Today, 30 April marks the beginning of May Day celebrations, ushering in the month of May, the festival begins at dusk on 30 April. These celebrations were, and to many are known as Beltane, and is matched by its celebratory European counterpart, Walpurgis Nacht or St Walpurga’s Night in Germanic tradition.
The month of May is named after the Greek goddess of spring and new abundance, Maia, (also called Flora) the oldest of the seven sisters known as the Pleiades. Maia was the mother of Hermes (Mercury.)
The name ‘May’ has been used in English since about 1430. Before this time the name of this month was spelled Maius or Mai. The Anglo- Saxons called it Tri-Milchus because all that lush new grass meant cows could now be milked three times a day.
May Day has its roots in astronomy, celebrating the halfway arrival point (at least approximately) between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. It has been celebrated in the British Isles and through much of Europe as a fertility festival since the Dark Ages, and probably before that, with many stories and superstitions attached.
Like Halloween, May Eve and May Day is a magical time of year, liminal, when the veil between different worlds and realities is thinner than at other times of year.
This is a time for ghosts but this is also the time of year when folklore suggests you are most likely to meet a supernatural being from the realm of ‘faery.’
Such an encounter might be friendly, but probably it won’t be. Such encounters are dangerous and are best avoided – or you may never be seen again. Do not, whatever you do, go to sleep on a fairy hill at any time, but especially not on May Eve or May Day. Especially beware of going to sleep under hawthorn bushes.
The two greatest Celtic festivals were Samhain (Halloween), marking the start of winter, and Beltane (April 30/May 1) marking the start of summer.
Beltane ‘the fires of Bel’ began as an ancient fire festival celebrated since at least the Dark Ages if not long before. The celebrations began at dusk on April 30th when great bonfires were lit to welcome the height of spring now associated with the zodiac sign of Taurus the Bull, representing the fertility of spring in full bloom.”Traditionally,” writes Glennie Kindred (in Sacred Celebrations), “all fires in the community were put out and a special fire was kindled for Beltane. This was the ‘balefire’ or the Teineigen, the ‘need fire.’
Bel or Belenus (Celtic: possibly, Bright One) was a deity associated with pastures, meadows and animal husbandry and other agriculture. He was a fire god rather than a sun god as such, though the sun was used as a common motif in religious imagery.
The cattle were walked between two bonfires in a symbolical purification ritual, to be protected by the smoke from Bel’s fire before being put out to the open pastures for the summer. Bonfires were lit on sacred hills too, and the smoke was considered a magical blessing on the fields, animals, and community, and was also supposed to maintain a fragile balance, keeping up a smokescreen, literally, between the human and faery realms.
The Christian church made several attempts throughout history to ban May Day festivities because of its overtly pagan nature and “lewd” context as an open celebration of male and female sexuality and fertility – ‘a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness.’
May Day meant drinking and fighting, another reason for the church’s disapproval, but this in itself harks back to the ancient traditions of the sacrifice of ‘The Green Man’ – a mythical figure representing the eternal battle waged between summer and winter, feast and famine. Many pubs in England are still named The Green Man.
In Padstow, Minehead and some other places in the UK, mischievous hobby-horses (‘osses) roamed and still do roam the streets in search of unsuspecting young ladies to ‘carry away’ for nefarious undisclosed purposes.
Image: Morris dancers with hobbyhorse up to no good, Richmond embankment,1620
Men disappointed in love would make straw men representing their rivals and stick them on bushes. These depictions were needless to say, often deeply unflattering, and fighting might well follow once they were discovered and identified and the maker was known.
May Day harks back to the ancient traditions of the sacrifice of ‘The Green Man’ – a mythical figure representing the eternal battle waged between summer and winter, feast and famine. Many pubs in England are still named The Green Man.
The Puritans banned it altogether under Oliver Cromwell but Charles 11 brought it back into custom after the Restoration.
Recorded evidence of Maypole Dancing goes back at least to the 14th century, the texts suggesting the custom was very old even then, although the dance as we know it today, so pretty and decorative, children dancing in village squares, is probably an innovation of the Victorians, rather than ancient tradition. The maypole is generally assumed to be a phallic symbol, but the Norse had another story for it, connecting it to ancient tree worship. This connects the British with the Germanic tradition and before that, a shared proto-germanic culture which is part of the common root culture in British life even today.
Walpurgis Night/Walpurga’s Night
In the Germanic tradition, Walpurgis Night, on April 30th, is a moon festival sacred to the goddess Freya.
“Walpurga” is another one of Freya’s names. The re-dedication of the holiday to “St. Walpurga” was a later Christian addition.
Freya (Old Norse, Freyja, and “Lady”) is one of the pre-eminent goddesses in Norse mythology, also known as Freyja or Frigg, but almost certainly the same deity. She was the goddess of love and beauty in Norse mythology, the goddess of marriage and family and a great prophetess – a seeress. She taught her husband Odin how to read the runes, and like Odin, had a darker aspect as a patron deity of war and death in battle.
Freya wears a cloak of falcon feathers and a magical gold necklace called Brísingamen, and rides in a chariot pulled by two cats with a sacred boar called Hildisvíni running alongside. The boar is not present in this picture, and the cats, it has been speculated, were two male kittens found by Thor. Their mother had abandoned them apparently and he took them and gave them to Freya. We understand the kittens were grey-blue in colour, and it has been speculated they may have been Russian Blues. I can’t be the only one who would like to know how Freya taught them to do this….but she was after all, a mightily knowing goddess, and clearly a cat whisperer extraordinaire.
The Maypole dancing which so upset the Church and especially the Puritans with its overt phallic symbolism, and the associated misbehaviour by the time the dancers had downed a few drinks, comes down to us from the rites of spring dedicated to Freya.
The maypole originally represented a living tree, in particular the giant ash tree Yggdrasil, the great “world tree” of Norse myth, linking the nine worlds of the Norse cosmology including Asgard, land of the gods, heavenly world, Midgard or the earth and Hel, the underworld.
“Ygg” means terrible. The image and Music below, suitably ominous, is shared with permission from composer Sam Marks. It was on this tree that Odin chose to hang nine days and nights, thirsty and fasting in exchange for the knowledge of the runes. The Norns sit beneath it and when every new person is born, carves their names into its bark…and with it, their destiny, although this can change. The Norns will allow us to rewrite it, unlike the destinies woven by the three Fates of Greek mythology.
British May Day Folklore…bringing in the May
I washed my face in water
That had neither rained nor run
And then I dried it on a towel
That was never woven or spun
- The rhyme suggests go out barefoot very early on May morning, wash your face in that magical dew (or late snow) Your complexion will instantly improve. Let the wind and sunshine dry your face and you’ll have good luck all year. Well, you can if you want to….depending on the weather, very early morning this time of year can be utterly wonderful
- Bringing in ‘the may’ is considered lucky, and means gathering cuttings of flowering trees for magical protection of the home. Bring in branches of forsythia, magnolia, lilac, or other flowering branches. Decorate the doorway to keep unfriendly fae and other spirits away.
- Make garlands or decorate a basket or a ‘May bush’ with flowers and coloured ribbons. This would often be a hawthorn bush but it doesn’t have to be.
- If you need to move a bee hive, May 1 is a traditional day for doing it, hopefully clement for the bees.
- Turnips are traditionally planted on May 1. Plant now, lovely mashed turnip later. What are you waiting for?
- Fishermen expect to get lucky with catch on May Day.
- It’s a powerful day for spell-casting…any spells to do with bringing in health, wealth, and abundance. Light a red or pink candle for love or passion…but be careful what you wish for, and it is unlucky to try and take what is not rightfully available to you.
- Traditionally less lucky is to get married in May. But not to panic if you’ve got the date already booked. The writer of this article was born May Eve, Beltane and got married in May – 28 years ago this May- and has had mixed luck in life like all of us, but so far is still married.
Until next time 🙂
Never leave a candle unattended
Snuff candles out with a spoon rather than blowing on them
Tea-lights can melt certain surfaces e.g., TV’s. Use heat resistant surfaces.
Light candles at a safe distance from curtains etc
Heat rises. Be careful of leaving candles on shelves with other shelves above them.