May I make my fond excuses for the lateness of the hour,
But we accept your invitation, and we bring you Beltane’s flower.
For the May Day is the great day, sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did ley will heed the song that calls them back.
Pass the word and pass the lady, pass the plate to all who hunger.
Pass the wit of ancient wisdom, pass the cup of crimson wonder. –
Ian Anderson, “Cup of Wonder”
Today is May Day, called Beltane by the Celts and observed by dancing, feasting and (on May Eve) bonfires to mark the arrival of summer and the blossoming of both food plants and nature in general. As I stated in my column for Imbolc, the seasons in the North American interior are a bit tardier than those in Europe, so most of us won’t really see true summer weather until June (though in New Orleans summer usually lasts from late April until early October). Where I live we haven’t yet started our air conditioners and most of the nights are still deliciously cool, but the days are warm enough that we celebrate this day by converting many of our procedures to “summer mode” (which lasts until September 1st) and preparing our feast outdoors. That means steaks and potatoes grilled by my husband and appetizers, corn on the cob, cheese & beer bread and dessert (old-fashioned banana pudding) prepared by me; if any of you want the recipes for the latter two items I’ll be happy to oblige, though they’re both common enough in cookbooks.
Like Christmas, May Day (discussed more fully in my column of one year ago today) is a fusion of many pagan traditions starting with the Roman Floralia, which I’ll describe day after tomorrow; it’s the original source of the practice of crowning statues of goddesses with flowers (which was later transferred to statues of the Blessed Mother) and possibly the May Queen traditions as well, though there were undoubtedly similar practices in Celtic countries where a virgin stood in for the Goddess in ceremonies. Bonfires have been part of the celebration in northern countries since time immemorial, though as explained in yesterday’s column these had a different meaning in Germany than they did in Britain and Ireland (probably due to divergence of a common prehistoric tradition). But as I mentioned last year, the proximity of Easter caused most of the Christian celebration to migrate to that holiday, leaving May Day a secular and largely heathen observance which has slowly faded away and was eventually pre-empted in the minds of most by the international labor holiday popularized by communist countries throughout the 20th century.
Incidentally, May is named for Maia, an Oscan nature goddess who was adopted as the Roman goddess of spring. Her name is probably related to the Latin word maius (“greater” or “more”) from which our word “major” is derived, due to the fact that vegetation increases dramatically in the spring; she was thus unrelated to the Greek goddess of the same name, which in Greek meant “midwife”. Once the Roman pantheon became syncretized with the Greek (starting in the late 4th century BCE), the two Maias were of course combined; the association was even more solid because the Pleiades (which includes the star named for the Greek Maia) is located in Taurus, where in ancient times the sun appeared through most of May. Since the Greek Maia was the mother of Hermes the Roman one became the mother of Mercury, and his festival (the Mercuralia) was held on the Ides of May (May 15th). Coincidentally, the Germanic Odin (who as I mentioned yesterday was venerated on Beltane) was identified in the interpretatio Romana with Mercury due to his role as the creator of magic, thus providing another cord with which to tie the whole mythological package together.