. The second sacred tree was the yew of ross, described as a "firm strong god," while the remaining three were ash trees, most notably the mythic Ash of uisneach, which, when felled, stretched 50 miles across the countryside.
In addition to having totem animals, the ancient Celts may have believed in ancestral tree-spirits; we find one ancient Irish group going by the name of Fir Bile, "tribe of the sacred tree," while the Continental Eburones were the "yew-tree tribe."
The cutting of sacred trees was utterly forbidden among the Celts, a tradition that sometimes continued into Christian times. Weapons were not permitted around the oak of brigit in kildare, a tree that was probably sacred before the foundation of the convent at that site, for the town’s name includes the words for church (kil-) and for oak (-dare). The tradition of protecting such trees survived in folklore until recently; in the Irish village of Borrisokane in east Co. Galway, it was said that if anyone so much as burned a broken-off branch of the town’s sacred tree in his fireplace, his house would burn to the ground.
This reverence for trees is one of the most deep-rooted of Celtic beliefs. druids held their sacrifices in sacred groves called nemetons, the destruction of which by the Romans was a brutal blow to the heart of the people, as was the Christian demand that trees no longer be honored with offerings and prayers. Despite the heavy fines levied on those who broke these regulations, Celtic tree-worship continued, as is evidenced by the frequent fulminations against it, generation after generation, by churchmen. Martin of Tours, renowned for smashing idols, was unable to gain destructive access to a sacred pine tree in central France. Faced with such fervent devotion, the Church converted the trees along with their worshipers, declaring them sacred to the Virgin Mary or to lesser saints, decking them with saints’ images, and using them as sites for Christian ritual.