The Bale Fire

Beltane has been celebrated with bonfires for ages. Image by Andy Ryan/Stone/Getty Images

One of the hallmarks of any Beltane celebration is the bonfire, or the Bale Fire (this can be spelled a number of ways, including Beal Fire and Bel Fire). This tradition has its roots in early Ireland. According to legend, each year at Beltane, the tribal leaders would send a representative to the hill of Uisneach, where a great bonfire was lit. These representatives would each light a torch, and carry it back to their home villages.

Once the fire reached the village, everyone would light a torch to take into their houses and use to light their hearths. This way, the fire of Ireland was spread from one central source throughout the entire country.

In Scotland, traditions were slightly different, as the Bale Fire was used as a protection and purification of the herd. Two fires were lit, and cattle were driven between the pair. This was also thought to bring good fortune to the herders and farmers.

In some places, the Bale Fire was used as a signal beacon. In Dartmoor, England, there is a hill known as the Cosdon Beacon. During the medieval period, beacon fires were lit at the top of the hill, which – thanks to its height and location – was the perfect spot for ultimate visibility. The hill is located in an area that allows, on a clear day, a view into North Devon, parts of Cornwall, and Somerset.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines the Bale Fire (or balefire) as a funeral fire, and describes the etymology of the word as being from the Old English, with bael meaning funeral, and fyr as fire.

However, the use of the word has sort of fallen out of favor as a term for a funeral pyre.

Today, many modern Pagans re-create the use of the Bale Fire as part of our Beltane celebrations – in fact, it is likely that the word “Beltane” has evolved from this tradition. The fire is more than a big pile of logs and some flame.

It is a place where the entire community gathers around -- a place of music and magic and dancing and lovemaking.

To celebrate Beltane with a fire, you may want to light the fire on May Eve (the last night of April) and allow it to burn until the sun goes down on May 1. Traditionally, the bale fire was lit with a bundle made from nine different types of wood and wrapped with colorful ribbons – why not incorporate this into your own rituals? Once the fire was blazing, a piece of smoldering wood was taken to each home in the village, to ensure fertility throughout the summer months. While it may not be practical for each of your friends to transport a piece of smoldering wood home in their cars, you can send a bit of symbolic unburned wood from the fire home with them, and they can burn it at their own hearths. Be sure to read our Beltane Bonfire Ritual if you’re planning a group ceremony.

If you’re planning on incorporating a bonfire of any sort into your rituals or celebrations, please read about Bonfire Safety.