The Bale Fire

group of people around bonfire
Nisian Hughes / 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.

The Bale Fire Today

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.

Basic Bonfire Safety

If you're holding a bonfire this year at Beltane, great! Follow a few basic safety tips, to make sure everyone has a good time and no one gets hurt.

First of all, make sure your bonfire is set up on a stable surface. The ground should be level, and in a safe location - this means keep it away from buildings or flammable materials.

Assign fire tenders to be in charge of the blaze, and make sure they are the only ones who add anything to the bonfire. Be sure to have water and sand nearby, in case the fire needs to be extinguished in a hurry. A rake and shovel can come in handy as well.

Be sure to check weather conditions before you start your fire - if it's windy, hold off. Nothing will ruin a ritual faster than having to dodge embers - or worse yet, having those embers start a brushfire that can't be contained.

Don't add combustible items to the fire. Don't throw in batteries, fireworks, or other items that can cause a hazard. In addition, a ritual fire should not be a place where you throw your trash. Before adding anything to a ritual bonfire, be sure to check with the fire tenders. 

Finally, if there are children or pets at your event, make sure they give the fire a wide berth.

Parents and pet owners should be cautioned if their child or their furry friend gets too close.