30 April is known as May Eve, marking May Day and the beginning of the ancient Celt festival of Beltane.
Beltane begins at dusk on 30 April and is matched by its European counterpart, Walpurgis Nacht, or St Walpurga’s Night in Germanic tradition.
St Walpurga or Walburge was born in Crediton in Devon, but travelled widely as a missionary in the service of her uncle St Boniface, and eventually became abbess of a monastery in Heidenheim in modern Bavaria where she died 25 February 777 or 779. She was canonized 1 May 870.
Walpurga is reputed to protect sailors in storms at sea, reputedly thanks to a miracle when she was sailing to Germany and a terrible storm broke out, and she knelt on deck and prayed and the storm cleared as if by magic…
And yet, interestingly, Walpurga is also a protector against witchcraft.
Curious, isn’t it. Someone’s holy prayer is someone else’s spell or witch’s invocation.
Two great festivals in northern Europe long pre-dating Christianity 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 month of May got its name from Maia, also called Flora, the Greek goddess of spring and new abundance. Maia was the oldest of the seven sisters known as the Pleiades, and she was the mother of Hermes (Mercury.) The last zodiac sign of Spring, Gemini, is ruled by airy Mercury, as the air fills with butterflies and pollen.
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.
The celebration of May Day has its roots in astronomy, celebrating the halfway point 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.
Beltane or Walpurgisnacht is the mirror image, the spring season’s equivalent of Halloween when witches are said to dance at the Devil’s Sabbath.
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.’
The Fae are an ancient race, and they do not like humans whom they view as destructive, and who is to say they do not have a fair point there. The Fae are afraid of iron. To keep them at bay-
Touch wood no good
Touch iron, this you can rely on…
In this sense the Fae could be said to represent the spirit of humanity before the Iron Age.
They are not the cute creatures of fairy tale. 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 and especially beware of going to sleep under flowering hawthorn bushes ….
Sex and Scandal
The Christian church made attempts to ban May Day festivities outright because of their 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 the streets in search of unsuspecting young ladies to ‘carry away’ for undisclosed purposes.
Men who had been 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.
This splendid depiction is on a boss in Rochester Cathedral, thanks to Wikimedia Commons.
The Puritans banned May Day under Oliver Cromwell but Charles 11 brought it back into custom after the Restoration.
Maypole Dancing goes back at least to the 14th century, but it seems the custom was very old even then, though the dance as we know it today, so pretty and decorative(and tame) -children dancing in village squares, is probably a Victorian invention . The maypole is generally assumed to be a phallic symbol, but the Norse peoples connected it with tree worship, and this connects British and Germanic tradition going back to a shared proto-germanic culture which is part of the common root culture in British life even today.
The Maypole dancing which so upset the Church and the Puritans 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, Midgard, or Earth and Hel, the underworld.
“Ygg” means terrible. 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.
Also 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 meaning “Lady”) is one of the pre-eminent goddesses in Norse mythology. 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, she had a fiercer aspect as a patron deity of war and death in battle.
Freya wears a cloak of falcon feathers and has a magical gold necklace called Brísingamen. She rides in a chariot pulled by two cats and a sacred boar called Hildisvíni runs alongside, though he is not shown in this picture.
The cats, it has been speculated, were two male kittens found by Thor. They had been abandoned by their mother and he took them to Freya. What kind of cats? I’d have thought Norwegian Forest cats, but legend suggests the kittens were grey-blue and on that basis it’s speculated they were Russian Blues.
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 we go out barefoot very early on May morning and wash our faces in all that magical dew (or late snow) Your complexion will instantly improve. Let the wind and sunshine dry our faces and we’ll have good luck all year.
- Bringing in ‘the may’ 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 away unfriendly fae and other spirits
- 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 for 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 it is unlucky to get married in May. ‘Marry in May, regret it for aye.’ But not to panic if you’ve got the date already booked. The writer of this article was born on May Eve and got married in May – 30 years ago this year- and like all of us, has had mixed luck in life. But so far at least is still married.
Until next time 🙂