As aforewritten in On Summer’s Icumen In, the English Christian May Day unseated the Anglo-Saxon Heathen holytide of Éastre as the day which marks the start of summer. As such, we might well fathom to find amid its merrymakings, sundry hints of heathen thew. And indeed we do.
Among the Celtic neighbors of the Anglo-Saxons, May Day is oft called Beltane[i]. Found as Beltaine in Old Irish, Bealltainn in Scottish Gaelic, and Boaldyn in Manx, the wellspring of Beltane’s wordlore is believed to be the Proto-Celtic *belo-tanos, “bright fire.” Though the shaping of Beltane is Celtic, the word itself should not look or sound wholly welsh to the English speaker. The Celtic *belo is kindred to our English, “bale” as in “balefire.” “Bale,” being born of the Old English bæl, “pyre,” is itself sprung from the Proto-Germanic *bēlą. As such, it finds its root in the same Proto-Indo-European *bʰel-, “shine, gleam,” from whence also sprang the Proto-Celtic *belo.
Of this Celtic Beltane, our earliest witness comes from a medieval Irish glossary, Sanas Chormaic, written about 900. In it, Beltane is said to be named for the “fire of Bel” and that “a fire was kindled in his name at the beginning of summer always, and cattle were driven between the two fires.” Those fires were betold as being “lucky fires, i.e two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle against the diseases of each year to those fires. They used to drive the cattle between them.”[ii] Here we have then not merely a fire rite but, also, a god to whom the day was holy. Known in sundry Celtic lands as Bel, Beli Mawr, or Belenus, this Celtic “bright one,” as his name is understood to mean, may well be an Indo-European god of great yore-oldness. Indeed, his likeness in wordlore, if not godlore, is to be found in the Slavic *Belobog, the “bright god.”[iii]
Yet, if such a fore-old fire god was known to Celt and Slav alike, we may well wonder whether or not some hint of his holy heap might be found amongst the Germanic folk? It would seem so. Along the Rhine, Jacob Grimm was able to find a wordwise likeness for the Celtic Beltane in the German Pfultag and Pulletag, names for a summer faining which fell upon May 2nd. These, Grimm believed, spoke to an older Old High German Pholtag which “answers to [the Celtic] Bealteine.”[iv]
Like the Celtic Beltane, which mean’s both “bright fire” day and “fire of the god Bel,” Pholtag seems to have meant more than merely “balefire day.” Indeed the Old High German second Merseburg Spell (9th -10th hundredtide), speaks of a god named Phol who may well match the Celtic Bel and the Slavic Belobog. [v] As the spell has come to us:
Phol and Wodan were in the holt
There the root of Balder’s foal was wrenched (its foot was sprained)
Sinthgunt wiled it, the sister of Sunne
Frijia wiled it, the sister of Fulla
Wodan wiled it, as he well could
So the bone-wrenching, so the blood-wrenching, so the limb-wrenching
Bone to bone, blood to blood
Limb to limb, so the limbs are (set)![vi]
There is no fire to be found in the second Merseburg Spell, yet there is, in its stead, a god whose lore is linked to the balefire. Here I write of Balder, a god oft thought to be a “Norse god,” yet shown in this spell to have been known in Germania as well. Whilst much may be said of his godlore, it is his slaying and the laying of his lich upon a balefire (a pyre) that was so widely sung of by skalds.
As read by Grimm and a great many others, Phol is believed to be another name for Balder. Yet is there more than a reading of the Merseburg Spell to bind these two together? It would seem so. In the beginning of his Prose Edda, the Icelandic godloreman Snorri Sturluson wrote of a godling and holy king hight Baldeg whose name, “balefire day,” answers the German Photag. As told by Snorri:
Another son of Óðinn was hight Baldeg, him we call Baldr. He owned that land that is now hight Westphalia. His son was Brand, his son Frjóðigar, whom we call Fróða (Frodi). His son was Freóvin, his son Uvigg, his son Gevis, whom we call Gave.[vii]
Here we find in Snorri’s tallying of Óðinn, Baldeg, Brand, Frjóðigar, Freóvin, Uvigg, and Gevis a Norse wending which matches that of Wóden, Bældæg, Brand, Fridhogar, Fréawine, Wig, and Gewis as found in the kingly lines of Wessex and Bernicia. That his bairn, in both the Norse and Anglo-Saxon reckonings, is hight Brand, “firebrand, torch,” speaks all the more to Bældæg’s fellowship with fire.
It would seem then that the Celts, Germans, Anglo-Saxons, Norse, and Slavs each held to some thread of thew which reached back in time to the heap of an old Indo-European fire god who was fained at summer.[viii] Amid the Rhineland Germans and amongst the Celts, his fire-faining marked the beginning of summer at Pholtag or Beltane. Yet his worship by the Norse as Baldr may have been held at Midsummer. It is, at such time, that great fires called Baldersbål, “Balder’s balefire,” are lit. [ix] Indeed, it may be that the same holytide held by the Germanic and Celtic folk to mark the start of summer is held, some months later in Scandinavia, to mark summer’s middle. It is at Midsummer, after all, that the Swedes raise their own “Maypole” which they call a Midsommarstång, “Midsummer stang/pole.”
As to his worship amongst the Anglo-Saxons, we know less than we would like to know. Such is so with all Anglo-Saxon godlore. Whilst Bældæg’s wordlore belongs to a Wóden-sprung king named in the old kingly lines of both Wessex and Bernicia, we find no Anglo-Saxon holytide by that name. Yet Bealdor, being kindred to the Norse Baldr, is indeed witnessed in Anglo-Saxon godlore as his name was borrowed for Christ in the lay of Andreas just as some of his story may be found in Dream of the Rood and in Beowulf. Could it be that Bealdor/Bældæg was worshiped at the start of summer, alongside the goddess Éastre? It could. Yet one must remember that whilst we now speak of the Anglo-Saxons as one folk, they were not truly so in Heathentimes. Indeed, what came to be known as the Anglo-Saxons were a blend of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, among others, who came from their own Germanic homelands to settle Britannia. And, in their settling, they gave shape to sundry kingdoms across the land. It may be then that the Saxons, be they Saxons of Wessex or Westphalia, began summer with the worship of Bealdor/Bældæg whereas the Angles of Northumbria, the land in which Béda was born and wrote, marked summer’s start by faining Éastre, for the goddess of dawn.[x]
Aforewritten – Said before, akin to aforesaid
Agast – Surprise
Bairn – A son or offspring
Betell – Describe
Eft-shaped – Reconstructed
Faining – Celebration
Fathom – Imagine
Fore-old – Before old, of great antiquity
Godloreman – Mythologist
Heap – Cultus, the cult of a god
Heathentimes – The time before conversion to Christianity
Hight – To name, named
Holy king – Sacral King
Hundredtide – Century
Kindred – Cognate
Lay – Poem
Lich – Corpse
Lorespring – A spring of lore, a primary source of lore
Mainland – Continent
Namelore – Etymology
Reading – Interpretation
Skaldic craft – the craft of the skald, the Norse poet. Poetry.
Spell – Charm
Therewithness – Presence
Thew – Custom, tradition
Unriddle – Explain
Welsh – Foreign. From the OE wealh, “foreigner.”
Wile – Charm, enchant, from the OE wígle, “soothsaying”
Wordlore – Etymology
Word-wend – Translate
Wordwise likeness – Etymological cognate
Year-Reckoning – Calendar
Yore-old – Of antiquity, ancient-old
Yoretidely – Ancient
[i] This shape of its name was found in King James I’s of Scotland’s “The lawes and actes of parliament maid be King James the first and his successours kinges of Scotland” (1424) and has since become the English spelling of the name.
[ii] Sans Chormaic. John O’Donovan and ed. Whitley Stokes (Calcutta, 1868) 19, 23 though I myself found this citation in Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun, chapter 22 Beltane p 218,219.
[iii] The name *Belobog is not attested but, rather, eft-shaped (reconstructed) from a reckoning given by the Germanic priest, Helmold in his Chronica Slavorum (12th hundredtide)
[iv] Teutonic Mythology: Volume II, p 614
[v] In fairness, it should be said that the wordlore for Phol is not fully agreed upon. Other meanings will be fathomed a forthcoming article.
[vi] Phol ende Uuodan uuorun zi holza.
du uuart demo Balderes uolon sin uuoz birenkit.
thu biguol en Sinthgunt, Sunna era suister;
thu biguol en Friia, Uolla era suister;
thu biguol en Uuodan, so he uuola conda:
sose benrenki, sose bluotrenki, sose lidirenki:
ben zi bena, bluot si bluoda,
lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin
Wended from the Old High German by Þórbeorht
[vii] Snort Sturluson’s Prose Edda, Prologue, Chapter 5
Annarr sonr Óðins hét Baldeg, er vér köllum Baldr. Hann átti þat land, er nú heitir Vestfál. Hans sonr var Brandr, hans sonr Frjóðigar, er vér köllum Fróða. Hans sonr var Freóvin, hans sonr Uvigg, hans sonr Gevis, er vér köllum Gave. – Wended by Þórbeorht
[viii] Either at its start or middle, as will be betold further in the next blog.
[ix] James Frazer’s The Golden Bough page 769
[x] That Bældæg is found in the kingly line of Bernicia would so too seem to speak to a Saxon settlement in that Anglian kingdom or, if not a settlement of Saxon folk, the therewithness of a Saxon kingly line. Yet whilst Bernicia became half of Northumbria, the other half came from the Anglian kingdom of Deira. And in the Deiran kingly line, Bældæg is nowhere found.