The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds. For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May. – Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
Regular readers are by now tired of my repetition of the fact that many Christian festivals were adopted from pagan ones; I mentioned it most recently just last week in my Easter column. Unfortunately, the proximity of May Day to Easter, not to mention the similarity of their symbolism (new life and fertility), has caused the former holiday to largely be absorbed by the latter. And though secularized pagan customs continued until quite recently, in the past century those old customs were largely paved over by wholly artificial political constructs which have absolutely nothing to do with the old ways, and outside of the pagan world only a few pale remnants of May Day still exist in Roman Catholic observances.
The best-known practice of May Day celebrations was of course dancing around the Maypole; these markers were originally either phallic symbols or tree-symbols, depending upon which authority one believes. In either case, the dance was originally a public fertility ritual which survived into Christian times (though largely shorn of its fertility associations in the public mind). After the Reformation they were often considered evidence of “idolatry” and heathenism (which, to be fair, they were) and were banned in many Protestant jurisdictions. Maypole ceremonies never caught on widely in the United States, though they did sometimes pop up in school celebrations from time to time and still do, though much more rarely since the 1950s.
Another important May Day festival was the election of a May Queen, a (presumably) virgin of about 13 or 14 who wore a white gown and a crown of flowers and presided over May Day festivities as a representative of the maiden goddess about to marry. Like the Maypole, the May Queen ritual survived into Christian times as a secular celebration and can be considered the ancestor of the many “festival queen” traditions practiced in the United States (though the girls in those pageants are generally about three years older). It also inspired the tradition (originating in 16th-century Italy) of celebrating the Blessed Mother as “Queen of the May”; as I’ve mentioned before much of the mythology surrounding Mary, mother of Jesus was transferred from older mother-goddesses, so it was only natural that she should be recognized as the “May Queen” as well. When I was a child we held a ceremony every school day in May in which we crowned a statue of Mary with a crown made from fresh flowers (every child had her turn) and sang a song:
O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.
O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May!
Those who were not raised Catholic (or who were born too long after Vatican II) may find this shockingly pagan, and indeed my enthusiasm for the ceremony (and Marianism in general) was clearly (in retrospect, at least) the first sign of my turn toward paganism.
The international distress call “Mayday” has nothing to do with the holiday; it is merely a phonetic rendering of the French “m’aidez!”, meaning “help me!” But when one mentions “May Day” now the average (international) listener who doesn’t think of the distress call will probably think of “International Workers’ Day”, a labor-movement observance held on the anniversary of the 1886 worldwide protest in support of the movement’s demand for the eight-hour workday to become a standard. In Chicago this strike endured for four days and culminated in a riot in which twelve people were killed, leading to the later hanging of four anarchists who were convicted of throwing a bomb in response to police gunning down several protesters. The anarchists were of course then held up as martyrs by activists, and the new May Day – lacking any connection whatsoever to the traditional holiday – was thus unceremoniously plopped down on May 1st (despite the fact that the riot took place on May 4th), especially in communist countries.
But for pagans May Day is still Beltane, so as usual here’s my witch friend JustStarshine with an explanation of the spiritual significance of the day:
“O do not tell the priest of our art,
For he would call it sin
But we will be in the woods all night
A-conjuring summer in.
And I give you good news by word of mouth
For women, cattle and corn,
For the summer is coming up from the south
With oak and ash and thorn.”
The old verse aptly sums up this sabbat , which is traditionally concerned with sex and fertility magic.
Beltane is celebrated on May Eve and, ideally, through into Mayday itself, although in modern times this is not always possible. In the past it was said that village maidens who went into the woods on this night to gather May blossom did not come out that way in the morning. It’s more than probable that “gathering May blossom” was a cover for taking part in the ritual where, at some point, there was a cry of “mix it up” which all attending the ritual would do with enthusiasm and continue until dawn.
“Beltane” is derived from a Gaelic word meaning “bright fire” and bonfires have always featured very strongly in this ritual. In Ireland in past times cattle were driven between the flames of two fires to rid their hides of the parasites which had settled there during the winter months. To jump the fire was to take the flame of light, life and sun into oneself and women would leap to attain a husband or to ensure a safe birth. Even today couples who want to conceive will leap the Beltane fire.
For witches this is the time of the “marriage” of the God and the Goddess, mirrored in the past by a “greenwood marriage”, gypsy fashion, over the bonfire.
Today the ritual of this sabbat still has a strong sexual and fertility feel but because of modern inhibitions and the lack of secluded places free from prying eyes usually lacks the spontaneity and abandon of past rituals.
My Beltane prayer is for all my readers, no matter what your beliefs, to enjoy the blessing of a happy and fulfilling sex life. Blessed Be!