Beltane Carline - The Hag

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Beltane Carline
The Hag

Also known as the Beltane Hag.

Beltane Carline literally means “Beltane Hag” or “Beltane Old Woman” and is the person who, during Beltane rituals, received the blackened bit of Beltane Cake. Carline derives from Old Norse roots and indicates a woman, especially an old one and is a regional synonym for hag.

Beltane is the ancient Celtic festival corresponding to May Eve and Walpurgis Night. See CALENDAR: Beltane for further details.

Special cakes were traditionally part of Beltane rituals in the Scottish Highlands. One single piece, the “black bit,” was blackened with charcoal. Cakes were divided into portions, then randomly distributed or drawn by lot. The cake was distributed and eaten in company so there was no hiding or masking who had received the black bit. It was immediately apparent to all. That person automatically became the Beltane Carline with a role in the rituals that followed.

Anthropologists believe that once upon a time, similar to Shirley Jackson’s classic 1948 short story The Lottery, the Beltane Carline involved genuine human sacrifice determined via lottery. Within historic memory, however, ritual symbolic miming of sacrifice has sufficed. Rituals include the following:

Image The Beltane Carline runs through the Beltane bonfires three times or jumps over them three times

Image Sometimes a charade is made of tossing the Beltane Carline into the bonfires, often quite roughly.

Image Sometimes the charade involves one group of men pretending to throw the Beltane Carline into the bonfires, while another group makes a great show of rescuing her. These attempts at sacrifice versus rescue might go back and forth several times.

Not all sacrificial pantomiming involved bonfires: in some communities, the Beltane Carline was laid flat on the ground. A show was made of drawing and quartering her before the crowd pelted the prone figure with broken eggshells.

Once the charade with the fire is over, the Beltane Carline was expected to play dead. For one full year until the following Beltane, when someone else assumed the role, the entire community treated and spoke of the Beltane Carline as if that person was dead. This was an intensive experience as this ritual typically occurred in small, often isolated, rural communities. For one year, you existed but were dead to the entire community.

In historic times, the part of the Beltane Carline has virtually always been played by a young man. Once upon a time, however, presumably the title Beltane Carline was accurate and so named an old woman. She may have personified the death of the Frost Queen that corresponded with the crowning of the May Queen. Another theory is that the Beltane Carline was a sacrificial offering to the deity known as the Carlin. Whether the sacrificial ritual was or wasn’t always a charade is now unknown.

See also Cailleach Bheur, Carlin; ANIMALS: Chickens; CALENDAR: Beltane, Walpurgis; FOOD AND DRINK: Beltane Cake.