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Beltane

THE ORIGINS AND TRADITIONS OF MAYDAY

By Eugene W. Plawiuk

The international working class holiday; Mayday, originated in pagan Europe. It was a festive holy day celebrating the first spring planting. The ancient Celts and Saxons celebrated May 1st as Beltane or the day of fire. Bel was the Celtic god of the sun.

The Saxons began their May day celebrations on the eve of May, April 30. It was an evening of games and feasting celebrating the end of winter and the return of the sun and fertility of the soil. Torch bearing peasants and villager would wind their way up paths to the top of tall hills or mountain crags and then ignite wooden wheels which they would roll down into the fields

The May eve celebrations were eventually outlawed by the Catholic church, but were still celebrated by peasants until the late 1700's. While good church going folk would shy away from joining in the celebrations, those less afraid of papal authority would don animal masks and various costumes, not unlike our modern Halloween. The revelers, lead by the Goddess of the Hunt; Diana (sometimes played by a pagan-priest in women's clothing) and the Horned God; Herne, would travel up the hill shouting, chanting and singing, while blowing hunting horns. This night became known in Europe as Walpurgisnacht, or night of the witches

The Celtic tradition of Mayday in the British isles continued to be celebrated through-out the middle ages by rural and village folk. Here the traditions were similar with a goddess and god of the hunt.

As European peasants moved away from hunting gathering societies their gods and goddesses changed to reflect a more agrarian society. Thus Diana and Herne came to be seen by medieval villagers as fertility deities of the crops and fields. Diana became the Queen of the May and Herne became Robin Goodfellow (a predecessor of Robin Hood) or the Green Man.

The Queen of the May reflected the life of the fields and Robin reflected the hunting traditions of the woods. The rites of mayday were part and parcel of pagan celebrations of the seasons. Many of these pagan rites were later absorbed by the Christian church in order to win over converts from the 'Old Religion'.

Mayday celebrations in Europe varied according to locality, however they were immensely popular with artisans and villagers until the 19th Century. The Christian church could not eliminate many of the traditional feast and holy days of the Old Religion so they were transformed into Saint days.

During the middle ages the various trade guilds celebrated feast days for the patron saints of their craft. The shoemakers guild honored St. Crispin, the tailors guild celebrated Adam and Eve. As late as the 18th century various trade societies and early craft-unions would enter floats in local parades still depicting Adam and Eve being clothed by the Tailors and St. Crispin blessing the shoemaker.

The two most popular feast days for Medieval craft guilds were the Feast of St. John, or the Summer Solstice and Mayday. Mayday was a raucous and fun time, electing a queen of the May from the eligible young women of the village, to rule the crops until harbest. Our tradition of beauty pagents may have evolved, albeit in a very bastardized form, from the May Queen.

Besides the selection of the May Queen was the raising of the phallic Maypole, around which the young single men and women of the village would dance holding on to the ribbons until they became entwined, with their ( hoped for) new love.

And of course there was Robin Goodfellow, or the Green Man who was the Lord of Misrule for this day. Mayday was a celebration of the common people, and Robin would be the King/Priest/Fool for a day. Priests and Lords were the butt of many jokes, and the Green Man and his supporters; mummers would make jokes and poke fun of the local authorities. This tradition of satire is still conducted today in Newfoundland, with the Christmas Mummery.

The church and state did not take kindly to these celebrations, especially during times of popular rebellion. Mayday and the Maypole were outlawed in the 1600's. Yet the tradition still carried on in many rural areas of England. The trade societies still celebrated Mayday until the 18th Century.

As trade societies evolved from guilds, to friendly societies and eventually into unions, the craft traditions remained strong into the early 19th century. In North America Dominion Day celebrations in Canada and July 4th celebrations in the United States would be celebrated by tradesmen still decorating floats depicting their ancient saints such as St. Crispin.

Our modern celebration of Mayday as a working class holiday evolved from the struggle for the eight hour day in 1886. May 1, 1886 saw national strikes in the United States and Canada for an eight hour day called by the Knights of Labour. In Chicago police attacked striking workers killing six.

The next day at a demonstration in Haymarket Square to protest the police brutality a bomb exploded in the middle of a crowd of police killing eight of them. The police arrested eight anarchist trade unionists claiming they threw the bombs. To this day the subject is still one of controversy. The question remains whether the bomb was thrown by the workers at the police or whether one of the police's own agent provocateurs dropped it in their haste to retreat from charging workers.

In what was to become one of the most infamous show trials in America in the 19th century, but certainly not to be the last of such trials against radical workers, the State of Illinois tried the anarchist workingmen for fighting for their rights as much as being the actual bomb throwers. Whether the anarchist workers were guilty or innocent was irrelevant. They were agitators, fomenting revolution and stirring up the working class, and they had to be taught a lesson.

Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle and Adolph Fischer were found guilty and executed by the State of Illinois.

In Paris in 1889 the International Working Men's Association (the First International) declared May 1st an international working class holiday in commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs. The red flag became the symbol of the blood of working class martyrs in their battle for workers rights.

Mayday, which had been banned for being a holiday of the common people, had been reclaimed once again for the common people.

BELTANE (April 30)

If possible, celebrate Beltane in a forest or near a living tree. If this is impossible, bring a small tree within the circle, preferably potted; it can be of any type.

Create a small token or charm in honor of the wedding of the Goddess and God to hang upon the tree. You can make several if you desire. These tokens can be bags filled with fragrant flowers, strings of beads, carvings, flower garlands whatever your talents and imagination can conjure.

Arrange the altar, light the candles and censer, and cast the Circle of Stones.

Recite the Blessing Chant

Invoke the Goddess and God.

Stand before the altar and say, with wand upraised:

O Mother Goddess,
Queen of the night and of the Earth;
O Father God,
King of the day and of the forest,
I celebrate Your union as nature rejoices in a riotous blaze of color and life.
Accept my gift,
Mother Goddess and Father God,
in honor of Your union.

Place the token(s) on the tree.

From Your mating shall spring forth life anew;
a profusion of living creatures shall cover the lands,
and the winds will blow pure and sweet.
O Ancient Ones,
I celebrate with You!

Works of magick, if necessary, may follow.

Celebrate the Simple Feast.

The circle is released.

BELTANE LORE

Weaving and plaiting are traditional arts at this time of year, for the joining together of two substances to form a third is in the spirit of Beltane.

Foods traditionally come from the dairy, and dishes such as marigold custard and vanilla ice cream are fine. Oatmeal cakes are also appropriate.

Scott Cunningham

A Guide For The Solitary Practitioner

May Day Origins...

by Nancy Sherer

The earliest known picture of a May-pole is taken from a drawing of a window in Betley Hall, Staffordshire, England, erected in the mid-1460s during the rule of Edward IV.

Click here to see the full window and a 1900 maypole

Called Beltane by the Celts, Walpurgis by the Teutons, and Floralia by the Romans, May festivals were a time of "wearing of the green." Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, the month of May is a time to celebrate renewal of life. May is named for Maia, grandmother, the Goddess of death and fertility. Maia scorns marriage, so it is a good idea to put weddings off until June. Although less stern goddesses now oversee May festivities, wreaths and baskets of Hawthorn are still used in some May festivals in Maia's honor.

Click here for samples to plan your own celebration

The May-pole is the most familiar feature of May festivities, but it has three distinct interpretations. In some cultures, the May-pole represented the world center, or alternately, the hub of the Wheel of heaven. In ancient times, the intricate dance of weaving cords around the pole was a magical attempt to direct Nature, which had become topsy-turvy over the course of time, back in order. Today the dance is performed by any who wish to participate in weaving the magic.

In other cultures, the May-pole was the Tree of Life, or a symbol of it. And this tree-- to borrow a phrase from Billy Holiday-- bore strange fruit. This is where the Savior was sacrificed in order to cleanse the earth. Holy Communion, eating his flesh and drinking his blood was possibly restricted to the priest class, but symbolic May Wine was liberally imbibed by the whole community. Hundreds of years later, the Christian lunar festival of Easter would replace the ancient solar festival as the time of renewal and rebirth.

The third meaning of the May-pole most clearly remains today. It is the phallus, the male principle of fertilization. Female principles are represented by baskets and wreaths used in the dances around the pole. In past times, the hand-fasting movements of the dances would give young couples license to 'go into the green' together. In some regions, a merlin, or renegade friar, would preside over the mock marriages. Even today, unwed couples consummate the mock marriages performed around the May-pole. Merry-begats, as they were called in England, were usually not acknowledged by their fathers. These babies were said to have been fathered by god.

In northwest Germany, May-poles are tall trees, cut down and stripped of bottom branches. The upper branches are decorated, then the pole is hoisted, often with the help of a crane, onto a tall post high above the villages. In southern Germany, the May-pole is a stylized structure that will stand for the entire year. On each of its branches is a symbol of each trade or vocation that the villagers pursue.

Traditional May Day is a solar festival, celebrated on May fifth, halfway between spring equinox and summer solstice. In England, Queen of the May, Maid Marian, mounted on a white horse is the central figure in the May Day mumming. In ancient times, she would pair off with Merddin as her consort. Nowadays, Merddin is the bearded old wizard, Merlin, and Marian's consort is Robin Hood.

Robert Graves identifies Maid Marian as the sea Goddess Marian, a virgin dressed in a blue robe, wearing a string of pearls. Occasionally referred to as Merrymaid, but more commonly known as Mermaid, she was worshipped by merriners, (now spelled mariners) who would sacrifice to her. "Mer" meaning sea, is the origin of the epithet Merry England, --Rose in the Sea.

Like the Goddess, Maid Marian is surrounded with Merry men. Little John, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck, Robin Hood, and others form a band of thirteen. Morris Men, who perform a stylized folk dance are commonly believed to have been imported from the near east, Moors who danced a Moorish dance. However, a more ancient spelling indicates that these may have been Mari's men. Mari, the Mother Goddess, fruitful, and compassionate, is usually portrayed holding an apple from the Tree of Life. She turns the Wheel of heaven, and is the mother of the Archer of Love.

Iris is also known as the mother of Love. She was the Goddess of the rainbow, which was the bridge between heaven and earth. In Greek mythology, she lured mourning Demeter, the grain Goddess, out of her cave so that the land would become fruitful again. In Genesis, angered by Yahweh's Flood, she removed the bridge from earth to heaven so he could not receive his sacrifices. When he promised to never flood the earth again, Iris replaced the rainbow.

In Japan, Iris's rainbow bridge is called the road of the gods. May is Iris month, with Boy's Doll Day celebrated on May fifth. Young men drink Iris tea and bath in an Iris infusion to promote health and fertility. Because of the sword shaped leaf and the blossom that resembles female genitalia, the Iris is the symbol of the male and female principles united.

Celebrated for thousands of years throughout diverse cultures, Mayday could be the most ancient religious festival in the Northern Hemisphere. Ritual human sacrifice to a death/fertility goddess was certainly practiced until the 1st Century BCE. As nature became less fearsome, and more cultivated, the nature goddess became less powerful and bloodthirsty. Today, we still celebrate the remnants of an ancient religion, Nature turning on the Wheel of Heaven.