13 May 2011 a post by Ian Adams

Beltane Blessing

A favourite book of mine happens to be one of the most important pieces of work ever produced in the collecting and recording of social history in the British Isles. The Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael [1832-1912].

Standing stones Mull

In his role working for the government in Excise, he traveled extensively in the Highland and Islands of Scotland, collecting as he went the hymns, incantations, auguries, omens, and prayers of the Gaelic speaking peoples. For the most part these were held and passed on orally, and Carmichael was keenly aware that their memory might soon be lost as the Gaelic language was increasingly marginalized.

Carmichael speculated that many of the sayings that he collected were very old indeed. ‘Some of the hymns’ he wrote in the introduction to his work Carmina Gadelica ‘may have been composed within the cloistered cells of Derry and Iona, and some of the incantations among the cromlechs of Stonehenge and the standing stones of Callarnis.’

Of course we cannot verify his suggestion – but there are signs that many of the sayings are ancient. The presence, for example of many references to ‘Celtic’ or ‘Dark Age’ saints like Columba / Colum-cille and Brigid is in stark contrast to the few mentions given to St Andrew, medieval patron saint of Scotland.

One of the striking things about the Carmina Gadelica is how it reveals that the Pagan and Christ-tradition roots of the Gaelic life seem to have been happily linked and lived by the Gaels. There are two Beltane blessings in the collection – both full of imagery from the ancient Christ-tradition, but also steeped in the ancient local tradition of Beltane. Here’s an excerpt from one…

BLESS, O Threefold true and bountiful,
Myself, my spouse, and my children,
My tender children and their beloved mother at their head.
On the fragrant plain, on the gay mountain sheiling,
    On the fragrant plain, on the gay mountain sheiling.

Everything within my dwelling or in my possession,
All kine and crops, all flocks and corn,
From Hallow Eve to Beltane Eve,
With goodly progress and gentle blessing,
From sea to sea, and every river mouth,
    From wave to wave, and base of waterfall.

Be the Three Persons taking possession of all to me belonging,
Be the sure Trinity protecting me in truth…

from ‘The Beltane Blessing’ in Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael

I love the way that this saying expresses a tenderness for the land and the sea, for animals, crops and people. And I’m struck by how it seeks a Beltane blessing from the Threefold, the Three-persons, the Trinity - the God of community and the root of all being that emerged from the Jesus tradition. The wonder of the changing seasons, and the Mystery that the Gaels called Threefold, are linked. They are not exclusive to one another, but part of the same lived and loved story.

If there’s a pastoral quality to the blessing, there’s also a fiery heart in its practice. If the Gaels had a strong sense that God was close and good, they also had a earthy sense that sometimes evil would come close – so they took this seriously.

Fire on a beach, Mull

In his introduction to this blessing Carmichael says that ‘on May Day all the fires of the district were extinguished and ‘tein eigin,’ need-fire, produced on the knoll. This fire was divided in two, and people and cattle rushed through for purification and safeguarding against ‘ealtraigh agus dosgaidh,’ mischance and murrain, during the year. The people obtained fires for their homes from this need-fire.’

The fire of safeguarding becomes a blessing for the home and the household. Throughout the Carmina Gadelica there’s an awareness that the Christ is both our companion and protector, the ‘fountain of life and our faithful brother’. So this Beltane season may you and yours be blessed by the Threefold…

From Hallow Eve to Beltane Eve,
With goodly progress and gentle blessing,

Ian Adams - Beltane 2011

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