Raise High the Maypole
Dressed in garlands green and crowned in white flowers, across the mists of time we gather to participate in ancient rites. We gather to leap the holy blast of fire on this high hill; to whirl with our fellows around the Maypole, tied and twining to its center; and to join in merry lovemaking deep in the new sweet grass, flowers to the lips, echoing the sacred marriage of the Lord of the Greenwood and Lady May, joined in toast by the Fair Folk with sweet wine and dew. Welcome.
So does May Day carry with it some very earthy and lovely images; however, remember that a celebration of life cannot be complete without the acknowledgment of the balancing forces inherent in all works of Nature. From very far ago, we may have gathered at this time to participate also in a sacred sacrifice of life or blood, such as the rites of Cybele and Attis, or the burning of a wicker-man or carline. Our rites not only allow us to celebrate these times, but also to remember and respect their purpose and our place in them.
Cultural traditions, especially myth and religion, are tenacious things for what they are - largely founded and preserved in nonphysical forms, they assimilate what is appropriate and discard little. Rarely existing with a definitive beginning or end, the threads of culture transform through time, become colored by other influences and rewoven into other contexts. We are presented with a complex set of traditions and symbols surrounding our notion of May Day. This amalgam is regarded as relatively inclusive and purposeful in its' threads relation; however, we shall see that the main symbolic actions of May Day festivities (Bale-fires, the Maypole, flower baskets and well dressing, sexual frolics and so on) have each an intricate history: come from their symbology, origins and interactions, across time, geography, religions, politics and intent to become the fecund traditions of the release of the spirit of summer, May Day, Beltaine, Floralia....
May Eve was the beginning of the second division of the Celtic year in Gaul and Britain. Named for the god Bel or Belenos, Beltaine was one of the major gateways between the worlds (Samhain being the other) and began the period of the "greater sun" or "an ghrian beag," John Matthews writes in The Celtic Shaman. Chief among the customs surrounding Beltaine was the building of hilltop bonfires, accompanied by dancing, fire-leaping and driving the cattle herds around or between the flames. Belenos was a significant god in the Celtic world, representative of the active, light and life-quickening and therapeutic qualities of the high summer. Variant spellings of his name include Bel, Belinus, Beil, Belenos, Beli, Balor, Beal, Baldur and even Baal (hearkening back to Phoenicia) and mean "light" or "bright" or simply "Lord." His name was directly linked with Apollo's in Roman-Celtic inscription, but like Lugh and Brigid he was a deity with "solar" attributes but not considered the sun itself. The Irish and Scottish Gaelic word for the sun, "grian," is a feminine noun, according to Janet and Stewart Farrar in The Witches God.
Beltaine is not reckoned as a solar festival, despite the bonfire's solar symbology, as the four main festivals of Celtic Europe (Samhain, Beltaine, Imbolc and Lughnasadh) occurred according to agricultural and lunar phases. The later festivals of the two equinoxes and solstices were determinately solar. Like Samhain, the timing of Beltaine may have been according to the rising and setting of the Pleiades, an event marked by rituals all over the world, according to R.J. Stewart in Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses. The date was also reckoned as occurring on the first full moon in the sign of Taurus, halfway between the Spring Solstice and Midsummer Equinox, or after the blooming of the hawthorn tree, the tree sacred to the Goddess/Queen of the May in spring.
In the Roman pantheon, each of the Pleiades is associated with its own goddess (the Seven Sisters), and she who lends her name to May is Maia Majesta, the "Great Mother." The Roman goddess of spring, she is known as mother to Hermes (Mercury), who named her, and is analogous to the Irish Queen Medb or Maeve, the faery Queen Mab and Lady May. Representing the natural fertility of the land, she is consort to the God, who is often her son. As the Roman Empire spread into Celtic Europe, it discovered similarities between its pantheon and that of the Celts, and where the Romans could, they sought to reconcile theirs and the Celtic pantheon, being "lumpers" and not "splitters." While not a perfect fit, the introduction of Roman (and surreptitiously Asiatic) mythology into the Celtic world provided a fertile mix without supplanting the native host. As with the advent of Christian theology, the remotest areas of Highland Scotland, the Hebrides and Wales were the least affected by foreign influence and so retained their native religion for the longest time and in the purest sense.
Corresponding with Beltaine and occurring over April 28, 29 and 30 (though also noted as occurring on May 2 and 3), the Roman holiday of Floralia celebrates Flora, the goddess of flowers, twin sister to Faunus, the god of wild creatures. It was the "celebration of Nature in full blossom, a time to clean and purify the temples and to make offerings of flowers at springs and rivers," Pauline Campanelli writes in Wheel of the Year. Like May Day, it was also known for joyous and honorable erotic license wherein the celebrants were gifted with "medallions showing various positions of sexual enjoyment" and "beans and other seeds were thrown to the crowds, denoting fertility and fecundity," according to Nigel Pennick in The Pagan Book of Days.
The Pagan Book of Days lists at least three other Roman holidays with strong associations to Beltaine: Parilia, Bona Dea and the Magna Mater. Magna Mater, or the cult day of Cybele and Attis, is the most controversial in its association, and its complexities deserve further note later in this article. Parilia, April 21, celebrates the pastoral deity Pales. The Bale-fires of Celtic Europe are recalled in its practices of driving the flocks and herds between two fires and decorating the sheep folds with boughs of greenery accompanied by offerings of milk and cakes in Pales' honor. This is our modern Earth Day.
Bona Dea, the Good Goddess, was honored on May 3 and 4. The hawthorn tree is sacred to her, as well as women's mysteries. On her day, the trees and bushes that mark sacred wells and sites are hung with ribbons, and thus the veneration of the thorn and the practice of well-dressing are brought into association with May Day. The thorn, or hawthorn, is one of the "oak, and ash, and thorn" plant trinity. Its Latin name arbor cupiditanis has the lovely meaning of "the tree of desire," owing to the close part it plays in the May Day rites: crowning the Maypole, a symbolic union of the Goddess with the God, and making up the crowns of the May Queen and the women celebrants who joined with their desired ones in the fields and shady woods. Apparently, the Church thought that this association gave the plant a bad name.
The customs of the Beltaine fires were first recorded by Julius Caesar and doubtlessly were well in place before the Roman invasion. To reconstruct the practice: Nine men with their pockets turned out and all metal and money off of their persons went into the forest and gathered nine different types of wood (metal known to be abhorrent to the Fair Folk, and turning one's clothes inside out a method for mortals to safely traverse their realm - important if you want to gather sacred wood from the forest!). If gathered in March, the wood would be dry enough by Beltaine to catch well.
On a hill overlooking the village, the men would prepare for the bonfire by first cutting the turf away in a circle or square, leaving a block of turf in place in the center. There they laid the wood in a cross-hatched pattern. Often the wood bundle was decorated with ribbons and hawthorn flowers. After all the hearth fires of the village were put out, the people would gather at the hill, bringing ingredients for a communal feast: milk, butter, eggs, oats and oatcakes, plus plenty of beer and whiskey (agricultural and pastoral bounties that would have gotten them through the winter). The bonfire was kindled in the old way, either by the friction of oak against oak or by the striking of flints. This was called the "tein-eigin" or "need fire," and the subsequent bonfires called "coelcerth," bone-fire, or bale-fire. Livestock were driven between the fires or three times around the flames deosil, "to keep off the murrain all the year," James Frazer writes in The Golden Bough. There were dancers as well, who went three times round or leapt the flames. There is some controversy as to whether this practice was aimed to engender fertility in the participants or to act in a cathartic fashion, driving off bad luck or disease. Likely it was a combination of the two, though I lean to the standpoint that it had positive, quickening qualities, especially in the pre-Christian era. Like the ashes from the burning of a wicker-man or the Lughnasadh Corn King, the Beltaine fire's ashes were considered to be powerfully fertile and spread from field to field. Frazer's The Golden Bough explores this issue in depth, although a little at the expense of "witches," as they were considered then to be.
After the bale-fire was kindled, the village folk prepared and shared a feast of a large caudle of eggs, milk, oats and butter, with "am bonnach beal-tine," the bannock or oat cakes. These cakes also served magical and ritual purposes: They were marked for baking with nine raised nipples or nine squares, or with scalloped edges. These cakes were a way of choosing a "cailleach beal-tine" (carline, victim or scapegoat) by lot, or by granting good luck or ill, or propitiating luck by tossing pieces over the shoulder in the names of specific causes (cattle, home, foxes, rain...). The lots were cast by breaking up a bannock cake, rubbing ashes into one piece to distinguish it and having each person draw a piece from a hat.
Originally it was likely that the carline was actually sacrificed within the bale-fire. This sentence was later reduced to the mock act of throwing the victim into the flames, after which the carline was considered "dead" by the participants. Alternatively the carline was required to jump the flames three times, lie near the flames or be pelted with eggs.
A very interesting article by Helen Farias, "The Cailleach's Round," in Issue 1, 1992, of The Beltane Papers, opened my eyes to the original figure of the cailleach/carline and has me considering what the earlier meaning of the sacrificial practice might be. According to Farias, the cailleach of Scotland is known as the Old Woman and is identified as the ruler of winter and its powerful storms, the keeper of the hearth fires and smithy fires in winter, protectoress of the forest and its creatures and generally concerned with prophecy, cunning and strength. She appears to be the Crone and the flip side of Brigid and Blodeuwedd. "Oh no," I thought, "not another instance of tossing the witch on the fire! This has got to be another example of the degradation of the Goddess." It may be; certainly the medieval Christian church spared no love for the old gods, the figure of the Crone particularly, and may have influenced the opinion that she was a fit subject for the fire. Then again... Beltaine was the time of year when the gods of the elder year fully retired before the gods of the younger year. The Young God of new vegetation springs forth, and the Maiden Goddess twines her flowery fingers through his hair. There is not many instances of a goddess "dying," like the reaping of grain that "kills" John Barleycorn, but could this not be a case where the Cailleach is sacrificed at the accession of the Maiden, her other self, to the throne? Certainly this idea deserves closer inspection. The practice also relates to the burning of giant wicker-work effigies. Originally filled with unfortunate live sacrifices of humans and animals, the wicker-men, or wicce-men, were later sacrifices to the fertility of the land of a purely vegetative sort.
After much singing, drinking, feasting and dancing couples would remove to the forest for lovemaking and to gather green boughs, flowers and the Maypole for the morning's festivities. Others would retire to their homes, carrying with them an ember from the sacred fire from which to light their hearth fires anew (letting the hearth fire die out at any other time of the year besides Beltaine and Samhain was considered very ill luck, and every effort would have gone into avoiding it, as Rhiannon Ryall in her book West Country Wicca tells it). This was a communal holiday, the powers of a strong community important to people who often shared the major tasks in early agricultural practices. The hearth fire has been considered the single most important symbol of family and the health and wealth of the land. According to G. Duby in A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World, Volume II, the practice dating before Horace was that the hearth constituted the unit of taxation and census. All homes whether rich or poor had a hearth, and the average number of people belonging to a hearth constituted a household. The Beltaine fire symbolized the central hearth-fire of a community and, because of its ritual nature, the divine fire at the heart of all things.
The themes surrounding the Maypole or May Tree are of three main types: the fertilizing spirit of vegetation in plant form, the tree spirit in human form (including the Attis myth and the Green Man) and the world tree axis. In truth, all of the themes overlay each other, and it is a matter of separating the vegetables from the stew. The earliest written accounts surrounding the May Tree practice in England date only from the fifteenth century onwards. The chief characters were called the May Queen and the May King or Summer Lord. Other names associated with the May King have been Jack-in-the-Green, St. George or Green George, Robin Hood or Wood, the Green Man and the Wild Man. Belenos and Cernunnos are strongly indicated as the earliest forms of these figures. The source of the St. George mummer's plays is likely Celtic as well, this theory predating the theory they were Greek plays reintroduced by returning Crusaders, according to William Anderson in The Green Man.
In general, the May Tree or Maypole represents the Young God, Spirit of Summer, and all the new growth of crops and trees. It is also the thyrsus, the priapus, proud and upright, the strong staff of Herne as he walks through the land and the scepter, symbol of a divine kingship. In its physical form, its variations included, of course, the Maypole brought from the forest with its bark removed up to a brash crown of greenery at the top and hung with decorations, flowers, eggs and ribbons; great swaths of green boughs; or the May Bush, a small tree. The Maypole and the green boughs or bushes were paraded through town in the early morning, after the young couples had "gone a-maying" and the women had washed their faces in the morning dew to assure their loveliness. Each home was visited and the occupants roused with song, after which, if the parading troupe was paid in gifts of food, drink or money, the hosts were blessed by the spirit of the tree and given boughs to hang over their doorways and stables to assure much milk and the fertility of the wives and livestock, according to Frazer. As representatives of the Maiden, the parading women would be crowned with hawthorn flowers and wear something white; they carried baskets of flowers from which to strew. The men were often crowned in greenery. The parade resolved at the village green or square, where the Maypole was sunk into the ground and a day of dancing and other serious fun ensued.
The tree spirit in human form also has several variant expressions. In England Jack-in-the-Green was equivalent to the May Tree, except that he was represented by a mummer, usually a chimney-sweep, who was dressed in a wicker frame covered entirely in "holly and ivy, and surmounted by a crown of flowers and ribbons. Thus arrayed he dances on May Day at the head of a troop of chimney-sweeps, who collect pence" (Frazer). Green George was a similar character in Transylvania and Russia, clad in greenery too, but usually associated with St. George's festival, which takes place April 23. His image was also sacrificed, but this time to a well or a stream; the Russian vegetation deities were strongly associated with water. The tree spirit was also female, taking the form of small decorated trees and puppets dressed in white. She was usually paraded around by young girls who named her "Lady May." In each instance, the anthropomorphic form and the tree were considered to be one and the same.
As the youth of peasant Europe brought into their villages decorated branches of greenery and ribbon-entwined Maypoles, so did the followers of the cult of Attis and Cybele parade forth with their tall pine poles decorated in bands of white and purple wool and crowned with wreaths of violets. This was the Attis pine. As William Anderson relates in his book The Green Man: "E.O. James saw the origin of May festivities from... the Roman ceremonies known as the Magna Mater in which Cybele reappeared in the guise of the May Queen and the Maypole decorated with greenery as the sacred Attis pine."
The myth of Cybele and Attis is as follows: Attis, a young shepherd of Phrygia (Anatolia, now Turkey) has broken the condition of chastity placed upon him by the goddess Cybele, who has fallen in love with him. He desires a water nymph, one of the attendants of the goddess, and after making love to her he becomes mad with remorse and duly castrates himself. After bleeding to death, he is resurrected by the grief-stricken goddess and placed in the heavens. Alternatively, Attis is said to have been torn to death by Cybele's hounds or gored in the thigh (a euphemism for his genitals) by a boar's tusk while making love with her. Regardless, his sacrifice and regeneration were the themes under which the priests, or "galloi," delivered themselves unto her, earliest by auto-emasculation and later by slashing their arms to pour their blood over the woolen bands woven around the Attis pine.
Cybele was originally an Anatolian Great Goddess, protectoress over all the wild animals and the fierce mountains that were her home. She is the origin of the goddesses Artemis in Greece and Diana in Rome. Her festival, the Magna Mater, was held over a five to seven day period beginning on March 22 (the Spring Equinox). The date was later bumped up into the May Day celebrations when the Julian Calender went into effect in 46 B.C. Throughout her reign away from her homeland, she remained a very Asian goddess, never truly tamed by the civilizations that came to worship her. In legend, she was first brought to Greece around 1180 B.C., by Iphegenia, the daughter of King Agamemnon. Iphegenia's life was spared by the goddess when she was just about to be sacrificed by her father in order that winds would fill the sails of the Greek fleet on its way to Troy. Iphegenia became Cybele/Artemis's priestess and watched the blood sacrifices due her, although Iphegenia herself loathed the practice, calling the goddess a "hypocrite" as well as any who sought to justify blood sacrifice in the name of the wishes of the gods. This may reflect the opinion of the Greeks towards the practice of castration, which they considered foreign and barbaric. The rites of Cybele were brought to Rome in 204 B.C. during a crisis in the Punic Wars on the advice of the Delphic Oracle. Her introduction helped counterbalance an almost totally male pantheon. The Romans were taken aback by the custom of the galloi as well, but Cybele's temples flourished.
Asia Shepsut in her work The Journey of the Priestess proposes that this act of self-emasculation was a means of controlling the power of sexuality and regeneration and that such control was practiced not only by priests, but by priestesses as well, who employed a much less drastic method through certain plants - possibly the anaphrodisiac agnus, the "pure or chaste plant," employed by women during the rites of Thesmophoria, dedicated to Demeter and Persephone. Ritual birth control? And why? Cybele/Artemis was a goddess of wilderness, protectoress of animals and children, armed with the knowledge and responsibility required to protect the balance of life and death, the vital energies and the economy of existence. She was the giver of nourishment and She who can hold the seed of a spirit in check. When aspects of her festival entered the Celtic Beltaine rites, if indeed they did, they would have helped form both a somber reminder of this power during the new spring births and a joyful encouragement of those lives with the flowering of the Young God; for while her attendants may have been chaste, her celebration was anything but.
As Beltaine falls, the second major dividing point of the Celtic year, opposite from Samhain, it is the other period when "the walls between the worlds are thinnest" and access to the other worlds is known to be easiest. When planted in the earth or sacrificed in wells, as done by the Druids, the Maypole becomes a shaman's path, the World Tree that connects the realms, by which we may travel. The Maypole or May Tree is a root of renewal; when we connect our bodies to it and whirl about, we form a sacred circle and cone of power; we literally become one with the tree and with each other. The Tree becomes our axis mundi, the center of the Great Wheel and time stopper, where other worlds meet. "Without such ritual fixing of a center, there can be no circumference. And with neither center nor circumference where does a person stand?" - Joseph Epes Brown, The Roots of Renewal.
Of a different tone than Samhain, when the earth was turning into sleep and the harvest was done, when the herds were driven between bale fires in preparation for their indoor wintering and the land was walked by the spirits of the ancestors, Beltaine seems a festival in reverse of such. It is a time for the rebirth and regeneration of the plants, the people, the animals and the land. It is a time to celebrate sexuality and community - in all, the balance between sacrifice and rebirth.